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Thorns put all the pieces together for NWSL Championship magic

Thorns captain Christine Sinclair lifts the 2022 NWSL Championship trophy, the club’s third. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

As the Portland Thorns cruised to the club’s third NWSL championship on Saturday, one could be forgiven for thinking they’d been in that position many times before. Despite it being the team’s first championship appearance since 2018, they appeared calm, well-drilled and cerebral as they contained the Kansas City Current for 90 minutes in a 2-0 win.

Any championship performance is a culmination of a year of work, and first-year coach Rhian Wilkinson added her own spin to the Thorns’ pre-established culture to guide them through a tumultuous month off the field. It could be hard to tell from the outside how the significance of the Yates report, which implicated a number of Thorns executives in perpetuating a culture of abuse in the NWSL, was affecting the players on the ground.

The response seen in primetime on CBS was a comprehensive performance by Portland and a result that was never in doubt. The Thorns’ back five — led by now three-time NWSL champion Becky Sauerbrunn, who only misplaced five passes all night — didn’t take a wrong step, and the Current finished the match without a single shot on goal. Portland sustained pressure throughout the match, winning the ball and possessing to recycle attacks and force the Current into exhausting themselves while chasing.

“Honestly, just a fun game to play,” Final MVP Sophia Smith said after the match, who provided her team with a signature moment just minutes after kickoff. One of the best players in the world with the ball at her feet, Smith wasted no time when given an opportunity, giving the neutral crowd of over 17,000 fans a reason to cheer early.

Benefitting from a slip by Kansas City center back Elizabeth Ball, the 22-year-old rounded AD Franch to tap the ball into the back of the net in the fourth minute. Smith isn’t always the most demonstrative goal celebrator, but in a match of this significance, even she had to give a little shrug to the camera before being mobbed by her teammates.

Smith said that her shrug seen across the country was in response to anyone who thought she didn’t deserve to be league MVP. In the stadium, the moment also represented a certain amount of inevitability. Early goals can open things up and signal that even more goals are coming. But while Kansas City quickly pushed for an equalizer, they had trouble finding one another, and the Thorns firmly controlled the run of play for the next 85 minutes.

The Thorns’ ability to dictate the terms of the match came from veterans and young talent alike. While Portland’s established leaders have a wealth of championship experience, the starting XI for Saturday’s game looked almost unrecognizable to the group that won the team’s last title in 2017. Rookie Sam Coffey held court in the defensive midfield, and second-year forward Yazmeen Ryan provided a spark throughout the match that gave Smith room to operate.

“What can I say? Unbelievable,” Wilkinson said of the way her young players stepped up. “Sam was a rookie for a day, and then took off. And Yaz has had … I think last year she was just trying to find her feet, and then you see her coming alive.”

While her name didn’t make it onto the scoresheet, it was Ryan’s cross into the box that the Kansas City defense mishandled into the back of the net and sealed the game in the second half.

Wilkinson did make one major change to her starting XI from last week’s semifinal, reintroducing Christine Sinclair into the starting midfield in place of Hina Sugita, after the longtime captain came off the bench against San Diego. The move was purely tactical, with Wilkinson wanting to lean into Sinclair’s experience at the tip of the midfield supporting two attackers.

She joked after the match that since her team won, her slight personnel adjustment must have been the right decision. Sugita has had an excellent season for Portland, but her manager wanted very clear roles against Kansas City’s packed midfield, and Sugita mostly thrives as a box-to-box midfielder who can also drift wide. Wilkinson also thought that Raquel Rodriguez was peaking at exactly the right time, which made the No. 8 hard to drop in favor of anybody else. The Thorns dominated the midfield, proving their manager right.

“What a privilege to have Hina Sugita on the bench,” Wilkinson said, noting that the Japanese international made a huge impact in the second half. That willingness to rotate has been one of Portland’s great strengths this season. Their ability to put fresh legs into the match as Kansas City grew tired put the match out of reach long before the final whistle blew.

It’s clear that Wilkinson has more than earned her squad’s respect, with Smith telling reporters after the match that it was “bulls–t” Wilkinson wasn’t nominated for NWSL Coach of the Year.

“I think it’s easy to overlook, because historically, this is a successful club,” Portland goalkeeper Bella Bixby said. “But it’s not easy to come in and implement your style of play, how you want your players to play, get player buy-in from the start, all of those things.”

Guided by Wilkinson’s steady hand, the champion Thorns also served as a reminder of the lifeblood of the NWSL: the players. On the field Saturday, Portland’s players showed the same chemistry that has carried them through a difficult year. As a club, Portland has come to represent many different things, and the players were put under a level of pressure that Wilkinson acknowledged could have warranted a full collapse.

Instead, they played for each other and for the supporters that have been with them every step of the way.

“We all love soccer,” said Smith. “So for me personally, soccer was like an escape from all the things going on. I just looked forward to going to practice every day, seeing my teammates.”

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

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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