As the season begins to wind down and playoff fates are sealed, and as FIFA honored its #TheBest of the world, it felt like a good time to celebrate some of the iconic performances of these wild past few weeks.
You Shouldn't Get Awards for Allyship But Nevertheless, We Can All Learn Something From Her Award: Megan Rapinoe
Six NWSL players – Alex Morgan, Marta, Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, Julie Ertz and Kelley O’Hara – were honored as members of the FIFA FIFPRO Women's World XI, selected by a large jury of their international peers. Rapinoe added yet another piece of silverware to her already extensive 2019 trophy case as she was named the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year.
It will surprise no one who has been following her over the past few years that Rapinoe used her acceptance speech to highlight the systemic injustices in which FIFA is complicit. She highlighted among the people in the footballing world who inspired her: Black footballers like Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly who are playing some of the best football of their careers while calling out the brutal racist abuse they experience; out gay and lesbian footballers like Minnesota United's Collin Martin; and Sahar Khodayari, aka "Blue Girl," the Esteghlal FC supporter who set herself on fire rather than go to prison for daring to be a woman trying to enter a soccer stadium in Iran. (For more on #BlueGirl, read this piece from Shireen Ahmed and follow the work of the Open Stadiums campaign.)
Rapinoe highlighted all these profiles in courage from her fellow athletes and supporters, and profiles in cowardice from leagues around the world and FIFA itself, during a celebration which, like literally everything FIFA does, was all about FIFA patting itself on the back. As Rapinoe put it, "We have a unique opportunity in football different to any other sport in the world: to use this beautiful game to actually change the world for better. So that's my charge to everyone. I hope you take that to heart and just do something. Do anything. We have incredible power in this room."
Imagine if every player on that stage used their platform to speak truth to power, to show up for their peers affected by racism or sexism or homophobia. Imagine how impossible that would be to ignore. This isn't to center Rapinoe in these important fights, and we should lift up the words of folks directly impacted by racism, sexism, homophobia in the sports we love not just when our favorites ask us to. But Rapinoe knows this, and she uses her platform to remind us that we – especially those of us who are white, who are cisgender, who are in relative positions of privilege and comfort – have a duty to get dirty and uncomfortable and demand better of those in power, in football or in otherwise.
Tim Gunn Award For Outstanding Achievement In Making It Work: Vlatko Andonovski
After a shocking loss to Sky Blue over the weekend, the Reign had to bounce back quickly for a midweek match against their chief rival for a playoff spot, the Utah Royals. Prior to the match, the Royals were sitting in that coveted fourth-place spot, level on points but ahead on goals, and both teams needed to come out of this with three points.
After a late-night Wednesday match that was fast, furious, and at times chaotic, the Reign did what they had to do and came out on top, defeating the Royals 2-1. And while the squad had a great game, much of the credit has gone to coach Vlatko Andonovski, who has kept the Reign in the title fight in a (Casey) Murphy's Law kind of season.
It's a narrative that gets beat over and over again: injuries to key players have been a scourge in Tacoma this season. The Reign have gone through goalkeepers this season like Spinal Tap goes through drummers. But Wednesday's squad looked strong and cohesive. Casey Murphy had some solid saves and kept the threat of Christen Press at bay. Bethany Balcer continued her thunderous Rookie of the Year campaign with her fifth goal. Darian Jenkins showed off her versatility with defensive and offensive contributions, including an assist.
Andonovski's subs (although one was out of necessity for Balcer’s health) were well-timed and well-placed. Ifeoma Onumonu made an impact right away off the bench, invigorating the attack and forcing a Save of the Year contender from Nicole Barnhart. Rumi Utsugi came on in the dying minutes of the match to offer new defensive legs and help the Reign hold on to a win. The Reign had to feel good about sealing up a critical win ahead of a more challenging test against third-place Portland, where they came up with the 2-0 win.
The Better Late Than Never Award: Men In Blazers
This week, Men in Blazers, a pair of self-deprecating bald Englishmen who make entirely too many Game of Thrones references while cheerleading the growth of soccer in America, announced a new weekly web recap of NWSL matches sponsored, natch, by Budweiser.
The first recap itself is actually a decent recap – it engages, it catches viewers up on the narratives (Sam Kerr's epic scoring streak, the Courage's dominance, the Reign and Royals battling it out for that last playoff spot), it refers to Sam Mewis as "Carolina Yao Ming." Men in Blazers have a large audience, and if this move encourages and brings in new fans and draws more attention to the league, that's a net positive.
But the way the recap series was announced misses the mark in a number of ways. The timing – the absolute butt-end of the NWSL season – underscores the whole exercise as a missed opportunity. Even if MiB and Budweiser had started this after the World Cup as a cynical tie-in to #WontStopWatching, that would have been so much more effective. And there's the use of that phrase: "an attempt to help grow the Women's game." In fairness, Rog and Davo have taken a similar rah-rah booster approach with the growth of the men's game in America and Budweiser's whole thing with this ad campaign is growing the women's game. But the wording still feels gross. The NWSL is a league that is fun to watch, rife with narrative this season, and full of world-class athletes. Sam Kerr didn’' break her own goal record for you to be reinforcing professional sports as something that needs saving or charity.
This exercise is so flawed but I still want it to succeed, and it's weird to hold these two feelings at once, but that’s sports fandom for you?
Anyway, watch the Men in Blazers recaps if that’s what you're into, but also check out the smart, funny, insightful folks who have been covering the NWSL all season and beyond, and not just at this website – there's Meg Linehan at The Athletic; the whole crew at All For XI; podcasts like Furtcast, South Side Trap, Two Girls Talk Balls, Red Smoke Radio, and Burn it All Down. Give them your love, and write your local news outlets and ask them why they don't cover your local WoSo side if they don't already.
The Thanks, HAO Award: Heather O'Reilly
Before the playoffs begin and the Courage assume the role of Successful Heel, the club honored Heather O'Reilly, who is retiring at the end of this season. On September 14th, to a record-breaking home crowd, HAO was met with praise from former national teammates, Courage teammates, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. She even netted an excellent goal.
HAO has more silverware than a Crate and Barrel wedding registry: three Olympic golds, a World Cup, domestic league titles. But her legacy is one beyond trophies – in North Carolina and North London, she's been an advocate for the growth of women's soccer, a leader on many a team and a mentor to generations of players (and she'll continue in that role as part of the UNC coaching staff). She's offered her perspective as a commentator on Fox Sports and the BBC, and while we haven't always agreed with her takes (most notably with how the Fox Sports team discussed Ada Hegerberg), she's undoubtedly passionate and the sport is better with her being a part of it. This Bud's for you, HAO.
The Joe Buck Award For Unapologetic Contributor Homerism: Zoey Goralski and Casey Short
When it comes to the Red Stars, the Narrative may be all about Sam Kerr right now, and rightfully so, but when two players have a September like Goralski and Short (also the name of my new favorite Chicago buddy-detective dramedy), you want to make space for them both.
The Red Stars this season have been like a high school freshman's hair in 2001 – that is to say, streaky. After winning five and then dropping three, they needed to make the most of an exhausting week that saw them play three matches, two away.
WoSo fans have been singing the praises of Casey Short for a while, bemoaning her omission from the USWNT roster before the World Cup. But the singing will only be louder after the month she's had. In addition to consistently solid defensive performances, Short earned an assist on Savannah McCaskill's first Red Stars goal against the Dash, scored a banger to spoil Ashlyn Harris' perfect game in the 95th minute of Chicago's last away outing at Orlando (which you can see here, set to "My Heart Will Go On," because of course). Also, as Claire Watkins pointed out, she helped launch a league-wide charity auction in honor of her former teammate, the Orlando Pride's Toni Pressley, who is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer. A great teammate and a great friend.
Goralski, who made her first team debut in May and has yet to even play 90 cumulative minutes, made a significant impact as a sub in the Red Stars' last two away outings. In addition to carefully setting up the attacking play that led to Short's magnificent dying-seconds goal, Goralski perfectly threaded a pass to Yuki Nagasato for a third goal against Sky Blue. Chicago Local 134 even briefly had "ZOEY GORALSTANS" in their Twitter display name.
Most Fun Rivalry Award: Literally Everyone Involved in the Clásico Nacional BUT ESPECIALLY Joseline Montoya
If you’re not watching the Liga MX Femenil yet, go watch the highlight reel of the Clásico Nacional between Club América and Chivas, and see why one of world football's greatest rivalries is just as lit in the women's league as it is with the men's sides. The Goats of Guadalajara won the day in a wild 4-2, and had the upper hand for most of the match, scoring banger after banger. Miriam Castillo scored an absolute long-range rainbow that bounced off an América defender's shoulder before arcing up past the extending fingertips of Jaidy Gutiérrez. América got two back in rapid succession, including a truly wild backwards header from Daniela Espinosa.
But the true highlight in a match full of highlights was Joseline Montoya scoring Chivas' fourth death-knell goal, juking past defenders to slot the ball past Gutiérrez. Also, after scoring that absolute belter, she donned a pair of bright pink sunglasses and made the sideline her runway, a candidate for goal celebration of the season. Also, unrelated, but Chivas player Janelly Farias wrote this powerful op-ed urging supporters to refrain from a certain homophobic goal kick chant.
Go watch this league, y'all. Go watch these teams. And not just out of some feeling of goodness of supporting women’s soccer, but because they are actually dope and fun.