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Why USWNT needs SheBelieves Cup win, and why they might not

Vlatko Andonovski still has much to prove before the USWNT takes the field at the World Cup. (Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team begins their 2023 SheBelieves Cup campaign on Thursday evening, with high-profile matchups against Canada, Brazil and Japan that will replicate the patterns of group stage play against top World Cup-level competition.

Each of the four teams have a shot at walking away with the SBC title, but for the U.S. as hosts and reigning World Cup champions, expectations for wins at home will follow the team through all three matches. Canada will play the U.S. at their own game, Brazil’s attacking quality remains elite with a rising defense, and Japan brings an element of youthful vibrancy to their rebuild.

Fans will expect the U.S. to lift the trophy at the end of next week regardless.

Some of those expectations are increasingly unreasonable considering the level of competition, but in short, it’s also possible the USWNT really just needs a win.

Why the U.S. needs a SheBelieves win

Pre-World Cup USWNT friendly losses are basically woven into the recent history of the team. The U.S. lost their opening game to kick off the World Cup calendar years in both 2015 and 2019, and they didn’t win the 2019 SheBelieves Cup either (that honor went to England, though the USWNT did avoid dropping a game).

This year, the USWNT enters the SheBelieves Cup having lost three games in a row for the first time since 1993, before staging a not-quite-convincing bounce-back against Germany to close out 2022. Those results have to be considered part of the learning process, but at some point, confidence is more important than working out the kinks.

The USWNT’s prowess on the international stage has long been a common belief and a global reputation to bend games even when they are technically outplayed. This current team has been somewhat unfairly held to that standard as they find their own identity in the most competitive global field the sport has ever seen.

With the World Cup now only a few months away, the U.S. needs to start shaping the narrative of a group that is young and untested. Expectations can be crushing, and players who feel that responsibility most keenly don’t always seem to be the newest faces to the team.

Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle are World Cup champions, but since they’ve been tasked with leading the team’s midfield without Julie Ertz and Sam Mewis, they have had difficulty finding each other at times, causing too many turnovers. The defense, likewise, has made mental mistakes in crucial moments, and the attack has been frustrated by a lack of touches on the ball.

“[The team’s identity] has evolved, but I don’t think it has changed, and I truly believe in the competitiveness,” Vlatko Andonovski told the media on Wednesday. “I truly believe in the relentlessness and in the fearless mindset that these players have.”

Winning can cure mental blocks, and belief is something that has to be earned. A strong record at the SheBelieves Cup would give the team the most positive momentum it’s had since the Tokyo Olympics. It also would indicate that Andonovski’s preferred style of play is beginning to take hold, a development U.S. fans have long awaited.

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Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan are still working out kinks in the U.S. midfield. (Richard Sellers/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Why the process is more important

There’s nothing wrong with being a little underrated going into a major tournament. Plus, the U.S. has things to work out on the field that could still benefit from being exposed. In a perfect world, the USWNT would be able to tweak their strategy and take three points, but their SheBelieves opponents will make that difficult and they’ve shown in recent months that they are not infallible to mistakes.

The U.S. is also dealing with personnel limitations going into their first game against Canada on Thursday night. Sophia Smith, the team’s leading scorer in 2022, is still working her way back from an offseason injury, and midfield engine Rose Lavelle will miss at least the first game with what Andonovski described as a “knock.” Injuries are going to be a reality for every team going into the World Cup. The U.S. has a chance to test their depth in February, altering their ceiling in the upcoming games.

“We have young players that are learning the identity of, or trying to fit in the identity of, the U.S. national team,” Andonovski said. “But to some degree, maybe it is better that some things feel like that and that we still haven’t shown our cards.”

If roster evaluation is still one of the primary purposes of a tournament of this level, there is some value in poor performances as there is in successful execution. The U.S. has a number of players still working their way back from injury, and time to make detailed evaluations has not been on Andonovski’s side.

Fear of a dropped result can’t get in the way of a commitment to figuring out how exactly Taylor Kornieck can best be used as a dual No. 6 or a hybrid No. 8, or whether attacking-minded fullbacks can successfully track back to absorb counterattacks. Andonovski has sculpted his team into a 4-3-3 (with the ability to turn into a 4-2-3-1) that plays in a pressing style, and if that style is still stifling creativity and causing defensive gaps, stopgap wins will not help the team in the long term.

Ultimately, if the U.S. can’t hang with the excellent squads competing in this year’s SheBelieves Cup, it’s better to know that now. U.S. Soccer has committed to Andonovski’s roster refresh project, but going in with false confidence led to the team being exposed in the last Olympics with no real Plan B in sight.

The U.S. comes into this tournament as the favorites on paper, with greater challenges on the horizon. They are best off absorbing expectations and executing, but this week will be a learning experience no matter who raises the trophy.

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

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

WNBA Confirms Toronto Expansion Team for 2026

Fans at a game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in Toronto
Canadian fans asked and the WNBA delivered: Toronto's getting a team. (Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

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