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The USWNT’s Toughest Challenge: Choosing An Olympic Roster

(Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

After a two-week January camp culminating in a pair of matches against Colombia, if anyone was wondering what shape the USWNT was in following an unpredictable and turbulent 2020, well, wonder no more.

With ten goals scored in the span of two games, which saw the return of Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd after nearly a year off the pitch, as well as the highly-anticipated debut of newly-minted U.S. citizen Catarina Macario, the USWNT looked dominant in their first showing of 2021.

 

RAPINOE AND LLOYD HAVEN’T MISSED A BEAT

After watching the U.S. face off against Colombia, any viewer would be forgiven for thinking that former captains Rapinoe and Lloyd had been playing throughout this past year. Per Andonovski, after undergoing a knee scope surgery — which ended up being more severe than initially thought — Lloyd rejoined the team as one of the most fit players on the roster and proved it in 90 minutes against Colombia on Monday and in an additional 27 minutes on Friday. Though she couldn’t quite finish a goal of her own, Lloyd assisted for sisters Sam and Kristie Mewis in the team’s first match and another for Midge Purce in the 86’ on Friday for the team’s sixth and final score of the game.

Rapinoe clocked a total of 108 minutes of playing time with 45 in the first half of the Monday match and another 63 to close out the week. Like Lloyd, Rapinoe picked up right where she left off with the team, walking away with a brace on Friday after deftly finishing a goal off of a deflection from Emily Sonnett in the 35’ minute before again finding the back of the net on a penalty kick after Sam Mewis drew a call inside the box.

The veterans weren’t the only ones making headlines, as Macario not only marked her first start with the senior team, but followed it up with her first goal off a crisp assist from Ali Krieger in the third minute of Friday’s game. Midge Purce followed suit, bookending the match with her first international goal to conclude the week.

Of course, fans won’t soon forget Mewis Monday as the sisters monopolized the score sheet in the team’s first match against Colombia. Younger sister Sam Mewis scored her first career international hat trick, before Kristie closed out the game with a textbook left-footed volley to the back of the net.

 

VLATKO ANDONOVSKI IS BEGINNING TO LEAVE HIS MARK

Taking over for Jill Ellis following the 2019 World Cup, manager Vlatko Andonovski was initially going to have only a few months to assemble his roster for the Tokyo Olympics. The postponement of the games due to COVID has now given him the chance to bring the team together on multiple occasions and, to use his signature phrase, “layer in the details.”

Watching both matches last week, it’s becoming much more clear what Andonovski means by layering in the details, as the team pressed high in the attacking third, disrupted Colombia’s short pass attacking style, and worked out its set pieces.

January camp ends, however, with the same major question dogging Andonovski as before: how will he whittle down a roster boasting more than two dozen world class players to a mere 18 for the Olympics?

Though he’s a pro at delivering consistent and diplomatic responses to any journalist hoping to crack his thinking, Andonovski has made one thing clear: he does not view this team as one in need of drastic change. In an October interview with The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf, he stated, “I’ve said all along, this team doesn’t need reconstruction… but they do need to evolve… other teams are not staying where they’re at, they’re getting better, too, so we’ve got to be ahead of the curve.”

Andonovski’s consistent messaging around focusing on the details and finessing what already exists suggests he may be leaning towards an Olympic roster anchored largely by those veterans who won the 2019 World Cup. If that’s the route he takes, it’s not likely to shock many.

While Andonovski took over a team with a strong internal ethos and a culture steeped in excellence, he’s clearly started to find ways to create marginal yet significant changes. In his first concrete contribution, he reinstated Becky Sauerbrunn — who he coached in Kansas City — as captain, a title she previously held in 2016 and 2017. Sauerbrunn is a player Sam Mewis dubbed her “moral compass,” stating in a pre-game press conference that “whatever she’s doing is what I know is right, so I should probably do the same thing.”

 

TOKYO OLYMPICS: WHO’S A LOCK, WHO’S ON THE FRINGE?

While Andonovski won’t name names just yet, Julie Foudy shared her Olympics analysis during Friday’s halftime show on ESPN. Per Foudy, all eyes are on the bubble players who will round out a roster that she believes will include goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher; defenders Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Emily Sonnett; midfielders Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, and Sam Mewis; and forwards Tobin Heath and Christen Press. Foudy also named forwards Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe as “probable” selections.

Foudy’s overall prediction leaves room for three more players, one of which will be another keeper, most likely Ashlynn Harris. And based on this week’s performance, one has to think that Macario has a solid chance of making the cut, particularly given U.S. Soccer’s efforts in expediting her request for FIFA eligibility, which she was awarded during camp.

For the remaining spots, Andonovski has a solid bench of younger players to choose from, including Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith, who did not see playing time against Colombia due to injuries. It is also no secret that Andonovski respects the NWSL as a proving ground for talent. Having served as a head coach since the league’s inception in 2013 before rising to the manager role for the USWNT, Andonovski is familiar with all of the league’s top players. He drafted and coached Kristie Mewis at FC Kansas City, and in November cited her performance in both the NWSL Challenge Cup and Fall Series when calling her into camp. Could a strong SheBelieves Cup performance send both Mewis sisters to Tokyo?

Lynn Williams likewise scored her 10th international goal against Colombia and is a one-time NWSL MVP. Expect her to be well in the mix when Vlatko sits down to decide on his forwards.

For an 18 player roster, versatility will be key, which Andonovski leaned into this week by playing Crystal Dunn — who he called “the most versatile player on the field” — at both left back as well as the number 11 attacking position. Macario also showcased her creativity and confidence on the field playing in both the 11 and 9 spots across both games.

Purce, too, took a turn up top, subbing in for Williams in the 68’ minute during Friday’s match. Having played both up front and on the backline for her club Sky Blue, she could be another versatile player providing roster flexibility.

The ability to play in multiple positions isn’t just imperative given the limited number of players, but also crucial as the Olympic schedule gives teams only two days off in between games. Flexibility in the roster will give Andonovski depth in multiple positions despite the roster limit. Though some may assume that this schedule could hinder older players, Andonovski does not seem to share that sentiment, having told Kassouf, “I would not count those senior players out.” Based on last week’s lineups, he means it.

Noticeably missing from this camp were Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and Tobin Heath, who are all predicted to rejoin the team for the SheBelieves Cup. As Andonovski continues to polish the edges, the upcoming February tournament will give him a solid opportunity to add their skills back into the rotation as the team continues to develop the set pieces they’ve become known for while implementing new passing and player patterns.

 

THE SHEBELIEVES CUP SHOULD OFFER MORE CLARITY

To their credit, Colombia showed glimmers of their potential over the course of two games, however, the USWNT will face teams in the upcoming SheBelieves Cup that are much closer to the level of competition they are set to face in Tokyo. The rosters for those games, and the accompanying starting lineups, will be a much stronger indication of who is headed to the Olympics, should the show still go on this summer.

Though the fate of the Tokyo Olympics remains up in the air, if they do take place this summer, it’s likely safe to say that USWNT fans will see an Olympic team that closely resembles the 2019 World Cup roster. It could be one final ride for the team’s core ahead of an expected roster overhaul following the games.

With that said, this is a team overflowing with talent, and there are still ample opportunities for younger players to prove they belong in Tokyo. And as coach Andonovski stated in Friday’s post-game press conference, “ultimately, the best ones will go.”

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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