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Five new players to watch as the NWSL Challenge Cup resumes

Racing Louisville’s Alex Chidiac won a championship with her Australian club last month. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

The NWSL Challenge Cup resumes on Thursday after an international break that lasted a week and a half.

Kicking off with OL Reign versus San Diego Wave FC on Thursday night, the tournament will continue to serve as an opportunity for coaches to evaluate their rosters in game action before the regular season begins April 29. About two thirds of the way through their Challenge Cup schedules, teams are still signing and rotating in new players.

In that spirit, we look at five of the NWSL’s most notable additions who recently made, or will soon make, their league debuts.

Kerolin Nicoli, F, North Carolina Courage

Nicoli officially joined the Courage at the beginning of the month, arriving from Brazil for an away game against NY/NJ Gotham FC on April 3. Subbing into the game in the second half for her NWSL debut, she showcased her creativity, comfort on the ball and ability to draw opponents in and create spaces. Her most dangerous play came in the 80th minute, when she received a through ball from Brazilian teammate Debinha and took on three Gotham defenders before hitting the top left post with her shot.

“Really, really happy with her, and she’s obviously only going to get better,” Courage head coach Sean Nahas said.

Despite a 1-1 draw with Gotham, North Carolina remains undefeated and at the top of the East Division standings with a 2-0-2 record.

Before signing with North Carolina on Jan. 10, Kerolin played two seasons with Madrid Club de Fútbol Femenin of the Spanish Primera División, scoring five goals in 24 appearances and logging 1,588 minutes of playing time.

Amirah Ali, F, San Diego Wave FC

Ali scored her first professional goal in her NWSL debut on April 2 after subbing on in the 68th minute. In an impressive individual effort, she dribbled through Angel City FC’s half, beating center back Vanessa Gilles into the box and placing the ball in the bottom right corner.

The 4-2 win was the Wave’s first in franchise history, lifting them to third place in the West Division standings, ahead of Angel City. 

San Diego head coach Casey Stoney wasn’t surprised at all by Ali’s standout debut.

“If we can get her fit, she can light this league up,” said Stoney, who’s been impressed with Ali’s intelligence.

Ali is coming off of her senior year at Rutgers University, where she was a MAC Hermann Trophy candidate as well as a member of the All-Big Ten First Team and the All-Region First Team.

Amanda Kowalski, D, Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars signed Kowalski after center back Tierna Davidson went down with a season-ending torn ACL last month. The defender made her first start in a 2-0 shutout of the Houston Dash on April 2, and two days later, the club announced it had signed her to a three-year contract with a fourth-year option. Playing all 90 minutes for her hometown club, she recorded two key blocked shots and completed 80 percent of her passes, making her one of the Red Stars’ top facilitators of the game with 44 completed passes.

With the clean-sheet victory, Chicago rose to the top of the Central Division standings, tied with the Kansas City Current at 2-1-1.

Before joining the Red Stars this preseason as a non-roster invitee, Kowalski played in 72 matches at Butler University, scoring four goals and recording 11 assists.

Alex Chidiac, M, Racing Louisville FC

Though just 23 years old, Chidiac has been a star for a while. The midfielder received her first senior national team call-up with Australia at the age of 16, and at 15 she made her debut with Adelaide United FC in the A-League.

Most recently, she was named Melbourne Victory’s best player in 2021 after helping the club win last month’s Aussie Grand Final. On loan from WE League’s JEF United Chiba, she scored one goal and added two assists in 14 starts for Melbourne.

The Sydney native, who signed with Racing Louisville earlier this month, is known to be strong on the ball and to play with a lot of energy.

“I think Alex and Racing will be a perfect match,” Louisville head coach Kim Björkegren said.

Jimena López, D, OL Reign

López had a standout first start with the OL Reign in a 1-0 win over the Portland Thorns on April 2, making some key tackles on the wing. A member of the Mexican national team, the fullback joins U.S. women’s national team defenders Sofia Huerta and Alana Cook — as well as Lu Barnes and Sam Hiatt — to form one of the strongest backlines in the league.

López was selected 28th overall in the 2021 NWSL Draft by the Reign before signing with Eibar in the Spanish Primera División the same month. In Spain, the 23-year-old started and played in 16 matches, scoring one goal across 1,361 minutes of play.

Before going pro, López starred at Texas A&M. With 17 goals and 23 assists in her NCAA career, she was named 2019 SEC Midfielder of the Year and 2020 Co-Defender of the Year, and she was a two-time All-SEC First Team selection.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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