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Reasons to have hope for USWNT’s future beyond 2023 World Cup

The USWNT quickly has to turn the page from a disappointing World Cup exit to the 2024 Olympics. (Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

With the dust settling after the U.S. women’s national team’s disappointing Round of 16 exit from the 2023 World Cup, there has been a necessary focus on what went wrong. Coaching, talent development, mentality and fitness have all been put under a microscope, with the USWNT acting as a mirror for many perceived shortcomings at both the senior and youth levels of soccer in the United States.

The fallout will continue for months to come, and in many ways, the USWNT will be better off not trying to sugarcoat the cracks in their foundation. But there is also ample reason for hope for the USWNT’s future that goes beyond their four major tournament games this year.

The young USWNT core is ready, and hungry

Players 23 years old and younger played a lion’s share of the USWNT’s minutes at the 2023 World Cup, with the intention that those players will be with the team for a long time. Naomi Girma, 23, was arguably the USWNT’s best player throughout their tournament. Sophia Smith, 23, and Trinity Rodman, 21, were also at the center of the team’s harsh learning experience, which should only lead to growth.

Ideally, they’ll also be joined by 25-year-old Mallory Swanson and 23-year-old Catarina Macario in future tournaments. Emily Fox, 25, also grew into her responsibilities in 2023. The USWNT committed to the future alongside the present during this World Cup cycle, and while the dividends didn’t pay off immediately, the foundation for deep runs in the future is there.

This is good news, because this next generation of talent wasn’t guaranteed. In hindsight, the 2023 USWNT World Cup roster is a reflection of the challenges the team had with identifying talent for a number of years, with most players either in their early-to-mid 30s or their early-to-mid 20s. The USWNT’s small “lost generation” is an indictment of the rigidity of their talent identification pipeline. But the pipeline hasn’t made the squad over-commit to an aging golden generation, which is a testament to the resiliency of the player pool.

Veterans like Alex Morgan have more to give to the U.S., but they also want to leave the team better than they found it. The bridging of that gap is still an unfinished project, but not one without progress.

The talent pipeline is evolving

In the wake of the USWNT’s early exit, attention naturally turned to U.S. Soccer’s process of identifying and developing emerging talent as the U.S. attempts to maintain a competitive edge. There’s legitimate reason to be concerned — the transition to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system hasn’t been without hiccups — and the pay-to-play nature of many top clubs cuts out entire demographics of talent.

There has been similar concern of college soccer’s place in an evolving landscape. Other countries are instead placing young players into professional environments with more opportunities to develop at a higher rate. Many of the top soccer minds in the U.S. sit in entrenched NCAA jobs, but the collapsing conference system, recruiting limitations and rule differences make four years with a college team seem less and less feasible for players with international-level ambitions.

Silver linings do exist, however. Increasingly, players are making the jump to the pros after one or two years spent developing at the NCAA level. Portland’s Sophia Smith, Kansas City’s Michelle Cooper and PSG’s Korbin Albert are good examples of young, talented players understanding when it’s time to move up a level after getting their start in college.

We’re also seeing more teenagers forgo college entirely, aided by the NWSL’s new U18 entry rules. Allowing under-18 players to sign directly with clubs not only allows players to develop with professional first teams from a young age; it also gives them the option to avoid the NWSL college draft, which has been a sore subject for top talent in recent years.

Players now have the option to commit to a professional career before turning 18, go to college for a few years or, upon turning 18, look abroad for other opportunities. A healthy NWSL will always be important to the USWNT’s development, but the U.S. should not be afraid of diverse club experiences.

What matters most is that players have options, and the increasing professionalization of the game both in the U.S. and abroad empowers them to take control of their careers and not depend too much on U.S. Soccer’s youth system. If young NWSL stars like Jaedyn Shaw and Olivia Moultrie break into the U.S. first team early, they will have that evolution to thank.

Andi Sullivan was not set up for success in the USWNT's system at the World Cup. (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The players are more versatile than current coaching

Injuries put the USWNT attack in a difficult position in 2023, and it showed in their results. Vlatko Andonovski’s vision of his two wingers slashing inside in front of a false No. 9 never fit the skill set of longtime U.S. striker Alex Morgan, and the wingers’ inability to get high and wide when reacting to Morgan’s strengths contributed to the USWNT’s early exit.

But concerns that U.S. players inherently lack creativity doesn’t necessarily hold up when you look at the breadth of their work outside of Andonovski’s system. What happened had more to do with players working against their creative instincts rather than not having those instincts in the first place.

A good example of this dichotomy is Washington Spirit and USWNT defensive midfielder Andi Sullivan. Sullivan is an incredibly versatile player in her club environment, with the ability to push forward box-to-box, sit in defensive midfield spaces and even join the backline. She’s a smart, understated player who can control games at the club level. But when asked to fill the exact role Julie Ertz left behind in the USWNT’s defensive midfield, she looked completely out of her depth.

It would be easy to come to the conclusion that Sullivan simply didn’t have the mentality necessary to succeed at the international level, or that she’s underdeveloped compared to her European counterparts. But the moment Andonovski switched to a double-pivot midfield, with Emily Sonnett handling defending in space against Sweden in the Round of 16, Sullivan became the player NWSL fans know her to be.

Sullivan and Sonnett looked very comfortable in the midfield against the eventual semifinalists, going head-to-head with a team that has given the U.S. fits in recent years. That Sullivan is just one example of how a new coaching perspective changes the USWNT’s chances indicates the true cracks don’t always lie at the player level. U.S. players won’t always look the same as the generations before them, but that makes them no less formidable.

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.

One former player 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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