Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales has refused to resign from his position in the aftermath of the scandal at the Women’s World Cup final, despite reports that he would do so on Friday.

Rubiales was seen non-consensually kissing player Jenni Hermoso during the medal ceremony and making a lewd gesture in the stands at the end of the game. His actions have come under fire in the days following the Spain women’s national team’s first World Cup win. During an emergency meeting among Spain’s soccer federation (RFEF) members on Friday, where reports had indicated Rubiales would resign, he instead staunchly defended his actions and refused to bend to public pressure.

“They’ve told me that the best thing would be to resign because if not, probably on Monday it would occur to someone to kick me out of the forum, find the formula,” Rubiales said in his speech. “But we’re in a country where the law rules, where there has to be a motive to take you out of some place. And I say: what is it I’ve done? A consensual peck is enough to get me out of here?”

The immediate aftermath of the shocking moment and the World Cup win itself was chaotic. Hermoso was seen saying on teammate Salma Paralluelo’s Instagram Live stream that she didn’t enjoy the kiss. Then, Rubiales was filmed making jokes about it in the locker room, including that he and Hermoso would get married in Ibiza.

Once it became clear the story wasn’t going away, Spain’s soccer federation, RFEF, issued a statement on Hermoso’s behalf downplaying the incident. It was later reported that the statement was not made with her full participation, which RFEF denies.

Rubiales put out a video statement apologizing for how the kiss was perceived and was met with a public outcry. Prominent players like the USWNT’s Megan Rapinoe and Sweden’s Caroline Seger, and coaches like the San Diego Wave’s Casey Stoney, condemned Rubiales and his actions.

“I want the whole world to react,” Seger told a Swedish newspaper, “and I want something to happen because it’s clear that there are problems in RFEF. If people think it’s not wrong, it’s just not acceptable!”

Spanish politicians have also condemned Rubiales’s actions. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s acting prime minister, said Rubiales’ apology “wasn’t sufficient.” Futpro, the Spanish players’ union, said it would investigate inappropriate actions on Hermoso’s behalf in conjunction with TMJ, Hermoso’s agency. Liga F, Spain’s premier women’s domestic league, called for Rubiales’ resignation.

“It is time to take a step forward,” Liga F’s statement read. “The opposite would be a humiliation for all women and the biggest defeat of Spanish sport and our country.”

Beatriz Álvarez Mesa, President of Liga F, went one step further in her comments.

“Those of us inside know that he has never done anything for women’s football,” she said this week. “He creates obstacles and inconveniences. Luis Rubiales has never believed, nor will he believe, in women and their role in soccer.”

Rapinoe also alluded to the larger issues following the Spanish federation both before and after the World Cup. Rubiales’ behavior signaled “such a deep level of misogyny and sexism in that federation and in that man,” she told The Atlantic this week.

In fact, Spain has been shrouded in controversy for over a year. Even as the team reached new heights at the international level, they were followed by the story of “Las 15,” the 15 players who refused call-ups to the senior team due to issues with federation resources and the management of coach Jorge Vilda.

In the letter “Las 15” originally sent to the federation, those specific issues weren’t shared in detail, though players said the culture was having an “important effect on my emotional state and by extension my health.” A report in The Athletic elaborated on some of the complaints, which included allegations that the coaching staff requested hotel doors remain open until midnight and the intrusive searching of player belongings.

RFEF — led by Rubiales — quickly condemned “Las 15,” sticking by Vilda’s management and demanding contrition from protesting players in order to have a chance to play in the World Cup. Three players — Aitana Bonmatí, Ona Batlle and Mariona Caldentey — returned to the team, and the group made it all the way to the World Cup trophy lift despite intense internal tension.

The USWNT’s Christen Press had expressed hope that Spain’s World Cup success would give players greater leverage to effect change inside their federation, but that reality has played out differently. In a strange way, swift public reaction to internal complaints only came in the moment that Rubiales felt that he too had won.

He had been quoted in the Spanish media as feeling vindicated by Spain’s success in the World Cup prior to the final, celebrating what he saw as a few naysayers being proven wrong. He also initially called the backlash to his behavior “idiotic,” telling Spanish radio station Cope: “We do not pay any attention to idiots and stupid people. It was a peck between two friends celebrating something.”

Jennifer Hermoso celebrates Spain's World Cup win on Sunday. (Photo by Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

The defiance immediately after the final whistle blew wasn’t relegated to individuals. The official social media channel for the Spain women’s national team posted a photo of Vilda with the caption “Vilda In,” appearing to directly reference criticisms of the team’s head coach. For a few brief moments, those who had reprimanded “Las 15” so fiercely had appeared to get what they wanted — validation by winning on the field.

As disheartening as it is to see, those attitudes have long held a place in sports, and specifically in women’s sports.

“You can be a fantastic football coach, absolutely fantastic, and you can be an absolutely horrible human being and not deserve to be in a position,” Gotham FC and USWNT player Midge Purce said on “The 91st” podcast. And her perspective is hard-won.

“We’ve seen it in the NWSL when we had to get rid of coaches, because the very thing existed. We had a coach who was the most winningest coach in the league, in league history, and he was abusing the players,” Purce continued, referring to the culture of abuse under Paul Riley while he was a head coach in the NWSL.

“I don’t really see this line of reasoning, which is ‘you win, you must stay,’ and I think prioritizes the values of society really, really poorly. What a dangerous message to send to not just young women but young men as well.”

The aftermath of the incident also showcased the pressures Spain’s players have likely been feeling for months. Hermoso downplayed the kiss in a radio interview, calling it “just a small thing.” But the 33-year-old midfielder also reportedly refused to appear alongside Rubiales in his apology video, despite pleas from both Rubiales and Vilda, and she supports those urging appropriate action be taken.

The good news is that Rubiales’ brazenness in the moment has caught the attention of those with far more influence than any individual player.

“What it does is it licenses me to speculate a lot, way more than I was before,” said Purce. “And the amount, the speculation that I have is very damning. And my heart is with the players, and I hope that it concludes in the way that is beneficial to them.”

With FIFA’s interest in the case, hope is renewed that the internal reform many have hoped for inside Spain’s federation might soon come to fruition, despite Rubiales’ adamant denials. Let’s also hope that next time, it won’t take egregious behavior in the public eye for those in power to take serious action.

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

The story of the 2022 Challenge Cup should be about the North Carolina Courage. Many predicted that they would have an especially difficult task this year, reshaping their team culture after multiple personnel changes to regain their place among the NWSL’s elite.

What no one expected is that the experiment would come together so fast, with newcomers like Kerolin, Diana Ordoñez and Brianna Pinto building quick chemistry with established players Debinha, Abby Erceg and Denise O’Sullivan to reload one of the most potent and creative attacks in the league. The Courage were quick to make adjustments throughout the Challenge Cup, altering their defensive press from game to game based on rotation and fitness, buying in as a unit and finding a way to defeat the reigning champion Washington Spirit in Saturday’s final.

Though North Carolina hoisted the trophy in the end, what the physical and injury-riddled championship game came to represent is much more complicated than the final scoreline.

“That’s professional sports. No matter what happens, we’re trained to just keep our head in the game and to not worry about external things,” Erceg said after her team’s tense 2-1 victory.

The Challenge Cup has served a number of purposes in recent years. It kept the NWSL alive in 2020, as the pandemic threatened to topple the league’s infrastructure. It then provided a scheduling buffer in the early months of 2021, when no one was quite sure what the sporting landscape would look like as COVID-19 vaccines became more readily available. Now, it provides teams with competitive games during the NWSL preseason and, perhaps most significantly, it’s a revenue-driving opportunity for the league and players alike.

This year’s Cup final gave the NWSL a high-profile game to slot into CBS’s flagship network schedule rather than an early regular-season game. And on Friday, HR and workforce management company UKG announced that it would help raise the Challenge Cup bonus pool to match the equivalent men’s tournament as title sponsor. With the infusion of money and exposure, the Challenge Cup in 2022 suddenly became less of a preseason kickabout and more of a results-driven competition on the league calendar.

“In our profession, $10K changes people’s lives,” North Carolina defender Carson Pickett said after the final Saturday. “When you’re competing day in and day out, it’s nice to have some kind of bonus. It’s nice to raise a trophy, but it’s also nice to have money.”

Therein lies the tension between the Challenge Cup as incentivized, and the tournament as constructed. While the players put their bodies on the line ahead of the regular season, the league isn’t necessarily holding up its end of the bargain to prioritize the actual playing of soccer. Some of the discrepancies lie with the schedule, which rewarded Cup success with a punishing three-game week, as teams balanced their regular-season openers with their Challenge Cup semifinals.

There was also the issue of venue availability, with one scheduling snafu leading the top-seed OL Reign to spend a week on the road and host the Cup semifinal in Washington, D.C. instead of Seattle. Their circumstances became more stark when a missed handball call sent them into penalty kicks against the Spirit in the semifinals. The Reign ultimately crashed out of the Cup, with little more to show for their troubles other than their $1,500 semifinal bonuses, some extra airline miles and short rest ahead of their next regular season game (and saving the NWSL the headache of explaining a predetermined 10 a.m. PT kickoff time).

Even as the league’s handle of the competition threatened to teeter out of control, players showed up on Saturday with the energy that a championship game deserves.

The match showcased what both the Spirit and Courage are capable of at their best, and what happens when outside forces get in the way of that process. The first half brought scintillating end-to-end action, with Debinha and Kerolin linking up to open the scoring in just the 10th minute.

The Spirit then tapped into the mid-game problem-solving that led them to the 2021 NWSL championship and a 20-game unbeaten streak across all competitions. Washington forward Ashley Hatch started to drop back into the midfield to receive the ball, and while the Spirit greatly missed the defensive midfield presence of Andi Sullivan, they equalized courtesy of Hatch in the 35th minute.

After halftime, however, things began to fall apart. The humid North Carolina weather combined with short rest — each team was playing its third game of the week — turned what had begun as a fun, dynamic match into a war of attrition.

“I think the quality of the game was quite low. You could tell that the players were tired, you could tell that the fatigue was sitting in, and it was just a matter of who was more fit,” Erceg said. “And I think it’s really disappointing. For a final, I think you want to see two teams that are doing really well play the best football that they can.”

Tired legs led to clumsy tackles, and when Sam Staab’s crunching tackle on Kerolin in Washington’s penalty area in the second half received no consequences from center official Ekaterina Koroleva, the momentum of the game shifted irreparably. On the following corner kick, the Courage pulled ahead thanks to an own goal from Taylor Aylmer, in a sequence that left Spirit keeper Aubrey Kingsbury on the ground after she hit the goalpost with her head. Kingsbury cleared on-field concussion protocols and stayed in the match.

The Spirit's athletic trainer calls for a stretcher after Jordan Baggett went down with a head injury on Saturday. (Lewis Gettier/USA TODAY Sports)

Emotions were running high on both sides of the pitch, which informed the reaction to a moment no one could have prepared for. Colliding with Debinha in the 80th minute, Jordan Baggett appeared to briefly lose consciousness before being taken off the field on a stretcher with a serious head injury.

Fans at home had the surreal experience of hearing players on both teams yell for medical staff with an increasing tone of panic. Spirit players surrounded the stretcher and helped the EMTs rush it out to Baggett. While protocol was correctly followed, the moment felt indicative of the lack of control throughout the entire knockout round of the tournament.

The collision itself reflected the game’s loose play, though Baggett’s injury didn’t happen because of a referee’s decision or the Challenge Cup schedule — sometimes accidents occur in sports that are outside of anyone’s control. But when the NWSL tries to pack too many games into a short window, and simultaneously raises the stakes with financial incentives, players become vulnerable to other issues.

“I think it’s a final, things like that happen. I think the excitement and the adrenaline for players is very, very high,” Erceg said when asked about the kick she took to the ribs immediately prior to the stoppage in play.

The competitive edge they play with regardless has the ability to be the league’s greatest strength when cultivated responsibly. And even after a game in which few things could have gone more wrong, players and coaches indicated that there are internal processes available to improve the situation.

“There’s a lot of conversations behind the scenes about some of the limitations that we have in general, in terms of how we grow the product of the league, and some of the restrictions that we get from networks,” Spirit head coach Kris Ward told reporters after the game. “There continues to be talk, both from coaches and league personnel, about how we can adjust the Cup, how we can make it the best thing possible. I just think there’s a lot of different forces that are at play sometimes.”

“I think moving forward, we’ve got some people in place that are aware of the issues, and I think they’ll be rectified,” Erceg echoed.

With a title sponsor already secured, the NWSL’s plans for next year’s Challenge Cup are surely even bigger than what we saw in 2022. Now begins the work of making sure the NWSL is ready to support its players sufficiently enough to allow the product on the field to match.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

With 2021 blessedly behind us, it’s time for the world of women’s soccer to turn toward the new year with high hopes and lessons learned. The NWSL is moving into its tenth anniversary season (despite the lost 2020 regular season), and the stakes for a new start have never been higher.

The new year on the NWSL calendar will bring exciting soccer, fresh faces and a wealth of competition the now 12-team league has never seen before. But my NWSL New Year’s wishes are a bit bigger than what happens on the field, so let’s dive in.

Ratify the league’s first CBA

The NWSL’s success in 2022 likely begins and ends with solidifying the league’s first Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NWSL Players Association. The negotiating process gained some clarity when the U.S. Soccer Federation ended its allocation funding at the end of 2021, meaning players contracted with the U.S. women’s national team could officially join the NWSLPA for the first time.

The CBA is going to be important in all elements of player experience. In order for the NWSL to maintain a functioning workplace, one has to think the league will need to finalize the CBA — or be making significant progress in negotiations — before players report to preseason camp on Feb. 1. The agreement is going to set minimum and maximum wages, define the terms of a free agency period and set other standards such as maternity protections and salary cap flexibility.

All of these matters must be sorted so that players don’t have questions about the league’s future going into the 2022 season. More importantly, for the sustainability of the league, owners need to provide the players with the confidence that they can internalize as a group. It could be some time before the NWSL releases the findings of the investigations it launched into the league’s and teams’ handling of abuse claims, and players need to feel like their voices are being heard by their employers. That comes from good-faith negotiating leading to real changes that benefit the league’s labor force.

Searching for basic levels of safety, a number of players have taken a chance on fresh starts within the league rather than leaving the country or the sport. It is now up to the NWSL to reward that faith, and they need to start by putting it in writing.

Resolve ownership conflict

It’s a bit obvious that this wish is in reference to the ongoing saga of the Washington Spirit, now that the calendar has turned and Steve Baldwin has yet to commit to sell the team to minority owner Y. Michele Kang. As of this writing, Kang has the highest bid for Baldwin’s shares at $35 million, 40 percent more than the $25 million offer by billionaire Todd Boehly, Baldwin’s preferred buyer. Now, Baldwin’s fellow investors are pushing back, backing Kang (who also has the support of the players) and pressuring Baldwin to do his fiduciary duty and sell to the highest bidder.

Getting the Baldwin mess out of the league is paramount to both Spirit and league leadership, but it also speaks to a larger conflict the NWSL has to resolve: owners gripping tightly to situations that don’t serve players and fans. Baldwin is attempting to sell the Spirit to an outside buyer against the wishes of his players, and there are similar conflicts simmering elsewhere in the league.

Spirit minority owner Y. Michele Kang and Kelley O'Hara celebrate the team's championship in November. (Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

Chicago Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134 has extended its ultimatum for majority owner Arnim Whisler to sell his shares in the club past the end of the year. Controversial signings by the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage have also led to discord between the clubs and their fans. The league hasn’t even begun to touch the sexual assault lawsuit in which new San Diego Wave FC owner Ron Burkle was named as a defendant. Burkle, who is also part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is being investigated for violating Pennsylvania whistle-blower laws after the wife of a former team employee accused former head coach Clark Donatelli of groping her.

The NWSL cannot handle another year of scandal, and the first place to establish stability is with the same owners who allowed abuse to continue under their watch for years. From this vantage point, allowing Baldwin to hold the Spirit hostage and Burkle to operate without investigation feels like more of the same. The league can mitigate unequal power dynamics by creating the strong CBA proposed above, but it also has to commit to turning over a new leaf at the ownership level or these problems will continue.

California dreaming

It’s not necessarily written in the history of the NWSL to send best wishes to expansion sides, but what is 2022 if not a year for something new? Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC are coming into the league carrying responsibilities greater than how many goals they score on the pitch, and it will be good for everybody if they hit the ground running in their first seasons.

The California teams have provided the NWSL with good press to close out a rough year and have clearly become a haven for players in need of fresh starts. Both clubs are women-led, and Angel City is women-owned, presenting a new way forward for a league struggling to reconcile its past.

They also have the potential to field two very exciting soccer teams, jumpstart a new regional rivalry, shake up the standings and provide a brilliant showcase for the league. Angel City’s first game at Banc of America Stadium is going to be the event of the season. One has to hope that CBS has the game circled in pen for a network television slot.

I’m not one for bold predictions, but I’d love (and expect) to see at least one of the California clubs in playoff contention by the end of the season. With a number of clubs entering new eras in 2022, the postseason race promises to be competitive and exhilarating.

Let televised games tell the story

Washington’s meeting with Chicago in the NWSL championship game was the culmination of a wild playoff race: The Houston Dash were eliminated in the last game of the season, the NWSL Shield-winning Thorns were dealt a massive upset and OL Reign were bounced on their home field. While the final was televised on CBS, the momentous games preceding it were relegated to cable at best (CBS Sports) and streaming services at worst (Twitch).

As advocates for women’s sports have been saying for years, putting games on national television not only provides the platform that elite play deserves but also helps tell the stories of the league to a wide audience. Imagine if the 525,000 people who tuned into the championship game had had weeks to learn about what makes Trinity Rodman special, or how Chicago’s midfield kept the team alive when injuries made their run seem impossible. It takes time and repetition to ingrain these narratives into the lives of casual sports fans, and that process goes hand-in-hand with TV coverage.

My wish is for CBS to air more NWSL games on the flagship network, but also to weave women’s stories into their Champions League coverage, Serie A coverage and beyond. Midge Purce did a brilliant job talking about the NWSL Championship during men’s Concacaf World Cup qualifying, and she’s not the only player with the ability to represent the league in that capacity. The league’s partnership with CBS has already paid dividends with strong viewership returns on TV and on Paramount+. Now, the network has the ability to take the ubiquity of the league in the soccer landscape to the next level, and it should take that responsibility seriously.

CBS should also work with the league to invest in and possibly even take over production responsibilities from Vista Worldlink, which has been handling game broadcasts for a number of years. Make the CBS deal a partnership in practice, not just in name, and people will watch.

Peace of mind for NWSL fans

It feels like this goal might be too lofty considering some of the larger issues the NWSL needs to resolve. But my genuine wish for longtime NWSL fans this year is that the league gets to a place where they can be content to support it again. I don’t want supporters to feel like they have to turn off parts of their brain in order to cheer for their team, or that they have to ignore issues that are important to them. Teams should not be asking their fans to betray causes they hold dear in order to find solace in the joy of sports.

Soccer — like all sports — is a capitalistic effort, and that effort isn’t going to align with the values of every fan who wants to buy a ticket to a game. But teams should be joining their fans in a commitment against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the locker room rather than resisting them. The NWSL has a minor miracle on its hands in a fan base that truly cares about these values, and leaning into them isn’t as difficult as those in positions of influence might lead you to believe.

So when I say I wish for peace of mind for the fan base, I say it knowing that not all sides are going to get what they want. But fewer unforced errors from the top, more success stories of supporting players and true accountability for wrongdoing would go a long way toward making sure the NWSL thrives, and doesn’t simply replace the fans who got the league here in the first place.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Instead of asking for a bunch of knick-knacks or things I don’t really need this holiday season, I decided to make a WNBA wish list. I’m not asking for much — just a few additions here and there that I think will help grow the league, reward fans and improve the overall experience of the season.

The league made significant progress in 2021 and has a lot of momentum on which to build. So, I put together some reasonable requests for the 2022 season. I only hope the jolly guy in the red suit delivers.

1. A new twist to the orange hoodie

The orange hoodie has become the trademark merchandise item of the WNBA. It’s bright, comfortable and fashionable. Everyone from WNBA and NBA players, to celebrities and musicians, have been spotted wearing the sweatshirt, and it even won an award in 2020 for Best Fashion Statement of the Year.

It’s the league’s best-selling product, so why not keep the hype going with a revamped hoodie? Keep selling the classic orange, of course, but also offer it in the signature colors of WNBA teams, like Chicago Sky blue, New York Liberty seafoam, Phoenix Mercury purple, Las Vegas Aces gold, Seattle Storm green and more. How fun (and profitable) would that be?

2. One more season of Sue Bird

When the WNBA announced its 2022 schedule, teams around the league shared the news on social media. The Storm got people talking when they posted their game schedule on Twitter with a graphic featuring a photo of Sue Bird. A free agent, Bird hasn’t confirmed whether she’ll return to the court next season, but she also hasn’t closed the door. If Bird were to announce this coming season as her last, the league could plan the farewell tour she deserves and fans would have the opportunity to say a proper goodbye.

3. New All-Star Game locations

The WNBA All-Star Game debuted in 1999 and has been held in a handful of cities since then, but over the years, many of the locations have been repeats. Las Vegas, for example, has hosted the past two All-Star Games in 2019 and 2021. Availability, access and facilities all factor into the decision of which city gets to host the festivities, but it would be gratifying if the WNBA expanded its horizons and gave WNBA fans in other cities a chance to experience All-Star Weekend in their hometowns. Chicago has never hosted; neither has Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta or Indiana. Let’s spread the love around.

4. Expansion, expansion, expansion

The last time the WNBA expanded was in 2009, when the Atlanta Dream entered the fold. For over a decade, the league has been content to roll with 12 teams. But for the past few years, the calls for expansion have been growing from basketball fans all over the country. And signs point to it happening sooner rather than later.

Former WNBA player Alana Beard headed up a group of investors, including the African American Sports and Entertainment Group, to bring a WNBA team to Oakland, Calif. Rapper and Toronto Raptors ambassador Drake even weighed in on the matter, telling the WNBA on Instagram that he “[needs] a Toronto team.” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said since the start of last season that if the league were successful in 2021, expansion talks would take place. Viewership numbers for the 2021 regular season were up nearly 50 percent. I’d say that’s a success.

5. Postgame TV coverage

Nothing is worse than watching a competitive, down-to-the-wire WNBA game end in a buzzer-beater win, only to have the broadcast cut to an irrelevant segment seconds later. No postgame interviews, no game breakdowns, no analysis or final thoughts — just a quick “see you later” and move on. I think legitimate postgame (and pregame) coverage in the WNBA, especially for the playoffs, is long overdue. With overall viewership numbers on an upswing, there’s clearly an appetite for it. The more television networks expand their WNBA coverage and introduce the storylines around these players and teams to fans, the more the league will continue to grow.

6. WNBA highlight show

While we’re on the topic of additional coverage, let’s get crazy. Rather than catch a WNBA highlight here or there on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” or daily NBA Show, I’d love to hear WNBA-focused analysts talk about the league on a regular basis. Maybe something like “Inside the WNBA” or “WNBA Talk,” full of game highlights, player interviews, hot takes and game-day fits — the possibilities for conversation topics are endless in a league brimming with intrigue. And between former players and current WNBA analysts and personalities, there is no shortage of possible hosts to guide the discussions and share their insights.

7. WNBA League Pass 2.0

There is a lot to love about WNBA League Pass. It’s easily accessible on any device, it’s incredibly affordable and it allows fans to watch games on demand, pause and rewind in the moment and view real-time stats. But it is not without its faults. Not every live game, for example, is available to consumers. Depending on where you live, some games are blacked out, and the app will sometimes glitch in the middle of a game, logging users out without any explanation. League Pass is a valuable resource for WNBA fans and media alike. I would love to see the WNBA invest in improving the quality of the experience.

8. More exposure for WNBA players

I was casually watching a kids’ sitcom with my 9-year-old when Candace Parker appeared on screen in a guest starring role. It was great to see, and the next time I mentioned Parker’s name out loud in the presence of my daughter, she knew exactly who I was talking about. This is why beyond-the-court exposure of WNBA athletes is so important, especially for upcoming generations. I’d love to see more players make appearances on talk shows, sitcoms, commercials, podcasts, radio segments and more. In fact, a WNBA player has never hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker or Liz Cambage would be naturals.

9. Giving past players their due

As part of the WNBA’s 25th anniversary celebration last season, the Las Vegas Aces honored former players throughout the franchise’s history as the Utah Starzz and the San Antonio Silver Stars. It was a way to celebrate and highlight players who had a significant impact on the franchise and the league. The WNBA would not be where it is today without those who paved the way for the longest-running professional women’s sports league in the country. Individual teams, and the league itself, should honor its past in some form every season.

10. Respect

With all of the growth the WNBA has undergone in the past five years, between the talent level on the floor to the recognition off of it, a little respect from the rest of the sports world would be nice. From a continued lack of recognition in mainstream media to dealing with swarms of Twitter trolls, the WNBA and its players are still fighting for the respect they deserve. They shouldn’t have to. Not in 2022, and not ever.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

The 2021 NWSL season has officially come to a close, with the Washington Spirit winning their first-ever championship in an extra-time thriller. Now it’s time to look ahead to 2022.

With December’s expansion draft just around the corner, most of the league’s teams will undergo a considerable roster shakeup this offseason. Clubs are allowed to protect nine players, including just one U.S. allocated player, from San Diego and Angel City FC’s selection, making change inevitable.

How will the upcoming expansion draft impact the existing NWSL teams, and how will the Wave and ACFC fair? We’ll find out in December. For now, here’s how the league shakes out today.

2022 NWSL Way-too-early Power Rankings:

Joe Robbins/ISI Photos/Getty Images

1. Washington Spirit

It’s hard to bet against the Washington Spirit after their commanding 2021 Championship run. The Spirit finished the season on a 12-game unbeaten streak, excluding the club’s two forced forfeits due to COVID-19 protocol violations. Overcoming off-field turmoil, the team fielded a young team that was stacked across the board, including Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman, Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe, Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch and USWNT stars Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett and Andi Sullivan.

Even on their way to capturing the league title, the team looked to be still growing into itself, with young, talented players yet to hit their apex. With another year of development, Washington seems poised for a playoff repeat.

Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2. Portland Thorns

The Portland Thorns were the heavy favorites heading into the 2021 season and lived up to the preseason hype, winning the 2021 Challenge Cup and NWSL Shield but falling short of the Championship.

Longtime coach Mark Parson’s departure could shake things up, but with veteran talents like Becky Sauerbrunn and Christine Sinclair, coupled with young stars in Simone Charley, Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, Portland could exact revenge in 2022, clinching the NWSL Championship they were expected to win in 2021. The big what-if? How soon Crystal Dunn can return from pregnancy.

Mike Lawrence/ ISI Photos

3. NJ/NY Gotham FC

Gotham FC had a landmark 2021, launching one of the most successful rebrands in NWSL history, playing in Red Bull Arena, booking a trip to the Challenge Cup final, and making a hard-fought playoff run. Though Carli Lloyd has retired, Gotham FC has plenty of talent ready to step up to the plate, including MVP candidate Margaret Purce.

The squad is also loaded defensively, with Caprice Dydasco winning Defender of the Year and Imani Dorsey recently receiving a call-up to the USWNT. With another year to gel as a team and develop their confidence, Gotham FC should be a force to be reckoned with in 2022.

Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images

4. OL Reign

OL Reign ended the season as one of the most exciting attacking teams in the league, boosted by an influx of international talent. The Tacoma club, however, is set to lose Eugiene Le Sommer, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Sarah Bouhaddi, who are all on loan from Lyon. The team does still have the 2021 MVP in Jessica Fishlock, star midfielder Rose Lavelle and Sofia Huerta, who is quickly becoming one of the league’s best outside backs. OL Reign also has a not-so-secret weapon in Coach of the Year Laura Harvey, who has experience leading teams to titles and getting the most out of her players.

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5. North Carolina Courage

The North Carolina Courage undoubtedly had a trying 2021, dealing, like the rest of the league, with the allegations of sexual coercion made against former coach Paul Riley. The team somehow found a way to make the playoffs despite the off-field drama and a sidelined Sam Mewis. If the team can regroup in the offseason and get their all-star midfielder back, the Courage may just be back in contention for the top of the table. With Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald up top, it’s hard to count out North Carolina.

Bryan Byerly/ ISI Photos

6. Chicago Red Stars

The Chicago Red Stars pushed their way to the club’s third NWSL title match in 2021 against all odds, with a series of the team’s top players falling to injury. Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Casey Krueger were all mainstays on the injury list following the Tokyo Olympics, while Kealia Watt and Mallory Pugh picked up knocks throughout the playoffs. Pugh also missed Chicago’s semifinal match alongside teammate Kayla Sharples due to COVID-19 protocols.

Now, the Red Stars must deal with a bombshell report detailing former coach Rory Dames’s alleged misconduct over his tenure with the team. Depending on the new coach and what the club does to shift the overall culture, Chicago could either rise to the challenge of a culture overhaul or be forced to start over next year. No matter what, the talent will be there, as Ertz, Watt, Naeher and Kreuger should all be healthy — the only question is if the Red Stars will get to keep all of them during the expansion draft.

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7. Houston Dash

The name of the game for Houston’s offseason will be defensive development. The Dash ranked fourth in goals scored for the 2021 season but conceded 32 goals — the only teams to allow more goals in their net were Racing Louisville, Kansas City and Orlando Pride, none of whom made the playoffs.

With USWNT center-back Abby Dahlkemper traded to San Diego, Houston will need to shore up their backline in order to make a playoff run in 2022.

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8. Orlando Pride

The Orlando Pride had a tough break in 2021, enduring a midseason coaching switch-up that resulted in a late-year stall after what looked to be a promising start to the NWSL schedule. The club is still on the search for a new head coach after Beck Burleigh’s stint as interim coach came to an end.

The team has undeniable talent in Marta, Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Sydney Leroux, but has yet to find a way to be productive in the final third, with the team ranking eighth in the league in goals and shots on goal this season, in front of only Racing Louisville and Kansas City.

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9. Racing Louisville

Racing Louisville made its presence known in the NWSL early, winning the inaugural Women’s Cup in its first year as an expansion team. The club also played host to the NWSL Championship, showcasing its world-class facilities and the city’s burgeoning soccer fandom. On the pitch, Louisville finished strong, too, notching two draws and a win to end the year, indicating promise for the 2022 season. Now that Louisville knows what it has in star striker Ebony Salmon, the team certainly has the ability to build a compelling attack and climb the NWSL standings.


10. Kansas City Current

Kansas City can breathe a sigh of relief as it is the only team exempt from the NWSL expansion draft in an agreement solidified with the club’s introduction to the league. The Current finished last in the 2021 NWSL standings but showed flashes of promise during their debut season. Acquiring known talents in Adrianna Franch and Kristen Hamilton during the season, Kansas City has a solid core to build around without the stress of losing players to either San Diego or Los Angeles.

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11. Angel City FC

Before ever making a pick in December’s NWSL expansion draft, Angel City FC heads into their first season with a key roster cornerstone — that being USWNT star Christen Press. The Los Angeles expansion team signed Press in August, acquiring one of the best forwards in the world in the process. The team also brought on Gotham FC’s former head coach Freya Coombe, who has a proven record at succeeding in NWSL. Depending on who the club takes in the draft, ACFC could be a contender in its inaugural season. For now, they’re sitting near the bottom of our list.

Brad Smith/ ISI Photos

12. San Diego Wave FC

San Diego also has a proven coach and a big-name star heading into the league’s expansion draft. The Wave inked a deal with Casey Stoney, luring Manchester United’s manager to the NWSL, while USWNT defender Abby Dahlkemper also signed with the team, becoming San Diego’s first player. Stoney’s experience in professional women’s soccer could be a real advantage in a year that’s scene historic turnover elsewhere across the NWSL. But as with ACFC, San Diego sits at the bottom of our rankings until we know more about their roster come December.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the future of the United States Women’s National Team. Who will step up for the retiring Carli Lloyd? Are the up-and-coming stars ready to assume the mantle?

While spectacular goals from Catarina Macario and Sophia Smith in the USWNT’s September fall friendlies provided a glimpse into the team’s possible future, an under-covered talent pool exists in the NCAA today.

With conference play kicking off, here’s five current college stars who could be representing the USWNT at future World Cups:

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Jaelin Howell, Florida State University

Heading into her senior year at Florida State, Howell has already captured nearly every award there is to win in collegiate soccer. The star midfielder is the reigning 2020-2021 Mac Hermann Trophy winner and 2020 ACC Midfielder of the Year. And with two USWNT caps already under her belt, there’s no doubt the future is bright for the 21-year-old.

In her last year at Florida State, the Seminoles are the heavy favorite to take home the national championship after falling to Santa Clara last season in a PK shootout. Howell’s defensive presence and ability to distribute balls through the midfield will be critical in Florida State’s run for the NCAA trophy. Her role as a defensive midfield is one the USWNT is looking to develop under the tutelage of Julie Ertz, making Howell a near lock as a prospect.

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Naomi Girma, Stanford University

Girma, a Senior at Stanford University, has a long and likely growing resume. She previously captained the U.S. U20 Women’s National Team, was voted the 2020 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year, and won the 2019 NCAA Championship with Stanford.

The 21-year-old faced some adversity earlier this year when she tore her ACL, forcing her to redshirt and miss the delayed 2021 season. Back on the pitch with Stanford, Girma brings a critical, technical presence to both sides of the ball. Her attacking mindset, combined with her defensive know-how, makes her a strong contender for a shot on the USWNT’s backline.

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Mia Fishel, UCLA

Since she was a teen, Fishel has been making a name for herself, scoring the tournament-opener at the 2018 U-17 World Cup and winning the Golden Ball during the 2020 CONCACAF U-20 Championships. The 20-year-old has been equally successful in her collegiate career, leading the Bruins in goals during her freshman season and being named a Second Team All-American in 2020.

The junior now has a chance to make a title run with a top-10 UCLA squad. The Bruins started their season going undefeated in non-conference play, thanks in part to Fishel’s seven goals across eight games. No stranger to the USWNT’s developmental programs, Fishel is one to watch as she rises through soccer’s ranks.

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Kelsey Turnbow, Santa Clara University

Turnbow returns to the pitch following a record-breaking 2020-2021 season, when she led the Santa Clara Broncos to their first national championship since 2001.

With an extra year of eligibility, Turnbow returns to Santa Clara after being selected 18th overall in the 2021 NWSL draft by the Chicago Red Stars. Before going pro, Turnbow will look to defend the Bronco’s NCAA title, serving as the team’s offensive spark. An additional year in the NCAA and a spot in the NWSL could provide Turnbow the stage she needs to show her attacking skills are worthy of a National Team look.

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Anna Podojil, Arkansas

Podojil enters her junior year with some distinguished credits to her name: 2021 First Team All-American, 2021 MAC Hermann Award semifinalist, 2020 SEC Forward of the Year, and 2019 Freshman of the Year.

The star forward now hopes to make a run at an NCAA title, and with five goals in her first eight games, Podojil is starting the season on the front foot. With the Razorbacks ranked in the top-20, a championship push isn’t out of the question. Trophy or not, Podojil is the real deal, and her accomplishments should already cement her place in a crowded list of potential USWNT forwards.

Six months ago, USWNT fans were arguing whether Lynn Williams deserved a spot on the team’s Olympic roster. The best-case scenario for Williams (at the time) was simply making the final 18, while at worst she’d be an alternate. Even her most ardent supporters weren’t sure whether she’d actually get much playing time in Tokyo.

But after a standout game against Paraguay on Thursday in which she scored and had two assists, as well as a tournament-saving performance against Netherlands in Tokyo — to say nothing of Williams’ years of NWSL production — it’s clear the terms of the conversation have shifted.

It’s no longer a question of whether she deserves to make the team. Williams is here to stay. The new question is whether she should start for the USWNT. And the answer is that Williams clearly deserves a chance.

Williams was one of the last players cut from the 2019 World Cup team, but was brought back into the USWNT fold once Vlatko Andonovski took over as coach.

At the time, the scouting consensus on Williams was that she had above-average defensive abilities (for a forward) and was probably the fastest player on the pitch, but needed to work on consistently finishing in front of goal.

“I think that Vlatko sees my defensive side as key to the success of this team right now,” Williams told Just Women’s Sports back in April, “and my willingness to work back as a forward.”

Williams was initially named an alternate for Tokyo, with Andonovski calling it a “good next step” for the forward:

Hopefully she’ll be on the full roster in the near future or in the World Cup, 2023. We know the quality that she has.”

Williams ended up making the full Olympic roster after FIFA modified the rules to include alternates. After hardly seeing the field in the group stage, Williams was chosen to start against Netherlands in a must-win quarterfinal match.

The USWNT went down 1-0 early in the match, before Williams took over. She first assisted Sam Mewis to tie the game at one before scoring herself — with a beautiful finish in the box — to give the team the lead.

In the biggest game of her career, Williams proved she was more than a defensive specialist and put to bed the narrative that she can’t make plays in front of goal.

The performance wasn’t a surprise to anyone who has watched Williams’ club career. With 56 goals in the NWSL, she’s second on the league’s all-time scoring list, just 11 behind Sam Kerr. Even this year, she ranks sixth in the league, which might not seem impressive, until you take into account the time missed while in Tokyo. No. 1 and 2 scorers Bethany Balcer and Sydney Leroux have each scored eight goals in 18 games. In seven fewer games, Williams has scored six.

Can Williams, 28, consistently score on the international stage? Williams had the third-most points on the USWNT in 2020 after Lindsey Horan and Christen Press. In 2021, she ranks sixth in goals and assists, despite having only eight starts. If her playing time matched the other big-name forwards on the team, it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t keep pace.

Context is important here: Carli Lloyd is retiring in October. Megan Rapinoe could soon follow. Christen Press and Alex Morgan will both be 34 at the next World Cup. Tobin Heath will be 35.

Lloyd has proven that players can still be productive well into their 30s, but it’s clear that Andonovski will need fresh legs in Australia. And with World Cup qualifiers just around the corner, now is the time to give younger players their chance.

On a team with so much talent, versatility is crucial — and that’s exactly what Williams has. She scores goals but is also good defensively, a game-changing quality often overlooked in the attacking third. Andonovski has repeatedly praised her ability to press other teams in sparking the USWNT’s counter-attack. In Tokyo, Williams proved the stage wasn’t too big for her. And yes, at the 2023 World Cup, she will still probably be the fastest player on the pitch.

Williams has made the most of her limited opportunities, and her trajectory is still pointing up. Heading into preparations for the 2023 World Cup, it would be smart to give the young veteran a more significant role on the team. Big things happen when she’s on the pitch; she just needs playing time to prove it.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports and the Head of North American Content for Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Sydney Leroux is having a moment.

The Pride striker has been on a scoring tear this season, helping to keep Orlando unbeaten and atop the NWSL standings. On Wednesday, Leroux notched a brace to lead Orlando past Kansas City.

This campaign is somewhat of a renaissance for Leroux, who had her second child in 2019 and returned to the pitch only three months after giving birth. Leroux’s comeback was delayed twice, first by the pandemic and then when Orlando skipped the 2020 Challenge Cup because of COVID-19 protocols.

After a long time away from the sport and a trying few seasons with the Pride, Leroux started the 2021 season with something to prove.

With Alex Morgan back from maternity leave and Leroux in top form, the Pride boast a menacing front line. Orlando’s direct style of play has served Leroux particularly well, allowing the striker to get on the end of lofted balls and beat defenders one-on-one.

In six regular-season games, Leroux has scored four of her 11 shots on goal, tied for the NWSL lead with Morgan. Leroux’s presence poses a constant threat for her opponents, whether she is scoring bangers, stretching the backline or breaking up plays in the midfield. Simply put, the 31-year-old striker is irreplaceable.

Leroux has a unique opportunity as the Olympics approach and the Pride’s international players leave for Tokyo. In their absence, Leroux will have the chance to lead the charge for Orlando, a campaign that’s already well underway.

Lynn Williams may have earned her spot on the Olympic team with a last-ditch effort.

Subbing in for the final five minutes of play, Williams took advantage of the narrow window of opportunity. The forward strung together a brilliant run and scored a stoppage time goal off of an assist from Christen Press.

Press and Alex Morgan are already considered locks for the roster, and Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe have proven they can still contribute. That’s left Williams straddling the edge of inclusion on the 18-player team heading to Tokyo next month.

The 28-year-old has received more chances under Vlatko Andonovski as an obvious fit in his preferred system. She also, to quote Claire Watkins, has “an engine that never quits.”

Williams didn’t quit on Wednesday night, either, and that may have been just enough to convince Andonovski to take her to Tokyo.

Megan Rapinoe gets it.

No stranger to controversy, Rapinoe decided to air out some grievances in her postgame interview after OL Reign’s win over the Portland Thorns last Sunday. The matchup was billed as the Cascadia rivalry, so the USWNT icon decided to treat it like one, on and off the pitch.

“Obviously, the Thorns fans need no introduction,” said Rapinoe. “They’re incredible. They have one big problem though: it’s that they love me. So it’s really difficult for them to cheer against me. When I scored, I had to go right over and really talk my shit. And I was trying to talk shit to them, and they just kind of didn’t know what to do. And then finally someone gave me like a big double f— you, middle fingers up, and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ Like, that’s the kind of rivalry that we want.”

The NWSL was due for its “and I took that personally” moment, and they got it in Rapinoe’s dust-up. To scorn an opponent in the way she did is ultimately to respect them. She dished it out and was happy to see the Thorns fans dish it back (eventually).

In the end, Rapinoe’s trash talk was a much-needed reminder that the NWSL is a league with high stakes and high emotions, something league leaders need to lean into. Simply put: rivalries are good for sports. Some of the most compelling stories in the space are born of intense, bitter and deep-rooted contentions.

In the Thorns-Reign Derby alone, fans had a chance to see USWNT stars Rapinoe and Crystal Dunn (who usually share the same left-side for the USWNT) go head-to-head. While it’s fun to see these players compete for World Cups and Olympic golds together on the national team, it can be even more riveting to see them face off for NWSL bragging rights.

In the end, Rapinoe’s comments served as a somewhat-friendly wake-up call about the need for more animosity between the league’s clubs. We may all be in this together, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to rock the boat.