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Who Was The Best U.S. WNT Player In 2008?

The U.S. WNT had a fantastic 2008. In March, they reclaimed their FIFA World #1 ranking (from rival Brazil). In August, they captured a second straight Olympic Gold Medal (over rival Brazil). Overall, they were 29-1-1 and outscored their opponents 78-16. Oh, and in those 31 games, they only received 12 yellow cards and no red cards. So, they not only kicked butt, but they did so like true sportsmen (er, sportswomen, I guess).

As the year comes to its conclusion, the US Soccer Federation will announce its 2008 Female Player of the Year. Who will win the award?

Well, here are my top five players of the year, who I have ranked by who I think should get the annual honors:

5. Natasha Kai

Why She Should Win: Kai had her breakout season in 2008, netting a team high 15 goals in only 25 appearances. In some games, Kai seemed to singlehandedly frustrate opposing defenses like no player on the WNT roster can (other than Abby Wambach). When Wambach went down with a leg injury, Kai stepped into her place and contributed to the offensive attack that captured a Gold Medal in China.

Why She Should Not Win: Kai is a controversial figure on the Women’s Nats. I love her tattoos and her ferocious style of play, but some members of the media and her own team (i.e. Abby Wambach) have criticized her selfish style of play. Also, in a few exhibition games, Kai looked out of sorts, like she could care less about the result. I think she will win this award, but just not this year.

4. Abby Wambach

Why She Should Win: Wambach is the leader of the WNT and its greatest attacking player. In only 22 matches, she scored a whopping 13 goals and notched ten assists (a team high despite her limited amount of minutes). She is, without a doubt, the most talented offensive player on the team, and her contributions to building team unity can be felt far beyond the pitch.

Why She Should Not Win: If Wambach had not broked her leg, she probably would win the award again this year. But, that injury kept her out of the WNT’s most high-profile tourney of the year, the Olympics. Plus, she’s already won the award three times (2007, 2004 & 2003) and it seems to me it’s time for someone else to receive the honor.

3. Heather O’Reilly

Why She Should Win: O’Reilly has established herself as a permanent starter in Sundhage’s strong, tactically-gifted midfield. She is fifth on the team in goals (8) and second in assists (9). Plus, she seems to save her best for when things matter most, like during the Olympic Semifinal when she scored the game-winner. She will hopefully continue to be a leader on this squad for years to come.

Why She Should Not Win: O’Reilly’s biggest contributions to the team (passing/defense) don’t show up in the box scores. She doesn’t have the gaudy numbers past winners have put up. Plus, at only 23, O’Reilly, like Kai, will have other shots at the Player of the Year Award. She’s the next Mia Hamm (who won the award five consecutive years), so I’m sure she will eventually hoist the POY hardware.

2. Carli Lloyd

Why She Should Win: Lloyd is only 26, but she’s already established herself as a leader on the Women’s Nats. She played more minutes in 2008 than any other player and she was fourth on the team in goals and second in assists. She was the team’s Iron Horse and most dependable player. Her selfless style of play and tactical brilliance has made her a permanent fixture in the starting lineup.

Why She Should Not Win: Lloyd had a very good 2008, but not a great one. While she put up some impressive numbers, she also was on the pitch longer than anyone else (I know, the Iron Horse thing is a double-edged sword). Overall, I can’t shake the feeling she wasn’t as valuable to the team as my number one selection below. Lloyd may win the award someday, but I don’t think it should be this year.

1. Hope Solo

Why She Should Win: Solo should win because she was the best player in 2008. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? She had a GAA of 0.49 and a W/L record of 24-1. In the Olympic Final vs. Brazil (the biggest game of the year and her career), she played the game of her life and bested Marta (the two time World POY) on multiple occasions. She was simply brilliant all season and has earned this award.

Why She Should Not Win: It’s no secret that Solo does not have a lot of friends on the WNT, or in the US Soccer Federation. Her comments after the defeat to Brazil at the 2007 World Cup led to her ostracization and near dismissal from the team. Plus, one could argue her numbers only look so good because of the strength of the U.S. defense. Oh yeah, and no GK has ever won the Female POY Award.

Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf and Lori Chalupny also deserve honorable mention. But, I doubt the award will be given to a defender. After all, only one defender, Joy Fawcett, has ever won the award, and she received the honor 20 years ago in 1988. Maybe it’s time another defender wins the award. If one does, I’m betting its Rampone. She’s a crafty vet and her “lead by example” ethos helped secure the Olympic Gold against a more talented Brazilian side.

In my opinion, Solo should get the award though simply based on the merit of her play this year. Unfortunately, I believe voters may instead send the award to Lloyd, O’Reilly or Rampone due to Solo’s off-field comments in 2007. I am not saying Carli, Heather or Christie are not deserving of the award, but I am saying Solo is more deserving of the award than they are and that she should not be penalized for her comments. After all, she made those comments over a year ago (i.e. not in 2008) and has rightly earned redemption for her mistake.

It’s time to move on and awarding her the sport’s highest individual honor could further heal her relationship with the team. Solo has redeemed herself and regained many of her teammates’ friendship and respect. Whether she’s earned the respect of the US Soccer Federation is a question which we will not have an answer for until this year’s Female Player of the Year Award is bestowed. Only when we hear which name is called will we know if US Soccer can stay true to the old maxim to “forgive and forget”. As for which name I would like to see called?

I’m hoping for Hope.