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The 5 Biggest Stories from the NWSL Offseason

Crystal Dunn in a Thorns uniform.
@ThornsFC

As the National Women’s Soccer League’s offseason draws to a close, we’re reflecting on the tremendous strides the league has made in the last few months — from blockbuster trades to an expansion draft, new celebrity investors, to a cross-Atlantic talent race with the FA Women’s Super League, the NWSL is breaking new ground for women’s soccer, and we’re here for all of it.

The 2021 season will kick off with a month-long Challenge Cup starting April 9th. But first, here are the five biggest headlines from a monumental offseason.

1) Angel City FC, North Carolina Courage, and Chicago Red Stars add celebrity investors

What do Natalie Portman, Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, Candace Parker, and David Dobrik all have in common?

Each of these A-listers has invested in Angel City FC, the NWSL’s newest addition based in Los Angeles, California. Still not impressed? What if we told you Billie Jean King, Jessica Chastain, Eva Longoria, and Alexis Ohanian were all part of the team?

Angel City, who is set to take the pitch in 2022, has revolutionized investment in the women’s game as we know it.

Just a few months after Angel City stunned the world with the news of their investment group, the North Carolina Courage added a celebrity owner of their own in late January — professional tennis player and four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, who became the first outside investor in the North Carolina Courage since Steve Malik acquired the team in 2017.

Later, on March 1st, the Chicago Red Stars expanded their ownership group as well, announcing that former Chicago Bears defensive end Israel Idonije, Olympic gold medalist ice hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield, ESPN’s Sarah Spain, music executive Colleen Mares, NFL marketing leader Julie Haddon, and local entrepreneur Marie Tillman had elected to invest in the team.

Needless to say, celebrity investments are becoming a trend in the National Women’s Soccer League, and there’s a chance the group-ownership model could spread. We’re certainly not opposed to seeing more big names bet on the future of women’s sports.

2) US Women’s National Team takes over the FA Women’s Super League

Speaking of trends, several USWNT players headed abroad to pursue a playing career in the FA Women’s Super League this offseason, including defender Abby Dahlkemper, midfield staples Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle, and forwards Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and Alex Morgan.

The flurry of signings led to an increased scrutiny of the NWSL regarding its ongoing talent leak, with fans beginning to worry that high-profile players were jumping ship not only for temporary Olympic prep but also for better compensation. Dahlkemper herself signed a 2.5 year deal, meaning she won’t be returning stateside anytime soon.

3) Crystal Dunn Heads to Portland

Also making moves during the offseason was USWNT star Crystal Dunn, the key piece in a blockbuster trade that involved the North Carolina Courage, OL Reign, and the Portland Thorns.

The trade began with OL Reign sending both allocation money and goalkeeper Casey Murphy to the North Carolina Courage in exchange for Dunn. In turn, the Reign dealt Dunn to the Thorns, receiving an international roster spot for the 2021 season, a 2022 first-round draft pick, and some allocation money in return.

To some, this deal came as inevitable given that Dunn’s husband, Pierre Soubrier, is the head athletic trainer for the Portland Thorns, and playing for the North Carolina Courage required Dunn to live across the country from him. Others, however, were shocked — the trade dealt quite a blow to the Courage, who won two NWSL championships and two NWSL Shields with Dunn playing an integral role.

As for the Thorns, the addition of Dunn to a roster that already included Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan now has the team entering the season as Championship favorites.

4) Racing Louisville FC enters the game

In November, Racing Louisville FC selected its roster during an expansion draft, picking up fourteen players:

  1. Addisyn Merrick (North Carolina Courage)

  2. Julia Ashley (OL Reign)

  3. Jennifer Cudjoe (Sky Blue FC)

  4. Cecelia Kizer (Houston Dash)

  5. Katie Lund (Washington Spirit)

  6. Alanna Kennedy (Orlando Pride)

  7. Lauren Milliet (North Carolina Courage)

  8. Kaleigh Riehl (Sky Blue FC)

  9. Caitlin Foord (Orlando Pride)

  10. Katie McClure (Washington Spirit)

  11. Erin Simon (Houston Dash)

  12. Michelle Betos (OL Reign)

  13. Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns)

  14. Christen Press (Utah Royals)

Prior to the draft, Louisville received forwards Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato from the Chicago Red Stars in exchange for full protection during the expansion draft. Louisville has since sent Jennifer Cudjoe back to Sky Blue FC in exchange for allocation money and the 13th overall pick in the 2021 NWSL draft, during which Louisville continued to add to their roster.

Most significantly, Louisville drafted UNC standout Emily Fox first overall. And while it’s still not clear how soon players like Heath, Press and Foord will report to Louisville, given that all three are currently playing in the FAWSL, having Fox as a franchise corner piece should give fans a reason to be optimistic.

5) Catarina Macario goes pro… then heads to Europe

Last but certainly not least, Stanford star Catarina Macario announced on January 8th that she would be forgoing her senior season with the Cardinal to start her professional career. Just four days later, on January 12th, it was announced that the two-time Hermann Trophy winner had inked a 2.5-year contract with Lyon, the seven-time UEFA Women’s Champions League winners.

Since signing with Lyon, Macario has also logged two caps for the USWNT, scoring a goal in her second appearance for the US to lift them to a 6-0 victory over Columbia.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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