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The USL W League is ready to build the women’s soccer pipeline

(Courtesy of the USL W League)

A new era of American pre-professional women’s soccer is here, with the USL’s W League kicking off Friday night.

The league’s inaugural season will feature 44 teams across 20 states and a stated mission to build out the women’s soccer pipeline in the United States.

“When you look at the gap of nearly 40,000 women playing soccer in college in America … there is only really limited opportunities for them to play both professionally and amateur soccer across the country, so we are going to help fill that gap and create an opportunity for women to play with the W League,” USL Super League President Amanda Vandervort tells Just Women’s Sports.

“We are bringing elite-level women’s soccer to communities across the country and creating the opportunity to play. There’s plenty of women that want to play soccer, so we are going to do it in a professional way.”

The women’s soccer talent pool, like most sports in the United States, has continued to grow exponentially, with infrastructure scrambling to house and develop the influx of skilled players. The NWSL, the top professional league in the U.S., has expanded into four new markets in the past two seasons as interest from athletes, consumers, brands and prospective owners increases.

This isn’t the first iteration of the pre-professional competition. A similar USL W league existed in the U.S. from 1995 to 2015, folding after 21 seasons due to the Western Conference pulling out of the league.

Now, the W League is looking to create a sustainable women’s soccer network, one that will serve individual players and the sport more broadly.

“Development is part of the story of the W League because we are developing a system as a pathway to the pros,” Vandervort explains. “So, you come to the W League — it complements your college season but doesn’t affect your eligibility, and then it provides you an opportunity for coaches to scout you, for you to play more year-round soccer as a collegiate player and then go on to the pros.”

The gap from college to professional competition has not consistently been bridged in women’s soccer, or in women’s sports generally for that matter.

WNBA players have been vocal this preseason about the salary cap requiring teams to cut top college draft picks from their final rosters, leaving them without a team or a place to play in the United States. Chiney Ogumike of the Los Angeles Sparks told reporters this week that the WNBA could use a G league or developmental league to capture the overflow of talent.

The W League hopes to fill the collegiate-pro chasm in soccer and keep promising American talent stateside. Not all athletes who enter the W League, however, will go pro. The league, Vandervort says, is just as invested in nurturing players eager to learn more about sports management, coaching or communication, paving the way for more women and former players to fill administrative positions.

“When we talk about development, there is different pathways for players, and if you zoom out and you look broadly at what does development mean for sport in this country and soccer in this country, it means creating more opportunities and creating an elite-level league that we can learn from, grow from,” Vandervort said.

Tricia Taliaferro, Coach of the W League’s Tampa Bay United Soccer Club, says she welcomes the challenge of coaching amateur players. As a longtime U.S. youth national team coach, Taliaferro knows the importance of building out the soccer ecosystem in America.

“Including the women in this platform is the next phase as far as development across the world and in the States,” she says. “It’s the biggest thing that we need because other countries are starting to catch up or surpass.”

The USL aims to serve as trusted support for the women’s developmental pipeline, just as the organization has functioned on the men’s side, sustaining leagues across the professional ladder.

“We are in a position of privilege here in that we are building something from scratch, and we have infrastructure in the leadership that really believes in the women’s game, in women’s soccer, in the development and the future of women’s soccer,” says Missy Price, the USL’s Vice President of Women’s Soccer. “We think a lot about the long-term sustainability of this league and making sure that the development and the systems and structures around it, making sure that they’re foundational elements to being able to deliver on that vision.”

“As we re-introduce women’s soccer, the pathway here at the USL, we have the opportunity to learn from the men’s vertical, but then also do things in the way that is best for the women and the women’s game,” adds Vandervort.

The foray back into women’s pre-professional soccer also provides a unique opportunity for coaches looking to enter the women’s game.

“Providing opportunities for women, I think a lot of people have always talked about it, but never really given it a platform,” Taliaferro says. “Or the women who, like myself, have aspirations to coach pro, and then you get pro opportunities or interviews and then it’s like, ‘Well, you don’t have experience.’ OK, well, how am I supposed to get experience?” Taliaferro says.

“If you peel back the layers, I think that’s what the USL is providing … you’re elevating the female coaches that have the interest to do it, providing more opportunities on a level stage, and now we are competing for jobs off of merit and our background and our experience and our resume.”

The USL, Taliaferro says, allows coaches to build their programs from the ground up, giving them a chance to advance their professional careers.

The reach of the pre-professional league is broad, with the potential to reverberate across the sport. The mission, however, is simple: to be the most trusted pre-professional women’s league for players, coaches, partners and fans.

The success of the inaugural W League season, according to Price, all boils down to player experience.

“If someone played in the W League and enjoyed their experience and felt like it was valuable to them, they grew as a player, they saw it as an integral piece of their development or career goals or made them better for whatever is next,” she says.

The W League’s season kicks off Friday, with the Indy Eleven hosting Kings Hammer FC at Grand Park at 7 p.m. ET.

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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