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Behind the NWSL’s gameday fits and the power of self-expression

Estelle Johnson (Ashley Intile/Gotham FC)

As the long winter of the 2021 NWSL preseason turned toward spring, one fact at Gotham FC was already clear: Things were about to look very different in New Jersey. The club had just announced a full-team rebrand, tossing the Sky Blue moniker aside as they moved to a permanent home at Red Bull Arena and played their way to the Challenge Cup final.

But while all of those factors set a new tone for a club on the upswing, none of them quite compare to the image of defender Mandy Freeman walking into the team’s May 2 match in head-to-toe Alexander Wang.

A sense of personal expression has been growing within Gotham in the months before and after the official rebrand, driven by a core group of players with a distinct sense of style. And by the time the team christened Red Bull Arena in their regular season home opener, the floodgates had opened. Players showed up in basketball jerseys, WNBA apparel, bright coats and full looks accessorized with assorted hats and sunglasses. It felt, in short, like the dawning of a new era, and part of a fashion wave that’s rippled across the NWSL in recent months.

Gotham defender Estelle Johnson can’t quite remember exactly how she and her teammates became icons of gameday fashion, but she does recall the team walking into 2021 ready to express themselves.

“I think one of our first home games we all just randomly decided to dress up, like we didn’t coordinate it at all,” Johnson says. “And we’re each other’s biggest hype women, so as people came in, we’re like, ‘Oh, hey, girl!’ Like, ‘I see you!’ I think in that one moment, we just decided like, maybe we should actually not show up as slobs. We have so many quarantine buys that we need to wear, so we might as well show out.”

Across the country, OL Reign also went through a club rebrand in 2020, and forward Bethany Balcer remembers the team’s fashion sense developing in a similarly collaborative spirit. Recently, Reign players have rocked looks that range from the textured layering of Megan Rapinoe, to the patterned shirts of Jess Fishlock, to clean silhouettes from Tziarra King.

“My rookie year, we never did anything like this. I would show up with sweats on, like nothing poppin’ or anything like that,” Balcer said. “There’s been some girls on our team who have been catalysts for it, and you’re like, ‘Oh, they look so good. I want to match that energy.’ And then lots of girls even go shopping together to pick out stuff.”

Gameday fits are a long-standing tradition in American professional sports, but the NWSL has lagged behind, with players expected to wear team gear on away trips. The festivities of home matches in 2021, however, have brought out a side of the players and their clubs that fans haven’t necessarily seen before.

While the looks across the league are distinct — Balcer has been getting into blazers, Chicago Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden swears by her sneakers and Johnson cites Tracee Ellis Ross as her style icon — the players share a desire to make their teammates feel as confident in their own personal styles as possible.

“We have a saying: ‘If you feel good, we’re gonna hype you up,’” Balcer says. “There’s no (having) to dress up. Even if you dress down, if you walk in feeling good, we’re gonna bring the energy all the time.”

Johnson feels similarly: “Just going out of our way to show support to each other and what we stand for has definitely helped build chemistry, but also just straight up respecting each other’s style. We all just are so unique in so many different ways that nobody would wear the same thing.”

For some players, having personal flair means adding custom elements to an outfit to create the perfect look.

Balcer recalls feeling inspired earlier in the season by King, who showed up before a game looking sharp in an outfit her mother tailored to fit the style King wanted. Gotham midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe rocked a custom suit made by a friend from her home country of Ghana for the club’s Juneteenth celebration. Johnson put a hard-earned quarantine skill to the test for her Juneteenth look, embroidering onto her skirt the outline of Africa and a lion meant to symbolize Cameroon, the team she represents internationally.

Johnson shows off her outfit for Juneteenth before a Gotham match. (Ashley Intile/Gotham FC)

While other teams might have one or two players who raise their fashion level before matches (Gorden admitted before Chicago’s own Juneteenth game that she’s the only “crazy dresser” on the Red Stars), Gotham FC and OL Reign treat gameday entrances as full-team affairs. Team staffers capture the players on camera as they strut toward the locker room, and the photoshoots often show up on social media afterward. And in Tacoma, the good vibes make it all the way into the tunnel.

“We get in the locker room, and we literally do a little fashion show,” Balcer says. “Everyone does a little runway walk before we all get changed into our uniforms. … We do have so many new faces (this season), so when everyone just puts themselves out there, I think it makes for good on-field and off-field chemistry.”

As the profile of the league grows, and athletes in women’s sports drive a higher percentage of social media engagement every year, gameday fashion also presents a sponsorship opportunity.

Johnson has a number of favorite Black-owned brands she supports, like Heron Preston and Off-White, along with some other well-known names (“Gucci, call your girl!”). Balcer, known affectionately as “Boats,” was eager to collaborate with Crocs last year — she personally likes their shoes and recognizes they’re a staple at training among women’s soccer players. But after her correspondence with the company went unanswered, she’s now abandoned the brand entirely, preferring similar shoes Adidas recently released. “I’ve got like ten pairs (of Crocs),” she said, “and they’re just sitting there collecting dust.”

Beyond the business opportunities and the “look good, feel good, play good” mentality, gameday fashion has become a vehicle for the players’ growing understanding that a unified visual message carries weight. Throughout the season, NWSL players have used pregame entrances to wear slogans they want to be seen, whether general (“more self love”) or specific (“protect trans kids”).

After Chicago’s Challenge Cup opener against the Houston Dash, Gorden spoke up about her experience of racial profiling and harassment. While NWSL officials took no disciplinary action following an investigation into the incident, Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134 provided the team with shirts that said “Believe, Support, Protect Black People.” Gorden and her teammates wore the shirts before the Red Stars’ subsequent home match, and the message spread rapidly throughout the league, both in banners from fans and in other teams’ pregame apparel.

In many ways, NWSL players seem to be taking small cues from their counterparts in the WNBA, a league that has long been at the forefront of advocating for social justice. In 2020, WNBA players famously wore “Vote Warnock” shirts, publicly endorsing the opponent of former Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler and influencing that year’s Senate race in Georgia.

“Especially over the last year, just with everything that’s going around in the world, we feel responsible for using our platforms, and I think a lot of us are taking that role a little more seriously,” Balcer says. “Now we’re not just here to play soccer. We all have a platform, we all have a following, and we can use that for good or be silent through it.”

To Johnson, the collective opening up about social justice issues over the past year has played a role in NWSL athletes being more vocal about their beliefs.

“I think we’re just at a point in our lives in the United States where we are being encouraged to support our differences, and encouraged to stand up and say what we’ve been wanting to say or whatever it is,” she says. “So I definitely think the times are aiding us in the fact of, we’re here to make a statement. And we’re not just here to shut up and dribble.”

The Reign’s Pride celebration match took on a specifically celebratory tone after Reign midfielder Quinn came out as trans before the 2021 season. For the players, fashion has functioned as an in-road for more personal conversations and as a medium for showing support.

“Our team is very diverse in terms of ethnicity and sexuality, so it’s just such an open and safe space and we just all support one another as human beings,” Balcer says. “And that is reflected in what we wear and who we’re buying clothes from, things like that. So it’s been cool to engage in those conversations and really just be more empathetic towards what other people are going through and what they’ve experienced. I think it helps me just be a better teammate and shows me how to love them better.”

In many ways, gameday fashion — as lighthearted as it is — represents a possible future for the NWSL, one in which players are unconditionally celebrated for being true to themselves.

“I think it’s a great upswing of us as players having voices in this league. It didn’t always feel that way,” Johnson says. “And granted, times were different. It just felt like we very much felt like we had to play within the lines. Now it’s kind of like, ask for forgiveness later.”

Midge Purce-Backed Docuseries ‘The Offseason’ to Drop This Summer

cast of the offseason nwsl reality series
'The Offseason' follows a group of NWSL stars as they prepare for preseason play. (The Offseason)

The Offseason, a reality series created by Gotham and USWNT star Midge Purce, has officially confirmed its streaming debut, Purce announced in Cannes on Tuesday.

The six-episode, half-hour docuseries will stream this summer on X, though a specific premiere date hasn't yet been set.

The Offseason was filmed in Miami, two weeks before the NWSL preseason. It's a crucial time for athletes, a period where they prepare to join their respective teams and compete for both starting and roster spots. Production designed all the facilities, bringing in top-tier trainers, masseuses, chefs, and gym equipment to create a high-level training environment, ensuring the players were in peak condition, per the show's release. Throughout filming, athletes lived together in one house — a reality TV conceit rife for entertainment.

The series follows a number of NWSL stars, including Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Maria Sanchez (Houston Dash), Lo’eau LaBonta (Kansas City Current), Michelle Alozie (Houston Dash), Taylor Smith (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Nikki Stanton (OL Reign), Ally Watt (Orlando Pride), Taryn Torres (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Paige Nielsen (Angel City FC), and Ify Onumonu (Utah Royals).

"We wanted to create a series that truly captures the essence of what it means to be a professional athlete," said Purce. "This series has always been about more than just sports — it's about the human experience behind the athlete, as well."

The show promises a behind-the-scenes look at professional women's sports, teasing major life decisions, on-field tensions, and players taking stock of the environments they'll be entering once their preseason trip is over. The series delves into the real-life challenges faced by the athletes, including club trades, contract negotiations, burnout, and the relentless pressure from outsiders commenting on the players' personal lives.

The Offseason's official trailer, released on Tuesday, shows snippets of Hubly contemplating retirement, Sanchez joining the group after signing a high-profile contract, and a healthy amount of banter about on-field achievements.

The spirit of the series is reflected in its producers: Box To Box Films is known for their sports content (Drive to Survive, Break Point, Full Swing), whereas 32 Flavors is the creative force behind Vanderpump Rules and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The series was funded by Seven Seven Six, and executive produced by Purce.

Lilia Vu adds Meijer LPGA Classic to tour wins record

Lilia Vu won in her first tournament in two months. (Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Lilia Vu won her fifth LPGA Tour event on Sunday, taking home the Meijer LPGA Classic title in her first tournament since March. 

The world No. 2 had been sidelined with a back injury, but returned with a vengeance. She began the day eight shots back of leader Grace Kim, and survived a three-hole playoff against Kim and former champion Lexi Thompson to take the title. 

“I think this is the most meaningful win,” said Vu, “because there was a time two months ago where I was just crying on the range not being sure if I would ever play a tournament again without pain.”

A two-time major champion, Vu hadn’t before won the Meijer LPGA Classic, but a birdie on the third playoff hole helped secure it. She’s now 2-for-3 in LPGA Tour playoffs. 

She said on Sunday that being unable to defend her title at the Chevron Championship was the “breaking point” in her season.

“Not being able to compete there really killed me,” she said. “I feel like I thought I was taking the steps in the right direction, but I’m glad that I was able to take a couple months off and reevaluate my body, let it recover, do what I needed to do to get back out here again.

“And we did the right thing and took two months off. I think it hurt me not to play competitive golf because I literally live for competitive golf, but we did the right thing and that’s why I’m here today.”

Top tennis players pull out of Olympics citing health reasons

Aryna Sabalenka will not play in the Olympics. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images)

Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka joined a growing list of tennis stars opting out of the Olympics on Monday.

Sabalenka, the reigning Australian Open champion and world No. 3, told reporters in Berlin that she was looking after her health while citing WTA tournament participation requirements. The Belarusian had struggled with a stomach bug during the French Open, where she lost in the semifinals of a major for the first time since 2022. 

“Especially with all the struggles I was having last month, I feel like I need to take care of my health. … It’s too much with the scheduling,” Sabalenka said. “It’s just too much. I made the decision to take care of my health.”

Similarly, Jabeur cited the health risks that come with the change of surface. The world No. 10 has been battling knee injuries this season, and lost in the French Open quarterfinals to Coco Gauff. 

Players will spend the next few weeks playing on grass in the lead-up to Wimbledon, while the Olympics will be played at Roland-Garros and be held on clay. 

“After consulting with my medical team regarding attending the Olympics in Paris, we have decided that the quick change of surface and the body’s adaptation required would put my knee at risk and jeopardize the rest of my season,” Jabeur posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Unfortunately, I will not be able to participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics. I have always loved representing my country in any competition, However, I must listen to my body and follow my medical team’s advice.”

The two join Emma Raducanu in opting out of the Olympics. Raducanu – who has dealt with a number of injuries since her US Open win in 2021 – cited the changing surface as “not worth the risk.”

Jaedyn Shaw Breaks NWSL Record for Most Goals Scored as a Teenager

Jaedyn Shaw of the san diego wave
Jaedyn Shaw is now holds the record for most NWSL goals as a teenager. (Julia Kapros-USA TODAY Sports)

Jaedyn Shaw continues to make NWSL history, surpassing Trinity Rodman for the most NWSL goals by a teenager on Saturday. 

She did it in a game against Rodman's Washington Spirit in the 20th minute of the 1-1 draw. It brings her total to 13 league goals, after making her NWSL debut at 17 years old in July 2022. 

The goal is her third this season. Shaw currently leads Wave alongside Makenzy Doniak. 

Shaw has also been a member of the USWNT, alongside Rodman, netting seven goals over 14 national team appearances. If she gets called up to this summer’s Olympics under Emma Hayes, it will mark her first official tournament with the USWNT.

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