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‘Read the game’: Why the NWSL championship will be won in the midfield

Washington’s Ashley Sanchez and Chicago’s Sarah Woldmoe battle for the ball during a regular season game. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When a truly excellent midfield controls the flow of a soccer game, their contributions can be so subtle as to be easily overlooked. For the midfields of the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars, the lack of recognition is undercut by the internal understanding that they are the backbone of their teams.

The Red Stars have made an unlikely run to the final behind the smothering holding play of Morgan Gautrat and Sarah Woldmoe, with assistance from Danny Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo, the team’s No. 10. The Spirit have relied on the vision and veteran calm of Andi Sullivan, the technical ability of Dorian Bailey and the tirelessness of Ashley Sanchez.

Fans across the league are familiar with the end product: Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch and Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman have Washington soaring in the postseason, and Katie Johnson’s wonder strike allowed the Red Stars to sit on a lead in the semifinal and stifle the Portland Thorns into submission.

But how does the ball get into those spaces, and what happens when momentum swings the other way? What is it actually like in the trenches of an NWSL midfield?

In many ways, the midfields of the teams meeting in Saturday’s NWSL championship game have more similarities than they do differences. The players’ communication is constant, and mostly occurs when the unit is moving defensively rather than with the ball.

“The communication is straightforward: left, right, check your shoulder,” says Woldmoe, Chicago’s deepest-lying midfielder. “It’s not anything out of the ordinary or super special or anything like that. But it is, I would say, constant. It is nonstop. We definitely do hear each other, definitely do rely on each other.”

As the architect connecting the Spirit’s defense to their attack, Sullivan is a bit more vocal.

“I feel like I constantly am running my mouth, and for me, that’s both selfish and team-oriented,” she says. “Because I feel like it helps the team stay organized and see things that they might not have seen, but also helps me just get in flow. And I feel like if I make a mistake, I also rely on my communication to get me back into the flow of the game. It’s almost like I’m narrating.”

Communication is essential to any midfield moving as a cohesive unit, but the speed of play in the transition-heavy NWSL forces even the best midfielders to rely on instinct in the moment.

“If you’ve gotten the ball and you’re trying to think, you’re too late,” says Gautrat, who has become Chicago’s engine in possession and the key ball winner. “The best midfielders are thinking about what they’re going to do with [the ball] before they get it. And if you don’t, a lot of times either, one, you have to play backwards or, two, you get the ball taken from you.”

Both Woldmoe and Sullivan say they’re constantly working to read the game that’s unfolding in front of them.

“It’s more reading and instinctual. But then obviously, you’re updating that information as the game goes on,” Sullivan says.

“Read the game,” echoes Woldmoe. “It depends where the ball is, depends where we each are in that situation.”

“I feel like a lot of times, it’s important for us to know what’s around us all the time, 360 [degrees],” Gautrat concludes. “And taking your touch where the pressure isn’t coming from, which is tough because a lot of times, pressure’s coming from multiple sides.”

Sometimes, that pressure comes in the form of a crunching tackle all too common in the NWSL. Players on both sides are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to disrupt play, understanding that anything less than full commitment could actually result in injury.

“I feel like that’s also something that you have to train yourself not to think about, and just do,” says Colaprico, who stepped in to defend from an advanced position in the win over Portland. “Otherwise, you’re going to really hurt yourself or hurt the other person.”

Bailey, known for being calm on the ball under pressure, would rather avoid contact but isn’t afraid of it. “Sometimes it’s maybe just playing a little smarter instead of going to be so physical, so finding a way to maybe avoid contact once or twice, not every time,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes you’ve got to hit someone.”

Every player at Thursday’s media day described the midfield as a battle that can often seem chaotic. But the tactics behind each rotational shift come with point-perfect intentions. If either team commits numbers forward, they have to be ready to immediately fall back into shape once an attack breaks down, looking to disrupt again and find their next chance.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into the midfield,” says Gautrat. “There’s the timing, and those [moments] are the ones that make the game and the teams tight.”

Chicago center back Tierna Davidson cites the protection of Seam Two, the area between the zones in and in front of Chicago’s 18-yard box, as the key to the Red Stars’ defensive scheme. With the dual No. 6s in front, Chicago’s center backs can fall back into space, making it hard for their opponents to penetrate straight down the middle (an area that Washington is known for attacking).

“That’s a space that attackers love to get into. That’s a space that a No. 9 or a No. 10 loves to get into,” Davidson says. “[They] turn and face and then dribble at us, and slip through balls to take shots, and it’s a very dangerous part of the field.”

Andi Sullivan serves as the main link between the Spirit's defense and attack. (Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

With that area of the pitch covered, the Red Stars can match numbers elsewhere in the midfield and push teams outside to try to beat them on the flanks, where they also feel comfortable defending. As Gautrat puts it, “If you kind of take each other out of the game, then that just comes about. Who can do something on both ends that is special?”

Chicago’s midfield also has many years of experience playing together, which allows them a certain amount of fluidity when they do get to push forward.

Washington matches Chicago’s defensive organization with an emphasis on intention in possession.

“I feel like the more that midfield touches the ball, the easier my job is,” says Washington forward Ashley Hatch. “I feel like that was a piece that has been missing in the past couple years. We’ve always been good at keeping the ball, but keeping it with the purpose of keeping it and moving forward.”

The head coaches of both teams feel strongly that their midfields are well-balanced and can quickly list the reasons why. Chicago manager Rory Dames credits Gautrat’s ability to escape pressure with the ball, Woldmoe’s willingness to try 12-yard style passes, Dibernardo’s penetrating passes forward and Colaprico’s long-ball distribution. Washington interim head coach Kris Ward notes that Sullivan can place a pass from anywhere on the field, Bailey can turn away from pressure and dribble into open space and Sanchez has an awareness combined with a brashness that surprises defenders.

Both teams pride themselves on a sense of intuitive defensive rotation no matter the personnel, a tactic that can easily go awry if a person isn’t tracking off-the-ball movements. All too often in the NWSL, when one team struggles against the other, people point to the attacking team not executing properly. The more accurate reason, however, lies somewhere in between offensive execution and full-team defending off the ball.

Focusing less on the ball and more on the spaces in between is something the Spirit have been working on consistently since their mid-season managerial change.

“I mean, that’s defending, right?” says Spirit outside back Kelley O’Hara. “Obviously, the ball is what’s going to score the goal. But if you’re able to deter the other team from getting into the spaces that are dangerous, there’s less of a chance.”

Washington and Chicago each believe that constant work rate off of the ball is what sets them apart from their opponents, and they’re committed to settling into the grind of the championship match. But within that organization, they’ll also look to attack in transition and be smart with their timing.

“I think our attacking half has been unreal at taking those moments and knowing when to keep it and when to go,” says Washington center back Emily Sonnett.

“Also, I think our defensive [mindset], being able to handle knowing that they’re gonna sit and they’re gonna sit, and they’re gonna take those chances, those moments, and us being really organized,” adds O’Hara.

“Counter the counter,” Sonnett interjects.

“I think something that we’ve done better recently is just focusing on those countermeasures,” Sullivan says. “So when people are attacking, how can we eliminate their ability to get out and win it back higher? That’s something that I enjoy thinking about from that defensive mid position. Just thinking, what’s their way out?”

Just as it’s been for Washington and Chicago all season, the championship game will come down to who wins in the trenches. The Spirit will do everything they can to surgically remove Chicago’s control over the final, but the Red Stars are equally ready to battle for one another. Whoever executes that game plan better will most likely walk away with the franchise’s first title.

“We’ve learned, every single game this year, that you don’t just win by chance. You don’t just win by luck,” Woldmoe says. “You have to grind, you have to be disciplined, you have to be willing to get stuck in.”

For Colaprico, the strategy is simple: “When you see someone’s down, pick them back up, and keep everyone going for a full ninety minutes.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

Smith and Swanson shine in action-packed NWSL weekend

sophia smith celebrates after a goal for the portland thorns
Sophia Smith's 27th-minute goal paved the way for Portland's first win of the season. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

USWNT regulars Sophia Smith and Mallory Swanson furthered their cases for Olympic inclusion with their respective club victories on Saturday and Sunday.

After a roller coaster of a week that saw former Thorns head coach Mike Norris reassigned and a flurry of last-minute roster reshufflings as Friday's trade window closure loomed, the NWSL sprung to life over the weekend with standout performances from ninth-place Portland and third-place Chicago, among others.

After her blocked attempt at goal set up a volleying sixth-minute opener from veteran Christine Sinclair — now the only player in history to record a goal in all 11 NWSL seasons — Smith swiftly netted her own in the 27th minute off a breakaway run that eluded Houston's backline. The goal represented Smith's third of the season as well as her 35th for the Thorns, ultimately leading to the home side's first win of the season in a 4-1 routing of the Dash.

But that wasn't Smith's only stat of the evening. The star forward also lapped former Chicago Red Star Sam Kerr to become the youngest player to reach 50 NWSL goal contributions across all games, chalking up 40 goals and 10 assists at the age of 23 years and 254 days.

"Obviously it feels good to get a win," said Smith in a post-match press conference. "But this is the standard the Thorns have always had. So a win is great, but a win is the expectation — we're hungrier than ever after the way we started."

170 miles up the road, Lumen Field similarly showcased some promising Olympic prospect footwork on Sunday. In Chicago's 2-1 victory over the lagging 13th-place Seattle Reign, striker Mallory Swanson racked up an impressive counterattack assist on fellow forward Ally Schlegel's fourth-minute goal. Swanson went on to find the back of the net herself before halftime, lacing an explosive ball into the top corner in the 31st minute, her second of the season after returning from a lengthy sidelining injury.

Speaking of injuries, fellow USWNT favorites Alex Morgan and Tierna Davidson were not as fortunate as their national squad teammates this weekend. Each exited their club matches early, Morgan with an ankle knock in San Diego's loss to Orlando and Davidson with an apparent hamstring incident early on in Washington's win over Gotham.

LSU takes first-ever NCAA gymnastics title

Kiya Johnson of the LSU Tigers reacts after winning the national championship during the Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships
Gymnast Kiya Johnson celebrates LSU's win at the NCAA Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

LSU came out on top at the 2024 NCAA women's gymnastics championship in Fort Worth on Saturday, besting Cal, Utah, and Florida to capture their first-ever title.

The Tigers' win was far from a landslide. LSU took the first rotation handily thanks to 2024 All-Around winner Haleigh Bryant's team-leading 9.9375 backed by four additional 9.9+ scores from her teammates. But Utah then responded with three strong beam performances of their own, causing the Red Rocks to slide confidently into second place by the end of the second rotation.

By the halfway point, all four teams fell within .288 points of one another before Utah overtook the pack with a dominant floor showing after three rotations. LSU then went on to ace the beam event with Konnor McClain's meet-leading 9.9625 score, coming away with the highest collective score ever awarded to the event in NCAA championship history. The achievement propelled the Tigers to victory, ensuring them the title after the final rotation.

"This team is full of individuals that have incredible character and integrity and love for each other and all the things you hear from coaches when they sit at a podium like this in a moment of victory, but I promise you it's a real thing," said LSU coach Jay Clark in a post-meet press conference. "I'm just so happy for them."

Contributing to Saturday's atmosphere of excitement was the absence of last year's champion and this year's heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners. Hot off earning the highest team score in NCAA history just last month, the top-ranked Norman squad suffered a shocking loss in the semifinals, where five major mistakes contributed to a third-place finish and a season-low team score of 196.6625.

With Oklahoma out, it was truly anyone's game.

"Every team was out there fighting for their lives — all four teams, it could have gone any of four ways out there," Clark told reporters. "As much as I feel for what happened to Oklahoma in the semifinals, I think it made for a championship that became so packed with emotion because every team out there believed they could do it. It was just tremendous."

LSU is now the eighth program in the sport's history to earn an NCAA women's gymnastic championship.
They share the honor with Georgia, Utah, UCLA, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, and Michigan.

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