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NWSL revenge games: The 2023 matchups you don’t want to miss

Kansas City sent Lynn Williams to Gotham FC in January after just one season. (Daniel Bartel/USA TODAY Sports)

Every NWSL offseason comes with player movement, but the months leading up to the 2023 season reflected a new era of player choice. The league’s first free-agency period saw many top players leaving for new environments and teams making a few surprising moves themselves.

Almost every NWSL roster will look different in 2023, with the potential for dramatic returns as teams meet for the first time in the regular season.

Don’t look now, but revenge season might be upon us. Here are the games to circle on your calendar.

March 25: Kansas City Current at North Carolina Courage

The first game of the NWSL regular season wastes no time in getting into one of the most dramatic narratives of the offseason. The Kansas City Current were the big winners of the league’s free-agency period and feature heavily on this list as players take on their former teams.

First up, two-time NWSL champion Debinha returns to the home of the North Carolina Courage in her first game after a high-profile move to Kansas City. Courage head coach Sean Nahas said at the 2023 draft that they had made serious overtures to the Brazilian superstar to try to convince her to stay with her club of five years, and her playmaking ability will surely be missed in North Carolina.

The Current come into the season with high expectations. Debinha appeared to pick up a knock in preseason that might limit her availability for this game. Regardless, the opening match against her former teammates (and current Brazil teammate Kerolin) will be a battle that sets the tone for Kansas City’s ceiling in 2023.

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Emily Sonnett was a part of Washington's 2021 NWSL championship run. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

March 26: OL Reign at Washington Spirit

OL Reign travels to Washington D.C. on opening weekend, with a few chips on their shoulder to shake off. The Spirit famously ended the Reign’s postseason dreams in 2021 before going on to win the club’s first NWSL Championship. Prior to that, Rose Lavelle found her NWSL rights abruptly sent to Seattle from Washington while playing for Manchester City, a move she said surprised her at the time.

More recently, Washington unexpectedly sent another USWNT mainstay to the Pacific Northwest, completing a draft-day trade that dealt Emily Sonnett to OL Reign. The trade came about quickly, with new Spirit head coach Mark Parsons making a move to address what he referred to as a “structural” imbalance to his roster. This is the second time Parsons has traded Sonnett to a new team, first sending her to the Orlando Pride when he was the head coach of the Portland Thorns.

The Reign had a consistent partnership between Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt in the central defense in 2022, so it will be interesting to see how Sonnett is deployed. No matter, the potential revenge factor in this one is sky high.

April 15: Kansas City Current at Chicago Red Stars

There’s nothing like facing your former captain at home. Vanessa DiBernardo was a Chicago Red Star for eight years, and most recently their captain, before leaving for the Current in her first year of free agency. She was joined by former Chicago teammate Morgan Gautrat, who had played for the Red Stars for five years.

Both midfielders played in multiple NWSL finals with Chicago but decided to sign with a stacked Kansas City roster still in search of their first piece of hardware. The Red Stars team they left behind is now rebuilding around star striker Mallory Swanson after a tumultuous few years behind the scenes. Chicago will want to prove themselves against one of the deepest teams in the league and show what life looks like after the departure of a number of their veterans.

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Kansas City used the pick they acquired in the Lynn Williams trade to select Michelle Cooper at No. 2. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

April 30: Gotham FC at Kansas City Current

Lynn Williams never registered regular-season minutes for the Current, but this matchup has the potential for revenge nonetheless. Kansas City traded Williams to Gotham FC right as she made her return to the field with the USWNT, after a serious hamstring issue kept her sidelined in 2022.

Relinquishing Williams likely freed up salary cap space for the Current’s stacked midfield and also for rookie Michelle Cooper, whose prowess at Duke made her a clear target for Kansas City with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Cooper is untested at the professional level, meaning this particular game could become a referendum on veteran experience over rookie ceiling.

Gotham will likely be in revenge mode as a team, looking to improve upon their league-worst finish in 2022 and showcase their own offseason moves. If Kansas City is the standard, Gotham will want to rise to meet it.

May 27: North Carolina Courage at Racing Louisville

The offseason’s other surprising trade also involved North Carolina, with the Courage sending Carson Pickett and longtime captain Abby Erceg to Louisville in exchange for rising USWNT outside back Emily Fox. In soccer terms, the trade made some sense for both teams, but the unceremonious end to Erceg’s time at the club where she won multiple championships wasn’t lost on the center back.

Both teams will be eager to show off how they’ve honed their roster in the offseason, with North Carolina attempting to rise back to the upper echelon of the NWSL and Racing Louisville pushing for their first-ever playoff spot. The addition of Erceg and Pickett radically changes the outlook of Louisville’s defense, and they’ll have extra motivation to keep the Courage off the scoresheet. At the other end of the field, Fox is working her way into an assured U.S. roster spot for the 2023 World Cup and will want to excel with the same freedom on the pitch that she had in Louisville.

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

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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