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History, calamity and expansion: Biggest NWSL stories of 2022

Sophia Smith won NWSL MVP and a championship with the Portland Thorns in 2022. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL underwent massive change in 2022. The league ratified its first-ever collective bargaining agreement, reeled from the findings of two massive investigations into wrongdoing and put on one of the largest championship weekends in NWSL history.

To call it an eventful year would be an understatement. Let’s take a look at a few of the moments we’ll never forget.

The year of the union

The year began with the NWSL in a precarious position. Collective bargaining agreement negotiations had slowed, and multiple investigations into misconduct were ongoing after bombshell reporting revealed cases of abuse throughout the league. With every day that passed, the possibility of a player strike became more likely as the league neared the preseason CBA deadline of Feb. 1.

What happened next shaped not only the NWSL for the next five years, but also women’s soccer forever. The league’s first CBA guaranteed new player rights, including free agency, maternity leave and a doubled league minimum salary. Preseason began on time, and years of work by the NWSL Players Association culminated in a new foundation upon which the league could build.

The NWSLPA’s work, though, didn’t end after the ratification of the CBA. Questions like whether players with team-first contract options can be considered free agents and whether new avenues should be created for teenage players to enter the league were debated and partially resolved. The PA has emphasized that CBAs are valuable only if they are being enforced, and constant vigilance in the face of the Sally Q. Yates report provided a sense of stability.

At the end of the year, the NWSL and NWSLPA finally released their joint investigation into wrongdoing and misconduct, in what is hopefully the final page of a volatile chapter in the league’s history. Even if more challenges lie ahead, the strength of the union gives players a reliable advocate.

The calamity of the Challenge Cup

The year marked the beginning of the end of the Challenge Cup as a preseason tournament. Originally placed between preseason and the regular season as a pandemic safeguard, the scheduling of the Challenge Cup in 2022 arguably altered a number of clubs’ entire seasons.

The North Carolina Courage defeated the Washington Spirit in the third Challenge Cup final on May 7, in a game on CBS that overlapped with the beginning of the regular season. Both teams had to reschedule their regular-season games that had been slated for the same weekend after picking up an additional knockout game the Wednesday prior. The match itself was ugly, and neither team rode their success into a playoff appearance. The Spirit struggled through a dire early schedule to finish the season in 11th, a far cry from winning their first NWSL Championship in 2021. The Courage fared slightly better, making a late surge but falling just short of a playoff spot in the final week of the season.

With a new name sponsor and prize money attached, the Challenge Cup has a place in the NWSL’s calendar, but it became very clear that something had to change in the name of player safety. In 2023, the Cup will become a mid-season tournament, played throughout the year during other breaks in the regular season.

The Challenge Cup clearly needed to evolve, or the NWSL needed to move on from the format entirely. With a new system in 2023, the tournament has a chance to reach its full potential.

Angel City FC led the NWSL in attendance in their inaugural season. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

California dreamin’

The year 2022 will likely always be remembered as the one the NWSL went all-in on the beaches of California. Angel City’s regular-season opener at the Banc of California Stadium marked a season of record attendances, and San Diego’s mid-season debut at Snapdragon Stadium showed what was possible for an expansion club in its first year.

San Diego, in particular, crushed expansion expectations on the field. Alex Morgan won the Golden Boot, Naomi Girma won both Rookie and Defender of the Year, Kailen Sheridan won Goalkeeper of the Year, and Casey Stone won Coach of the Year. The Wave became the first expansion club to qualify for the NWSL playoffs in their first year, and for much of the season, they were in legitimate contention for the Shield at the top of the table.

NWSL expansion was once seen as a risky proposition, with teams struggling to find local attendance footholds while slowly developing on the pitch. Angel City showed that women’s soccer can be big business, and San Diego backed it all up on the field. The next teams to join the league in 2024 have large shoes to fill.

Portland Thorns’ triumph, uneasy future

On the field, the Portland Thorns were one of the best clubs in the NWSL in 2022. They finished second in the league table, won their semifinal and looked like they were in cruise control on their way to the franchise’s third NWSL Championship over Kansas City. League MVP Sophia Smith ended the best year of her young professional career with a championship goal (and shrug celebration) that entered the annals of NWSL legend. For one moment, it seemed like the Thorns might be able to put their off-field troubles behind them.

But the offseason brought more radical change. Owner Merritt Paulson finally announced his intention to sell the club after being named in the Yates report for allowing former coach Paul Riley’s misconduct to be covered up for years. Paulson intends to divest the Thorns from the Portland Timbers, changing both the club’s relationship to their home in Providence Park and the infrastructure of the front office.

Paulson’s decision to sell felt somewhat inevitable with the NWSLPA report looming, but Portland’s upheaval had only begun. The same week as Paulson’s announcement, head coach Rhian Wilkinson abruptly resigned from her position after developing feelings for a player that went beyond friendship.

Suddenly, Portland’s championship win became a story not of mere triumph over adversity, but the last image of the club as it existed for the first 10 years of the league’s existence. Now, the Thorns enter 2023 without a manager and with more questions than ever despite their clear talent advantages.

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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