Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been working toward this year's WNBA All-Star Weekend for a long time.

2024 won't be Copper's first trip to the All-Star Game — in fact, she's been an All-Star for four consecutive seasons. This weekend also won't be Copper's greatest individual achievement to date. Afterall, it's tough to beat winning Finals MVP as part of the 2021 WNBA Champion Chicago Sky. And this year isn't even Copper's first time playing the All-Star Game in her home arena; that was in Chicago in 2022.

But this will be Copper's first All-Star Weekend as an Olympian, a title she's been striving for since the moment the Tokyo Games ended in August 2021. Back then, the 29-year-old had been one of Team USA's final roster cuts prior to the Olympics. And from that day forward, she made it her mission to channel  her disappointment into becoming an indispensable part of the 2024 Paris Olympic squad

"I wouldn't change my process for anything," she told Just Women's Sports earlier this week as she prepared to join the national team at training camp in Phoenix. "I'm super grateful for it, it has definitely prepared me. It's a testament to my work ethic, and me just really being persistent about what it is that I want."

A proud product of North Philadelphia, Copper has always been big on manifesting, speaking her intentions confidently into the universe and never shying away from  ambitions no matter how far-fetched they sounded.

"It's important to set goals, manifest those things, talk about it," she said. "Because the more you speak it, you speak it into existence." 

She also displays those goals on her refrigerator at home, forcing herself to keep them front of mind every day. The day she was named to the Olympic roster, ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted one of these visual reminders to social media: A 2021 photo showing Copper wearing a Team USA t-shirt over her Chicago Sky warmups, smiling at the camera while holding up the homemade gold medal slung around her neck.

"Kahleah Copper put out [the] photo on the left in Aug. 2021 and manifested that she WOULD be an Olympian," Rowe’s caption read. "Today she made team USA. Dreams to reality." 

Kahleah Copper of the USA Basketball Women's National Team poses for a portrait during Training Camp in Phoenix
The 2024 Paris Games will mark Copper's Olympic debut. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper turns her focus to Team USA

With one dream realized, Copper is aware that the job isn't finished, as USA women's basketball is aiming to win a historic eighth-straight Olympic gold medal in Paris this summer. That path doesn't technically begin with All-Star Weekend — where Team USA will take on Team WNBA in a crucial tune-up game — but the trial run could make a difference when the team touches down in Europe next week.

"It's serious, because other countries, they spend a lot of time together, so their chemistry is great," Copper said of her Olympic competition. "We don't get that, we don't have that much time together. Just putting all the great players together is not enough. It's gonna take a lot more than that."

With a laugh, Copper acknowledged that Team USA’s task at hand could lightly dampen the occasionally raucous All-Star festivities ("Balance!" was an oft-repeated word). But it's a cost she and her national team colleagues are more than willing to pay if it helps them come out on top in Paris. 

Of course, Copper — along with club teammates Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — will be enjoying home-court advantage when the All-Star Game tips off inside Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Saturday, a factor that might put them slightly more at ease. 

WNBA players kahleah copper and candace parker celebrating winning the 2021 championship with the chicago sky
Copper won a WNBA Championship in 2021 alongside one of her idols, Candace Parker. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A "damn near perfect" new WNBA team

Copper made the move to the Mercury just this season after establishing herself as a respected star in Chicago. What she joined was a work in progress, one of a number of key 2024 signings under first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts. Having played for the Sky since 2017, Copper wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the transition. But any positive manifestations she put out about her new team seemed to have done the trick.

"I said I would never go to the West Coast, I could never go that far from home," she said. "But I didn't know that this organization was what it was: Super professional, really taking care of everything. It's damn near perfect."

Copper herself has been damn near perfect, shooting 45% from the field while leading sixth-place Phoenix to a 13-12 record on the season. She’s also averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game, second highest in the league behind soon-to-be six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson’s 27.2 points per game. It’s not lost on Copper that she’s playing in front of packed houses, with the Mercury accounting for some of the W’s biggest crowds throughout its 28-year run. 

"Here in Phoenix, our fans are amazing," Copper said. "They show up every single night."

Phoenix Mercury player Kahleah Copper poses on the court before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game
Copper will play in her fourth consecutive All-Star Game on Saturday. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper's All-Star home-court advantage

All-Star Weekend presents Copper even more opportunities to connect with her new city, including by making an appearance at American Express's interactive fan experience at WNBA Live 2024. As part of the activation, Copper recorded a few short stories about growing up a basketball fan, describing the posters of Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, and Ivory Latta she had as a child, and how she dreamed of joining her idols as a professional basketball player. 

The Rutgers grad said she was excited about connecting with Phoenix fans on their level, rooting herself in a shared love of the sport even as she moves from watching the WNBA on TV to becoming one of its brightest stars. The message is clear: If you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, just about anything is possible.

But for all of Copper's personal manifestations, she's never lost sight of the most important thing: winning. And she won't stop grinding until she's posing for the cameras in Paris, holding up a real Olympic gold medal.

"When winning comes, the other stuff will come," she said. "The individual sh*t will come."

I am pregnant. I am actually very pregnant — 39 weeks as we speak. I’m also the founder and CEO of an early stage company, and for the first time in my life, I’m wondering if I bit off more than I can chew.

For the last four years, I have poured my whole self into Just Women’s Sports. It’s been a wild, unpredictable ride, one that’s been both incredibly fulfilling and incredibly hard.

When I started JWS, no one wanted to bet on women’s sports, media, or a 26 year old with only one year of actual work experience under her belt. People didn’t think women’s sports could work as sports, and even stakeholders in the space talked about these leagues like they were charities — something nice to have, but not anything that would ever make real money. And that was from the people who "believed" in women’s sports — you don’t want to know what the doubters had to say.

In the early days, it was all heart and hustle. There was no playbook. We had a vision, but that was about it — no real money, connections, or media experience. To keep the lights on and get JWS off the ground, all I did was work. I ran from fundraising meetings to posting on social, to listening to and editing our first podcast with Kelley O’Hara. I designed graphics. I sold to brands. I worked all the time. 

At one point, I even hospitalized myself from working too much. But even that wasn’t enough to tell me to chill out — I closed our first big deal sitting in a hospital bed, with a virtual background so they couldn’t tell where I was. For better and for worse, I was willing to sacrifice myself in order to win.

Slowly but surely, we started stacking wins and building some real momentum. But even as we grew and found our footing, I still had the same existential paranoia and grind-it-out mentality that had been there from the beginning. Every win, every new milestone, felt like a reason to push even harder.

But getting pregnant changed that.

I’m fortunate to say this has been a healthy pregnancy, but even then… it’s been tough. I’ve been nauseous the whole time. I can’t sleep. I never knew my back and hips could feel this bad. And in these final stages of my pregnancy, I’ve been more emotional than I’ve ever felt in my life — which is just not ideal when the bulk of your job is to stay level-headed, decisive, and be able to make unemotional decisions.

For the first time in my professional career, I physically cannot just grind it out and push through. Being pregnant has forced me to do something not even a week in the hospital could do: recalibrate my work habits and take time off. 

The idea of stepping away for maternity leave is anxiety-inducing. I’ve poured my entire self into getting JWS to this point, women’s sports are taking off like never before, and now I’m supposed to just detach from it for an extended period of time? What will that mean for the company? Will I be able to balance being a CEO and a mom when I come back? Can we keep the momentum we worked so hard to achieve?

I have so many people asking me if I'm ready. And I can say with unequivocal confidence: No, I am absolutely not. My only expectation is that I’m about to get smacked in the face with a brand new version of my life any day now. 

But this pregnancy and impending leave have had an unexpected side effect — being forced to "take it easy" and think about not being here has actually improved my leadership.

I’ve had to learn how to get out of the weeds. I’ve had to empower other leaders at the company and build systems where they can step up and take ownership. I’ve also gotten better at saying no and being ruthless about what matters.

Ultimately, I’ve had to learn how to let go a little bit and trust the people around me to a greater degree than I’ve ever felt comfortable doing.

And so far, the wheels haven’t fallen off. In fact, it’s been the opposite — people have stepped up in big ways across the board, traveling for me when I can’t go to events, driving initiatives that I usually would have been leading, and taking things off my plate to help ease the transition. We’re actually growing faster than we ever have before, and the team has collectively taken on a whole new level of ownership.

I’m definitely not the first pregnant CEO, but the fact is, there just aren’t many places where women can lead and grow a family. There isn’t a tried and true blueprint for how to balance being both a mother and a founder. And I won’t lie — that scares me. There’s no way to know what this future will look like. But to be able to build a company and culture where that is possible is, I think, really special.

As we all step into this next chapter, my overwhelming feeling is gratitude. For my family and for a healthy pregnancy, but also for everyone I get to work with everyday building this company and changing women’s sports. For my leadership team, who were the first people I told about my pregnancy after my immediate family. For the whole JWS team that has been unbelievably empathetic, thoughtful, and simply human during this time. And for our investors, advisors, and partners, who never made me feel like I was neglecting the company by starting my family.

We’re all nervous, to some degree. Inevitably, something will happen while I’m away that will be intense. There will be decisions that I would have made differently. Something will slip through the cracks.

But I’m also hopeful — this pregnancy forced us to empower the team to steer the ship and make decisions autonomously, and we’re already seeing the payoff.

There wasn’t a playbook when we started and there isn’t one now. But as has been the story of JWS since day one: We believe in our vision, and we’re taking the leap.

Haley Rosen is the CEO and Founder of Just Women's Sports. Follower her on X @haleyrosen.

SAN DIEGO — After lifting the 2023 NWSL trophy on Saturday, no one registered more giddy surprise over their accomplishment than NJ/NY Gotham FC’s players. The club had just put the final stamp on their “worst to first” narrative, a term that retiring legend Ali Krieger said began almost as a joke before becoming the team’s reality.

“In preseason, we were like, ‘We have to go worst to first,’” she told the media after Gotham’s 2-1 win over OL Reign. “And we were kind of laughing at first, because we’re like, oh my god, we’re really going to do it.”

The NWSL playoffs are an American construct of modern soccer, infusing the chaos of knockout soccer into a system that historically rewards steady consistency over the excitement of a few moments of brilliance.

After finishing 2022 in the basement of the NWSL standings, Gotham proved to be stunningly resilient in the 2023 playoffs. They held clean sheets when they could, scored goals when they had to, and saved some of their best collective play for the game that mattered the most.

No one would accuse Gotham of crashing the party, but contending for an NWSL Championship used to be something of a perennial experience. Before the playoffs were expanded in 2021, Portland, Seattle, North Carolina and the Chicago Red Stars tended to duke it out in the postseason, sometimes flanked by the old FC Kansas City teams or North Carolina’s predecessors, the Western New York Flash.

More often than not, North Carolina/Western New York and Portland made it the farthest, swapping title wins from 2016-19. The winner of the playoffs didn’t always reflect the strongest regular season squad (the “Shield Curse” legend didn’t grow out of nowhere), but fans became used to familiar faces taking part in the trophy lift even as the league’s parity shined in other areas.

While teams from that era still loom large over the playoff picture, the suspended 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately proved to be the end of that dynasty era. It was followed by a season of turmoil due to investigations in widespread abuse, forcing front office turnover and, in some cases, club sales.

The 2021 season also launched the six-team playoff structure, giving quarterfinalists a chance to build true momentum through the postseason. The Washington Spirit felt like the first of a new class of champions in 2021, who came together at just the right time after an up-and-down regular season.

If the Spirit nudged the door open, then Gotham FC kicked it off its hinges with their 2023 championship win. The team colloquially known as “the Bats” is the first No. 6 seed to win an NWSL Championship.

“We squeaked into playoffs and made it all the way,” Championship MVP Midge Purce said after the game, summing up Gotham’s Cinderella story.

But now that the confetti has been swept up, and the free agency cycle is once again in full swing, two questions linger: Can Gotham replicate their success next year, and can the playbook for their turnaround be replicated by other teams?

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Lynn Williams scored a goal in the final after Gotham traded for her in the offseason. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

To answer both questions, it’s necessary to look at how the Bats achieved one of the most impressive season comebacks in league history. That process started with the hiring of Juan Carlos Amorós, who communicated his style of play to the team’s leaders from Day 1 and received full-team buy-in in return.

Gotham general manager Yael Averbuch then oversaw an excellent 2023 draft week, during which the club traded for U.S. women’s national team forward Lynn Williams and 2022 NWSL champion Yazmeen Ryan, as well as selected future Rookie of the Year Jenna Nighswonger. The team also did well in free agency, signing 2021 NWSL champion Kelley O’Hara and 2022 champion Abby Smith.

With the additions of Williams, O’Hara, Ryan and Smith, Gotham suddenly had a lot of championship experience in their starting XI. The club didn’t sit idle during the midseason transfer window either, signing Spanish players Esther González and Maitane López, both of whom started in the 2023 title game. They also signed Katie Stengel, first on loan and then by permanent transfer. The forward came in off the bench in the semifinal to score a rocket and lead Gotham to their first championship game.

That much change in one year was warranted after the team’s 2022 results, but there was no guarantee of immediate success with that many new personalities in the locker room. Gotham’s players, however, found ways to connect quickly, relying on shared histories and a desire to win.

“I think the thing is, a lot of us have known each other for years,” Purce said during NWSL Championship week.

“I did U-17s with Ify [Onumonu] and Mandy [Freeman], I lived with Ify for a while. I’ve known Delaney [Sheehan] for a long time. Ali Krieger gave me my high school award. Allie Long was one of the first people to ever talk to me at national team camp,” she continued. “So I think there’s a lot of crossover through a lot of the age groups, and then we have a lot of veterans. I think we have a really strong leadership core that knows how to win, and I think that’s been really indispensable.”

González and Williams, proven winners, scored the two goals to earn Gotham the title, but it was Purce who facilitated the team’s biggest moments by notching both assists. For one brilliant 90-minute period, the team’s past and present formed an unbeatable force. Longtime Gotham backup keeper Amanda Haught once again stood strong against an onslaught from OL Reign, and Krieger played some of the best soccer of her life in the final matches of her career.

Other teams will have to be similarly aggressive and good judges of player character to replicate Gotham’s accomplishments. It’s not always easy to handpick the personalities that will be entering your locker room, or know how players with greater seniority will process sweeping changes.

The Bats got that mix exactly right this year, but as is the case in sports, they will be presented with similar decisions to make for 2024. Many players considered important leaders for the team, including goalkeeper Michelle Betos and midfielder McCall Zerboni, are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning. They also have former starters now coming off the bench, like Onumonu, who might be searching for starting opportunities elsewhere.

The club will also be dealing with one of the best problems they could have — becoming a well-regarded destination. This year’s free agency period holds top talent, including three-time NWSL champions Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn. If Gotham wants to replenish their roster with even more winning talent, they’ll have the opportunity.

But if Gotham followed in the footsteps of the 2021 Washington Spirit by catching fire at exactly the right time to launch themselves to unprecedented success, they’ll want to avoid coming back down. The Spirit have yet to return to the playoffs since their championship win, despite consistent investment in growing their front-office infrastructure.

Getting to the top is hard, but staying there is harder. Averbuch and Amorós will have to stay vigilant to keep their club from being remembered as a one-hit wonder.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.

There are few managers more synonymous with success than OL Reign’s Laura Harvey. In a league currently dominated by a constantly moving carousel of open coaching positions, the original manager of the Seattle Reign has endured, leading the team to their first NWSL Championship appearance since 2015.

Known for her humor, candor and proclivity for sitting on an ice cooler in the coach’s box during games, Harvey is already an iconic figure in NWSL history.

When you speak to her players, Harvey’s strengths as a manager are reflected in their words. She’s described by forward Megan Rapinoe as “the best manager I’ve ever had,” and by defender Sofia Huerta as the only coach she’s had that “knows what they’re talking about, and really cares about the players.” Midfielder Jess Fishlock says her managing style is “just successful, man. It works. It’s such a respectful way of working.” And defender Alana Cook says “she looks after us as humans before players.”

All players say that Harvey is the person who sets the culture upon which everything in the locker room is based. And if the Reign win the 2023 NWSL Championship by defeating Gotham FC in San Diego on Saturday, it will be because they leaned further into that culture rather than turned away from it.

Harvey is the longest-tenured coach in the NWSL, even after stepping away from the Reign from 2018-21. NWSL coaching positions as a whole have become difficult jobs to hold in recent years, either due to off-field misconduct or on-field results.

Harvey has the staunch support of her players for the way she treats them off the field, but the Reign also could be rewarded for patience with results over the years. Harvey famously has led the Reign to three NWSL Shields, an honor many on the team feel is more reflective of a truly successful season than the two- or three-game playoff run to the championship. But the team has also become synonymous with struggling in the playoffs, falling to lower seeds in recent years after earning top-two finishes in the regular season.

Consequently, Harvey’s record in knockout matches has seeped into the conversation about her reputation as a manager over time. Prior to 2023, Seattle had won only two playoff matches in the club’s history — two semifinals in 2014 and 2015. In both of those postseasons, the team fell in the championship match to Vlatko Andonovski’s FC Kansas City, and until this year had not registered another postseason win despite making the semifinals every single season from 2018-22.

Harvey’s knockout record (and her old coaching battles with Andonovski) have followed her, especially after Andonovski was named manager of the U.S. women’s national team in 2019. Harvey, who’d made the jump to become a coach at the U.S. development level in 2018, was considered a contender for the USWNT job after Jill Ellis stepped down in the aftermath of the 2019 World Cup victory. But Andonovski had the consistent record in playoff matches, one of the closest equivalents to international tournament play available at the domestic level.

Fast forward to 2023, and Harvey’s name again was in the mix for the USWNT job after Andonovski struggled to continue the program’s history of excellence with a disappointing Olympic and World Cup run. And once again, the well-respected Seattle coach appears to be left on the shortlist, with reports indicating that the job will go to current Chelsea manager Emma Hayes instead. Hayes, like Harvey, has a history of excellence at the club level, but she also has domestic knockout tournament wins in the FA Cup.

So if the Reign appear to go out of their way to win for their manager on Saturday, the intensity is warranted. The Reign have doubled their playoff win count in 2023, with two assertive victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals. And Harvey’s players have been steadfast in their desire to get over the top of that one final hill and earn their manager the respect they feel she deserves.

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(Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

“I actually think a lot of people still underrate Laura Harvey as a coach anyway, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I don’t understand what else she needs to do,” says Fishlock, who has played for the Reign since their founding in 2013. “Laura has a structure. She knows what she wants, she has her principles, but within that she has fluidity.”

The Reign are known to play some of the most beautiful, free-flowing soccer in the league, stringing long series of passes together to find an opening in the opponent’s defense and put the ball in the back of the net. They’re also strong defensively, with well-drilled pressing triggers that can set an opponent on their heels.

That consistency has been a clear asset to the Reign’s ability to rule the regular season, but Harvey’s players similarly credit their communication structure and steady principles with their ability to execute in the postseason.

“She’s very tactical but also is able to put together a really good group or lineup per game, depending on who shines,” says Emily Sonnett, who has flourished as a holding midfielder for the club after spending most of her professional career as a defender.

She credits the Reign coaching staff with not overcomplicating the game plan, a helpful tool when a player is getting used to a new position: “Laura and the coaching staff have done a really good job of each game [asking] ‘What is actually needed, and can we accomplish that?”

Harvey communicates with the team through her leaders, notably the Reign’s original three of Fishlock, Rapinoe and defender Lauren Barnes.

“She doesn’t really have an ego like that, and really wants that collaboration, and really relies especially on us older players to be her lieutenants out there,” says Rapinoe, who says she wants her final professional game to be a win for her manager almost more than she wants it for herself. “She’s always pulling us in and wanting our opinion, and allowing us the space to be f—ing annoying and ask a million questions all the time. But she empowers us to do that.”

Both the Reign’s desire to win and the tools are clearly there, and have been for years. But the players’ execution of the game plan, Rapinoe says, has let Harvey down in the past more than her own preparation as a coach.

“The thing about Laura, she’s always gonna get up and own the entire loss,” Rapinoe says. “But I think a lot of the knockout games, we’ve just played terrible and haven’t shown up as players.”

“I think being a coach is really difficult,” Huerta echoes. “It’s really hard to have success as a coach, because when the team loses, it’s your fault. [But] the team wins, and the players played amazing. I think it’s hard to be in that position. There’s a lot of turnover, I don’t think a lot of people are on your side. But we’re on Laura’s side. She’s a good coach, she’s really one of the main reasons we’re here.”

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(Michael Thomas Shroyer/USA TODAY Sports)

Harvey’s principles have guided the Reign to this point, but it’s their newfound ability to play a less beautiful, more punishing style that the team feels could earn them the trophy they’ve long been searching for.

“This year, I don’t think really anybody on the outside envisioned us being in the finals,” says midfielder Rose Lavelle. “And I think we maybe had more of a chip on our shoulder that helped us get here.”

To win an NWSL Championship, the Reign will have to be willing to endure touchy passages of play and lean into their defensive identity against the consistently dangerous Gotham FC attack.

“I think obviously you want entertainment, you want goals, you want flair,” says Cook. “But I think we can make our living on just being solid in that regard and being organized, being hard to break down.”

In other words, it’s possible that this version of OL Reign looks and plays more like a knockout-round winner than any other Reign team in the past. Through injury and absence, they’ve found a toughness that hasn’t always been a part of their identity.

“I think just the overall grit and discipline of the squad this year took a really big step, which is really necessary,” says Rapinoe.

With newfound confidence in their ability to weather the storm, the Reign feel ready to prove they can join the ranks of NWSL champions and forever take the asterisk off the legacy of their manager. Because in the NWSL final, it doesn’t always have to be pretty — you just have to end on a win.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.

As Gotham FC prepares to play in their first NWSL championship game, they represent not only a turnaround from a last-place finish in 2022 but also from a struggle that’s spanned nearly a decade. Once Sky Blue FC, a club known for negative headlines more than positive ones, Gotham of 2023 is more of a phoenix rising from the ashes than a Cinderella story.

The club’s journey toward the top of the league has had its fair share of twists and turns, which makes it the only fitting ending for captain Ali Krieger, who is set to retire after this season alongside OL Reign star and championship opponent Megan Rapinoe.

Krieger has been playing professional soccer since before the NWSL’s inception, traveling across the globe in pursuit of opportunities while never losing sight of home. In many ways, she was a trendsetter, following a path that resembles more what a modern women’s professional soccer player might take before the world was quite ready for that reality.

During her college career at Penn State, she spent time training and playing with the W-league version of her home team, the Washington Freedom. After graduation, she made the leap to Europe and played for FC Frankfurt for a number of years, even after WPS was established.

In those early years of the fledgling business of women’s soccer, Krieger was known to be playing either an ocean away or right at home. She won the original UEFA Champions League (known at the time as the UEFA Women’s Cup) with Frankfurt, before returning to play with the Freedom in WPS. Kreiger played almost year-round at the time, going back to Europe at the end of the WPS season (and eventually the end of the league itself) to continue to compete.

So when the NWSL launched in 2013, it was only natural that Krieger became one of the inaugural U.S. women’s national team allocated players for the team in her home city: the Washington Spirit. Krieger became synonymous with the early era of the Spirit, playing a pivotal role that led to consistent time with the USWNT defense and eventually two World Cup wins.

At the league level, Krieger’s highest-profile moment with the Spirit came in defeat. In 2016, Washington reached the NWSL Championship for the first time after a semifinal win over the Chicago Red Stars. In the final, the Spirit were seconds away from the club’s first title before a miracle equalizer from Lynn Williams, Krieger’s current club teammate, sent the game to penalties. Krieger, known for her poise on the ball, missed her penalty kick and the Western New York Flash claimed the trophy.

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Krieger spent the early years of her pro career bouncing between Washington and foreign clubs, including the Spirit. (Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Despite a history of NWSL heartbreak, it’s a testament to Krieger’s longevity and her ability to connect with those around her that she’s played with fellow titans of the game throughout her career. She was a part of the famed 2013 Tyresö FF roster in Sweden that included Christen Press, Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen and Ashlyn Harris. The 2016 Spirit team that fell just short of a title featured both Gotham’s semifinal opponent, Crystal Dunn, and their eventual goal-scoring hero, Katie Stengel.

Krieger had an outsized impression on Dunn in particular, even before the two became club teammates.

“In my first (USWNT) camp, we had to run the beep test,” Dunn told Just Women’s Sports in 2021. “And I was like, ‘Great, I’m about to get cut before I even kick a soccer ball.’ And (Krieger) ran the beep test right next to me and was cheering me on, encouraging me to do one more sprint, make it to one more round.

“I was like, ‘You don’t even know me, and you’re literally so sweet and so nice.’”

Krieger’s steady performances as an outside back made her a valuable asset when the NWSL expanded to Orlando in 2016 and she moved into a new unknown with the Pride. Once again, she found herself surrounded by legendary talent like Harris, Alex Morgan, Marta, Steph Catley and Alanna Kennedy. For a time, the top-heavy roster-building strategy worked, with the team making it to the NWSL playoffs in 2017 before falling to eventual champions Portland Thorns.

But after the promise of those early years, the Orlando project never really got off the ground. The Pride finished seventh in 2018 and ninth out of nine teams in 2019. Their struggles nearly cost Krieger a roster spot for the 2019 World Cup. Former USWNT manager Jill Ellis kept her at arm’s length for two years before bringing her back into the team right before the World Cup roster was named. After the team’s iconic win at the tournament, Krieger’s time with the U.S. faded, and she earned her final national team cap in early 2021.

After 2020, Krieger’s next evolution began. She started spending more time as a center-back, which came with growing pains but also likely elongated the 39-year-old’s career. The position change allowed her to use her experience in reading the game over getting into a footrace with speedy, young attackers.

Krieger has also been very open about using the time after her national team career to start a family, a decision that ultimately led her to Gotham in 2022. With the Spirit, Krieger faced what she described as homophobia from Washington team leadership. In Orlando, she ultimately felt that Florida state leadership wasn’t creating an environment that was safe for her two adopted children. So, her family opted to make one final journey.

Her ties aren’t as strong to the New Jersey area, but Krieger immediately ingratiated herself with a group that is now determined to win her a long sought-after NWSL Championship. Her bend-but-don’t-break style of defense has become the ethos the entire team has embodied under first-year coach Juan Carlos Amorós. Gotham’s commitment to doing whatever it takes to keep the ball out of the back of their own net is hard-earned, after the club conceded the most goals in the league in 2022.

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Krieger will be playing for her first NWSL Championship with Gotham on Saturday. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

With the wisdom of a player used to many different locker room environments, in 2023 Krieger has not missed a beat with new center-back partner Maitane López, nor with two young outside-backs in rookie Jenna Nighswonger and 21-year-old Bruninha. In the past, Krieger’s sense of calm hasn’t always been enough to carry a defense, but the 2023 Gotham backline is locked in with support in front of them. All together, it’s led to some of the best performances in Krieger’s career.

Saturday’s championship game in San Diego will be the last stop on Krieger’s world soccer tour. It seems fitting that she will have the opportunity to dictate her goodbye, as one of the game’s true warriors finally walks into the sunset.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.

When OL Reign contend for their first-ever NWSL championship on Saturday, they’ll be looking to close out an iconic era of the team’s existence on top.

As one of the NWSL’s founding clubs in 2013, the Reign have always been an outward example of stability. They’ve won three NWSL Shields, reached the championship game three times and made the playoffs six times. They’ve been coached by some of the most well-known names in the women’s game, including former USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski and current coach Laura Harvey. They’ve produced World Cup winners, attracted some of the best European talent available and become a home for a number of women’s soccer legends.

Going into Saturday’s matchup against Gotham FC, the Reign are lucky enough to have their entire ethos personified in one figure: Megan Rapinoe.

Rapinoe has played for the Reign since the team’s founding, first as a U.S. allocated player and then as a fully contracted player. She’s seen the team grow from humble beginnings, face multiple leadership changes, falter at times and win many games.

But she and the Reign have never won the NWSL Championship, and she’ll have one last chance to chase the trophy that has eluded her in her final professional game. She’s joined by fellow original Reign players Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes (both of whom are contracted to return in 2024) and Harvey, the team’s original manager. That Rapinoe, Fishlock and Barnes are all likely to start in the game is a testament to their competitive longevity and the team’s unfailing trust in their leaders.

Rapinoe is known worldwide for her international heroics, of which there are almost too many to mention.

There’s the famous cross to Abby Wambach in the semifinals of the 2011 World Cup, her Olimpico in the 2012 Olympic semifinal, her Golden Boot-winning World Cup campaign in 2019 and other small achievements that surround the iconic wins. Rapinoe became a lightning rod of attention, synonymous with the team’s successes, failures and off-field legacy. Her illustrious career with the USWNT ended with a sendoff game in September, following a muted final year for one of the most impactful players to ever grace the four-time World Cup champions’ roster.

But if Megan Rapinoe, international superstar, casts a larger-than-life figure over the game of women’s soccer, Rapinoe, Seattle Reign original, is a player firmly down to Earth.

The early days of the NWSL necessitated humility, as salaries and facilities in 2013 were a far cry from the consistent high-level support seen now. Rapinoe, alongside Harvey, Fishlock and Barnes, was known as a part of a Reign group that turned Memorial Stadium — the old, declining high school football venue — into a fortress, losing very few games at home during the team’s dominant run in 2014 and 2015.

And while the Reign changed over the years, in many ways for the better, Rapinoe remained. When Seattle Reign turned into Reign FC in 2019 and began playing games on a converted baseball field in the city of Tacoma, there was Rapinoe taking corner kicks near the outfield dirt. And when OL Reign made their triumphant return to the city of Seattle proper under the ownership of OL Groupe, playing under the bright lights of Lumen Field, Rapinoe was there. At that point, she could finally begin to collect her flowers from a fanbase that was at times disconnected from the team through their many moves.

“You cannot have this conversation without talking about Lu and Fish and Pinoe, and the players, the Steph Coxs, the Elli Reeds, and Keelin [Winters]. Like the backbone of who these people were that this club was built on, is also what makes it special,” OL Reign general manager Lesle Gallimore told Just Women’s Sports in June.

As the USWNT developed their run of international dominance in the late 2010s, with Rapinoe winning the Ballon d’Or in 2019, fans could make the trek to Reign games to see her up close in person. Her energy as a creative trickster with a rocket for a foot translated beautifully to the club game. She was known for taking quick throw-ins to gain an advantage, using her positioning to win fouls and turning every corner kick into a threat for the opposition. She reveled in the Reign’s fierce rivalry with the Portland Thorns and played every match with an authority and passion that earned the love and ire alike of NWSL fans.

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Rapinoe bid her final farewell to Reign fans this season in front of an NWSL-record crowd. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Megan Rapinoe of 2023 isn’t quite the firecracker that could take over a match in her heyday, but that player still comes out in flashes. After the team’s final regular season match against Chicago, she joked with Red Stars interim manager Ella Masar that she was ready to retire at halftime after a slow first half. Then she rattled off two quick goals right after the second-half whistle to seal the win and launch the Reign into fourth place. On one goal, she found an angle from the left wing that Harvey noted many players wouldn’t even try.

“She’s a joke,” Harvey said after that game. “Big players come up big in big moments, and she’s done it all of her career.”

Rapinoe also brought her off-field advocacy to the NWSL with the same authority. She supported good friend Ali Krieger (who will also play her last game Saturday with Gotham) when she and her family left the Washington Spirit after experiencing homophobia from the club, Krieger acknowledged years later. The first time Rapinoe knelt for the national anthem, an act she will likely always be remembered for, she wasn’t wearing a U.S. jersey; instead, she did so in front of a few thousand fans in Chicago before a Reign game.

Rapinoe will also be remembered as one of the players who won equal pay for the USWNT, but her track record of pushing for progress in the NWSL will leave a lasting legacy on the women’s game at home.

“I think I would always say the three amigos have been huge in creating that culture, and living that culture, and holding whoever sits in [leadership] seats accountable for that culture, to make sure that this place continues to be somewhere where people want to play,” Harvey said in June.

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Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock and Rapinoe (L-R) have been with the Reign since the NWSL's inception in 2013. (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Harvey’s impression of the “three amigos” — Rapinoe, Fishlock and Barnes — is that they have held onto their roster spots not just for personal reasons, but also to make sure the club is ready for what comes after they leave. As 2023 comes to a close, the Reign are again for sale, moving on from their time under OL Groupe’s stewardship. Harvey is likely staying for the long term, after reportedly missing out on the USWNT head coaching position for the second straight cycle.

Despite some uncertainty around what the future holds, the Reign as they have been known aren’t going anywhere.

For Rapinoe, Saturday’s game serves as the last chapter of a one-of-a-kind career, with a title on the line. The legend didn’t get her perfect ending with the USWNT, but perhaps she was always meant to turn her final shining moment into one last opportunity for eyes to turn to Seattle.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

At the end of last season, Napheesa Collier was in Uncasville, Conn., trying to help the Lynx secure a playoff spot. She had given birth to her daughter, Mila, less than three months prior.

There were no expectations for Collier to be back on the court. Even she knew it was a little bit crazy. But Collier wasn’t doing it for herself — she was doing it for Sylvia Fowles, who was playing in her last regular season game before retirement. Collier wanted to be there for the teammate who had been there for so much of her early career.

So, on Aug. 14, 2022, Collier played in her fourth and final game of the season. She had given birth on May 25, and tiny Mila was in attendance in the arms of Collier’s mom, as visual proof of just how quickly she returned to the court.

That game marked the start of a new chapter for Collier in a lot of ways. The Lynx lost and didn’t make the playoffs, but it was still a special moment. They celebrated Fowles, a two-time WNBA champion and one of the foundational players of the Lynx’s dynasty of the past decade, and she passed the baton onto Collier. The new face of the Minnesota Lynx.

A year and a month later, Collier was back in Connecticut, sitting on the podium addressing media members after her team’s 90-60 blowout loss in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Sun. Unlike when she returned to play with Fowles, there were expectations. A lot of them.

But Collier was ready for those expectations the moment she assumed her role as Minnesota’s veteran leader. This season, after the Lynx started 0-6, they battled their way to the playoffs, largely thanks to Collier, who enjoyed a career-best season while averaging 21.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game. On Sunday, Collier helped the Lynx stave off elimination with an 82-75 win over the No. 3 Sun, before falling in the deciding game in Minnesota on Wednesday night, 90-75.

“I knew that Phee was going to be pivotal to our ability to find success, and maybe in a season that people didn’t necessarily think that we could find success,” coach Cheryl Reeve said. “She’s probably exceeded the expectations.”

And with expectations comes accountability.

Last week, Collier answered questions, dejected but determined. In the locker room, following a loss in which Collier recorded 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks, Reeve said her 26-year-old star was the most upset out of anyone.

“I’m disappointed in myself, obviously not how I want to come out for our first playoff game,” Collier said. “So I just have to learn from it and do better next game. That’s the beauty about a series is that we get another crack at it.”

It’s not that Collier didn’t have the ability to answer questions like that before. In fact, Reeve named her a captain during her second season in the WNBA. But there was always someone with more experience and, in turn, more accolades that the team would look to when things got tough. During her first season, it was Seimone Augustus; for every year after that, it was Fowles. Now and into the future, it’s Collier’s responsibility.

In Games 2 and 3 of the series against Connecticut, Collier answered her own charge, doing everything she could to try to force the upset. On Wednesday night, she set a new playoff career mark with 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting despite being double- and sometimes triple-teamed. After the game, Sun coach Stephanie White said Collier would be a WNBA MVP one day, and Reeve praised the forward for putting “the team on her back repeatedly this season.”

“(Reeve) saw me as our next franchise player, which obviously I’m so honored to be that,” Collier said. “They were trying to prepare me early for that role and putting me in positions to grow as a leader.”

Minnesota’s No. 2 draft pick, rookie Diamond Miller, was in a similar position this year. Playing in her first WNBA playoffs, the rookie said she sought advice from Collier before taking on Connecticut in Game 1 last week.

Miller played in plenty of postseason games at Maryland, but the WNBA playoffs, Collier told her, are a whole different level of basketball. She encouraged Miller to enjoy the moment and not let it get too big.

Collier tried to create a locker room culture like the one she came into as a rookie, averaging 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game on her way to being named 2019 Rookie of the Year. One where players like Miller and Minnesota’s other rookie, Dorka Juhász, felt comfortable.

“I’ve just tried to tell them that not everything is a life-or-death situation, because as rookies, I feel like they can’t put it into perspective,” Collier said. “You have a bad game, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad player.”

Her Rookie of the Year season was just four seasons ago, but for Collier, it feels like much longer. At that point, she was fresh out of college, in a lot of ways feeling like a kid herself. This year, she was packing a diaper bag between games for her 1-year-old daughter.

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Collier attends a Lynx game last year with husband Alex Bazzell and daughter Mila after giving birth. (Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Being a mother changed her in ways Collier didn’t necessarily expect. Everything she does on the court as a player and a leader was always inside of her, but Mila has made her different off the court. Now, Collier is more vocal for causes she cares about, both inside and outside of the WNBA.

One of those causes is the way the WNBA treats moms.

A month ago, Skylar Diggins-Smith revealed on social media that she wasn’t allowed to use the Phoenix Mercury’s facilities while away on maternity leave. Earlier in the season, the Las Vegas Aces came under scrutiny after Dearica Hamby accused them of trading her because she was pregnant.

Under the current CBA, teams are required pay players on maternity leave their full salaries, the value of which still counts against the salary cap. That’s a rule Collier wants to see change.

“My salary hurts the team if I’m not playing,” she said. “So, in the future it’s really plausible to see people getting kicked off teams — that’s what Dearica accused Vegas of. It’s plausible that teams won’t want to hire players in relationships, or who have spoken about wanting kids because it’s going to come off the cap. So, making sure that that doesn’t happen in our next CBA, I think is really important.”

The league also offers monthly stipends to help with childcare, but Collier would like to see that increase in the future.

“I think we’ve made huge strides,” Collier said of the current CBA, which was ratified in 2020 during Cathy Engelbert’s first year as WNBA Commissioner. “It’s kind of like buying your first house. It’s amazing, but it shows you everything you like about it and everything that needs to change.”

Collier is becoming more vocal about issues outside of the WNBA as well. In the future, she wants to get more involved in gun safety causes, something she thinks about every time she and Mila leave the house.

Mila is only 1, but her safety at school is already at the forefront of Collier’s mind.

“It’s just so heartbreaking that it feels like people in power don’t care how many children die from this,” she said. “It’s the number one cause of death in kids in the United States. It’s just insane and mind-boggling. So, it’s definitely something that I want to get more involved in and just kind of use my platform for any way that I can help make change.”

Mila also inspired the creation of Unrivaled, a 3×3 league that Collier is launching with fellow UConn graduate Breanna Stewart.

The idea came from a discussion Collier had at the dining room table with her husband, basketball skills coach Alex Bazzell. He brought up the possibility of forming another league, and Collier ran with it. Getting Stewart involved was only natural, and from conception to launch, Unrivaled came to fruition in a matter of months.

The 3×3 league, which will run during the WNBA offseason from January to March, will feature 30 players and provide them with another opportunity to play professionally without going overseas. Players’ salaries for the 10-week season are expected to be competitive with top WNBA and overseas salaries. The league will officially launch in 2025, Collier said Thursday, and be based in Miami.

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(Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

Collier liked the idea for Unrivaled both because of the WNBA’s prioritization rule and because of her family. She’s no longer in a place in her life where going to a different country for a few months every year is plausible or desirable. She’s always been a homebody, but now with Mila, it’s more of a priority to stay home. Plus, she wants to help create opportunities for her peers, while also capitalizing on the rising interest in women’s sports.

“This is not a passing (fad),” Collier said of the recent momentum behind women’s sports and the WNBA, which just recorded its most-watched regular season in 2021 years and the highest average attendance for a season since 2018.

“And we want to be able to make money off that too, and monetize the hard work that we’re putting in and what we think is a great product. So that’s why we’re really excited that all the players are going to have equity in it. We’re really excited about the salary that we’re going to be offering. I’m really hoping to make a difference in our sport.”

She also hopes that difference leads to even more growth for women in sports, of course with Mila in mind.

Collier, 26, always liked the idea of being a young mom in the league. She looks up to the bond that Candace Parker has with her daughter Lailaa, who was born early in Parker’s WNBA career.

“I don’t want her to just hear these stories about me,” Collier said of her daughter. “I want her to grow up experiencing them.”

And she hopes Mila looks back on those experiences with pride.

“I just want to be a good role model for her in every aspect of life,” Collier said.

OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, in her 11th year in the NWSL, has seen the Cascadia rivalry between Seattle and Portland naturally evolve, with every individual result adding to a larger arc of history. Some of the biggest personalities in the NWSL have filled in the lineups on both sides, with Fishlock as one of the rivalry’s original members.

Speaking to Just Women’s Sports, the 36-year-old rattles off a quick list of players who have graced the matchup in the past: Herself, Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes, Sydney Leroux and Hope Solo on one side, and Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Emily Sonnet and Allie Long (the latter three have now played for both teams) on the other. Over the years, tackles came in a little bit harder, and competition felt a little more personal.

“It was definitely more of like, we were at each other’s throats more,” Fishlock says. “I definitely think that the rivalry itself has evolved more to which team is performing better in that moment, as opposed to us wanting to just rip each other’s eyes out.”

Outside of brief loans to other clubs, the Welsh star has been with the Reign since 2013 and has played in many Cascadia battles since the original one. Fishlock remembers both wins and losses, pointing out notable game-winning goals scored by Reign legends Kim Little and Rumi Utsugi. But even the losses carry significance, as reminders of how special the game of soccer can be regardless of result.

“We’ve also lost some games against them that — the games have been incredible. Which you just come off and you just think wow, what a game,” she says

The 2023 Reign aren’t resting on their past laurels. They want to both defend their 2022 Shield-winning campaign and win the club’s first-ever NWSL championship. They currently sit in fourth in the league standings, just two points behind their fierce regional rival and three behind league leaders San Diego. The Reign travel to Providence Park on Saturday with hopes of leapfrogging Portland and contending for the top of the table.

Immediate goals are in sight, but as a veteran player who has stayed at one club for her whole NWSL career, Fishlock can also take a moment to appreciate the impact of the Cascadia rivalry on women’s soccer in the U.S.

“I think it just has so much history for one,” she says. “I feel like this league, the franchises and the teams and the way that league works probably lacks a little bit of history.”

It’s an intense history informed by a regional dislike between Portland and Seattle, as with so many other American sports rivalries. But the Reign try not to let the larger storylines get in the way of playing like themselves.

“It’s more like, we just hate Portland,” Fishlock says. “And so we just really remember that. We don’t do anything different, we don’t have any kind of rituals. It’s just more methodical. It’s still football, but also, let’s not forget how much we hate Portland.”

In a league that’s in its 10th regular season, the ingrained passions of the Cascadia rivalry have been slow to develop elsewhere in the NWSL. Rivalries have to grow organically, instigated by regional proximity but frequently made real by the play on the field. Fishlock scored the Reign’s first-ever goal against the Thorns in their inaugural clash at Providence Park in 2013, setting the emotional tone for the battles to come.

Ten years later, Fishlock is ready to walk into Providence Park once again and silence the Thorns fans, known as the original tone-setters for local support.

“I think women’s sports, well women’s soccer for example, it kind of really needs that,” she says of the way the Rose City Riveters can change a game. “It needs the fans to kind of buy in to remembering that you’re at this game, but you’re actually supporting your team, and what does that look like?”

Sometimes that support looks like rude gestures and sounds like boos. One of the more recent iconic moments in the Reign’s history at Providence Park came in 2021, when Megan Rapinoe received a classic North End reception after scoring an equalizer in the Reign’s eventual 2-1 win.

“I was trying to talk s–t, and to them, and they just did not know what to do,” Rapinoe said at the time. “And then finally somebody gave me a big, double f–k you middle fingers up, and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the kind of rivalry that we want.'”

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Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe (right) are playing their last season together after 10 years. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

Fishlock sees those types of fan responses as part of an overall passion for the game.

“I’m not going to get offended by them flipping me off, I’m not gonna get offended by them booing me, because it’s actually really respectful for the most part,” she says.

“​​So when we go to Portland and they start flipping us off, and they start booing us, and they get super mad that we’re scoring goals, Pinoe’s scoring goals, that’s what we want, really, because we want to have that kind of personality at the end of the day.”

The Cascadia rivalry will be losing some of that personality at the end of 2023, as Rapinoe heads into retirement after this season. She won’t exactly receive a hero’s welcome in Portland this weekend, but the atmosphere will be worthy of a player of her stature.

“We just hope that she goes down there and she gets the stick that she deserves for being Rapinoe and playing for Seattle, but also the love and respect that she deserves for being who she is,” Fishlock says.

For Fishlock, there’s no sign yet of slowing down. She says she is feeling better after being sidelined with a hamstring issue in July and August, and she announced on Tuesday that she’s exercised her mutual option to stay with the Reign through 2024. She sees Saturday’s game as a singularly important opportunity, but she is also locked in on the bigger picture.

“It’s not just about Portland, it’s also, you’re coming up against a really good football team,” Fishlock says. “So you have to play well, and you have to be prepared well, and you have to be ready for a really hard game.”

The veteran admits she always relishes the opportunity to go into somebody else’s house and beat them. The Thorns pulled off that feat at Lumen Field earlier this season, and the Reign are eager to return the favor. They’ll be in hostile territory, but they’ll also be feeling the support from home.

“I think this is a game against the Portland Thorns that honestly could mean a lot and then do a little bit of damage to the opposition with who wins and who loses,” Fishlock says, before addressing the fans. “We need ya, so let’s go.”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

When facing a fierce rival in the midst of one of the tightest NWSL playoff races in recent memory, Portland Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg is in favor of keeping things simple. The Thorns are currently in second place in the league table with four games left in the regular season, only one point behind the first-place San Diego Wave. And while the stakes are high, they are taking things one game at a time.

The next match on the schedule happens to be a massive opportunity against Cascadia rivals OL Reign on Saturday, but Klingenberg has the veteran knowledge to know that sometimes larger narratives can get in the way of the task at hand.

“I feel like there’s a story that people like to tell, because it’s a good story,” she wryly tells Just Women’s Sports. “But no, we take every team seriously. And as much as we love rivalry games, and as fun as they are, we approach them the exact same way that we would approach any other match.”

In professional sports, players can write themselves into history by not getting swept away by the moment, but the heightened emotions surrounding events like the Cascadia rivalry are also impossible to ignore.

While she’s keeping things in balance, Klingenberg knows no one heightens the moment quite like Portland fans, who will again pack Providence Park on Saturday. The 35-year-old has played in a number of iterations of the matchup since joining the Thorns in 2016 and making the city of Portland home.

“What I love so much is that [the fans] truly hate Seattle as much as we all do,” Klingenberg says. “And I feel like it’s this grudge that the city holds against Seattle as a bigger, more well-known city. But we love it, we have a blast playing into that story.

“Every time Seattle shows up here, it’s always extra fun because I know the fans are going to be super loud and I can barely communicate to the people next to me. That’s how crazy it is.”

The Thorns successfully handled that pressure earlier this year, taking a 2-0 win at Lumen Field in Seattle to earn their first away victory over the Reign in five years. Klingenberg has started all 16 matches she’s played in this season, registering three assists and leading a defense that has contributed to the Thorns’ league-leading +13 goal differential.

“I think once we start putting pressure on ourselves, we play tight, we play a little bit scared, and I don’t want our team to play that way,” the 2015 World Cup champion says. “I want our team to play free, I want them to have fun, play with joy, and when we do that, we play at our best.

“I think sometimes people like to — from the outside — like to make it feel like it’s a bigger deal than it really is,” she goes on. “But when it comes down to it, it’s 11 players vs. 11 players on the same size pitch, with the same refs, with the same ball every single game. And the only thing that changes about it is how you think about it.”

Even when focused on the task at hand, Klingenberg still enjoys the larger storytelling involved. Part of the history of the Cascadia rivalry, beyond regional grudges, is a story of two clubs consistently battling for trophies. The Reign are the current owners of the NWSL Shield and the Thorns are the reigning NWSL champions, and both clubs have had larger-than-life icons of the game pass through their organizations over the years.

“I think something that’s very overlooked in this league is that we have kept the core of our players together over the eight years that I’ve been here,” says Klingenberg, also crediting the Reign, who famously have their own trio of original players from the NWSL’s inaugural season. “I think that type of chemistry and those types of cultures get overlooked in a league that is always just looking for results and always just looking for the next best thing.”

While the benefits of a steady approach have paid clear dividends on the field for both teams, it also strengthens the connection fans feel toward each team and to the intensity with which they play against each other.

“If it’s a different crop of players every year that we play Seattle, who really cares?” Klingenberg says. “Because you’re not creating any villains, you’re not creating any heroes, and I think that definitely plays into the storytelling big time for the fans and for the media.”

The Thorns have their own titans of the rivalry, most notably Christine Sinclair, who has been with Portland since the team’s inception and who scored the game-clincher against the Reign earlier this season. There’s also Reign and U.S. women’s national team legend Megan Rapinoe, enters Saturday’s showdown only a handful of games away from retirement.

In the mind of a Thorns player, even that of a close friend like Klingenberg, Rapinoe will be just another rival player they’ll seek to neutralize.

“From a significance point of a friend, I’m incredibly proud and happy for Pinoe to have this type of sendoff, and I hope we really f—k it up this weekend,” she says. From that perspective: “We don’t give a f—k that Megan Rapinoe is coming to town and it’s her last game.”

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Klingenberg and Rapinoe are longtime friends, USWNT teammates and NWSL rivals. (Michael Thomas Shroyer/USA TODAY Sports)

In the same sentence, Klingenberg likens her longtime friend to players like Colin Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali, as an athlete who has transcended her sport and will continue to influence all genders for years to come.

“We haven’t had a player like [that] in the league or on the national team before,” she says.

It’s with the respect of a rival that Klingenberg considers the boos and jeers a part of the passion for the game, and she imagines Rapinoe will feel the same.

“I also hope that she enjoys the amount of jeering and the energy that everybody’s going to bring to this,” she says.

When the first whistle blows on Saturday, Klingenberg isn’t going to be thinking about boos or cheers, or even about wanting to beat a close rival.

“It’s more just a total feeling of gratefulness and being totally content,” she says. “And just being like, ‘This is it, this is why I play, this is so much fun. I get to be out here in a big game with my teammates, with people I really, truly care about and love, and get to do something that I’m incredibly passionate about in front of fans that are just as passionate as I am.’

“I mean, that’s a moment, that’s the moment to look around and just be like, ‘Wow, this is what I’m doing. I can’t believe I’m still doing this, and I get to do this again.’”

True to form, the message for her teammates isn’t going to be the same as it is for the fans. And when she’s asked for a tagline for Portland’s raucous crowd, Klingenberg keeps it short.

“F—k Seattle.”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Christen Press still has so much that she wants to do. The two-time World Cup champion with the U.S. women’s national team is on the road to recovery from an ACL injury that has sidelined her for over a year, but while working her way back to the pitch, she’s been anything but idle.

On Wednesday morning, the Angel City forward announced a new partnership with Degree as part of the company’s Change the Field program, which is “working to create safe and inclusive environments for girls of color on and off the field with the ‘Girls Can’ module series,” per a release. It’s a cause close to Press’ heart, she says, as a woman of color in a sport where girls of color are two times more likely to drop out of soccer than girls who are white and live in the suburbs.

“I grew up in an incredible place of privilege,” Press tells Just Women’s Sports, noting that her parents had the ability to fully support her soccer ambitions. “But I feel like I deeply understand the impact of racism and how that impacted myself and my family and being welcomed into spaces, including my own community that was predominantly white.”

Press played youth soccer in Orange County, which she describes as that kind of predominantly white environment that can be isolating for a girl of color playing the sport she loves.

“One thing that my parents taught me at a really young age, through their own action, was how to use that privilege to create change,” she says.

Press says her parents sponsored inner-city girls to join her club teams throughout her career, resulting in rosters that were more diverse and inclusive than the norm.

She now wants to help pass that experience onto the next generation, including the lesson that with privilege comes responsibility. Press notes that the common pay-to-play structure of elite youth soccer in the U.S. is prohibitive to a wide swath of talent, denying girls of color what she considers to be a vital outlet.

“I think when it comes to opportunity, it always boils down to me (as) hope,” she says. “And when you really have an environment, a structure and a society that is limiting to people based on their identity, based on their socioeconomic status, what you get taken is the hope. This idea that you can get out, that you can create change, that you are valuable, that gets taken by the infrastructure.”

That’s where the visibility of international athletes who reflect diversity and inclusion can be so important, as well as breaking down the socioeconomic barriers that exist between girls and their ability to participate in soccer at a high level. And it should surprise no one who is familiar with Press’ ambitions that she’s thinking even bigger.

“The second thing is reimagining the business of sport,” she says. “I think it’s essential that we look at putting women and people of color in leadership positions — that’s owning teams, that’s sitting on boards, that’s owning media divisions, being true decision-makers in women’s sports. And that’s how you’re going to see change.”

Press is leading the charge herself, recently taking the time away from active playing status to dive into women’s sports media through RE-INC, the company she founded alongside Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Meghan Klingenberg. She and Heath are both recovering from knee surgeries that have kept them off the field for the USWNT and their NWSL club teams for an extended period of time.

During the World Cup, they have been hosting “The RE-CAP Show” on YouTube, providing crucial insights both from a USWNT perspective and from years spent playing club soccer across the globe.

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Press and Heath accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage award with their USWNT teammates at the 2023 ESPYs. (David Livingston/FilmMagic)

Press and Heath have welcomed guests from the NWSL and USWNT systems, as well as friends like Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani, The Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema, and England’s Leah Williamson to offer a refreshing look inside international women’s soccer. Press describes the show as a labor of love, and credits her and Heath’s total creative control as the driving force behind her comfort level in front of the camera.

“I don’t think there has been any time where I felt like I had to be a certain way,” she says. “There’s like an ease in front of the camera that I would not have if I wasn’t, you know, producing the show.”

RE-INC would like to pivot the success of “The RE-CAP Show” into a media division of the larger company, with the hope of providing more voices with that same creative space where they can tell their own stories and not shy away from difficult conversations.

“There’s a missing element that we all collectively can fill through beautiful storytelling, and through honesty, and through authenticity,” says Press.

The USWNT’s disappointing World Cup campaign — their Round of 16 loss marked the earliest exit in team history — quickly transitioned into the loudest voices in the media space getting to dictate the conversation surrounding the team. Press and Heath sought to provide a compelling counter-narrative that came from earned experience.

“There’s just something that happens when you get filtered through someone else’s lens,” Press says. “Like a big broadcast agenda, (or) a partnership that doesn’t align with what you truly are.”

That gap also doesn’t always give real insight into what players are experiencing, and Press knows well that it does not fool the USWNT’s avid soccer fanbase.

“I swear anytime I hear something that is in the fan rumor mill, it’s always true, like the fans know what’s going on,” she says with a laugh. “And there is this, like, intimacy between our audience and us. And that has just been the way that it is because we’re accessible.”

“The RE-CAP Show” is about amplifying those connection points, as Press puts it.

“I think that through our show, we’re able to just put words to our why’s,” she continues. “Why we’re doing the things we’re doing, why it matters, and I think that’s just important for people to hear because it’s already felt, it’s already real. Like the community has been there and they’ve been asking for this, and they’ve been fighting for change alongside us.”

While she’s been participating in this year’s World Cup as a media voice rather than a participant, Press is still locked in on the bigger picture. She has hundreds of takeaways from what she’s seen on the international stage this year: Support at the federation level is inconsistent, but gains at the club level worldwide have ushered in a new level of global parity, and the next generation appears ready to pick up the reins.

“We’ve seen some super young talent be fantastic in this tournament,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of first goals, first qualifications, first wins, and that’s so exciting. It’s been surprising. We saw world powers fall out far before any of us would have ever predicted, and yet in the semifinal you’ve got a lot of familiar faces and top-six teams and a host country.”

Whatever she does next, Press hopes that the legacy of her generation of players will not carry the same burdens, whether for equal pay or basic levels of professionalism and safety.

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Press has not played since tearing her ACL last summer and having a fourth knee surgery in July. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

One of the topics Press has spoken freely about on “The RE-CAP Show” is the feeling of expendability she and her contemporaries struggled with in the NWSL and USWNT, with very little power to control their careers in toxic environments. Press played a key role in the eventual investigation into Rory Dames’ behavior while he was coach of the Chicago Red Stars, filing a formal complaint with U.S. Soccer in 2018. Dames was eventually pushed to resign in 2021 amid allegations of emotional and verbal abuse, and was officially banned from the NWSL in the wake of formal investigation findings in early 2023.

If Press has her way, the experiences she’s had as a player will never even cross the mind of the next generation of stars, like 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, the youngest player on the USWNT’s World Cup roster.

“I hope that the next generation of player is unburdened,” she says. “I hope that the fight that we have had, that we are having is lesser, that it’s lighter, that it’s possible for a player to just be a professional player and they don’t have to be ‘and’ something else. They don’t have to, ‘and fight to get paid,’ ‘and be’ all these other things that were required of us.

“I think if that’s true for Alyssa Thompson, and she gets to grow up and be a pro and get paid and never have to worry about that, that would be a sign of huge success.”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.