On the rise: Five breakout NWSL stars you should be watching

Quick Hits
  • With just one game left in the NWSL regular season, we’re taking a look back at some of the league’s unsung talent
  • Let’s talk about five under-the-radar players who have been game-changers for their clubs this season

This NWSL season has been an all-timer. With just one game remaining for each team, a handful of teams have their fingers on the NWSL Shield, and only two points separate the top three teams in the table. The playoffs race is heating up as well, with three teams competing for the final spot. 

So far this season, we’ve seen late comebacks, drama, and plenty of chaos. We’ve also seen individual talents take the leap from under-the-radar players to certified superstars.

Here are five players, beyond the Sophia Smiths and Mallory Pughs of the world, that you should be watching during the rest of 2022 and beyond. Let’s get into it.

Hina Sugita, MF, Portland Thorns

Age: 25

Sugita first grabbed headlines playing for the young Nadeshiko, Japan’s U17 national team, where she won the golden boot and was voted the best player at the 2014 U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Rated as one of the brightest prospects in Japan, Sugita joined the Portland Thorns in January, 2022.

For the Thorns, Sugita has played in a few different roles. Her versatility is a major part of her appeal, and her skillset allows her to influence games in the opposition’s half with her passing and awareness. She has been integral to Portland’s success this season, scoring five goals in 20 appearances, which is only behind Sophia Smith on the Thorns’ squad.

Sugita has a number of passes to unlock defenses in her repertoire. She ranks third in the league in passes completed above expected in the attacking third among players with at least 1500 minutes, which puts her only behind Jess Fishlock and Sofia Huerta. This showcases her ability to frequently execute difficult passes in the final third, and she’s registered 39 key passes in 2022 which is fourth highest in the league.

While her on-ball quality is outstanding, her movements without the ball are just as impactful. It’s Sugita’s awareness and anticipation that allowed her to score her first goal for the Thorns with a diving header off a rebound from crossbar.

She also reads the game well, which allows her to block lanes with her positioning and effectively apply pressure to regain possession. Sugita continues to grow into bigger roles for both her club and national team and she changes the game every time she steps on the field.

Diana Ordóñez, ST, North Carolina Courage

Age: 20

Arguably the breakout star of this NWSL season, Diana Ordóñez has collected some impressive records this year. 

With 11 goals, Ordóñez broke the record for most goals scored by a player in their rookie season. The 20-year-old seems to have a Midas touch in front of goal. But there’s a clear method behind her goalscoring streak. Ordóñez has showcased incredible awareness around the box, generating most of her shots from inside the box. 

She often shoots from very good areas and her expected goals (xG) per 96 minutes is sixth best in the league (0.48). That suggests she’s capitalizing on very dangerous chances. 

Ordóñez has also scored 3.79 goals above her xG, which is the third highest overperformance in the league, behind Debinha and Ebony Salmon. While that may mean she’ll cool down in the future, her shot zones will likely allow her to tick along just fine.

Jun Endo, W, Angel City

Age: 22

Like Sugita, Endo is another incredibly talented Japanese international who has made her way to the United States to ply her trade. Endo, 22, etched her name in Angel City’s history by playing a direct hand in their first two regular-season goals, assisting one and scoring the second. She was voted the Player of the Match in that 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage that opened Angel City’s regular season.

Endo, an attack-minded player, has usually been deployed on the left side of the attack. 

From there, she has the freedom to come inside and use her quality on the ball to unlock defenses. It’s her passing and ball control that really stand out, though. Endo is capable of cushioning a ball with her deft touch and moving past opponents with her quick feet. Her intricate style of play and vision on the ball allows her to create problems for the opposition in possession. 

Endo excels at providing supporting runs to the ball carrier, in order to attack space, but there’s still scope for improvement in subsequent actions from there (e.g., crosses or cutbacks). While she can deliver good crosses, this is a part of Endo’s game that she’s still improving.

Her creativity has also been on display this season. She’s recorded 37 key passes, which is the seventh highest figure in the league. Even though she’s only scored one goal this season, Endo’s quality on the ball has been evident. With more game time and experience in her tank, she’ll only get better.

Kerolin, FW, North Carolina Courage

Age: 22

Kerolin is guaranteed to keep you at the edge of your seat for 90 minutes. The 22-year-old has seamlessly slotted in across the North Carolina front line, providing a threat in transition. She has 10 direct goal contributions, scoring six goals and adding four assists in her 12 appearances for the Courage this season.

Kerolin is an incredibly direct player. She’s dangerous in transition with the ball at her feet, because she can beat players one-v-one and create separation from defenders seamlessly with a quick change of pace. This separation allows Kerolin to shoot on goal or find her teammates with a clever pass. Her dribbling disrupts defensive structures, draws fouls, and produces moments of breakthrough against settled defenses, which is how the Courage have scored a number of their goals this season.

Kerolin ranks eighth among in the league in goals added via dribbling this season (0.83), which underlines how her dribbling increases her team’s chances of scoring a goal. As Kerolin continues to refine her decisions in the final third, she’ll be an exciting player to watch in the coming years.

Morgan Weaver, FW, Portland Thorns

Age: 24

Weaver has come a long way since scoring the game-winning penalty during the shoot-out in the 2021 Challenge Cup final. So far this season, she’s notched six goals and added three assists in 12 starts.

Much of Weaver’s appeal comes in the way she generates shots for herself after receiving the ball. She ranks second in goals added from receptions (1.98) and fourth in goals added from shooting (0.66). The goal she scored against the Washington Spirit in August perfectly showcases her ability to burst past the opposition and generate a shot in space.

Weaver is averaging 4.02 shots per 96, which is second highest in the league among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes. She’s also fourth overall in xG per 96, again highlighting that she’s not just good at generating shots, but is shooting from good areas. Weaver’s ball-striking technique even makes her a threat from range. While there is room for improvement on Weaver’s goal output, she continues to be a threat for the opposition.

As the NWSL regular season comes to a close, these players could be game-changers for their respective teams. Keep an eye on each of them, during the rest of this season and beyond.

Stats reflect games through September 27, 2022. Data courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.

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