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NWSL, European players prepare for ‘battle of the leagues’ in Women’s ICC

Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen (Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

When the International Champions Cup introduced a women’s tournament in 2018, it was the first time women’s soccer had anything like the FIFA Club World Cup on the men’s side.

Before that, players could transfer between the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States and professional leagues in Europe, but the top club teams in the world didn’t have the chance to battle for superiority. And as major European soccer clubs invested more in their women’s teams and the NWSL’s own talent pool deepened, interest in a cross-league competition only grew.

Three years after the inaugural event, the ICC again will bring four of the best club teams in women’s soccer together for a two-round, friendly tournament beginning Wednesday in Portland. The teams that qualified — the Portland Thorns, Houston Dash, Olympique Lyonnais and FC Barcelona — each won championships in their respective leagues and competitions in 2020.

“As long as we don’t have a FIFA World Cup for clubs like they do for the men’s, it’s hard to say which teams would actually qualify from Europe and which teams would qualify from the States,” said Barcelona forward Caroline Graham Hansen, who will be playing in her first ICC.

“So in my head, this is a fantastic tournament for us to test ourselves against some really, really strong teams, maybe the best teams.”

The NWSL, now in its ninth season, was long considered the deepest women’s professional soccer league. It included nearly all of the players on the U.S. women’s national team, the winners of four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, as well as many star players from other country’s national teams.

That sentiment has begun to shift in recent years as European clubs have developed more homegrown talent and attracted some of the USWNT’s best players. Just this past year, four players who represented the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics competed in the Premier League for the 2020-21 season.

“It’s a different culture and football that everybody looks to in terms of how they play because the U.S. soccer women have won everything, the last World Cups,” Hansen said. “For us to go over there and be a part of this tournament is a fantastic way for us to keep growing our game in different parts of the world.”

Thorns forward Simone Charley feels similarly about the European teams coming to Portland this week.

Lyon has the most storied women’s program in Europe, having won seven UEFA Champions League titles and the most recent ICC in 2019. Barcelona, meanwhile, is on the rise after winning its first Champions League title in dominant fashion this year.

The Thorns will face one of them Saturday, either in the championship or third-place game, depending on their result against the Houston Dash on Wednesday. Charley is looking forward to the challenge of playing a team as tactically sound as Barcelona or Lyon.

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Charley is having a breakout season with the Thorns. (Bryan Byerly / ISI Photos)

“One of the things we’ve been working on a lot is growing tactically and being able to read the game during the game instead of having to rely on halftime or after-game adjustments,” Charley said. “So not having played these teams before or not necessarily knowing what to expect, it’s going to challenge us to read the game and to pay attention tactically and technically.”

Charley wouldn’t go so far as to say the ICC will crown the best women’s club team in the world, but she did acknowledge the extra motivation the Thorns have going into the tournament.

“I do think it is a battle of the leagues, for sure,” she said. “There are two different playing styles that will be out there on the pitch, so I do think there’ll be a little chip on our shoulder, wanting to prove superiority of who’s better. In that way, I think we take it personally. We want to prove ourselves on that stage.”

The Thorns, winners of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and currently in first place in the league standings, have two more months of the regular season to go before the playoffs. They have a handful of star players returning to their roster after competing in the Olympics and Charley is having a breakout season of her own, tied for third in the league with five goals. The experience the Thorns gain from the ICC will only help their NWSL title pursuit in the fall.

On the other side, Barcelona will have two weeks between the ICC and their season opener in the Primera División, which they’ve won two years in a row.

Like Charley, Hansen won’t call the exhibition tournament a crowning moment in women’s soccer, but that doesn’t take away from her intentions in Portland this week.

“When we go out there as a team, we always compete to win, and I know that the teams we are meeting are doing the same,” Hansen said. “So it’s going to be really good for the supporters to watch.”

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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