Before the big game, it’s time to go over the awards winners from the season that was. SB Nation’s NWSL contributors voted on for our awards, both the same categories as the real thing and a few extras we threw in.
MVP: Sam Kerr, Chicago Red Stars
The perennial Golden Boot winner was the clear winner among our panel. While Kerr went to the World Cup this summer for Australia, she still broke her own single-season scoring record in the NWSL, notching an impressive 18 goals in 21 regular-season appearances. Rumors have increased that Kerr could be ready to make a move to Europe, and if she did, she would be leaving the league at the very top of her game.
Defender of the Year: Casey Short, Chicago Red Stars
Short was one of the final cuts on the U.S. Women’s National Team roster that went on to win the World Cup, and she channeled that ultimate disappointment into a career year for Chicago. At the age of 29 and with a late start to her pro career due to injuries, this could be the peak of Short’s powers, but she could follow in the footsteps of the last player cut late by the USWNT ahead of a World Cup to subsequently raise her game, Crystal Dunn, and find plenty more success for club and country ahead of her, too.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Kailen Sheridan, Sky Blue FC
Sheridan was fortunate to get drafted by Sky Blue in 2017 and start right away, and while the Canadian had to deal with some very, very low times, her quality has shined through anyway. With Sky Blue finally finding some traction and being competitive again, Sheridan continues to show why she was good enough to start right away. She was tied for the league lead in saves, 86, in five fewer games played, and she gave Sky Blue a hope of getting a result in a number of games.
Rookie of the Year: Bethany Balcer, Reign FC and Sam Staab, Washington Spirit
The votes were completely split for Balcer and Staab among our panel, with the duo the likely top two in the real awards voting, too.
Balcer’s story is already the stuff of legend, the Michigan native playing for NAIA college Spring Arbor University and not surprisingly going undrafted. Getting an invitation from Reign FC as they prepared for a World Cup year, she grabbed it with both hands, scoring six goals in her rookie campaign and helping keep Reign FC afloat during an injury-plagued season.
Meanwhile, Staab’s story isn’t an underdog tale, the Clemson product being drafted 4th overall, but the defender slotted into the Spirit lineup right away, playing every game, and is part of an exciting young core that should make Washington a contender in the near future.
Best international player: Sam Kerr, Chicago Red Stars
No surprise, the MVP selection was also the choice to be the top international player, in a league still dominated by American players.
Getting top votes after the Australian was North Carolina Courage midfielder Debinha, formerly considered a top luxury player, capable of both the sublime and ridiculous, who has settled down and added a competent two-way game to her prodigious attacking talents.
Coach of the Year: Vlatko Andonovski, Reign FC
Andonovski had previous success in NWSL, leading now-defunct FC Kansas City to back-to-back league titles in 2014 and 2015. But he arguably put together his best season in 2019, leading a Reign side that missed talismanic midfielders Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe for nearly the entire season, and seemingly contended with a season-ending injury every week, while also getting the club into the playoffs. There’s a reason Andonovski is seemingly the consensus pick to become the next USWNT head coach, and if it comes to pass the league will be losing a good one.
Breakout Player: Kristen Hamilton, North Carolina Courage
The deepest team in the league is the Courage, and Hamilton’s emergence this season further proves that point. The forward has been a depth option throughout her career, spent entirely with the organization, and with an opening in the lineup during the World Cup, she came alive, scoring a career-high nine goals, including a hat trick game and a game where she notched four goals. The 27-year-old got a debut call-up to the USWNT this year, and with expansion on the horizon could be in line for more playing time in NWSL, too.
Storyline of the Season: Sky Blue FC raising standards
Over the last two seasons, Sky Blue reached a nadir, not only being a historically bad team but run so poorly that players had zero facilities to use and were living in housing that literally had holes in the walls. With incompetent GM Tony Novo finally dismissed, Sky Blue installed experienced GM Alyse LaHue, who most importantly worked tirelessly to bring fans to games in ways big and small, with free beer giveaways in parking lots and a couple outstanding showings at Red Bull Arena to close the season. There’s still room for improvement, particularly in finding a stable coaching situation at the club and a new, upgraded permanent home, but the efforts to turn things around in 2019 may very well have saved Sky Blue FC from the brink of extinction.
2019 Best XI
GK: Kailen Sheridan (Sky Blue FC)
D: Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars)
D: Abby Erceg (North Carolina Courage)
D: Lauren Barnes (Reign FC)
M: Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)
M: Debinha (North Carolina Courage)
M: Yuki Nagasato (Chicago Red Stars)
M: Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage)
F: Sam Kerr (Chicago Red Stars)
F: Christen Press (Utah Royals FC)
F: Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage)