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NWSL power rankings: Thorns, OL Reign in tight race for top spot

Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby scored a backheel goal at the death to lift Portland to a draw with Angel City on April 29. (Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports)

Time has flown. With five games already played in the 2023 NWSL regular season, we’re nearing the quarter mark of the domestic soccer calendar.

Now that fans have had a chance to see a month’s worth of performances from each team, we took a look at how clubs are picking up points, and who’s trending in the right (or wrong) direction with a fresh edition of power rankings.

1. Portland Thorns

Standings: 1st (3-0-2)

Portland holds the top spot in both the league standings and in the power rankings after a quarter of the regular season. The Thorns needed a shocking equalizer from goalkeeper Bella Bixby this weekend to stay undefeated in league play, but the “whatever-it-takes” mentality from the 2022 reigning champions has made them difficult to beat in the early going of the season.

2. OL Reign

Standings: 2nd (3-1-1)

The Reign also needed a furious comeback to draw Racing Louisville 2-2 last weekend, but most importantly they’re finding ways to score goals when necessary. The Reign dropped five goals on the Red Stars in their fourth match of the season, and they still have a number of important contributors working their way back from injury.

3. Washington Spirit

Standings: 4th (2-0-3)

The Spirit have been turning in consistent performances as new head coach Mark Parsons balances long-term projects with win-now results. Washington is still undefeated in regular season play, opening the year with a solid win over the Reign and proceeding to accumulate three draws in five games, most recently in a strong attacking performance against Chicago. The Spirit aren’t a finished project yet, but they look much steadier after a tough 2022.

4. San Diego Wave

Standings: 3rd (3-2-0)

San Diego looks as sharp as ever but has suffered two losses in its last three games, dropping them to fourth in this week’s power rankings. The Wave have had no problem scoring goals, but their end-to-end style of soccer sometimes leaves them vulnerable on the counterattack, as in their most recent 3-1 loss to last-place Orlando this past weekend.

Lynn Williams has scored five goals in seven games across all competitions for Gotham. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

5. Gotham FC

Standings: 5th (3-2-0)

Gotham isn’t immune to a rough defensive performance, but last year’s NWSL basement dwellers look like a team ready to compete in the playoffs in 2023. Lynn Williams has proved to be an excellent pick-up on the team’s frontline, especially as Midge Purce has struggled with injuries early in the season. The return of midfielder Allie Long has similarly provided a boost, with Gotham picking up key points early in the season.

6. Kansas City Current

Standings: 7th (2-3-0)

Don’t look now, but after an 0-3 start and the dismissal of head coach Matt Potter, the Current are on the rise. Kansas City has rattled off two straight regular season wins behind the excellent play of Debinha, who is growing into her role with her new club with every passing game. The Current are also benefiting from the growth of rookie defenders Gabrielle Robinson and Croix Soto, as they take more risks to spring Hailie Mace out wide and get the attack cooking.

7. Houston Dash

Standings: 6th (1-1-3)

The Dash have looked like a solid playoff contender through the first five games of the season, but they occasionally play like they’re saving their best performances for the future. Houston’s attacking three of María Sánchez, Diana Ordoñez and Ebony Salmon are still gelling, though their underlying stats indicate that the goals are coming soon.

8. Angel City FC

Standings: 9th (1-2-2)

Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what version of Angel City you’re going to get on any given evening. With the addition of Julie Ertz to the midfield, and Alyssa Thompson looking very comfortable in attack, the team has the ability to go toe-to-toe with anyone. But they can also let results slip from their grasp, especially against deeper sides.

9. Racing Louisville

Standings: 10th (0-1-4)

Racing Louisville’s 2-2 draw against OL Reign this past weekend showcased the highs and lows of a team still figuring itself out. Savannah DeMelo has continued her excellent run of form in her second year, but a mistake also earned her a red card, allowing the Reign to come storming back with Louisville down a player. Racing Louisville is making the right strides, but the final piece could be a greater sense of discipline.

USWNT defender Emily Fox leads a North Carolina team that has dealt with a series of strange twists. (Maria Lysaker/USA TODAY Sports)

10. North Carolina Courage

Standings: 8th (2-3-0)

The Courage have looked competitive in every game they’ve played thus far, with all but one match decided by one goal or less. They’ve also had a very weird couple of weeks with weather delays, picking up a quick win over Houston on Friday after the match was abandoned following 52 minutes of play. North Carolina has a talented squad, but their rhythm has been disrupted through the first month of the season.

11. Orlando Pride

Standings: 12th (1-4-0)

The Pride have had a rough go of it in the early days of the 2023 NWSL season, but they put all their attacking woes behind them with a 3-1 win over top-four side San Diego last weekend. Orlando’s depth and defensive switches at key points in games have been issues thus far. But the ideas are there when everything is clicking, and they’ll feel a little bit of weight off their shoulders after picking up their first win.

12. Chicago Red Stars

Standings: 11th (1-3-1)

It’d be easy to blame Chicago’s struggles on the loss of Mallory Swanson to a knee injury, and she is missed every time they take the pitch. But the surprise has been the Red Stars’ issues on defense, with the team giving up two or more goals in every game outside of their most recent draw with the Spirit. The team’s three-back system has been strained with new midfield personnel in front of them, begging the question of whether the Red Stars need to adjust their formation to avoid a longer skid.

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

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."

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."

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