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San Diego building through veteran leaders: New from NWSL Camp

Abby Dahlkemper (Courtesy of San Diego Wave FC)

While NWSL fans continue to plot a nation-wide search for the regular season schedule that has yet to be released, they have one schedule to fall back on. With the Challenge Cup set to kick off this Friday, the countdown to NWSL 2022 is on.

Teams are in crunch mode as they put the final touches on their tactics and get their lineups ready for the annual preseason tournament. The league also enters the first games of the year with a new commissioner in waiting. Jessica Berman, the former deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League and executive with the NHL, was announced as interim commissioner Marla Messing’s replacement last week and will assume her role officially on April 20.

This week in training camps across the NWSL, San Diego Wave FC, OL Reign and Houston Dash discussed the leaders and team strengths forming behind the scenes as they get ready to take the field.

San Diego’s power duo

Once again, Alex Morgan is helping to build a club from the ground up. The two-time World Cup champion with the U.S. women’s national team debuted with the Orlando Pride during their expansion season in 2016 and played with the club until San Diego acquired her in a trade in December.

When asked about the differences between the two clubs’ early stages, Morgan singled out the Wave’s attention to detail.

“I love the ambition and the fact that they’re looking at it from all angles, not only from trying to build a team but trying to build an organization we’re all proud to play in,” the forward said. “A brand that people are proud to wear and represent, a place of inclusivity for this community.”

Abby Dahlkemper, Wave defender and Morgan’s teammate with the USWNT, said she’s excited for Morgan to make runs into the box and bury goals this season, starting with the Wave’s Challenge Cup opener against Angel City FC on Saturday. Morgan is currently ranked eighth in the world with 115 international goals.

“Obviously a huge win for us to get Alex and for her to be a part of this team,” Dahlkemper said. “She is the face of women’s soccer. She is a trailblazer. Everyone looks up to her — males and females — and she’s huge for the culture of this club.”

“That’s so nice,” Morgan uttered, leaning on Dahlkemper’s shoulder during the press conference.

In her return to the field after an injury kept her out of the SheBelieves Cup, Dahlkemper is prepared to step up as the leader of San Diego’s backline. While she was sidelined, Dahlkemper made an effort to learn all of the details of head coach Casey Stoney’s training plans and impart those on her teammates.

“[Her presence] does make a vast difference because she’s a communicator, she’s a leader, she’s good on the ball. The fact that she can switch the point with ability and range makes a huge difference to the way we can play,” Stoney said.

“She’s a real leader and I can see that already in her nature in her character and I’m really pleased she’s in our dressing room.”

Bethany Balcer graduates to veteran status

Bethany Balcer, entering her fourth year in the NWSL, has seen her role with OL Reign evolve during this training camp.

The 2021 semifinalists have a new look this year after signing nine new players and drafting three rookies — Ryanne Brown (21st overall), Olivia van der Jagt (33rd) and Marley Canales (47th). The changes have given Balcer, 25, an opportunity to step into a position of leadership.

“There’s been areas where I’ve seen some of the players help me along in that, and also [Laura Harvey] and Sam [Laity] have been giving me those spaces and opportunities to step into and so I’m trying my best,” she said.

Balcer, the 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year, also has three of the most respected teammates to emulate in Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe, who have helped establish OL Reign’s culture since the club came into existence.

“I feel like that’s been a bigger part of what I’ve been trying to do this preseason,” Balcer said. “That’s been fun, and just trying to learn as I go.”

Houston Dash are clicking

Everything seems to be going smoothly for the Houston Dash. As they enter the Challenge Cup with three preseason wins and no injuries to report, head coach James Clarkson believes the team’s tactics have been progressing exactly as planned.

What’s impressed him most so far is the players’ ability to exchange positions. They are looking to create situations where they can exploit opponents with a numbers advantage, and the concept is further along at this point in the preseason than in others Clarkson can remember.

“There have been some really good rotations, really good movement on the ball and off the ball,” he said. “If we continue to keep that same rotation of players that are changing positions and it can be smooth, I think that will be a huge benefit for us.”

Off the field, the coach is looking forward to Berman’s leadership in the NWSL front office.

“It’s very good for the league,” Clarkson said. “I think it’s a big step forward. Obviously we need one. Hopefully she continues with some great work with the players and pushes the league further forward.”

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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