NWSL Chaos is a thing. Most leagues across sports love to use the phrase but none have the claim to it that the NWSL does. This is due in large part to the popular style of soccer in America mixed with the physical intensity of NWSL athletes.
For most offensive systems to work, teams and players need time on the ball. In the NWSL, every team is filled with enough sickos to refuse to let that happen. The only guaranteed way of controlling games through constant pressure and amplified intensity is with an exceptional defensive midfielder.
San Diego Wave head coach Casey Stoney, who finished her first NWSL season last year after coming over from Manchester United, noted in the offseason that she wanted to find a way to get better control of matches. “It’s a very transitional league,” Stoney said after her debut season. “So that’s something that we need to continue to work on and we also need to make sure that we value the ball a lot more because then it becomes less transitional.”
This offseason, she successfully recruited and signed former Chicago Red Stars defensive midfielder Danielle Colaprico.
Two of the three undefeated teams, Portland Thorns and Washington Spirit, to no surprise have two of the league’s best defensive mids: Sam Coffey and Andi Sullivan. Both control and dictate tempo, and read attacking play well to win the ball back when teams try to build through midfield.
Sullivan, Coffey and Colaprico are in the top-4 among midfielders in interceptions, and Coffey and Colaprico lead all midfielders in tackles plus interceptions.
Recently, Angel City signed Julie Ertz, who was widely known as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. If she can return to a similar effectiveness, Angel City will propel themselves from playoff hopefuls to playoff certainties.
Leagues and styles of play are living things which ebb and flow with various talents, tactics and approaches. As the level of coaching improves in the NWSL, coaches are seeking ways to control the chaos, and are turning to defensive midfielders.
1. Julie Ertz, DM, Angel City
Yes, I’m cheating with this one. But Julie Ertz being back is amazing, and what she did for Angel City in her first start – coincidentally against Cali rivals San Diego Wave – was impressive. While Soccer Happened™ and the Wave won, they were held to their lowest expected goals total of the season (.4xG) and were outshot 16 to 7. A lot of that was thanks to Julie Ertz refusing to get out of their way.
2. Sam Coffey, DM, Portland Thorns
In her rookie season last year, Coffey anchored the Portland Thorns’ midfield all the way through a dominant regular season and throughout the playoffs until they lifted the NWSL Championship trophy. This season, she’s proving it wasn’t a fluke. Coffey already leads all midfielders in tackles plus interceptions (22) and the Thorns have scored 11 goals across her four starts.
3. Andi Sullivan, DM, Washington Spirit
The Spirit are one of the early surprises of the season. While their in-possession game has yet to click, they remain one of three undefeated teams with two wins and two draws. Sullivan’s play and experience has helped Washington control the tempo of games while they adjust to a new system, including ex-forward Tara McKeown transitioning to center back.
4. Danielle Colaprico, DM, San Diego Wave
“It’s a very transitional league,” San Diego head coach Casey Stoney said after her debut season, “so that’s something that we need to continue to work on and we also need to make sure that we value the ball a lot more because then it becomes less transitional.” So far, Colaprico is just one interception and three tackles away from Sam Coffey’s pace, helping the Wave snuff out attacks before they reach the backline.
5. Jaelin Howell, DM, Racing Louisville
Howell remains one of the best ball winners in the league. Currently, she has 10 interceptions, equalling Coffey, and 7 tackles, just five away from Coffey’s total. One caveat, Howell has played just over half as many minutes! Louisville has a ways to go in figuring out their cohesion in the attacking and defensive lines, but Howell has been doing her part.
6. Sophie Schmidt, DM, Houston Dash
The Dash are undefeated in the regular season but that only includes one win and three losses. Their attacking trio of María Sánchez, Diana Ordóñez and Ebony Salmon has yet to truly click, but Schmidt has helped bide them time with some brilliant performances.
7. Allie Long, DM, Gotham FC
With a new coach plus stars Lynn Williams and Yazmeen Ryan, the vibes in Gotham are once again good. But the return of defensive midfielder Allie Long is equally important to their turnaround. Her ability to win the ball and keep it moving from deeper in midfield has helped elevate Gotham’s play in possession.