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Balancing crisis and professional duty: Inside the NWSL’s pivotal week

(Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

NWSL games resumed last week after the league paused to reckon with the bombshell report in which former players accused then-North Carolina coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and emotional abuse. After taking a few days to reflect on Mana Shim’s and Sinead Farrelly’s stories of abuse and the power structures that enabled it, players have again found themselves in the thick of both collective organizing and an intense slate of games that will determine the course of the 2021 season.

The brief respite gave players time to both process the developments that have shaken the league and organize. But with the regular season winding down and four of six playoff spots still in question, they’ve been thrown back into the tail end of a grueling season that has come with its own twists and turns.

While some teams were able to at least create momentum through results, it was also clear that the balance of taking care of business both on and off the field is coming with a toll. Players are dealing with an existential crisis that strikes at the very core of the NWSL’s existence. They’re also trying to maintain an elite level of day-to-day work that will allow them to peak when the postseason arrives. 

“We talked to some of the girls in Kansas City last night, and we’re like, let’s just assume no one’s doing well,” Portland Thorns defender Emily Menges said on Sunday. “It’s just a very emotional week, it’s a very tough week. A lot of things are happening. I think that’s one of the hardest things, too, is there’s still a lot more to come.”

In between the phone calls that led to unified messaging before every match, players have been training, traveling and preparing for games in a year where the table is as tight as it’s ever been.

The NWSL took the necessary step of rescheduling the suspended games from the first weekend of October. Now, the games that could determine the success of a team’s season will be played on short rest, with extra cross-country travel for some clubs.

“It’s something that you just kind of have to internalize and meditate on a little bit, and just compartmentalize and keep moving forward,” Chicago Red Stars defender Tierna Davidson said after her team’s loss to OL Reign on Sunday. “This is a very difficult time, but I feel like most of the players are willing to accept the burden in order to make sure that we can make this league better for players that come after us.”

The balance of emotionally processing the recent events and executing on the field is draining, but players are also aware that games provide them with a valuable platform.

The team representatives of the NWSL Players Association have been gathering almost every day, dispersing only when players have to focus on games. That amount of work has resulted in a powerful statement from every team, with players locking arms in the center circle during the sixth minute of games. A number of outside clubs, including those in the Women’s Super League in England, have matched the gesture and stood in solidarity with their NWSL counterparts against systemic abuse.

The games themselves have also provided a welcome distraction for players who are trying to find joy in the little moments.

“When I was hyping the team up, I told them that … my greatest hope for them today was that they played like they were kids again,” Meghan Klingenberg said after Portland’s midweek game against Houston. “And to remember what it felt like when you were on the schoolyard or in the streets or in your backyard, and play with that type of passion and joy. And I think that even if the result didn’t come out the way that we want it, I could still feel that joy from a lot of players”

The crowded upcoming schedule provides more opportunities for players to have their voices heard, but with only four points separating fourth and eighth in the table, these games will also serve as a de-facto play-in series for the postseason. Only the top six teams make the playoffs. So far, two teams have clinched: Portland and OL Reign, and two teams have been eliminated: Kansas City and Louisville.

The Houston Dash launched themselves into third place after two big wins against the Thorns on Wednesday and the Courage on Sunday. On the other end, the Orlando Pride and the Chicago Red Stars slipped out of the playoff spots they’d been holding onto for a number of weeks. Orlando and Chicago will meet again Wednesday to determine an essential three-point swing and provide clarity as to where each team will land at the end of the season.

It’s almost a disservice to the concept of a playoff race to call this year’s NWSL season ‘close’; rather than sprinting neck-and-neck, teams have struggled to find a foothold as they climb and re-climb the table. A team’s form has become essential to their ability to see the season out, with a responsibility falling to players not to let off-the-field field turmoil affect on-field results.

The Washington Spirit have been a lightning rod for that sort of off-field chaos this season. The club fired head coach Richie Burke in August in response to allegations of verbal and emotional abuse. In the months since then, the Spirit’s players and fans have called on co-owner Steve Baldwin to sell his stake in the team. On the field, they suffered two 3-0 forfeit defeats in the span of a few weeks after failing to follow COVID-19 protocols. But now, they haven’t lost a game that has actually kicked off since the beginning of August, with no losses under interim head coach Kris Ward.

At the top of the table, the Portland Thorns, first to clinch a playoff berth on Sunday, now haven’t won a game in their last three matches. While their position as Shield contenders hasn’t been relinquished just yet, they have a matchup against OL Reign on Wednesday that will likely determine who is going to take the NWSL’s top spot going into the postseason.

The Houston Dash and Gotham FC, who have each had their share of ups and downs as the season has progressed, both appear to be getting hot just in time to make a postseason run.

All of these narratives would be exciting in a normal year for the league, given the parity between teams (a strength of the league) almost collapsing in on itself. And yet, while players are giving their all to make sure their seasons end the way they’ve pictured them, they’re battling the mental and emotional exhaustion of a season which has seen four coaches fired (and a commissioner resign) over the mistreatment of players.

“Ultimately, we’re committed to making this league what it needs to be. It’s going to take some work and we’re committed to it, and we’re asking the league to join us in our efforts,” Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said on Saturday.

“But yeah, it’s exhausting. I would love to get back to being a soccer player first and foremost. It’s an around-the-clock job right now, but we’re not going to stop until we get some change.”

As Menges put it, the shift back toward soccer will take time and will probably have its own detours along the way, but that doesn’t render the on-field results unimportant.

“It’s not an overnight shift,” she said Sunday. “So it’s definitely OK to keep asking questions about it. But yeah, we can talk about soccer as well.”

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

Caitlin Clark stuns 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 and shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing him a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her best line 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 start NWSL season winless, in uncharted territory

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 season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage and remaining winless through its 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, answers need to be had from 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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