Stoney, Wilkinson, or Potter? Analyzing the NWSL Coach of the Year race

Quick Hits
  • As the NWSL’s regular season winds down, the NWSL’s awards season starts picking up. Today, we’re examining this year’s top Coach of the Year candidates
  • How much credit does Casey Stoney deserve for San Diego’s expansion success? And what about Matt Potter’s work in Kansas City? Or Rhian Wilkinson in Portland? Let’s talk about that
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With the NWSL regular season winding down, awards season is nearly upon us. The league will bestow four awards to the players: Most Valuable Player, Goalkeeper of the Year, Defender of the Year, and Rookie of the Year. One lucky coach will also be named Coach of the Year, which is what we’re focusing on this week. 

Before we talk about coaching awards, though, we should mention that there’s been a lot of turnover in head coaching positions across clubs in the NWSL’s past. Expansion teams aside, five of the 10 NWSL teams that played in 2021 started 2022 with a new coach. And in the 2022 season, four teams made coaching changes for both on- and off-field reasons. 

Zooming in on the Coach of the Year award, out of the eight times it’s been given, only four different coaches have taken home the award.

With three out of the four coaches up above out of the league and Laura Harvey missing my shortlist, we should have a new Coach of the Year winner in the NWSL this year.

Speaking of that shortlist, let’s walk through my top candidates.

Rhian Wilkinson, Portland Thorns FC

Wilkinson’s inclusion on this list might be the most controversial, but hear me out.

Wilkinson took over in Portland after longtime Thorns head coach Mark Parsons left the NWSL for a short stint as the head coach of the Netherlands women’s national team. Parsons’s 2021 Thorns team won the NWSL Shield and returned players that accounted for nearly 70% of their 2021 minutes. So no one really expected the Thorns to be bad this season. 

Still, the 2022 edition of the Thorns have been without some key players that contributed to their success in 2021, including 2021 MVP finalist Angela Salem and with USWNT greats Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn. And yet? The Thorns barely skipped a beat.

Excluding own-goals, Portland have conceded the third-fewest goals in the league and scored the second-most goals. Plus, their goal differential blows other teams out of the water: it currently sits at 18, which is eight more than the next closest team (San Diego). 

What’s more is that during a long stretch of the season that saw many teams, including the Thorns, lose a number of starters to international duty, Portland went on an 11-game unbeaten streak. This speaks to Wilkinson’s – and the Portland players’ – ability to adapt to changing personnel, which is impressive for a first-year head coach in this league.

Casey Stoney, San Diego Wave

Having Stoney on this list is a no-brainer. She has played a massive part in changing the expectations for expansion clubs in this league in her first season with the San Diego Wave. 

Stoney has led her team to NWSL Shield contention from the very start of the year, and with just three games left before the playoffs, the Wave are poised to make a serious postseason run. If we’re talking hardware, let’s not forget that an NWSL expansion team has never won the Shield in their first season.

Broken ceilings aside, Stoney should be praised for her ability to build a system that truly suits her players. Alex Morgan and Taylor Kornieck are both having breakout seasons while they lead San Diego’s attack. Rookie center back Naomi Girma is already one of the strongest defenders in this league and 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw, who has scored in both of her last Wave appearances, is also thriving under Stoney. 

Of course, the players deserve a ton of credit here, too. Even so, we’ve seen plenty of teams with loads of talent completely flop (looking at you, past Orlando Pride teams). So Stoney deserves some credit, too, and what better way to credit her than with a Coach of the Year nomination.

Matt Potter, Kansas City Current

I saved the best for last here: Matt Potter gets my official vote for 2022 NWSL Coach of the Year.

Kansas City only managed to earn 16 points on their way to the bottom of the table last year. Then, they signed Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams, and suddenly it seemed like Kansas City might have a real shot at success this season. Unfortunately, Mewis and Williams never actually played a full game for the Current in 2022 and both suffered season-ending injuries. 

And yet, in the midst of that rollercoaster ride, the Current have found more success than many clubs this year even without their championship-caliber superstars. Some of this success could be chalked up to a key midseason roster move that brought Cece Kizer to Kansas City from Louisville. Kizer is one of three players on the team with six goals on the season, joining Lo’eau LaBonta and Kristen Hamilton, who have also been superb for the Current this season.

Before Wednesday night’s loss to the Chicago Red Stars, the Current were on a 13-match unbeaten streak that included nine wins, which is three times as many wins as they had during the entire 24-game season in 2021. Needless to say that Potter truly turned the Kansas City ship around in less than one full season at the helm. Not bad for someone in his first year of professional coaching.

Now, even though Potter is getting my vote right now, each of these coaches are deserving of this award. Wilkinson, Stoney, and Potter have all built strong cases for themselves in 2022, and I could see the scales tipping in favor of the coach who leads their team to the NWSL Shield at the regular season’s end.

Data courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.