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Four storylines to track this NWSL season

@ThornsFC

If the Challenge Cup was any indication, the 2021 NWSL season will be one to watch. As celebrity investment continues pouring into the league and superstar players fight for Olympic-inclusion, fireworks are expected from start to finish. In advance of this weekend’s kick off, here are four of the biggest stories we’ll have an eye on this year.

Olympic Roster Battle

USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has said on numerous occasions that he will be using NWSL games to evaluate players for the Olympic roster, imbuing the upcoming season with heightened significance.

League games will be crucial for players who currently sit on the bubble of the UWSNT roster. Kristie Mewis recently made a case for her place on the Olympic squad with a memorable Challenge Cup outing. Mal Pugh and Sophia Smith have put on impressive performances for their respective clubs as well. Will a Challenge Cup final appearance put Midge Purce in contention for a slot on the 18-player roster? Expect Olympic talk to dominate the first half of the 2021 season.

Are the Thorns too big to fail?

The Portland Thorns are overflowing with talent. The team’s back line is anchored by USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn and Thorn’s veteran Meghan Klingenberg. Opponents have the likes of Lindsay Horan and Crystal Dunn to contend with in the midfield. Then up top, Canadian legend Christine Sinclair is joined by 20-year-old phenom Sophia Smith. Not to mention Adrianna Franch, who towers in goal.

With the whole field stacked, it’s no wonder the Thorns steamrolled their way to the Challenge Cup final, banking three wins in a row and a draw in their final group stage match, before winning the championship in PKs against Gotham. The hurdle Portland now faces is building up enough momentum before the squad loses key players to the Olympics this summer.

Summer Absences

There will be no break in the 2021 NWSL season for the Tokyo Olympics. The games are set to span from July 23-Aug. 8, meaning Olympic-bound players will miss a substantial chunk of NWSL games. Teams will have to contend without players like Marta, Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair and Julie Ertz. The Olympic gap will impact clubs across the league, but could prove especially painful for squads like the Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride, who have a large number of national team players.

Can a new group of international players revitalize OL Reign?

In early April, it was officially announced that French international goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and German international midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán were heading to the NWSL. The Olympic Lyonnais players are set to join OL Reign in June, on loan until the end of the year. It’s been speculated that French forward Eugénie Le Sommer will be joining her Lyon teammates in Tacoma this summer as well.

The move is a byproduct of Lyon’s OL group acquiring Reign FC back in 2020. The wave of international talent will be joining the likes of Tziarra King, who put on a dazzling performance for the Reign in the Challenge Cup. Will the injection of experienced international players be enough to push OL Reign atop the standings after a handful of middling years?

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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