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How England has put on a masterclass in World Cup adjustments

England’s Ella Toone, who replaced Lauren James, celebrates her goal against Australia in the World Cup semifinal. (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

If England win their first Women’s World Cup this weekend, it might be easy to look back on their road to the trophy lift as something of an inevitability. They’re the reigning European champions who came into the tournament with one of the deepest squads in the world and a sharp mentality that has seen them through low moments in the knockout stages.

But in 2023, the Lionesses needed a certain amount of tactical dexterity to weather adversity. Head coach Sarina Wiegman, who has reached a second straight World Cup final with a new team after England’s 3-1 win over Australia on Wednesday, has shown a willingness to adjust rather than overly commit to her starting XI, and it could make all the difference.

The England team competing for the World Cup trophy is building off their Euros performance, but rather than steamrolling teams with their clear starting talent, they’ve rolled with the punches to become a team very difficult to beat even when they are not at their best.

Forced absences

As many know, England’s squad going into the World Cup was hit with a wave of injuries, most notably to forward Beth Mead (ACL), defender Leah Williamson (ACL) and forward Fran Kirby (knee). The loss of Mead, Williamson and Kirby not only introduced an experience gap into multiple key positions, it also briefly threw off the balance of the squad’s attack.

England struggled to score at times in the lead-up to the World Cup and gave up soft results on the other end, going into the tournament having scored just one goal in their three friendly matches. They lost to Australia 2-0 and tied Portugal 0-0 in their tune-up matches, raising the question of whether the team had run out of gas after a taxing year of international play.

The Lionesses faced even more absences at the World Cup. Defensive midfielder Keira Walsh injured her knee in the team’s second group stage match against Denmark, though she was able to return to anchor the midfield for the knockout rounds. England also lost the services of playmaker Lauren James, who served a two-game red-card suspension after she appeared to intentionally step on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie in the final ten minutes of their Round of 16 game.

Depth and experience

Many other teams would have been sunk by the unexpected loss of that much firepower, but England found their way through those hurdles with a mixture of depth and experience. Their cool-headed penalty shootout in the Round of 16 is perhaps the best example of their quiet belief in themselves, even when they had been outplayed in between the whistles.

The return of center-back Millie Bright from injury this spring had a huge effect on the defense’s confidence after the loss of Williamson. And the team’s extensive attacking depth allowed players like Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, who featured more off the bench in the Euros, to step confidently into starting roles. James also provided England with a boost in the group stage until her suspension, and she will likely return for the World Cup final.

The Lionesses have at times looked vulnerable on the wings, but Lucy Bronze and Rachel Daly have done just enough to keep their opponents at bay. Reinserting Walsh into the midfield (after the capable work of Georgia Stanway in her absence) has also helped England hold the ball better than their opponents.

Deft coaching flexibility

Individual excellence and focused mentality, however, can’t overcome coaching deficits, and Wiegman recognized early in the World Cup that England needed a change to fit their available personnel.

After a tepid performance in the tournament opener against Haiti, England switched to a three-back defensive formation, giving Bronze and Daly more freedom to engage in the attack. This approach has also suited the team’s center-backs, with Bright, Alex Greenwood and Jess Carter carrying the team through periods when the attack wasn’t quite clicking.

England’s new 3-4-3 formation allows the Lionesses to control the midfield with advantages in personnel numbers, but also to commit those numbers forward quickly in transition to punish teams who push against them. They don’t always find the breakthrough in a cagey chess match, like in the Round of 16 against Nigeria, but the approach was on full display against Australia in Wednesday’s semifinal.

Australia’s superpower seemed to be in pushing tempo and trying to create overloads against the three-back with their own attackers to generate quality chances. The England defense held fast for the first half, allowing Toone to grab the opening goal by holding the ball and firing off a quality strike.

But after Sam Kerr’s equalizer in the 63rd minute, England’s ability to improvise shone through the cracks. Seeing an opportunity while holding the ball, Bright sent a long pass forward to Lauren Hemp. Hemp forced an error by Australian defender Ellie Carpenter in isolation, and suddenly England was back in control of the match. Russo then put the game away on the counter-attack, punishing Australia for their attempts to get back in it.

Ultimately, the Lionesses provide an example of how years of development can build depth and individual quality, and the right tweaks in the moment empower that talent to make their own decisions. England has a lot of different ways to beat their opponents, even when the shots aren’t falling. They’ve proven in multiple knockout matches that, even when they concede, they have the fortitude to continue to problem-solve.

Against a Spain squad in the final that can also hold the ball and use their wingers when games open up, England will need every tool in their arsenal.

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

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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