Statistically ranking the 10 best players of the 2023 NWSL season

Who were the best players in the NWSL during the 2023 regular season? Let's use the numbers to break it down.
Portland Thorns, Sophia Smith
Portland Thorns, Sophia Smith / Amanda Loman/GettyImages

The NWSL is the most entertaining league in world football. That may seem like a bold claim, but there is no other league in which every single team seems like they have an equal shot at winning it all. Plus, with the playoff setup, there is added intrigue regarding who gets in and who doesn't, as well as possible postseason upsets.

As the season concludes, the San Diego Wave and Portland Thorns were at the summit with playoff "byes", but only six points separated league leaders San Diego from Gotham FC in the sixth and final postseason slot. Furthermore, the Orlando Pride only missed out on the playoffs to Gotham by goal differential, while the Washington Spirit were only one point behind them.

Those were some of the best teams of the season, but who were the best individuals? That can be an extremely difficult discussion to have, especially comparing team situations and positions. But using advanced stats provided by FBRef, let's try our hand at ranking the top stars of the 2023 NWSL season.

10. Caprice Dydasco, RB, Houston Dash

The Houston Dash may have missed out on the playoffs as the 10th-placed of the 12 teams in the NWSL, but they actually had the best defense in the league. They were the only team to surrender fewer goals (18) than games played (22). Goalkeeper Jane Campbell was the best goalkeeper of the season and just missed out on this list, but one of her stellar teammates managed to latch on, Caprice Dydasco.

This season, Dydasco officially logged her 10,000th minute in the NWSL, and her performances in 2023 have sealed her status as one of the best defensive players of her era. Dydasco was third in the league in tackles won and first in interceptions. The latter statistic is a great way to find out which defenders are able to read the game and make interventions before a play develops.

On the ball, Dydasco was also excellent. The 30-year-old was fourth in the NWSL in progressive passes and one of the leaders in passes into the final third.

9. Savannah McCaskill, AM, Angel City FC

It is unbelievable that Savannah McCaskill isn't a household name on a global scale in world football, because she has been one of the best players in the NWSL for several seasons on multiple teams. In some ways, the 2023 NWSL campaign may have been McCaskill's finest yet, as she was one of a few crucial underrated players who helped lift Angel City FC to the postseason.

McCaskill is a world-class playmaker with some of the most impressive passing statistics in the league. She was first in progressive passes, fourth in expected assists, fourth in shot-creating actions, and one of the leaders in both passes into the penalty box and into the final third. As a dribbler, she was even one of the best in terms of progressive carries.

So much of mainstream football analysis in the United States focuses on the goal-scorers that playmakers like McCaskill get overlooked, especially when so much of the hard work they put into chance-creation comes before the assist is recorded.

8. Savannah DeMelo, LM, Racing Louisville

A legitimately world-class player, Savannah DeMelo had a brilliant season despite playing for a Racing Louisville side that was in the bottom half of the table. DeMelo is one of the most versatile midfield players on the planet, capable of carrying the ball to start attacks or score goals from out of thin air.

One of the NWSL leaders in both expected goals and expected assists despite being a midfielder, DeMelo finished the campaign third in shot-creating actions, behind only forwards Kerolin and Adriana. DeMelo was also one of the leaders in progressive passes, progressive carries, and dribbles into the final third.

7. Sam Coffey, DM, Portland Thorns

Hardcore NWSL fans certainly don't underrate Sam Coffey. They understand she is one of the best players in the world and was a legitimate MVP candidate this season. Coffey may regularly get snubbed by the USWNT manager, but, unfortunately, it seems like the decision-makers on the national team aren't really paying close attention to the players in their own country's top league.

Everyone else seems to be, though. Obviously, a holding midfielder like Coffey's impact goes far beyond the statistics, but even the stats back up the notion that Coffey is one of the best the NWSL has to offer at any position.

She won more tackles than any other player in the league, and she also finished among the leaders in interceptions and blocks. Coffey isn't just an elite defensive presence in midfield; she is also one of the best passers of the ball in terms of picking out the best passes in the build-up to keep and progress possession. Last season, she was second in passes into the final third and fifth in total progressive passes.

6. Kylie Strom, LB, Orlando Pride

It was the year of the defense-minded fullbacks in the NWSL. Kylie Strom, like Houston's Caprice Dydasco, had an absolutely sensational season defensively and was, likewise, quite good on the ball to boot.

Strom was second in total tackles won and first in tackles against dribblers, winning over 60 percent of her one-on-one duels. The left back was also ninth in interceptions, leading the NWSL in combined tackles and interceptions.

As a passer, the 31-year-old Orlando Pride defender was in the top 10 in passes into the final third and sixth in progressive passes.

5. Adriana, LW, Orlando Pride

Now we get into the attacking superstars. Narrowing down the field in the attack is exceedingly difficult due to the sheer volume of great players putting up impressive numbers, but there wasn't a single bigger breakout star in the entire NWSL - or maybe even in world football - than Brazilian winger Adriana.

Capable of playing virtually anywhere up top but at her best when cutting in from the left, Adriana was a standout for the Orlando Pride from the moment the season started. She was constantly creating danger and then started quickly improving her end product to go with all the devastating counters she started from nothing.

Adriana had 10 total goal contributions and did much of her damage as a playmaker for Orlando. Only two players had more expected assists than the 26-year-old, Morgan Weaver and compatriot Marta. Adriana was second in the NWSL in shot-creating actions, first in key passes, third in progressive carries, and first in carries into the penalty box.

4. Morgan Weaver, LW, Portland Thorns

Morgan Weaver is another tremendous player who is ridiculously underrated. The Portland Thorns playmaker is often overshadowed by Sophia Smith, who is unquestionably the best player in the NWSL right now. But while Weaver is not the reigning MVP, she is a reigning champion in her own right and one of the best in the world at creating chances for teammates, putting in the work to start and finish attacks.

In 2023, Weaver was first in expected assists - and it wasn't even close. The 26-year-old had 11 goal contributions and the best expected goals plus expected assists mark in the NWSL (12.9). That suggests Weaver should be in the MVP conversation, given she was also in the top 10 in shot-creating actions, key passes (second), carries into the penalty area (fourth), carries into the final third( second), and progressive carries (second).

The battle for fourth between Weaver and Adriana is essentially a toss-up, but Weaver gets the edge for leading the league in expected goals and assists. That's a more important statistic that highlights just how much she impacts the game in all attacking phases.

3. Megan Rapinoe, LW, OL Reign

In a World Cup season, using statistics that adjusted for per-90 rates instead of total stats is important, because national team players like Megan Rapinoe deserve a fair shake at ranking high when they were that incredible in the minutes they did play in the NWSL. While appreciating the best players requires looking at overall impact during the season, a player like Rapinoe must be credited for producing the numbers she did in her 1,003 minutes.

Rapinoe's final campaign with OL Reign hasn't ended yet, as she played a vital role in her club finishing fourth and into the 2023 postseason. The USWNT legend was second behind only Sophia Smith in goals and assists per 90 at 0.81. Rapinoe was as crisp as ever with her deliveries, finishing third with 5.29 shot-creating actions per 90.

2. Kerolin, FW, North Carolina Courage

What a player. Kerolin has become a machine for the North Carolina Courage. No single player in the 2023 NWSL season was as important to her team as Kerolin. The forward was excellent in 2022 but somehow found an even higher level to her game this year, becoming an even more complete attacking threat, leading attacks and finishing them off all by herself.

Versatile and with plenty of end product, Kerolin finished the regular season with 10 goals, only surpassed by Sophia Smith. Her 91 shot-creating actions led all NWSL players, and she was also in the top five in passes into the penalty area. Her 100 progressive carries and 67 successful take-ons both ranked first in the league.

Basically, Kerolin was one of the league's best goal-scorers while also being its best ball progressor and chance-creator. She did everything for the Courage's attack, and it is scary to think that she is only scratching the surface at 23.

1. Sophia Smith, FW, Portland Thorns

But the most frightening player in the NWSL - for opponents - is none other than reigning MVP Sophia Smith. Despite playing in the World Cup, Smith still finished the 2023 campaign as the league's leading scorer with 13 regular-season goals. Smith averaged 1.24 goals and assists per 90, meaning the Portland Thorns could expect to be up at least 1-0 with her in the lineup.

When Smith gets going on the counterattack, she is untouchable. The way she times her runs and positions herself to take that first touch past the defender is a level of football IQ that so few footballers have at her age.

In addition to the staggering rate of goals and assists, Smith produced more than six shot-creating actions per game. Obviously, that astounding average led the league. Smith was already arguably the NWSL's best player in 2022. This season, she got even better and ended the debate that anyone in the United States is on her level, currently.