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USWNT roster battles: Ashley Hatch faces World Cup ticking clock

Ashley Hatch’s World Cup roster inclusion could hinge on Catarina Macario’s readiness. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT is back, playing their last two friendlies before final roster decisions are made for the 2023 World Cup this summer. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has preferred a certain amount of roster consistency since the beginning of 2022, but long-awaited returns from injury are forcing the issue at a number of key positions.

Let’s take a look at the most hotly contested roles, and who might get one last opportunity to audition for one of the highest honors in American soccer.

Tierna Davidson and the third center-back spot

The April roster is heavy on defenders, with a limited number of games left to make decisions about the final form of the USWNT backline. Center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Naomi Girma appear to be near-locks for the World Cup roster, but who will join them remains up in the air.

The key player at the center-back position returning from injury in April is Tierna Davidson, who featured on both the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympic rosters as a center back with the ability to play outside back.

Davidson tore her ACL during the 2022 Challenge Cup and recently made her return to the NWSL, playing significant minutes in the Chicago Red Stars’ first two games of the season. Davidson brings a calm presence to her main role as a center back, and provides versatility if the team needs options on the outside.

But the position on the USWNT is increasingly crowded. In Davidson’s absence, OL Reign center back Alana Cook played the most minutes of any USWNT player in 2022 and appeared to have an inside track to making her first World Cup roster. The other player with the ability to play both centrally and on the flank is Emily Sonnett, who similarly featured on the 2019 and 2020 rosters as a utility defender. On a 23-player roster, the U.S. is unlikely to take all three of Cook, Davidson and Sonnett, and minutes in April could be the key differentiator after months of competition.

Kelley O'Hara will try to earn her roster spot back after returning from injury. (Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

O’Hara, Krueger, Huerta and the right-back strategy

The USWNT has been criticized in the past for using converted attackers as outside-back depth, but the April friendlies could provide a look at other options. Andonovski’s favored outside pair is Crystal Dunn on the left and Emily Fox on the right, but two known defenders rejoin the U.S. to take aim at the right-back spot in particular.

USWNT veteran Kelley O’Hara’s experience dates all the way back to the 2011 World Cup. She’s long-been the preferred starter for the USWNT at right back, but she missed much of last year with a lingering hip injury. O’Hara is back with the team in April camp after playing her first game minutes with Gotham FC in the first two weeks of the NWSL season. She is joined by outside back Casey Krueger, who made the 22-player Olympic roster in 2021. Krueger returns after the birth of her son and is coming off playing a full 90 minutes for the Red Stars this past weekend.

O’Hara and Krueger are defensive-minded players with 1v1 defending abilities in transition that Andonovski might prefer to see in action before making a decision on his outside-back pool. They provide a sharp contrast to OL Reign’s Sofia Huerta, another converted attacker. Huerta is one of the best in the world at crossing the ball, providing the U.S. an unmatched skill when in possession, but sometimes the defensive seams show when opponents target her on the outside.

Lingering injury concerns might make it difficult for O’Hara or Krueger to unseat Huerta and the obvious value she brings as an attacking specialist. This will be one of the most competitive position battles before Andonovski names his World Cup roster.

Julie Ertz is back in USWNT camp for the first time since 2021. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Julie Ertz and the midfield pool

Julie Ertz’s surprising return to USWNT camp reopened competition in a midfield that seemed well on its way to becoming a settled proposition. In the free agent’s absence, the Washington Spirit’s Andi Sullivan became the de-facto defensive midfield starter, working in tandem with Lindsey Horan to cover gaps off the ball and help with distribution.

Ertz’s return is unlikely to push Sullivan to the fringes of the roster, but her presence might mean something different for the other players who have gotten tryouts at the same position. While the defensive midfield has remained unsettled, two players have stuck with the team due to their versatility.

Taylor Kornieck is on the roster not just as a midfielder, but also as a utility substitute who can slot into any central field position. Kristie Mewis shares that distinction in the midfield, having played as a No. 6, No. 8 and No. 10 in her time with the team. Ashley Sanchez is more of an attacking midfield specialist, who pushes forward into the attack as often as she connects with the defensive midfield.

It’s possible Andonovski’s intention is simply to add Ertz to the established midfield group and shut the door on any other new faces. But in that case, he would have to take a roster spot from either the USWNT’s incredibly deep forward pool or a defense that might need extra coverage against top opponents.

Ashley Hatch and the center-forward ticking clock

Catarina Macario is finally making her return to training with Olympique Lyon this month, after enduring a long recovery from an ACL injury suffered in June 2022. Following a scintillating run with the U.S. at the 2022 SheBelieves Cup, Macario will not have a chance to play in a USWNT jersey before Andonovski has to make a decision on his rising star.

Macario has talent worthy of a trip to New Zealand if she’s healthy enough by June, but her impending return complicates things for Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch. Since joining the team long-term in 2022, Hatch has done everything asked of her off the bench as Alex Morgan took over the starting role at center forward. She has continued to perform at the club level, most recently scoring a brace this weekend in the NWSL, and she has a knack for scoring in her limited international minutes. Despite those strengths, Hatch has yet to entrench herself in the starting conversation.

Hatch is in a race against time and sheer numbers. The U.S. isn’t likely to sacrifice a winger spot to carry three central forwards, Morgan is a clear lock for the roster, and Macario has the versatility to sink back into the midfield — something Hatch hasn’t been asked to emulate. The April friendlies could be the final push in one direction and, at the very least, a final audition for Hatch should Macario not be fit enough for the trip.

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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