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Spirit settle in, Courage hit the reset button: New from NWSL camp

The Washington Spirit are part of the new Washington Coalition of Women’s Professional Sports. (Jesse Louie/Just Women’s Sports)

The most challenging thing about the NWSL Challenge Cup is waiting for it to start. Especially this year. 

A month from now, on March 18, Racing Louisville FC and the Kansas City Current will kick off the third edition of the nearly two-month-long tournament. With two expansion teams entering the mix after an offseason filled with trades, the league is going to look much different in 2022. 

Every week, we will take you behind the scenes of NWSL training camps, giving you insight into how teams are shaping up, what coaches and players are saying and, occasionally, the fun off-field updates you didn’t know you needed.

This week’s entry takes you coast to coast, with thoughts on the Washington Spirit, North Carolina Courage, San Diego Wave and OL Reign.

Washington Spirit look to start fresh

The 2021 NWSL champions Washington Spirit have undergone some big changes both on and off the field. Y. Michele Kang assumed majority ownership of the team on Feb. 8 after a very public dispute with former majority owner Steve Baldwin that lasted nearly half a year. On the field, 11 players are currently away from the team on international duty, including seven with the U.S. women’s national team at the SheBelieves Cup.

Head coach Kris Ward and players Andi Sullivan, Tara McKeown and Karina Rodriguez spoke to the media recently about Kang, who acquired the interests of Baldwin and Bill Lynch to become the first non-white, female majority owner in the NWSL. While they said the news came as a relief, they also seemed worn down from all the activity of the past few months.

“There’s a lot that we still have to recover from,” Ward said.

The coach has been trying to check in with every player individually to gauge how they’re doing after a tumultuous season. In the span of several months last year, head coach Richie Burke was fired amid accusations of verbal and emotional abuse, a COVID-19 outbreak within the team led to two forfeited games, the ownership dispute reached a tipping point and the Spirit overcame it all to win the 2021 championship. Meanwhile, the NWSL was dealing with the fallout from multiple abuse scandals that rocked the league with firings and resignations.

“It’s definitely easier, but there’s still fatigue from it, for sure,” Ward said. “That suffering part is still going to take some people to get over, the fatigue of the last six months, eight, nine, 10 months — however long it’s really been.”

The Spirit still need a home facility, too. They spent the first two weeks of preseason at a public sports complex in Virginia.

On the brighter side, the team is viewing the absences of 11 players as a good problem to have.

“To have to lose them multiple times throughout the year, that’s what the best clubs have to deal with, so we have to be able to adjust and adapt to that reality,” Ward said.

While veterans Andi Sullivan, Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett are away with the USWNT, Ward is looking to Sam Staab and Dorian Bailey to step up as leaders, with help from Gaby Vincent.

North Carolina Courage forge ahead

While North Carolina Courage players dealt with their own emotional turmoil last season, after head coach Paul Riley was fired following accusations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse, coach Sean Nahas has taken a very different approach.

“I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t talked about last fall at all,” Nahas said. “I don’t want to with the players. I want to stay forward and focused. We should never be stagnant and complacent with where we are.”

Nahas said the new CBA represents a massive step forward for the league, and the Courage have gotten better about providing the players with support and resources, such as housing and doctors. A clause in the CBA also offers players up to six months of paid mental health leave.

On the field, Nahas has been extremely satisfied with the players’ energy and fitness levels, saying they’re the best he’s ever seen at the beginning of preseason. By the sounds of it, the Courage have been training at a higher intensity than the majority of other teams in the NWSL so far. With so many coaches encouraging their players to ease into the preseason environment, especially after everything that happened last season, the Courage seem to be a bit of an outlier. Nahas and veteran Denise O’Sullivan both said the players have set that high standard for themselves.

Casey the Cook

Over on the West coast, when San Diego Wave FC head coach Casey Stoney isn’t at the training facility, she’s been focusing on food.

“Am I a chef? No,” she said. “But I love cooking. I think it’s quite therapeutic. You can be creative and make decent recipes, and I also love making people happy by food. I think you can have a real pleasure in cooking someone a nice meal.”

She’s been cooking up a storm on the soccer field, too, building the expansion team from the ground up while instilling a culture. The main ingredient? Trust.

“A lot of the players here haven’t experienced an environment where they can trust people, so building relationships and building care into our environment,” Stoney said.

The coach has been regularly checking in with players, especially the rookies. In Stoney’s initial meeting with them, the first question she asked was, “Can you cook?” Those who couldn’t, she said, would be enrolled in cooking classes and given nutritional menus, setting them up to be the best soccer players they can be.

Cowboys and Chihuahuas in Seattle

Perhaps the most underrated news to come out of NWSL camps this week is that OL Reign roommates Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock are thinking of getting a dog. Barnes said it’ll likely be a rescue, and a small lap dog like a Chihuahua or Jack Russell Terrier.

Apparently this is news to OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey.

“This is going to be an interesting journey,” Harvey said. “This should be chronicled on something, Instagram or something, because watch out.”

Meanwhile, Harvey has found delight in her new passion for country music. The coach committed to creating a playlist at some point and “rocking out” to show everyone her “fave” new jams. That should probably be chronicled, too.

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

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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