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How OL Reign can avoid spoiling Megan Rapinoe’s farewell tour

(Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

On Friday night, OL Reign will host over 31,000 fans at Lumen Field to celebrate the final regular season home match of Seattle and USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe’s career. The whole evening will serve as an emotional tribute to Rapinoe’s impact on the sport of soccer in Seattle.

But the game against the Washington Spirit will also be crucial for the Reign’s postseason chances, as they battle for a spot with two games remaining in an incredibly tight playoff race. Just one point separates the Reign from the Spirit, and a loss could hinder the team’s ability to send Rapinoe off in style.

It seems impossible to imagine that Rapinoe wouldn’t see at least one playoff game in her final year, but the Reign sit on the precipice of losing ground in the wild postseason chase. Seattle currently has 28 points, tied with the Orlando Pride for sixth, and they only have a hold on the final playoff spot due to a goal differential advantage. If things don’t go according to plan, this could be Rapinoe’s final time playing at home.

The Reign are a hyper-talented squad, with a clear understanding of each other and their intended style of play. But if they want Rapinoe to have as many games as possible in her farewell tour, the matchup against Washington could prove season-defining.

A question of approach

Since July 1, the Reign have won just one of their last seven regular season games, slipping to sixth in the NWSL standings. Their goal differential margin is slim, with 28 goals scored to 26 goals conceded, and they’ve struggled to come back when their opponent scores first. Some of the tightness in the table is outside of Seattle’s control. This is one of the most competitive NWSL seasons of all time, but the difficulty they’ve had closing games out will put even more pressure on the squad as the postseason approaches.

The Reign are known as a team that can pass around their opponent, holding onto the ball to smother the other team’s attack while looking for a carefully placed opening at the other end of the pitch. They haven’t lost that identity in recent months, but they’ve also been leaning into a conservative game plan almost to a fault.

The team’s struggles were clear during their 2-0 loss to the Portland Thorns on Sept. 16. Head coach Laura Harvey lined the team up to be sturdy through their spine, without a ton of speed in the frontline to get in behind Portland’s defense. When the Thorns struck first, courtesy of two quick goals by Hina Sugita and Morgan Weaver in the first half, the Reign looked ill-equipped to respond, generating only three shots on target despite owning the possession battle.

A question of personnel

As steady as the trio of Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock have been over the years, slight upheaval in the Reign’s personnel approach could also be contributing to their uneasy status in the playoff race. After starting goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce departed for Manchester United last month, the Reign have been starting rookie Claudia Dickey in her place.

Dickey has naturally experienced some growing pains in the new role that have affected the team’s defensive prowess, particularly on set pieces. Harvey has also been drifting from her Shield-winning established center-back pairing of Sam Hiatt and Alana Cook, sitting Hiatt in favor of a combination of Barnes and Phoebe McClernon. With the way the Reign frequently look to build into games from a neutral game-state, the personnel fluctuation on the team’s backline could threaten to undermine Harvey’s approach. Any changes won’t happen immediately, either: Cook, the defense’s mainstay, will be unavailable on Friday due to a red-card suspension.

Rapinoe has carried many minutes in the home stretch of her career, playing no less than 80 minutes a game during the regular season since the start of September. Her dead-ball delivery has regained its lightness of touch — she assisted the Reign’s goal against North Carolina this past weekend — but Harvey will also at times leave game-changers like Elyse Bennett and Tziarra King on the bench for long stretches, even as the team is chasing a result. The team is also missing the playmaking abilities of Rose Lavelle, who remains out with an injury.

The path ahead

Of course, all is not lost for the Reign, who could clinch the playoffs with ease in their final two matches. Moving Emily Sonnett to defensive midfield has been a revelation for the club, and the combination of Jordyn Huitema and Bethany Balcer on attacking set pieces has been difficult for other teams to contain.

And despite the changes along the backline, the Reign are very difficult to beat when they show their mental toughness. Going down to 10 players in their most recent game against North Carolina, the team’s veterans remained calm and committed to holding the Courage from taking all three points in a 1-1 draw. That ethos could be the most important thing carrying them forward.

The Reign’s roster also has the ability to switch tempo and execute a defensive press at a moment’s notice, making their current run of form less relevant to the games ahead. If the team utilizes its depth chart and the defense holds steady, the Reign have all the opportunities in the world to make sure the Rapinoe celebration continues deep into autumn.

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

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

One former player contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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