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In season of adversity, Washington Spirit find strength to win NWSL championship

(Joe Robbins/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When the whistle blew at halftime of the 2021 NWSL Championship, the Washington Spirit knew that, after everything they’d been through this season, now was not the time to panic. Then they went out and completed their final magical comeback of the year, defeating the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 to win the first title in franchise history.

“I think we just finally got back to doing what we are good at, which is playing,” said Spirit outside back Kelley O’Hara, who headed in the game-winning goal in extra time. “Moving them, breaking them down, finding the spaces, using our weapons and just playing.”

Much of the Spirit’s season was defined by off-field controversy. They’ve had a coach fired for verbal abuse, owners fighting over controlling percentages and two forfeits dictated by the league’s COVID-19 rules. Those forfeits weighed heavily on the players. O’Hara called how the league handled those games “suspect in some areas,” and the team came together to win in spite of, as Andi Sullivan put it the day before, “those who want to make it harder for us.”

That adversity informed how the team played on the field. The group that won the NWSL championship somehow became underrated in their tactical awareness and problem-solving ability. On Saturday, their knack for solving puzzles helped them overcome a gutsy performance from the Red Stars to claim the ultimate prize.

Adaptability was the theme of the Spirit’s season. Before Kris Ward took over as interim head coach, the team played with a hyper focus on how much they had the ball; under Ward, they emphasized what exactly to do with the ball. The defense has been steady, and the young attacking core helped them win important games to close out the regular season. Chicago midfielder Morgan Gautrat had said it was going to take something special to win the game, and it took Washington time to unlock a Red Stars defense that had proven impenetrable in recent weeks.

For the first 45 minutes, the Red Stars had the game right where they wanted it. They were able to dictate a slow tempo, disrupt passing lanes and take Washington’s most dynamic players out of the match. Chicago’s war of attrition against injuries was tested again Saturday; Vanessa DiBernardo went down in the 13th minute while dealing with a hamstring injury, and Mallory Pugh exited the game at halftime after a crunching tackle from O’Hara.

Chicago dealt with the most obvious on-field adversity, but the Spirit still found themselves down at halftime 1-0. Somehow the Red Stars took advantage of the time after Pugh left the field in stoppage time, with Arin Wright sending a beautiful ball in to the back post for Rachel Hill to ricochet in. For a moment, it seemed like the upset might be on and the Red Stars might be able to stifle another team into submission at the end of a very long season.

But the Spirit, as they’ve done all year, made another adjustment.

“The first half, we were pretty static,” Trinity Rodman said after the match. “There was not a lot of movement at the top, and initially that’s why we couldn’t swing the ball because there was no movement. But I think definitely second half, with everyone moving off the ball, their defenders having to make a decision of, ‘Do I stay? Do I go?’ I think that was the biggest thing.”

To place Washington’s off-field adversity in the same conversation as their on-field dominance undercuts what the team has been able to accomplish when the distractions slip away. Ward led the Spirit to an undefeated end to the season, and the defense of O’Hara, Tegan McGrady, Sam Staab and Emily Sonnett solidified their positioning in a purposeful way. The off-field stories have been both a distraction and a focusing tool. So, at halftime on Saturday, the Spirit players knew they had the experience to find a way to win without abandoning the principles that got them to the final.

The turnaround started with a few Washington players. After Chicago had successfully matched numbers to take away the threat of Ashley Sanchez, Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch started to sit back to give Washington a numerical advantage in the midfield. Rodman overcame her first-half frustrations to work her way into the game and Chicago’s defenders’ heads, exploiting the space on the wings and waking up the Spirit’s offense with a crack off the post in the 61st minute.

The penalty Tara Mckeown won in the 66th minute was bad luck for the Red Stars, but it was also the natural consequence of the pressure Washington had been putting on Chicago since the half began. As fatigue was setting in for the Red Stars, the Spirit ramped up their intensity, looking for the final pass or shot that would get them the equalizer. As it turned out, getting into dangerous areas was the most effective game plan.

If the Red Stars had held on for even 10 minutes past the 67th-minute mark, they might have been able to frustrate Washington enough to steal a 1-0 win, despite their flagging numbers. The Red Stars have been successful this season when they’ve frustrated their opponents enough that they can’t successfully execute. The equalizer, off of a penalty kick from Andi Sulilvan, gave the Spirit proof of their own comeback.

The final game-winning dagger came early in extra time, when the Red Stars were down even more starters. That left Rodman with the time to place her cross, finding a streaking O’Hara who rose over Makenzy Doniak to head the ball past Cassie Miller and put Washington ahead.

Chicago won their duels in the first half of the game, pushing Spirit players off the ball to open up space. But in the second half, Washington eased into the game and flipped the duels on their head. Such was the build-up to O’Hara’s massive game-winner, with the outside back boxing Doniak out physically to put the ball into the back of the net. The Spirit made an adjustment in tactics and effort, and it made all the difference on Saturday afternoon.

The Red Stars have to wonder what might have been if they could have fielded a full healthy roster, but what the Spirit accomplished in 2021 is one of the more miraculous sports stories of the year.

“I’m really proud of this team — people have no idea what we’ve all gone through,” O’Hara said. “And the resiliency and the perseverance of every single player on this team is pretty incredible. It’s something that I haven’t seen on any NWSL team that I’ve been on. So it’s the best feeling ever to be ending on a win, and being champions.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

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.'"

Reporter’s awkward exchange mars Caitlin Clark’s Fever intro

caitlin clark at indiana fever press conference on april 17
An uneasy interaction between Fever recruit Caitlin Clark and a local reporter has gone viral. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

An Indianapolis Star columnist is apologizing for an uneasy exchange with freshly minted Indiana Fever player Caitlin Clark on Wednesday.

At Clark's introductory press conference with the Fever, reporter Gregg Doyel introduced himself then abruptly formed a heart with his hands. Throughout her career with Iowa, Clark has often flashed heart hands at her family in the stands after finishing a game. The gesture has since become linked to the standout player.

But what ensued between Clark and Doyel was an incredibly awkward interaction, to say the least.

"Real quick, let me do this," Doyel said before making the heart sign at Clark. A composed Clark responded, "You like that?" After Doyel quipped, "I like that you're here," Clark dropped her eyes to the desk and said, "Yeah, I do that at my family after every game."

“OK, well start doing that to me and we’ll get along just fine,” Doyel said in response, to which Clark raised her eyebrows at the reporter, looking visibly uncomfortable. It wasn't the only unsettling comment Doyel made that day, as he later referred to Clark as "that" and "it" when directing a question to Fever coach Christie Sides. Sides appeared similarly thrown off by his choice of words.

As the clip made its way around social media, Doyel faced backlash from both sports fans and fellow members of the media. Much of the criticism centered around whether or not Doyel or another press representative would address an NBA player in the same manner. 

Doyel later apologized via a column entitled "Doyel: Caitlin Clark, I'm so sorry. On Wednesday I was part of the problem." published on the Indianapolis Star's website late Wednesday evening. Referring to his behavior at the earlier press conference, he called his comments "clumsy and awkward."

"Please know my heart (literally and figuratively) was well-intentioned. I will do better," he wrote, noting that he was "devastated to realize I’m part of the problem."

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