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NWSL Challenge Cup: Players to Watch

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On Saturday, two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC will kick off the NWSL Challenge Cup, month-long tournament that will mark the return of professional team sports in America. All 23 games will be held in the Salt Lake City area.

Each team will play in four preliminary-round games that will conclude on July 13. From there, the eight clubs will be seeded according to their point total and advance to the knockout round. The single-elimination tournament will culminate in the July 26 final at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Every game is available to stream on CBS All Access, and both the final and this weekend’s opening tilt between the Courage and the Thorns will also be televised on CBS. Fans outside the US and Canada can watch the entire tournament on Twitch.

To get you ready for soccer’s long-awaited return, we’ve picked a player from each team to keep your eye on this tournament, listed in order of their team’s draw.

Chicago Red Stars – Yuki Nagasato

The Red Stars’ biggest test this tournament will be trying to piece together an offense without reigning league MVP Sam Kerr. Last year, with the help of Kerr’s 18 goals, the team finished second in the league in goals scored. Kerr, the league’s all-time leading scorer, helped carry the Red Stars all the way to the league championship, where they fell 4-0 to the Courage.

Replacing Kerr’s production will require a group effort. Expect Yuki Nagasato to lead the charge. A 2011 World Cup champion, Nagasato was the team leader in assists last season with eight, but will need to grow into an even bigger scoring role for Chicago after totalling eight goals in 2019. Playing on the wing last season, Nagasato flourished, but her position for this tournament is more uncertain. Last year, Kerr was on the receiving end of seven of Nagasato’s eight regular season assists — Casey Short scored on the only other one. Nagasato went on to be an MVP finalist, but now the question is whether she will be able to maintain that form without playing next to Kerr.

This pass from Yu016Bki Nagasato to Sam Kerr is one of the best ones I've seen in recent times. Exquisite is an understatement.pic.twitter.com/n6sW3AQ3lY

— Adi (@AdityaQuadros) September 22, 2019

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Washington Spirit – Andi Sullivan

The Spirit have been in a bit of a rebuild over the last few seasons. After finishing near the bottom of the table in 2018, they retooled their roster with a bevy of young players and just narrowly missed out on the playoffs in 2019. And while Rose Lavelle’s brilliant World Cup made her a household name last summer, it’s her midfield partner Andi Sullivan who sits at the center of the Spirit’s young core.

Since winning the MAC Hermann Trophy and being drafted first overall, Sullivan has done everything and more that’s been asked of her by the Spirit. Her technical ability and poise on the ball is must-watch and her pass accuracy has been 84% over the last two seasons. After spending time with the national team in the spring before the shutdown, Sullivan will return to a much different situation given the youth of the Spirit. Sam Staab impressed as a rookie defender last year and should continue to shore up the backline in front of Aubredy Bledsoe, last season’s NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year. But in Salt Lake City, it will still be up to Sullivan to make the most of her recent living room training as she tries to lead the Spirit on a deep tournament run.

Houston Dash – Rachel Daly

The Dash had a difficult 2019 campaign, finishing seventh in the league, but a bright spot for the club was the play of Rachel Daly. When she was on the pitch, the team’s goal differential was -9, much better than the team’s overall -15, and the best of any player with more than 1,000 minutes. Daly’s five goals tied for the team-high with the since-departed Sofia Huerta. Even these numbers were a slight downtick for Daly, who in 2018 was named team MVP after pacing the club with 10 goals. If the English striker can recapture that form, the Dash will be a formidable threat to make a run in the knockout run.

Utah Royals – Amy Rodriguez

The news that the entire Challenge Cup would be held in Utah was welcome news for a team that netted ten more points at home (22) than on the road (12) last season. With USWNT forward Christen Press sitting out the tournament, the Royals will once again turn to Amy Rodriguez for goal scoring production. After 132 national team caps — with the last coming on September 3, 2018 against Chile — including a World Cup championship and 2 Olympic gold medals, Rodriguez was left off the USWNT World Cup roster for France last summer. This allowed Rodriguez to start all 24 games for the Royals last season. She took advantage of the spotlight, scoring a team-high nine goals. Each goal came in a separate match, two were game winners, and two were voted the league’s Goal of the Week.

Rodriguez’s brilliance was on full display against Sky Blue, blasting home a long-distance strike which went on to be nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award and was selected by her fellow teammates as the Utah Royals FC Goal of the Year.

North Carolina Courage – Lynn Williams

The two-time defending champs remain loaded from top to bottom. Even with a sizable portion of the roster away on national team duty last year, they rolled through the regular season and playoffs. A big reason for that was the play of Lynn Williams, who had 12 goals and six assists on the season. Crucially, Williams continued to perform even when the national team players returned.

No American woman scored more professional goals last year than Williams. No American woman has scored more pro goals the past two or three years combined than Williams, either. Williams herself was off to a hot start with the USWNT in 2019 under new coach Vlatko Andonovski before everything was shut down. Playing in seven games, and starting four, Williams three goals and added five assists. Now, she will have the opportunity to build on that momentum as the Courage seek to extend their remarkable run of success.

Sky Blue FC – Kailen Sheridan

Sky Blue will be playing without team leader Carli Lloyd (knee injury) as well as fellow national teamer Mallory Pugh (hip injury), who GM Alyse LaHue traded four draft picks to acquire in the offseason. Lloyd is a big loss on the offensive side, after accounting for eight of the team’s 20 goals last season.

The loss of those two scoring threats, in addition to the offensive struggles all of last season, will put more onus on the defense, led by goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. Last season, Sheridan shared the league lead in total saves (86) and save percentage (77%). On top of that, Sheridan proved she has a knack for phenomenal saves when called upon, as evidenced by her three Save of the Week honors last year. Expect the Canadian’s excellent tactical skill and positional awareness to be on full display in Utah.

Portland Thorns – Sophia Smith

After last season’s playoff run ended in the semifinals, the Portland Thorns took the opportunity to perform some serious offseason retooling. The decision to hit the reset button surprised many, but the Thorns knew they needed to think big to have any hope of dethroning the Courage.

The Thorns’ many offseason moves included trading away second-leading scorer Midge Purce for Raquel Rodriguez, acquiring Becky Sauerbrunn, and swapping Emily Sonnett for the first pick in the 2020 draft. That pick turned into Sophia Smith, the Stanford standout who declared for the draft after only her sophomore year. Smith was the only player with remaining college eligibility to train with the USWNT in its January training camp, is one of the all-time leading scorers for the under-20 national team, and scored a hat trick in the semifinals of the College Cup. Though Smith will reportedly be on a minutes restriction due to a minor injury, her debut is still among the most hotly anticipated in recent memory. And with Tobin Heath sitting out the tournament, the Thorns will need Smith to provide a spark upfront whenever she steps on field.

OL Reign – Lauren Barnes

The new-look Reign will be led for the first time by coach Farid Benstiti, who will look to rely on veterans such as Lauren Barnes. Since the team’s inception in 2013, Barnes has been a stalwart at center back. Despite a rash of injuries and absences last season, Barnes was the key to a Reign backline that conceded the third-fewest goals in the league. She finished third in Defender of the Year voting, after having won the award in 2016.

Especially important in a tournament setting with minimal time for rest and recovery, Barnes played the full 90 in 24 appearances last season, missing just one match due to yellow card accumulation. She won 10 tackles last season and conceded only nine, won 72.2% of her tackles, and led the team by winning over 59% of her 113 attempted duels. While the Reign’s previous possession-based system may change with their new coach, last year Barnes led the team with 1,609 touches and 1,323 pass attempts, third-highest in the league. Anyone wanting to study positioning at the center back position ought to focus on Barnes, who seems to always be in the right spot.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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