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My wishes for the NWSL in 2022, a defining year for the league

(Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

With 2021 blessedly behind us, it’s time for the world of women’s soccer to turn toward the new year with high hopes and lessons learned. The NWSL is moving into its tenth anniversary season (despite the lost 2020 regular season), and the stakes for a new start have never been higher.

The new year on the NWSL calendar will bring exciting soccer, fresh faces and a wealth of competition the now 12-team league has never seen before. But my NWSL New Year’s wishes are a bit bigger than what happens on the field, so let’s dive in.

Ratify the league’s first CBA

The NWSL’s success in 2022 likely begins and ends with solidifying the league’s first Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NWSL Players Association. The negotiating process gained some clarity when the U.S. Soccer Federation ended its allocation funding at the end of 2021, meaning players contracted with the U.S. women’s national team could officially join the NWSLPA for the first time.

The CBA is going to be important in all elements of player experience. In order for the NWSL to maintain a functioning workplace, one has to think the league will need to finalize the CBA — or be making significant progress in negotiations — before players report to preseason camp on Feb. 1. The agreement is going to set minimum and maximum wages, define the terms of a free agency period and set other standards such as maternity protections and salary cap flexibility.

All of these matters must be sorted so that players don’t have questions about the league’s future going into the 2022 season. More importantly, for the sustainability of the league, owners need to provide the players with the confidence that they can internalize as a group. It could be some time before the NWSL releases the findings of the investigations it launched into the league’s and teams’ handling of abuse claims, and players need to feel like their voices are being heard by their employers. That comes from good-faith negotiating leading to real changes that benefit the league’s labor force.

Searching for basic levels of safety, a number of players have taken a chance on fresh starts within the league rather than leaving the country or the sport. It is now up to the NWSL to reward that faith, and they need to start by putting it in writing.

Resolve ownership conflict

It’s a bit obvious that this wish is in reference to the ongoing saga of the Washington Spirit, now that the calendar has turned and Steve Baldwin has yet to commit to sell the team to minority owner Y. Michele Kang. As of this writing, Kang has the highest bid for Baldwin’s shares at $35 million, 40 percent more than the $25 million offer by billionaire Todd Boehly, Baldwin’s preferred buyer. Now, Baldwin’s fellow investors are pushing back, backing Kang (who also has the support of the players) and pressuring Baldwin to do his fiduciary duty and sell to the highest bidder.

Getting the Baldwin mess out of the league is paramount to both Spirit and league leadership, but it also speaks to a larger conflict the NWSL has to resolve: owners gripping tightly to situations that don’t serve players and fans. Baldwin is attempting to sell the Spirit to an outside buyer against the wishes of his players, and there are similar conflicts simmering elsewhere in the league.

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Spirit minority owner Y. Michele Kang and Kelley O'Hara celebrate the team's championship in November. (Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

Chicago Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134 has extended its ultimatum for majority owner Arnim Whisler to sell his shares in the club past the end of the year. Controversial signings by the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage have also led to discord between the clubs and their fans. The league hasn’t even begun to touch the sexual assault lawsuit in which new San Diego Wave FC owner Ron Burkle was named as a defendant. Burkle, who is also part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is being investigated for violating Pennsylvania whistle-blower laws after the wife of a former team employee accused former head coach Clark Donatelli of groping her.

The NWSL cannot handle another year of scandal, and the first place to establish stability is with the same owners who allowed abuse to continue under their watch for years. From this vantage point, allowing Baldwin to hold the Spirit hostage and Burkle to operate without investigation feels like more of the same. The league can mitigate unequal power dynamics by creating the strong CBA proposed above, but it also has to commit to turning over a new leaf at the ownership level or these problems will continue.

California dreaming

It’s not necessarily written in the history of the NWSL to send best wishes to expansion sides, but what is 2022 if not a year for something new? Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC are coming into the league carrying responsibilities greater than how many goals they score on the pitch, and it will be good for everybody if they hit the ground running in their first seasons.

The California teams have provided the NWSL with good press to close out a rough year and have clearly become a haven for players in need of fresh starts. Both clubs are women-led, and Angel City is women-owned, presenting a new way forward for a league struggling to reconcile its past.

They also have the potential to field two very exciting soccer teams, jumpstart a new regional rivalry, shake up the standings and provide a brilliant showcase for the league. Angel City’s first game at Banc of America Stadium is going to be the event of the season. One has to hope that CBS has the game circled in pen for a network television slot.

I’m not one for bold predictions, but I’d love (and expect) to see at least one of the California clubs in playoff contention by the end of the season. With a number of clubs entering new eras in 2022, the postseason race promises to be competitive and exhilarating.

Let televised games tell the story

Washington’s meeting with Chicago in the NWSL championship game was the culmination of a wild playoff race: The Houston Dash were eliminated in the last game of the season, the NWSL Shield-winning Thorns were dealt a massive upset and OL Reign were bounced on their home field. While the final was televised on CBS, the momentous games preceding it were relegated to cable at best (CBS Sports) and streaming services at worst (Twitch).

As advocates for women’s sports have been saying for years, putting games on national television not only provides the platform that elite play deserves but also helps tell the stories of the league to a wide audience. Imagine if the 525,000 people who tuned into the championship game had had weeks to learn about what makes Trinity Rodman special, or how Chicago’s midfield kept the team alive when injuries made their run seem impossible. It takes time and repetition to ingrain these narratives into the lives of casual sports fans, and that process goes hand-in-hand with TV coverage.

My wish is for CBS to air more NWSL games on the flagship network, but also to weave women’s stories into their Champions League coverage, Serie A coverage and beyond. Midge Purce did a brilliant job talking about the NWSL Championship during men’s Concacaf World Cup qualifying, and she’s not the only player with the ability to represent the league in that capacity. The league’s partnership with CBS has already paid dividends with strong viewership returns on TV and on Paramount+. Now, the network has the ability to take the ubiquity of the league in the soccer landscape to the next level, and it should take that responsibility seriously.

CBS should also work with the league to invest in and possibly even take over production responsibilities from Vista Worldlink, which has been handling game broadcasts for a number of years. Make the CBS deal a partnership in practice, not just in name, and people will watch.

Peace of mind for NWSL fans

It feels like this goal might be too lofty considering some of the larger issues the NWSL needs to resolve. But my genuine wish for longtime NWSL fans this year is that the league gets to a place where they can be content to support it again. I don’t want supporters to feel like they have to turn off parts of their brain in order to cheer for their team, or that they have to ignore issues that are important to them. Teams should not be asking their fans to betray causes they hold dear in order to find solace in the joy of sports.

Soccer — like all sports — is a capitalistic effort, and that effort isn’t going to align with the values of every fan who wants to buy a ticket to a game. But teams should be joining their fans in a commitment against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the locker room rather than resisting them. The NWSL has a minor miracle on its hands in a fan base that truly cares about these values, and leaning into them isn’t as difficult as those in positions of influence might lead you to believe.

So when I say I wish for peace of mind for the fan base, I say it knowing that not all sides are going to get what they want. But fewer unforced errors from the top, more success stories of supporting players and true accountability for wrongdoing would go a long way toward making sure the NWSL thrives, and doesn’t simply replace the fans who got the league here in the first place.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

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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