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USWNT’s problems run deeper than generational divide

Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan connected for the USWNT’s lone goal in Thursday’s loss to Germany. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

After the U.S. women’s national team stumbled to a bronze in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, fans and coaches alike came to a consensus: The team needed to get younger, quickly.

The extra year between the 2019 World Cup and the Olympics pushed the USWNT’s “run it back” approach to the brink. The U.S. relied on its veterans, and a number of younger players who now are key parts of the team did not even make the trip.

The tournament yielded bronze, but the team looked sluggish and out of sorts — and like it could use an infusion of fresh talent.

In the first true roster rebuild of head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s tenure, the pendulum swung quickly and decisively. He took only younger players on a trip to play Australia twice in December 2021, and the green roster seized the opportunity, garnering a win and a tie.

The 2022 SheBelieves Cup roster in February featured a similar build, and the U.S. again did well, winning the tournament behind Catarina Macario’s best run of form in her still early career.

Still, questions persisted: When would veterans be called back in? Had Andonovski gone too far in sidelining experience in favor of youth? In doing so, did he jeopardize the passing of the torch that comes with interpersonal mentorship across generations?

Andonovski did eventually call Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe back into the fold prior to this summer’s World Cup qualifying, but they returned to a team that had already changed its hierarchy. The coach also proved somewhat cagey about other long-time mainstays, saying Christen Press had more she needed to do before making a return.

Macario’s progress was halted by an ACL injury she sustained in June. Andonovski felt it important to emphasize that there will be a place for her when she returns, a decision made obvious by her value to the team, but also something of a mandate of rigidity.

Lindsey Horan has taken over the captain’s armband, a move that grounded the team in Australia and at the SheBelieves Cup. She’s kept the honor even with the return of more seasoned veterans.

The idea was that the next generation needed to build their minutes in high-stakes contests, and that the wealth of different experience levels would eventually meld into a perfect balance by the 2023 World Cup. But that process has not been linear, and after a third consecutive loss, fans are left asking still more questions.

The USWNT’s win over Canada in July’s Concacaf W Championship showed a step toward generational cohesion. The U.S. successfully maneuvered a tightly-wound contest and found a galvanizing force in Alex Morgan’s clinical finishing from the penalty spot. But that game also featured a number of badly missed chances and a lack of connectivity.

Against Germany on Thursday, with Morgan back in the lineup and a 29-year-old losing streak record on the line, the U.S. didn’t look like they’d made significant gains toward a full-team mentality.

The USWNT dominated stretches of the first half, and increasingly bad luck. But they also let themselves get pushed off the ball, and their sight lines became too narrow when they found themselves in quality goal-scoring positions.

Relying too much on athleticism and mentality has been a criticism of the USWNT for most of its existence. Indeed, the entire philosophy behind Andonovski’s program is that once the team modernizes, players will not need to have the mental fortitude of world-beaters in order to get the results they need.

But with the margins at the international level becoming increasingly thin, those kinds of intangibles matter, and the USWNT cannot find them when the time comes.

It’s perhaps unfair to overanalyze one of the smallest moments in a 90-minute game, but in the second half the intangibles came from the veterans.

Morgan and Rapinoe (who is quite effective off the bench) created a goal-scoring opportunity that was almost beautiful in its simplicity. In a lull in play, Morgan high-pressed the Germany backline into a mistake. Before the defense even knew what was happening, Morgan slotted a free pass to Rapinoe, who made a late run towards goal.

After an hour of futility, suddenly scoring seemed simple enough: press, pass, shoot, score.

Those kinds of heads-up moments come from a certain amount of confidence and execution and, yes, experience. The last time the U.S. played (an admittedly very different) Germany in 2018, the same kind vision netted the USWNT the lone goal of the game: a long kick by Alyssa Naeher, flicked on by Morgan, finished by Rapinoe.

In 2022, one of Germany’s youngest players flipped the script for their own game-winner. Lena Oberdorf is already one of the best midfielders in the sport, and she saw a long-ball opportunity down the field during a stoppage in play that the U.S. wasn’t ready for.

Oberdorf just won Young Player of the Tournament at the Euros, and she was paying attention when the time came to swing the game. Again, a result forced by confidence, execution, and experience, with no age limit required.

It’s a mistake to blame any player of any experience level for what we’re seeing from the USWNT in 2022.

Younger players haven’t necessarily looked comfortable or empowered to play at their most free after the reintegration of large personalities back into the team. Veterans look similarly limited in their influence, with the process that brought them back into the team possibly sidelining them unfairly.

And Andonovski has increasingly begun to focus on the players that still are not with the team instead of catering to the ones that are.

Rather than the old-school/new-school divide, what the USWNT must take a nuanced look at approaches, communication styles, core values, and maybe a little bit of a classic bite. In short, managing the U.S.’s locker room dynamic is the same monumental challenge that it has always been, and it’s up to the coaching staff to unlock the potential of players young and old.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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