2022 will go down as a monumental one for the growth and popularity of women’s soccer. From record breaking attendance on every continent, to intriguing title races, the England women actually bringing it home, and, sadly, for the devastating injuries, particularly to the ACL that altered the course of many teams’ seasons. With the rash of injuries to many star players, 2023 may be known as the “Year of the Comeback” in addition to it being a World Cup year. However, instead of focusing on those players who have or will be coming back from serious injury, I am focusing on five NWSL players that I think will make the leap this year for their clubs. They’ve shown signs in this and previous seasons, but they may be ripe to take that next step into notoriety, and possibly, superstardom.
It felt like a Hollywood script. Jun Endo announced herself to the NWSL on opening night of the NWSL regular season in front of a sold out Angel City crowd under the lights. In the biggest moment, she played amazing football. Her control on the ball and her technical ability were on full display that night as she scored the second of Angel City’s goals in the 2-1 win of the North Carolina Courage. Endo continued to hold that promise early despite the team’s inability to score multiple goals. Then, injuries began to plague the team and Endo was playing in a less stable system and in an unfamiliar position, right back. Moving back further and further limited the Japanese international and took away her strengths. Angel City has a few needs in the middle of the park this upcoming season and Endo, on a roster that is finally healthy, seems poised to take up that space. I expect her to thrive and be one of the best playmakers in the league with a year of experience under her belt and in preparation for the World Cup.
Emily Fox is a former #1 draft pick, so this may seem like a bit of an odd choice. However, for club, Fox had a bit of a down year. Most of that is due to the instability of the Racing Louisville backline, which rarely bolstered the same pairings from match-to-match last season. Only in her second year, much of the leadership responsibility fell to Fox and Katie Lund defensively and Fox suffered a concussion last season that may have had some lingering effects. Fox, at her best, is a gifted if slightly unconventional defender, who seems to take the longer route to the same defensive destination. But her runs from deep on the left or centrally are a dangerous weapon for any team, and her defense acumen is high. Fox is still the starting left back for the USWNT and I expect her to get closer to her ceiling this year than she ever has. In fact, I think she will be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year if she remains healthy.
Victoria Pickett is the only player on this list who ended her season with a different team than the one she began with. A consistent starter for Kansas City last season, Pickett saw her minutes go down at Kansas City before NJ/NY Gotham FC traded for her in August for a package that is fitting of a big time player. Pickett has shown flashes, particularly during her time at Kansas City, of her ability to break lines with her speed and ball control. She is also a master of drawing fouls, which is beneficial to the set piece artists on her new team. She should have a major impact as Gotham’s attacking midfielder this coming season with Onumonu, Purce and Smith on the front line, allowing her to make runs and connect with her attacking players, particularly her wingers out wide who have great 1-v-1 ability. Pickett may have extra incentive as she has been named by Bev Priestman as a bubble player for her native Canada and a good club season may get her on the plane to Australia.
Brianna Pinto got a fresh start at home last season after being traded from Gotham FC to the North Carolina Courage. Not a consistent starter at the beginning of the year, Coach Sean Nahas decided about a third of the way through the regular season to start Pinto in midfield along with veteran Denise O’Sullivan to deploy a double pivot. It worked and North Carolina marched up the table and held their playoff fate in their own hands on the last weekend of the regular season. Pinto contributed to that, showing a defensive knowledge she had not deployed as she was mostly an attacking player prior to last season. Her playmaking ability was highlighted by her assist to Kerolin against the Washington Spirit last June. Pinto, a former Hermann Trophy finalist, seems poised to position herself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league this season.
Shaw made quite the splash for San Diego Wave FC. A player that seemed likely to play for the Washington Spirit, Shaw ended up playing limited minutes for Wave and became the youngest player ever to score in the NWSL debut. Her ability to make runs off the ball and her nose for goal led to three goals in her first season and the adoration of many San Diego Wave fans. Shaw was on a minutes restriction last season as she worked her way up to 90 minutes fit at the professional level. With an entire pre-season to train and the unknown elements of a professional career no longer unknown, I expect Shaw to grow in confidence and ability, with her movement off the ball complimented by more work on the ball and the introduction of a bit of hold up play to her game. She should evenly split the goal scoring duties with last year’s Golden Boot winner Alex Morgan, giving the Wave a potent one, two punch in attack. My best prediction is Shaw has a chance to crack a Best XI at the end of the season.
AET: A few stats for our players this season and a few honorable mentions
Brianna Pinto – 2 goals, 1 assist in 22 games, 17 starts
Jaedyn Shaw – 3 goals in 7, 6 starts, 8 S, 6 SOG
Jun Endo – Started all 22 matches for ACFC, 2 A, 1 G
Honorable Mention: Jaelin Howell (Racing Louisville), Sam Hiatt (OL Reign), Bruninha (Gotham FC), Elyse Bennett (Kansas City Current), Haley Bugeja (Orlando Pride).