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The Top 10 Most Underrated Players in the NWSL

Ashley Hatch forward of Washington Spirit/ JWS
Ashley Hatch forward of Washington Spirit/ JWS

With the NWSL season off to a sizzling (if not hectic start), we wanted to give a nod to ten of the league’s most underrated players — those who don’t always get the headlines, but who still deserve the credit.

In no particular order… 

Jennifer Cudjoe, NJ/NY Gotham FC

Cudjoe proved herself a standout defensive player for Sky Blue FC (now NJ/NY Gotham FC) during the 2020 Challenge Cup, appearing in six matches, four in which she was a starter, and logging 368 minutes of playing time. 

Throughout the Challenge Cup, she maintained an 80% success rate in tackles and a 66.7% success rate in aerial duels. When paired with her impressive passing accuracy, speed, and ability on the ball, the 27-year-old will look to continue to be a menacing presence on the Gotham FC backline.

Tziarra King, OL Reign

After concluding her college campaign with NC State, Tziarra King was selected eighth overall by the Utah Royals (who have since relocated to Kansas City) in the 2020 NWSL Draft. During the Challenge Cup, she made her professional debut against the Houston Dash, scoring a mere 20 minutes after entering the game as a substitute. Her performance in that Challenge Cup earned her a starting spot in each match of the subsequent Fall Series, during which she scored her second professional goal.

In January of 2021, she was traded to the OL Reign — and if her short-lived career with the Royals was any indication of what kind of player she will be for the Reign, the league should be on notice.

Shea Groom, Houston Dash

Also emerging as a force during the 2020 Challenge Cup was Dash midfielder Shea Groom. Appearing in seven matches throughout the tournament, Groom notched three goals and an assist, leading the Dash to their first-ever title.

During the Fall Series, Groom added her name to the scoresheet in three of four matches played and notched two assists in the sole match she did not score in. Furthermore, the young star has signed a three-year contract extension with the Dash, keeping her in Houston for the foreseeable future. If Groom continues on her current trajectory, it is almost certain she will become one of the Dash’s most valuable players, even if she has yet to receive her full due.

Denise O’Sullivan, North Carolina Courage

A quiet but valuable presence in the Courage attacking third, Denise O’Sullivan is as reliable as they come. In 2,158 minutes of playing time during the 2019 regular season, O’Sullivan maintained an 84.3% passing success rate, completing 1,039 of 1,233 attempted passes and averaging 51.4 passes per 90 minutes. In 2020, the Irish international spent time on loan in the FA Women’s Super League, playing a total of 761 minutes in 11 matches for Brighton & Hove Albion.

Of O’Sullivan’s ability in the midfield, Courage head coach Paul Riley called her “the engine room, the architect, the inspiration and the leader of a very good midfield unit” — frankly, we couldn’t agree more. 

Kealia Watt, Chicago Red Stars

After being traded from the Houston Dash to the Chicago Red Stars last year, Kealia Watt debuted with her new team during the 2020 Challenge Cup, but really found her footing with the Red Stars during the Fall Series, creating thirteen scoring chances, netting two goals, and assisting on two more.

Her Fall Series performance caught the attention of Vlatko Andonovski, earning the forward a call up to an 11-day USWNT training camp that took place in October. As the 2021 season approaches, Watt will look to continue to assert her value in the Red Stars’ lineup.

Simone Charley, Portland Thorns

A member of the outstanding Portland Thorns offense, Simone Charley has flown under the radar since her start in the NWSL. The forward notched a goal apiece in the Challenge Cup and Fall Series, combining for 574 minutes of play during the shortened 2020 NWSL season.

Her value has not gone unnoticed by Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, however, who stated that Charley provides a “unique dimension in the final third” as well as “attacking qualities that provide a constant threat to the opposition.”

Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos
Ashley Hatch, Washington Spirit

Ashley Hatch is arguably one of the Spirit’s most talented offensive players, as she scored one goal and assisted on another during the shortened 2020 season, and previously led the Spirit in scoring during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, earning the Golden Boot award in 2018, her first season with the team.

The BYU alum boasted an impressive 100% success rate in tackles during the 2020 Fall Series and a 75% passing success rate, earning a nod from the USWNT as she was subsequently called into October’s training camp.

Addisyn Merrick, Racing Louisville FC

Addisyn Merrick is a noteworthy player who rarely gets the credit she deserves. The 28th-overall pick in the 2020 NWSL Draft, Merrick was the first to be selected in Racing Louisville’s expansion draft, plucking the up-and-coming star from the North Carolina Courage and landing her in Kentucky.

Though she only appeared in eight matches for the Courage, she posted a 62.5% tackle success rate during last year’s Challenge Cup and a 69.2% tackle success rate in the Fall Series. Her selection in the expansion draft dealt a significant blow to the Courage’s backline, and her presence on defense will be crucial for Louisville’s success in their inaugural season.

Rocky Rodriguez, Portland Thorns

A staple player in Portland’s midfield, Rocky Rodriguez proved her undervalued ability during the 2020 Challenge Cup. In only six games played during the tournament, Rodriguez made ten interceptions, seven clearances, and seven key passes to lift the Thorns to the semifinals of the tournament.

Likewise sensational on the global stage, the Costa Rican international has recorded 73 caps and scored 42 goals for her country. Arguably, she is largely responsible for the lethality of the Thorns’ offense, especially when paired with players like Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair.

Kristen Edmonds, Kansas City NWSL

Called the “ultimate utility player” in an article posted by the Kansas City Star, Kristen Edmonds was traded from the Orlando Pride to Kansas City in January. In 866 minutes played for her former team, Edmonds posted a 60.3% success rate in duels, 19 clearances, and 9 interceptions.

A versatile asset, Edmonds appeared on defense, in the midfield, and on offense for the Pride and will likely continue a similar pattern with her new team. Kansas City coach Huw Williams has already asserted that the team will be filling the defender in at a lot of spots and that the depth and quality of play that Edmonds provided were exactly what the team was looking for. Headlines from earlier in the tournament may have focused on her scuffle with Portland’s Morgan Weaver, but don’t get distracted — Edmonds is an elite and versatile player.  

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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