Now that we’re more than a month into the NWSL regular season, I wanted to check in on a few players who have really improved from last year to this year.
Before we dive in, though, here comes an obligatory disclaimer. I’m about to compare an entire season’s worth of performances in 2021 to just the first quarter of games in 2022. All that means is that the sample sizes are quite different – and it’s possible that player performances will regress to the mean by the end of the 2022 season. But hey, maybe not!
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into it.
TAYLOR KORNIECK, DM, SAN DIEGO WAVE FC
Though I briefly featured Kornieck as a player who shined back in May, there’s no way I could leave her off this “most improved” shortlist.
Kornieck played as a winger in Orlando, but San Diego’s head coach Casey Stoney has pushed Kornieck back into her natural position in the middle of the field. The move has clearly paid off. Considering both the Challenge Cup and regular season in 2021 and 2022, Kornieck continues to blow her Orlando stats out of the water with the Wave.
You can see that improvement in data down below, courtesy of American Soccer Analysis and normalized per 96 minutes. Higher values are italicized.
When comparing Kornieck’s goals added (g+) statistics from 2021 to 2022, it’s easy to see that she’s improved in several categories, including her passing and receiving.
If you’re looking for at least one of the reasons for San Diego’s successful start to life in the NWSL, you don’t have to look much further than Kornieck’s play in midfield.
JANE CAMPBELL, GK, HOUSTON DASH
Jane Campbell and the Dash have really impressed me so far this season.
Granted, they had a less-than-ideal Challenge Cup, so the bar was pretty low. Still, the Dash are near the top of the table and have 12 points with a 3W-1L-3D record. Campbell and the Dash haven’t been terribly consistent in the past, but I’m choosing to stay positive and not think too far ahead.
With their mid-week win on Tuesday, the Dash are now on a six-game unbeaten streak, which is tied for their longest-ever unbeaten run. Four of those six games were shutouts, which brought Campbell’s career shut-out count to 20. She became just the sixth keeper in league history to reach that milestone.
While this piece is technically about improvement from 2021 to 2022, Campbell’s performances so far in 2022 are a marked improvement over any other season she’s played since she was drafted by the Dash in 2017. Campbell has only conceded three goals in the regular season, which translates to 0.41 goals conceded per 96 minutes. That’s less than half of her next-best goals conceded per 96 value (1.02 in 2021). Her goals conceded minus expected goals value per 96 is also the best it’s ever been, at -0.48.
Additionally, Campbell is posting the best g+ per 96 of her career. Her shot-stopping is really what’s driving that number: Campbell has been the best shot-stopper in the NWSL in the regular season, according to g+.
Campbell is helping her team with some great goalkeeping – and her team is helping her too. Right now, the Dash are playing the best soccer they’ve ever played. Interim head coach Sarah Lowdon has placed a big emphasis on defensive organization and that emphasis is paying dividends. The Dash have the fewest goals conceded (3) and the best goal differential minus expected goal differential (7.60) in the league.
I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Campbell’s statistics start regressing to the mean, but I’ll just keep thinking of saves like this one in the meantime:
BRIANNA PINTO, CM, NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE
After playing just over 250 minutes for NJ/NY Gotham in 2021, Pinto was traded to the Courage during the offseason. During her time with Gotham, she recorded six shots, but didn’t score or assist any goals in 2021.
Fast-forward to her homecoming in 2022 and Pinto’s stats through five games and are on an upward trajectory. Mostly coming off the bench, she’s already recorded the same number of shots as she did in 2021 and netted her first regular season goal. Pinto also scored her first-ever NWSL goal during the Challenge Cup against her former club.
While these numbers aren’t exactly mind-blowing, it’s clear that Pinto is making an impact when she’s on the field.
She was subbed on in the 75th minute of the Courage’s mid-week match-up against the Orlando Pride in Week 4 and changed the game. North Carolina only recorded four shots before Pinto stepped on the field, but added six more in those last 15 minutes. She was also the player to get North Carolina on the board in that match, which still ended as a 2-1 loss for the Courage.
Pinto earned her first NWSL regular-season start in Week 6 against Racing Louisville, which was also the Courage’s first win of the 2022 season.
Given that Pinto has had success in a sort of hybrid midfield/attacking role, Courage head coach Sean Nahas should continue slotting Pinto into his starting line-up. His approach of playing seven defensive players at a time, including several out of position, hasn’t exactly worked out for North Carolina so far this regular season, given the team’s 1W-3L-1D record.