All Scores

World Cup Best XI: Top players at every position in 2023

Spain’s Salma Paralluelo was one of the breakout stars of the 2023 World Cup. (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now that the 2023 World Cup has crowned a first-time champion in Spain, many will remember the tournament for team accomplishments. But over the course of the past month, individuals rose to the occasion to keep their teams alive, showcasing their talents on the biggest international stage.

This Best XI will favor teams that did particularly well in the knockout rounds, but there are also arguments to be made for selecting stars of the group stage at almost every position.

So, let’s take a look at which players stood out throughout the World Cup with our Best XI.

img
Zećira Mušović's heroics helped Sweden eliminate the USWNT in the Round of 16. (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Goalkeeper

Zećira Mušović (Sweden)

Sweden’s run to third place was a culmination of a number of factors, including the team’s ability to command space on set pieces and in defensive transition. But they also benefited greatly from the stellar play of goalkeeper Zećira Mušović, who kept Sweden in their Round of 16 matchup against the USWNT and ultimately helped knock out the 2019 World Champions in a penalty shootout.

Overall, the World Cup was an incredible display of gains made in goalkeeping in the women’s game. Deserved honorable mentions go out to Jamaica’s Rebecca Spencer, Nigeria’s Chiamaka Nnadozie and England’s Mary Earps, the 2023 Golden Glove winner. Stout performances between the posts kept a number of teams in games during crucial stretches of the knockout rounds (not to mention the penalty shootout heroics of the USWNT’s Alyssa Naeher and Australia’s Mackenzie Arnold). The position is in good hands worldwide.

img
Michelle Alozie and Nigeria nearly knocked England out of the World Cup. (Sajad Imanian/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Defenders

Amanda Ilestedt (Sweden), Allyson Swaby (Jamaica), Millie Bright (England), Michelle Alozie (Nigeria)

The 2023 World Cup was marked by three-back systems, making a four-back Best XI defensive formation somewhat difficult to choose in an attempt to honor four of the best at the position. Any of England’s center-backs could have taken honors here, or members of Japan’s excellent bend-but-don’t-break defense. The three-back renaissance also meant that many traditional fullbacks moved into wingback positions and essentially functioned as midfield additions in the attack. Spain’s Olga Carmona also deserves a mention, as the hero of the World Cup final with her strike from an advanced position.

Amanda Ilestedt fits that description of creating attack from defense perfectly. The Swedish defender carried both defensive and attacking responsibilities, contending for the Golden Boot award as the focal-point of many of Sweden’s set pieces. Allyson Swaby anchored a Jamaica side that reached the knockout rounds for the first time thanks to their staunch defense, which held both France and Brazil scoreless. Millie Bright captained England to a final appearance as the core of their three-back defense, and Michelle Alozie contributed greatly to the Nigeria defense that almost knocked the Lionesses out of the tournament in the Round of 16. Another defender deserving of an honorable mention is the USWNT’s Naomi Girma, who played every minute as part of a defense that gave up just two shots on goal in four games.

img
Spain's Aitana Bonmatí earned World Cup Golden Ball honors after capturing the title. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Midfielders

Aitana Bonmatí (Spain), Teresa Abelleira (Spain), Hayley Raso (Australia)

Spain’s midfield trio could take up this entire position, and it would be difficult to argue against them. Aitana Bonmatí earned FIFA’s official Golden Ball award for her work controlling possession and contributing to Spain’s World Cup-winning attack. She dominated Spain’s Round of 16 clash with Switzerland, scoring two goals, and forced opposing defenses into poor decisions as the knockout rounds became increasingly competitive. Bonmatí was matched in quality by teammate Teresa Abelleira, who was the motor behind Spain’s ball possession and passing. Spain’s midfield excellence was never more apparent than in the tournament final, where they held onto the ball and a 1-0 lead for much of the match to stave off England.

Hayley Raso, a wide player who spends as much time in the attack as she does sitting in midfield spaces, deserves honors as a key part of Australia’s 4-4-2 formation. The Matildas finished in fourth, the co-host’s best-ever result at a World Cup, not least because of Raso’s endless work rate on the wings in tandem with Caitlin Foord on the opposite flank, especially in the absence of forward Sam Kerr for much of the tournament.

img
Hinata Miyazawa finished as the World Cup leading scorer despite Japan's quarterfinal exit. (Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Forwards

Salma Paralluelo (Spain), Linda Caicedo (Colombia), Hinata Miyazawa (Japan)

Picking only three forwards for this list is almost impossible. Talent at the forward position has possibly never been deeper, with young stars rising to take over for the established legends of the game. Many of those players are known for exploiting wide spaces, and few traditional No. 9s stood out in the grand scheme of the tournament (Germany’s Alexandra Popp and France’s Kadidiatou Diani, who earned the Silver and Bronze Boot Awards, are perhaps the exceptions).

Diani and Popp are strong candidates for a Best XI, as is England’s Lauren Hemp, but the particularly stellar play of other wide forwards adds credence to leaning into the trend. Salma Paralluelo was a key spark in Spain’s run to the title, scoring in the quarterfinal and semifinal before earning a start in the final. Linda Caicedo was one of the best individual talents in the entire tournament, spurring Colombia to a quarterfinal finish. And Hinata Miyazawa’s Golden Boot-winning tally (five goals) held firm despite Japan’s exit in the quarterfinals. As the most clinical finisher working in a high-risk, high-reward system, Miyazawa almost helped take the Nadeshiko all the way.

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

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.'"

Start your morning off right with Just Women’s Sports’ free, 5x-a-week newsletter.