Predicting MVP, Rookie of the Year, and more NWSL awards

Quick Hits
  • The first round of the NWSL playoffs is set to kick off on Sunday, but here at Backheeled we’re not quite ready to leave the regular season behind
  • Before the playoffs start, we’re sharing our picks for this year’s MVP, Rookie of the Year, and more awards
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The first round of the NWSL playoffs is set to kick off on Sunday, but here at Backheeled we’re not quite ready to leave the regular season behind. Before we turn our attention to the postseason, let’s take stock of the regular season, which was full of bonafide bangers, top-notch saves, and nearly everything in-between. 

Which players are poised to take home some individual hardware for their performances this season? Let’s talk about my picks for Rookie of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year, Defender of the Year, and Most Valuable Player. 

Rookie of the Year

Winner: Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave FC

In her first season as a professional, Girma played her way into the starting lineup for both club and country. 

She excels at one-v-one defending and has an exceptional ability to distribute from the back. Her goals added value, a metric created by American Soccer Analysis to measure how a player’s on-ball contributions impact games, was fourth among NWSL center backs who recorded at least 1,000 minutes this season. Girma also led that group in goals added’s interrupting category, specifically. That’s pretty ideal for a center back, when you remember that interrupting takes tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances, recoveries, and contested headers into account.

What’s more is that Girma was part of a defense that allowed the second fewest goals (21) this season. Even when the Wave’s defensive personnel shifted, Girma was the one consistent component who steadied the ship. Her consistency in the San Diego backline, in terms of performances and leadership, earned her the captain’s armband to close out the season, which is extremely impressive for a rookie.

Goalkeeper of the Year

Winner: Phallon-Tullis Joyce, OL Reign

In her first season as a starting goalkeeper in the NWSL, Tullis-Joyce was absolutely lights-out for the OL Reign. After playing every single minute in goal for the Reign, Tullis-Joyce conceded just 16 goals (excluding own-goals) and registered a 0.78 save percentage, both of which were best of all starting goalkeepers this year. She also kept nine clean sheets, which is tied with Portland’s Bella Bixby for best in the league.


The Reign didn’t win the NWSL Shield because they scored a ton of goals this year. No, their defending – and specifically their goalkeeping – is what earned them the regular-season title.

Defender of the Year

Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave FC

That’s not a typo. 

I know that no past NWSL Rookie of the Year has taken home another individual award in the same year, but Girma has made a steadfast case for both. There are a few other defenders on my shortlist because of their attacking impact (looking at you, Carson Pickett and Hailie Mace), but Girma takes the cake based on pure defensive talent. She deserves not one, but two trophies.

Most Valuable Player

Winner: Mallory Pugh, Chicago Red Stars

Last year, Pugh finished second in NWSL MVP voting. This year, she should win it all. Pugh scored 11 goals and added another six assists this season, which was tied for best in the league. All of the other players in the Golden Boot race assisted no more than three goals each, which makes Pugh’s number all-the-more impressive. Pugh also played the fewest games (16) of players that competed for the Boot down the stretch.

Pugh was successful individually this season, but she also propelled her Chicago Red Stars team to success. Given the injuries that Chicago faced this season, which forced them into a new formation and made their seventh-consecutive trip to the post-season seem unlikely at times, I have a hard time believing this Red Stars team makes the playoffs without Pugh. 

We’ll have to wait a little longer to see who takes home this hardware from the NWSL, but these players should expand their trophy cases. 

Data courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.