Editor’s Note: This story is the opinion of the writer and doesn’t reflect the views of the NWSL or its clubs.
The first four months of the 2018 NWSL season have provided fans with an intense battle between teams vying for a top-four finish and a coveted spot in the league’s post-season playoffs.
On the individual level, the pursuit of glory has been just as intense with a handful of stars separating themselves from the rest of the pack in the chase for league Most Valuable Player honors.
With seven weeks left in the season, here are the top contenders, listed in alphabetical order.
All stats are courtesy of Opta, and there is a key to the terms at the bottom of this story. A deeper dive into the 2018 NWSL league leader stats can be found here.
Crystal Dunn North Carolina Courage (14-1-3, 45 points, 1st place)
17 games, 1448 minutes
7 goals (T-4th), 5 assists (T-1st)
41 chances created (1st)
30 tackles won (T-13th)
64 total shots (including blocked shots) (4th)
Whether she’s playing up top or in the midfield, Crystal Dunn finds a way to make a difference in games.
Returning to the NWSL this season after a year abroad, the dynamic and versatile Dunn is near the top of the league charts in goals scored with seven and tied for the league lead in assists with five. She’s also helped North Carolina become nearly unbeatable, providing another pacey and talented offensive threat to an already stacked lineup.
If Dunn were to win the MVP award, it would be her second, after earning NWSL MVP honors in 2015 while playing for the Washington Spirit. This season, she has earned Team of the Month honors in March, April, May, and June, and was the NWSL Player of the Month in June.
She also leads the league in chances created and is currently tied for the league lead in points with 12.
Lindsey Horan Portland Thorns FC (7-5-5, 26 points, 5th place)
16 games, 1440 minutes
9 goals (T-1st), 2 assists
217 duels won (1st), 99 aerials won (1st), 32 tackles won (T-10th)
168 recoveries (9th), 1340 total touches (1st)
49 shots (7th), 23 shots on target (6th)
Lindsey Horan’s knack for finding space on set pieces and then punishing her opponents has become so frequent this season that a running joke, “Who’s marking Horan?”, has emerged in some NWSL circles.
A deep-lying midfielder, Horan is key to Portland’s success as she pulls the strings for the Thorns, winning the ball in her own end and then helping her team start the attack by working the ball forward. Currently, she ranks ninth in the league in recoveries, and first in both duels and aerials won.
What’s even more impressive, however, is Horan’s ability to put the ball in the back of the net, especially considering how much work she does in the Thorns’ half of the field.
Her penchant for getting forward at just the right moment to provide a potent scoring punch has provided Portland with three goals in the run of play, in addition to the six she’s tallied on set pieces.
Her nine goals this season put her tied at the top of the league leaderboard — a remarkable accomplishment for a player at her position — and have led to her being named to the NWSL’s Team of the Month in March, May, and June.
Sofia Huerta Houston Dash (5-7-5, 20 points, 7th place)
16 games, 1414 minutes
5 goals (T-11th), 3 assists (T-11th)
23 chances created (T-11th)
41 shots (10th), 18 shots on target (T-9th)
Dealing with a spate of early season injuries, the Chicago Red Stars had to get creative in how to use Sofia Huerta this spring. Normally deployed as a winger or forward, Huerta shone as a center midfielder for the club early in the season on her way to Player of the Month honors in April.
After a mid-season trade to Houston, Huerta has continued her strong form as a center midfielder — albeit a bit higher as the Dash’s No. 10 — scoring in her first two matches with her new team. She now has five goals and three assists on the season.
Sam Kerr Chicago Red Stars (7-4-7, 28 points, 4th place)
13 games, 1170 minutes
9 goals (T-1st), 2 assists
28 chances created (T-5th)
69 shots (3rd), 32 shots on target (2nd)
47 aerials won (9th)
Sam Kerr brought her trademark backflip to Chicago after a trade from Sky Blue this winter. And while she hasn’t been able to perform the stunt this season due to a shoulder injury, it hasn’t slowed her goal-scoring rate in 2018.
Currently, Kerr sits tied at the top of the goal-scoring charts with nine tallies this season — a feat even more impressive considering she missed the first month of the season while on international duty with Australia. She also tallied her 50th career goal earlier this month and is the league’s all-time leading goal scorer.
Kerr is fifth in the league in chances created and ninth in aerial wins. This past weekend, she also brought back her tendency to score late and in dramatic fashion, tallying the game-winner for Chicago in the 87th minute against Seattle.
The forward won the MVP award in 2017, as well as the Golden Boot, and while no one in NWSL history has ever won either award in back-to-back seasons, she’s certainly on pace to contend for both honors again this year.
Yuki Nagasato Chicago Red Stars (7-4-7, 28 points, 4th place)
16 games, 1146 minutes
4 goals (T-13th), 5 assists (T-1st)
27 chances created (T-7)
21 fouls won (T-13th)
Some unfortunate injuries prevented fans from seeing the best of Yuki Nagasato in 2017 after she arrived in Chicago late last season. This year, she also missed a few games early on due to a hamstring strain, but made up for lost time upon returning to action and earned Team of the Month honors in June.
Nagasato currently has four goals and five assists, and sits eighth in the league in chances created. The Japanese international has quickly become a favorite of her new strike partner Sam Kerr, assisting on five of Kerr’s goals this season, including an impressively placed header that beat Seattle’s entire defense this past weekend.
— NWSL (@NWSL) July 15, 2018
With six games left in the Red Stars’ 2018 campaign, Nagasato’s distribution may prove to be the key factor getting Chicago back to the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Megan Rapinoe Seattle Reign FC (8-4-5, 29 points, 2nd place)
13 games, 1066 minutes
7 goals (T-4th), 4 assists (T-4th)
28 chances created (T-5th)
95 duels won (T-14th)
75 total shots (2nd), 33 shots on target (1st)
Long one of the flashiest players in the NWSL, Megan Rapinoe has remained in top form in 2018. She currently has seven goals and four assists, putting her near the top of the charts in goals, assists and total points this season, despite playing only 12 games.
Developing play for Seattle Reign FC on the wing, Rapinoe’s pin-point delivery from the flank and on set pieces has her sitting sixth in chances created. Along with her ability to go 1 v. 1 against any player in the league and score from distance, she can beat a defense in a myriad of ways.
Rapinoe earned Player of the Month honors in March, as well as Player of the Week honors twice, and her play this season has her among the top players in the league heading into the final stretch.
Becky Sauerbrunn Utah Royals FC (5-6-6, 21 points, 6th place)
14 games, 1260 minutes
84.8% passing accuracy (1st, min. 400 passes)
40 interceptions (9th)
13 blocks (6th), 65 clearances (10th)
While it would be unusual for a defender to win the award — it hasn’t yet happened in five NWSL seasons — Becky Sauerbrunn has as good a case as anyone. Some fans have even joked that the league’s Defender of the Year trophy should be named after her, as at one point she had won the award in three consecutive seasons.
With Utah Royals FC fielding a somewhat makeshift backline in their inaugural season, Sauerbrunn has kept things together, and the team has only conceded 18 goals in 17 games — third best in the NWSL. The defender currently ranks sixth in blocked shots and 10th in both clearances and interceptions. With the Utah’s offense struggling, it’s their defense that has kept the team in the thick of the playoff race late into the campaign.
— NWSL (@NWSL) June 24, 2018
In 2018, Sauerbrunn has been named to the NWSL’s Team of the Month in March, April, May and June, currently leads the league in passing accuracy, and is proving once again to be among the top players in the league.
Christine Sinclair Portland Thorns FC (7-5-5, 26 points, 5th place)
17 games, 1530 minutes
7 goals (T-4th), 5 assists (T-1st)
107 duels won (9th)
15 shots on goal (T-13th)
Surprisingly enough, Christine Sinclair, a veteran of all six NWSL seasons and a player with one of the most impressive resumes in the history of the women’s game, has never won the MVP award.
That could finally change in 2018. So far, she’s among the league leaders in goals with seven and tied for the lead in assists with five. That leaves Sinclair on 12 points for the season, tied for tops in the NWSL. She also ranks fourth in aerials won, ninth in duels won and ninth in chances created.
— NWSL (@NWSL) June 23, 2018
In her career, Sinclair is third in all-time goals with 38 and, this season, has won Team of the Month honors in May and June.
With Portland in the thick of the playoff hunt and defending their championship from last season, a late season push from Sinclair could help the 35-year-old win her first NWSL MVP award.
Lynn Williams North Carolina Courage (14-1-3, 45 points, 1st place)
15 games, 1190 minutes
8 goals (3rd), 4 assists (T-4th)
76 total shots (1st), 28 shots on goal (3rd)
The mercurial Lynn Williams has exploded of late, including a hat trick in last weekend’s game against Sky Blue FC. Williams has also proven her importance in the past, winning the 2016 Golden Boot and MVP awards for the Western New York Flash.
So far in 2018, Williams has eight goals and four assists, tying her for top of the league in total points and her explosive pace up top helps open up space for her North Carolina teammates in the midfield.
— NWSL (@NWSL) July 11, 2018
Although she got off to a slow start this season, Williams has been known to score in bunches and could easily shoot to the top spot in that category with a strong performance in the Courage’s final six games.
McCall Zerboni North Carolina Courage (14-1-3, 45 points, 1st place)
17 games, 1530 minutes
3 goals, 1 assist
56 tackles won (1st), 62 interceptions (1st)
182 duels won (2nd), 44 aerials won (T-10th)
188 recoveries (4th), 1245 total touches (3rd)
The current iron woman of the NWSL, McCall Zerboni became the first player in league history to surpass 10,000 minutes when she hit the career mark in a match earlier this summer. In fact, Zerboni is so durable that the last time she didn’t go 90 minutes after starting a match was in September of last year.
The linchpin of North Carolina’s unusual and dynamic midfield set-up, Zerboni has led the Courage to an amazing 14-1-3 record in 2018, an incredible 16 points above their nearest competition. She also leads the league in interceptions and tackles and earned Team of the Month honors in April, May, and June.
Over the past few seasons, the veteran has helped shepherd a North Carolina squad from a group of feisty youngsters into the most dominant team in the league. Currently, she ranks second in duels won, fourth in recoveries and 10th in aerials won.
Assists plus key passes (final pass or pass/shot leading to the recipient of the ball having an attempt at goal without scoring.
A tackle is defined as where a player connects with the ball in ground challenge where she successfully takes the ball away from the woman in possession.
- The tackled player must clearly be in possession of the ball before the tackle is made
A Tackle Won is deemed to be where the tackler or one of her team-mates regains possession as a result of the challenge, or that the ball goes out of play and is “safe.”
A Tackle Lost is where a tackle is made but the ball goes to an opposition player.
This is a defensive action where a player kicks the ball away from his own goal with no intended recipient of the ball.
This is where a player blocks a shot from an opposing player.
This is where a player intentionally intercepts a pass by moving into the line of the intended ball.
This is where a player wins back the ball when it has gone loose or where the ball has been played directly to her.
A foul conceded is defined as any infringement that is penalized as foul play by a referee. Offsides are not given as a foul conceded.
A foul won is defined as where a player wins a free-kick or penalty for their team after being fouled by an opposing player.
A sum of all events where a player touches the ball, so excludes things like Aerial challenge lost or Challenge lost.
A duel is an 50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides in the match. For every Duel Won there is a corresponding Duel Lost depending on the outcome of the Duel.
Aerial Challenge won – Aerial Challenge lost.
This is where two players challenge in the air against each other. The player that wins the ball is deemed to have won the duel. When more than two players are involved the player closest to the duel winner is given an Aerial Duel lost.