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Washington Spirit ride ‘belief in each other’ to NWSL semifinals

(Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

Across social media, the Washington Spirit have been using the phrase “#RiseUpDC,” but behind the curtain, the team’s theme is “Together.”

At practices, before games, in the locker room and on media calls, the players have intentionally used the word through the second half of the season following a chapter of abuse allegations against former coaches, COVID-19 cases that resulted in forfeited games and ownership changes.

“Staying together, really just focusing on that,” defender Sam Staab said. “[It] switches our mentality to be like, ‘Let’s just send it.’ We’ve had a pretty tough year, so we’re just going for it.”

The Spirit exemplified that approach Sunday, with their deep bench playing a key role in a 1-0 extra-time win over the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL quarterfinals.

“It takes every one of us, and we’ve really come together and relied on each other throughout this entire season and especially tonight,” goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said after the game.

‘We’re so deep’

North Carolina controlled much of the game in the opening 45 minutes, forcing Bledsoe to make multiple challenging saves and reminding everyone why she is a nominee for NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year.

Washington’s six substitutions rolled in through the second half, giving them a boost in momentum.

45’ M Tori Huster in for M Tayor Aylmer
70’ M Julia Roddar in for D Tegan McGrady
70’ F Tara McKeown in for F Ashley Sanchez
98’ D Anna Heilferty in for M Tori Huster (injury)
115’ D Paige Nielsen in for M Dorian Bailey (injury)
118’ M Saori Takarada in for F Trinity Rodman

The first sub to start the second half was Tori Huster, the only remaining player from the Spirit team that advanced to the NWSL finals in 2016, and she made her veteran presence felt immediately. The Spirit fired off multiple shots in the first five minutes of the half, taking the pressure off of Bledsoe and repeatedly testing Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy.

Tara McKeown, the 22-year-old who started 11 of 21 games this season, helped turn Washington’s offensive energy around with multiple runs up the field that were not there in the first 45.

When Huster went down just outside North Carolina’s box a few minutes into extra time, with what is expected to be a serious injury, the Spirit had to send on a sub for their sub. In this case, it was 22-year-old Anna Heilferty. The rookie was entering her first playoff game when the stakes were highest, but the Spirit didn’t flinch, even against an experienced team like the Courage.

“We’re so deep, the amount of talent that we have,” Bledsoe said of the bench.

After the Spirit had registered 13 shots on target, Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch buried the golden goal in the second period of extra time. The 2021 MVP candidate had been having a quiet game up until that point.

“I believe in every single one of our players and every single girl that steps on the field,” Hatch said. “Our subs made a huge difference in the game today. … That belief in each other is what helped us win this game.”

‘They’re the Little Engine That Could right now’

Spirit interim coach Kris Ward describes himself as someone who’s “not afraid to use the bench.”

“We’ve got an unbelievable bench and they proved that in so many ways,” he said.

Ward has taken a hands-off approach this season since being named interim coach in August, recognizing the players have needed emotional support and space to come together, more than they’ve needed coaching.

“I think once we made the [coaching] change in August, everyone’s been a little bit more laidback and it really helps when we’ve got a young, creative team,” Bledsoe said. “It’s just been a good time of everyone just trusting in each other’s abilities, and you’re really seeing us start to play free and play together and it’s really exciting.”

Ward’s guidance has helped the Spirit advance the furthest they’ve been as a program since 2016. Before the playoffs began, Staab said she and the team were ready to move on from the turmoil of the season and focus on themselves.

Ward was in hands-on coaching mode after Sunday’s quarterfinal, pleased with the second-half energy but challenging the offense to slow down the attack. As much as the young team lets him, at least.

“Sometimes, youth is just going to youth, and they’re just going to go and that is an advantage in and of itself,” Ward said with a laugh.

Going into Washington’s semifinal against OL Reign next Sunday, there will be coaching, but Ward won’t lose sight of the togetherness that got the Spirit to this point in the first place.

“That’s been a big key for us, just getting through things together,” he said. “They’ve always had each other’s backs, and so it’s just trying to keep the train rolling. They’re the Little Engine That Could right now.”

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

One former player contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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