Assessing the Newcomers in the NWSL

Lots of fresh faces have joined the league this season—here are our top performances so far.

By Tony Maza

The NWSL regular season is entering its second week, and with the Challenge Cup (almost) done, let’s take a look at those players that were not acquired via trade or draft—the newcomers to the league. Let’s take a look at how they’ve made an impact on their teams, what we can expect moving forward, and whether their moves were a good idea in the end. Let’s begin!

Vanessa Gilles – Angel City

The Canadian center-back joined the league with expansion team Angel City just a few months after winning the gold medal at the Olympics with her nation. At face value, this choice was a no-brainer for any NWSL team. Gilles is a tough defender with unspectacular but reliable performances who had to leave Bordeaux due to financial trouble in the French team. And even with a rocky start to life for the team in the NWSL, she did what was expected of her—she was the player with the most touches (455) and passes (339) than any other Angel City player, which fulfills head coach Freya Coombes desire for her center-backs to be involved in the build-up.

Defensively, she led the whole Challenge Cup in clearances—a department in which she has always excelled—with 44 in six matches, and winning 64% of her duels, which is no easy feat. Gilles is, without a doubt, a great pickup for Angel City, and it’s already paying dividends in the early days of the season.

María Sánchez – Houston Dash

This feels a bit like cheating with that one-month loan in the middle of last season, but officially, paperwork-wise, María Sánchez IS a Houston Dash player, so we’re counting it.

The Mexican forward has already shown a lot of promise on that really short stint that felt more like a tryout. But she delivered then, and she’s delivering now, quickly cementing herself as one of the most dangerous weapons for a struggling Dash team in 2022 so far.

She created 12 chances (that’s twice the amount as the next Dash player, Daly, with 6), notched three assists (the only player on the team with assists to her name), and scored once too, just in case.

That means that more than half of the goals scored by the team from Texas came from her—she was involved in four goals out of seven scored.

A lot needs to improve in Houston if they want to stay near playoff positions this year, but keeping María Sánchez on the team and giving her the responsibility of creating chances seems like a good start, and even more so with Kristie Mewis no longer available.

Hina Sugita – Portland Thorns

It’s a new dawn in Portland, with a brand-new coach and without Lindsey Horan. The Thorns are trying a new formation in a 3-4-3 and a new playing style that’s more direct and less intense. There were questions about the midfielders within the squad after Angela Salem’s retirement and Celeste Boureille’s departure, and Hina Sugita can do a lot to fill that role.

Sugita arrived in Oregon as one of the top talents in Japan at 25, with a monumental task of helping both the attack and the defense in a midfield that felt depleted.

Within that context, we can see that the Japanese player has so far passed the test. 

She created five chances—only one less than leaders in that department for the Thorns Christine Sinclair and Morgan Weaver—and scored twice in the same game. She joined Sophia Smith as the only two players on the team with multiple goals in the Challenge Cup.

With 48% of her duels won, Sugita also made her contribution when winning or retaining the ball. She’s made a big impact on the Thorns without being overly spectacular, and it feels like she’ll be an established name in the starting XI heading into the start of the regular season.

Sofía Jakobsson – San Diego Wave

 After doing her trade at top teams in Europe like Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich, the 32- year- old attacker wanted to go to American soil and found her home at the San Diego Wave. She was an important piece for a team that had good moments during the Challenge Cup, even if they’re too dependent on Alex Morgan scoring right now.

The Swedish international created four chances in 327 minutes—that’s one every 81 minutes—which is certainly a respectable amount. But more surprisingly, she also made the highest number of tackles on the team with 14, winning 64% of them, something that must put a smile on Casey Stoney’s face considering her predisposition to set up her teams to press high.

With her fully adapting to the NWSL and finding the right point physically, Jakobsson might be a key piece in San Diego’s search for success in its first year in the league.

Jun Endo – Angel City

We started with an Angel City player and we’ll finish with an Angel City player. Jun Endo arrived in California from Tokyo Verdy Beleza, and as a young, bright player from the Japanese national team at only 21 years old, the new expansion team has put a lot of faith in her.

And we can say that she definitely shows that pedigree: with 14 chances created, she’s the top non-American on that stat in the Challenge Cup, notching one assist as well.

As a classic midfielder from Japan, she’s tidy with the ball and is an excellent passer that can really help with the build-up. She has a 73% passing accuracy rate—sustaining that same number when it comes to passing in the final third is quite a feat, but no sweat for Endo on that one.

Despite the big names joining the expansion team, they were clever on some key positions with less flashy players that make your team functional. Granted, Angel City have struggled but Endo is the right gamble to make on the younger side, thinking both for the present and the future.

Exclusions 

It was a tough decision, but some players have not played enough (if any) minutes to make an assessment just yet. I mean, I could, but wouldn’t be fair. Some players that fall in this category are Kerolin (North Carolina Courage), Paulina Gramaglia (Houston Dash), and Carly Telford (San Diego). We’ll be sure to talk more about them as the regular season gets moving.


The NWSL regular season schedule can be found here.

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