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Behind the NWSL’s gameday fits and the power of self-expression

Estelle Johnson (Ashley Intile/Gotham FC)

As the long winter of the 2021 NWSL preseason turned toward spring, one fact at Gotham FC was already clear: Things were about to look very different in New Jersey. The club had just announced a full-team rebrand, tossing the Sky Blue moniker aside as they moved to a permanent home at Red Bull Arena and played their way to the Challenge Cup final.

But while all of those factors set a new tone for a club on the upswing, none of them quite compare to the image of defender Mandy Freeman walking into the team’s May 2 match in head-to-toe Alexander Wang.

A sense of personal expression has been growing within Gotham in the months before and after the official rebrand, driven by a core group of players with a distinct sense of style. And by the time the team christened Red Bull Arena in their regular season home opener, the floodgates had opened. Players showed up in basketball jerseys, WNBA apparel, bright coats and full looks accessorized with assorted hats and sunglasses. It felt, in short, like the dawning of a new era, and part of a fashion wave that’s rippled across the NWSL in recent months.

Gotham defender Estelle Johnson can’t quite remember exactly how she and her teammates became icons of gameday fashion, but she does recall the team walking into 2021 ready to express themselves.

“I think one of our first home games we all just randomly decided to dress up, like we didn’t coordinate it at all,” Johnson says. “And we’re each other’s biggest hype women, so as people came in, we’re like, ‘Oh, hey, girl!’ Like, ‘I see you!’ I think in that one moment, we just decided like, maybe we should actually not show up as slobs. We have so many quarantine buys that we need to wear, so we might as well show out.”

Across the country, OL Reign also went through a club rebrand in 2020, and forward Bethany Balcer remembers the team’s fashion sense developing in a similarly collaborative spirit. Recently, Reign players have rocked looks that range from the textured layering of Megan Rapinoe, to the patterned shirts of Jess Fishlock, to clean silhouettes from Tziarra King.

“My rookie year, we never did anything like this. I would show up with sweats on, like nothing poppin’ or anything like that,” Balcer said. “There’s been some girls on our team who have been catalysts for it, and you’re like, ‘Oh, they look so good. I want to match that energy.’ And then lots of girls even go shopping together to pick out stuff.”

Gameday fits are a long-standing tradition in American professional sports, but the NWSL has lagged behind, with players expected to wear team gear on away trips. The festivities of home matches in 2021, however, have brought out a side of the players and their clubs that fans haven’t necessarily seen before.

While the looks across the league are distinct — Balcer has been getting into blazers, Chicago Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden swears by her sneakers and Johnson cites Tracee Ellis Ross as her style icon — the players share a desire to make their teammates feel as confident in their own personal styles as possible.

“We have a saying: ‘If you feel good, we’re gonna hype you up,’” Balcer says. “There’s no (having) to dress up. Even if you dress down, if you walk in feeling good, we’re gonna bring the energy all the time.”

Johnson feels similarly: “Just going out of our way to show support to each other and what we stand for has definitely helped build chemistry, but also just straight up respecting each other’s style. We all just are so unique in so many different ways that nobody would wear the same thing.”

For some players, having personal flair means adding custom elements to an outfit to create the perfect look.

Balcer recalls feeling inspired earlier in the season by King, who showed up before a game looking sharp in an outfit her mother tailored to fit the style King wanted. Gotham midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe rocked a custom suit made by a friend from her home country of Ghana for the club’s Juneteenth celebration. Johnson put a hard-earned quarantine skill to the test for her Juneteenth look, embroidering onto her skirt the outline of Africa and a lion meant to symbolize Cameroon, the team she represents internationally.

Johnson shows off her outfit for Juneteenth before a Gotham match. (Ashley Intile/Gotham FC)

While other teams might have one or two players who raise their fashion level before matches (Gorden admitted before Chicago’s own Juneteenth game that she’s the only “crazy dresser” on the Red Stars), Gotham FC and OL Reign treat gameday entrances as full-team affairs. Team staffers capture the players on camera as they strut toward the locker room, and the photoshoots often show up on social media afterward. And in Tacoma, the good vibes make it all the way into the tunnel.

“We get in the locker room, and we literally do a little fashion show,” Balcer says. “Everyone does a little runway walk before we all get changed into our uniforms. … We do have so many new faces (this season), so when everyone just puts themselves out there, I think it makes for good on-field and off-field chemistry.”

As the profile of the league grows, and athletes in women’s sports drive a higher percentage of social media engagement every year, gameday fashion also presents a sponsorship opportunity.

Johnson has a number of favorite Black-owned brands she supports, like Heron Preston and Off-White, along with some other well-known names (“Gucci, call your girl!”). Balcer, known affectionately as “Boats,” was eager to collaborate with Crocs last year — she personally likes their shoes and recognizes they’re a staple at training among women’s soccer players. But after her correspondence with the company went unanswered, she’s now abandoned the brand entirely, preferring similar shoes Adidas recently released. “I’ve got like ten pairs (of Crocs),” she said, “and they’re just sitting there collecting dust.”

Beyond the business opportunities and the “look good, feel good, play good” mentality, gameday fashion has become a vehicle for the players’ growing understanding that a unified visual message carries weight. Throughout the season, NWSL players have used pregame entrances to wear slogans they want to be seen, whether general (“more self love”) or specific (“protect trans kids”).

After Chicago’s Challenge Cup opener against the Houston Dash, Gorden spoke up about her experience of racial profiling and harassment. While NWSL officials took no disciplinary action following an investigation into the incident, Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134 provided the team with shirts that said “Believe, Support, Protect Black People.” Gorden and her teammates wore the shirts before the Red Stars’ subsequent home match, and the message spread rapidly throughout the league, both in banners from fans and in other teams’ pregame apparel.

In many ways, NWSL players seem to be taking small cues from their counterparts in the WNBA, a league that has long been at the forefront of advocating for social justice. In 2020, WNBA players famously wore “Vote Warnock” shirts, publicly endorsing the opponent of former Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler and influencing that year’s Senate race in Georgia.

“Especially over the last year, just with everything that’s going around in the world, we feel responsible for using our platforms, and I think a lot of us are taking that role a little more seriously,” Balcer says. “Now we’re not just here to play soccer. We all have a platform, we all have a following, and we can use that for good or be silent through it.”

To Johnson, the collective opening up about social justice issues over the past year has played a role in NWSL athletes being more vocal about their beliefs.

“I think we’re just at a point in our lives in the United States where we are being encouraged to support our differences, and encouraged to stand up and say what we’ve been wanting to say or whatever it is,” she says. “So I definitely think the times are aiding us in the fact of, we’re here to make a statement. And we’re not just here to shut up and dribble.”

The Reign’s Pride celebration match took on a specifically celebratory tone after Reign midfielder Quinn came out as trans before the 2021 season. For the players, fashion has functioned as an in-road for more personal conversations and as a medium for showing support.

“Our team is very diverse in terms of ethnicity and sexuality, so it’s just such an open and safe space and we just all support one another as human beings,” Balcer says. “And that is reflected in what we wear and who we’re buying clothes from, things like that. So it’s been cool to engage in those conversations and really just be more empathetic towards what other people are going through and what they’ve experienced. I think it helps me just be a better teammate and shows me how to love them better.”

In many ways, gameday fashion — as lighthearted as it is — represents a possible future for the NWSL, one in which players are unconditionally celebrated for being true to themselves.

“I think it’s a great upswing of us as players having voices in this league. It didn’t always feel that way,” Johnson says. “And granted, times were different. It just felt like we very much felt like we had to play within the lines. Now it’s kind of like, ask for forgiveness later.”

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC unveiled its 2023 NWSL championship rings earlier this week.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

And on Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” he joked. “Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting him to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.” Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers enters

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5. But conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew that conference realignment could affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

“You have to understand that there’s something about you that makes you special” Haley Jones on her WNBA journey.

COLLEGE PARK, GEORGIA - JUNE 23: Haley Jones #13 of the Atlanta Dream dribbles against the New York Liberty during the first half at Gateway Center Arena on June 23, 2023 in College Park, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

No one understands what Caitlin Clark and the 2024 WNBA draft class has ahead of them better than Atlanta Dream guard Haley Jones.

Jones is a product of her own vaunted draft class, selected sixth overall in 2023 upon finishing a college career at Stanford that produced a 2021 national championship. Since joining the WNBA, Jones had steady output as a rookie, playing in all 40 of the team's games in her first season.

The transition wasn't always easy. Jones had to balance finishing her Stanford degree with the early months of her first professional season, competing against seasoned veterans while closing a chapter of her life as a student.

"In college, it's a job-ish. But now it's really your life, right? And not only are you competing for yourself, but the women that you're going against, this is their lives. They have kids to provide for, families, so it's a different mindset when you come in," she tells Just Women's Sports at the 2024 Final Four in Cleveland. "They're so smart, they're so efficient. And so you'd be doing the same things, but they get there quicker."

Only one year removed from her own college career, watching the upcoming 2024 draft class maneuver the same schedule has been somewhat surreal for Jones. She says she remains close with many of the players still competing for Stanford, including incoming WNBA rookie Cameron Brink, and with the NCAA tournament now behind them she knows just how quickly their lives are going to change.

"The whirlwind that it is when your season ends, you get like three days if you're going to declare for the draft or not," she says. "Then you figure it out, boom, the draft is next Monday. So no time, it's quick. And then they're gonna [have the] draft on the 15th, training camp starts the 26th or 27th, so you have 11 days to move your life to wherever you're going, figure out the new city, get your car there, do all these different little things that come along with it."

Once players arrive in training camp, their spots in the league are anything but guaranteed. With expansion still on future horizons, this year's draft class will be competing with established veterans (including, now, Jones) for limited roster spots. It's not unheard of for even WNBA lottery picks to struggle in establishing a foothold in one of the most competitive leagues in the world.

"A lot of us get to the point of being in the W, you get there because you're hypercritical," Jones says. "That's why you've been able to be so good, your work ethic is insane. So you're watching everything that you do, you're correcting yourself, you're watching film, you're doing all these things."

"I think my biggest advice is really just like the present and understand that you're there for a reason. I think that there's impostor syndrome sometimes when you get to the league. But you have to understand that there's something about you that makes you special, to be where you are."

The rookie wall is real, Jones says, and her own hypercritical nature got the best of her at times during her first year in the WNBA. But she also feels that a player can find the balance beyond imposter syndrome and a busy schedule to get into a sense of rhythm, there's a simplicity to the life of a professional athlete that allows players to further expand their horizons.

Misconceptions about NIL opportunities continuing beyond women's college basketball careers have abounded in recent months, with current WNBA players having to correct the record. Jones is a product of the NIL era, and has only seen her professional opportunities expand since leaving Stanford. "Most of the deals I had in NIL I'm still with now," she says. "because those contracts [extended] or they just renewed now that you're in the W."

"Then you take what you were making [in college] and then you add in your W salary, so — thank you. Now I have my 401k system. I have health care, all these different things — so you kind of honestly add on when you get to the W, on top of better competition, all these different things."

Removing schoolwork from her daily schedule has also given Jones more time to pursue other projects, like her podcast "Sometimes I Hoop", in partnership with The Players' Tribune. As the WNBA continues to build its own ability to market and promote its players, Jones has relished the opportunity to not only meet players she admires through the podcast, but add to an increasingly vibrant media landscape following women's sports.

"There's a lot of men's basketball podcasts out there, a lot of player led ones," she says. "There's not a lot of women's basketball. There's some women's basketball focused pods, but not a lot of player-led ones."

"I think it's great for me to be able to give back to women’s basketball in my own way."

Jones's experience with the podcast has also given her a unique perspective on what possibly comes next for the WNBA, as the league looks to capitalize on a wave of popular young talent while still serving the players already on team rosters.

"Everybody in the league, they were All-Americans at one point in time. They were national champions, like we all have that resume," she says. "I think it's just the W expanding on their storytelling. I think doing a better job with that will do a lot, also like buying into what the players are doing." She notes the impressive personal brands that players like Clark, Brink, and Angel Reese have built on their own.

"The W has a fan base, but then each individual player has a fan base," she continues. "So by locking into those and making them not only Angel Reese fans, Caitlin Clark fans, Cam Brink fans, making them W fans as well will be big."

As Jones grows into her second year as a professional, her perspective of her own college career has also shifted with time. Winning a national championship is difficult, and Stanford's ability to come out on top in 2021 is an achievement she's appreciated even more in the years since winning the title.

"You don't really realize it until later on," she says. "As I look at it now, I realize how big of an accomplishment that that was."

"Talking to my parents, they're like hey, how many people can actually say they won one?" she continues. "How many people become college athletes? DI athletes? Win a natty? One team a year."

The ambitions for Jones in 2024 are even bigger, with the Dream looking to improve upon their fifth-place finish last season. But she also believes the key to growing the game of basketball can be found in connecting with the community, following in the footsteps of college titans like Dawn Staley at South Carolina.

"People buying into these programs because you see them in the community is huge. I feel like for the W to be continuing to do that, continue with community initiatives, all these different things that we're doing. I think that you'll get a lot bigger fan bases."

Chelsea reaches deal with Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor to succeed Emma Hayes

Sonia Bompastor. (Photo by Christian Hofer – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Chelsea is closing in on Emma Hayes’ replacement, reportedly having reached an agreement with Sonia Bompastor to succeed their longtime coach.

According to the Telegraph, Chelsea and Olympique Lyonnais have agreed on a deal for Bompastor, who will take over Chelsea upon the conclusion of the season.

Personal terms with Bompastor had already been agreed to, but compensation between the two teams still had to be figured out in order to release the coach from her contract a year early. 

Following Bompastor will be assistant coach Camille Abily. Bompastor takes over having won two Champions League titles as a player at Lyon, and one as coach during the 2021-22 campaign. The club also has won two straight league titles under Bompastor. 

The French coach has reportedly been Chelsea’s number one target when looking to replace Hayes. Hayes will depart Chelsea at the end of the season to take the helm of the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT). 

Hayes leaves big shoes to fill. Since taking charge in 2012, she’s led the team to six WSL titles and five FA Cups. The only trophy that eludes Hayes is the Champions League – which she still has hopes to win this year. 

They face Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League beginning on April 20. Should they advance, they could face Bompastor and Lyon in the final. 

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