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How Alex Morgan, Wave rose to the occasion against Red Stars

(Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports)

On Sunday evening, late into the night on all coasts, the San Diego Wave made more history. After becoming the first expansion club in league history to make the NWSL playoffs in their inaugural season, the Wave did one better, defeating the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in extra time to book their ticket to a semifinal date with the Portland Thorns.

The Wave came into the match with an element of uncertainty, as the injury bug had appeared to strike at the exactly wrong time. Katie Johnson and Abby Dahlkemper were ruled out of the match due to injury, and Taylor Kornieck and Alex Morgan were listed as questionable in the weeks leading up to the match.

This meant that San Diego was likely going to have to rely on its other star asset: Casey Stoney, the team’s manager. The Wave’s tactical flexibility has been an undercurrent of their success in their first year, despite a reputation for “route one” soccer. Stoney and Co. showcased their full-team discipline to defend in their regular season finale, a 0-0 draw against the North Carolina Courage.

That performance hinted at what a game might look like if Morgan and Kornieck were unavailable, after the U.S. women’s national team players suffered injuries late in the regular season. As it turned out, the concerns were unfounded (despite slight gamesmanship from Stoney as to the severity of their injuries.) Morgan and Kornieck both started on Sunday and were critical to the Wave’s execution on offense.

Chicago came out in a high press, generating turnovers and disrupting San Diego’s ability to move the ball forward. One such moment of pressure gave the Red Stars an unexpected early lead. San Diego goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who has been excellent in long-ball distribution this year, made an uncharacteristic mistake in the 10th minute, spilling the ball at the top of the box to the feet of Yuki Nagasato. Before anyone else could react, Nagasato calmly chipped the keeper to put Chicago ahead 1-0.

Sheridan’s mistake was the kind that can make or break a playoff game as competitive as this one. The Red Stars seized the momentum for the rest of the first half, combining well through their newly healthy midfield box formation and cutting through the center of the pitch with ease. San Diego’s defense, though, held firm, doing just enough to keep Mallory Pugh from getting a lethal shot off or Nagasato from pouncing on another mistake.

The Wave also held their own on the wings despite struggling with the Red Stars’ on-ball dribbling talent. Chicago did well to advance continuously into San Diego’s 18-yard-box without resistance, and yet at the half, the Wave were down only 1-0. As the first half wore on, San Diego also began to get separation on set pieces, with the 6-foot-1 Kornieck proving nearly impossible to mark in the air time and time again.

After halftime, San Diego tapped into depth, tactics and some old-fashioned belief to get back into the game. The downside of an aggressive press, like the one the Red Stars started the game with, is that you pay the price with your legs later in the match, and Chicago began to wear down in the second half. Stoney subbed in Sofia Jakobsson, who started to get acres of space along the left wing. It was Jakobsson’s run down the sideline that led to the game’s equalizer, with midfielder Emily van Egmond scoring her first NWSL goal of the season. The Wave also began pressuring the Red Stars’ center-backs and defensive midfielders, affecting their ability to control the tempo as they had in the first half.

It’s true that San Diego relied on a direct style of play that can be criticized as predictable, but it’s also true that it’s an exhausting style to try to defend. As Naomi Girma continued to send in probing long passes, and Morgan put her body on the line to reach the ends of those passes, the Red Stars began to run out of gas in a footrace they were trying to avoid.

In extra time, the Red Stars left a substitute unused, and a number of starters began to struggle with cramping and lack of pace. San Diego also brought on Amirah Ali for a waning Kornieck, and control of the match began to tip in the Wave’s favor.

Which brought all roads back to Morgan, the 2022 Golden Boot winner who showed some of the qualities that make her such a special player in big games. Fans know Morgan as a player who can streak into space and get in behind a defense. But on Sunday, Morgan played the role she perfected in the 2019 World Cup, which is to sit in the trenches and open up attacking lanes just enough to make a difference.

The goal in the 110th minute came off a corner kick. Morgan’s patience on the ball in the moment allowed her just enough space to slip the shot underneath goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and end Chicago’s season.

Morgan didn’t look 100 percent on Sunday, but she changed her game to bolster her effectiveness; and as she went, so her team followed. The Wave aren’t always ready with an immediate Plan B when they’re put on their heels, but you don’t make it this far in the NWSL season without a little bit of luck and effort, buying yourself enough time to adjust.

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

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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