NWSL MVP Tracker: Who are the best players in the league so far this season?

Published on: 28 April 2024

Open Extended ReactionsSophia Smith of the Portland Thorns was the NWSL's MVP in 2022. Is she on track for another MVP-worthy season this year? Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports

The 2024 National Women's Soccer League season is five matchweeks old. Too early to start talking about contenders for Most Valuable Player, you say? Nonsense!

Welcome to the first edition of ESPN's NWSL MVP Tracker. After every five rounds of matches of the season, we will check in on who's in form and who should be in the conversation for the NWSL's MVP award, the ultimate individual honor for a full season of work.

The 2024 season is still young and as you'll see in our ranking below, several players who are new to the league or on new teams are off to flying starts. But you can expect to see plenty of changes to this list in our future MVP Tracker check-ins as our sample size of player performances grows.

There are several star players who aren't on this list, but you'd bet on them improving (and helping their teams improve) over the course of the season enough to ultimately land on this list. That's why we'll be tracking the MVP race throughout the season.

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Our methodology here is a mix of advanced data and the eye test. Through TruMedia and Stats Perform, we dive through the advanced stats and filter metrics in exponential ways -- that's the hard data look. The eyes come from yours truly, who follows the NWSL week in and week out and has covered the league since its inception in 2013. Combined, this approach helps us find the true standouts and weigh offensive achievements with strong defending.

The MVP debate can be a contentious one, so let's get arguing, shall we?

15. Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave FC center back

San Diego, last year's NWSL Shield winner, is struggling out of the gate. Where would the Wave be without Girma? That's an evergreen question underscored by their offensive struggles to date, and Girma's brief, recent absence due to injury.

She remains the best center-back in the NWSL and was a finalist for MVP as a rookie in 2022. The Wave, led by Girma battling Temwa Chawinga, managed to contain Kansas City relative to the Current's high-scoring output against other opponents.

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Expansion side Bay FC spent over $1 million in international transfers this offseason (an NWSL first), but Boade, an expansion draft pickup, is doing just about everything right, ranking high in everything from chance creation to expected assists. She's an engine for Bay, and Alex Loera's season-ending knee injury means a midfield shuffle that might make Boade even more of a focal point.

13. Uchenna Kanu, Racing Louisville forward

Last season was a major disappointment for Kanu after arriving in Louisville on a historic transfer, but failing to score. Thus far this year, Kanu is tied for the league lead in goals (four). The arrival of Reilyn Turner, who can stretch defenses, has freed up Kanu to make the impact Louisville was expecting last year.

12. Natalia Kuikka, Chicago Red Stars fullback

Chicago's early-season turnaround from dreadful last year to competitive this year includes changes to the defensive setup, and Kuikka is proving to be a steal after signing as a free agent. She leads the league in expected goals blocked (0.78 xGBlkr), contributing to the Red Stars conceding only four times through five games.

No defender has ever won NWSL MVP, but it doesn't mean we should ignore such strong defensive contributions.

11. Trinity Rodman, Washington Spirit winger

Rodman is the two-way forward doing work on both sides of the ball, primarily on the right wing. She is more involved in defensive actions than most defenders in the league, and is again a major reason for the Spirit's success.

10. Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns FC forward

The 2022 MVP and 2023 Golden Boot winner is still creating and scoring despite the Thorns' worst start in franchise history. Her two goals in the 5-4 loss to Kansas City reminded everyone that she can always make something from nothing. The talent is there in Portland, led first and foremost by Smith.

Once players get more direction as a result of Portland's recent coaching change, the Thorns -- and Smith -- will thrive again.

9. Croix Bethune, Washington Spirit attacking midfielder

Bethune immediately stepped into the No. 10 role for the Spirit and scored three important goals. She also ranks in the top 10 in chance creation and pass completion percentage in the final third in the league.

The NWSL can be unforgiving to rookies, but right now Bethune is making the case for a chance with the U.S. women's national team.

8. Vanessa DiBernardo, Kansas City Current attacking midfielder

Spoiler alert: this will not be the only player from first-placed Kansas City on this list. The Current's attack is unstoppable right now and where there are goals scored, there are goals created. DiBernardo scored two of her own, including the historic first in CPKC Stadium history, but she has four assists and 14 chances created, which is third-most in the league. She is also a key player in the Current's high-pressure defending.

7. Mallory Swanson, Chicago Red Stars attacking midfielder

Two goals and one assist from a forward doesn't entirely jump off the page, but Swanson already looks like her old self from before her major knee injury in 2023. That version of Swanson was arguably the best player in the world early last year, a peak she reached through two dominant years in the NWSL.

She's right back at it again in a slightly more withdrawn role, and Chicago is better for it.

6. Claire Emslie, Angel City FC winger

Emslie's talent is nothing new to the astute observer, and thus far she is proving to be a focal point for Angel City. Her two goals in Angel City's 2-1 win over North Carolina were spectacular.

She has been dangerous on set pieces all season, but it's really what she does from open play that stands out. She leads the league in chances created per 90 minutes, and she is one of those players who makes fans hold their collective breath when she starts dribbling at pace.

5. Taylor Flint, Racing Louisville defensive midfielder

Here's where the "V" in MVP comes in: Taylor (Kornieck) Flint is a 6-foot enforcer who changes games. San Diego was able to play a direct style when Flint was healthy, and now Louisville is benefiting from her aerial presence on set pieces and in midfield.

Flint leads the league in tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, and also ranks high in just about every measurable defensive category. The move to Louisville has served her well -- and Racing remains unbeaten.

4. Angelina, Orlando Pride defensive midfielder

Anyone paying attention last year is not surprised that the Pride don't look like the same old Orlando anymore. The addition of Angelina this offseason made the Pride even more competitive. The 24-year-old Brazilian is thriving as Orlando's defensive midfielder, creating chances (top 10 in the league) while doing the dirty work in the No. 6 defensive midfielder role.

3. Ashley Sanchez, North Carolina Courage midfielder

The grass appears to be greener on the other side for Sanchez. After a shocking draft-day trade -- and following a disappointing 2023 with the USWNT where she couldn't get on the field at the World Cup -- Sanchez is off to a flying start with the Courage. She is the focal point for the Courage's attack and ranks in the top 10 in the league in seven attacking categories on a per-90-minute basis. Freedom is Sanchez's friend thus far in North Carolina.

2. Temwa Chawinga, Kansas City Current winger

The early MVP race is between two teammates. Chawinga running onto a ball in behind might be every defender's worst nightmare right now. Chawinga also has four goals and two assists, and she is a big reason why Kansas City is undefeated with 17 goals scored. Few players can change a game like she does.

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1. Bia Zaneratto, Kansas City Current forward

"Bia" is unstoppable, simply put. Twice this season, the Brazilian forward has made a defender bounce off of her like a Superball striking pavement before she buried one of her four goals (plus two assists). No player has been involved in more attacking sequences per 90 minutes, per Opta, and Bia is tied for the league lead in duels, which is a byproduct of the Current's smothering high press. Bia is the real deal.

Source: espn.co.uk

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