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Top 10 NWSL free agents: Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz among most intriguing

Tobin Heath is one of the biggest names on the market, pending he recovery from knee surgery. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

We’ve got two more weekends of postseason play before the 2022 NWSL calendar officially closes for the season, but it’s never too early to speculate about the league’s first free agency period.

NWSL players won the rights to free agency as part of the league’s first collective bargaining agreement, ratified before the 2022 season. Those with six years of service became unrestricted free agents on Aug. 26, though the official courting process likely won’t begin until the season ends.

While more intricate free agency opportunities will come in 2023, the rules this year are relatively simple: If you’ve played in the league for six years and are out of a contract, you can look wherever you want. On Monday, an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the NWSL Players Association, adding 22 more players to the list of free agents and casting aside team options that had plagued the league in the past.

By nature of how long an NWSL player must compete to be eligible for free agency, many athletes on the list are core pieces of their current clubs. Not everyone will be looking to make a move, but here are 10 of the most intriguing names available.

Debinha, North Carolina Courage

Debinha is one of the biggest stars who might be inclined to make a jump. The midfielder has already won three NWSL Shields and two championships as part of the Courage, and she might want to test the waters as North Carolina maneuvers through a strategic rebuild.

She won’t lack for offers. As an attacking generator whose defensive work rate is underrated, Debinha can be one of the best players in the world in the right situation.

Most of Chicago’s midfield

The Red Stars have a whopping seven players eligible for free agency in the defense, midfield and attack. As more stories of off-field dysfunction at the club continue to emerge, a number of Chicago lifers could look for new landing spots in 2022.

The midfield trio of Danny Colaprico, Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo stand out, not only because of their years of service in Chicago (DiBernardo and Colaprico have never played elsewhere,) but also because they are the glue that holds the Red Stars’ formation together.

Tobin Heath, OL Reign

Heath’s status is particularly intriguing since the attacker could go in almost any direction as she works her way back onto the pitch. Heath’s short-term contract with OL Reign this season proved indicative of the last few years of her career: She is incredibly effective when she’s on the field, but injuries continue to hamper her production.

One of the biggest stars in women’s soccer, Heath has only ever played on the West Coast. It seems possible that one of the California clubs will be interested in offering her a one-year deal, pending Heath’s recovery from knee surgery in the offseason.

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Julie Ertz hasn't played in an NWSL game since suffering a knee injury with the Red Stars last May. (Stephen Brashear/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Julie Ertz, Angel City FC

If a return to professional soccer is imminent for the two-time World Cup champion, this free agency period will be telling. The midfielder hasn’t appeared on the field since the Tokyo Olympics and hasn’t played club soccer since May 2021, after suffering a knee injury and then going on maternity leave.

Angel City acquired Ertz’s rights in a trade with Chicago last December that also brought Sarah Gorden to Los Angeles, but that proved to be more of a hopeful attempt at calling her up to the squad. Now, they’ll have to see if she’s inclined to return to the sport at all.

Marta, Orlando Pride

Marta has been out of the public consciousness this season as she rehabs from an ACL tear, but never count out one of the legends of the game. For the Orlando Pride, Marta’s free agency comes at an interesting time.

You would assume that her resume and leadership ability would make her club of the last six years eager to re-sign the forward. But Orlando is in the middle of a substantial rebuild, having moved many of their most prominent stars last offseason. The club might have different goals in mind than in past years and encourage Marta to explore free agency as a result.

Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes, OL Reign

You’re not fooling me. Depending on their fitness and desire to return for another season, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes are not playing anywhere other than Seattle next year.

Christine Sinclair, Portland Thorns

See above. Barring a shocking opening of a team in Vancouver prior to the 2023 regular season, Sinclair will stay in Portland.

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Onumonu was named to the 2021 NWSL Best XI Second Team after a standout season with Gotham. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

Ifeoma Onumonu, NJ/NY Gotham FC

Gotham had a rough go of it in the 2022 regular season, finishing at the bottom of the league table. They’ll almost certainly have to make some tough roster decisions in the coming months, and a player of Onumonu’s talent might be looking for a more stable situation.

Onumonu can play on the wing or in the middle of the attack. After three seasons with Gotham, the 28-year-old might be inclined to field calls from more established coaches to take her game to the next level as she prepares to represent Nigeria at the 2023 World Cup.

Kristen Edmonds, Kansas City Current

Edmonds has had one of the most consistent seasons of her professional career in 2022, steadying the Current’s backline as they make a run to their first semifinal.

There are a number of NWSL teams that could use a seasoned defender, including Gotham FC. And as a New Jersey native, Edmonds is in a position to make a money move off a contract year. Edmonds has found a home in Kansas City, but the pull to seize a new opportunity might be too strong to pass up.

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Smith has played for four different NWSL clubs across seven seasons. (Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports)

Abby Smith, Portland Thorns

Perhaps flying a bit under the radar, Thorns backup goalkeeper Abby Smith might look for a club where she can compete for a starting job. Bella Bixby has all but sealed her place as the Thorns starter for the foreseeable future.

Smith has a wealth of NWSL experience and a track record that deserves a look from teams in need of a veteran presence between the sticks. Smith would be on any expansion team’s shortlist, but maybe the move comes a year early.

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

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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