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NWSL free agency: Top players and teams with most at risk in 2024

The Red Stars have a number of stars without contracts beyond this year, including Mallory Swanson. (Daniel Bartel/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL Players’ Association released the official list of prospective 2024 free agents last week, naming the restricted and unrestricted free agents now allowed to take conversations with teams across the league.

This year’s free agency period is complicated by two expansion clubs in Utah and the Bay Area joining the NWSL in 2024. With the expansion process on the horizon, teams will have to both pursue players out of contract and look to strike deals with those on their roster who are still under contract.

A number of stars grace the free agency shortlist, and it’s clear that some NWSL clubs have a tougher negotiation period ahead of them than others. Here are a few clubs in danger of letting some of the biggest names in the sport walk elsewhere this winter.

Chicago Red Stars

Unrestricted: Tierna Davidson, D; Casey Krueger, D; Mallory Swanson, F; Yuki Nagasato, M

When the old U.S. national allocation status went away in 2021, the Red Stars made sure to lock down their four players who fell under that status to two-year contracts: Tierna Davidson, Casey Krueger, Mallory Swanson and Alyssa Naeher.

Entering the 2024 free agency period, the only player of that four who has signed onto an additional year with the club is Naeher. The Red Stars have a significant amount of rebuilding to do both on and off the field under new ownership, and retaining the other three players of their long-standing USWNT foursome will likely be at the top of the priority list. Standout midfielder Yuki Nagasato has also not yet signed her mutual team option, leaving Chicago facing the possible loss of veteran leadership and available talent.

Swanson has indicated that she’d like to stay in Chicago (where her husband Dansby plays for the Cubs of the MLB), and Krueger is similarly settled in the Midwest. Davidson, however, might be a difficult player for the Red Stars to retain. With expansion approaching, the center-back is looking to get back into the USWNT roster conversation and might seek out a change of scenery in the process.

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Meghan Klingenberg has been a steady force for Portland at outside back. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

Portland Thorns

Unrestricted: Crystal Dunn, M; Meghan Klingenberg, D; Becky Sauerbrunn, D; Christine Sinclair, F

The Thorns similarly have major talent to retain if they want to avoid a major overhaul in 2024. Crystal Dunn, Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn and Christine Sinclair have all played consistently for the club this year, excluding Sauerbrunn’s foot injury that left the two-time world champion off the USWNT roster for this year’s World Cup.

Of the four star players entering unrestricted free agency this year, Sinclair and Sauerbrunn might consider hanging up their boots entirely, but they are still a big part of Portland’s race to the NWSL Shield in 2023. Dunn has been a revelation while playing in a more advanced position following the injury to Golden Boot leader Sophia Smith, showcasing the versatility that makes her one of the most valuable NWSL players of all time.

Klingenberg has also quietly been one of the most consistent performers in the league in the years since her USWNT career ended. A key locker room presence for Portland, she has adjusted her game to retain her effectiveness into her mid-30s. While the Thorns do a good job bringing in young talent to shore up positions, it’s hard to imagine what the team would look like without any of these free agents.

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Rose Lavelle has missed time with the Reign due to multiple injuries in recent years. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

OL Reign

Unrestricted: Emily Sonnett, M/D; Rose Lavelle, M
Restricted: Tziarra King, F; Angelina, M

Portland’s longtime rivals also have some work to do to maintain a through-line between their longtime stars and up-and-coming talent. Megan Rapinoe, who has played for the Reign since their inception in 2013, will be retiring at the end of the season. Jess Fishlock, another member of the Reign’s original three alongside defender Lauren Barnes, has signed an extension through next season.

Beyond the true veterans, the Reign have a number of starters with the opportunity to turn elsewhere after this season. Rose Lavelle has had her moments of being unstoppable for Seattle since her unexpected trade from the Spirit in 2020, but she’s also been plagued by injury in recent years.

Emily Sonnett became one of the team’s starting defensive midfielders after another surprise trade from Washington earlier this year. If the Reign are in the process of parting with their longtime culture-setters in their locker room, they at least might want to focus on holding onto USWNT mainstays like Lavelle and Sonnett.

The Reign also have a few young contributors up for restricted free agency — meaning that if they do not receive a qualifying offer from their current team, they can negotiate with other teams. Tziarra King and Angelina have both been skillful additions to the Reign’s roster, and with head coach Laura Harvery likely having to reshape the concept of her starting XI, they provide depth the club might be reluctant to lose.

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

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

Reporter’s awkward exchange mars Caitlin Clark’s Fever intro

caitlin clark at indiana fever press conference on april 17
An uneasy interaction between Fever recruit Caitlin Clark and a local reporter has gone viral. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

An Indianapolis Star columnist is apologizing for an uneasy exchange with freshly minted Indiana Fever player Caitlin Clark on Wednesday.

At Clark's introductory press conference with the Fever, reporter Gregg Doyel introduced himself then abruptly formed a heart with his hands. Throughout her career with Iowa, Clark has often flashed heart hands at her family in the stands after finishing a game. The gesture has since become linked to the standout player.

But what ensued between Clark and Doyel was an incredibly awkward interaction, to say the least.

"Real quick, let me do this," Doyel said before making the heart sign at Clark. A composed Clark responded, "You like that?" After Doyel quipped, "I like that you're here," Clark dropped her eyes to the desk and said, "Yeah, I do that at my family after every game."

“OK, well start doing that to me and we’ll get along just fine,” Doyel said in response, to which Clark raised her eyebrows at the reporter, looking visibly uncomfortable. It wasn't the only unsettling comment Doyel made that day, as he later referred to Clark as "that" and "it" when directing a question to Fever coach Christie Sides. Sides appeared similarly thrown off by his choice of words.

As the clip made its way around social media, Doyel faced backlash from both sports fans and fellow members of the media. Much of the criticism centered around whether or not Doyel or another press representative would address an NBA player in the same manner. 

Doyel later apologized via a column entitled "Doyel: Caitlin Clark, I'm so sorry. On Wednesday I was part of the problem." published on the Indianapolis Star's website late Wednesday evening. Referring to his behavior at the earlier press conference, he called his comments "clumsy and awkward."

"Please know my heart (literally and figuratively) was well-intentioned. I will do better," he wrote, noting that he was "devastated to realize I’m part of the problem."

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

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