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What to make of OL Reign’s latest NWSL playoff disappointment

Megan Rapinoe acknowledges the fans after OL Reign’s semifinal loss to Kansas City on Sunday. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

“Football’s a little cruel sometimes,” Megan Rapinoe said on Sunday, summing up OL Reign’s 2-0 defeat to the Kansas City Current, their second in as many NWSL semifinals. “I feel like I don’t even really know if we deserve more out of the game.”

The NWSL’s playoff format is something of a hybrid between the traditions of American sports and global football. In other leagues, finishing with the most points at the end of a season is enough for the title and the trophy, while other Cup competitions recreate a knockout tournament structure.

In the NWSL, the Shield is awarded to the team that showed enough consistency to finish at the top of the league table, and the championship trophy is given to the team left standing at the end of the postseason. Rare are the years when both the Shield and the trophy go to the same club: Outside of the North Carolina Courage’s domination in 2018 and 2019, Shield winners falling in the playoffs became so common that there have been jokes of a “Shield Curse.”

OL Reign has a history of excelling at one part of the league’s format and struggling with the other. In 2014 and 2015, the team formerly known as the Seattle Reign were the best in the league two years running, turning Memorial Stadium into a fortress. But they fell in both finals to FC Kansas City and have not returned to an NWSL Championship since.

In 2022, OL Reign’s path to the Shield looked a bit different than those early years when they were dominating the competition. The Reign were always in the playoff conversation, but they caught fire late in the season as the Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave stumbled, surging up the league table. They clinched the Shield during the final weekend of the NWSL regular season, and seemed to have gained enough momentum to make a deep playoff run.

So, what should we make of another semifinal exit? Is the “Shield Curse” real, or is there more to OL Reign’s playoff woes?

It’s not all negative

The environment surrounding the Reign’s semifinal this year vastly contrasted from last year’s matchup against the Washington Spirit. The Reign had the highest attendance for a standalone match ever at Lumen Field on Sunday, doubling their previous record with a crowd of 21,491 fans.

The Reign didn’t always have the benefit of robust community support during their runs to the Shield in 2014 and 2015, nor the access to the facilities that they have now. Earlier this week, the club announced it would be moving from a Tacoma-area high school facility to train full-time at Starfire Stadium in 2023. The continued professionalization in Seattle will be pivotal for one of the league’s original clubs, especially since they’ve proven year over year to be a desirable location for talent.

Head coach Laura Harvey has also done a good job of integrating new talent into a squad known for its veterans. After a number of loans ended following the 2021 season, Jordyn Huitema was a savvy pick-up at striker, and Quinn has been a revelation at defensive midfielder since Harvey’s return. The center-back duo of Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt have worked well with young goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce to form a stout backline. Harvey has also gotten career-best years out of Rose Lavelle and Sofia Huerta, and she rotated the squad with a deft hand to keep players healthy throughout the regular season.

Despite what feels at times like an effort in futility, the Reign are set up well for the future in more ways than one.

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Jess Fishlock and Laura Harvey have been with OL Reign since the NWSL's inception in 2013. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

How to break the Shield Curse

With Harvey, Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jessica Fishlock carrying the 10-year history of the club into the 2022 playoffs, it’s fair for fans to have wanted more out of this window.

The new playoff format may have played a role in the Reign’s last two exits, with a bye and an international break extending the team’s time off and possibly contributing to rust. There’s also an element of chance involved.

In the 2021 semis, the Reign struggled with quality chances in the attacking third during a rain-soaked slog on a converted baseball field. In 2022, they similarly could not get the final ball to break the plane, with shots in each half partially crossing the goal-line but failing to find the back of the net. They also have come across two of the more playoff-ready teams in as many years (the Spirit famously won the 2021 title on the back of one of the longest unbeaten streaks in NWSL history).

AD Franch was the difference-maker in goal for the Current on Sunday, and Kansas City got the right bounces at the other end. Current forward Kristen Hamilton even had to laugh about her goal in the postgame press conference, describing a broken play influenced by her jogging over to the sideline to receive instruction.

Football is a little cruel, indeed.

But as another year goes by without a championship trophy, one has to wonder if the Reign could use more tactical dexterity in the postseason. OL Reign’s Plan A works more often than not, as evidenced by the best record in the league over 22 games. But when Plans B, C or D are needed, Seattle hasn’t been able to punch through after falling behind.

Maybe the stars simply haven’t aligned, but if the Reign’s original core players are going to go off into the sunset on a high note, the club will have to figure out how to go all-in at the season’s end.

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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