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Alyssa Naeher headlines goalkeeper battle at first USWNT camp

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The United States women’s national soccer team is back in action for the first time in 2022, with 26 players descending on Austin, Texas for January camp under head coach Vlatko Andonovski.

Among those called into the year’s first training camp running from Jan. 19-28 is goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who returns to the USWNT for the first time since exiting the Tokyo Olympics early with a knee injury.

After rehabbing over the last six months, Naeher is back in net and ready to get to work. Below, we evaluate Naeher’s status and other takeaways from USWNT camp since it opened last week.

‘I feel great, 100 percent, no restrictions’

Naeher is one of three goalkeepers participating in the January camp, joining Washington’s Aubrey Kingsbury (née Bledsoe) and North Carolina’s Casey Murphy. The USWNT keeper competition will be one to watch, as no clear heir apparent to Naeher has yet to emerge.

Murphy made a case for her place in the lineup with a stellar performance in the USWNT’s November friendlies against Australia, recording a shutout in her first cap with the senior team.

“They bring a high level to the training sessions,” Naeher said of Kingsbury and Murphy during a media call Monday. “It’s a competitive environment. We are all going to keep pushing each other.”

Naeher has made 78 appearances for the USWNT and recorded 44 clean sheets during her international career, most notably giving up just two goals during the team’s run to the 2019 World Cup title. As the starter in France, Naeher played every minute of every game.

Since leaving the USWNT’s semifinal game against Canada with the injury, she has had a long road back to the pitch, taking up swimming during her months-long rehabilitation process.

“The gym I was at, there’s a group, they’re all triathletes or former college swimmers … they were giving me tips along the way, and it’s cool it turned into its own little community,” Naeher said. “It was something fun to look forward to. It’s never easy to grind through a recovery of an injury.”

Grateful to be on the other side of her rehab, Naeher said she’s embracing and enjoying even the routine aspects of training sessions. In net, the 33-year-old Red Stars keeper has no restrictions but is working back into peak soccer shape.

“Now it’s just getting back up to speed, now it’s just cleaning back up the technical pieces,” she said. “I’m excited to get back in with the group to put my head down and just get back to work.”

NWSL representation

Nine of 12 NWSL teams are represented on the USWNT’s January roster, including six players from the 2021 NWSL champion Washington Spirit: Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Andi Sullivan, Ashley Sanchez, Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman and Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch.

“Being here with six other Spirit players is fun. I was super excited when I saw the roster,” Hatch said. “It’s like a little mini-reunion before we go back to season.”

The NWSL-heavy roster highlights Andonovski’s emphasis on club form and his propensity to recruit from the league.

Morgan Gautrat is a player who has seemingly benefited from that trend, earning her first USWNT call-up since November 2020 after an impressive campaign with the NWSL finalist Red Stars in 2021. Chicago teammate Naeher said Gautrat, 28, fought to get back in the national team mix, calling the midfielder “the epitome of a team player.”

“I thought she had a phenomenal year with Chicago last year,” Naeher said. “It felt like she was back to probably the best I’ve seen her in a couple years, and she 100 percent earned and deserved the opportunity to come back in.”

With NWSL preseason set to begin Feb. 1 (unless the absence of a CBA leads to a players strike), many players view the camp as an opportunity to get into competition shape.

“I think anytime you can get touches on the ball, especially in an environment like this, it’s probably the most intense environment you can put yourself in,” O’Hara said. “It’s nice to be able to be here and be getting ready for 2022, and I think everybody here is going to go into preseason for NWSL probably looking pretty sharp.”

Following a six-week preseason training period, the NWSL will host the third annual Challenge Cup beginning March 19.

New players make a splash

The first USWNT camp of the year features a series of young players looking to make a strong first impression with Andonovski.

Thirteen players have ten USWNT caps or fewer, with Rodman, Kingsbury and San Diego’s Naomi Girma all still uncapped. While much of the roster is inexperienced on the international stage, many have competed at the club level, underscoring Andonovski’s ties to the NWSL.

“I feel like the newbies are maybe new to this environment, but they’re not new to the NWSL environment,” Hatch said. “And that’s also a competitive environment, so it may be new seeing them here, but it’s not new playing against them and with them.”

For those new to the USWNT, the 2022 kickoff camp provides them with an opportunity to compete and learn from seasoned leaders. O’Hara, who is the most capped player in camp with 148 international appearances, described the USWNT environment as all about “consistency and intensity and striving for excellence.”

“Be prepared be ready,” O’Hara said would be her advice to the new players. “You’re going to feel probably a little uncertain and feel like you’re out of your comfort zone.”

Two-time Mac Hermann trophy winner Jaelin Howell has welcomed the grind and competitive nature of camp.

“It’s awesome to be here and have this opportunity … [with] some of the other younger players getting our foot in the door and hopefully coming back more often and making a difference,” Howell said.

Following the January camp, Andonovski will name his 23-player roster for the SheBelieves Cup, which kicks off on Feb. 17 in Carson, Calif. and Frisco, Texas. The lineup he goes with will likely indicate the team’s direction heading into the 2022 Concacaf W Championship in July.

Clare Brennan is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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