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NWSL’s parity shines in exhilarating quarterfinal debut

Trinity Rodman celebrates after Ashley Hatch’s game-winning goal for the Spirit. (Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

The NWSL kicked off the 2021 postseason on Sunday with celebration and tears. The first quarterfinal round in the league’s short history included two wins by the slightest of margins.

The No. 4 Chicago Red Stars ended Carli Lloyd’s professional career in a 1-0 defeat of No. 5 Gotham FC, thanks to a second-half strike from Mallory Pugh. The red-hot Washington Spirit then took down the 2019 NWSL champion North Carolina Courage on an Ashley Hatch game-winner in the second half of extra time.

In past years, only four teams advanced to the playoffs, with two semifinals played the weekend before the championship game. Postseason festivities were short-lived as four teams quickly became two and the NWSL crowned a winner only two weeks after the end of the regular season.

Preparing for league expansion, the NWSL debuted a new primary round of postseason games in 2021 and expanded the playoff pool to six teams. There was some concern that the extra slots would dilute the quality of play or that the process would become pulled in too many directions. But both quarterfinal games Sunday ended up being impressive — if different — showcases of the league’s parity.

Lloyd’s final professional minutes on a soccer pitch added to the historical significance of the first game, but one had to forgive the Red Stars for acting as if their victory were business as usual.

Chicago, whose regular season was as steady as it was occasionally monotonous, prepared itself for exactly the type of match it got against Gotham. The Red Stars successfully maintained their shape, never getting pulled out of position by Gotham’s dynamic frontline, in a display that even surprised former Red Stars assistant and current Gotham head coach Scott Parkinson.

“I thought it would be a little bit more end-to-end than it was,” Parkinson said after the match. “Especially in the first half, I thought they’d come out and give us a goal. But they didn’t.”

A track meet would have likely favored the visitors, so it wasn’t shocking that Chicago instructed its outside backs to stay home and create numerical advantages centrally in the defense. Still, executing a game plan that relies on excellence without the ball isn’t easy to pull off mentally, and the Red Stars showed their growth in maintaining focus for the whole match. The center-back duo of Sarah Gorden and Tierna Davidson held fast, and the team built off of that foundation.

A moment of clarity led to the Red Stars’ lone goal in the 61st minute, when Sarah Woldmoe pounced on a throw from Gotham keeper Kailen Sheridan to midfielder McCall Zerboni, with whom Woldmoe had been in a physical battle for much of the afternoon. She slotted the ball out to Pugh, who connected on a one-touch strike toward the far post. Chicago then defended comfortably, holding off the dynamic duo of Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu to earn the win and a meeting with the top-seeded Thorns in Portland next weekend.

The way the Red Stars suffocated Gotham for the last 30 minutes of play had Lloyd literally watching the clock wind down on her career, which left her emotional after the match.

“I think as the clock was obviously winding down and we were pressing for a goal, I just kept looking at the time because essentially time was … running out,” she said, taking a moment to compose herself. “It’s really sunk in now. And it’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t have went on.”

The winners derived satisfaction from executing their game plan against a talented group up front.

“I love going against Ify, Midge, Carli, all of them,” Gorden said. “Just because they’re attackers who want the ball and they want to take you on. They’re competent, their skills are dynamic, they’re smart, they’re technical, all the things.”

The second game Sunday also featured dynamic, smart and technical attackers, though the final score in regulation didn’t necessarily reflect the quality on the field. The No. 3 Spirit and the No. 6 Courage played to a 0-0 draw through 90 minutes despite the game offering everything on attack that the first match had in defensive organization.

The Courage, true underdogs for the first time since they were known as the Western New York Flash, came in with their veterans ready to take the game to the favorites. Debinha, tenacious on the ball, found space behind Washington’s backline, while Jessica McDonald helped run point on the team’s defensive press from her place in the attack. The Courage created more dangerous chances in front of the Spirit’s goal than many people anticipated. Their center-back duo of Abby Erceg and Kaleigh Kurtz also held strong in transition, but they couldn’t quite break through to put the Spirit on their heels.

On the other side, Andi Sullivan had another excellent game setting up Washington’s offense from her role as the No. 6, and Trinity Rodman continued her reign of terror from the wing. The Spirit did a good job of moving the ball through each sector of the field — especially when they could feel momentum swinging in transition — but just couldn’t get the ball on frame.

The pace of both teams made the match feel wide open, and the only reason the game remained scoreless through regulation was the play of goalkeepers Aubrey Bledsoe and Casey Murphy. Both were exceptional, parrying shots from distance, grabbing crosses out of the air and creating sequences that led to high-quality shot selection.

“I said it before the game, that the keepers were going to be the key piece in this whole thing,” North Carolina interim head coach Sean Nahas said afterward. “And they were. But Casey Murphy — I think you’re potentially looking at the two future goalkeepers of the United States women’s national team.”

The Spirit entered extra time with renewed energy, even after captain Tori Huster left the game with a non-contact injury. The period ultimately ended in heartbreak for Murphy, who coughed up her first rebound of the night on a low shot from Rodman that had some extra pace on it. Hatch, the NWSL’s Golden Boot winner, made the follow-up run and struck the ball home with fewer than ten minutes left in extra time, sending the Spirit on to Tacoma, Wash. to face No. 2 OL Reign next weekend.

“This is playoff soccer, it’s about just taking your chances,” Bledsoe said with a smile after the match. “We needed one moment. It took a while to get there, but we eventually came through.”

The Courage drove away from Audi Field mourning the end of their season. But as a group that has overcome so much off the field this year after the firing of coach Paul Riley amid abuse allegations, they left with renewed hope for the future.

“As we were walking off, all the Spirit fans were thanking us and cheering us on, and that to me summed it up,” Nahas said. “Everyone knows what we’ve gone through, and the fact that people saw us perform the way we did and put a smile on people’s faces, and our players being able to leave with their head high, to have opposition fans thanking us and cheering us, that to me sums it up.”

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

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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