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Alyssa Naeher brings leadership to USWNT defense without their captain

Alyssa Naeher will be a key veteran leader on the USWNT backline that is now without Becky Sauerbrunn. (Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

For the entirety of the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup-winning campaign in France in 2019, Alyssa Naeher had very little trouble staying locked in.

“I don’t even think I turned my phone off airplane mode,” she said before Red Stars training on Thursday, the day after being named to her third-straight World Cup squad.

Naeher is going to need a similar amount of focus this year. She was a part of the USWNT’s last two World Cup-winning teams, first as a backup in 2015 and then as the team’s starter in 2019. This year, she’s bringing a crucial veteran presence to a backline that will be missing captain Becky Sauerbrunn for the first time since 2007.

“I’m very disappointed for Becky, obviously,” Naeher said. “I have the greatest amount of respect in the world for Becky, who she is as a person and who she is as a player, so she will definitely be missed.”

“Becky is — she’s our captain, she’s our leader, and she is going to be a big hole to fill. And I think just her presence in the team, in meetings, on the field in games, her leadership and her experience, you don’t just replace it.”

Naeher believes that raising the level of the defense in Sauerbrunn’s absence will be a group effort, with every player bringing just a little bit more of themselves and their individual strengths to each game. As for the 35-year-old goalkeeper, she prides herself on taking things one day at a time.

“I just try to stay as present as possible,” she said. “Each day is a new day to try to learn from the day before and build off of that — learn from the things I’ve not done as well and figure out the things I have done well and try to build off of that.”

She’s known to U.S. and Chicago fans as “Uncle Naeher,” a nickname given to her by former Red Stars teammate Stephanie McCaffrey for the way she’d help her teammates out with tasks you might delegate to a family member. But Naeher feels that stepping into her own leadership role has taken time. She’s serving as the Red Stars captain after the departure of Vanessa DiBernardo in the offseason. That means she’s been responsible for stewarding a young team through a difficult season and an impending sale, after scandal rocked the organization in recent years.

“I wish that I could say I did everything perfectly and everything right, but that’s just not true,” Naeher said of facing obstacles with Chicago. “But I’d say for me, it’s just about learning, it’s about growth, and when I have made mistakes along the way or mishandled situations, I’ve always tried to learn how to be better from them. And I feel like I’ve done that.”

Naeher’s dynamic within the USWNT is slightly different, as the national team has a variety of experienced players and big personalities able to take on the mantle of leadership. The U.S. will still be traveling with two-time World Champions like Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, and Naeher says that “each person is a leader in their own way.” Naeher isn’t known as a player who is going to be the loudest in the team huddle, but she relies on her work ethic to shine through.

“I’ve always just tried to be me, just tried to be who I am, stay true to who I am, and however I can help this team to be successful,” she said. “To me, half of leadership is just showing up and putting in the work and fighting for the person next to you, and that’s something where I do feel very comfortable saying that is what I do consistently.”

That mindset can make the difference between a call-up and international disappointment, especially as players work through whatever challenges their clubs might be facing to show off for the national team coaching staff. The goalkeeper is the only representative of the Red Stars making the trip with the U.S. this year, after teammates Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger just missed the cut. As a player who sometimes found herself on the outside looking in in the past, Naeher has learned to simply focus on what she can control.

“I think I learned early on in my career, through a lot of different frustrations and struggles and disappointments, that the one thing, the only thing that I had control over my entire career was my work ethic every single day in training, and my preparation,” she said.

“I could never control how other goalkeepers are doing, I couldn’t control the decisions that were being made by my coaches and their opinions. But the one thing that I had control over is — can I be a good teammate and show up and give everything I have every single day? So that’s what I chose to do.

“And something that I’m proud of is that I think that’s still there now, 15 years later. I think that that’s all I have, and that’s what I hope to instill in other people going forward. And at the end of the day, that’s all you can take with you.”

Naeher celebrates with Becky Sauerbrunn after a win over England in the 2019 World Cup semifinal. (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Naeher’s not planning on guiding the new USWNT backline with a particularly heavy hand. The time they spend together in camp will help them figure out each teammate’s individual needs, including her fellow goalkeepers, Casey Murphy and Aubrey Kingsbury.

“It’s going to be about connecting with all of them and understanding,” she said. “Does this person need a little pep talk before? Do they need to be left alone? Do they want my unsolicited advice? Do I need to wait for them to ask for it?”

Naeher still remembers just observing the goalkeeping giants in front of her in 2015, and taking in processes that she hopes to pass along to players going through a major tournament for the first time. True to form, with another tall task in front of her, Naeher isn’t focused on her own legacy, though her longevity and success with the U.S. speaks for itself. She’s focused more on living up to the honor of wearing the U.S. No. 1 jersey.

“My responsibility is to continue to train hard every single day, continue to set a high standard,” she said, “and show this next generation of goalkeepers what it takes to be on the national team, and what it takes to — every single day, commitment to training, their commitment to preparation — to uphold the standards that numerous goalkeepers have set before us.”

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

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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