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NWSL Championship 2022: Underrated players to watch

Morgan Weaver finished the season as the Thorns’ second-leading scorer with seven goals. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

Some of the key matchups going into Saturday’s NWSL Championship game between the Portland Thorns and the Kansas City Current are obvious: Sophia Smith vs. AD Franch, Kansas City’s legs vs. Portland’s bench, Bella Bixby vs. elaborate goal celebrations.

But in any game of this magnitude, with an NWSL trophy on the line, you can expect a few unsung heroes to step up. These are the underrated impact players we’ll be watching at Audi Field in primetime.

Portland Thorns

Kelli Hubly

Hubly’s progression as a center back since joining the Thorns as a national team replacement player in 2017 has been meteoric. She’s been relied upon heavily in recent years as Portland’s center-back duo of Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Menges have not been able to play consistent minutes together (last year due to Sauerbrunn’s absences, and this year due to Menges’ lingering injury.) Hubly has fully seized the opportunity, and she will need to provide enough coverage and pace on Saturday to allow Sauerbrunn to set up Portland’s distribution.

Raquel Rodriguez

Though perhaps still frozen in time in the eyes of fans as the young talent that won Rookie of the Year in 2016, Rodriguez was actually the most seasoned player starting in Portland’s midfield in their semifinal on Sunday. The Thorns appear to want Rodriguez to operate as a one-two punch with Crystal Dunn, who is still building her minutes after giving birth to her son in May. Rodriguez is a ball-winning No. 8 who can go box-to-box and provide an outlet in distribution while getting in the way of the other team’s ball movement. Her ability to disrupt and counter will be key to the early midfield battle — as will any more goals like this one.

Hina Sugita

If the Best XI First and Second Teams include 22 of the best NWSL players from the 2022 regular season, Sugita has a case for being No. 23. She’s the main creative spark in Portland’s midfield, pulling defenders in to stretch space for Smith to run in behind and create chances. She can also strike herself, with a number of quality shots this season from both outside the 18-yard box and inside at tough angles. If the final turns into a shootout, Sugita is a player you want on your side.

Morgan Weaver

Weaver is sometimes overlooked as the other rookie the Thorns drafted in 2020 alongside Smith, the No. 1 pick and a 2022 MVP candidate. Weaver spent the first few years of her professional career coming off the bench, but under head coach Rhian Wilkinson, she has made the left wing her own. She’s focused as much on making runs to the endline and crossing balls in as she is on cutting inside for shots of her own. Her ability to do both forces defenders to make decisions that open up space for others.

Kansas City Current

Alex Loera

If the 2022 Rookie of the Year shortlist had extended to five names, Loera would have had a good argument for making it. The 23-year-old had a strong regular season, notching three assists in 20 matches, but she has risen to another level in the playoffs. The Kansas City midfield had to deal with absences in both knockout games — first, the suspension of Desiree Scott and then the season-ending injury to Claire Lavogez. Loera scored her first NWSL postseason goal against the Reign in the semifinals, and she’ll be called upon again to shore up the midfield defensively and break lines in the attack.

Hailie Mace has been a linchpin of Kansas City's success this season. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Hailie Mace

You might be thinking, Hailie Mace isn’t an unsung hero —  she played for the USWNT just last month. True! But while she’s played outside back internationally, Mace as an attacking midfielder is still somehow underrated. The 25-year-old is almost difficult to place on the field because of how competent she is in various roles. But she’s at her most dangerous when she’s moving the ball forward for the Current, such as last Sunday when she posed a consistent threat to the Reign’s defense. Against Portland on Saturday, Mace will be key to Kansas City’s ability to create clear chances on the counter.

Elizabeth Ball

Ball has one of the most difficult jobs in Kansas City’s defensive setup as the central center back in a three-back system. While Kristen Edmonds and a rotation of Adissyn Merrick and Izzy Rodriguez defend in isolation on either side, Ball has to be savvy in her positioning and calm when the ball is in the air. Her communication with Loera and Scott will be critical to locking down dangerous areas in front of the Current’s penalty area and, of course, keeping Sophia Smith off the scoresheet.

Kate Del Fava

Del Fava got the glory with her stoppage-time winner in the Current’s quarterfinal against Houston, but it’s her ability to defend that could be a difference-maker on Saturday. Del Fava’s defensive positioning is underrated on the wings: She expertly pushes players onto their weak foot and cuts off dribbles inside to force hopeful crosses in the air. With the Thorns’ Morgan Weaver creating chaos on the outside, Del Fava will likely be tasked with keeping her from moving effectively, and that will be a premier battle to watch.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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