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Angel City FC celebrates Pride Night with a purpose

Angel City FC captain Ali Riley and her teammates walk onto the field for Pride Night and a game against the Dash on Tuesday. (Harry How/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Angel City FC defender Paige Nielsen was queer before the club celebrated Pride Night on Tuesday and played the Houston Dash to a 0-0 draw, and she will be after it. Just as Nielsen’s sexual orientation and identity will outlive the rainbow bandanas and henna tattoos of the evening, and the pomp of the marches during Pride Month, the 24-year-old’s club is committed to LGBTQIA+ inclusion indefinitely.

In April, Angel City hosted stakeholders from eight professional North American soccer teams to learn about and discuss LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and Nielsen and ACFC teammate Madison Hammond participated.

“Learning to be inclusive opened my own eyes,” Nielsen said. “I have a wife, and I didn’t even understand.”

Prior to the training, Nielsen didn’t think she had strong feelings about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for example. Then someone brought up that if a child’s parents were gay, under the law, the child would not even be able to talk about who their parents are.

“And I was like, holy crap, why didn’t I even think about that? I want to raise kids of my own,” Nielsen said.

Since the workshop, Nielsen has connected with some of the organizers on LinkedIn and plans to participate in more Play Proud trainings.

The week-long training was part of the Play Proud Initiative, which grew out of a conversation between ACFC Head of Community Catherine Dávila and Common Goal Executive Director Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe about a collective action effort to combat homophobia in soccer. All clubs and participating individuals — ranging from owners, players and coaches to club supporter group leaders and members — enter the workshops at different levels in their understanding and ability to make an impact. The idea is not to compare, but rather to share knowledge, experiences and best practices when it comes to creating a safe, welcoming and inclusive experience for all LGBTQIA+ individuals in soccer.

Angel City’s commitment to inclusion is what led Senior Director of Community Impact Chris Fajardo to join the organization, where he now collaborates with Dávila on the Community team. He estimates that ACFC has already put in 3,000 hours of training through this initiative, with much more planned for the future.

“This club has made such intentional moves to be inclusive and have it not be performative,” Fajardo said. “What I love to witness continuously, especially at game days, is how fans come in and engage in a community that expresses that. We’ve created something special, a space that’s electric.”

Dávila and her team are actively looking to incorporate as many marginalized identities into their club’s representation as possible. They also often find “low-hanging fruit,” as Dávila puts it, or easy things to correct. For example, the team discovered that adding pronouns to their email signatures would go a long way toward making non-binary and trans individuals feel comfortable and respected.

Fajardo pointed to relationships with the LA LGBT Center and the West Hollywood Soccer Club, the oldest LGBTQIA+ soccer club in Southern California, as ways ACFC is supporting the community beyond Pride Month. ACFC is working with the Center to support Youth Prom and a prom for senior members and to tackle food insecurity issues. As for the West Hollywood Soccer Club, ACFC is helping the organization organize their tournament in November.

Before coming to ACFC this offseason from the Washington Spirit, where she won the 2021 NWSL championship, Nielsen said she never knew a single club could make such a profound impact.

“I was like, holy crap, they stand for everything I believe in,” Nielsen said. “Then when I got here, I saw we had six different supporter groups, and the community initiatives we’ve done have been incredible.”

Paige Nielsen and comedian Lilly Singh pose for a photo after Tuesday's game. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images for Angel City FC)

Nielsen, who grew up in Nebraska unaware of knowing a single queer person, did not begin to realize she fell somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum until a female friend kissed her in college. At the time, she identified as straight and had previously only dated men. For a while, Nielsen kept things platonic. Eventually, she realized her feelings were stronger than that and allowed herself to explore her sexuality.

The fifth-year NWSL veteran describes herself as an open book who has always believed that love is the answer to all questions. Yet, Nielsen only recently came to the conclusion that she needs to be vocal with her story.

“I didn’t think it was so important,” Nielsen said. “I was like, ‘Our world is changing. Everyone is going to love each other. We’re all humans,’ because I’m such a hippie. But people are reaching out to me and saying even Nebraska is changing because of the impact I’m making.”

Last week, Nielsen shared her coming out story and revealed how she met and fell in love with her wife on the Attacking Third podcast, which has been airing during halftime of NWSL matches on CBS. This has led to even more LGBTQIA+ people reaching out to her for support.

“I think making single, individual impacts can go very far,” Nielsen said. “Some people were very vulnerable with me and said they never told anyone before.”

She said her goal for the rest of the month is to respond to everyone who has reached out and talk to them about how to approach coming out if that’s what they want to do. Nielsen wants people to know that sexual orientation can be fluid and no one has the right to judge anyone’s journey. She believes that people coming out and sharing their stories will help others navigating their identities.

“Especially in sports, since we have a huge platform,” Nielsen said.

She credited soccer stars Abby Wambach, Ashlyn Harris and Megan Rapinoe for publicly coming out and making it easier for people like her to do so.

Allies, like ACFC team captain Ali Riley, have also made life easier for Nielsen. Riley asked her over lunch on Tuesday what she identifies as and whether she went back and forth between dating men and women.

“Just talking about that in a safe place to someone who is willing to learn about every individual is so important,” Nielsen said. “There aren’t a lot of safe spaces anymore, especially on Twitter and social media, and that’s where your allies on a team really help you feel safe.”

Fajardo, who is gay, also spoke about Riley’s allyship.

“Ali being so vocal is a brave thing,” Fajardo said. “We still haven’t come to a place, especially in sports, where individuals feel safe. To have somebody that has a platform, is open to being vocal and is so present makes such a difference. She’s creating space for people who could be allies to feel safe expressing that, and she’s showing for those that identity on the LGBTQ+ spectrum that people care and that there is space for them to be themselves. Since so many young kids look to her and other players, it’s an especially powerful statement.”

Riley is continually asking questions and learning so that she can be the best ally possible.

“When I look at my friends and teammates and think that they wouldn’t be treated or have the same opportunities as I would, it makes me so angry,” Riley said. “Particularly with trans kids and sports, I look at what sport has done for me and my life and to think that little kids are not allowed to play sports (because of their identity), it really breaks my heart.”

Like Nielsen and the ACFC Community team, Riley emphasizes that the fight for equality extends beyond the month of June. Still, she hopes that this month can be a time to highlight and celebrate the LGBTQIA+ women on Angel City, in soccer and in the NWSL, including the supporter groups and fans. This month, ACFC participated in the WeHo Pride Parade; next, they will take part in the L.A. Pride Parade on June 12 and Trans Pride from June 16-18 and have a few players volunteer at the Pride Picnic on June 26.

“And I hope that it can be that balance of a time to really fight, but also to celebrate,” Riley said.

At ACFC’s Pride Night on Tuesday, Mariachi Arcoíris — the first LBGTQ+ mariachi group in the world — performed the national anthem, bisexual comedian Lilly Singh led the ceremonial three-clap and special guests from the LA LGBT Center and TransCanWork were honored on the field. All evening, LGBTQIA+-centric music blared from the stadium speakers.

“I hope people feel seen, loved and welcomed here because I see them, I love them and I welcome them,” Riley said after the match. “I really hope that we can continue to show that, here at Angel City, everyone is welcome and we accept you for who you are. We continue to grow together and be an example for other teams, other leagues, and other sports.”

Joshua Fischman is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering Angel City FC and the Los Angeles Sparks. He has covered basketball for Vantage Sports and Hoops Rumors and served as co-host of “On the NBA Beat” podcast. Joshua received his master’s in Sports Media from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @JJTheJuggernaut.

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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