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Courage’s winning mentality starts with veterans like Meredith Speck

(Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When Heather O’Reilly joined the North Carolina Courage through a trade in 2018, Meredith Speck couldn’t resist telling her how much she looked up to the World Cup champion 10 years earlier, when Speck was playing youth soccer.

O’Reilly, a longtime midfielder with the U.S. women’s national team, helped establish a standard of excellence in North Carolina. During the two years she was on the team from 2018-19, the Courage won back-to-back NWSL championships and NWSL Shields.

With O’Reilly now retired and in the broadcasting booth, calling her first game as an analyst for North Carolina’s home opener Wednesday night, Speck and the other Courage veterans are carrying on the winning tradition. The team enters the regular season as the winningest club in the NWSL after defeating the Washington Spirit in the Challenge Cup final earlier this month.

Even now, Speck looks up to O’Reilly, influenced by her commitment to putting forth 100 percent effort at all times.

“I think sometimes people think it’s cool to not try your hardest, because if you’re not trying your hardest, then you can’t necessarily fail,” Speck said. “And what I love so much about Heather is she’s never too cool to work her hardest, and if she trains her hardest every day and doesn’t make the lineup, that’s just not embarrassing for her.”

Speck has been with the Courage since 2017, but she hasn’t always been a consistent starter. In four seasons with the club, excluding Challenge Cups, the midfielder has started 12 of the 45 games in which she’s played. But the Courage are a winning team not only because of the players they field on game day. Speck and her teammates fight for their starting spots in training.

“Game day is one day a week, and the other five days of training are so imperative to preparing the team,” she said. “So for myself, I’m not necessarily looking at preparing for a game in that moment — I’m looking for, how can I be my best every day? Because every day that I’m my best, my teammates are going to be able to be their best and whoever gets to go on the field, whatever 11 that is, they’re going to be the most prepared. If the team wins, we all win.”

The Courage are known for their player-driven, highly competitive culture. Speck, tied with teammate Abby Erceg as the winningest field players in the NWSL, sets the example for the younger players. She cited rookie midfielders Haleigh Stackpole and Frankie Tagliaferri as standard-bearers of that mentality in training.

“Everyone needs a Meri Speck,” said Courage head coach Sean Nahas. “She’s a massive glue piece for us. She’s a piece that keeps everything together. She’s that lightheartedness but focus as well. She’s a true pro, and I say that because for five years she never saw the field, but Meri never complained. Meri never lost her way. She never thought, ‘I’m not coming back because I don’t approve of my role.’”

Speck, 29, is part of a Courage veteran group that includes Erceg, Debinha, Carson Pickett, Denise O’Sullivan, Merrit Mathias, Katelyn Rowland, Kaleigh Kurtz and Ryan Williams. They have had to ramp up their energy since the Challenge Cup ended on May 7, helping the team overcome a stretch that included a seven-player COVID-19 outbreak and a postponed match against Gotham FC. With smaller numbers at practice, they’ve focused on specific parts of their game and kept the intensity high.

After dropping their regular season opener 2-1 to Angel City FC, the Courage are riding the momentum from their Challenge Cup win into Wednesday’s match against the Orlando Pride. Their early success came as a surprise to some people after all of their roster changes in the offseason, including losing U.S. women’s national players Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis in trades with the Kansas City Current, but the Courage had their eyes set on the trophy from the beginning.

“This team has been, from day one, super focused and ready to get down to business, and that’s why we won the Challenge Cup,” Speck said.

“We proved so many people wrong,” said Nahas.

After dealing with last September’s bombshell report in The Athletic detailing allegations of emotional and sexual abuse against former head coach Paul Riley, Nahas wanted the team to experience winning again, especially the veterans.

“It’s revitalized some players,” Nahas said of the Challenge Cup title. “It’s brought a new light to some things. It’s allowed the veterans to have a new sense of energy because they have other players around them working and representing the crest the way we want it to be represented.”

For an example of what that representation looks like, the players need look no further than Meredith Speck.

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

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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