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What you need to know about 2023 NWSL regular season

2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith leads the reigning champion Portland Thorns into the new season. (Soobum Im/Getty Images)

It’s been a long, eventful offseason, but it’s finally time for NWSL games to begin. After weathering the COVID-19 pandemic and the unveiling of wider systemic issues in 2021 and 2022, the league is ready to start a new chapter and era of growth.

No one can predict the future, but a few overarching questions linger as the 2023 season gets set to kick off, with storylines reaching far beyond the league itself.

Bring on VAR

In what is possibly the biggest upgrade to NWSL game operations in the league’s history, the NWSL is following through on its commitment to implement Video Assisted Refereeing into every match in 2023. The move comes in response to league-wide calls for officiating quality to improve as the league pushes to keep pace with the rising standard of play.

Alongside VAR itself — which will check for card-worthy fouls, offside calls and handballs — the league has committed resources to making sure every broadcast has five camera angles for both internal and broadcast use. The lack of production variety has resulted in some old NWSL broadcasts looking washed out and flat, with 2023 hopefully setting a new standard for what fans can expect in their living rooms.

VAR hasn’t arrived without controversy at the international and domestic levels, even in the men’s game, but if the NWSL can find the right balance of letting referees do their job without missing the big calls, the league could enter the modern era in a real way.

Slowing down the coaching carousel

For another year, the NWSL’s coaching positions have changed dramatically, as teams look for the right fit both on and off the field. Gotham, Washington, Portland, Houston and Orlando will all have head coaches make their debuts with their new clubs this season. While a certain amount of turnover is expected in the pros, a number of those clubs could benefit from security behind the scenes.

As the NWSL attempts to move forward from an era of toxicity and abuse that went uncovered for years, coaching dismissals have had as much to do with investigations into misconduct off the field as the product on the field. Poor results warrant action every year, but stability should stem from a respectful working environment that puts players in the best positions possible to succeed. The NWSL will make progress if all decisions can be made about the quality of play rather than the exploitation of power imbalances.

The NWSL will be without Alex Morgan and other national team players during the World Cup this summer. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

Getting ready for the big stage

The NWSL is unique on the global stage in their summer schedule, which can be taxing on players but also gives the league a platform to promote the game before this year’s World Cup. Almost every player likely to be selected for the USWNT plays in the NWSL, as does a strong contingent of players from top soccer countries like Brazil, Japan and Canada. Reigning NWSL MVP Sophia Smith, Golden Boot winner Alex Morgan, Defender of the Year Naomi Girma and Goalkeeper of the Year Kailen Sheridan will all return and look to peak at exactly the right time before the World Cup starts in June.

This dynamic does create a double-edged sword for the league, which will lose star power to Australia and New Zealand in the middle of the regular season. To offset the roster attrition, the NWSL has made the Challenge Cup an in-season tournament. That will allow the league to avoid playing too many league games with its stars away, but availability after major international tournaments is never a guarantee. The NWSL enjoyed the biggest attendance bumps in league history after the USWNT’s 2019 World Cup win, and it will hope for similar returns in 2023.

Who will be poised to finish the job?

In recent years, the expanded NWSL playoff format has favored the hot hand, with the upstart Washington Spirit taking the 2021 trophy and the Kansas City Current riding their underdog status all the way to the 2022 final. And while the NWSL Shield is a prestigious accomplishment, you only get a star over your jersey’s crest for winning the championship at the end of the grueling season.

The greatest victim to the NWSL’s postseason format has long been OL Reign, three-time Shield winners who haven’t made a championship game since 2015. The Reign are a long-standing pillar of the league who still have the core group of original signings Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock alongside original coach Laura Harvey. Their ability to put the whole package together at the end of the season will determine whether they can cement an already established legacy.

The league also went through its first-ever round of free agency this offseason, which showed that players want to be in positions to win. The Current are the prime example of an ambitious club that might take time to figure out how to work together as a team but has the star power to finish the season on top.

Calm before the expansion storm

Competition in 2023 will be fierce, but in an ever-changing league, all teams will also have to have one eye on the future. The NWSL is expecting another round of two-team expansion in 2024, with the Utah Royals already announced and a new team in the Bay Area expected to arrive soon. While teams fighting for titles in 2023 are compiling elite talent and depth, expansion will affect those rosters after this season.

Some teams’ approaches to roster-building with expansion on the horizon can appear conservative, as in the current case of the Washington Spirit, but balancing player assets can keep a team competitive in the long run. Other teams that are leaning into short-term prospects and high-profile transfers will have a trickier time retaining talent in a league rife with parity rules and another round of free agency.

In some ways, a win-now approach and a process of steady roster control both make sense. The teams that might struggle the most are the ones that accomplish neither. As the season plays out, expect more moves to come.

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

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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