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Three bold ideas for the USWNT in their final games of 2023

Lynn Williams is proving herself as a USWNT mainstay through her club and international play. (Michael Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team will play their final matches of the calendar year in the next week, with the opportunity to place a definitive stamp on a tumultuous 2023. The two friendlies against China PR will be the team’s first games after the hiring of Emma Hayes as head coach, but they also serve as an extension of Twila Kilgore’s interim management, which will continue until May 2024.

The USWNT’s December roster follows something of a tradition in major tournament years, giving many veterans the international break off to rest and recuperate, while refreshing the larger player pool with non-World Cup players. But the possibility of any major changes in tactical approach seem slim, with Hayes yet to assert her full influence on the team’s style of play.

In lieu of a wholesale change in philosophy, here are three bold(ish) ideas for the U.S. during this international period beyond basic player evaluation.

Shake things up in the attack

While their actual goal-scoring output has improved in the months since the World Cup, it’s difficult to watch the USWNT without feeling like something is broken in the attack. The team went scoreless in two of their four World Cup matches, and they closed out their most recent friendly series having failed to score in three out of four halves.

Many of the issues with the USWNT’s once-vaunted attack go beyond any single player, but the young roster in December has a chance to break free of some of the systemic problems plaguing the front line. The games will provide an opportunity to get more tape on center forward Mia Fishel, who should have a fitness advantage over some of her teammates due to her club team, Chelsea, being in-season.

But shaking the USWNT attack out of its slump isn’t just about slotting in new faces at the No. 9 — the way the rest of the team relates to the center forward position also needs a rethink. Over the summer, the option of moving Sophia Smith to a more central position was presented as a zero-sum substitution of Alex Morgan, who started all of the U.S.’s World Cup matches. But with Morgan sitting the December friendlies out, the reason for moving Smith centrally would be less as a like-for-like replacement and more as a way of replacing her on the wings with a traditional winger.

Midge Purce and Lynn Williams are coming off of an excellent NWSL Championship performance. Both Gotham FC players ran the wings with confidence, getting the ball to the endline for low crosses and providing help defense when necessary. Purce found teammates for goals twice in that game, looking dangerous both on the ball and in dead-ball situations.

Having wingers who can cut inside to pull the defense out of shape is a great asset, but the U.S. at times has created a very narrow shape due to individual player tendencies. It could be worthwhile to run the old playbook with new talent in game one, but a total rethink in game two could shake the team out of its old patterns.

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Rose Lavelle is one of the most experienced players on the USWNT's December roster. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

Share the armband

With a number of key veterans taking this international break off, the U.S. has an opportunity to share some of the burden of leadership in productive ways. Midfielder Lindsey Horan has been an able captain in 2023, but at times it appeared the team was over-relying on her to galvanize the group, while other experienced players didn’t seem empowered to communicate with clear authority.

Horan will likely feature heavily in both December matches since she plays her club football on the European schedule and is currently match-fit. But a bolder idea would be to give the 29-year-old a break, if simply to upend patterns in the USWNT midfield. Kilgore would do well to eventually leave her younger players operating without a safety net, whether that means entrusting Jaedyn Shaw with the No. 10 role or pairing Olivia Moultrie with the newly healthy Rose Lavelle.

Outside of giving the midfield an overdue refresh, Kilgore also has the opportunity to prioritize leaders who didn’t get a chance to blossom in Andonovski’s final year.

Casey Murphy is the most experienced goalkeeper on the roster and will surely be charged with organizing her backline. Lavelle is coming off a blistering performance in the 2023 NWSL Championship game, showcasing her experience as a player. And Lynn Williams will be the most tenured forward of the group. With communication lagging at times in the past year, a clean slate with new voices in the mix will be key for the team’s mentality going into 2024.

Give the Wave duo the keys to the defense

Abby Dahlkemper’s return to the USWNT is exciting for fans for reasons beyond her play on the pitch. Dahlkemper has recovered from a chronic back injury that greatly hampered the center-back in 2022, resulting in surgery. Making her NWSL return in August 2023, she’s looked as steady as ever, providing confidence in possession and showcasing her abilities off the ball to stunt an opponent’s attack.

She’s also settled in with current USWNT mainstay Naomi Girma in their club environment at the San Diego Wave, providing the foundation for the team’s run to the NWSL Shield in 2023. Girma was arguably the USWNT’s MVP in 2023. She both served as the wedge between opponents and her own goal and was relied upon heavily to spring possession forward when the U.S.’s midfield had trouble moving the ball.

The upcoming games give Dahlkemper and Girma a chance to test out their on-field chemistry at the international level, providing equal levels of experience and complementary skill sets. Dahlkemper used to be known for the same diagonal balls forward that have become Girma’s calling card for the U.S. With the role of Girma’s center-back partner firmly up for grabs after the retirement of Julie Ertz, Dahlkemper has a chance to make a big impression in her return. For a team looking for consistent starters following Andonovski’s frequent experimentation in defense, her comeback might be happening at exactly the right time.

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

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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