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NWSL Players Talk Upcoming Challenge Cup

ABBY SMITH (ROBIN ALAM/ISI PHOTOS)

The NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off June 27th, making soccer the first team sport to return amidst coronavirus. We spoke to multiple NWSL players about their thoughts ahead of the tournament. Here’s what they had to say:

What is your overall outlook on the tournament?

“I think it’s exciting. It’s like a roller coaster of emotions really, because there’s so much going on, and so much goes into this, whether it’s with the player union, which I’ve been a part of, and then the NWSL, and no sports going on in general right now. Then trying to have this tournament. I do think the NWSL and the NWSLPA have worked really hard to get this going and make it as safe as possible.” — Lu Barnes, OL Reign

“I’m super excited about having an opportunity to play again. Yes, there’s an entertainment factor for everybody else, but this is still our job. Our job is to play, and it’s nice to be able to come back and have the opportunity to play games, because we’ve all been training to stay in shape and get touches on the ball. But obviously, it’s really hard to do that for an extended period of time, not knowing if you’re going to have games. So I think the league did a really good job with trying to come up with the best option for us, just given the circumstances. And I think a lot of people are really excited just to have something.” — Abby Smith, Utah Royals FC

“We are all super excited about the tournament. Our offseason really has been eight months of preparing, running, lifting and training on our own. Obviously with the pandemic it’s really frustrating that we couldn’t have a normal season. But we’re super stoked that the commissioner and all the owners and coaches got together and figured out at least something for this year. And they’ve done a really good job with all the safety protocols. It’s going to be a really great opportunity to keep growing the league and hopefully getting us more TV time for the future.” — Paige Nielsen, Washington Spirit

There’s been some pushback from those who think the league is rushing back. Is there anything you’re nervous about?

“Obviously the scariest thing is probably just the unknowns. That’s what’s scary in life in general, but especially during the circumstances that are given. But the OL Reign have been super informative, super transparent, whether it’s good, bad, whatever. They’ve just been super honest with us. So as a group, you just feel more comfortable when you have more information and you can just better make a decision for yourself.” — Barnes

“Obviously, there were some concerns with COVID, and how quickly the tournament’s coming up, but I think that in the grand scheme of things, a lot of people are just so excited to get back on the field. And the league has taken the initiative of making sure that we’re getting tested frequently and making sure that we’re socially distancing and staying in quarantine, and that everybody is taking this as seriously as possible. And also respecting the fact that it’s a very sensitive time for the rest of the world. I think they’ve done a really good job with reassuring us that they’re taking all the steps necessary, and then also providing us with the opportunity to play.” — Smith

“I know there’s been some negative backlash about how we’re the guinea pigs of live sports in this pandemic. But I just want people to know that I think we’re going to do the best we can with safety protocols. And we’re all itching to do our job, which is to play soccer. Everyone is slowly going back to work, not just athletes, and no one knows the correct way to do it, but we’re going to do it in the best we can and safest way possible.” — Nielsen

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LU BARNES (WILF THORNE/ISI PHOTOS)
What are your thoughts about playing without fans? 

“It’s obviously so strange. I’ve been playing professional for eight years, and you always have fans pretty much at every game even if the weather’s terrible, or whatever the circumstances are. Still, with or without fans, as a professional athlete, what drives us is our competitiveness and the will to win. I feel like that’s all still there, which will make the games exciting. I’m still counting on getting the usual adrenaline rush.” — Barnes

“I think that’s going to be a bit weird, to be perfectly honest. In preseason you have the scrimmages where you don’t have people there, but I’ve never been in a situation where it’s been completely empty. I have been watching the Bundesliga, and the stadium’s completely empty. You can hear everything. That’s honestly so interesting to me how they’re making it work. But I also think that they are at the forefront of everything, showing that it is possible to play and not have fans, and it can still work for the players and the staff.” — Smith

What has the communication been like with your team? 

It’s been great, honestly. I think we’ve actually had one of the best communications. I’ve talked to other players, and I know it hasn’t been great across the board. But we’ve done Zoom calls for the last two months together as a team and with our coaches. They let us know that players could go home if they had to go home, if they didn’t feel safe. And we’ve done maybe small group training sessions the past couple weeks. And they made sure to tell everyone that it’s not mandatory as long as they feel safe. So even leading up to this tournament they’ve done a really good job.” — Nielsen

“Our player reps have been very on top of everything, making sure that we know as much information as possible, whenever it becomes available. Our team has been very aware of other states and their circumstances. I feel like we’ve done a really good job with making sure that we’re following the rules and wiping everything down and being very, very cautious, because even though the numbers have been low in Utah, we’re still trying to stay on top of everything that we need to take care of.” — Smith

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PAIGE NIELSEN (RANDY LITZINGER/GETTY IMAGES)
What do you expect from yourself and/or your teammates after such a long layoff? 

“I do think we’re going to be a little bit crazy right off the bat. We have a lot of new players this year, and I don’t know how cohesive we will be. But we’ve been doing Zoom calls to try and get close to each other. We actually had the opportunity to go to Florida before the pandemic started, and so we all got to go each other there as persons and personalities. But I think with the tournament having so many games in a short period of time, I don’t know if we will get to our style that we want to play. It’s just going to be who has the biggest heart at that moment.” — Nielsen

“I’m ready. I feel like I was a little bit nervous, but I’m ready to get going, and I think it’s the good nerves, the kind you get when you’re excited to get back with your teammates and play.” — Smith

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

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.'"

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