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What Crystal Dunn’s position switch says about USWNT defense

Crystal Dunn plays in a different position for the USWNT than she does for her NWSL club. (Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The debate is raging once again about Crystal Dunn’s ideal role for the U.S. women’s national team after the midfielder for club and defender for country told GQ Sports that her dual roles take a toll on her mentally.

“I step into camp, and I feel like I lose a part of myself. I no longer get to be Crystal who scores goals, assists, is this attacking player,” she said in a wide-ranging intervies last week, highlighting the friction between her endless versatility and desire to hone one particular role.

Dunn also made a salient soccer point, which is that the U.S. is nearing the 2023 World Cup while likely relying once again on converted attackers and center-backs to fill the outside-back player pool. The reigning World Champions head into their final SheBelieves Cup game against Brazil undefeated, but issues with the approach have been visible in their first two games.

The risk and reward of Sofia Huerta

The USWNT doesn’t score their lone goal against Japan on Sunday without Sofia Huerta. In a two-pass, long-ball sequence, Huerta spotted Alex Morgan at midfield as the USWNT regained possession off a Japan corner kick. She lofted the ball toward Morgan, who passed it quickly to a streaking Mallory Swanson. Swanson brought the ball down beautifully, shot across her body and scored what would end up being the deciding goal.

That sequence showcased exactly what valuable skills Huerta brings to the U.S., and in a close game, she could be the difference between the team advancing and being eliminated in a knockout situation. The U.S. registered only five shots on Sunday. Japan swarmed defensively and made it very difficult for the USWNT to generate shots from their build-up play.

Japan’s success in creating overloads to pin the U.S. back also exposed the vulnerabilities Huerta has to overcome on the right side in a winner-take-all situation. Huerta grew into the game, but Japan’s four-player midfield caused problems for both the USWNT’s midfield and backline.

Thorns and Japanese midfielder Hina Sugita presented a particularly stiff challenge for Huerta on both ends of the ball, requiring forward Lynn Williams to take on defensive duties from an attacking position rather than focusing on combining to create chances on the other end.

After the game, head coach Vlatko Andonovski discussed the way the team adjusted their shape in the second half to give greater support to the wings. Still, Japan outlined the blueprint to make the USWNT sweat when they don’t have the ball. Huerta’s side of the pitch has been targeted before, a dynamic that can swallow up the defender’s best qualities and force her teammates into reactive roles. The 30-year-old has successfully figured out reactive defense that doesn’t concede goals, as in Sunday’s victory, so it’s a balance worth monitoring.

Dunn and Fox’s versatility locks them in

When Emily Fox began to rise through the USWNT ranks at left back in Crystal Dunn’s absence due to her pregnancy, it appeared Dunn might have the opportunity to move away from the position.

Fox plays the outside-back position similarly to Dunn, with an ability to defend 1v1 and combine with the midfield to progress the ball. She’s been an essential addition to the roster, with a versatility and calmness that have allowed the team to focus on other vulnerable areas of the pitch.

But in 2023, Fox’s presence hasn’t actually created a pathway for Dunn to move up the pitch because of a lack of depth not on the left side but the right. Against New Zealand and Canada, Fox took over the right-back position and Dunn slotted back in on the left, giving the defense a sense of stability on the wings that Andonovski will likely rely on during the World Cup.

Emily Fox has become an asset to the USWNT at the right-back position. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Kelley O’Hara’s return from a hip injury that has kept her sidelined for much of the last six months will offer some respite on the right side. But currently, Dunn and Fox might be the only two players Andonovski trusts to provide defensive cover, know when it’s appropriate to push forward and when to hold, and support the wingers on the attack. The U.S. likes to push outside backs forward to bring width to the attack, and Dunn’s ability on the ball is as much an asset as her mental fortitude to hold when necessary.

As it stands, Andonovski’s favored starting pair places Fox on the side opposite to her natural position and requires another year of immense mental focus from Dunn. This self-made situation dates back years, with the U.S. preferring to convert attackers than develop outside backs at the youth levels. But Dunn also seems to make Lindsey Horan most comfortable on the left side of the midfield, and Fox requires less help defense from the right-side wingers in front of her.

The U.S. could absolutely use Dunn’s skills in the midfield, which still does not look settled. But it’s also to Dunn’s credit that she’s still one of the team’s best options in a position she only hones in national team camp.

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

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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