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My not unbiased take on who to watch this NWSL season

Houston Dash v Orlando Pride
Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos

I’m biased. I don’t care. I’m also REALLY excited to watch the NWSL this year. As a former player who usually got some extra reps during those World Cup/Olympic seasons, I selfishly love these “interrupted” years even more (sorry if that it’s bad for marketing or whatever). With the national teamers away, the rest of the league gets to show what it can do. And when the season kicks off this weekend, this is who I’ve got an eye on from each team.

Portland Thorns: Morgan Weaver

Not to be the most dramatic, but this feels like a bit of a make or break year for the former No. 2 pick, who will absolutely get minutes while Crystal Dunn and crew are fighting the good fight over in Europe. Will she fall into the category of just adding to Portland’s “depth,” or could Weaver herself be thrown into the USWNT convo next cycle? This Portland team needs the latter, especially with so many players set to miss games during the Olympics. 

OL Reign: Dani Weatherholt

I already said I’m biased and I don’t care, but I think Dani is the enforcer the Reign need and they should try to find ways to get her on the pitch. They’ve got some incredibly tactical players, but they missed a little bit of bite at times last year. I think Dani can be that player as someone who is effective on both sides of the ball.

Houston Dash: Shea Groom

Houston seemed to finally piece it together last season, and Groom was a huge reason why. She was the missing piece that perfectly linked together the talents of Kristie Mewis, Rachel Daly and Sophie Schmidt. If those three all find themselves on Olympic rosters, Groom’s role will get even bigger. 

Washington Spirit: TBH, I don’t know

Maybe Ashley Hatch? Ashley Sanchez? The Spirit are year-over-year fairly consistent, and the big Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara signings will shore up their defense. But if they’re really going to make a title run, they need to score more, and I’m as eager as everyone else is to see who will do it.

Gotham FC: Sodam Lee

I mean… did you see THAT preseason goal? C’mon.

NC Courage: Merritt Mathias

Last season, between COVID opt-outs and injuries, the typically stout North Carolina defense looked unusually leaky. Mathias’ absence and slow return from knee surgery was a big reason why. Not only did the Courage miss their back four partnership, they desperately missed Mathias’ attacking power and crosses into the box. With her back this season (and no Jaelene Daniels (Hinkle)), Mathias will be called on even more in a rebound year for the Courage.

Chicago Red Stars: Mal Pugh

Chicago’s move to acquire Mal made it clear they felt they still needed to fill the void left first by Sam Kerr (now in England) and then Yuki Nagasato (now in Louisville). When healthy, Pugh is undoubtedly one of the world’s best forwards. And this year, she’ll be motivated to have a strong NWSL season in order to get herself back into the USWNT conversation. With an incredibly strong team behind her, Chicago should again make a top of the table push if they score more consistently. Pugh will have a chance to shine. 

Orlando Pride: Marisa Viggiano

I really mean this. Marisa is GOOD GOOD. In a team of stars, I believe Viggiano’s ability to connect lines will be key for the Pride if this team is going to find a way for its big-name players to share the fame field.  She’s crafty, plays smart and always seems to find herself in the right pockets of space.

Kansas City Woso: Darian Jenkins

The swap that sent Darian Jenkins and Tziarra King to new surroundings could end up being crucial for both sides. Both are extremely talented (Darian is a bit more experienced), but neither quite found a goal-scoring groove last season. Jenkins has the raw tools to replace Christen Press and team up with A-Rod on the attack. If KC is going to be successful year one (or whatever we’re calling this), solidifying that pairing will be a huge reason why. 

Louisville FC: Michelle Betos

Louisville had a mission to make Betos their #1 keeper, and they made that clear in the expansion draft. She’s truly one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met in any area of life, and it’s great to see her have a team put their full faith in her proven abilities (and winning record). An extremely young Louisville side will need her voice just as much as her shot stopping. If she can stay healthy, expect Betos to be a big reason for Louisville’s growth this season. 

 

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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