No one can ever accuse Megan Rapinoe of following a well-trodden path, even in the final moments of her career. The pink-haired iconoclast, two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist wrote the final word in her illustrious career in a fashion no one could have expected, not even herself.

Her ending didn’t follow the fairytale story of the previous week. Instead, it went like this: She sat down in the sixth minute of Saturday’s NWSL Championship, shaking her head with a wry grin as she called for OL Reign’s trainers. She gingerly walked off the pitch in her final moments as a professional soccer player, having to watch on the sidelines as the Reign fell, 2-1, to Gotham FC.

“I wasn’t overly emotional about it,” Rapinoe said after the match of the moment immediately following the injury. “I mean, f—ing yeeted my Achilles in the sixth minute of my last game ever in the literal championship game.”

Rose Lavelle, a longtime Reign and U.S. women’s national teammate of Rapinoe, was the first person to reach her as she sat on the ground, shaking her head. Rapinoe didn’t mince words, telling Lavelle right away she was confident she had torn her right Achilles tendon.

“I think when she first said that, I said, ‘Are you effing joking me?” Lavelle told the media after the game.

After a week of buildup, wherein the battle of retiring legends in Rapinoe and Gotham defender Ali Krieger provided the banner headline for the 2023 NWSL Championship, only Krieger saw out the rest of the match. The two good friends shared a hug as Rapinoe left the field, before the restart of play required a refocus from both sides.

“I was just like, ‘You need to wrap that up and get back out here, so just take a couple minutes,’” Krieger said after the game. “I just feel so gutted for her. Honestly, I never thought that that would ever happen, and I feel so sad because you know football is such a risk, right? And you never know if it’s going to be your last game, your last moment.”

True to form, though, Rapinoe didn’t let herself hide away in the locker room while her team pushed to regain momentum. After being given a boot and crutches, she re-emerged on the sideline, cheering her teammates and giving tips even as she had to perch piggyback-style on the back of backup goalkeeper Laurel Ivory.

“I don’t wanna sit there and sulk on the bench,” Rapinoe said. “It’s not just any player going out, it’s me, and it’s my last game ever. So I just wanted to try to stay in it and keep it light, and I just wanted to be in it for myself too.”

The Reign almost completed the comeback twice, after falling behind first on a goal by Lynn Williams and then again by Esther González. Despite clearly dealing with shaken emotions, Rapinoe’s teammates stuck to their game plan, keeping the game in front of them until the very last minute of stoppage time.

The Seattle club’s title hopes remained alive in large part due to the play of Lavelle. The Reign midfielder broke the Gotham line with a piercing run in the first half, drawing Seattle level 1-1. She then played facilitator, breaking lines again with searching passes that her teammates couldn’t put in the back of the net. Even as Gotham sat deeper in their full-team defense, Lavelle could find spaces through her vision and her dribbling ability, which proved worthy of the appreciation of the 25,000-plus fans in attendance.

But in the chaotic final moments of second-half stoppage time, Lavelle herself couldn’t quite land a direct free kick from just outside the box. She was facing field player Nealy Martin in goal after Gotham keeper Amanda Haught received a red card due to intentionally handling the ball outside the penalty area.

“I just told her I was sorry we couldn’t get it done for her,” Lavelle said of Rapinoe. “And it’s just been such an honor to be able to share the field with her and sit next to her in the locker room.”

Rapinoe’s final moments as a professional might have not gone as she’d pictured, but they weren’t defined by her slow walk off the pitch, or by the Reign falling short. Her legacy remains the same, upheld by her willingness to immediately get back out in front of the crowd, and her teammates, to try to will them forward in any way she could.

“I think the energy Pinoe gave us was huge,” Lavelle said. “I can’t even imagine that moment in her head. And I think to still be having such a good attitude and cheering us on through it all was like, I mean, she’s amazing.”

OL Reign defender Lauren Barnes, Rapinoe’s club teammate of 11 years, agreed, saying: “I think you’d never expect something like this to happen, and it does. And she carries herself like she always has. She is the heart and soul of our club.”

In the aftermath of Rapinoe’s final game, her teammates reflected on her impact.

“You guys know,” Barnes said of the legacy of the leaders at the Reign, including herself, Rapinoe, and Jess Fishlock.. “You’ve been writing it for 11 years what our legacy is, and we just want to embody that, and we truly want to share it with the fans as much as we possibly can. So these [tears] are real. We love each other. So yeah, it’s hard and it’s gonna be different. It’s never the same now.”

In the sixth minute of the 2023 NWSL Championship, her final match as a professional soccer player, OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe exited with a leg injury.

After her team’s 2-1 loss to Gotham FC, Rapinoe’s head coach, teammates and opponents reacted to the unexpected ending to a legendary career.

Ali Krieger, Gotham FC defender

(On what she told Rapinoe immediately after the injury) “I was just like, ‘You need to wrap that up and get back out here, so go take a couple minutes.’ And I just feel so gutted for her. Honestly, I never thought that would ever happen.

“And I feel so sad because you know football is such a risk, right? And you never know if it’s going to be your last game, your last moment. And to happen to such an incredible player, in that moment, when there was such a buildup and for us talking about this game for the past week, or actually since Sept. 13. It just is so sad and I feel for her and I’m gonna be there every step of the way for her recovery because I know how hard that can be and it’s devastating. … And I never wanted that to happen because I wanted to celebrate with her at the end.”

Midge Purce, Gotham FC forward

“It was when I saw her put her head back, I knew, I’ve seen Pinoe go down, and it was just really sad.

“And then one of the girls on their team started crying, and I turned to (Yazmeen Ryan) and I said, ‘Let’s go at her,’ because she was clearly upset. I mean, I think that definitely affected them a lot. I think it affected their concentration. And that’s sports.

“So I’m so sorry that that’s how it ended. But I don’t think it defines or in any way characterizes her impact that she’s had on myself, on this league, everything.”

Rose Lavelle, OL Reign midfielder

“It seems like a sick joke that it has to end that way. It’s just been such an honor to be able to share the field with her. So I wish we could’ve gotten it done today for her but yeah, she’s amazing and she didn’t deserve that. … I feel like she just takes it on the chin and she was still our biggest fan out there.”

Lauren Barnes, OL Reign defender

“You want Pinoe on the field as long as she can be. She is the tactic. … You’d never expect something like this to happen, and it does, and she carries herself like she always has. She is the heart and soul of our club.”

Laura Harvey, OL Reign head coach

(On Rapinoe returning to the sidelines on crutches to cheer on the team) “Pinoe, you know, she cares about the team. She cares about the club. She’d never have it any other way. And obviously everyone was devastated for her.”

OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer will never forget her first professional film session. It was 2019, and she was at the player apartment complex in Tacoma under former Reign (and current U.S. women’s national team) head coach Vlatko Andonovski.

Balcer had just beaten incredibly long odds, making the Reign roster after a strong preseason as a non-roster invitee. She had gone undrafted in the NWSL following an exceptional career at NAIA program Spring Arbor University.

“I knew nobody, and I walked in and just sat in the back,” she says, recalling how she then struck up a conversation with longtime Reign defender Lauren Barnes.

Barnes also remembers meeting Balcer for the first time.

“I heard about Beth before coming in, and how unique — or not even unique — her story is, just like different,” she says. ”She didn’t go to a major DI college.”

A player making an NWSL roster without ever playing Division I soccer was incredibly rare at the time, and still is today. Balcer broke the mold that season, winning Rookie of the Year after scoring six goals and registering two assists while playing in every single one of the Reign’s regular season matches.

“I was really excited,” Barnes says of hearing about Balcer’s background. “Because I think stories like that, for one, give hope for the growth of women’s soccer.”

Balcer’s story is well-woven into NWSL history at this point, but her next act might be even more impressive. Known affectionately to teammates and fans as “Boats,” in a reference to the size of her feet, Balcer is now a consistent starter for the 2022 NWSL Shield champions. Immediately recognizable by her signature headband as she scores off towering headers, Balcer has shown both the continued ability to score goals and an underrated playmaking ability.

“I think my first two or three years in the league, I really struggled to truly understand that I belonged,” she says. “Because I said all the time I didn’t want to be a one-year wonder, like I just had this year and then fell off the face of the earth and couldn’t follow it up with a good second season.”

Far from a one-season wonder, Balcer is now the fourth-longest tenured player on the Reign roster. Her only predecessors still playing for Seattle are Barnes, Megan Rapinoe and Jessica Fishlock, who have all been with the club since the NWSL’s inaugural year in 2013. Balcer idolized that trio early on and still looks up to them today.

“I still think of her as like my little one coming in, but I kind of laugh now,” says Barnes. “She’s been here for five years, so she’s been here almost half of my career at that rate. So, she’s kind of paving the same path that our OGs have done for ourselves.”

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Balcer's 11 header goals since the beginning of 2021 are the most in the NWSL. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Among the Reign veterans’ big personalities, Balcer’s confidence on the field has coincided with her clear desire to be a leader in the locker room. She didn’t get a chance to build on her rookie season in routine fashion in 2020, when the NWSL regular season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recast as the one-month Challenge Cup.

The next year came with its own upheaval, as former Reign manager Farid Benstiti resigned for reasons that were later identified as excessive weight-shaming. Original head coach Laura Harvey returned to the team mid-season, and her management has directly correlated with Balcer and her teammates easing into their current roles.

Outside of the tumultuous circumstances beyond Balcer’s control, the 26-year-old has always been open about her journey with mental health, including when she suffered a panic attack during the 2020 Challenge Cup. She now feels that her openness is an important part of the way she navigates being a public figure.

“I’ll never forget the first time I really shared about it,” she says. “The response I got was so overwhelmingly positive, and I was actually shocked because I was like, oh, this really is like a taboo topic. And this really is something that just never gets discussed.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re ever alone, or anyone to think that I have it all together just because I play professional soccer and I’m playing well. Like that’s not the case at all. I think I just really tried to see my current career in terms of a whole life perspective.”

Balcer says she has a love-hate relationship with social media, a tool that athletes in women’s sports use to raise awareness and market themselves, but also can give a skewed representation of reality. Balcer famously called out the NWSL for the Chipotle gift card she received for winning Rookie of the Year in 2019, pushing for better bonuses for NWSL athletes that perform well during the regular season. Her honesty in that moment also went against overly curated messages of false positivity, a position Balcer takes intentionally on social media.

“I want people to know the real Bethany 100% when I’m not on the field,” she says. “Because that’s just 90 minutes that people see, when there’s so many more minutes and hours and days in the year that I’m existing just like anybody else. So, I think it’s just really normalizing and making my experience, I guess, more human to everybody else.”

The way Balcer carries herself hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“She’s definitely one of our leaders now on the team, she’s well respected in the locker room, and she performs,” Barnes says. “You have all those three things that really gain trust and respect from your coaches, your coaching staff, your players, and then be able to also teach the next generation.”

Balcer’s confidence off the field has positively influenced her role on the Reign. In the NWSL, she’s played both on the wing and as a central forward. Recently, she’s also sat back as a playmaker in the absence of Rose Lavelle, who’s been dealing with a leg injury since mid-April. The position isn’t completely unfamiliar — Balcer played attacking midfield throughout her college career and has natural goal-scoring instincts.

“She probably doesn’t even know this, but as a younger player, senior players like myself, I’m like, ‘We need to get the ball to Beth, like she will score goals for us,’” says Barnes. “She’s definitely one that has to take on that pressure now, and I think she’s done it so gracefully, and passionately.”

When Balcer is at her best, the rest of the team follows, as seen in the Reign’s 2-1 win over the San Diego Wave on Saturday. Balcer scored two goals with her head to give the Reign all three points. Her 11 header goals since the beginning of 2021 are five more than any other player in the NWSL, according to Opta.

The Reign play a free-flowing, creative style of soccer that allows players the freedom to be their best selves. While the system might sacrifice a clear scoring outlet, the closer Balcer is to goal, the better the team’s odds are of coming out on top.

“We don’t just have one person who’s leading the charge,” Balcer says. “Every single person plays a pivotal role, and that’s seen in our team goals. But then there’s some nitty gritty goals that just come out of nothing, which is a really good quality to have, too.”

It’s no accident that Balcer does well in a number of roles given her unique background.

“I feel like I’m not your typical player,” she says. “Unorthodox, I think that’s the word. I think that’s my kryptonite.

“I obviously made it into this league in the craziest of ways, and that is still a shock to me sometimes. But there was something special about me that my coaches at the time told me to let them see, and I feel like that’s what got me here, and that’s what’s gonna sustain me throughout my entire career.”

Balcer’s ambitions go beyond her already-decorated club career; she’s participated in camps with the U.S. women’s national team and still has a desire to represent the national team at a major tournament someday. But for Balcer to pick up the mantle of leading the club in the years after Barnes, Rapinoe and Fishlock would create a legacy of its own.

“I think for a club to be successful year in and year out, that it’s not necessarily just players you bring in, but it’s a legacy you leave,” Barnes says. “I hope she outplays me, Pinoe and Jess by a decade.”

Despite three NWSL Shield-winning seasons — an accomplishment any Reign player will tell you is the most difficult in American women’s soccer — the club is still searching for its first NWSL Championship to send the original trio out on a high note. But for Barnes, seeing players like Balcer grow and succeed has re-introduced a love of the game that goes far beyond wins and losses.

“There does come a point in our career where you’re gonna obviously hang up the boots,” she says. “But sometimes you feel like you can’t do that until someone’s taking your position.”

Barnes considers Balcer to be the new face of the Reign, while the striker herself embraces being the conduit toward the next generation of Seattle stars.

“I’ve been like a sponge,” Balcer says. “Just continuing to absorb everything that’s around me from the older vets than me, and then just using that to help out the younger kids.”

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

OL Reign captain Lauren “Lu” Barnes is the first player to make 200 regular season appearances in NWSL history, playing all 90 minutes in the Reign’s 2-1 win over the visiting Kansas City Current on Saturday.

During her 11-season tenure with the Reign, Barnes has only missed 14 of the club’s 214 regular season games. The 34-year-old also holds the league record for most games started (196) and minutes played (17,328).

Reign head coach Laura Harvey, who also recently hit her 200th regular season NWSL game coached, struggled to find words to describe Barnes’ feat.

“It’s really hard to put in perspective how big of an achievement that is for her,” Harvey said. “To have done it for the same club, in a league that’s set up for that not to happen, is phenomenal.”

Despite her longevity in the league, Barnes isn’t exactly the biggest NWSL — or even OL Reign — name, something Harvey called out on Saturday.

“She’s willing to put her body on the line for the team and she does it without needing to be the star,” the head coach said. “She’s humble and wants everyone else to get the limelight instead of it being her.”

True to form, Barnes played down the accomplishment in her post-game remarks.

“For me, it’s another game,” she said. “We’ve been focused on what’s ahead of us, game by game. So, I’m proud of the team, we put up a good performance together, today, and yeah, 200 with one club, I couldn’t be more proud.”

Barnes, a UCLA alum who played in the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league before it folded, was selected by the Reign — then Seattle Reign FC — as the 10th overall pick in the NWSL’s Supplemental Draft in 2013. She is one of just five players to have played with the same club since the NWSL’s launch, joining Reign teammates Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock, plus Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns) and Tori Huster (Washington Spirit).

“If I thought I was gonna still be here 11 years ago, I would probably say no,” Barnes told the Associated Press earlier this season. “The way the league started off, there’s been huge improvements. There’s definitely a life and an opportunity to make this a lifestyle and a job — the last probably three to five years or so. So that’s really promising for the next generations to come and it’s been really fun to be a part of that and build that.”

NJ/NY Gotham FC’s McCall Zerboni (198) is the next NWSL player in line to hit 200 regular season appearances.

Rough & Tumble Pub, which bills itself as Seattle’s home for women’s sports, is putting its money where its mouth is.

The women’s sports bar — which features a “Billie Jean Wings” appetizer in honor of tennis legend Billie Jean King, among other aptly named menu items — is pledging 1% of its revenue toward gender equity in youth soccer, the Seattle Times reported Saturday.

With the pledge, Rough & Tumble joins longtime OL Reign defender Lu Barnes, San Diego Wave defender Naomi Girma and other NWSL players who are doing the same with their earnings. The money from the players and the pub is going toward Football For Her, a nonprofit dedicated to providing spaces and resources for young people who identify as female or nonbinary.

The pledge is made in partnership with Common Goal, an organization which wants to direct 1% of soccer’s annual revenue across the globe toward social change.

Barnes, Girma and Reign defender Alana Cook, who also pledges 1% of her salary to Football for Her, attended an event in celebration of Common Goal and Football for Her at Rough & Tumble last Thursday.

When Barnes was growing up, she had the opportunity to play soccer for free, which helped her both start and stick with the sport. Such opportunities are fewer and farther between as youth sports becomes more professionalized.

With their pledges, NWSL players and Rough & Tumble could help change that.

“When I go to stadiums after games and go to sign autographs, you see kids light up when they see someone who looks like you,” Cook told the Seattle Times. “If it takes 1% of my salary, one minute of my time to give them a role model, to give them an idea that this could be their pathway, it’s a no-brainer.”

The players who attended Thursday’s event also reveled in the atmosphere of the women’s sports bar, which also features a salads named after Barnes, Breanna Stewart and Serena Williams, as well as a fried chicken dinner named after Sue Bird.

“I feel like this is something that could happen in so many places and to see them push women’s sports to the forefront and really emphasize women is really good,” Girma told the Seattle Times.

OL Reign’s 2022 season could be described as a rollercoaster full of highs and lows. The team won their third NWSL Shield and earned a No. 1 seed in the NWSL playoffs, reflecting the consistent excellence the club has come to be known for since the early days of the league.

But once again, they failed to win the biggest honor of all, falling in their second consecutive semifinal after finishing in the top two in the league standings, this time to the Kansas City Current. The Reign have always represented the dichotomy of the difficult task in front of NWSL clubs: Sometimes the consistency that gives you a season-long edge becomes exploitable in the win-or-go-home playoffs.

The Reign have yet to hoist the NWSL trophy at the end of the postseason despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league. Is this the year the original Reign trio of Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock finish a season on a win?

2022 review: All about the timing

Part of what made the Reign’s inability to reach the finish line in 2022 so confounding is they appeared to be peaking at exactly the right time. The team’s Shield win was less a reflection of complete season dominance, and more an opportunity seized at the last minute.

Portland was in pole position for a back-to-back Shield title before dropping crucial points in the final weekend of the regular season. OL Reign, with momentum behind them, grabbed the chance to finish at the top of the table and looked like they had more in the tank for a postseason run.

But then, the same issues that have plagued the Reign for years popped up in their semifinal matchup against the Current. The Reign are experts at moving the ball, controlling games through possession and finding clinical ways to create chances on goal. They arguably are the golden standard for possessive-style football in the NWSL, with a consistency underlined by talent and experience.

Despite the strong build-up play, the Reign had a hard time finishing those chances. The club hit the woodwork more than any other NWSL team in 2022, and while the addition of Canada forward Jordyn Huitema midseason helped, they came up short again in the knockout game. The Reign out-shot, out-passed, out-possessed and held a huge advantage on set pieces in their semifinal, and still saw their season disappear in a disappointing 2-0 loss to Kansas City.

“It’s so tough because you look back on the year, and we had a really good year,” midfielder Rose Lavelle told reporters in preseason. “We won the Shield and that’s hard. That’s like a product of the whole season. But then I think to finish on that last game hurt us all.”

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The Reign acquired forward Elyse Bennett and defender Emily Sonnett in the offseason. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Staying the course

Despite the disappointing finish, the Reign’s approach to the 2023 offseason was about consistency. Top free agents Rapinoe and Barnes both decided to re-sign with the club — ”It would have taken a catastrophe, most likely, for me to actually leave,” Rapinoe said — and head coach Laura Harvey made strategic additions elsewhere.

“Having the group predominantly back together again was a priority,” Harvey said. As a result, the Reign head into the 2023 season looking very similar to their Shield-winning squad.

The Reign did take the opportunity to sign USWNT defender Emily Sonnett on draft day, after the Washington Spirit offered her in a trade. They also picked up second-year forward Elyse Bennett from Kansas City, bolstering a frontline that will need dynamicism when players are away for the 2023 World Cup.

“Adding someone of [Sonnett’s] quality and experience and knowing how to win in this league could be really vital for us, and adding some depth in our frontline was also a priority to us and obviously [Bennett] fits that mold,” said Harvey. The coach noted that the team didn’t bring in rookies in large numbers, instead focusing on players with track records and the ability to acclimate to the Reign’s style of play.

Harvey also has the ebbs and flows of the international calendar in mind: “We’re constantly looking at, is this the roster that we have for the whole year? Is this something that we can take through to the World Cup, and then we have to manipulate the roster a little bit during the World Cup? And then, what does it look like after the World Cup?

“I sort of think, in World Cup years, you’ve always got those things going around in your mind. But it all started with making sure that we kept the majority of the group together from last year.”

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Coach Laura Harvey is a three-time NWSL Coach of the Year with the Reign. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

2023 Outlook: Finishing the job

The goal in 2023 remains the same as in past years: The Reign expect to compete for an NWSL championship.

“We have just such a talented, young squad. We kind of have all the pieces in place to be really good for a very long time and I think with the foundation of our culture and just how we are here, it could be one of the most attractive places in the world, not just the NWSL,” Rapinoe said.

“But we need to keep building and keep pushing and keep striving and making sure that everything off the pitch is just as good as what’s on the pitch.”

The Reign played preseason games in California, heading to warmer weather as many other clubs did before the season, and will be training at Starfire Sports in 2023 and beyond. While the group has always had a strong locker-room culture, upgrades in resources have proven to be key during a grueling NWSL season, and the Reign are taking steps to keep up with the top clubs in the league.

On the field, the squad is leaning into what’s worked for them in the past, with the intention of making the final push when it matters most.

“The vibes are always so good, and I think I’ve never been on a team like this that it’s just so good and wholesome,” Lavelle said. “It’s such a great group, and I think it makes it so easy to come in and get the job done. I think we’re all on the same page with everything and it’s fun.”

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

A wrap on July means it’s time for Just Women’s Sports’ monthly NWSL Best XI.

While many teams were missing players in July due to international competitions, others were given the opportunity to shine. Eight clubs are represented in this 4-3-3 lineup, with the Kansas City Current, Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns sending two players each. The Orlando Pride earn their first Best XI nod of the year, and Lauren Barnes makes the list for a second consecutive month.

Forwards

Ebony Salmon, Houston Dash

After not getting much playing time with Racing Louisville, Ebony Salmon was traded to the Houston Dash at the end of June. On July 16, she recorded the NWSL’s second hat trick of the year with her new team in a 4-1 win over the Red Stars. The 21-year-old received Player of the Week honors for her efforts before scoring her fourth goal of the season in a 4-2 win over NJ/NY Gotham FC on Sunday.

Savannah DeMelo, Racing Louisville FC

Scoring two goals and recording nine shots in the month of July, Savannah DeMelo has been one of Louisville’s most dependable players. The rookie played 90 minutes in all four games this month, mastering the art of drawing fouls and creating scoring opportunities. She now leads the league with a total of 37 chances created.

Yuki Nagasato, Chicago Red Stars

Yuki Nagasato displayed her impressive technical skills and versatility throughout July, playing both in the midfield and on the attack for a total of 347 minutes. She unleashed a number of lethal shots, and on July 2 added an assist off a header in Chicago’s 3-0 shutout win over Gotham FC.

Midfielders

Hina Sugita, Portland Thorns FC

Hina Sugita played every minute in July and scored two of her four goals on the season, including the game winner in a 2-1 victory over Racing Louisville. With an 80.3 passing percentage, she helped the Thorns extend their unbeaten streak to nine games while seven players were away on international duty.

Yazmeen Ryan, Portland Thorns FC’

Yazmeen Ryan rose to the top of the assists board with her fourth helper in a 5-0 shutout of Gotham on July 16. She also added a goal in a 1-1 draw with Angel City FC on July 1. Defensively, she has a tackle success rate of 73.7 percent this season.

Vanessa DiBernardo, Chicago Red Stars

Playing every minute since June 12, Vanessa DiBernardo has had a big impact on Chicago’s attack, most notably notching a goal against Gotham at the beginning of July to help the Red Stars to a 3-0 win. She went on to add an assist and record nine shots throughout the month.

Defenders

Kylie Strom, Orlando Pride

On a team that’s lost a lot of stars this season, including Sydney Leroux and Marta, Kylie Strom has risen to the occasion. Playing 349 minutes in July, she started the month off strong with a goal in a 2-2 draw with Racing Louisville. A week later, Strom forced an own goal game-winner in a 1-0 victory over Houston. Her efforts helped the Pride close out the month of July with an unbeaten record.

Kristen Edmonds, Kansas City Current

Kristen Edmonds has been an exceptional passer of late, recording an 89 percent success rate through three games in July. She’s also excelled at clearances (25) and recoveries (36), helping a backline that conceded just one goal while she was on the field.

Lauren Barnes, OL Reign

Lauren “Lu” Barnes does it all, from defending to sending crosses into the box to delivering dangerous shots from the top of the 18. In July, she had 27 recoveries and a 73 percent passing success rate. Her leadership has also been invaluable to her teammates, including Sam Hiatt, who recently expressed gratitude for Barnes’ vocal presence on the backline.

Kristen McNabb, San Diego Wave FC

Kristen McNabb scored her first goal of the season against Angel City on July 9. She also recorded the most shots she’s had in a month this season with seven. Playing every possible minute in July as both a midfielder and a defender, McNabb signed a two-year contract extension later in the month with an option for an extra year with San Diego.

Goalkeeper

AD Franch, Kansas City Current

There was no stopping AD Franch, who was named NWSL Player of the Week on July 13 and saved a penalty kick against the Spirit to preserve a 1-0 win, her second shutout of the season. The following week she recorded a second consecutive clean sheet and her third of the season in a 1-0 win over OL Reign. So far this season, she’s saving 74 percent of the shots she faces.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

OL Reign announced a number of moves on Wednesday, re-signing Megan Rapinoe, Bethany Balcer and Lauren Barnes.

Rapinoe has re-signed with the club on a one-year deal. The forward has been with the club since 2013 and is one of three original players remaining with the club. In total, she’s made nearly 90 appearances in the regular season for the Reign, scoring a club-high 40 regular season goals. During the 2021 season Rapinoe made 12 appearances, scoring six goals and tallying three assists.

A staple on the USWNT since 2006, she’s logged 187 appearances for the team, which includes two World Cup wins, an Olympic gold medal and an Olympic bronze.

“Megan joined our club in 2013 already a world-class talent, and over the last decade has done the work on and off the field to transform herself into a global icon who now transcends the sport,” said OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore. “Beyond the direct impact her talent and creativity bring to the team, her confidence and swagger is infectious—it makes every player around her better.”

Balcer also re-upped with the club on a three-year deal with a club option for an additional year. The 2021 season was Balcer’s best yet with the Reign, finishing as the club’s leading goal scorer and second in the race for the NWSL Golden Boot. Through 24 games, she scored nine total goals.

Balcer has been a member of the Reign since 2019. That year, she won NWSL Rookie of the Year after scoring six goals and adding two assists through 25 appearances.

“Bethany’s talent and tenacity has allowed her to exceed all expectations since her first day with the club. While she has consistently been one of the most impactful players in our squad and in the NWSL, we believe she has the opportunity and ability to achieve even more in her career,” said Predmore.

Barnes was the final deal announced by the club, a one-year deal with a one-year option. Like Rapinoe, Barnes has been with the club since its inaugural season in 2013.

A seasoned defender, Barnes made 22 appearances for the club during the 2021 seasons. She made 64 clearances, 40 interceptions and seven blocks throughout the season.

With the most appearances of any player for the Reign (183), she is just the second player in NWSL history to play in 150 regular season matches and the first to do so with a single club.

“Above and beyond her performances on the pitch, Lu has always embodied the values, spirit, and ambition of our club, and has been a driving force behind all we’ve strived to achieve on and off the field,” said Predmore. “I am excited that she’ll finally have the opportunity to play on the biggest stage our city has to offer.”

The club also announced on Wednesday that they had re-signed Rose Lavelle to a two-year deal.

Note: this piece was first published in The Sustainability Report

As a professional athlete, you’re always looking for a competitive edge. Every morning, you wake up and ask yourself, how can I be better today than I was yesterday?

You’re always looking to improve, and not just on the field. Every aspect of your life is under constant review for areas where you can do more to maximise your efforts.

Six years ago, my own professional journey led me to become a vegan athlete. I initially made the switch for health reasons and because I thought it could improve my on-field performance. Little did I know that it would fundamentally change the way I see my place in the world and ultimately lead me to take the initiative of working to make the sports industry carbon-neutral, starting with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

Almost immediately upon going vegan, I felt the personal benefits of my new diet. I felt stronger, both physically and mentally. My recovery time was shorter and my energy levels were higher. Playing soccer year round in the NWSL and W-League wears on both your mind and body. But after I made the switch, I honestly felt like I was getting younger season after season.

Over time, I started to do more research into the diet. And as I did, I was blown away to discover just how much of an impact being vegan had not only on my own health, but on the health of the planet as a whole.

Did you know that you’d save more water by not eating one pound of meat than you would by not taking a shower for 6 months?

Or that 70% of grains and cereals grown in the United States are fed to farmed animals?

And that nearly a third of the Earth’s land mass is used for raising animals?

When I had heard people praise veganism before, it was always in terms of saving the animals. Obviously, I knew that eating chicken wasn’t ideal for the chicken. But what I hadn’t realised was just how inefficient it is to raise animals—and how much damage eating meat does to the earth itself.

Going vegan forced me to think critically about my relationship with the environment, as I became keenly aware of every single thing I was putting in my body. And the more I read, the more my love for the natural world evolved. I realised that being vegan wasn’t just a way to spare the lives of animals and help my athletic career – but that it was also a way to help the Earth, day by day, meal after meal.

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with climate change is that it’s such a huge problem. It’s hard to see how you can make an impact as a single individual. But what my experience with veganism has proven to me is that changing the world is often as simple as just changing a few of your everyday behaviours.

While collectively we need to think big in order to save our planet, individually, we need to think small. Eco-friendly habits, over time, will do more than any one single decision or donation.

As I’ve grown in my education and awareness, I’ve looked for other ways to change my personal behavior in order to lower my environmental impact.

I started by tracking my own carbon footprint. As a professional athlete, travel is an unavoidable part of my job. But by creating a baseline, I would have something tangible to work against, and I knew it would be a great resource to share with my teammates.

I partnered up with Santiago Gallo, who used to work for the OL Reign as an operations coordinator and manager. Santiago has a background in environmental engineering and sustainable consulting, and even when he was back home in Colombia, he was still willing to help me aggregate and analyse all the data I sent him.

With his help, I was able to rally my teammates and team owners together to figure out ways that the OL Reign could lead the league in sustainable practices, starting with the 2020 Challenge Cup.

Understanding our impact on the environment was and continues to be very important to me. I was already well aware that our team travel had a significant carbon impact but I wanted to delve deeper into the numbers, so I decided to track my own personal carbon footprint during a season. Originally, I planned on mainly tracking travel until the pandemic eliminated travel and had us all competing in a common location.

Inside last summer’s Challenge Cup bubble, safety was our top priority for obvious reasons. But because everyone was so focused on Covid, environmental concerns fell by the wayside.

When we first arrived in Utah, everyone was using plastic water bottles and disposable silverware. This was done for the sake of sanitation, but it also led to a ton of unnecessary waste. These levels of waste led me to expand the scope of my tracking and research. I wanted to see how replacing all the single-use plastics with reusable wares would impact carbon footprint data.

With the help of Dani Weatherholt and Rosie White, I immediately began reaching out to local companies that I thought would be interested in providing my teammates and I with sustainable products in exchange for us marketing their brand.

We were quickly able to secure Crazy Cap water bottles (which use UV light to kill bacteria) for each player on the team. Albatross Take Back Ware likewise provided us with reusable utensils that generated zero waste, and ECOlunchbox sent us stainless steel plates to eat off. Working with small, sustainable companies whose values aligned with our own, we were able to eliminate plastic from our Challenge Cup environment as a team.

As I pushed for our club to be more environmentally friendly, I became concerned about securing everyone’s buy-in. As female footballers, we already have so many other commitments and concerns that extend beyond the soccer field. Most of us don’t have the luxury to just focus on our sport in the way that our male counterparts do. Because of that, it’s easy to understand why environmental concerns can take lower priority.

But inside the bubble, all it took was leading by example. Once Rosie, Dani and I were able to show our teammates how easy it was to just change just a few of their habits, everyone bought in. They realised it was both more environmentally friendly and personally convenient to use reusable items rather than plastic.

My total carbon footprint inside the NWSL bubble last year was about 0.795 tons of CO2e, the relative equivalent of the consumption of 1.8 barrels of petroleum or charging your phone 101 times. Based on the similarly controlled conditions of my teammates in the bubble, I estimate comparable footprints for them as well.

While this was a relatively small sample, our Challenge Cup experience offered an important lesson: the best way to make an impact is to lead by example.

This is why athletes have so much influence in our society. Because they have so many eyes on them, they’re able to create a domino effect using their platform. They lead by example, whether it’s through their hard work on the field or their activism off of it.

This experience tracking my carbon footprint in the NWSL bubble helped me to hatch another idea that will launch at the 2021 Challenge Cup: putting together a travel kit for my teammates made up of sustainably-produced items that we use every day to help eliminate the use of single-use plastics. I chose a travel kit because, similar to a toiletry bag, it will be filled with items needed on a regular basis– items that will all be free of single-use plastic.

These travel kits, called the ‘Make a Difference’ kits (or ‘MAD,’ for short), include everything from a toothbrush to deodorant, shampoo to menstrual cups, protein powder to reusable bags. Everything in the kit is sourced from companies that credibly emphasise sustainable and eco-friendly production. In this year’s Challenge Cup, everyone part of OL Reign will receive a travel kit for their use during, and hopefully beyond, the competition. The goal is to spread these kits, and other initiatives like it, to the rest of the league and sports world as a whole.

As part of the launch of the kits, we’re releasing a digital pledge that encourages athletes and fans to #PlayItForward by doing one small act to eliminate the use of single-use plastics. My hope is that the message spreads far and wide, proving the ability the sports community has to help drive awareness in sustainability.

I firmly believe that if we, as athletes, can demonstrate sustainable behaviors, our fans will follow. They’ll see how easy and impactful it is to just change a few of their everyday habits, and together, we can create real change in the world.

I know when I’m competing on the pitch that there are girls in the audience who are studying what I do, hoping to improve their soccer game. If my behaviour on the field can inspire them, I don’t see why my behaviour off the field can’t as well.

Climate change is one of, if not the most critical issues facing our world today. But the size of the problem is no reason to despair. Systematic change starts with personal behaviour, and as a professional athlete, it’s my responsibility to spread awareness. I want people to know that they can, in fact, change the world. They just have to start with themselves.

Lauren Barnes is a professional soccer player for OL Reign and the creator of Make a Difference (MAD) kits