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Five new players to watch as the NWSL Challenge Cup resumes

Racing Louisville’s Alex Chidiac won a championship with her Australian club last month. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

The NWSL Challenge Cup resumes on Thursday after an international break that lasted a week and a half.

Kicking off with OL Reign versus San Diego Wave FC on Thursday night, the tournament will continue to serve as an opportunity for coaches to evaluate their rosters in game action before the regular season begins April 29. About two thirds of the way through their Challenge Cup schedules, teams are still signing and rotating in new players.

In that spirit, we look at five of the NWSL’s most notable additions who recently made, or will soon make, their league debuts.

Kerolin Nicoli, F, North Carolina Courage

Nicoli officially joined the Courage at the beginning of the month, arriving from Brazil for an away game against NY/NJ Gotham FC on April 3. Subbing into the game in the second half for her NWSL debut, she showcased her creativity, comfort on the ball and ability to draw opponents in and create spaces. Her most dangerous play came in the 80th minute, when she received a through ball from Brazilian teammate Debinha and took on three Gotham defenders before hitting the top left post with her shot.

“Really, really happy with her, and she’s obviously only going to get better,” Courage head coach Sean Nahas said.

Despite a 1-1 draw with Gotham, North Carolina remains undefeated and at the top of the East Division standings with a 2-0-2 record.

Before signing with North Carolina on Jan. 10, Kerolin played two seasons with Madrid Club de Fútbol Femenin of the Spanish Primera División, scoring five goals in 24 appearances and logging 1,588 minutes of playing time.

Amirah Ali, F, San Diego Wave FC

Ali scored her first professional goal in her NWSL debut on April 2 after subbing on in the 68th minute. In an impressive individual effort, she dribbled through Angel City FC’s half, beating center back Vanessa Gilles into the box and placing the ball in the bottom right corner.

The 4-2 win was the Wave’s first in franchise history, lifting them to third place in the West Division standings, ahead of Angel City. 

San Diego head coach Casey Stoney wasn’t surprised at all by Ali’s standout debut.

“If we can get her fit, she can light this league up,” said Stoney, who’s been impressed with Ali’s intelligence.

Ali is coming off of her senior year at Rutgers University, where she was a MAC Hermann Trophy candidate as well as a member of the All-Big Ten First Team and the All-Region First Team.

Amanda Kowalski, D, Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars signed Kowalski after center back Tierna Davidson went down with a season-ending torn ACL last month. The defender made her first start in a 2-0 shutout of the Houston Dash on April 2, and two days later, the club announced it had signed her to a three-year contract with a fourth-year option. Playing all 90 minutes for her hometown club, she recorded two key blocked shots and completed 80 percent of her passes, making her one of the Red Stars’ top facilitators of the game with 44 completed passes.

With the clean-sheet victory, Chicago rose to the top of the Central Division standings, tied with the Kansas City Current at 2-1-1.

Before joining the Red Stars this preseason as a non-roster invitee, Kowalski played in 72 matches at Butler University, scoring four goals and recording 11 assists.

Alex Chidiac, M, Racing Louisville FC

Though just 23 years old, Chidiac has been a star for a while. The midfielder received her first senior national team call-up with Australia at the age of 16, and at 15 she made her debut with Adelaide United FC in the A-League.

Most recently, she was named Melbourne Victory’s best player in 2021 after helping the club win last month’s Aussie Grand Final. On loan from WE League’s JEF United Chiba, she scored one goal and added two assists in 14 starts for Melbourne.

The Sydney native, who signed with Racing Louisville earlier this month, is known to be strong on the ball and to play with a lot of energy.

“I think Alex and Racing will be a perfect match,” Louisville head coach Kim Björkegren said.

Jimena López, D, OL Reign

López had a standout first start with the OL Reign in a 1-0 win over the Portland Thorns on April 2, making some key tackles on the wing. A member of the Mexican national team, the fullback joins U.S. women’s national team defenders Sofia Huerta and Alana Cook — as well as Lu Barnes and Sam Hiatt — to form one of the strongest backlines in the league.

López was selected 28th overall in the 2021 NWSL Draft by the Reign before signing with Eibar in the Spanish Primera División the same month. In Spain, the 23-year-old started and played in 16 matches, scoring one goal across 1,361 minutes of play.

Before going pro, López starred at Texas A&M. With 17 goals and 23 assists in her NCAA career, she was named 2019 SEC Midfielder of the Year and 2020 Co-Defender of the Year, and she was a two-time All-SEC First Team selection.

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

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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