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NWSL preview: Angel City enters boom-or-bust 2023

Alyssa Thompson will be relied upon early as Angel City awaits the returns of other forwards from injury. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

Angel City FC’s first season in the NWSL was a rousing success by almost every metric off the pitch. The team hosted sold-out crowds, sold sponsorships, connected with the community and more.

On the field, the results were slightly less conclusive, as a number of key players suffered injuries and the team’s plans hit bumps in the road. An expansion team taking some time to find its footing in its inaugural season is understandable, but the Los Angeles club will need to take steps forward on the pitch in 2023 to keep pace with the rest of the league.

2022 Review: Baby steps

Angel City made a handful of splashy moves prior to their inaugural season. The team swapped their first-round draft pick for USWNT superstar Christen Press and benefitted from smart deals and player wishes to compile what looked like a competitive starting XI.

The team’s best-laid plans never quite came to fruition, in part due to an influx of injuries. Angel City lost center-back Sarah Gorden for the year with an ACL tear as well as star striker Christen Press to an ACL tear in June. After trading for Orlando’s Sydney Leroux later in June, the forward’s availability was limited the rest of the season. Winger Simone Charley dealt with lingering Achilles issues in the latter half of the summer, and midfielder Julie Ertz took time away from the sport entirely after the club acquired her rights before the season.

Angel City’s availability issues made it difficult to gauge their roster construction. The team became a gritty unit of starters who withstood the ebbs and flows of possession to try to grind out results. Angel City’s depth was put under a microscope by necessity, and the toll at the end of the season showed as the expansion side faded to eighth after a season-ending loss to the Chicago Red Stars.

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Christen Press has been slowly working her way back from an ACL injury suffered last season. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images for Angel City FC)

Offseason moves: Betting on the future

After an inaugural season involving many factors outside the club’s control, Angel City took the two-pronged approach of running it back and planning for the future. The club traded for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NWSL draft, selecting local teenage talent Alyssa Thompson. Thompson will get significant minutes in her first year as a pro as Press and Leroux continue to work their way back from injuries.

The assets L.A. dealt to acquire Thompson, in addition to the assets used to pick up Press and others in 2022, left the club with little room for more moves. As a result, Angel City needs to rely on their current team taking steps forward in 2023. Canada international Vanessa Gilles remains on loan to Olympique Lyon, but Gorden has made a full recovery and appears ready to run the backline in 2023.

“We didn’t necessarily get where we were looking to in the first season but were able to establish a foundation and a training facility,” general manager Angela Hucles Mangano said at the beginning of preseason. “We are looking at how we’re rounding out our entire roster, for the immediate and long term. We really want to make sure that we can provide depth in different positions. That is where you see how those players can be additive.”

While Angel City eagerly awaits the returns of Press and Leroux, the club made no moves to shore up the frontline that will likely be commanded by Thompson and Charley. Former North Carolina outside back Merritt Mathias should walk into a defensive role if she’s available, and former San Diego Wave forward Katie Johnson can also connect the attack to the midfield with her connective passing.

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Savannah McCaskill led Angel City with seven goals in 2022. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

2023 outlook: Patience for the payoff

It’s difficult to gauge how head coach Freya Coombe plans to manage Thompson’s high ceiling while also getting the most out of the rest of her squad. A preseason friendly against Club América showed both the strengths and the weaknesses in Angel City’s roster construction.

While Thompson showed off her electric speed and poise to score her debut goal, the team started defender Madison Hammond at defensive midfielder and center back Paige Nielsen at outside back. Angel City never quite addressed the positional needs in the offseason that would allow the club to control the pace of play without requiring as much off-the-ball defending to pick up points. Jun Endo and Savannah McCaskill’s playmaking will be the key toward unlocking opposing defenses, and reliability at the less flashy positions might be what Angel City needs more than a brand-new star.

Angel City could be one of the biggest boom-or-bust propositions in the NWSL. They have the on-the-ball quality and speed of play to put opponents on their heels, but they might find that living dangerously gets in their way during a punishing regular season.

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

Athing Mu Falls at Trials, Will Not Defend 800-Meter Olympic Title

Athing Mu competes in the women's 800 meter final on Day Four of the 2024 US Olympic Team Track & Field Trials
Mu won the 800-meter final at the Tokyo Olympics, crossing the line in 1:55.21 to break the American record. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Reigning Olympic Track & Field champion Athing Mu will not have the opportunity to defend her 800-meter title in Paris after falling during the event's US Track & Field Trials final on Monday. 

About 200 meters into the race, Mu uncharacteristically got tangled up in the middle of the track and lost her footing. Coming to her defense, her coach Bobby Kersee said that she had been spiked, suffered track burns, and hurt her ankle. The 22-year-old filed an appeal that saw USA Track and Field officials sorting through replays, but it was later denied. 

As a result, Mu did not qualify to run the 800-meter at the 2024 Summer Games, as the US has a standing rule that only the top three Trials finishers make the official Olympic-bound roster. 

At her first-ever Olympics in 2021, Mu took home the gold at the 800-meter final, crossing the line in 1:55.21 to break the American record.

"I’ve coached it, I’ve preached it, I’ve watched it," Kersee told The Associated Press after Mu's appeal was rejected. "And here’s another indication that regardless of how good we are, we can leave some better athletes home than other countries have. It’s part of our American way."

Mu finished more than 22 seconds behind eventual winner Nia Akins, but could still make the Olympic team as part of the US relay pool. Mu was a key part of the Team USA's 4x400-meter gold medal win three years ago in Tokyo.

Dearica Hamby Tapped to Replace Cameron Brink on 3×3 Olympic Team

Dearica Hamby playing for Team USA in 2023
Dearica Hamby is no stranger to Team USA's 3×3 lineup. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Dearica Hamby has been named to USA Basketball's official 3×3 Olympic roster, replacing an injured Cameron Brink.

The Los Angeles Sparks forward has extensive experience with the 3×3 team, including taking home both a gold medal and MVP honors at the 2023 FIBA AmeriCup

Brink originally made the roster in early June, but suffered a season-ending ACL injury during Los Angeles’s June 18th loss to Connecticut. 

"It is an honor to announce Dearica Hamby's addition to the USA 3×3 women's national team and we look forward to getting to work as a squad very soon," USA Basketball 3×3 national team director Jay Demings said in a statement. "USA Basketball continues to keep Cameron Brink in our thoughts as she focuses on her recovery."

Hamby will join 2023 FIBA 3×3 World Cup champions Hailey Van Lith (TCU), CIerra Burdick, and Rhyne Howard (Atlanta Dream) in Paris.

San Diego Wave Parts Ways With Head Coach Casey Stoney

ex-wave fc head coach casey stoney in 2023
Casey Stoney joined Wave FC in 2022 from the WSL's Manchester United. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

San Diego Wave FC announced on Monday that the organization has parted ways with head coach Casey Stoney. 

The announcement comes amid a seven-game winless streak for the Wave. Stoney joined San Diego from WSL side Manchester United a few months before their inaugural season, winning the 2022 NWSL Coach of the Year Award that same year. She went on to lead the expansion team to two trophies in three years. 

Just this past January, the club agreed to a multi-year contract extension that kept Stoney with the club through 2027, with a mutual option for 2028. 

Despite their prior success, San Diego currently sits ninth in the NWSL standings, one point out of playoff contention. Their last win came on May 8th, having most recently played to a scoreless draw against Houston over the weekend to cap off a three-game road trip. 

"We are immensely grateful to Casey for her commitment to our club and the positive impact she has had both on and off the pitch,” Wave president and former USWNT manager Jill Ellis said in an official team statement. "Over the past seasons, Casey has guided us to significant milestones, and her contributions have been instrumental in laying a strong foundation on which to build.

"The decision to part ways was very hard and not made in haste, but given the ambition of this club, and where we are in our season, we felt a change was necessary at this time."

The staffing change comes a little less than two weeks after the Wave brought on former Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton. Ashton resigned from her position with Kansas City in May of this year.

On Tuesday, Ellis commented that Stoney is "self aware" and called her a "complete professional."

"I don’t think you have to have a conversation when it comes to know where they are, she knew,” she said. “I think Casey knew results matter. Casey’s ambitious. And was she happy with where we were? Of course not.

"I think a coach also understands that sometimes this is the nature of the beast of coaching. It’s tough and hard at times."

Kansas City, Orlando Raise the NWSL Bar With Weekend Wins

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda in action during a NWSL match against Seattle Reign
Banda registered a brace on Sunday, bringing her NWSL total to 10 goals in just 10 games. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Pride star Barbra Banda continued on her historic NWSL trajectory this weekend, scoring twice in Orlando’s 6-0 win over Utah on Friday. 

She’s the first NWSL player to register 10 goals in their first 10 league appearances. It was also her fourth brace this season, and marked her first goals in two games after her first multi-game scoring drought.

"For me when I have an opportunity and a chance, I have to take it wisely," Banda said in her postgame remarks. "When I get a chance, I have to put the ball in the back of the net. If any game I didn’t score, I just have to go to my drawing board and work hard so that in the next game so I can find a goal."

Meanwhile, Kansas City also kept up their winning ways, beating Portland 4-1 behind a brace from midfielder Lo'eau Labonta on Sunday.

Later that day, the Washington Spirit, who sit just a point behind KC in third place, topped fourth-place Gotham FC in a decisive 2-0 victory.

And after drawing with Seattle, eighth-place Louisville has 16 points on the season — representing a growing gap between the league’s top and bottom teams. Bringing up the bottom of the ladder, both Seattle and Utah have yet to surpass 10 points this year.

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