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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.”

PWHL Draft Spurs Controversy for League Champs Minnesota

pwhl draft first pick Sarah Fillier
PWHL New York kicked off the 2024 PWHL Draft by selecting Princeton's Sarah Fillier No. 1 overall. (PWHL)

The 2024 PWHL Draft took place on Tuesday, with Princeton and Canadian national team forward Sarah Fillier going first overall to PWHL New York. 

New York also added two defenders and a goaltender, as well as three forwards to make seven solid additions to next season's roster. 

But it was first-ever PWHL champions Minnesota that created the most buzz, with the draft happening just three days after they announced the abrupt departure of general manager Natalie Darwitz following a league review. 

With the 10th overall pick, PWHL Minnesota took Team USA forward Britta Curl. Fans immediately took to the internet to voice their concerns, citing Curl's social media activity. In the past, Curl had "liked" posts on X that targeted the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly transgender individuals. Her activity also showed support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Wisconsin man who fatally shot three unarmed people, two fatally, during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest.

When asked about the pick — and whether or not he had consulted with any members of the LGBTQIA+ community prior to making the pick — PWHL Minnesota coach Ken Klee opted to defend Curl.

"Did I speak to anyone from the community? I talk with players, with coaches. That’s tough to answer for me," Klee said. "I spoke with a lot of different people. I mean, at the end of the day, I was told she’s a great teammate, a great person. She’s obviously a great player."

The team also had PWHL Minnesota assistant coach Mira Jalosuo, who is married to a woman, announce the pick.

"We have people in that community and obviously Mira making that selection for us, I think that speaks volumes for us," Klee added. "We were just trying to pick the best players available. I wouldn’t want anything to take away from any of those players' experience. It’s unfortunate a little bit at the beginning, but again, it’s okay. People are entitled to their opinion."

Washington Mystics Snap 12-Game Losing Streak

Brittney Sykes #20 of the Washington Mystics shoots the ball during the game against the Atlanta Dream during the 2024 WNBA Commissioner's Cup game on June 11, 2024
Washington guard Brittney Sykes returned from injury Tuesday night to post a game-high 18 points. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Washington Mystics snapped a team-record 12-game losing streak on Tuesday, taking home their first win of the season over the Atlanta Dream. 

Brittney Sykes returned from injury and made an immediate impact with game-high 18 points, four assists, and three rebounds. As a team, Washington shot over 50% from behind the arc.

"The feel is it's been coming," coach Eric Thibault said after the game. "I said the other night that we're turning into a good basketball team and we just haven't had the wins to show for it yet. We've been playing better basketball now for a while.

"We're obviously shooting well, but I think the quality of the shots we're getting is really good."

Still, the team’s slow start isn't exactly in the rearview mirror. With star forward Elena Delle Donne sitting this season out, the Mystics were always predicted to face an uphill climb in what has been described as a rebuilding year. 

But with a franchise-worst 0-12 record to kick off the 2024 season, the Mystics are likely on track for a lottery pick. However, Washington can point to positive performances from star draft pick Aaliyah Edwards and league newcomer Julie Vanloo.

Elsewhere in the WNBA, the Las Vegas Aces continued their skid with a surprising 100-86 upset courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx. The reigning WNBA champions were shorthanded this week, falling to 5-5 on the season despite MVP-level play from A'ja Wilson, who scored 28 points in Tuesday's loss.

Minnesota shot over 55% as a team, with Alanna Smith leading the team with 18 points. The game marked the Aces' first three-game losing streak since 2019.

"This is a long, long, long season," Wilson said in her postgame remarks. "I'm not going to press the panic button. I'm still going to bet on us. I know exactly what's in that locker room."

Aces stalwart Chelsea Gray has been out with injury since last year's WNBA Finals run. And while she told reporters on Tuesday that she's set to return before the Olympic break, the team can’t get her back soon enough as they continue to struggle with depth. 

"I don't want them thinking too much; then you get paralysis [by] analysis," coach Becky Hammon said. "We're just not being solid in our base. Just be solid defensively. We're not a very good team right now, that's just reality. But we know we can get better. I still have a lot of belief in this ball club."

USA Women’s Basketball Releases Olympic Roster, Explains Clark’s Omission

USA Women's Basketball's Diana Taurasi #12, Brittney Griner #15 and Sabrina Ionescu #6 at April's National Team Training Camp
All the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

USA Women's Basketball announced its official Olympic roster on Tuesday, with officials noting that Caitlin Clark’s lack of national team experience played a key role in her omission.

Selection committee chair Jen Rizzotti said that the committee evaluated players according to a set of on-court criteria they were given.

"When you base your decision on criteria, there were other players that were harder to cut because they checked a lot more boxes," she told reporters on Tuesday. "Then sometimes it comes down to position, style of play for [coach Cheryl Reeve] and then sometimes a vote."

Three first-time Olympians made the squad: Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu, and Kahleah Copper. Additionally, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum will make the switch to the national 5-on-5 team after winning gold in the inaugural 3×3 competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Age, Rizzotti said, was "never brought up" in player selection discussions. It’s the first time in Olympic history that a USA Women’s Basketball 5-on-5 team will travel to the Games without a single player under 26 years old.

Rizzotti commented that all the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience, something that Clark does not have.

"She's certainly going to continue to get better and better," USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley added. "Really hope that she's a big part of our future going forward."

Rizzotti said it would have been "irresponsible" to base roster decisions on anything outside of a basketball context. Marketing and popularity were not on the selection committee’s list of criteria. 

"It would be irresponsible for us to talk about her in a way other than how she would impact the play of the team," Rizzotti said. "Because it wasn't the purview of our committee to decide how many people would watch or how many people would root for the US. It was our purview to create the best team we could for Cheryl."

Clark expressed that she'll be using what some consider a snub as fuel for a run at the 2028 Olympic team. 

"I think it just gives you something to work for," Clark told media after practice Sunday. "It's a dream. Hopefully one day I can be there. I think it's just a little more motivation. You remember that. Hopefully when four years comes back around, I can be there."

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" on Expert Adjacent

Arsenal Women Confirm US Tour, Preseason Friendlies

Arsenal's Lotte Wubben-Moy battles with Mayra Ramirez of Chelsea at the 2023/24 FA Women's Continental Tyres League Cup Final
The last time Chelsea and Arsenal faced off, the Gunners took home the FA Women's League Cup. (Copa/Getty Images)

Arsenal announced on Monday that it will join Chelsea for a series of preseason friendlies in the US in August. 

Arsenal will be based in Washington, DC from August 15th through August 26th. The Gunners are scheduled to play the Washington Spirit on August 18th, followed by a match with fellow WSL team Chelsea on August 25th. It’s the first time that the two London clubs will meet each other on this side of the Atlantic. 

Chelsea had previously announced their game against Gotham FC, confirming reports from ESPN that surfaced last month.

"We always want to create the best conditions for our teams to prepare and perform at their best in pre-season," said Arsenal sporting director Edu Gaspar in a statement. "This gives our players an opportunity to play and train in a new environment, in front of our supporters around the world."

Both Arsenal and Chelsea tout rosters full of international talent — formidable opponents for two equally stacked NWSL teams gearing up for postseason action. Arsenal is home to accomplished England nationals Leah Williamson, Beth Mead, and backheel goal-scorer Alessia Russo alongside Ireland captain Katie McCabe and USWNT defender Emily Fox.

The games are set to be streamed live for free on DAZN.

Arsenal's US tour builds off of a trip to Melbourne, Australia at the tail end of the 2023/24 season, where they beat A-League All Stars women 1-0 in front of 42,120 fans.

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