10 Oct NWSL by the numbers: Why Portland Thorns are best of 2023
As the National Women’s Soccer League‘s regular season pushes towards the postseason in all of its chaotic, anything-could-happen glory, we’re gifted with a chance to reflect before the playoff field is set.
Armed with a nearly full season’s worth of information on all 12 teams and their players, we can ask (and answer!) questions like… Who has the best attack in the NWSL? Which team has struggled most defensively? And who is the best shot-stopper in the league?
So, to look back on what has been a truly memorable 2023 NWSL campaign so far, we’re running through a list of superlatives — and we’re doing it by the numbers. Here’s what the data has to say about, well, all sorts of things before the regular season concludes this weekend amid a multi-team fight for the remaining playoffs spots.
Most dynamic attack: Portland Thorns
With a roster full of stars, the Portland Thorns take home this year’s honor as the NWSL’s best attacking team. Not only have they scored more goals than any other team in the league (41), but they’ve created the most xG, or expected goals (38.3, per FBref) in the NWSL.
Their high xG tally indicates that coach Mike Norris’ group regularly moves the ball into dangerous parts of the field to find high-quality shots. According to American Soccer Analysis, this year’s Portland team has created more xG per game than all but five teams in their database of NWSL teams, going back to the 2016 regular season.
With Sam Coffey starting attacks with laser-sharp distribution from the base of midfield, Portland have a sharp No. 6. They have plenty of chance-creators, too, with Morgan Weaver out wide and a combination of Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair, and Olivia Moultrie in the middle. Finally, with Sophia Smith — who’s back in training after an MCL sprain — finishing attacks with her direct runs and clever movement, Portland have a world-class No. 9.
Portland’s goal-scoring recipe works, folks.
Least dynamic attack: Houston Dash
Houston Dash fans: cover your eyes.
The Dash have been historically bad at putting the ball into the back of the net this season. They’ve scored the fewest goals in the league (16), which would put them as the fifth-lowest scoring team in NWSL history on a per-game basis if the season ended today.
To cap things off, the Dash are also second-to-last in the league in xG (21.8, per FBref).
After firing head coach Sam Laity in September, it’s time for a bigger rebuild in Houston.
Strongest defense: San Diego Wave
Sure, their opponents have found a few extra fluky goals in 2023, but no team in the NWSL has better underlying defensive numbers than the San Diego Wave.
Per FBref, coach Casey Stoney’s team has allowed the smallest amount of non-penalty xG in the league this season (1.00 per 90). With a well-drilled back four featuring Naomi Girma — the biggest U.S. women’s national team star in their short World Cup campaign earlier this year — San Diego have the league’s best defensive anchor.
The Wave bend, conceding right around 50% possession to their opponents and allowing the third-most passes per defensive action in the league according to Opta, but they rarely break.
Most porous defense: Chicago Red Stars
The Chicago Red Stars have taken some big blows this season. They’ve allowed 47 goals, a number that puts them third all-time in the ASA database for goals conceded per game.
When Mallory Swanson went down with a season-ending knee injury while on duty with the U.S. women’s national team in April, Chicago’s entire season changed. Their team, once centered on Swanson’s mobile, fluid attacking brilliance, suddenly didn’t have a center at all.
With Swanson sidelined, the Red Stars lost their attacking outlet and resorted to playing against the ball. Per TruMedia, the Red Stars have faced more shots against (326) this season than any other team. They also have a problem with conceding first and being unable to fight back — they are tied for the most losses after conceding first (10), and they’ve never won after conceding first this season.
They’ve been under far too much defensive pressure for far too long in 2023.
Best pressing team: Portland Thorns
When paired with their elite players, Portland’s pressing ability has helped them become the attacking juggernaut that we see near the top of the table. According to Opta, the Thorns have scored seven goals via high turnovers — defined as “sequences that start in open play and begin 40 meters or less from the opposing goal.” That’s three more goals than any of Portland’s NWSL opponents.
The Thorns have also created more shots from high turnovers (53) than the rest of the league, all while picking their moments to press.
Portland allow 10.7 passes before intervening defensively. That figure paints them as one of the league’s more frequent pressing teams, but still shows them as being more passive than a third of the league. Yet you don’t have to have the pedal to the metal all the time to be a ruthless pressing team.
Fastest team: Racing Louisville
Sure, their 2023 campaign is still hanging in the balance, but at least Racing Louisville have the distinction of being the fastest, most direct team in the league. Right?
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Louisville have the highest direct speed in the NWSL, according to Opta. They’re moving the ball forward and towards the opposing goal at a speed of 2.05 meters per second.
Now, Louisville aren’t opposed to stringing some passes together — they’re eighth in the league in 10-plus pass sequences under manager Kim Björkegren — but the key component of their attacking game plan is clear: find midfielder Savannah DeMelo in transition as much as possible.
Most methodical and patient team: North Carolina Courage
Where Racing Louisville are vertical, North Carolina are horizontal.
According to Opta, the Courage have a direct speed of just 1.39, meaning that they move the ball forward and towards the opposition’s goal at a speed of 1.39 meters per second. That number provides a stark contrast with Louisville, and it also puts North Carolina well behind the second-most patient team in the league (Gotham FC, 1.58 direct speed).
The Courage love their long, slaloming passing sequences — they lead the league in 10-plus pass sequences with 251 (more than double second-place Portland, who have 123), though the next step has to be more efficiency in the final third. North Carolina are 10th in the NWSL in xG, per FBref.
Best set piece team: Washington Spirit
Though the Spirit have become well-known for their aggressive defending this season, their biggest strength has been on set pieces. No one has created more chances from dead balls than Washington and their 9.5 set piece xG in 2023, according to Opta.
Zooming out to look at both the attacking and defensive side, Washington have a +4 xG differential on set pieces (best in the NWSL) and +3 goal differential (second in the NWSL), per Opta.
Worst set piece team: North Carolina Courage
The Courage have clearly put a lot of time and effort into their open play tactical setup. Under head coach Sean Nahas, North Carolina average more possession (53.4%) than any other team in the NWSL. While teams spend time on both open play tactics and set piece approaches in training, it’s safe to say that the Courage have struggled to apply the same level of focus and detail on dead balls as they have in the run of play.
According to Opta, North Carolina have created the fewest chances on set pieces (2.78 xG) in the league, while scoring the fewest set piece goals (1). Factoring in defensive set pieces, the Courage have the worst xG differential on dead balls in the league, along with the second-worst actual goal differential (-3).
Whenever their season ends — in the playoffs or next week after their final match of the regular season — set pieces may be the Courage’s undoing.
Most confrontational team: Washington Spirit
No team in the NWSL has committed more fouls this season than the Spirit. According to FBref, they’ve wracked up 247 fouls, which is 20 more than the next team in the league (Angel City and Racing Louisville are both tied at 227).
There’s almost certainly a connection between the largely vertical, forward-thinking tactical approach that coach Mark Parsons has relied on this year and his team’s foul numbers. Washington’s 1.85 direct speed puts them third in the league in that metric and they have fewer 10-plus pass sequences than every team outside of Angel City and Louisville.
The Spirit want to move the ball upfield quickly — and they’re not afraid to get in your grill along the way.
Most clinical scorer: Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns
Sophia Smith has been on another planet this year. Even though she hasn’t played since the end of August due to injury, Smith still leads the league in both total goals (11) and non-penalty goals (10). She also leads players with at least 500 minutes in non-penalty xG per 90 (0.56), according to FBref.
With her astonishing speed, off-ball movement, and shot-creating ability, Smith is what makes the Thorns so sharp. After picking up 2022’s NWSL MVP award, Smith has a right to that trophy again this year.
“FINE I’LL DO IT MYSELF” 😤
Sophia Smith scores the 28th goal of her NWSL career‼️ pic.twitter.com/JEZy9KuhGv
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) June 18, 2023
Best chance-creator: Morgan Weaver, Portland Thorns
Morgan Weaver is yet to get a serious look with the U.S. women’s national team — two substitute appearances in friendlies against Australia back in 2021 serve as the extent of her national team career — but she’s going to be difficult to ignore after this season.
The 25-year-old has had a career year when it comes to chance creation. She currently tops the NWSL in expected assists (5.8) and is second among players with at least 700 minutes in xA per 90 (0.30), according to FBref.
Her shiftiness on the ball, combined with a lanky frame and creative vision, makes Weaver hard to shut down on either wing. That she plays alongside a finisher like the aforementioned Smith only makes her even better.
Don’t be surprised if she pops up in red, white and blue at some point in the next few international windows.
Best dribbler (and most fun player to watch): Kerolin, North Carolina Courage
If you want pure, unadulterated fun, I kindly suggest you watch a few minutes of Kerolin. The 23-year-old Brazilian attacker has been, hands down, the biggest bright spot for the North Carolina Courage this year.
Not only is she an impressive goal-scorer, with 10 goals to her name in 2023, but she also strikes fear into the hearts of opposing defenders on the dribble. Per FBref, Kerolin has completed more successful dribbles (67) than anyone else in the NWSL.
What’s more, according to ASA’s goals-added metric, which measures a player’s total on-ball contribution, Kerolin leads the league in value created via her dribbling, too.
There isn’t a single defender in the NWSL who can consistently stop the young forward in the open field.
Admin has officially run out of words to describe Kerolin’s talent at ⚽.
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) September 3, 2023
Most brick-wall-esque shot-stopper: Katie Lund, Racing Louisville
Make that two years in a row of Katie Lund stealing the show in goal.
The 26-year-old was incredible in 2022, which was just her second year in the NWSL: she saved 6.9 goals more than expected, according to ASA’s post-shot expected-goals metric, which measures the likelihood of a shot finding the back of the net based on its position on the goalmouth.
After leading the league last year, Lund is at it again. She’s saved 4.8 goals more than expected in 2023, beating out the rest of her positional peers by more than two goals.
Lund’s name should be on the USWNT’s radar.