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NWSL prospects to watch in NCAA Soccer Tournament

Forward Michelle Cooper is turning pro after just two college seasons at Duke. (Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The quarterfinals of the NCAA college soccer tournament kick off on Friday, featuring some of the most consistent programs in the sport. Duke, Notre Dame, Florida State, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and UCLA will battle it out for spots in the College Cup, and fans won’t want to miss the opportunity to see the stars of tomorrow.

While four-year seniors still have an extra year of NCAA availability available to them due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a few standouts are still worth watching for when they make the jump overseas or to the NWSL Draft in January. Likewise, we also listed a few underclassmen who look about ready to turn pro themselves.

Seniors to watch

Sophie Jones, senior, Duke

Jones joined the Blue Devils as a five-star recruit in 2019 and has been a remarkably consistent player in their midfield throughout her college career. Jones received All-ACC Second Team honors in 2021 and has become an even more composed distributor in her senior year, notching two goals and three assists. Jones is a tempo-setter, and her presence in the middle of the field causes problems for opponents.

Jenna Nighswonger, senior, Florida State

Nighswonger has been a player since joining FSU as a freshman. She’s played as both a starter and off the bench, contributing alongside former star teammates like Yujie Zhao and Jaelin Howell. More attacking-oriented in 2022, Nighswonger tallied 16 assists, won ACC tournament MVP and made the All-ACC First Team. Nighswonger has had the senior year everyone expected of her, providing stability for an FSU roster that made big changes in the offseason.

Alexa Spaanstra, fifth-year senior, Virginia

Becoming synonymous with this era of Virginia soccer, Spaanstra can shift roles based on the players she has around her. She’s played more pass-first soccer in previous years, but she helped carry the goal-scoring load in 2022, with eight goals and five assists. Another fifth-year senior to watch for the Hoos is Haley Hopkins, the team’s leading scorer in 2022 with 13 goals.

Sunshine Fontes, senior, UCLA

A resurgent contributor in 2022, Fontes is coming off a career-best season at UCLA. She leads the Bruins in scoring with 10 goals along with seven assists, making huge strides under new head coach Margueritte Aozasa. Fontes notched a goal in UCLA’s first-round win over Northern Arizona but has stayed relatively quiet in the second and third rounds. Asserting herself in later rounds could render the comeback complete.

Anna Podojil, senior, Arkansas

Podojil became Arkansas’s all-time points leader and leading scorer this season, registering eight goals and six assists to reach 45 goals for her career. She’s combined well with the program’s top scorer in 2022, Jessica de Filippo, and found herself (alongside a number of other names here) on the United Soccer Coaches Mac Hermann watch list this year. Arkansas made it to the Elite Eight in 2021 and will be looking to go even farther with their senior core in charge.

Reyna Reyes, senior, Alabama

With experience at both the collegiate and international level, Reyes has been a big part of Alabama’s impressive season. She’s made four appearances already with the Mexican women’s national team and has been rock solid in both the backline and defensive midfield for the Crimson Tide in 2022. She can also carry the scoring load, scoring a career-high seven goals this season along with one assist.

Underclassmen making waves

Michelle Cooper, sophomore, Duke

It’s Michelle’s Cooper’s world, and we’re all just living in it. The USWNT U-20 captain didn’t miss a beat rolling into her sophomore year with the Blue Devils, recording 17 goals and 11 assists as one of the top performers in the country. She most recently scored a brace against South Carolina to send Duke into the quarterfinals, and her performance this weekend could be the difference-maker against Alabama.

Korbin Albert, sophomore, Notre Dame

The sophomore midfielder has scored 16 goals this season with five assists, leading the Irish in scoring as the No. 1 seed has rolled through the tournament. Albert has been a remarkably consistent scorer in both of her college seasons, scoring 14 as a freshman in 2021. She scored a brace in Notre Dame’s second-round win over Santa Clara and will be difficult to stop as the Irish aim to return to the College Cup.

Avery Patterson, junior, North Carolina

Like Cooper, Patterson has had a year full of international competition and success at the college level. Patterson joined the USWNT U-20s for World Cup qualifying and has led the Tar Heels in scoring this season with 11 goals and eight assists — a huge step forward from her sophomore season. With a number of other top prospects dealing with injuries, Patterson has stepped up, notching three assists in the third round against BYU.

Lia Godfrey, junior, Virginia

There’s something about underclassmen scoring braces this year. Godfrey scored twice against Xavier in the second round to propel the Cavaliers into Round 3. Comfortable on the ball and not afraid to shoot, Godfrey has become an attacking generator in Virginia’s midfield, peaking at just the right time to help the team battle through a tough third-round matchup against Penn State.

Lilly Reale, sophomore, UCLA

Reale is an interesting player to watch not only because of her pro-level abilities, but also because of her position. Coming up through the college and U.S. youth-level ranks as an outside back makes her a positional expert to watch. She’s played almost every minute of the NCAA Tournament so far for the Bruins and was named Pac-12 Defender of the Year in 2022.

Reilyn Turner, junior, UCLA

Turner is perhaps best known for becoming Nike’s first-ever NIL signing, but her play on the field has backed up all of the hype. She’s scored nine goals on the season, good for second on the team only to Fontes, and she forced the game-opening goal against Northwestern with savvy defensive pressure. She also played her most minutes of the year (85) in the second round against UCF, finishing with three shots on target.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. 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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