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In playoffs and expansion, NWSL is having a West Coast moment

San Diego’s Naomi Girma and Angel City’s Sydney Leroux battle for the ball during a regional rivalry game this season. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

As it has grown over the last decade, the NWSL hasn’t had much reason to associate success with any one particular part of the country. In a league still too small for conferences, clubs that excelled in the early years came from all corners, with storied organizations like North Carolina, Seattle, Portland and Chicago frequently making appearances in the postseason. Parity-based entry rules and national team allocation provided clubs with opportunities to remain competitive without always having to pitch themselves to players, who became used to their summer homes differing from their preferred places to live year-round.

But with 2023 marking the final year of the 12-team NWSL, and perhaps the last of the Challenge Cup divided into a regional group stage, the axis of the league appears to be tipping in one direction: West. Aggressive expansion in California and the onset of NWSL free agency have mixed with the historical excellence of founding clubs in the region and put the rest of the league on notice.

The 2023 postseason could also extend the most successful year for the region to date. All four of the Challenge Cup Western Division teams — Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego — will feature in the NWSL’s six-team playoffs, with at least one team from the group guaranteed to advance to the Championship (which will, of course, be played in San Diego).

Correlation and causation might be difficult to parse, but with further Western expansion on the horizon, it appears that the best NWSL coast might be the West Coast, at least for the time being.

California dreamin’

While Portland and Seattle have always been known as perennial contenders, the introduction of California clubs has seemed to ignite what was already a hotbed of soccer fandom and talent. Pulling from both the local and free agency market, the San Diego Wave have garnered unprecedented success as an expansion side, making the playoffs in their inaugural year and winning the Shield in their second.

From the beginning, San Diego was able to draw in homegrown stars like Alex Morgan and Abby Dahlkemper while also becoming a destination for other free agents looking for a fresh start. Their gritty and defensive style of play has been clear from their first season, personified in the immediate success of 2022 top draft pick Naomi Girma.

Angel City has taken a slightly longer route, having been something of a little sister on the pitch to their SoCal rivals since both clubs entered the league in 2022. But their recent surge indicates they might be beginning to catch up. Los Angeles was similarly able to appeal to L.A. natives Sydney Leroux and Christen Press, who has missed the majority of the club’s two seasons due to injury. There’s also young local talent like Alyssa Thompson, who went pro early to join her hometown team as a No. 1 draft pick.

Now under the leadership of interim manager Becki Tweed, Angel City has started to meet some of the big expectations they set for themselves, beginning with the team’s first playoff appearance in 2023.

Both clubs have had material advantages in the free agency race, including a desirable location and the strength of youth soccer in the area. But also key to their success are the dedicated fan bases they’ve cultivated in just a few years’ time. San Diego averaged over 20,000 fans a game in 2023, as only the second club to ever reach that attendance milestone (Portland, another Western team, was the first). Angel City’s season ticket holder base has been incredibly strong since their first game at BMO Stadium, and they seem at times to be held back by the capacity of their venue.

The story of the California clubs and their impressive ownership groups got fans in seats, but winning is what keeps people around. With Bay Area expansion side Bay FC entering the NWSL in 2024, California sides will continue to present a new opportunity and draw from the region’s rich women’s soccer history at both the college and professional levels.

The Portland Thorns and OL Reign have laid the foundation for NWSL fandom on the West Coast. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

Old meets new

With the two California teams’ ascension into the postseason, the 2023 playoffs present an exciting opportunity to watch new ambitions meet old expectations. OL Reign have played in two NWSL Championships, and are known as one of the steadiest clubs on the pitch in league history. But they haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, and they’ll have to get through Angel City to have a shot at a long-elusive championship title. The winner of Friday’s matchup between the Reign and Angel City will then have to take on San Diego for the honor of staying in town to play the final.

Much has been made about Seattle’s “OG” trio of Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock in the context of Rapinoe’s looming retirement. OL Reign might relish the opportunity to teach a much newer club what it takes to survive the NWSL postseason. Angel City will likewise want to render Seattle’s season a disappointment and usher in a new era for both teams.

San Diego will have their sights on winning a double after clinching the first trophy in club history, but reigning champions Portland will equally be eager to return to the final. After a quarterfinal bye, their semifinal matchup will be against one of two Eastern teams ready to crash the party in Gotham FC or the North Carolina Courage.

The only NWSL club to have earned three stars over their crest, the Thorns present something of a team in transition. They’ve weathered the prolonged sale of the club with a hyper-talented roster and a somewhat inexperienced coaching staff. They have the firepower to go back-to-back but sometimes appear to rely too much on the style of play that served them better in 2022. They have definitive wins over the Reign in 2023, but their record against the California sides is rockier.

We could see an all-Western final in November, which would feel like an accurate representation of the powerhouses in the NWSL this year. No matter what, the 2023 playoffs will be a coastal affair, and with the intention of growing to 16 teams in 2026, regional ties are beginning to form. It’s all good for the league, especially in a new era of player choice and freedom.

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

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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