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USWNT players in the NWSL: Megan Rapinoe making a statement

Megan Rapinoe played a full half for OL Reign on Saturday as she works her way back from a calf injury. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

With every week that passes in the NWSL, players on the U.S. women’s national team bubble get a chance to prove their case further for inclusion on the team’s 2023 World Cup roster. USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has long emphasized the importance of club performance, and players have been responding in the early stages of the 2023 season.

Andonovski himself took in two NWSL matches this past weekend, one in Seattle and one in Portland. The official World Cup roster is expected to be announced in June, and every week is crucial to Andonovski’s final decision-making process.

The games the USWNT head coach saw this weekend featured excellent performances for some and raised question marks for others.

Questions in the back

Not every player penciled onto the current USWNT roster had a weekend to remember as league action resumed. All three of Andonovski’s preferred goalkeepers either suffered losses or did not play in the NWSL’s fourth match day, and a few U.S. defenders also had rough outings.

Chicago Red Stars goalkeeper and longtime USWNT starter Alyssa Naeher conceded five tallies on just five shots on goal in a loss to OL Reign on Saturday. While one strike — a deflected free kick by Megan Rapinoe — was likely outside of the 35-year-old’s grasp, the other four were in the range of being savable. In all, the Reign got on the scoreboard five times on just 1.06 xG, a stat that measures expected goals.

Chicago’s rough day on defense also included USWNT defenders Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger, who had a hard time settling in within the Red Stars’ high-risk, three-back system. On the other end, Emily Sonnett again played in the Reign’s defensive midfield and struggled to contain Chicago rookie Ally Schlegel on the sequence that led to the Red Stars’ second goal.

Casey Murphy’s North Carolina Courage also suffered a loss, though in a much closer 1-0 scoreline. Gotham FC emerged from a near two-hour rain delay with renewed purpose, and Lynn Williams scored the game-winner in the 80th minute off an endline run and cross by Yazmeen Ryan. Murphy’s goals conceded so far this season have aligned closely with her xG faced, indicating a return to consistency after an up and down 2022. Adrianna Franch did not play in Kansas City’s 2-0 win over the Orlando Pride.

In better news, Andonovski’s preferred defensive starters looked as steady as ever. Naomi Girma had another excellent match for San Diego in a 2-0 win over Angel City, and Becky Sauerbrunn guided the Portland Thorns to another shutout victory.

Raining goals

In several cases, a defender’s bad day made for an attacker’s dream outing, as USWNT hopefuls once again made waves in front of goal. Williams’ strike was her fourth goal across all competitions this season, matching the total output of any other Gotham forward in 2022. The forward’s signing has immediately boosted the club that finished in last place in 2022 and has further solidified Williams’ value on both the domestic and international stage.

Reigning NWSL MVP Sophia Smith also continued her run of strong form, this time connecting on two assists in Portland’s win over Racing Louisville. Smith now has four goals and four assists in as many regular season matches, becoming the first player to reach both marks in just four games. Smith found Christine Sinclair early in the game to put the Thorns ahead, and then doubled her assist tally with a slick pass to Morgan Weaver to put the game out of reach.

OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe showcased her value this weekend, putting in her longest performance of 2023 with 45 minutes against the Red Stars. As Rapinoe has progressed from an injury into game shape, her accuracy in dead-ball situations and overall influence over a match have grown. The USWNT veteran won a number of key set-piece opportunities against the Chicago backline in the second half, converting one of those chances outside the box into a deflected goal that put the Reign up 4-2.

Important minutes building

For some players, simply spending extensive minutes on the pitch is part of the process. Rapinoe played 15 minutes more on Saturday than in her last game, putting together a full half for the Reign. It was a positive sign for the winger, as she slowly works her way back from a lingering calf injury that had kept her off the field early in 2023.

Another player quietly working her way back to full fitness is Gotham outside back Kelley O’Hara, who played a full 90 minutes this past weekend for the first time in 2023 (albeit with an extensive rain delay). O’Hara hadn’t played a full match since August 2022 while recovering from a hip injury that ended her season early and kept her away from the U.S. until April 2023. O’Hara didn’t play many minutes with the USWNT in her return from injury in April, but her extensive experience combined with stalwart club performances could be just enough to get her on the final roster.

Perhaps the most significant return this weekend was that of Angel City midfielder Julie Ertz, who completed her most extensive performance in almost two years on Sunday. Ertz played in the midfield for 71 minutes, a big jump from the 45 minutes she gave the U.S. on April 11. Ertz looked equally sharp and rusty in her first NWSL match since May 2021, but her fitness shouldn’t be called into question after a durable performance in an end-to-end contest.

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

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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