Heather O’Reilly isn’t hanging up the cleats just yet.

The former U.S. women’s national team star is joining the North Carolina Courage’s USL W League team as a player for the summer, the team announced Thursday.

The 38-year-old has been working with the team as a player-coach in order to get in shape for her second straight appearance in Soccer Aid, an annual charity event that aims to raise money for UNICEF.

Last year’s appearance kicked off her unretirement, paving the way for her to join Ireland’s Shelbourne FC for the club’s Champions League stand. She played in just two games, scoring a game-winner against ZNK Pomurje.

“Last year inspired a Champions League comeback. Who knows what this performance will inspire?” O’Reilly recently told the Mirror. “I’m at that point in my life that I’ve done it career-wise.”

There’s not much else the USWNT legend – a three-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup winner – could do to cement herself as one of the greats. But she isn’t playing for any other reason than that she just loves the game and wants to give back.

“A lot of opportunities come up now that are just icing on the cake,” she said. “And I feel a responsibility not just to represent myself but to represent women and to be a source of inspiration.

“And maybe [me being in SoccerAid] draws more people to be interested in the women’s game and if so, that’s great. I love this game, and I think I can still play and knock it. … I feel very fortunate to play in this event, that I still have my heart in this incredible sport and that my body still mostly cooperates. But at the end of the day, it’s about the kids and raising money for them. If I’m able to do that with my platform, that’s what it’s all about.”

The United Soccer League will launch a new professional women’s league in 2024 with plans to compete directly against the NWSL.

The USL Super League will kick off in August 2024 with 10 to 12 teams. Eight franchise locations already have been announced:

  • Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas
  • Lexington, Kentucky
  • Phoenix, Arizona
  • Spokane, Washington
  • Tampa Bay, Florida
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • Washington D.C.

The D.C. franchise will operate in conjunction with the city’s MLS club D.C. United. Other franchises, including Phoenix, will have connections to USL men’s clubs. Four other cities are expected to join in subsequent seasons, with Chattanooga, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Madison and Oakland among the possible locations, The Athletic reported.

Initially, the USL had announced in 2021 that it would apply for Division II sanctioning for the new league, which would put it a step below the NWSL. Instead, it will now apply to U.S. Soccer for Division I sanctioning.

“The USL Super League will sit at the top of our women’s pyramid with strong ownership groups, modern stadiums, and passionate fans that will deliver immediate viability and long-term sustainability,” USL CEO Alec Papadakis said in a league statement.

The league will run on a fall-to-summer schedule, putting it on the same calendar as most international soccer leagues. That will put the Super League in contrast with the NWSL, which runs on a spring-to-fall schedule.

In response to news of the USL Super League, an NWSL spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that they “welcome more opportunities for women to play professional soccer in the United States.”

USL Super League president Amanda Vandervort did not respond to questions about whether the league could be too much growth for the women’s pro game in the United States in such a short timeframe. The NWSL recently announced that it would add two more teams in 2026 to bring its total to 16, on top of two teams being added in 2024.

“The United States has 12 professional women’s teams but is about the same footprint and population as all of Europe, and they have over 150 top-tier professional women’s teams,” Vandervort told The Athletic. “There’s so much opportunity in this country. Ultimately I believe we’re filling an opportunity gap, and it’s our responsibility to do it at the highest standard.”

The Super League will operate without a salary cap, with the aim to compete on the global market. The current minimum salary in the NWSL is $36,400. Top player salaries sit at nearly $300,000 per year.

The USL hopes to capitalize on increased viewership for women’s sports, and has hied Octagon to help with their media rights deal.

“I think then we’re seeing it from a commercial standpoint, from a fan standpoint, fan engagement is off the charts. Decades of work have gone into where we are today and amazing people have been investing their lives in this journey along the way,” Vandervort said. “And I’m excited that we have now these ownership groups that are prepared to invest at the levels that they’re ready to invest.

“From building and upgrading incredible stadiums across this country to really investing in the experience for both players and fans, I think it’s an incredible moment in women’s soccer.”

Sarah Fuller is opening up about her mental health struggles. The goalkeeper told Sports Illustrated’s Julie Kliegman that earlier this year thoughts of self-harm and suicide led her to take a break from soccer.

Fuller, who became the first woman to score points in NCAA Division I football while at Vanderbilt, played soccer as a graduate student at North Texas for the 2021-22 academic year. She also spent this summer as a goalkeeper for Minnesota Aurora FC, helping the team to a runner-up finish in its first USL W League season.

Before her stint with the Aurora, though, Fuller took a lengthy break from soccer. The death of Stanford goalkeeper Katie Meyer in March provided a wakeup call, and Fuller committed to changing something about her mental health, she told Sports Illustrated.

She was feeling burnt out on the field. She also admitted that – at least subconsciously – the stress from the immediate fame (and subsequent criticisms, among them a death threat) brought by her accomplishments had caught up with her.

After scheduling an emergency session with her sports psychologist, Fuller stepped away from soccer for the latter half of the spring semester. She still was working out, and even ran the Boston Marathon during that time, but she took a break from the game.

“When you’re at that low of a point, the things that you love, that excite you, that you have a passion for, tend to be sometimes the most draining,” Fuller told Sports Illustrated.

The break helped, and Fuller returned to soccer, ready to enjoy it once again. As a captain with Aurora FC, Fuller helped the team navigate its first season. For Fuller, it was the “happiest she’s ever been playing soccer.”

“I’ve taken this opportunity at Aurora to take a better step forward with soccer and have a better relationship with it and just find the joy in being around my teammates,” she told Sports Illustrated. “Everything’s honestly a 180 from where I was at.”

After her run to the USL W League finals with Aurora FC, though, Fuller announced Wednesday that she plans to forgo her final semester of college soccer eligibility. She will continue to pursue her master’s degree in sports entertainment management at North Texas and appreciates “the massive support from Mean Green Nation.”

Still, Fuller told Sports Illustrated that she plans to continue to speak out on mental health issues, and she would like to see the NCAA mandate more mental health resources for student athletes.

“I don’t even want that to be an option for student-athletes, to think of suicide,” she said. “You’re much better taking a step back and pressing pause.”

Minnesota Aurora FC continues to exceed expectations. In its debut season, the team has advanced to the semifinals of the inaugural USL W League playoffs, and it did so in front of a sold-out crowd of 6,200 fans.

After going undefeated in the regular season (11-0-1), the Aurora went head-to-head Wednesday with another undefeated team in the Indy Eleven and came out with a 2-1 win.

They scored their first playoff victory after fighting back from a 1-0 deficit. Mayu Inokawa, who was making her first start, notched the game-winner in the 65th minute with her first career goal.

Starting goalkeeper Sarah Fuller also impressed for Minnesota, with four key saves in the first half including one on a penalty kick from Indy’s Katherine Soderstrom.

“I’ve seen her shoot a few times. I was like OK, I feel like she’s going to go to my left and I just went. It was there, I made the save. Just incredible, so happy I saved it,” Fuller told KMSP.

As the NWSL continues to look at cities for expansion in 2024, Minnesota continues to make its case through the turnout for its semi-professional team.

Next up, the Aurora will host McLean Soccer at TCO Stadium on Sunday in a semifinal match.

In just a few short games, Minnesota Aurora FC has made a name for itself on the field.

The USL W League team earned a 3-2 road win against St. Louis on Sunday, its second consecutive win and third of the season. The Aurora could be 3-0 to start the season save for a draw in their home opener against Green Bay.

Even before they started winning on the pitch, though, the Minneapolis-area team already was making a name for itself off the field.

For co-founder Matt Privratsky, the journey has been a bit unexpected. Initially, the club set an investment goal of $500,000, built upon community ownership with a minimum contribution of $100 per individual. But the club doubled that, raising roughly $1 million from 3,080 community owners whose average contribution is more than $300.

The USL W League is playing its inaugural season in 2022, with 44 teams across 20 states. It bills itself as a pre-professional league that provides development opportunities for women’s players.

The local community has rallied around Aurora in their first season. Supporters include the Como Zoo in St. Paul, which named a baby zebra after the team.

There’s also the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, who are lending use of their practice field TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minn., which serves as the USL club’s home turf. At the club’s home opener, another local team in the Minnesota Lynx showed support.

The Aurora are seeing that support more broadly as well. The club generated $640,000 in combined ticket, merchandise and sponsorship revenue before the team ever took the field at TCO Stadium, and sold out its allotment of 3,000 season tickets.

The Aurora don’t take that support for granted, and they’re trying to show that in their product. Because the team generated more revenue than it projected, the front office made upgrades to the budget and hired more staff than originally deemed necessary.

They also have made it easy for fans to follow the team. One of their partnerships is a deal with local TV station WCCO, which ensures all matches are streamed live for free on the station’s digital platform, CBS News Minnesota.

In the home opener on May 26, fans made their presence known. TCO Stadium saw a sold-out crowd of over 5,200.

The weekly average for NWSL games so far this season is 8,105 – a number bolstered by Angel City FC’s average of 18,709 fans per game. The median attendance for the NWSL sits around 5,000 per game.

The club has signed some big-name players, including Sarah Fuller, who made a name for herself as a goalkeeper at Vanderbilt and North Texas — and as the first woman to score in a Power 5 football game while at Vanderbilt.

With a dozen Minnesotans on the roster, there’s a hometown feel to the team as well. And as the NWSL considers cities for future expansion in 2024, Minnesota continues to make a case for itself as a prime destination. The Aurora could help the state’s case, as a few NWSL teams have branched into the USL W League as a way to develop talent.

“That (a NWSL club in Minnesota) would be amazing,” Minnesota Gophers head coach Erin Chastain said. “I think this would be a great market for an NWSL team. Aurora has really done a good job of putting the leg work in so that we can show the country, ‘Hey, we can do women’s soccer here at a high level.’”

The Aurora play their next home game at 8 p.m. ET Friday against Chicago City SC.

A new era of American pre-professional women’s soccer is here, with the USL’s W League kicking off Friday night.

The league’s inaugural season will feature 44 teams across 20 states and a stated mission to build out the women’s soccer pipeline in the United States.

“When you look at the gap of nearly 40,000 women playing soccer in college in America … there is only really limited opportunities for them to play both professionally and amateur soccer across the country, so we are going to help fill that gap and create an opportunity for women to play with the W League,” USL Super League President Amanda Vandervort tells Just Women’s Sports.

“We are bringing elite-level women’s soccer to communities across the country and creating the opportunity to play. There’s plenty of women that want to play soccer, so we are going to do it in a professional way.”

The women’s soccer talent pool, like most sports in the United States, has continued to grow exponentially, with infrastructure scrambling to house and develop the influx of skilled players. The NWSL, the top professional league in the U.S., has expanded into four new markets in the past two seasons as interest from athletes, consumers, brands and prospective owners increases.

This isn’t the first iteration of the pre-professional competition. A similar USL W league existed in the U.S. from 1995 to 2015, folding after 21 seasons due to the Western Conference pulling out of the league.

Now, the W League is looking to create a sustainable women’s soccer network, one that will serve individual players and the sport more broadly.

“Development is part of the story of the W League because we are developing a system as a pathway to the pros,” Vandervort explains. “So, you come to the W League — it complements your college season but doesn’t affect your eligibility, and then it provides you an opportunity for coaches to scout you, for you to play more year-round soccer as a collegiate player and then go on to the pros.”

The gap from college to professional competition has not consistently been bridged in women’s soccer, or in women’s sports generally for that matter.

WNBA players have been vocal this preseason about the salary cap requiring teams to cut top college draft picks from their final rosters, leaving them without a team or a place to play in the United States. Chiney Ogumike of the Los Angeles Sparks told reporters this week that the WNBA could use a G league or developmental league to capture the overflow of talent.

The W League hopes to fill the collegiate-pro chasm in soccer and keep promising American talent stateside. Not all athletes who enter the W League, however, will go pro. The league, Vandervort says, is just as invested in nurturing players eager to learn more about sports management, coaching or communication, paving the way for more women and former players to fill administrative positions.

“When we talk about development, there is different pathways for players, and if you zoom out and you look broadly at what does development mean for sport in this country and soccer in this country, it means creating more opportunities and creating an elite-level league that we can learn from, grow from,” Vandervort said.

Tricia Taliaferro, Coach of the W League’s Tampa Bay United Soccer Club, says she welcomes the challenge of coaching amateur players. As a longtime U.S. youth national team coach, Taliaferro knows the importance of building out the soccer ecosystem in America.

“Including the women in this platform is the next phase as far as development across the world and in the States,” she says. “It’s the biggest thing that we need because other countries are starting to catch up or surpass.”

The USL aims to serve as trusted support for the women’s developmental pipeline, just as the organization has functioned on the men’s side, sustaining leagues across the professional ladder.

“We are in a position of privilege here in that we are building something from scratch, and we have infrastructure in the leadership that really believes in the women’s game, in women’s soccer, in the development and the future of women’s soccer,” says Missy Price, the USL’s Vice President of Women’s Soccer. “We think a lot about the long-term sustainability of this league and making sure that the development and the systems and structures around it, making sure that they’re foundational elements to being able to deliver on that vision.”

“As we re-introduce women’s soccer, the pathway here at the USL, we have the opportunity to learn from the men’s vertical, but then also do things in the way that is best for the women and the women’s game,” adds Vandervort.

The foray back into women’s pre-professional soccer also provides a unique opportunity for coaches looking to enter the women’s game.

“Providing opportunities for women, I think a lot of people have always talked about it, but never really given it a platform,” Taliaferro says. “Or the women who, like myself, have aspirations to coach pro, and then you get pro opportunities or interviews and then it’s like, ‘Well, you don’t have experience.’ OK, well, how am I supposed to get experience?” Taliaferro says.

“If you peel back the layers, I think that’s what the USL is providing … you’re elevating the female coaches that have the interest to do it, providing more opportunities on a level stage, and now we are competing for jobs off of merit and our background and our experience and our resume.”

The USL, Taliaferro says, allows coaches to build their programs from the ground up, giving them a chance to advance their professional careers.

The reach of the pre-professional league is broad, with the potential to reverberate across the sport. The mission, however, is simple: to be the most trusted pre-professional women’s league for players, coaches, partners and fans.

The success of the inaugural W League season, according to Price, all boils down to player experience.

“If someone played in the W League and enjoyed their experience and felt like it was valuable to them, they grew as a player, they saw it as an integral piece of their development or career goals or made them better for whatever is next,” she says.

The W League’s season kicks off Friday, with the Indy Eleven hosting Kings Hammer FC at Grand Park at 7 p.m. ET.

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.

USL W-League club Minnesota Aurora FC has signed former collegiate goalkeeper Sarah Fuller, with the team announcing the news on Monday.

Fuller made history when she took the field as a kicker for the Vanderbilt football team in 2020, becoming the first woman to score in a Power 5 football game.

After playing four seasons as a goalkeeper for Vanderbilt, and a season on the football team, Fuller finished her collegiate campaign at North Texas in 2021, playing 17 games and recording eight shutouts as the program’s starting keeper.

The 22-year-old is the first player signed to the pre-professional soccer league team, which will take the field in 2022.

“Sarah is a fantastic player and an even better person,” coach Nicole Lukic said. “Having a leader like Sarah that has broken down barriers is a perfect fit for us.”

Racing Louisville FC’s youth academy will join the USL W League, the USL announced Tuesday. The move makes Racing the first W League member to complete its developmental pyramid.

The W League’s inaugural season kicks off in May.

Currently, more than 35 teams are signed on with the league, which has a goal as a pre-professional league to form a player pipeline between college and the professional ranks.

“We see the W league as a way to complete our path to pro model on the Racing side,” said the club’s interim president, James O’Connor. “We plan to get meaningful minutes for our top academy prospects and also use the league to see the best local and national collegiate talent. There will be a number of players who will play in this league on their way to the NWSL, so it provides an excellent development opportunity for our best young talent.”

The move is the first of its kind in the NWSL.

Racing Louisville is owned and operated by Soccer Holdings, LLC, which also owns two-time USL Championship title winner Louisville City FC. The organization plans to play its W League competitions at the Lynn Family Sports Vision & Training Center.

Both Racing and Louisville City launched their youth academies in the fall of 2020. Currently, the academy competes in the Elite Clubs National League. The addition of the W League squad helps to round out the path to the professional level for the girls’ system.

The coaching staff for the team will be named at a later date. Included on the roster will be a mix of high-level academy performers and college standouts with the hopes of one day signing with Louisville’s NWSL side.

“We are excited to add the final piece of our pathway for Racing Louisville Academy,” said Mario Sanchez, the program’s director. “The USL W league will provide our Racing Academy players the opportunity to further their development in a very competitive, pre-professional environment. We are looking forward to watching our academy members and other top collegiate stars work toward representing Racing in the NWSL.”

Racing Louisville will begin NWSL preseason on Feb. 1 after first joining the league during its 2021 season.

Nadia Caballero is joining Queensboro FC as the USL W League team’s first head coach. The pre-professional women’s soccer league is set to kick off its inaugural season in May.

A former player, Caballero spent 15 years competing for various premier Spanish Clubs, including Sevilla FC. After retiring from the field, she started running non-profit soccer camps at Parade Grounds in New York and coaching the Woodhaven FC girls’ teams to multiple LIJSC Division Championship appearances. Caballero spent the past the past three years with DV7 Academy, where she was Technical Director of the Women’s Program and coach of the champion U11 NYSC/EDP boys’ team.

“I am thrilled to be joining Queensboro FC and could not be more excited to begin building this groundbreaking team,” said Caballero. “The entire organization has demonstrated their commitment to developing women’s soccer and I am honored to be fielding the first-ever Queensboro FC II W team this summer.”

Since the start of her career in Spain, Caballero has been a pioneer of women’s soccer. She joined several previously male-only development teams and successfully lobbied for the Andalusian Soccer Federation to lower the First National Division playing age from 16 to 14.

“We are delighted to have Nadia as the newest member of our league-leading coaching staff here at Queensboro FC,” said Adam Schneider, Queensboro FC Team President. “As a founding member of the USL W League, our club is dedicated to creating an equitable and premier pathway to pro for all players, and Nadia’s passion for the game, excellence as a player and demonstrated coaching expertise will set the tone for the women’s program both here at Queensboro FC and for teams around the league.”

The USL W League aims to enhance the women’s soccer pipeline between college and the pros, providing an option for players who don’t make NWSL rosters to compete professionally without going overseas. The league hired veteran soccer executive Amanda Vandervort as president in October and has at least 30 teams set to begin play across the United States.

Queensboro FC II W is partnered with Queensboro FC, a new professional men’s soccer team in Queens, N.Y. that will compete in the USL Championship beginning in 2023.

The first-ever Queensboro FC W League open tryouts will take place in Mount Vernon, N.Y. on Jan. 15.

After announcing the formation of the USL Super League in September, the United Soccer League has named Amanda Vandervort as the league’s president.

“We are delighted to welcome Amanda to the USL executive team as USL Super League President,” said USL CEO Alec Papadakis in a release. “Amanda is one of the most accomplished soccer executives in the United States. Her expertise includes global women’s soccer matters, partnerships, marketing, league expansion, club strategy, grassroots initiatives, and business development. Just as importantly, Amanda’s perspective as a former player and coach aligns with the culture of our organization and that of our other senior executives.”

Vandervort will work to lead all aspects of the USL’s youth-to-professional soccer pathway. Through her work with communities, players, clubs, owners and partners, she will find ways to build the Super League into a financially stable and globally recognized sports entity.

“It’s such an exciting privilege to be in this position,” Vandervort said. “Together we’ll build a competitive environment for elite women players, coaches and referees at the professional level. We’ll create opportunities for fans to experience the women’s game in their local communities and provide value to those investing in this high-growth platform. I’m excited to be helping the USL realize the Super League’s potential and drive the women’s game forward.”

With over 20 years of experience at all levels of women’s and men’s soccer, most recently Vandervort served as Chief Women’s Football Officer of FIFPRO. There, she directed strategy, policy and stakeholder relations.

She also co-authored the 2020 Raising Our Game Report, which overviewed the growing women’s football industry and focused on placing player rights and conditions at the center.

Additionally, she was Vice President of CRM and Social Media at MLS before also becoming the Vice President of Fan Engagement. She also served as a Women’s Football Development Consultant for FIFA.

The USL Super League is set to begin play in 2023 and hopes to give players who don’t make NWSL rosters an opportunity to compete professionally without going overseas.