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Is Mark Parsons the right coach for the Spirit’s rebuild?

Mark Parsons returns to the NWSL as the new head coach of the Spirit. (Joris Verwijst/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

On Monday, the Washington Spirit announced their new head coach and the return of a familiar face.

Mark Parsons is back in the NWSL after a year away. The 36-year-old coach got his start in the NWSL with the Spirit, coaching the team from 2013-15 before taking the helm at the Portland Thorns and leading them to the 2017 championship. In 2021, Parsons left the U.S. for a short-lived role as manager of the Netherlands, with whom he parted ways this past summer after a disappointing Euros campaign.

There’s no question that Parsons has the NWSL experience to guide the Spirit back into the playoff picture in 2023, but his appointment also begs a few questions for the upcoming year.

A new era in Washington

The Spirit’s 2021 championship run appeared to set a foundation for long-term success, but since Michele Kang took over as primary owner in March, the club has undergone a full operational overhaul.

Kang hired famed Florida State coach Mark Krikorian in June to build out Washington’s infrastructure, and his influence became clear right away. Kris Ward was removed as head coach in August after an incident at practice, and youth and college coach Albertin Montoya stepped in as interim manager. The season ended in disappointment, with the reigning champions and 2022 Challenge Cup finalists finishing in 11th place with a 3-9-10 record and failing to make the playoffs, and indicated that more broad-stroke changes might be necessary.

Then the real work began. Krikorian hired Morinao Imaizumi (also formerly of FSU) to the team’s technical staff and made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason with the hiring of former U.S. women’s national team high performance director Dawn Scott. The appointments have been an ambitious attempt at assembling some of the biggest names in the sport in the U.S.

The team also made early offseason roster decisions that indicated a work in progress. USWNT veteran Kelley O’Hara opted to leave the club, signing with Gotham FC in free agency last week. Washington then chose not to retain Taylor Aylmer, Averie Collins, Devon Kerr, Karina Rodriguez, Audrey Harding, Alia Martin and Gaby Vincent.

According to Parsons, what happens next begins with Krikorian, and the rest goes back to Kang.

“He’s got the main job of executing this vision. I’m just grateful to be able to come in and play a part in it,” Parsons said.

“After multiple conversations with Michele, it’s clear that not only does she have the vision, but she’s acting and she’s putting everything into that vision. Every time I speak with her and Mark, something else has happened, the club has moved forward again.”

Parsons left the NWSL in 2021 after eight years in the league, at the time citing his desire to be closer to family in England as a major part of that decision. Kang, he said, tipped the scale in his willingness to return. The Spirit are attempting to modernize their staff and create a formidable infrastructure that can remain competitive no matter who is on the sideline.

Michele Kang has made several high-profile hires since taking over as majority owner in March. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

‘The star of the team will be the team’

Parsons’ reputation upon his return to the NWSL can be looked at multiple ways. He led the Spirit to two playoff appearances and won a championship and two NWSL Shields with the Thorns. The decision to leave Portland was a personal one, and not driven by results.

His approach, however, did not translate well to the Netherlands, which he readily admitted on Monday.

“I gave everything, I think the staff gave everything, I think the players did,” he said. “But in the end, I felt passionately that for the better of the team, and also for the better of me, that this challenge was probably too much.”

Parsons isn’t the first coach with club success to run into problems at the international level, but his issues with the Netherlands underline some of the specificities of his coaching style. Reports of hours-long team meetings centered around culture that might be galvanizing in a club environment did not have the same effect on Parsons’ Dutch squad. Although the team struggled with injuries, the results never changed.

That approach is likely what Kang and Krikorian are looking for as Parsons returns to the Spirit. He will have control over the team’s draft and other transactions before a full preseason with the team. He will also have to figure out how to manage the team’s young stars in Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, creative playmakers who have thrived with a certain amount of freedom.

Parsons cited assistant coach Angela Salem, a former Thorns midfielder, as an important part of that process.

“Having someone who has been on the playing side is important, but also speeds up the messaging for the staff and also the players,” he said. “She knows the good side, but she also knows the parts where I’m going to be challenging because I want to be able to support these players with my heart, with everything I’ve got. But I’m also going to challenge and push.”

Parsons’ fit in Washington will likely hinge on his mentality that “the star player is the team” as well as his ability to manage high-level talent.

“I had an opportunity to talk to the team earlier on, and I said, ‘You’re going to hear a lot from me on values, behaviors and trust, and how we can build authentic trust,” Parsons said.

The success of that trust could make or break a season.

And while Parson is a proven hire, having yet another NWSL coaching search end with a familiar name might move the needle forward for the Spirit, but not for the league at large. Krikorian told the media that while he felt the hiring process was fair, the Spirit did not use a hiring committee in their search.

“It was just a couple of us that were making the choice,” Krikorian said.

As the NWSL struggles to make significant strides in opportunities for both women in leadership roles and coaches and executives of color, Washington will try to turn back the clock with Parsons under the watchful eye of fans.

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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