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Sophia Smith is in her winning era for Thorns and USWNT

Sophia Smith leads the NWSL with 10 goals in the regular season as she heads to the World Cup with the USWNT. (Gary Rohman/USA TODAY Sports)

Sophia Smith makes her return to the U.S. women’s national team this week for the first time since 2022, but you wouldn’t have any sense she’s taken time off. After using the NWSL offseason to rehab a lingering foot injury, Smith has begun the 2023 NWSL season on fire, scoring and assisting on a goal in the Thorns’ opening match against the Orlando Pride, before registering her first career hat trick against the Kansas City Current the following weekend.

Winning has always come somewhat easily to the young star. Smith finished 2022 with 11 goals for the U.S. and 15 for the Portland Thorns, making a late challenge for the NWSL Golden Boot race while winning the NWSL MVP award and leading the Thorns to their third NWSL championship. Her finishing has long been clinical, but what has begun to shift for the 22-year-old is her transcendent ability to execute and take over games in the biggest moments.

In Saturday’s 2022 championship rematch, the most-watched NWSL regular-season game ever on CBS, the Thorns pulled out a 4-1 win. But in the second half, the Current made a run at an equalizer after getting a goal back and pulling closer at 2-1.

Smith put an end to the comeback herself, with a dribbling sequence that all but walked the ball into the back of the net.

She then capped off the match with a golazo from distance, after the Kansas City defense unwisely left the striker with space and time at the top of the box.

“I love coming and playing in a stadium where the crowd is against you,” Smith said after the game. “I think it gives the team a little bit of edge, a little bit of energy, and we just kind of use that to our advantage. So, it’s pretty fun to put away a few goals and hear silence.”

Smith is a low-key presence off the field, but on the field that “edge” is palpable. The league MVP has seemed to crave moments like her game-winning goal in the fourth minute of the 2022 NWSL final, when her shrugging celebration became immortalized in league iconography.

Against the Current again on Saturday, Smith gestured a shushing motion to the crowd after her first goal, a well-slotted penalty to put the Thorns up 2-0 in front of over 11,000 fans. She now has four goals and one assist in two league matches, setting the tone for a World Cup year in which she wants to take on even bigger challenges.

“I don’t know if I would refer to it as a villain era, I’m like a very sweet, happy person,” she told reporters with a smile from USWNT camp this week. “I think on the field, yeah, I don’t play games. I don’t step on a field to do anything but win, and I take a lot of pride in that.

“So, I guess this era is just winning, and doing everything I can to do that and to help my team,” she continued.

The larger sports conversation in recent weeks has been centered on the idea of athletes in women’s sports expressing their emotions on the field or the court in a way that is all too common on the men’s side. As the profile of women’s sports rises as a whole, fans are forced to confront their own biases about the passion athletes show while in the thick of competition.

Smith welcomes the ongoing shift in perspective.

“I think there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of banter between teams, and a little bit of talk here and there,” she said. “It’s never disrespectful, but it can add a little bit of fun and entertainment to the game. And I I love to put on a show, I love to try crazy things when I’m playing. I feel confident enough to do those things.”

Smith’s renewed intensity and creativity is good news for the USWNT, who will play their last two friendlies this week before final roster decisions are made for the 2023 World Cup in July. Paired on the wings with the equally-focused Mallory Swanson, Smith presents problems that opposing defenses are finding increasingly difficult to solve.

She’s also fully recovered from a grueling 2022 campaign. Staying patient in the offseason and missing the 2023 SheBelieves Cup, which the USWNT won in late February, proved critical to her physical and mental health.

“I think during that time, I learned a lot about myself,” she said. “I learned how to be patient if I put things in perspective and realized how big a year this was. So, it was important for me to take the time I needed to get healthy and to address all the things that I didn’t have time to address last year.”

A fully healthy Sophia Smith running at both NWSL and international backlines is a scary thought for her opposition, but an exciting one for fans. And now is the right time for her to begin to move into peak form.

“Especially in a World Cup year, you put things in perspective that come this summer, that’s when you need to peak, that’s when you need to be healthy. That’s when you need to be as fit as you possibly can be,” she said.

After this international break, Smith will have until the middle of June to make her mark on the NWSL before heading to New Zealand for her first major international tournament. That she’s already approaching the year like a pro is a promising sign for both of her teams’ chances.

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

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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