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OL Reign’s original three look to build on their NWSL legacies

Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe will play their 10th season for OL Reign in 2022. (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey is embracing the NWSL preseason with veteran players Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes, because she can’t be sure how many she’ll have left with all three of them after this one.

Rapinoe, 36, said after the Olympics last year that she needed to “take some time to think” about retirement. Last month, she signed a one-year extension with the Reign, raising questions about whether this could be her last year (fiancé and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird has announced this WNBA season as her farewell tour).

For Barnes, 32, and Fishlock, 35, the question appears further off as they and Rapinoe enter their 10th season with OL Reign. In January, Barnes signed a one-year contract extension and Fishlock a two-year, both of which have options for an extra year. 

The three original franchise players understand what it means to play for the Reign and, during a preseason with many new faces, Harvey can lean on them to set the tone.

“I think that’s their biggest legacy,” the coach said. “This club continues to stick with those standards on and off the field, within the player group, of what’s expected, and these have been setting it for 10 years. They created it, then they set it and then they impart that onto the new ones coming in.”

For Harvey, who also started at the club (then Seattle Reign FC) in 2013, “it’s hard to imagine the club without them,” she said. All three have been named to the NWSL Best XI during their careers, with 2021 NWSL MVP Fishlock earning the honor five times.

“We are 100 percent the product of our environment,” said Barnes, the NWSL’s 2016 Defender of the Year. “I am every single person who’s ever been part of this club — players, staff, playing one minute, to not playing at all, to playing every single minute.”

Barnes leads a steady backline alongside U.S. women’s national team defenders Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta. Kristen McNabb, who started 15 of 21 games for Reign last season, was selected by San Diego Wave FC in the 2022 expansion draft.

“We always hear about outsiders looking in and that they want to be part of the Reign, and I just want to continue that legacy as much as I possibly can and have these younger ones take it over after as the old ones move on eventually,” Barnes said.

That legacy is a conversation Harvey plans to have with Barnes, Rapinoe and Fishlock, but “not yet,” as she exclaimed during Tuesday’s media call.

The group still has an NWSL championship title to win after claiming the NWSL Shield twice, in 2014 and 2015, and finishing as runners-up those same years.

Since falling to the Washington Spirit — the eventual NWSL champions — in last year’s semifinals, the Reign have undergone one of the biggest roster turnovers in their history, signing nine new players in recent weeks.  The upcoming NWSL Challenge Cup will give them a chance to find their chemistry in competitive game settings before the regular season begins in May.

“There’s things around who Lu’s playing with … or whatever it might look like, where we have to find answers on some of the new players that we have,” Harvey said.

With Rapinoe up top, Fishlock in the midfield and Barnes on defense, Harvey has a strong core to build around. The Reign will enter the year with a healthy balance of veterans, younger players and those coming from other teams who are hungry for their shot. The mix creates a team that wants to win now, but also has depth and longevity.

The Reign get an early test, kicking off the Challenge Cup on March 18 against the Portland Thorns.

“It’s the game of our lifetime,” Barnes said of the Reign-Thorns rivalry. “It doesn’t even matter what place you’re in in the league. It’s like, that’s the championship game.

“Being able to pass that history down, that rivalry down to the new girls coming in and people overseas and stuff has been really fun to watch. I’ve had a couple girls come off those games and be like, ‘Best game I ever played.’ And we’re talking about girls who have been to World Cups.”

The game will also serve as OL Reign’s 2022 home debut at Lumen Field in Seattle, Wash., home to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and MLS’ Seattle Sounders. While hosting games at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma for three years, the Reign played their first match at Lumen last August against Portland, winning 2-1 in front of an NWSL-record 27,278 fans.

The move to Lumen marks the beginning of a new era for the Reign, and Barnes, Rapinoe and Fishlock are ready to lead the way.

“The club’s going in an exciting direction in regards to playing at Lumen, which is a huge step for us and I think the three of them,” Harvey said. “I was really excited for the three of them to have that opportunity because they deserve it.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Hailey Van Lith reportedly headed to TCU

LSU Tiger Hailey Van Lith shoots against the UCLA Bruins at the 2024 NCAA Sweet 16
After just one season as a Tiger, Van Lith has reportedly set her sights on Fort Worth. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Hailey Van Lith is reportedly on her way to TCU, says Talia Goodman of The Next Hoops.

The former Louisville star joined LSU for the 2023-24 season, but a disappointing run in Baton Rouge saw her enter the transfer portal once again at the season’s end. Van Lith opted to use her fifth year of eligibility versus declaring for the WNBA draft.

Van Lith was admittedly less effective as a Tiger. Her field goal percentage decreased from .411 in 2022-23 with Louisville to .388 at LSU. She also went from averaging 19.7 points per game to just 11.6, due in part to a change of position from shooting guard to more of a point guard role.

At an end-of-season banquet last week, LSU coach Kim Mulkey used her speech to wish Van Lith well, calling her "one of the hardest working players that I’ve ever coached."

"Her aspirations were to get drafted this year," Mulkey said, according to NOLA.com. "And she realized, 'I need another year, and I need to go back to a place where I can relax and get back to my normal position.'

"And what do you do? You hug her, and you wish her well."

The decision to commit to TCU may come as a surprise after Van Lith paid a visit to Mississippi State last weekend. The Horned Frogs finished out the 2023-24 season 21-12 overall, coming in 9th in the Big 12 and scoring an average of 69.5 points per game. The program also made headlines in January when they held mid-season open tryouts in response to an onslaught of sidelining injuries.

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."

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