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Reign motivated to win Challenge Cup trophy amid scheduling challenges

OL Reign’s Ally Watt (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When the OL Reign clinched the top seed for the 2022 Challenge Cup playoffs, their “reward” wasn’t enviable by any standards. After opening their regular season against the Washington Spirit on Sunday, the Reign will play three games in one week without home-field advantage.

Three days after the Spirit defeated the Reign 2-1, the teams meet again Wednesday night in the Challenge Cup semifinals in Washington, D.C. Both sides will also take the field again this weekend, either in the Challenge Cup final or their second regular season game. Whichever team makes the championship game on Saturday will need to reschedule its regular season match. The Reign are currently slated to play Racing Louisville FC at home, and the Spirit are supposed to visit the Chicago Red Stars.

Based on the current format, the scheduling conflicts and travel adventures are inevitable for the teams that advance to the Challenge Cup knockout stage.

“The crossover is something a lot of us were feeling is unfair, and we’re just wondering why anyone thought this was a great idea,” Reign attacker Ally Watt told Just Women’s Sports on Friday. “[Louisville’s] like, ‘OK, so are we coming this weekend, or are you guys busy?’ Why is this a conversation we have to run into? It’s just really bad. We’ll take it game by game, but it just sucks to be put in that position.”

While the Challenge Cup gives teams an opportunity to test formations and try out players in different positions, each club also sets out to win the preseason tournament.

“That’s a goal we have, and we worked really hard for it and we were in a good position to possibly do it, but now we’re put in another position where we’re not in a great position to do it because we have to play all these other games,” Watt said.

The Reign will also have to get through the Spirit in front of an opposing crowd to have a chance at the Challenge Cup trophy. Lumen Field, the Reign’s home stadium, is unavailable for the game because the MLS’ Seattle Sounders are hosting the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League final on the same night.

“We worked so hard to get the No. 1 seed, and now we don’t even get to [host] it,” Watt said.

Even Audi Field, the stadium the Spirit and D.C. United share, was originally unavailable because of a scheduling conflict with the Project Play Summit, pushing the semifinal game to the 5,000-seat Segra Field. In collaboration with the Aspen Institute and the teams, the NWSL announced last week that the game would be relocated to Audi Field, which can seat 20,000, with the summit taking place in the lead-up to kickoff. NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman is scheduled to speak at the event.

Now hours away from the match, the Reign have put their frustrations behind them.

“At the end of the day, I think there are so many things out of your control, and scheduling just is not in our control unfortunately,” said defender Sofia Huerta. “Everyone at one point probably has to deal with an unfortunate few games … The only thing we have on our minds is tomorrow’s game and winning the semifinals so we can bring the trophy back to Lumen.”

The Reign, who lost to the Spirit 2-1 in last year’s NWSL semifinal, will be hungry for vengeance. Despite consistently being one of the top teams in the league, they haven’t defeated Washington since 2018.

But when the Spirit are in the right mindset, they’re unbeatable. Since head coach Kris Ward took the helm on Aug. 7, Washington hasn’t lost, including in the NWSL championship last year and in Sunday’s regular season opener against the Reign.

The Reign nearly took an early lead when the Spirit conceded a penalty kick in the ninth minute. Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe then saved Rose Lavelle’s shot, kickstarting the Spirit, who scored five minutes later on their way to winning 2-1.

“It’s just a testament to the players and that mentality that they have,” said Ward. “Any situation, whether they’ve been up or down in score, up or down a player on the field, dealing with difficult decisions, whatever it is, they’ve always responded so well.”

The other semifinal will feature the North Carolina Courage and the Kansas City Current on Wednesday at Children’s Mercy Park. The Courage and Current didn’t have to deal with the same scheduling headaches, but they are also mixed up in the regular-season crossover. If the Courage advance to the final, they would have to reschedule their Saturday game against the Portland Thorns, while the Current would need to move their game Sunday against the Houston Dash.

The teams also head into the semifinal on short rest after playing their regular season openers on the West Coast. The Courage had just two full days in North Carolina between returning from their match Friday night against Angel City and leaving for Kansas City on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day it’s the situation that we earned, to be in this spot,” said Courage head coach Sean Nahas. “Whether or not I agree with how it’s scheduled, that’s not for me to debate.”

Washington and OL Reign play in the first semifinal at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday on CBS Sports Network, followed by Kansas City and North Carolina at 8:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+ and Twitch.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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