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The National Women's Soccer League season is reaching its final weeks of play and with it come the regular season awards cycle. Historically, the golden boot winner for top scorer has ultimately gone on to win the league's Most Valuable Player Award. It's happened six out of the seven seasons dating back to 2013. 

In 2018, then-Chicago Red Stars forward and Australia international Sam Kerr led the league in scoring with 16 goals, but Portland Thorns FC midfielder Lindsey Horan took home NWSL MVP honors. It's also worth noting that the league did not hand out awards in 2020 when the league had to work around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to hold the Challenge Cup and Fall Series.

SeasonGolden Boot winnerNWSL MVP winner


Lauren Holiday (12 goals), FC Kansas CIty

Lauren Holiday, FC Kansas CIty


Kim Little (16 goals), Seattle Reign FC

Kim Little, Seattle Reign FC


Crystal Dunn (15 goals), Washington Spirit

Crystal Dunn, Washington Spirit


Lynn Williams (11 goals), Western New York Flash

Lynn WIlliams, Western New York Flash


Sam Kerr (17 goals), Sky Blue FC

Sam Kerr, Sky Blue FC


Sam Kerr (16 goals), Chicago Red Stars

Lindsey Horan, Portland Thorns FC


Sam Kerr (18 goals), Chicago Red Stars

Sam Kerr

Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch is the current frontrunner for the Golden Boot prize with 10 goals this season. Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly and the OL Reign's Bethany Balcer are in second and not far behind with nine goals. Orlando Pride's Sydney Leroux and NJ/NY Gotham FC's Margaret Purce are also in the hunt with eight goals.

In 2019, the last time the NWSL played a full season, there were 108 matches played and 2.61 goals scored per match. As of Friday, we have had 172 goals scored through 86 games played, which puts us exactly at a two-goal-per-match clip. The MVP Award doesn't necessarily have to go to the best scorer. If there's ever been a season where the top scorer might not run away with the MVP Award, then this might be it. Clinical goals have been scarce. Scoring is down to the point where if nobody reaches 11 goals, this will be the worst scoring output for any Golden Boot winner in the young history of the NWSL.

This, then, is a launching point for us to examine some of the best players in the league this season that aren't particularly prolific scorers, but have been integral to their respective team's success and deserve MVP consideration. Consider this your look at the dark horse candidates for the 2021 NWSL MVP award.

1. Jess Fishlock (OL Reign, midfielder)

The Welsh international has been with the club since its inaugural season, and has been a staple in the middle of the park ever since. OL Reign are stacked with talent this season and currently sit in second place with a ticket already booked for the postseason. 

Jess Fishlock has featured in 22 games (20 starts) for OL Reign, with four assists to date. She's just about outperformed her expected goal rate of 4.71 by scoring five goals this season. Her ability to set up teammates and create her own shot has made her threat in the attack in any given moment. She covers a ton of area for the club as she's second on the team in aerial duels (54.8) and recoveries (129). 

OL Reign got off to a extremely rough start, losing five of their first eight games and struggled to hover in playoff position. But Fishlock's play on the pitch and her leadership off it has played a huge role in the turnaround.

2. Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit, midfielder)

Andi Sullivan was drafted in 2018 and has grown into the face of the Washington Spirit as a powerhouse midfielder and team captain. Sullivan has featured in 18 games, all as a starter and leads Spirit midfielders in pass completion percentage (83.3) and is fourth overall in the league in the same category. 

Sullivan has only scored twice and dished out three assists (second-best on her team), but it's her ability to break lines and connect with attackers on long through balls that makes her a legitimate threat on offense. Her duel success rate (52.1) makes her tough to break down in the midfield. She has also been the one to step up and take penalties for the team in recent games.

3. Morgan Gautrat (Chicago Red Stars, midfielder)

Morgan Gautrat has featured in 20 games, all starts and is putting the finishing touches of an MVP-caliber campaign for a Chicago Red Stars side that finds far more success with her on the field far than when off. Her two goals this season (all via penalty kicks) aren't exactly turning heads and making headlines, but the holding midfielder has found success regardless of who she's paired with in the middle of the park as Chicago manages its crowded midfield options on the roster. 

Gautrat has been able to control tempo when on the ball and both generate attack and cover ground defensively. She is third on the team in key passes and assists behind attackers Mallory Pugh and Kealia Watt, and third in the entire league in recoveries with 192. She is second on the team with successful passes into the final third.