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Three things I want to see from the USWNT to start 2023

MONTERREY, MEXICO – JULY 7: Trinity Rodman #6 of the United States celebrates scoring with Mallory Pugh #9 during a game between Jamaica and USWNT at Estadio BBVA on July 7, 2022 in Monterrey, Mexico. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT kicks off their packed 2023 calendar this week with two friendlies against the Football Ferns in New Zealand.

The games are outside of the FIFA international window, which means the U.S. will be much closer to full strength than New Zealand, who are currently No. 24 in the FIFA rankings. Regardless, the trip allows the U.S. to get a feel for 2023 World Cup travel and provides New Zealand with a stern opponent as it prepares to host the tournament with Australia later this year.

Vlatko Andonovski’s roster for the January friendlies held few surprises, but here’s what I’d like to see from the team this week.

More attacking opportunities

The USWNT is missing 2022 Player of the Year Sophia Smith for these friendlies. The 22-year-old is rehabbing an old injury that the team decided would be best fully healed going into next month’s SheBelieves Tournament.

Smith was a consistent spark for the U.S. in 2022 and will surely be a locked-in starter going forward, but her absence allows the team to cycle in a few players who haven’t gotten as much playing time. Alex Morgan can handle the center-forward position (backed up by Ashley Hatch if necessary), and Mallory Swanson likely will still be the first choice on the left wing, but the right wing is open. Andonovski can take advantage of the opportunity to rotate players who are pushing for playing time.

Trinity Rodman should start one of this week’s friendlies. The Washington Spirit forward has had ups and downs while trying to break into the front three rotation after a good performance against England in October. Rodman’s instincts increasingly include dropping closer into the midfield to progress the ball, which suits Andonovski’s system of having the attack linking up with the players behind them.

This is also Margaret Purce’s chance to remind Andonovski what she can do on the right side. The Gotham FC forward returns to the squad after being left off for what Andonovski described as form in late 2022. Purce brings energy as a substitute that’s difficult to replace, and if she gets a start, she can establish chemistry with the attacking players around her.

Finally, with the understanding that New Zealand might sit back in a lower block, Ashley Sanchez should get more time to partner with Rose Lavelle as dual-attacking midfielders. Sanchez is one of the USWNT’s most creative players, but Andonovski appears to be reluctant to insert her into high-stakes games. The New Zealand friendlies are an opportunity for her to shine.

Rose Lavelle could use more support in the attacking midfield in 2023. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

More variety, in spades

Sometimes in 2022, watching the USWNT meant watching the same actions over and over again. Even the things the U.S. does well, like forcing turnovers and moving quickly on the counterattack, felt like they belonged to a single script.

It’s good to have a game plan, but the U.S. needs to move away from some of the tactical rigidity that has permeated Andonovski’s tenure and let the playmakers simply play.

That sentiment is perhaps easier said than done, but the U.S. could make a few adjustments to re-balance the squad, particularly against a team unlikely to press high up the field. The USWNT currently plays with attacking-minded outside-backs, who are instructed to make overlapping runs and cross the ball into the box with frequency. It’s a good option to have, but a lack of patience in the midfield can turn into route-one soccer, with long balls sent over the top or wide and lobbed back centrally in the air. The tactic has been exposed against top competition, creating gaps behind the outside backs that leaves the defensive structure vulnerable and the USWNT’s wide attacking players tracking back to provide help.

The answer lies primarily in the midfield, where strict roles have hindered the team’s ability to progress the ball and simultaneously make runs that open up space. Solutions? Solidify the distributive relationship between the No. 6 and the two center backs, let Lindsey Horan float box to box, and don’t rely too heavily on Lavelle to create in the attack and leave her on an island.

With the focus on results, the U.S. looked too nervous to introduce freedom at the end of 2022. These friendlies should give them the space to try new things.

Naomi Girma should continue to make her case for a starting center-back role this month. (Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Clean sheets

With the advantages of roster cohesion and and the expectations for the No. 1-ranked team in the world, defensive lapses leading to goals against would be a disappointment for the USWNT this week. There’s no shame in being beaten on your best day, but too often last year, the U.S. missed marks on set pieces and showed a lack of urgency on recovery runs, leading to chances that never should have happened.

Part of the reason for traveling so early in the year is to see how the squad handles the ebbs and flows of the mental side of the game. If the defense looks flat-footed while holding a lead or pushing forward in numbers, the same questions about the team’s ability to stay focused when results matter will linger.

Watch for who Andonovski selects at center-back: The final game 2022 marked a departure from his favored pairing of Alana Cook with either Becky Sauerbrunn or Naomi Girma. Emily Sonnett is also back with the team, and likely eager to make her mark on these games with the returns of Tierna Davidson and Kelley O’Hara looming in the near future. This week’s friendlies should also allow Crystal Dunn to keep building her minutes at left back and for Sofia Huerta to hone her defensive positioning on the right.

A year out from a World Cup, it’s not necessarily fair to expect any team to be 100-percent mentally focused as they begin the slow build toward the group stage. But the U.S., now seven months away from tournament kickoff, is in the middle of that slow build. At this stage, we can expect players and their manager to be progressing toward the best version of what the USWNT can be in 2023.

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

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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