Every NWSL offseason comes with player movement, but the months leading up to the 2023 season reflected a new era of player choice. The league’s first free-agency period saw many top players leaving for new environments and teams making a few surprising moves themselves.

Almost every NWSL roster will look different in 2023, with the potential for dramatic returns as teams meet for the first time in the regular season.

Don’t look now, but revenge season might be upon us. Here are the games to circle on your calendar.

March 25: Kansas City Current at North Carolina Courage

The first game of the NWSL regular season wastes no time in getting into one of the most dramatic narratives of the offseason. The Kansas City Current were the big winners of the league’s free-agency period and feature heavily on this list as players take on their former teams.

First up, two-time NWSL champion Debinha returns to the home of the North Carolina Courage in her first game after a high-profile move to Kansas City. Courage head coach Sean Nahas said at the 2023 draft that they had made serious overtures to the Brazilian superstar to try to convince her to stay with her club of five years, and her playmaking ability will surely be missed in North Carolina.

The Current come into the season with high expectations. Debinha appeared to pick up a knock in preseason that might limit her availability for this game. Regardless, the opening match against her former teammates (and current Brazil teammate Kerolin) will be a battle that sets the tone for Kansas City’s ceiling in 2023.

img
Emily Sonnett was a part of Washington's 2021 NWSL championship run. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

March 26: OL Reign at Washington Spirit

OL Reign travels to Washington D.C. on opening weekend, with a few chips on their shoulder to shake off. The Spirit famously ended the Reign’s postseason dreams in 2021 before going on to win the club’s first NWSL Championship. Prior to that, Rose Lavelle found her NWSL rights abruptly sent to Seattle from Washington while playing for Manchester City, a move she said surprised her at the time.

More recently, Washington unexpectedly sent another USWNT mainstay to the Pacific Northwest, completing a draft-day trade that dealt Emily Sonnett to OL Reign. The trade came about quickly, with new Spirit head coach Mark Parsons making a move to address what he referred to as a “structural” imbalance to his roster. This is the second time Parsons has traded Sonnett to a new team, first sending her to the Orlando Pride when he was the head coach of the Portland Thorns.

The Reign had a consistent partnership between Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt in the central defense in 2022, so it will be interesting to see how Sonnett is deployed. No matter, the potential revenge factor in this one is sky high.

April 15: Kansas City Current at Chicago Red Stars

There’s nothing like facing your former captain at home. Vanessa DiBernardo was a Chicago Red Star for eight years, and most recently their captain, before leaving for the Current in her first year of free agency. She was joined by former Chicago teammate Morgan Gautrat, who had played for the Red Stars for five years.

Both midfielders played in multiple NWSL finals with Chicago but decided to sign with a stacked Kansas City roster still in search of their first piece of hardware. The Red Stars team they left behind is now rebuilding around star striker Mallory Swanson after a tumultuous few years behind the scenes. Chicago will want to prove themselves against one of the deepest teams in the league and show what life looks like after the departure of a number of their veterans.

img
Kansas City used the pick they acquired in the Lynn Williams trade to select Michelle Cooper at No. 2. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

April 30: Gotham FC at Kansas City Current

Lynn Williams never registered regular-season minutes for the Current, but this matchup has the potential for revenge nonetheless. Kansas City traded Williams to Gotham FC right as she made her return to the field with the USWNT, after a serious hamstring issue kept her sidelined in 2022.

Relinquishing Williams likely freed up salary cap space for the Current’s stacked midfield and also for rookie Michelle Cooper, whose prowess at Duke made her a clear target for Kansas City with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Cooper is untested at the professional level, meaning this particular game could become a referendum on veteran experience over rookie ceiling.

Gotham will likely be in revenge mode as a team, looking to improve upon their league-worst finish in 2022 and showcase their own offseason moves. If Kansas City is the standard, Gotham will want to rise to meet it.

May 27: North Carolina Courage at Racing Louisville

The offseason’s other surprising trade also involved North Carolina, with the Courage sending Carson Pickett and longtime captain Abby Erceg to Louisville in exchange for rising USWNT outside back Emily Fox. In soccer terms, the trade made some sense for both teams, but the unceremonious end to Erceg’s time at the club where she won multiple championships wasn’t lost on the center back.

Both teams will be eager to show off how they’ve honed their roster in the offseason, with North Carolina attempting to rise back to the upper echelon of the NWSL and Racing Louisville pushing for their first-ever playoff spot. The addition of Erceg and Pickett radically changes the outlook of Louisville’s defense, and they’ll have extra motivation to keep the Courage off the scoresheet. At the other end of the field, Fox is working her way into an assured U.S. roster spot for the 2023 World Cup and will want to excel with the same freedom on the pitch that she had in Louisville.

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

Emily Fox is on her way to North Carolina in exchange for the Courage’s Abby Erceg and Carson Pickett, the teams announced Monday.

The No. 1 pick in the 2021 NWSL draft, Fox has been a member of Racing Louisville since their first match. She also has played in 24 games for the U.S. women’s national team, including the team’s two wins against New Zealand to start the year.

The 24-year-old defender posted an 82% pass success rate in her second season after finishing as a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2021.

“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to head back to North Carolina,” Fox said in a news release. “Coming from UNC, the Courage were always a team I rooted for and admired. I can’t wait to get to work and represent this club.”

With the addition of Fox, the Courage continue the reshaping their roster this offseason. The departure of defensive cornerstones in Pickett and team captain Erceg comes after 2022 NWSL MVP finalist Debinha departed for the Kansas City Current in free agency.

North Carolina also has parted ways with defender Merritt Mathias and forward Diana Ordóñez. The former was traded to Angel City FC in exchange for forward Tyler Lussi, while the latter was sent to the Houston Dash in exchange for draft picks.

While Ordóñez had requested a trade, Erceg criticized the deal on Twitter, writing, “Yup, it’s official. We still suck a trades in 2023.” Still, after her own trade to Louisville, the outgoing Courage captain described herself as “shocked and disappointed.”

“The intention to see out my career with a club in which I have so many fantastic memories comes to an end, as that intention is unfortunately not a shared one,” she wrote in a statement shared via her Twitter account.

In Louisville, both Erceg and Pickett will reunite with former Courage teammate Jessica McDonald. North Carolina traded McDonald to Louisville last offseason.

Racing loses Fox but receives a defender of a similar style in the 29-year-old Pickett, as well as an seasoned leader in 33-year-old Erceg.

“Obviously Emily is a player of high quality,” Racing coach Kim Björkegren said. “This trade, however, returns a great player at the left-back position in Carson and gives us a veteran central defender in Abby. Both players have great experience and talent and can help lead this team.”

North Carolina Courage defender Carson Pickett is joining the U.S. women’s national team in Europe. She will replace Emily Fox, who was ruled out due to concussion protocols, U.S. Soccer announced Saturday.

Fox left the match in the 22nd minute against England on Friday after taking a hit to the head. The USWNT will look to rebound from their 2-1 defeat to the Lionesses when they meet Spain in a friendly on Tuesday before heading back to the U.S.

Pickett has one cap with the national team from a June 28 match against Colombia in Utah. Born without a left forearm, she became the first player with a limb difference to play for the USWNT.

The fullback was a standout for the Courage this season, making three NWSL Teams of the Month. She finished the season with a goal and led the league with six assists, as the Courage just missed out on the final spot in the NWSL playoffs.

Carson Pickett scored her first NWSL goal Sunday, mere weeks after earning her first USWNT cap.

The North Carolina Courage defender scored the first goal of the game in the 22nd minute to achieve the feat. It was one of two goals scored by the Courage in their 2-2 draw with Chicago, the second coming from Brittany Ratcliffe in the 49th minute.

Pickett made history on June 29 when she became the first player with a limb difference to play for the USWNT. She was born without a left hand and forearm. The 28-year-old is also the oldest USWNT player to make a national team debut since 2017.

She’s been a part of the league since 2016, when she played with then-Seattle Reign FC. She was later traded to Orlando before joining the Courage in 2021. She has also spent time in Australia and Cyprus.

While the Courage jumped out to a 2-0 lead, the Red Stars managed to get two stoppage time goals to end the game in a draw.

North Carolina remains at the bottom of the table with eight points while Chicago sits in second with 20.

Carson Pickett made history Tuesday, becoming the first player with a limb difference to appear for the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

A defender with the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL, Pickett was born without a left hand and forearm.

She’s also the fifth player to debut for USWNT in 2022 and the 15th player head coach Vlatko Andonovski to earn a first cap. At 28, Pickett is the oldest USWNT player to make a national team debut since McCall Zerboni did so at 30 in 2017.

She’s the oldest field player to ever start in her first appearance for the USWNT.

Pickett played all 90 minutes in the 2-0 win against Colombia starting in place of Emily Fox. Fox’s minutes are being limited ahead of the Concacaf W Championship as her 441 minutes played so far in 2022 are the second-most on the team.

“Carson did very well in training for us in last week and with the management of minutes for Emily Fox that we had, we felt like Carson would be a good replacement, and I’m happy that she was able to perform well for 90 minutes,” Andonovski told ESPN.

Pickett called the opportunity a “dream come true.”

The defender, who recently made her 100th NWSL appearance with the Courage and was named to the NWSL’s Best XI for June, went viral in 2019 when she “arm-bumped” a young fan with a similar limb difference. She’s also worked with Nike to create a soccer cleat without laces.

“My parents have two hands and two arms and unfortunately they weren’t able to teach me how to tie my shoes,” Pickett told CBS Sports. “I can imagine that it does feel heartbreaking, looking at your daughter and trying to tie her shoes and it’s hard for you to be there for her. There were definitely times where I cried, and just couldn’t figure it out, and they kept pushing me. Tying my shoes was almost impossible, it did seem impossible, but I overcame it.”

Following the victory over Colombia, the USWNT now heads to Monterrey, Mexico, for the Concacaf W Championship. That tournament will determine four automatic berths to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as one berth to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Pickett, though, will not join the team in Mexico. She, Sam Coffey and Jaelin Howell joined the USWNT as extra players for the two international friendlies against Colombia but did not make the 23-player roster for the Concacaf W Championship.

Carson Pickett is a defender for the Orlando Pride of the NWSL and the Brisbane Roar of the W-League. A graduate of Florida State, she helped lead the Seminoles to their first ever NCAA Championship in 2014. Below, she spoke to Just Women’s Sports about her life and career as a professional athlete who was born without a left forearm and hand, how her mindset has changed over the years, and what Orlando needs to do to rebound from its disappointing past season. 

I’ve read articles that label you as disabled, but I have played with you and against you, and disabled feels off. What is the terminology you prefer? 

I would say limb different because that’s what I advocate for. It’s not just arms, it’s legs and other body parts. I don’t like saying I’m advocating for disabilities in general because that can mean so many different things, and I don’t want people to think I’m advocating for something that I’m not.

You were born limb different and that limited some of the sports you could play as a child. How did you begin playing soccer and what was that experience like as a kid? 

My parents were both great athletes. My dad played college soccer and had the opportunity to play professionally. My mom played college basketball. I definitely grew up in a family of athletes. Many people talk about how athletes often challenge themselves more and push themselves more. I think that was true for my parents in that they’ve always pushed themselves. So, when they had a child who might have needed to be pushed a little harder because they weren’t sure if she was going to sink or swim, their mentality was, “We’re going to challenge her.”

Growing up, I played a lot of sports. My parents never wanted me to feel different compared to everyone else. I think nowadays, with so much social media, a lot of families want their kids to be surrounded by people who are different from them so that they can learn from them. It’s two ways of thinking and neither of them is right or wrong, or better or worse. For us, my parents chose to go with the idea that I’m not any different than anyone else, and I can do anything that anyone with two hands can do.

At a certain point, I realized that I liked team sports better than individual sports — I liked the camaraderie. I honestly chose soccer because my friend group was the strongest in that sport. And when you’re younger, that’s most important. I’m also super close with both of my parents, so being able to train with my dad was fun for me. I think training with him is what drew me closer to soccer — it bonded the two of us.

Did people treat you differently on the field then? And do you think it affects your play at all? 

When I was 12, I got called for an illegal throw-in and that mortified me. It wasn’t a club game and it’s not that serious at 12, but a referee said that it was an illegal throw-in. Ever since then, I’ve been mortified to pick up a ball and throw it in. Sydney Leroux has been begging me to do it. She says, “It could be such a big breakthrough. If they let you do it, then you’ve just done a throw-in. If they don’t, we will go to the ref and it will become a massive issue because you can still do it.” I’ve been waiting to do it, but I’m so nervous. I know that it could be a big breakthrough and even push people with limb differences to do things out of their comfort zone.

In terms of if I think it affects me: honestly, no. Even during certain drills in practice, I never think: “Oh, here we go. You have to be physical, so I’m going to struggle.” Naturally, we all have weaknesses. It’s not that my weakness is my arm, but pushing people off the ball when they’re going towards my left side is obviously a lot harder. I can’t wrap my hand around and hold people off as much. It’s something that I’m aware of, but it’s definitely not a weakness or a struggle that I’m nervous about.

For college, did you know you wanted to stay in Florida? 

No, actually. When I went on trips to different universities and colleges, I really fell in love with the University of Texas. I loved the team there and the coach was awesome. I never thought about it as being too far from home. But when I visited Florida State, I fell in love with the feeling of being on campus. That’s what I tell so many young girls now: “It’s hard to explain which college is right for you. Sometimes you just step on campus and feel at home.”

My family definitely had an influence on my final decision, though. My grandparents and parents have always supported me and they come to every one of my games. I’m an only child, so it was easier for them to see me at FSU. I knew that I didn’t want them to have to get on a plane to visit or only see me play twice a year. I wanted them there all the time.

How do you think your mindset has changed over the years in terms of how you process all of the attention your limb difference receives? 

In college, I remember when reporters would come to the ACC tournaments. Everyone wanted to be reported on because it showed that you were a good player. But I remember that every single time that a reporter would talk to me or interview me, it always had to do with my arm. I would complain to my parents all the time, saying, “I just want to be known as a good soccer player. I don’t want to be known as someone with one arm who’s also a soccer player.” The reporters weren’t doing anything wrong — they just didn’t realize that I wanted to be more than the Florida State player who has one arm.

Fast forward to the pros, and the picture of me and the two-year old fan comes out. Seeing how many people I could reach completely changed my mindset. When I was in college, I just wanted to be a soccer player. I remember being on campus in the summer, in the dead heat in Florida, and wearing a hoodie the first couple of weeks. I would make excuses to not show my arm. Those times were tough for me because I had to make a decision of do I want to stand out? Are people going to stare? Does it matter to me?

Now, I’m more mature and I realize that when people stare at me it may be because they’ve never seen something like it before. Now, I want them to ask me what happened because then I can educate more people about limb difference. It’s not that I want to stand out, but I want to help people who are like me. And I know I’m also reaching people who have both of their hands, but who may be struggling with other problems. Everyone has their own story, everyone is different, everyone has gone through struggles and has weaknesses. It’s how you use that story and those weaknesses and the struggle to best help people in the world. Now that I’m able to reach so many diverse groups, it’s really become more of a blessing.

Have you had to make adjustments in terms of workouts or lifting? 

I didn’t lift much in high school. It wasn’t until college that I learned lifting could actually help you. Since I had never lifted before, I would go into the gym with my strength coach at Florida State and he would say, “Show me a way you can squat” and I would just figure it out. I think him pushing me to get in there and figure out a way to lift was really helpful. He could have just excused me from lifting, but I think being put in uncomfortable situations and being pushed to figure it out was best for me.

You’re in your fifth NWSL season and your third year playing year-round. How has your experience been playing year-round with half of the year being in Australia? 

After my rookie year in Seattle, I decided I wanted to go home and train and be with my family. Being with my family was amazing, but I realized that it’s really hard to make yourself work out every single day, no matter how mentally strong you think you are. Especially, when you are training for a season that is four months away. It’s tough. Luckily, my agent asked me if I was interested in playing overseas and, after that first off-season, I was ready to go.

I wanted to go to Australia to be pushed out of my comfort zone and meet new people in a new environment. Obviously, I was nervous because I was going to another country and I did not know a single person. Usually, in soccer, you always know somebody. It was scary at first, but I could tell that I was growing as a person. Physically, there are times when I come back, after such a long NWSL season, and my body hurts. But I choose to do that and I know that sometimes it’s going to hurt. I am mentally happier training and playing on a team than being by myself. Obviously, it’s tough playing year-round, but I couldn’t do anything else at this point. I love it.

Do you have any plans for after you end your soccer career?

I have a few different things I want to do. Some days, I want to go get my master’s degree and maybe be a college coach. Other days I want to be an athletic advisor who helps freshmen with the transition to college. On top of that, my parents have pushed me to go into public speaking. I’m developing my story now. I have everything written down, but I just have to find the right words. I need to figure out what my storyline would be and what the point of my presentation would be. I’m working through that now and trying to talk to a lot of public speakers who have done this before.

There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the season, but regardless, I have to ask, how does Orlando break what’s become a kind of curse? What’s going on? 

Oh, man. I know. I just think last year, and the year before wasn’t good enough. We struggled with cohesiveness — with players in and out due to the World Cup and medical reasons — but it was no excuse, it just wasn’t clicking. And that’s not blaming any certain people. I just think that because we struggled early in the year and dug ourselves a hole, our mentality faltered later in the season, when it should have been every time we stepped on the field, “we’re winning this game and not losing again.” I’m not saying that we went out there and were like, “Oh, well, we’re going to lose today. Who cares?” It was never like that. We worked our butts off, even in training. We worked probably even harder, but it just wasn’t clicking.

Whatever the reason was, we have a second year coach and a chance to make it right this year. Everyone seems to have the right attitude about it. This year, hopefully, is the year. We have a lot of veterans coming back, a lot of people who played at a really high level, so I’m hoping that this is the year that Orlando is not at the bottom of the table and that we can even make the playoffs and things like that. Right now it’s hard to say just because we’ve haven’t trained together as a team. But neither has anyone else. It’s really hard to say how we’re going to look, but I’m hoping we’re going to look great and we’re going to be making the playoffs this year.