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NWSL playoffs: One player to watch from every team

Alex Morgan’s injury status remains up in the air for the Wave’s playoff opener Sunday. (Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL playoffs are here, and with them comes a whole new season. The slate has been wiped clean, and the championship is there for the taking.

While some clubs — namely the top two seeds, OL Reign and the Portland Thorns — surged into the postseason, other clubs have reason to worry. Take the San Diego Wave, who are closely monitoring Golden Boot winner Alex Morgan’s knee injury ahead of their first-round match.

Morgan is just one of many players to watch as the road to the title begins, and Just Women’s Sports highlights one from each team, listed in order of playoff seeding.

1. OL Reign: Phallon Tullis-Joyce

The goalkeeper enters the playoffs having recorded a clean sheet in each of her team’s past three matches, including against the Houston Dash on Sept. 24.

Her first year as the starting goalkeeper for OL Reign has been nothing short of outstanding, with Tullis-Joyce playing all 1,980 minutes of the season as one of just two goalkeepers to play every minute for their team.

She has recorded nine clean sheets through 22 games and made 65 saves, allowing a league-low 19 goals all season long (Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan allowed just 17 goals but played in just 18 games). Tullis-Joyce also ranks first in save percentage (81 percent) and goals against average for every 90 minutes (0.86).

2. Portland Thorns FC: Sophia Smith

It’s hard to pick just one player to watch at Portland. But Smith stands out amongst the rest, having notched four braces this season (including one in the regular-season finale against Gotham FC) to bring her goal total to 14 on the season. Not only is that the most of Smith’s career in a single season, it also set the Portland franchise record.

With her 14 goals, Smith now has 21 in her career through just two seasons and is fourth all-time on the Thorns’ list behind Christine Sinclair (55 goals), Allie Long (30) and Lindsey Horan (25).

3. San Diego Wave FC: Alex Morgan

Morgan might be the most important player to take the field for the Wave in the playoffs — if she makes it there. She described her knee injury Friday as “day-to-day,” and her availability remains up in the air heading into the Wave’s postseason opener Sunday against the Red Stars.

“I’m trying my best to be available for Sunday but it really is day-to-day at this moment,” Morgan said Friday. “As much as I’m hopeful, I can’t really set expectations because my body really needs to tell myself and this club whether I’ll be ready to go.”

The Wave will be without defender Abby Dahlkemper, and midfielder Taylor Kornieck is also “questionable” for Sunday, according to coach Casey Stoney, so Morgan’s status holds even greater importance for San Diego. Not only did she score 15 goals this season, she also has veteran experience that the first-year expansion team will need heading into their first-ever playoffs.

San Diego has defied expectations all season long, as has Morgan. If her knee can hold up, look for Morgan to factor heavily into these playoffs.

4. Houston Dash: Ebony Salmon

Since arriving in Houston from Louisville, Salmon has made her mark. She scored a hat trick in just her third game with the club and went on to record nine goals on the season through 12 games. That number left her just two shy of Kealia Ohai Watt’s team record of 11.

Houston will be without longtime captain and veteran Rachel Daly, who departed for Aston Villa following the Euros this summer. But the Dash have been able to find ways to win, and they’ll look to get their first playoff win Sunday in their first playoff appearance.

Lo'eau Labonta had a career-best season for the Current. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

5. Kansas City Current: Lo’eau LaBonta

LaBonta’s career-best season put an exclamation point on Kansas City’s second season, which included a 13-game unbeaten streak. LaBonta tied with Cece Kizer for a team-leading seven goals, which showcases just how balanced this Current team is. The midfielder also added four assists, the most of any player on the team.

Head coach Matt Potter calls her the team’s “engine,” and with her they might have a shot at securing the NWSL title.

6. Chicago Red Stars: Tatumn Milazzo

While Mallory Pugh is certainly another player to watch, Milazzo has been an instrumental part of the team’s backline. Not only does she lead the league in interceptions (50), she also is tied for fourth with teammate Vanessa DiBernardo for the most tackles won (41).

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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