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How the benches can help Thorns or Current win NWSL title

The Thorns’ bench is deeper on paper, but the Current have relied on their crafty substitutes all season. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If there’s anything the public has learned from this year’s NWSL playoffs, it’s that you have to keep playing right up until the final whistle. Three of the last four postseason games have featured game-winners in either stoppage or extra time, with substitutes making an outsized impact. In a high-transition league, legs begin to tire around the 60th minute, and the decision to insert the right player for an infusion of energy can bend a match in a team’s favor.

On Saturday, the NWSL Championship could come down to the final half-hour of the game. The Kansas City Current and Portland Thorns have both done the work over the last eight months to be prepared for that moment.

“It’s hard to establish yourself as a coach and earn trust, and all you can do is try your best to be as consistent as possible,” said Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson. “And I think in that way from the beginning of the year, I’ve tried to use our depth.”

Throughout the season, the Thorns had to rely heavily on squad rotation while Christine Sinclair and others were away competing in international tournaments. Recent midfield starter Yazmeen Ryan thinks that experience not only helped them finish second in the league, but carried them into the championship.

“There’s not anything like it. I mean, I feel like this is just Portland, like this is who we are,” she said.

Those best-laid plans could be a difference-maker on Saturday evening, with the matchup between Portland and Kansas City culminating one of the most competitive seasons in NWSL history. Behind the strength of strong rookie classes joining cores of young and veteran talent, both the Thorns and the Current have players who can come in with fresh legs and new ideas.

“I’ve tried to use our players not just to rest other players or perceived starters, but to make sure that no matter who’s called upon and when, they have had game experience,” Wilkinson said.

The Current were dealt a tough hand to their starting XI early in 2022, losing both Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis to injury after making some of the splashiest signings of the offseason. While Mewis and Williams were missed, other members of the roster stepped up to take the club from the league basement in 2021 all the way to the last game of the year.

Kansas City head coach Matt Potter instills his team with the confidence that any player can contribute when called upon, like Elyse Bennett did against OL Reign last Sunday when Cece Kizer left the match as a concussion substitute.

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Rookie Elyse Bennett has been a key sub for the Current during the playoffs. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

“I feel like everyone on our team is worthy and deserving of minutes, and I feel like everyone’s gonna be ready when their name is called on,” Bennett said on Thursday.

Potter agrees: “It basically gives you many positive problems because so many players are ready to play. It’s hard to leave a player out — that’s one of the hardest things of the job. But we fully trust it, when they come into the game, they will change the game.” He mentioned subs like Chardonnay Curran, Izzy Rodriguez and Taylor Leach coming into the match in Seattle and putting the finishing touches on a late-game, 2-0 shutout victory to advance to the final.

“When we’re on the bench, we see things, we say things, and then when we go on, we actually do it,” Curran said, while Rodriguez cited the ability to exploit gaps she’s noticed while on the bench.

While the Current get the fresh legs and perspectives of younger players eager to make their mark on a big game, Portland has to manage the work of a number of established stars. In their semifinal against San Diego, the names on the bench came with years of top-level international and club experience. Asking Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair and Janine Beckie to come in to close out a match isn’t an easy task to manage, but the Thorns have made the balance work.

“There’s a lot of ego and a lot of outside attention on starts, but I’m a big believer in who’s going to finish,” said Wilkinson, acknowledging that the trust required to ask a high-caliber player to be patient until their number is called comes with time. Dunn’s insertion into the match against San Diego resulted in the game-winner, and Wilkinson specifically called out a defensive action by Sinclair that helped close out the game after she was subbed in late.

Working her way back into full-90 fitness after giving birth to son Marcel in May, Dunn takes her job in stride. “I think you have to be adaptable. When people reach this level, you can’t only handle one role,” she said Friday. “When players see us adapt to fulfill new roles, I think it just helps younger players to step outside of their own self and say, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t the role that I love, but I’m gonna do what I need to to help the team.’”

While Portland’s high-profile game-changers might give them an edge on paper, Kansas City’s ability to overcome deficits and fight to the finish has a lot to do with the tenacity of their substitutes.

“Those players have come into games that we’ve been losing 2-0 a few times throughout the season, and have come back to get results that we might not have been able to get without them,” Current forward Kristen Hamilton said.

No matter what, Bennett says, you can’t count anyone out until the last minute.

“Our bench is going to be just as ready as Portland’s bench,” she said, “and it’s going to be an accumulation of all the players on the team and the roster that ultimately deserves to win.”

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

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

WNBA Confirms Toronto Expansion Team for 2026

Fans at a game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in Toronto
Canadian fans asked and the WNBA delivered: Toronto's getting a team. (Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

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