Even During A World Cup Summer, There’s A Lot Of Fun To Be Found In The NWSL
2:42 PM EDT on July 24, 2023
Maybe you’ve just watched Ary Borges score a magnificent hat trick in her World Cup debut and want to watch her play year-round. Maybe you’re some dude named Nathaniel who exposed his embarrassing ignorance about the state of soccer in the U.S. Maybe you’re curious about how Savannah DeMelo earned her first national team start ever during a World Cup match. Or maybe you're just having a blast watching the World Cup, and want to know where you can find more soccer to watch, right now. May I point you towards the National Women's Soccer League?
The NWSL is home to all but one of the players on the USWNT roster and 39 other players at the World Cup, but it also hosts a lot of other Very Cool and Very Fun players who don’t currently play for their countries’ national team (or in some cases, whose national teams didn’t qualify for this summer’s tourney). And since NWSL games are still being played during the World Cup, soccer-curious sorts are granted the opportunity to dive into the league now. To help that process along, I've compiled a list of some of my favorite NWSL players, one from each team, who are not at the World Cup.
Bethany Balcer (OL Reign)
I first encountered Bethany Balcer as an excellent follow on that app which shall not be named, and she has really come into her own on the pitch in recent seasons. Typically a winger, she is the leading scorer of Laura Harvey’s side with five goals on the season. Balcer is a strong distributor with a knack for slick shots, but she’s been changing things up lately, having used her head for her most recent three goals. Bonus points for having played at a non-NCAA Division I college. In a game at San Diego in June, Balcer scored a brace to put the Reign over San Diego:
Messiah Bright (Orlando Pride)
The Pride has been solidly in the bottom half of the table this season, so Messiah has been a Bright (ha) spot for the squad. Bright runs at defenders like it’s no one’s business, has put on some insane footwork on display, and knows how to hammer a ball into the net. Wait, did I mention she’s a rookie? Marta’s not getting any younger, so Orlando is setting themselves up well with a strong attacker in Bright.
Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns)
There was a whole lotta controversy when Vlatko Andonovski named his World Cup roster, and there was perhaps no louder chorus than the one bemoaning Sam Coffey’s exclusion. She’s a stellar holding midfielder, excellent at both making tackles and creating chances. Indeed, she’s the league leader in assists this regular season, boasting six so far. Also, this is just her second year in the league, and the 24-year-old has captained her squad for the last three games, with regular captain Christine Sinclair down in Australia. Talk about all-around quality. Spot her assist in the very beginning of this video:
Sarah Gorden (Angel City FC)
Sarah Gorden is one of those players a manager never has to worry about: if she’s fit, she plays. (In 2021, she played every minute of every game for the Chicago Red Stars.) The NWSL veteran is a magnificent fullback, with the ability to track down opponents from all over the field in the blink of an eye. She’s got the attitude of a gladiator, excellent national team loyalties, and she’s a mom! What more could you ask?
Casey Krueger (Chicago Red Stars)
Casey Krueger should have been on the plane to New Zealand, but I guess putting her and Naomi Girma on the same backline would have been unfair for all the other teams. I digress. Krueger has played for the Chicago Red Stars since 2016 and has undoubtedly been one of their most important players. She’s got the speed, she’s got physicality, she’s got vision, and she can unleash some serious skill to play it out. She’s also got a really cute baby.
Lo’eau LaBonta (Kansas City Current)
Besides having one of the greatest alliterative names I’ve ever come across, Lo’eau LaBonta has got one of the greatest personalities in the game. This goal celebration, in which she fakes a hamstring injury then proceeds to twerk, was awesome. She’s also, obviously, a great player and has been a key piece for Kansas City’s two iterations since 2016, and has captained the squad in many matches this season. LaBonta usually plays in the central midfield, which is a good thing because she’s a scrappy defender who will stop at nothing to strip you of the ball. She also loves to shoot from distance.
Diana Ordóñez (Houston Dash)
I really wish Diana Ordóñez didn’t have to be on this list, but her national side, Mexico, didn’t qualify for the World Cup this year. Good thing we can watch her in the NWSL! She’s been a revelation for Sam Laity’s Houston side, making all sorts of exciting moves in the attack. Unfortunately, those moves haven’t included scoring many goals so far this season, but then again Houston hasn’t really scored that many goals this season. If you can get past that, Ordóñez is just a classic fun-to-watch forward, and that’s just great in my book.
Carson Pickett (Racing Louisville FC)
Carson Pickett is simply a league legend. She’s been in the NWSL since 2016 and has racked up over 10,000 minutes in that time. No matter that she was born without most of her left arm; Pickett has it all. She’s got the excellent defensive chops and fiery offensive hunger of any great fullback, plus the set-piece precision any team she plays for is grateful to have. Pickett has played for multiple teams in her time in the league, and is currently anchoring Louisville’s back line alongside her off-field partner, Kiwi legend Abby Erceg.
Brianna Pinto (North Carolina Courage)
Imagine my delight this weekend when, after having chosen to spotlight Brianna Pinto in this blog, she scored an absolute banger in North Carolina’s rout of the Washington Spirit. The midfielder can run at defenders, solve pressure, and has flair in the box. Pinto is more than flashy, though; she is solid. In her last three appearances for the Courage, in which she played for 90, 83, and 90 minutes respectively, she had a pass completion rate of over 85 percent. Her missile of a goal, then, is the cherry on top of her excellent form these days.
Yazmeen Ryan (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
Remember how that magical thing happened with Brianna Pinto showing out in her game on Saturday? Luckily for me, Yazmeen Ryan also sensed she was about to be written up in this blog and provided her own fantastic goal the following night. Ryan was traded to Gotham from Portland in January, and she’s been an invaluable piece to Juan Carlos Amorós’s renaissance for the side. Ryan usually plays on the wing, which suits her bombastic creativity, but she’s also versatile enough to move into a fullback position as needed.
Jaedyn Shaw (San Diego Wave FC)
Alex Morgan this, Alex Morgan that, blah blah blah. The San Diego Wave may have a famous captain, but in Jaedyn Shaw they have another enormously fun yet deeply underrated motor in the attack. Shaw causes problem after problem for opposing defenders with her how-did-she-even-think-of-that vision, selfless playmaking, and crafty skills on the ball. I expect the 2022 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player to make a run at the senior team roster post-World Cup, and we should all be thrilled about that.
Sam Staab (Washington Spirit)
Sam Staab has only been in the league since 2019, yet she has played every single minute for three of those seasons. She’s the kind of central defender that is a brick wall which frequently contorts into an attacking menace with seeming ease, à la Wendie Renard and Julie Ertz. Staab is consistently good, but her game is anything but boring. You just don't see many central defenders who can score goals like this:
This summer belongs to the World Cup, but it's also a great time to familiarize yourself with the league that helped produce so many of the players starring at this year's tournament. The league is expanding, too, so there's no there’s no better time than now to hop on the NWSL train. Welcome aboard.