The end of the decade is upon us and the National Women’s Soccer League has existed for most of it. The NWSL has featured some great players, both from North America and abroad, which made compiling this list more difficult than it may seem on the surface. Some players missed out due to minute details while others were not included because they had not played in the NWSL for at least half of its existence. So without further ado, here is my NWSL Team of the (70% of the) Decade.
I, of course, expect readers to hand-wave the fact that the NWSL has only been around for seven years.
Goalkeeper: Nicole Barnhart
This was not an easy decision because the NWSL has seen prominent goalkeepers like Hope Solo, Nadine Angerer, Alyssa Naeher and more grace the league over the last seven seasons. However, Barnhart rises to the top of the list not only for her overall durability, with 136 appearances and 54 clean sheets, but she has also picked up a few trophies along the way. Barnhart helped FC Kansas City to two NWSL Championships with her ability to make vital saves in vital moments and also keep a firm command of her penalty area throughout her career. Even when she was seemingly replaced as the starting goalkeeper for Utah Royals FC, Barnhart worked her way back into the starting lineup and once she got there, did not let it go. Her stability and consistency have thus made her worthy of her spot on this list.
Right-back: Merritt Mathias
Merritt Mathais came into the league in 2013 when she was drafted by FC Kansas City and played primarily as a forward. It wasn’t until a few seasons later that she started to feature as a right-back for her teams and she has proven to be not only persistently good going forward but great at defending as well. Although maybe not as prominent as others on the international scene, Mathias has shown to be a steady and impressive right back in the NWSL. Although her 2019 season was cut short due to injury, Mathias and the North Carolina Courage were well on their way to not only winning another NWSL Shield but also the NWSL Championship again. Known for being a no-nonsense defender who plays on the edge, Mathias has helped her various teams to three NWSL Shields and three NWSL Championships. Despite her polarizing style of play, Mathias has shown that she is one of the more elite full backs in the league this past decade.
Centre-back: Becky Sauerbrunn
What can be said about Sauerbrunn that hasn’t already been stated time and time again? She has been regarded as one of the best defenders in the world for over five years now and has performed at a consistently high level domestically and internationally. Although she “only” has two NWSL Championships to her name, Sauerbrunn’s influence on the game cannot be overstated. As the game has evolved, so has defending, but Sauerbrunn has always seemed to be ahead of the curve. She may not be the quickest defender you’ll see but her soccer IQ and her positioning is right up there with the very best. Not only is she individually excellent but she also manages to resolve any problems her teammates may have caused. In short, the day Becky Sauerbrunn retires is the day the soccer world will lose one of its greatest players.
Centre-back: Julie Ertz
Despite its quick one- and two-year contracts, the NWSL does have one-club players within its ranks. One of those is Julie Ertz who has played with the Chicago Red Stars since she was drafted in 2014. Ertz’ name is now synonymous with the Red Stars and the NWSL, and although she may not have the trophies (yet) to emphasise just how good of a player she is, no one can deny that Ertz has put annual, commanding performances that have catapulted her team to perennial playoff team status.
Left-back: Casey Short
Short’s NWSL career started off blighted by injuries which led to her leaving for Sweden in 2015 to try and regain some match form and fitness. That proved to be a smart move by the defender as when she returned to the Chicago Red Stars in 2016, she gained a starting spot and never looked back. Short is only now truly being recognized for the complete full back that she is but she has been a prominent fixture for the Red Stars since she broke through to the starting lineup. Her eye for a pass, pace and one-on-one ability make her almost impossible to play against and when required, she can pop up with a goal or two. Even watching her now, Short seems like she has another level to find but right now, she has shown enough to be in the Team of the Decade.
Right-wing: Crystal Dunn
Has there been a more complete player in the NWSL other than Crystal Dunn? Whether she’s playing in defense or in her preferred position further up the pitch, Dunn makes an impact no matter what. Her talent is unquestionable but it’s her willpower that puts her above most. After losing out at the last minute to join the USWNT World Cup roster in 2015, Dunn went on a tear in the league, scoring 15 goals in 21 appearances. Even missing a season due to deciding to play an England in 2017 did not diminish just how successful Crystal Dunn has been in the NWSL. While she may not have found success with the Washington Spirit, Dunn was a crucial part of the success the Spirit had in their earlier years. The trophies did follow though as Dunn has gone on to great success with the Courage. At 27, Dunn is hitting the prime of her career which means she can only get better at this point. That’s a frightening prospect considering just how brilliant she has been since being drafted back in 2014.
Centre-midfielder: Sam Mewis
20 goals in 87 appearances since 2015 may not seem like much for someone of Sam Mewis’ quality but her goal-scoring ability is not why she has earned her spot on this list. What Mewis does best and has done for her entire career is dominate a midfield. Her physicality certainly helps but for a player her size, Mewis has great balance and poise on and off the ball. You can usually find Mewis at the heart of anything good that the North Carolina Courage do and if is at her very best, she can take over a game with ease. Mewis continues to get better and better each year, showing both consistency and calmness in the “engine room” of the Courage. As long as she remains the metronome that her team can rely on, success and trophies will follow Mewis for the rest of her career.
Centre-midfielder: Jess Fishlock
There have not been many players who have become ingrained in the fabric of the NWSL as much as Jess Fishlock and yet, she still seems almost overlooked at times. She was one of the bright spots for Seattle Reign FC in an abysmal inaugural season and when the Reign got better, Fishlock was right in the thick of it, pushing her team as far as she possibly could. Fishlock doesn’t have the trophies her NWSL career has deserved but that doesn’t negate just how vital she is and has been to the NWSL. She can play both at the top of a midfield and at it’s bottom without skipping a beat, and when the game is on the line and her team needs a miracle, Fishlock is there to provide it. When all is said and done, Fishlock will go down as a NWSL great and it will be fully deserved. No other player has been as integral and as important as Fishlock has been to her club and the NWSL.
Left-wing: Tobin Heath
Tobin Heath is one of many on this list who have proven themselves both for club and country. Her ability on the ball makes easily one of the more enjoyable soccer players in the league and her slightly cynical edge makes her even more compelling to watch. Heath has led the Portland Thorns to two NWSL Championships and one NWSL Shield, scoring wonder goals along the way. Many others have written about Heath’s career and while she herself isn’t the type to laud herself in public, her play does it for her. Like Fishlock, Heath is synonymous with the NWSL and with her club and once she hangs up her cleats, she will be missed by any neutral observer of the league.
Forward: Sam Kerr
In 2013, no one knew who Sam Kerr was outside of the Australian soccer media. In 2019, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in women’s soccer who doesn’t know her name. Over the last seven seasons, Kerr has been of the most electrifying players in the NWSL. As a young player, Kerr helped the Western New York Flash to a NWSL Shield and although her time at Sky Blue FC did not result in silverware, Kerr still managed to score 28 goals in 40 appearances. Kerr then elevated her game even further when she moved to Chicago, scoring 34 goals in 40 appearances and although her final appearance in the NWSL saw her lost in the NWSL Championship game, Kerr has left her mark on the league.
Forward: Christen Press
Christen Press needs no introduction. After setting a record 35 goals all-time for the Red Stars, which was only matched by Kerr, Press moved on to the Utah Royals. Her first season in Utah may not have gone to plan but in 2019, Press showed everyone why she is one of the more engaging players to watch in the NWSL. Her style of play can only be described as “easy on the eyes” but that doesn’t make her just a flashy player. She is clinical in front of goal and just as effective in creating opportunities for her teammates as well. Press has yet to win any club titles within the NWSL but if I were to list which players are worth the price of admission, Press is certainly on that list.
Head coach: Paul Riley
Different coaches have achieved different things in the NWSL but none has been more successful than Paul Riley. Whether it be in Rochester or in Cary, Riley has found success at almost every team he has managed. He has earned Coach of the Year honours twice, as well as three NWSL Championships along with bringing to the forefront the likes of Debinha, Lynn Williams, Jessica MacDonald and Sam Mewis. His mantra of “we are the underdogs” may not sit well with everyone but his teams have responded to it over and over again, with great success. No other coach as been as successful this decade as Paul Riley, and as such, he has earned the right to coach this Team of the Decade.
Who makes your team of the decade? Let us know in the comments!