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Red Stars’ free-agent exodus leaves future even murkier

Danny Colaprico was the second longest-tenured Red Stars player before she formally entered free agency Thursday. (EM Dash/USA TODAY Sports)

When the Chicago Red Stars announced on Thursday that free agents Morgan Gautrat, Danny Colaprico and Rachel Hill had opted not to return to the club in 2023, the news came as a surprise to many.

Colaprico was one of the longest-tenured players on Chicago’s roster, having played for the Red Stars since being drafted in 2015. Only captain Vanessa DiBernardo has been with the team longer, and by just one year. Colaprico started for the team in two NWSL Finals, crossed the 100-cap mark and became a fan favorite as a defensive midfielder. Despite her small stature at 5-foot-3, she was known for always coming up big on aerial duels.

Gautrat, a two-time world champion with the U.S. women’s national team, transformed the Red Stars’ midfield when she joined the club full-time in the middle of 2018. The way the Red Stars dictated tempo and moved the ball was their calling card through 2019. In 2021, as the team made a second run to the NWSL Finals in as many regular seasons, Gautrat helped hold the midfield together with a very different style of play. Hill carried out important utility roles, playing winger and wingback in her three years with the team and scoring their lone goal in the 2021 NWSL Championship.

But with all the information that’s come out about the club in the last two years, it almost would have been more surprising if all three players had decided to stay. Former head coach Rory Dames was allowed to resign following the 2021 season after years of complaints about his coaching, including from USWNT star Christen Press, who played for the team from 2014-18.

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Morgan Gautrat had been a key player for the Red Stars since 2018. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Longtime owner Arnim Whisler was named in the recent Sally Q. Yates report on systemic abuse in the NWSL and accused of dismissing player complaints as “Rory being Rory.” In an interview with Defector Media this year, former Red Stars player Brooke Elby said that Whisler would “defend Rory to anybody. He knew everything Rory did. And if he didn’t know firsthand by seeing it, he knew because every player was in that office at some point telling him.”

Beyond Dames, Red Stars players under Whisler also endured what Elby described as sub-par conditions, including living in apartments that Whisler himself owned.

“For what you expect as a professional athlete, it was a joke,” Elby said. “To already come in knowing your team is the poorest team out there isn’t a great feeling. Because we already know everything we’re going to get is going to be like a downgraded version of what everybody else has.”

After Chicago advanced to the NWSL quarterfinals in 2022 under new head coach Chris Petrucelli, Red Stars minority ownership removed Whisler as head of the club’s board of directors in the wake of the Yates report. According to a Sportico report on Thursday, Whisler has “formally engaged a third-party advisor to facilitate the sale” of the Red Stars, but a sale could still take time. Rising club evaluations throughout the league — most notably the reported $60 million that Merritt Paulson is seeking for the Portland Thorns — could play a factor in slowing things down.

Sales don’t always mean a team stays in its home market, as seen by FC Kansas City’s relocation to Utah for the 2018 season and subsequent return in 2021. The bank reportedly leading Whisler’s sale is also currently leading the sales of two new NWSL expansion teams.

In the meantime, Chicago’s governance appears in limbo, and it’s costing them talent. As reported by Defector Media, some of the Red Stars players’ salaries have not remained consistent with veteran industry standards, and in a new free agency market, that’s going to cost a team that historically has struggled with player support. The Red Stars did re-sign defender Arin Wright and midfielder Yuki Nagasato to new contracts, but it appears that instead of retaining their core, they will have to commit to a bigger rebuild.

Also significant is the fact that Gautrat, Colaprico and Hill achieved free-agency status only after an independent arbitrator ruled that six-year veterans are not bound to team-first options signed before the ratification of the league’s CBA. Had the Players Association not pushed for that ruling, all three players would have had no recourse if Chicago had decided to extend their options for 2023.

The ripple effects of NWSL free agency won’t come only in the form of splashy new signings — though those are expected as Hill, Colaprico, and Gautrat begin to negotiate with new teams. Perhaps the most significant outcome is that players now have the chance to pursue better opportunities for themselves.

It was clear after this season that the Red Stars were going to have to keep up with rising standards. Thursday’s news will leave fans wondering if they have a plan.

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

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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