It’s usually a sure thing: finalists for major awards are announced and the Hot Take industry springs to life: who got snubbed, who shouldn’t have been included, and so forth. And when US Soccer announced the nominations for player of the year, the usual flurry of comments ensued.
But here’s the thing: this year, they got it spot on. At least on the women’s side, the five players selected really are the best choices.
Carli Lloyd has plenty of detractors (including yours truly on more than one occasion), and her presence on the national team sometimes creates as many problems as it solves. But, when it comes down to brass tacks, there’s still no one in the squad I’d trust more to put the ball in the back of the net. She scored 17 on the year (tied with Alex Morgan for most on the team), and assisted 11 more. And when she is at peak health (and peak motivation) she really is one of the very best in the world. Just look at her performances for the Dash and the national team in September and October to see proof of how dominant a player she can be.
Lloyd’s companion atop the goal-scoring charts for the national team was Alex Morgan. And Morgan was not just prolific, but also opportune, since quite a few of her 17 goals were achieved against tough competition. She scored the equalizer in the Olympic quarterfinals, crucial goals in several matches at the She Believes Cup, and two goals to help earn a draw against Japan in a June friendly. Morgan is no longer quite the player she was at her peak four years ago, but she remains a game-changer at the front of the US attack, particularly for her ability to drag opponents out of position.
The other forward to make the list was Crystal Dunn, who has emerged as one of the most important creative players for the national team. Not just a goal-scorer (though she does that plenty as well), Dunn has taken on a new and more expansive role both for club and country this year. She helped lead the Washington Spirit to within an inch of the NWSL title, and has been one of the few players for the national team to provide inventive buildup play. For a team stocked with talented attacking players, they’ve often looked a bit toothless. Dunn has been a welcome exception to that tendency.
The sole defensive player to make the shortlist is Becky Sauerbrunn, and again it’s hard to argue with her inclusion. While she has declined a bit from her dominance over the past few seasons, Sauerbrunn remains the glue that holds the US defense together. She’s been burned a few times this season, and in some prominent games, but she’s still one of the finest defenders in the world. And she has led the line for a defense that conceded only 10 goals in 25 matches over the course of the year.
Finally, there’s Tobin Heath. Certainly the most improved national teamer in 2016, she’s also probably the deserving winner of this award. Not just for her contributions to the national team—where she has thrived as a creative force on the left, scoring a fair number of goals, and creating many more for others—but also for her work in the NWSL. Despite missing significant time for the Olympics, there’s a credible case that Heath should have been the NWSL MVP. Put the two halves of her season together, and you get a breakout year. The talent has clearly always been there, but for many years Heath flattered to deceive as often as she actually delivered. In 2016, that has come to an end. I don’t have a vote, but if I did it would go to Heath.
So, apart from the five names who made the list, who could conceivably have a case for being snubbed? Fans of Christen Press might make a case. While she logged fewer minutes than the team’s other strikers, she scored goals at approximately the same rate (one per 94 minutes). Combine that with her NWSL record (where, like Heath, she was in the running for MVP despite missing a third of the season) and you’ve got an excellent year. But it’s worth noting most of Press’s goals came against weaker opposition. And, despite being the only player to appear in all 25 USWNT games in 2016, she was only 13th on the team in minutes. Some (including yours truly) would argue that this usage was a mistake, and that Press could have contributed far more if given the chance. But the fact remains that she wasn’t used more aggressively and didn’t play the minutes necessary to have a sufficiently big effect.
A similar argument could be made for Mallory Pugh, who was dynamic in limited opportunities. But Pugh played even fewer minutes than Press and had no club role to bolster her case. Combine that with the U-20 team’s lackluster performance in Papua New Guinea—not Pugh’s fault, but definitely an opportunity lost—and you have a wonderful debut season, but not really one deserving of cracking the top 5.
Finally, one might argue for Hope Solo, but again the case there is difficult. Solo is still an excellent keeper, of course, but she wasn’t given all that much opportunity to show it this year. A few great saves in the She Believes Cup aside, Solo was merely good this year. And it takes something special for a keeper to be as valuable as the best of her teammates.
Any other cases are even weaker. Morgan Brian was the best player for the national team through the first three months of the year—and by a significant margin, I think. But she struggled for much of the rest of the year with hamstring issues that limited her effectiveness. Julie Johnston had a down year, as did the fullbacks. Lindsey Horan displayed flashes of greatness, but often struggled to find her place in the team. Allie Long…played significant minutes at center back.
At the end of the day, this is a team with a lot of breadth, and no single individuals who stand well above the rest. So the margins on decisions like these will always be somewhat close, and drawing lines at precisely the right place will be tough. But, at least this year, US Soccer managed to get it exactly right.