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NWSL expansion draft: Best players for Bay FC and Utah Royals

OL Reign forward Elyse Bennett is available in the NWSL expansion draft. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL is hosting its newest iteration of a two-team expansion draft at 7 p.m. ET Friday, as Bay FC and the revamped Utah Royals look to add to their growing rosters in preparation for their inaugural seasons in 2024.

Expansion drafts are unpopular affairs, both among the players bearing the brunt of the process’s uncertainty and among existing clubs not eager to part with the talent they’ve developed. So it’s not shocking then that this year’s draft has been somewhat defanged, with exemptions for free agents and U18 players and many trades for draft protection.

To summarize, only OL Reign and the Chicago Red Stars made no deals for at least partial protection prior to Tuesday’s transaction freeze, but a flurry of activity saw seven clubs bow out of the proces entirely. The San Diego Wave, Racing Louisville and North Carolina Courage all have protection from one of the two expansion sides, though each could still lose two players in the draft.

As a result, just five protection lists were released to the public, with a few with limitations on who can be selected. (Full rules can be found here.)

Ahead of expansion draft, here are a few players that stand out as possible targets for Bay FC and the Royals, both in fit and in upside:

Bay FC: Kelsey Turnbow, San Diego Wave

Turnbow has college ties to the Bay Area, as she won an NCAA title in 2021 with the Santa Clara Broncos. Coming into the NWSL as a proven goalscorer at the collegiate level, Turnbow has featured for the Wave as both a forward and as more of a playmaker in a deep-lying attacking role. But Turnbow played most of her soccer for the Wave in 2022, and she saw her minutes dwindle significantly in 2023 as other players shined in the attack. If she is looking for a fresh start, Bay FC might be a good landing spot.

Utah Royals: Sarah Griffith, Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars leaving Griffith unprotected is somewhat puzzling considering her steady integration into the team as a rookie in 2022. But her inability to find the pitch in the latter stages of 2023 could indicate that she’s ready for a new challenge. Griffith is a versatile attacking player who played in a box midfield for the Red Stars in 2022 and even occasionally filled in at wingback. With the Royals looking for midfield options to complement Mikayla Cluff, Griffith could be a great addition.

Bay FC: Brianna Pinto, North Carolina Courage

Pinto has the tools to be a very consistent NWSL midfielder despite finding herself on the outside looking in during the second half of North Carolina’s 2023 season. The 23-year-old is a player that can aid a midfield in hold-up, possession-style football, as well as look for the final ball to break open a defense. She also isn’t afraid to turn towards goal herself, playing forward at times in college at North Carolina.

Utah Royals: Elyse Bennett, OL Reign

If Bennett is selected in the expansion draft, she’ll be moving to her third club in as many years in the league, which is more of a reflection that she’s a talent that deserves a space to get consistent playing time. Bennett was used as a game changer first in Kansas City as a rookie and then again in Seattle in 2023, and she has a tenacity in front of goal that not many young players share. Utah could use Bennett as a wide player or as a focal point at center-forward, where she could link up with wingers like Michele Vasconcelos to create a potent attack.

Bay FC: Sam Hiatt, OL Reign

Bay FC already have one piece to their center-back pairing, acquiring Emily Menges from Portland in exchange for draft protection for the Thorns. A good partner for Menges could be Hiatt, who started many matches for the Reign during their Shield-winning campaign in 2022 but moved to the bench after the club brought in Lauren Barnes as a center-back in the second half of 2023. A Stanford graduate, Hiatt has college ties to the area, and she has experience putting together staunch performances in the central defense.

Utah Royals: Paige Monaghan, Racing Louisville

Monaghan has showcased an impressive amount of versatility with both Gotham FC and then Racing Louisville, playing primarily as a winger but also showing the willingness to slot in at outside back. A steady league veteran, the 27-year-old can play wide on all three positional lines competently, with experience and a work ethic that is obvious on both sides of the ball. With the inevitable positional imbalances that can take shape for a first-year expansion team, a player with her qualities could be invaluable.

Bay FC: Kyra Carusa, San Diego Wave

Carusa has been something of a revelation since signing with San Diego in August 2023. She was used as both a starter and as a reserve off the bench throughout the second half of the Wave’s Shield-winning season. Carusa can play centrally and would interplay well with wingers such as already-signed Scarlett Camberos in the Bay FC attack. The only possible question mark for Carusa would be her desire to leave her hometown of San Diego and her possible desire to return to play in England.

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Racing Louisville forward Thembi Kgatlana's availability in the NWSL expansion draft is surprising. (EM Dash/USA TODAY Sports)

Utah Royals: Thembi Kgatlana, Racing Louisville

Kgatlana being available for selection in this draft is so surprising that it makes me wonder if she has other plans than the NWSL for 2024. But the forward’s talent upside is so high it’s impossible to leave her off this list even if she isn’t ultimately destined for Utah. The 27-year-old is an excellent goalscorer both at the domestic and international level, with a willingness to run long lengths of the pitch for service if necessary. She can fool any defender, and with the right midfield behind her, she could be a consistent scoring threat for years to come.

Bay FC: Amanda Kowalski, Chicago Red Stars

Kowalski is another strong contender for defensive depth, with experience playing both at outside back and in a three-back system. She was signed by the Red Stars in 2022 after the team lost Tierna Davidson to an ACL tear and stepped in admirably while growing into her new role as the season progressed. Depending on the system that Bay FC wants to run, Kowalski could be a player who pushes the starters in front of her or slots into multiple roles in a pinch.

Bay FC: Olivia Wingate, North Carolina Courage

What Bay FC could find in Wingate is a young player that has shown flashes of NWSL-level brilliance in one year as a professional. The 23-year-old got the bulk of her minutes in North Carolina in the middle of the 2023 season, showing an ability to create chances for both herself and her teammates. If Bay FC took a swing at a player without as much experience, what they could get in return is an attacker that can grow with the organization — and who already looks well on her way.

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Could North Carolina Courage forward Olivia Wingate, center, be on the move? (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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