Postseason awards typically result in snub debates. Barring the overwhelming and obvious candidates, fans and media can usually argue a compelling case for an alternative option or two. NWSL's Best XI, however, is on another planet when it comes to that.
On Thursday, the league released its Best XI first and second teams ahead of Sunday's anticipated final between the North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars. Women's World Cup years make for unusual NWSL seasons in that the bulk of the league's top players miss a significant chunk of the season. Between World Cup preparations, the competition itself and the post-tournament recovery necessary before returning to their clubs, high-profile players are largely absent. The flip side of that, though, is that it yields opportunities for other players to step up, lead their clubs and earn the deserved recognition for doing so.
So imagine the surprise and general outrage when the Best XI–voted on by fans (20%), media (20%), players (40%), owners, general managers and coaches (20%)–contained a slew of USWNT stars who barely played in the league this season and omitted two finalists for league MVP entirely.
There's no disputing the quality of some of these players, and the World Cup didn't prevent all top talent from showing out. Sam Kerr managed to break her own single-season goal record, for instance, sandwiching Australia's run in France with a scoring binge that helped lead the Red Stars to the final.
But Rose Lavelle played in six games. Some of her U.S. teammates barely played over half the season. Kelley O'Hara, who made the second team, played in four. Megan Rapinoe, the deserving FIFA World Player of the Year, didn't make her first appearance until Sept. 7, yet carved out a second-team place herself.
That's not to say that there's a games-played threshold that determines whether a player is deserving or not, but if you've only played a handful of matches, you'd have better performed at an all-world level in them. Lavelle had one goal and one assist. Lindsey Horan, another Best XI honoree, had a goal and two assists in 13 games and largely underwhelmed given her talent and stature. On the flip side, there's Christen Press, who may have missed 10 matches but at least scored eight times and has a defensible case, if nothing else.
The inability of voters to separate reputation from reality does a disservice to the players who kept the league rolling during the summer and the ones who truly should be recognized for the seasons they had. It also overshadows the deserving players who were picked, with the whole system called into question. That's not one individual's point to make on a soapbox, either. The criticism came from all corners of the women's soccer world, with the perplexing outcome causing some to wonder about the damage it does for a league fighting for legitimacy and relevance and for players who aren't on the relatively heftier U.S. Soccer contracts in their quest to be rewarded.
"Huh" was Alex Morgan's succinct reaction.
NC Courage coach Paul Riley was a bit more verbose, and while he surely has his own reasons to back his players, there's no excuse for how someone like Debinha, an MVP finalist, doesn't appear on either the first or second team.
Crystal Dunn and Carli Lloyd had their own back-and-forth pondering the results.
Reign FC's Jess Fishlock weighed in with her Deserving XI:
Her teammate, U.S. midfielder Allie Long, expressed her own concern over the veracity of the voting:
And Sydney Leroux gave her strongly worded thoughts on the situation:
Women's soccer is no stranger to the confusing outcome of award voting. Lloyd's second straight FIFA Women's Player of the Year award came after a year in which the U.S. suffered its earliest Olympics defeat ever and she had modest levels but not outrageous levels of personal and team success. "I honestly wasn't expecting this," were her exact words at the podium.
Marta's sixth FIFA top women's player award, in 2018, came during a year in which Brazil won the Copa America title, but she didn't have all that much to do with it. Her club, Orlando Pride, missed the NWSL playoffs, and she didn't have a great year in the league. By contrast, Lyon won domestic and European titles that season, and yet Ada Hegerberg, who had 31 goals in 22 games, was passed over for the player with the bigger reputation. "When in doubt, vote Marta," seems to be a common refrain in the world of women's soccer award voting.
All of it is a sobering reminder that as far as the women's game has come, both in the U.S. and abroad, it's still yearning to be treated in a more respectful manner. Players with strong reputations often get the benefit of the doubt from voters who may not be fully up to the task. But this instance seemed unusually egregious. (For what it's worth, the men's game isn't immune to this nonsense, either. Just look at the undeserving Real Madrid contingent on FIFPro's World XI for 2019.)
We'll leave the last word with a party who has a distinct rooting interest: Lavelle's mom.
When you've lost the mom crowd, perhaps it's time to reconsider who is voting and who is actually watching.