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Four USWNT players who impressed Vlatko Andonovski in 2022

Sophia Smith scored a team-high 11 goals in 2022. (David Rogers/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team wraps up its 2022 campaign with a two-game friendly series against Germany on Thursday and Sunday. The games conclude a year in which head coach Vlatko Andonovski evaluated the USWNT’s deep pool of talent, new and old, as the team prepares for the 2023 FIFA World Cup.

Throughout the process, young, rising stars have been given opportunities, and many veterans who were pushed aside for a few months eventually earned second chances. With a team as competitive as the USWNT, anything can happen. On Wednesday, Andonovski named four players, all currently in November camp, who have impressed him more than he thought they would this year.

Sophia Smith

The first player to come to mind for Andonovski was Sophia Smith, who had a breakout year with the national team. She was called up to the senior team for the first time five years ago at the age of 16 but did not become a regular part of the roster until this year. After being left off the Olympic squad last summer, the 22-year-old has gone on to score 12 goals for the USWNT in 2022 and 15 for the Portland Thorns in the NWSL to finish second in the Golden Boot race. Helping the Thorns win the NWSL championship, she was named both league MVP and Finals MVP.

Playing at center forward with the Thorns, Smith has transitioned seamlessly into a winger role for the national team. Andonovski knew earlier this year that Smith would become a staple, and she has started every game she’s appeared in, further earning her coach’s trust.

Mallory Pugh

Smith’s fellow winger, Mallory Pugh, had what Andonovski calls “a tremendous comeback on the national team.” A year and a half ago, Pugh didn’t make the USWNT’s Tokyo Olympic roster. As a regular member of the national team heading into the Games, Pugh had to grapple with the disappointment. And after a year of finding joy in the game again, she’s proved herself as a starting winger for the national team, scoring six goals and contributing a team-high seven assists.

Alex Morgan

USWNT veteran Alex Morgan fell off Andonovski’s radar for half a year and was not called into the team until late June of 2022 after an impressive first two months with San Diego Wave FC in the NWSL. The forward scored 16 goals in 19 games with the Wave this season, winning the Golden Boot and helping the club become the first to make the playoffs in its inaugural year.

In her two USWNT call-ups this year, Morgan has scored four goals. After scoring the game-winning goal to secure the Concacaf W Championship for the U.S. in July, she was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Alex, who did not accept the fact of not being on the national team,” Andonovski said. “She proved to everyone that she’s still a world-class player.”

Naomi Girma

Naomi Girma, in her first year out of Stanford, has been remarkably consistent in her distribution and tackles along the USWNT’s backline. Earlier this fall, Andonovski said fellow center back Alana Cook had the edge due to experience, but since then Girma has earned more playing time and built her case for World Cup roster inclusion. One of her most impressive performances came in a start against England, the 2022 Euro Cup champions, at Wembley Stadium in October.

In the NWSL, the 2022 No. 1 pick became the first player in league history to win two individual awards in the same season, earning Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year.

“There’s a reason she’s starting on our team, and that’s because she is growing into a great player,” Andonovski said.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

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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