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‘Light at the end of the tunnel’: The night the NWSL returned to play

Players come together during the Gotham FC-Washington Spirit game Wednesday night. (Jesse Louie/Just Women’s Sports)

Meghan Klingenberg of the Portland Thorns was the last player interviewed Wednesday night after an evening of three NWSL games, the first ones played since Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim shared their stories about Paul Riley in The Athletic last week.

In front of an online audience of media members, Klingenberg sat calmly in a black folding chair, wearing a casual jean jacket, as she would for any normal postgame press conference. But this evening, in the midst of a league-wide reckoning over a power structure that enabled alleged abusers like Riley, was anything but normal.

The simplest question — “How are you?” — took the longest to answer.

“I feel sad,” she said. “I feel angry. I think it depends on what I feel, depending what time of the day it is. I feel a little bit of guilt … so yeah, I feel a wide range of emotions.”

If there had to be four words to sum up the entirety of Wednesday night, it would be that phrase: “wide range of emotions.”

The evening began with NJ/NY Gotham FC and Washington Spirit taking the pitch at Subaru Park in Philadelphia. At the six-minute mark, both teams’ players and coaching staffs gathered at the center of the field to link arms for one minute in solidarity with Farrelly, Shim, Kaiya McCullough and others who’ve been silenced over the years.

As the teams congregated, the NWSL Players Association released a statement on social media that included a list of demands for the league.

Commentator Kaylyn Kyle’s voice shook on the Paramount+ broadcast of the second game Wednesday night as players came together at midfield.

“If this isn’t a shut-up-and-listen to these players moment, I don’t really know what is,” said Kyle, who played in the NWSL from 2013 to 2016. “I’m devastated, disgusted, but I’m not shocked and that’s the problem. I played in this league where this was normalized. That’s not OK … These players that are on the pitch tonight, I genuinely don’t know how they’re doing it.”

The players formed the circle in the sixth minute to symbolize the six years it took for Farrelly and Shim to have their stories heard.

‘This is a league of strong, strong women’

Half an hour after the demonstration in Philadelphia, Racing Louisville FC and the North Carolina Courage — Riley’s team before he was terminated in the hours after The Athletic report came out — took the same action of solidarity at the sixth minute of their own game.

Later, Portland Thorns FC and the Houston Dash did the same.

Originally, the NWSL Players Association had wanted teams to stand for six minutes to illustrate how long six minutes feels and compare it to six years of being silenced about sexual abuse.

“That was what our movement was about,” said Louisville goalkeeper Michelle Betos. “We honestly decided not to go with a full six minutes because players didn’t think emotionally they can handle it. You may not see it in the way teams are playing right now, because this is a league of strong, strong women, but people are hurting.”

Even though four teams playing Wednesday night had coaches and general managers who were fired this season for violations of the NWSL’s anti-harassment policy, the night was strictly about supporting Farrelly, Shim, McCullough and others. Spirit midfielder and NWSLPA president Tori Huster made that clear to reporters after their game, a 0-0 draw with Gotham.

“What they did was some of the bravest things I’ve ever seen,” she said. “They went through a lot and we are happy to support them. Honestly, all our love to them. They helped. Whether they’re the catalysts of the change that’s needed in this league or not, we are on our way to that change and we’re trying to take this league back and push it in the right direction.”

‘My greatest hope for them was to play like they were kids again’

For probably the first time in NWSL history, all six coaches approached the night with the same game plan. The last week of training was similar for everyone, too.

Players’ well-being was the focus; soccer was the distraction. Training sessions and meetings were optional. When players needed to talk, the coaches were there. If players requested to end the drill early, the coaches did it.

“If they want to watch video, we’re there to provide that, but we’re not demanding that at the moment because there’s so many other things going on,” Spirit interim coach Kris Ward said. “It’s just trying to listen. That’s a big part of it — just giving them the ability to speak and then being ready to listen.”

Multiple teams are fighting for a playoff spot as the NWSL enters the last month of regular season. For now, though, soccer is meant to provide an escape.

None of the players in Wednesday’s postgame press conferences dwelled on the results. That included Gotham FC, who were celebrating Carli Lloyd’s homecoming game before she retires at the end of the season.

“Tonight when I was hyping the team up, I told them my greatest hope for them was to play like they were kids again,” said Klingenberg. “To remember what it felt like when you were on the schoolyard or on the streets or in your backyard, and play with that type of passion and joy.”

“I think when you’ve got 10,000 fans out there, and it’s the GOAT’s last game, and them going through what this group has been through, it’s a pretty easy talk,” Gotham coach Scott Parkinson said. “It’s, ‘Let’s go out there and enjoy this for 90 minutes.’”

‘I hope and wish that this is a huge reset for this league’

Lloyd grew up just 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia in Delran, N.J. Gotham moved Wednesday night’s game to Subaru Park from their usual home at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. to make it easier for Lloyd’s family and friends to attend.

The crowd of about 10,000 was three times bigger than Gotham’s average attendance size, and more than the average of every NWSL team besides the Portland Thorns.

Lloyd, the two-time FIFA Player of the Year, has played at Subaru Park with the United States women’s national team, but Wednesday marked her first-ever professional club match at a Philadelphia pro sports venue.

“Tonight was an amazing atmosphere,” the star forward said. “This team and the league deserve to play in front of so many fans. So, I think for the team and the league, for Gotham, for the union, for the NWSL to have this little farewell game for me was truly special.”

While showing her gratitude for the celebration, the 39-year-old also described the night as part of “one of the worst weeks this league has ever seen.” She told the Philadelphia Inquirer ahead of Wednesday’s game: “We need to speak out and demand better for ourselves and the generations after us. They deserve it. We all deserve it.”

The farewell of one of the best to ever play the game on a night heavy with emotion seemed to symbolize a turning point — the end of one age and the start of something new.

“I hope and wish that this is a huge reset for this league to just start doing things right from the top down,” Lloyd said. “I think that’s the most important thing. We as players deserve the best. I’m going to be leaving this sport and all of these women deserve to have the best — to be playing on the best playing surfaces, to have the best coaches, to have the best owners. So I am hopeful that will happen.”

As Klingenberg addressed the room late into the night, gathering her “wide range of emotions” while sitting in her black folding chair, she perked up a bit.

“I also feel joy,” she said. “That things are starting to change and there’s discussion, and maybe we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.

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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