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Amalia Villarreal brings childhood drawing to life with US U-17 team

(Courtesy of U.S. Soccer)

The Mirror of Erised, Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, reflects the “deepest, most desperate desires” of users’ hearts.

So when Amalia Villarreal, then 6 or 7, was assigned by her teacher to draw what her reflection would look like in the Mirror of Erised, she sketched herself in United States women’s national team soccer garb: blue socks, red shorts and blue jersey, with a gold medal slung around her neck.

Villarreal got to live out that dream last weekend, when the U.S. U-17 team defeated Mexico 2-1 in the 2022 Concacaf Championship. The forward tied for the team lead with eight goals during the seven-game tournament staged in the Dominican Republic, including a five-goal outburst in a 13-0 victory over Puerto Rico on April 25 that tied a USA record for the most goals scored in a single game at any age level.

She was driven by the image of herself she drew as a kid.

“Anytime (training) was hard, it was in the back of my mind to work for my younger self,” Villarreal said.


(Courtesy of Mario Villarreal)

Villarreal, a product of Lansing, Mich., played an age group up for the tournament, like she has for much of her soccer life. When she first started playing competitively, for the boys’ indoor team her father coached, she was a year younger than most of her teammates and opponents.

No matter. Villarreal dominated anyway. Neither of her parents played soccer growing up — her father was a baseball and football player at Division III Olivet College (Mich.), and her mother played high school basketball — but she approached the game with an elevated competitive drive.

“They eventually banned her out of the indoor soccer league, because it was a boys’ league,” her father Mario said.

Or maybe it was because the boys could not keep up. Fueled by her national team dream, she continued to excel playing with girls.

When she was 9, she tried out for the local Michigan Jaguars club team and made an impression on coach Trisha Wellock when Wellock asked what position she played.

“What do you mean?” Villarreal replied.

“Don’t you play a position?” Wellock said.

“No,” Villarreal said. “I play where the ball goes, and I put it in the net.”

Villarreal played for Wellock for three years, and led the team to the club national championship her U-13 season. Though the Jaguars fell, Villarreal won the “Golden Ball” award, given to the best player in the tournament — a rare recognition for a player on the losing team.

“There was no question who the player of the tournament was,” said Wellock, who hosted a watch party at the Jaguars’ facility for the U.S. U-17 USA team’s 5-0 win over Jamaica on May 4. Villarreal scored her eighth goal of the tournament that day. “It was easy to teach her. She was so talented, she could do things most players could not at her age.”

In addition to the Jaguars, Villarreal plays for Solar Soccer Club, a northeastern Texas program that regularly competes against some of the best teams in the country. Exposure with Solar helped Villarreal, who takes online courses via the Capital Area K-12 Online program through Sexton High School (Lansing, Mich.), make more of a name for herself on the national stage. She’s No. 6 in TopDrawerSoccer’s rankings for the Class of 2024.

Standing at 5-foot-2, Villarreal weaponizes her low center of gravity to exploit holes in opposing defenses, and that was apparent in the Concacaf tournament. She first found the back of the net in the 81st minute of the team’s opener, a 20-0 win over Grenada on April 23 that set a record for the most goals scored in a World Cup qualifying match for a U.S. women’s national team at any level. After receiving a long ball from teammate Nicola Fraser, Villarreal dribbled into the box and deposited a low shot into the right side of the net.

Two days later, 11 minutes into what would turn into the 13-0 romp of Puerto Rico, Villarreal scored again, this time on a right-footed shot across her body from 7 yards out. Her parents were in traffic and missed the goal, but they made it to Estadio Panamericano in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic in time to see her score four more goals.

“Have I ever seen her score five goals in club soccer? Yeah,” Mario Villarreal said. “But it’s a lot different when you’re playing at this level.”

And it’s a lot different when you’re wearing the jersey you envisioned yourself in as a kid. Villarreal’s father keeps the drawing in a blue three-ring binder under his bed, and while his daughter was in Ft. Lauderdale for the U-17 camp ahead of Concacaf, he texted her a picture of it as a reminder of her journey. The next morning, Villarreal donned the USA jersey for the first time, as part of a team photoshoot.

“It felt surreal,” Villarreal said. “Also, when I put on the jersey to play in games, I remember the picture. This is what I’ve always wanted to be.”

Villarreal’s national team goals are far from complete. The U-17 gold medal was nice, but alongside the drawing she sketched as a kid, she dreamed bigger:

“What I will see in the mirror is me with the US national jersey on,” Villarreal wrote. “In the background will be the rest of the team and the stadium packed tight with fans cheering their hearts out since we just won the FIFA World Cup.”

Josh Needelman is the High School Sports Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JoshNeedelman.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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