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Imani Dorsey, Ifeoma Onumonu are changing the NWSL from the inside

Imani Dorsey and Ifeoma Onumonu have been teammates in New York since 2020. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

NEW YORK — Imani Dorsey and Ifeoma “Ify” Onumonu were in a reflective mindset after helping adidas announce the signing of 15 female student-athletes to landmark NIL deals at the brand’s New York headquarters late last month.

The Gotham FC duo were impeccably styled for the outing. As mentors to the group of collegiate athletes, Dorsey and Onumonu participated in breakout sessions with the signees earlier that day before hitting the stage at night.

While coaching the young adidas athletes on their sports journeys, Dorsey and Onumunu had begun to meditate on their own.

“I think being a mentor is nice because it helps you reflect on your own experiences and reminds you of the perspective that you’ve gained from so many different things that you’ve had,” Dorsey said. “Sometimes I sit in the present and I’m completely forgetting how I got here and all the different experiences.

“It’s a give and take … we give a lot, but we’re also gaining just as much from talking with them and reminding ourselves that we’re still learning and growing in this process, too.”

“You start to appreciate yourself a lot more,” Onumonu chimed in.

Dorsey, 26, and Onumonu, 28, have much to appreciate as groundbreakers in the NWSL.

Lucrative NIL deals, like the ones they helped present at the adidas event, were not possible when Onumonu and Dorsey were in college, and transitioning into a professional career was anything but promised. In many ways, the duo represent the first generation of the NWSL, those players who competed without getting much in return, building toward a future where their rights would finally be protected under a collective bargaining agreement.

When Onumonu entered the NWSL in 2017, the league was in its fifth season and experiencing some serious growing pains. In her conversations with the college athletes, she tried to explain the sacrifices she had to make to fulfill her dreams as a soccer player.

“I kind of spoke to my experience of myself transitioning into this league, and it had such instability that the idea of even coming into it was a risk in general. If you could get in, that is,” Onumonu said. “I definitely had a rocky experience up until, even I would say, this point where I have been with Gotham for three years.”

Drafted by the Boston Breakers in 2017, Onumonu played her rookie season there before the club folded in 2018. She went to Portland in the 2018 Dispersal Draft and played in eight games before getting waived, and her future looking more uncertain than ever.

OL Reign offered Onumonu a shot at redemption, signing her as a National Team Replacement player in 2019. Her breakout performance as a relief striker earned her a spot on the full roster in June 2019. Months later, she was on the move again, dealt to Sky Blue FC (now Gotham FC) ahead of the 2020 season.

The 2021 season served as Onumonu’s breakout year. The forward notched eight goals and four assists in 21 starts with the club and earned a spot on the NWSL’s Best XI Second Team.

“I’ve been bounced around teams, I’ve been waived. And if I had known all of this would happen when I was younger, I don’t know if I’d choose it for myself, but I am grateful at the same time,” Onumonu said. “I never thought I’d be at that place where I am now, where I can say, ‘Wow, have I grown as a person? Wow, did this make me grow? Wow, did this make me step up to who I am?’ Because it just showed me how strong I am.”

Dorsey’s transition into the NWSL was more straightforward. Joining Sky Blue as the fifth overall pick in 2018, she had success right away, winning NWSL Rookie of the Year after registering four goals and one assist in 14 games. Off the field, however, the club had come under intense scrutiny for poor working conditions and a lack of adequate player resources. New ownership took over in 2019, spurring a movement toward the Gotham FC of today, which is now the most valuable team in the NWSL.

“I’m a vice captain on the team, but I am in my fifth year, so I have so much to learn, and I’m constantly learning from the people around me. We have so many incredible leaders and women on the team who’ve been through a lot,” said Dorsey. “I think that’s something that’s really special, but also probably a little unique to our league, too, because there’s just so much going on constantly. You just kind of feel like you take on a bunch of different hats because you have to.”

Dorsey, Onumonu and their NWSL peers have had to navigate sub-par working conditions and instability while simultaneously pushing for progress through the league’s 10-year existence. Those responsibilities reached a crescendo in 2021 after a series of reports of abusive behavior resulted in the firing of multiple coaches and general managers. Former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down amid the scandal. The watershed moment highlighted the league’s hazards, providing the NWSL Players Association an opportunity to ratify the league’s first-ever CBA and guarantee greater protections for the players.

These experiences informed Dorsey’s advice to her adidas mentees, with NC State forward Jameese Joseph revealing that the Gotham defender encouraged her to advocate for herself.

“The biggest insight I got from Imani was speaking up for yourself. As we transition from college to pro,” Joseph said. “If something doesn’t make you comfortable, then you should speak up for yourself.”

Ifeoma Onumonu hosts a mentorship session ahead of the adidas 50th anniversary of Title IX celebration. (Courtesy of adidas)

With the NWSL still in its infancy, and with plenty of shortcomings to work through, players like Dorsey and Onumonu have stepped up to create a league in their own image. Busy spearheading projects and guiding the NWSL off the pitch, the duo have aimed to make the sport a sustainable and healthy place for all athletes to not only survive but thrive.

That was the impetus, in part, for the establishment of The Black Women’s Player Collective, a non-profit organization created by the Black players in the NWSL to advance opportunities for Black girls in sport and beyond. The BWPC found an enthusiastic partner in adidas after collaborating with the company on the Black Players for Change project, which brought soccer fields to communities across America in an effort to mitigate inequality in the sport.

“I think a brand as big as adidas recognizing Black women in a sport where we haven’t had that recognition yet also just makes so much sense,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey and Onumonu were adamant about maintaining the BWPC’s vision after other competing brands approached the non-profit with the “bare minimum.”

“Even though we’re adidas athletes, before we were apprehensive of being part of a sports brand because of fear that sometimes with these big brands, they want to co-opt the movement, kind of lead it in a direction you didn’t necessarily want to go,” said Onumonu. “Then once you’ve signed on to them and whatever the contract looks like, they can start doing the bare minimum, and I think that was always our fear.

“With adidas, they came in like full force real quick. They have been supporting us, but they have really been there for us with major things, being very, very hands-on.”

Through the non-profit, Dorsey and Onumonu are focused on altering the face of professional soccer from the inside. The juggling of responsibilities has also prepared them for what has been a turbulent season on the pitch with Gotham FC.

The team has made sweeping changes since last year, losing star players Carli Loyd to retirement and Allie Long to maternity leave. Scott Parkinson also took over as head coach after Freya Coombe left for Angel City FC, and midfielder Kristie Mewis, defender Ali Krieger and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris joined the team in the offseason. All of that upheaval has taken a toll on the club.

At 4-7-0 with 11 games to play this season, Gotham has scored the fewest number of goals and conceded the second-most in the league for a goal differential of minus-11. Now 10th in the NWSL standings, Gotham is a far cry from the win-now, mini-super team many viewed the team to be ahead of the 2022 campaign. FiveThirtyEight forecasts Gotham’s playoff chances at just 11 percent, a figure the club will look to buck in the second half of the season.

“For me, I know it’s frustrating and infuriating because it’s like, yes, I’ve been here for a while, and I’ve seen this club grow and want to continue to see it grow, but I also have to recognize so much change has happened in a very short amount of time and sometimes it takes a little bit for change. The level you want to get to will still take some time,” said Dorsey. “I forget that Scott (Parkinson) is in his first year, like literally his first full season with us. We still have a very young, new coaching staff. They’re incredible, but it feels like everybody is learning together.”

Dorsey and Onumonu said the tumult, uncertainty and stress of last season’s reckoning also contributed to the overwhelming sensation of change.

“There’s ups and downs always in the season, and all we can do is just weather the storms and stick together and do the best we can and just trust in our coaching staff to lead us in the right direction,” Dorsey said. “That’s all we can do at the end of the day.”

Imani Dorsey and Ifeoma Onumonu participate in a mentorship panel discussion with other athletes at the adidas Title IX celebration. (Noam Galai/Getty Images for adidas)

While neither Dorsey nor Onumonu sugarcoats the club’s recent challenges, both see the team’s potential. When the squad’s off-field chemistry does coalesce, Dorsey says, “everybody’s going to know it.”

Onumonu rejoined Gotham this month after making a run to the semifinals of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations with her Nigerian national team and clinching a World Cup berth in the process. Nigeria’s campaign ended in a chaotic matchup against the hosts, in which two Super Falcons players were handed red cards, forcing Nigeria to play two down for 60 minutes.

Onumonu, though, has gotten used to being adaptable.

“I made a goals book for the beginning of the year, but I have learned now in my career that things don’t always go as planned, so it’s always having to readjust,” she said. “We’re at a turning point, so it’s like I have to decide now how much am I willing to give in order to get us to where we want to be.

“I can’t guarantee that the wins are going to come immediately, but that’s going to be my goal every game is that I have to give everything I have in order to get us to where we want to be.”

Looking ahead, Dorsey and Onumonu are empowered by their work off the field with BWPC, and humbled by their impact on the lives of the girls they’ve worked with.

On the pitch, in their unique position as young veterans, they have learned there are no sure things. Keeping their heads down, they’ll continue to stay the course.

“In this league, all I can really do is look at the next game,” Dorsey said.

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.

First-Time Olympian Kahleah Copper Is Seizing the Moment

Phoenix Mercury star Kahleah Copper playing in a WNBA game against the LA Sparks
Kahleah Copper's first season with the Mercury has been a banner one so far. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been working toward this year's WNBA All-Star Weekend for a long time.

2024 won't be Copper's first trip to the All-Star Game — in fact, she's been an All-Star for four consecutive seasons. This weekend also won't be Copper's greatest individual achievement to date. Afterall, it's tough to beat winning Finals MVP as part of the 2021 WNBA Champion Chicago Sky. And this year isn't even Copper's first time playing the All-Star Game in her home arena; that was in Chicago in 2022.

But this will be Copper's first All-Star Weekend as an Olympian, a title she's been striving for since the moment the Tokyo Games ended in August 2021. Back then, the 29-year-old had been one of Team USA's final roster cuts prior to the Olympics. And from that day forward, she made it her mission to channel  her disappointment into becoming an indispensable part of the 2024 Paris Olympic squad

"I wouldn't change my process for anything," she told Just Women's Sports earlier this week as she prepared to join the national team at training camp in Phoenix. "I'm super grateful for it, it has definitely prepared me. It's a testament to my work ethic, and me just really being persistent about what it is that I want."

A proud product of North Philadelphia, Copper has always been big on manifesting, speaking her intentions confidently into the universe and never shying away from  ambitions no matter how far-fetched they sounded.

"It's important to set goals, manifest those things, talk about it," she said. "Because the more you speak it, you speak it into existence." 

She also displays those goals on her refrigerator at home, forcing herself to keep them front of mind every day. The day she was named to the Olympic roster, ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted one of these visual reminders to social media: A 2021 photo showing Copper wearing a Team USA t-shirt over her Chicago Sky warmups, smiling at the camera while holding up the homemade gold medal slung around her neck.

"Kahleah Copper put out [the] photo on the left in Aug. 2021 and manifested that she WOULD be an Olympian," Rowe’s caption read. "Today she made team USA. Dreams to reality." 

Kahleah Copper of the USA Basketball Women's National Team poses for a portrait during Training Camp in Phoenix
The 2024 Paris Games will mark Copper's Olympic debut. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper turns her focus to Team USA

With one dream realized, Copper is aware that the job isn't finished, as USA women's basketball is aiming to win a historic eighth-straight Olympic gold medal in Paris this summer. That path doesn't technically begin with All-Star Weekend — where Team USA will take on Team WNBA in a crucial tune-up game — but the trial run could make a difference when the team touches down in Europe next week.

"It's serious, because other countries, they spend a lot of time together, so their chemistry is great," Copper said of her Olympic competition. "We don't get that, we don't have that much time together. Just putting all the great players together is not enough. It's gonna take a lot more than that."

With a laugh, Copper acknowledged that Team USA’s task at hand could lightly dampen the occasionally raucous All-Star festivities ("Balance!" was an oft-repeated word). But it's a cost she and her national team colleagues are more than willing to pay if it helps them come out on top in Paris. 

Of course, Copper — along with club teammates Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — will be enjoying home-court advantage when the All-Star Game tips off inside Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Saturday, a factor that might put them slightly more at ease. 

WNBA players kahleah copper and candace parker celebrating winning the 2021 championship with the chicago sky
Copper won a WNBA Championship in 2021 alongside one of her idols, Candace Parker. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A "damn near perfect" new WNBA team

Copper made the move to the Mercury just this season after establishing herself as a respected star in Chicago. What she joined was a work in progress, one of a number of key 2024 signings under first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts. Having played for the Sky since 2017, Copper wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the transition. But any positive manifestations she put out about her new team seemed to have done the trick.

"I said I would never go to the West Coast, I could never go that far from home," she said. "But I didn't know that this organization was what it was: Super professional, really taking care of everything. It's damn near perfect."

Copper herself has been damn near perfect, shooting 45% from the field while leading sixth-place Phoenix to a 13-12 record on the season. She’s also averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game, second highest in the league behind soon-to-be six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson’s 27.2 points per game. It’s not lost on Copper that she’s playing in front of packed houses, with the Mercury accounting for some of the W’s biggest crowds throughout its 28-year run. 

"Here in Phoenix, our fans are amazing," Copper said. "They show up every single night."

Phoenix Mercury player Kahleah Copper poses on the court before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game
Copper will play in her fourth consecutive All-Star Game on Saturday. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper's All-Star home-court advantage

All-Star Weekend presents Copper even more opportunities to connect with her new city, including by making an appearance at American Express's interactive fan experience at WNBA Live 2024. As part of the activation, Copper recorded a few short stories about growing up a basketball fan, describing the posters of Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, and Ivory Latta she had as a child, and how she dreamed of joining her idols as a professional basketball player. 

The Rutgers grad said she was excited about connecting with Phoenix fans on their level, rooting herself in a shared love of the sport even as she moves from watching the WNBA on TV to becoming one of its brightest stars. The message is clear: If you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, just about anything is possible.

But for all of Copper's personal manifestations, she's never lost sight of the most important thing: winning. And she won't stop grinding until she's posing for the cameras in Paris, holding up a real Olympic gold medal.

"When winning comes, the other stuff will come," she said. "The individual sh*t will come."

‘UNINTERRUPTED’s Top Class Tennis’ Debuts on Prime 

Still from tennis docuseries UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis
'UNINTERRUPTED'S Top Class Tennis' follows four junior players as they prep for the Orange Bowl. (Amazon MGM Studios)

Prime Video is hitting the tennis court with Thursday's streaming premiere of UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis.

After four seasons of the men's high school basketball-focused Top Class: The Life and Times of The Sierra Canyon Trailblazers, athlete empowerment brand UNINTERRUPTED is expanding its purview to tennis with a new four-episode mixed-gender docuseries.

Junior tennis stars take centerstage

Behind the concept is 2017 US Open champion and world No. 45 pro Sloane Stephens, who co-executive produced the series alongside LeBron James and Maverick Carter, co-founders of UNINTERRUPTED and its production and entertainment development arm, The SpringHill Company.

Top Class Tennis follows four players on their journeys to the Orange Bowl, arguably the junior circuit’s Grand Slam equivalent. The Florida-based international tournament was established in 1947 and has crowned a long list of future pros as champions, from retired great Steffi Graf to current star Coco Gauff.

Stealing the spotlight this season is rising Harvard sophomore and 2022-23 USA Today Girls Tennis Player of the Year Stephanie Yakoff, as well as five-time junior title winner and incoming Texas freshman Ariana Anazagasty-Pursoo. Both already have WTA creds, with Yakoff featuring at the 2023 BNP Paribas Open while Anazagasty-Pursoo competed on three Grand Slam courts.

Kamilla Cardoso, Kiki Rice, Caitlin Clark, Holly Rowe and Kristen Lappas at the ESPN+ 'Full Court Press' premiere
ESPN+'s Full Court Press is one of several women's sports docs hitting the screen this year. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Women's sports storms the big screen

Top Class Tennis is just the latest in what's shaping up to be a women’s sports documentary boom.

From Max's LFG about the USWNT's fight for equal pay and Netflix's Under Pressure chronicling the 2023 World Cup to ESPN+’s 2023-24 NCAA basketball series Full Court Press, athletes in women’s sports have taken streamers by storm.

UNINTERRUPTED's Top Class Tennis is available for streaming now on Prime Video

JWS Launches ‘The Gold Standard’ Hosted by Olympians Kelley O’Hara & Lisa Leslie

the gold standard logo
'The Gold Standard' is just one of three new JWS shows tackling the Summer Olympics.

Just Women's Sports announced three new digital series on Thursday, headlined by The Gold Standard, a new studio show hosted by Olympic gold medalists and women's sports icons Kelley O'Hara and Lisa Leslie.

USWNT and NWSL great O'Hara, a two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and bronze medalist, is teaming up with three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, herself a four-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, to bring viewers inside the world of Olympic women's sports. The pair will record each episode in-studio, with a series of special guests joining them throughout the show's run.

An insider's view of the Summer Games

The Gold Standard will debut on July 27th and cover the biggest women's sports stories from the Paris Olympics, giving fans a unique perspective by tapping into the insights and opinions of two legendary Olympians. 

"I know first-hand just how exciting and intense the Olympic Games can be," Leslie told JWS. "This show gives us a chance as athletes to bring fans closer to the experience, by sharing our unique insights into the Games. And with all the momentum we're seeing in women's sports, now is the perfect time to have a show dedicated to the biggest women's sports moments at the Olympic Games." 

"I can still remember watching the '96 Olympics and knowing that I wanted to be on that stage one day," says O'Hara. "Having the chance to compete in the Olympics and win gold was one of the highlights of my career. I'm looking forward to being a fan this time around and getting the chance to share my own perspective on the Games' biggest stories. Having teamed with Just Women's Sports before, I know this will be content that resonates with fans." 

The Gold Standard will live on Just Women's Sports' YouTube page, with select social cuts distributed across JWS digital platforms. The six-episode show will run through August 13th.

uswnt stars kelley o'hara and jaedyn shaw on jws digital series 1v1
1v1 with Kelley O'Hara will focus on USWNT players as they prep for the 2024 Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

Additional series focus on USWNT's Olympic run

The Gold Standard is just one of three upcoming JWS series designed to invite fans to experience the Summer Games from an Olympian's point of view, with additional series zeroing in on the USWNT's 2024 Olympic run.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, JWS will launch the latest edition of 1v1, with host Kelley O'Hara interviewing three of her USWNT teammates: Emily Sonnett, Jaedyn Shaw, and Rose Lavelle. These peer-to-peer interviews provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the USWNT's preparation for their first major tournament under new manager Emma Hayes.

To round things out, JWS is also bringing back its award-winning series, The 91st. This tournament's edition will be hosted by retired USWNT star and World Cup champion Jessica McDonald alongside noted soccer personalities Jordan Angeli and Duda Pavão. The 91st will follow the USWNT as it looks to go for gold against a stacked international field at the Paris Olympics — including reigning World Cup winners Spain.

Each new digital series leans on the expertise of its accomplished hosts and special guest stars, providing fans with candid, personality-driven commentary surrounding this summer's biggest event.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

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