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In Thorns-Wave heavyweight battle, NWSL legends are born

Crystal Dunn and the Portland Thorns won the NWSL title in 2022. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

While many fans enjoy the ebbs and flow of the NWSL regular season, legends are created in the postseason. Such was the game played in Portland on Sunday afternoon, a 2-1 stoppage-time win for the Thorns, during which multiple generations of stars came together to showcase what makes NWSL playoff soccer so special.

The stage was set through difficult circumstances, stemming from the release of the Sally Yates report on systemic abuse in the NWSL, and the tenacity of the players to push forward and find the joy again in running freely on a soccer pitch. Leading up to the match, the San Diego Wave and Portland Thorns carried both the weight of the past and hope for the future in a story that is constantly changing.

As more consistent media coverage and exposure pushes women’s soccer into new territory as a burgeoning business, the sport in many ways continues to be an oral tradition. The NWSL website still doesn’t list stats prior to 2016, and old broadcasts on now-defunct streaming services are nebulously archived.

Like any oral tradition, as stories are told and retold, context can shift in unexpected ways. Some moments are turned into legend, others that get in the way of a narrative diminished.

While Sunday’s match in Portland wasn’t Alex Morgan’s first trip back to Providence Park after The Athletic report that radically re-contextualized her time with the Thorns, it carried many of the same emotions after the release of the Yates report a few weeks earlier. Even without that context, the prospect of a first-year expansion club going toe-to-toe with one of the NWSL’s founding clubs provided its own significance.

The Providence Park that Morgan walked into also looked a bit different than in the past. Sponsorship messages on the video boards told a very specific story, one of supporting Portland’s players as the club’s leadership remains in flux. The Thorns also made the move in the days before the match to donate profits to local charities, offsetting concerns from the fanbase about supporting embattled owner Merritt Paulson, and supporters returned to the stands in kind (with more than a few “For Sale” signs in tow).

What followed was a great exhale and a new sense of freedom to the atmosphere, one that Portland hadn’t recaptured since before the 2020 NWSL season shut down due to the pandemic. Feeding off that energy, some of the biggest stars in the league rose to the occasion. Interestingly, Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson left longtime captain Christine Sinclair on the bench to start, possibly indicating a changing of the guard in Portland and across the league.

In a start that almost felt scripted, Morgan struck first, with a perfectly placed assist to the head of Taylor Kornieck in just the eighth minute to put San Diego ahead. Settling in after the early goal from the underdog, the over 22,000 fans in attendance knew they were in for a high-paced, end-to-end affair.

If Morgan was the headliner going into the game, the matchup between Thorns striker Sophia Smith and Wave defender Naomi Girma was the heavyweight battle that dictated the flow and provided a glimpse into the future. After Thorns midfielder Raquel Rodriguez equalized on a half-volley rocket that sent the crowd into euphoria, fans got to watch two of the next great stars of the sport try to one-up each other.

The result was a fascinating stalemate. For every moment Smith successfully dragged other defenders out of position with her dribbling, Girma was there to cover for her teammates. In 1v1 situations, Girma controlled her own center of gravity and soft first touch to cut off Smith’s angles and direct the ball in the opposite direction.

Despite Girma’s efforts, the Wave began to fade in the second half, a symptom of the extra-time quarterfinal they survived last week against Chicago. Portland took the opportunity to make a definitive substitute in the 62nd minute, bringing on Crystal Dunn for Rodriguez.

Dunn has gradually been making her way back onto the field since the birth of her son Marcel in May. And while the five months in between her giving birth and scoring the game-winning goal is legend itself, the midfielder has also exercised patience over the last month to get where she needed to be in the right moment.

Dunn had been subbed into a number of games prior to Sunday, but not with as much time to operate as she had against the Wave. She provided a new spark to Portland’s press, working to force the Wave into mistakes in the back. The Thorns’ pressure became all-encompassing, even as the seconds started ticking toward extra time.

As Sinclair’s limited minutes suggest — the star striker didn’t sub in until the seventh minute of stoppage time — Dunn is going to be incredibly important to making Portland’s midfield tick in the future. But even in the present, as she continues to work her back to full fitness, she had the quality and star power to will the Thorns to their fourth championship appearance.

As the Thorns step away from Providence Park for the last time in 2022, there are still a number of questions about exactly what kind of club they’ll return to in 2023, and results on the field shouldn’t overshadow the off-field work that needs to be done. But for the players, the story of this season is still being told, and in emphatic fashion.

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

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

WNBA Confirms Toronto Expansion Team for 2026

Fans at a game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in Toronto
Canadian fans asked and the WNBA delivered: Toronto's getting a team. (Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

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