Phallon Tullis-Joyce has been hard at work with Manchester United after making the move to the English club earlier this year.

Tullis-Joyce started 2023 as the starting goalkeeper for OL Reign before making the move to the Women’s Super League. Now she’s the backup for England starter Mary Earps, who was named the best goalkeeper at the 2023 World Cup in August. Earps, though, could be on the move at conclusion of the 2023-24 WSL season, which would put Tullis-Joyce in line for the starting spot.

As Manchester United head coach Marc Skinner told Chris Brookes, he’s been happy with how the 27-year-old American (and U.S. women’s national team prospect) has adapted since her move from the NWSL.

“She’s having to adapt to shorter passes, medium, and obviously some longer-range to make sure we mix up the opponent – but I think it’s about the speed in which she does that,” Skinner said, noting the increased ball possession in the English compared to the U.S. league.

Skinner is no stranger to the NWSL, having coached the Orlando Pride from 2019 to 2021.

“I’ve been to the NWSL and there’s a lot of quality there, a lot of individual dribbling quality, a lot of high-speed energy,” he continued, noting that the WSL is “a little bit more tactically designed,” which Tullis-Joyce is learning.

Even still, it isn’t taking much for her to adjust. Skinner likened the process to “sharpening her tools.”

“I’ll be very clear: she has all of the foundations,” Skinner said. “I’ve never seen a goalkeeper make the saves that she makes, honestly. … She’s so athletic. I think it’s just making sure she can make those in big moments.

“She’s such an astute learner, she literally takes a notepad into everywhere she goes. So, you’re going to see a real character that, I think after this season once she’s had these kind of games, I think you’re going to see a world-class goalkeeper. I really do. She’s got all of the qualities she needs.”

OL Reign and the Portland Thorns will face off at 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday in the 38th meeting of the NWSL’s fiercest rivalry.

Each team has a win against the other this year, with Portland winning 2-0 on June 3, then falling 1-0 on June 28. The most recent meeting, though, ended in a 0-0 draw on Aug. 6. The two most recent matches were part of the 2023 Challenge Cup tournament.

Portland’s regular-season win against OL Reign marked their first on the road in Seattle since 2017. And the Reign will be looking to return the favor in Saturday’s matchup on their home turf. Even more is at stake this time around, with four matches left in the regular season. Portland sits second in the NWSL with 29 points, while the Reign are fourth with 27 points.

Both teams are missing key players: The Thorns are without Sophia Smith due to an MCL sprain, while goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce recently was whisked away by Manchester United.

OL Reign vs. Portland Thorns: How to watch

The Cascadia Cup match will take place on Saturday, Sept. 16, at 10:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. local time). Viewers can watch the rivalry match on Paramount+.

Keys to the game: OL Reign

Give the ball to Jordyn Huitema. The 22-year-old forward has seven goals across all NWSL competitions this season, leading the Reign. She’s also been among the best in the league in blocks (1.50 per 90), clearances (1.22 per 90) and tackles (1.50 per 90). Her 5.1 xG per game ranks eighth in the NWSL, and her 46 aerials won ranks third in the league. In short: Huitema has been all over the field for the Reign this season, and they’ve reaped the rewards.

The loss of Tullis-Joyce certainly will be felt, although Claudia Dickey has come into her own over the last two matches, having played in place of the former starting keeper. She’s allowed just two goals during those two games, one win and one loss. She’ll face arguably the biggest test of her career Saturday, and it’ll be a good indicator of where the Reign stand in net from here on out.

Defensively, the Reign will want to be better than they have been against a team that is one of the best in the league at shot creation. The Thorns’ 31.06 shot-creating actions per 90 ranks first in the NWSL, far ahead of any other team in the league (Louisville is second with 24.67 shot-creating actions per 90). If the Reign want to get the win on the road, they’ll have to find a way to keep the Thorns from doing what they do best.

One other thing to manage? The crowd. OL Reign are no stranger to the animosity they face from Portland fans, who can often act as a sixth man.

“What I love so much is that [the fans] truly hate Seattle as much as we all do,” Meghan Klingenberg told Just Women’s Sports earlier this week. “And I feel like it’s this grudge that the city holds against Seattle as a bigger, more well-known city. But we love it, we have a blast playing into that story.

“Every time Seattle shows up here, it’s always extra fun because I know the fans are going to be super loud and I can barely communicate to the people next to me. That’s how crazy it is.”

Megan Rapinoe is preparing to play her final regular-season match against Portland. Perhaps goal would be a fitting send-off for one of the game’s best in one of its fiercest rivalries.

Keys to the game: Portland Thorns

Let Christine Sinclair cook.

The 40-year-old forward, who is also the Thorns’ captain, has been the driving force behind this rivalry, and she has scored 11 goals in her 31 all-time matches against the Reign. Eight of those goals have come since the beginning of 2020. In that time, the only player with more goals against a single opponent is Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch, who has nine goals against North Carolina.

She also knows what the rivalry means, having been part of it long before stepping on the field for the Thorns. The hatred runs so deep, she punctuated the Thorns’ championship celebration last November with a hearty: “F–k Seattle!”

The Thorns will be without Smith, who remains sidelined with an MCL sprain. They’ve felt her absence, with a 1-1 draw against Washington and a 2-1 loss to Racing Louisville in their last two outings. Facing their rival, they’ll need to be on top of their game offensively. Luckily, they’re one of the best teams in the league when it comes to offense, having outscored opponents by 13 goals this season. That goal differential is nearly double that of any other team.

Portland is the second-best passing team in the league, with a 75.7% completion rate. And the Thorns’ 38.7% shots on target percentage is first in the league. On paper, they blow the Reign out of the water offensively. But reality could be another story. On Saturday, they’ll need to lean into what has made them one of the best teams in the league this season if they want to get back-to-back regular-season wins against the Reign.

Phallon Tullis-Joyce is headed to Manchester United.

The deal, first reported by Mail Sport’s Kathryn Batte, sends the OL Reign goalkeeper across the pond from the NWSL to the Women’s Super League. Tullis-Joyce commanded a transfer fee of close to $160,000, a record for a goalkeeper, Sounder at Heart reported.

“Today has been pure excitement for me,” Tullis-Joyce said in a news release. “Manchester United is such an historic club, that has already done so much in the women’s game. I’m so honored to get this opportunity.”

United are expected to retain England national team goalkeeper Mary Earps despite a record offer from Arsenal. Earps, who won the Golden Glove award at the 2023 World Cup, reportedly wanted to leave the club this summer. Her contract runs through the end of the 2023-24 season.

The signing of Tullis-Joyce, who has been the starting goalkeeper for OL Reign for the majority of the last two seasons but has been the backup in the team’s last two league games, gives United a replacement for Earps if she departs in 2024.

The 26-year-old goalkeeper is a big pickup for United, as she has been among the NWSL’s best at her position over the last two seasons and is in the conversation for the USWNT. Last season, she allowing 19 goals in 22 games for an average of 0.86 goals against per 90, which ranked first in the league. Her 81.3% save percentage and nine clean sheets last year also ranked first in the league.

This season, she ranked sixth in goals against average (1.07) and tenth in clean sheets with four before departing for Manchester United. She leaves OL Reign in the midst of the NWSL playoff race, with the Seattle-based club in fourth place with four matches remaining in the regular season.

“Phallon is someone who we value and has achieved quite a lot both on and off field during her time here,” OL Reign general manager Lesle Gallimore said in a news release. “We worked with Phallon and Manchester United to make sure all parties were satisfied with the move and once we got to an agreement, everything moved pretty quickly. We will be forever grateful for Phallon’s achievements with OL Reign and wish her all the best in the WSL.”

Tullis-Joyce has previous experience overseas, having played for Stade de Reims for two seasons in France’s Division 1 Féminine before joining OL Reign in 2021.

As the U.S. women’s national team heads home early from the 2023 World Cup, they’ll soon start preparing for the next big international tournament: the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The Games are a little less than a year away, which could be cause for panic after the USWNT suffered its earliest World Cup exit in history. With the potential for a new coaching hire and a new-look roster as veterans step away from the team, there could be many shake-ups on the horizon.

The U.S. will hope to welcome back several stars from injury, including forwards Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario. But other injured players are question marks, as are some of the younger prospects who were left off the squad this time but could make their case in the next year. Here are five of them.

Jaedyn Shaw, Forward

Jaedyn Shaw had a case for making the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup roster. Coach Vlatko Andonovski included 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson on his final 23-player roster, and Shaw has similar promise and even more professional experience. The 18-year-old has made 22 appearances for the San Diego Wave and recorded seven goals, including four so far this season.

While no longer one of the youngest signings in the NWSL, she recently signed an extension with the Wave that will keep her with the NWSL club through 2026. She also won U.S. Soccer’s Young Player of the Year award in 2022, after a successful U-20 World Cup campaign.

“Obviously the national team recognition is going to keep coming if she keeps performing,” San Diego head coach Casey Stoney told Just Women’s Sports in June. “And we need to make sure that we look after her on and off the field, because she’s still an 18-year-old and she’s still young, and we need to make sure that she’s ready for everything that comes her way.”

By the time the 2024 Olympics roll around, Shaw will have three seasons of professional experience under her belt. While it might be difficult for Shaw to step in at forward given the USWNT’s depth at the position, she’s worthy of consideration and should earn her first senior international call-up sometime in the next year.

Mia Fishel, Forward

After being selected in the 2022 NWSL Draft, Fishel opted to forgo the NWSL in favor of playing for Tigres UANL in Liga MX Femenil. There, the 22-year-old went on an absolute tear, becoming the first foreign-born player to win the league’s Golden Boot with 17 goals while helping Tigres to the league title as a rookie. But it wasn’t enough to earn her a USWNT roster call-up.

Conversations grew more positive over time, with Andonovski noting that NWSL forwards were “performing as good and even better than Mia,” and later saying they were “having good conversations with” her and the USWNT was “happy for her success down there.”

“At the same time, she understands the competition that is on the national team and the players she is competing against,” Andonovski said last November. “She’s patiently waiting for her opportunity. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see her in a future camp.”

Yet, as of August 2023, Fishel has yet to feature for the USWNT.

“Mia is a very good young player, we are very familiar with her qualities,” Andonovski said in January. “But as of right now, after looking at everything, we decided the forwards that we have in camp are going to give us the best chance to be successful.”

In the meantime, Fishel continued to produce in Mexico, scoring 38 goals through 48 appearances. She’ll soon get more experience against top competition after signing with European powerhouse Chelsea last week. Her transfer fee ranks among the highest in the world, meaning Chelsea manager Emma Hayes is putting a lot of stock into Fishel becoming one of the best players in the world at her position.

As Fishel joins Chelsea, expect her USWNT prospects to change heading into Olympic roster selection.

Jaelin Howell (Maria Lysaker/USA TODAY Sports)

Jaelin Howell, Midfield

At 23 years old, Howell has one goal in five international appearances, scoring against Uzbekistan last year. She began 2023 with a USWNT call-up before seemingly falling off Andonovski’s radar.

When it comes to the role of defensive midfielder, Howell is elite. The 2022 No. 2 draft pick ranks in the 90th percentile or better in tackles, interceptions, clearances and aerials won in the NWSL. Her pass completion is 80.2 percent this season for Racing Louisville, and she’s creating 1.76 shot attempts per 90, which is good for seventh in the NWSL. She’s also first in the NWSL in tackles and tackles won, and she ranked first blocks in 2022.

Why Howell hasn’t gotten a deeper look for the USWNT is a mystery, though that could change heading into 2024 — especially given how some of her Racing Louisville teammates performed at this year’s World Cup.

Sam Coffey, Midfield

Sam Coffey was one of a few players who drew the short straw for the USWNT’s World Cup roster. One of the team’s biggest snubs alongside forward Ashley Hatch, Coffey had been having a great start to the NWSL season at the No. 6 position. But her style of play didn’t always fit with Andonovski’s tactical decisions, and with Andi Sullivan out-playing her in camp and the return of Julie Ertz, there wasn’t room for the 24-year-old.

Coffey continues to develop her game as a holding midfielder, a position of need for the U.S. in the absence of Ertz, who announced her retirement after the Round of 16 loss.

“Her time will come, I have no doubt,” USWNT star forward Sophia Smith said following the roster announcement. “I fully believe that she will be the holding midfielder on the national team for a very long time.”

Phallon Tullis-Joyce (Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)

Phallon Tullis-Joyce, Goalkeeper

Even after her heroics in the USWNT’s Round of 16 game, USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher’s time with the team will come to an end at some point. The 35-year-old will have a shot at the 2024 Olympic roster, and maybe even the 2027 World Cup, but the U.S. will need to start developing their next No. 1 keeper

While both Casey Murphy and Aubrey Kingsbury are worthy options, Phallon Tullis-Joyce continues to play her way into consideration for a USWNT look.

Tullis-Joyce has been one of the NWSL’s best goalkeepers over the last two seasons, ranking first in the league with 0.86 goals against per 90 minutes last season and currently sixth at 1.20 through 15 games this season. Her save percentage is lower this year than it was in 2022, but is still above 70 percent. As the USWNT builds out its goalkeeper depth chart for 2024, the 26-year-old has made a strong case for inclusion.

If one position seemed locked up for the U.S. women’s national team heading into 2023, it was goalkeeper, with Alyssa Naeher and Casey Murphy as the clear one-two punch.

The NWSL season, though, may have created waves in the goalkeeper pool. With a recent run of poor play by some USWNT staples, coach Vlatko Andonovski faces a tough task in evaluating the keepers ahead of the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

“We’ll look into performances, first and foremost,” Andonovski said in April. “Who does well, who stops the ball going in the net? There’s no question that will be the first thing we’re going to be looking at.”

Naeher has struggled to start the season, albeit behind a porous Chicago Red Stars defense. AD Franch, who has been the third goalkeeper through all of the spring camps, has been benched for the Kansas City Current.

While the USWNT has options beyond Naeher, Murphy and Franch, they have limited – if any – international experience. While roster consistency can be a good thing, it also could limit the options in net for the defending World Cup champions.

Casey Murphy, North Carolina Courage – 14 caps

Casey Murphy’s play for the USWNT in the last year and recent start with the Courage may have solidified her case for the starting spot. Throughout the last year, Murphy has made 12 starts for the USWNT, going 9-2-1 and recording nine shutouts while allowing just five goals. So far this year, she’s started in three games and recorded a clean sheet in each of them.

And that run of form has carried over to her club. Through eight starts for the Courage in the 2023 regular season, Murphy has allowed just nine goals, which is among the lowest in the league. (Only Aubrey Kingsbury is better through eight starts, having allowed just seven goals.) Murphy also leads the league in clean sheets with four and has a 78.1% save percentage.

If there is one player who clearly deserves a World Cup nod for the USWNT, it’s Murphy.

Alyssa Naeher, Chicago Red Stars – 89 caps

Longtime USWNT keeper Alyssa Naeher has had a challenging run of late, allowing 22 goals through eight games in the NWSL regular season, paired with a save percentage of 65.4%.

Her goals against average of 2.75 is tied for the highest in the league, matched only by Franch. No other goalkeeper in the NWSL this season averages more than 2.0 goals against per 90 minutes. She also is one of two NWSL starting goalkeepers who has not recorded a clean sheet this season.

Some of her struggles to start the season can be placed upon the Red Stars organization. The team is in the midst of being sold, and a number of players exited in the offseason. But for the USWNT, her performance is still worrying.

Naeher has proved to be great under pressure throughout her career, which helped her ascend to her starting position for the USWNT. She has provided a steady foundation for USWNT fans everywhere as other areas of the field have been points of concern. After all, she anchored this team to a World Cup in 2019. Even the greatest, though, have their breaking points. Has Naeher reached hers?

AD Franch, Kansas City – 10 caps

AD Franch has had a rough go of it to start the season for the Kansas City Current. She has just five appearances across all competitions in 2023, having been benched in favor of Cassie Miller after coach Matt Potter got fired.

On May 14, she made her first appearance in almost a month — then allowed an own goal. In her most recent match before that one, which came on April 15, she allowed four goals against the Red Stars. She is allowing 2.75 goals per game on average, and her save percentage sits at a league-low 56.5%.

In 2022, she was a finalist for the NWSL’s Goalkeeper of the Year award, which got her back onto the USWNT after an extended break. But even though she has earned call-ups, Andonovski has not played around with his starters, sticking with Naeher and Murphy. So Franch has not played in a match for the USWNT since an October 2021 friendly against South Korea.

Aubrey Kingsbury, Washington Spirit – 1 cap

Washington’s Aubrey Kingsbury has been one of the best goalkeepers to begin the NWSL season. Her save percentage sits at 82.8% and she’s allowed just seven goals through eight appearances, leading to a goals against average of 0.87. She’s also recorded three clean sheets on the season.

Kingsbury is no stranger to big moments. Named 2019 and 2021 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, she helped the Spirit to the 2021 NWSL title. And last year, when the team stumbled, Kingsbury provided a steady hand. She finished 2022 with 6.59 goals prevented, and 0.35 goals prevented per 90 minutes, which ranked second among goalkeepers who started over half of team matches.

While Kingsbury has been called up a number of times since 2019, she has not been called up once this year despite her stellar form. And she has just one appearance in international play to her name, coming last year in the team’s 9-0 blowout win of Uzbekistan, which could hinder her chance at a World Cup roster spot.

Phallon Tullis-Joyce, OL Reign – 0 caps

We’ve said it before at Just Women’s Sports and we’ll say it again: Phallon Tullis-Joyce is worthy of consideration for a USWNT goalkeeper spot.

While Tullis-Joyce was named to the 59-player provisional roster for the Concacaf W championship last year, she hasn’t yet earned a call-up to the USWNT, even though she’s been one of the best goalkeepers in the NWSL through the last two seasons. Last season, she finished as a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year, and this year she’s off to a strong start.

With three clean sheets and just 10 goals allowed through eight games, Tullis-Joyce has been a constant for OL Reign to start the season. And while her save percentage (69.7%) ranks in the middle of the league, she’s on track for another solid season.

Phallon Tullis-Joyce doesn’t like unanswered questions.

She never has. If she finds herself wondering about something, Phallon doesn’t let it sit. She reads. She researches. She asks questions. So many questions.

As a kid, her intense curiosity led her to unravel one of childhood’s greatest mysteries — much to the chagrin of her mother.

Phallon was 5 when she noticed something unusual about her Christmas presents from Santa Claus. His penmanship looked suspiciously familiar.

She demanded a handwriting sample from her mother, then one from her father. And then, the young sleuth began one of her first scientific studies.

Question: Was Santa real?
Hypothesis: No, her parents were responsible for her gifts.

Phallon then compared the handwriting samples to the curved letters on “Santa’s” wrapping paper.

Her hypothesis proved true.

Conclusion: Santa was not real.

“My mom was a little bit upset because I was the first child. She said I ruined the experience of Santa for her,” Phallon says with a laugh. “I never got to believe in Santa, because I figured it out as a 5-year-old.”

In hindsight, Phallon’s refusal to accept Santa as truth shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. She spent her time watching animal documentaries and entering summer reading programs, eager to collect prizes for the books she wanted to read anyway.

And, in her defense, Phallon is a product of her environment. She would never have asked for the handwriting samples if her parents didn’t encourage her curiosity and hunger for knowledge. If their daughter had an interest, they urged her to explore it.

That inquisitive spirit helped Phallon, 26, find the two places where she feels most at home: on the field and in the water.

Phallon Tullis-Joyce is up for 2022 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year after an impressive campaign with OL Reign. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

Phallon started her soccer career as a field player. But before every practice, she and her teammates would play a game, taking turns shooting and being in net. If you stopped the shot, you stayed in goal. When it was Phallon’s turn to play keeper, the game stalled out because she never left. No one could score on her.

When that happened, her coach realized that Phallon was a goalie.

There was no hesitation on Phallon’s part when it came to making the switch.

She loved the rush of making a save, and the frustration on an opposing forward’s face when she robbed them of a goal. She loved that being a keeper meant using both her upper and lower body, and that she still had to be good with her feet.

“It was a thrill,” she says. “I really liked the challenge.”

On her 12th birthday, Phallon had her first goalkeeping lesson. She went to Kurt Kelley, a former professional soccer player, who operated KK Athletics in her hometown of Shoreham, N.Y.

It wasn’t the birthday the preteen had in mind, and it also wasn’t the easygoing goaltending she had gotten used to during pre-practice mess-arounds with her friends. But Kelley was determined to make Phallon into a real goaltender.

“I learned how to do a proper extension dive,” she says. “And I was in tears, just crying. It was scary at the start. But right then and there, it got beat out of me, that fear of hitting the ground. That was the hardest transition, letting go of those natural instincts of wanting to protect yourself.”

Despite tear-stained cheeks and developing bruises, Phallon left feeling empowered. And now, though she’s a professional, the OL Reign goalie still makes a point to train with Kelley when she’s back on Long Island.

Like Phallon, Kelley has a curious mind. He’s always looking for new, better ways to train goalies, however silly those strategies might seem.

Once, he even blindfolded Phallon, telling her to sense the ball, Mr. Miyagi style. To this day, she’s not sure if Kelley was serious or just messing with her.

Other times, he had her diving over trash cans to make saves or catching tennis balls with her bare hands. She still does a lot of her training without gloves — something Kelley taught her.

“It’s definitely entertaining to be a goalkeeper,” Phallon says.

Phallon started playing soccer when she was 4; she disproved the theory of Santa when she was 5; and that same year, she announced to her kindergarten class that she was going to be a marine biologist.

“I’m a very stubborn person,” she says, “I decide things early on and I just refuse to let go.”

Growing up on Long Island, Phallon was never more than 20 minutes away from an ocean. She learned to swim when she was young and quickly developed a fascination with everything aquatic.

“I just fell in love with how much mystery there is,” she says. “When you go underwater you will never see the same thing twice. The animals and their adaptations and how they’ve evolved to exist underwater. It just blows my mind every single time.”

Phallon’s parents always looked for ways to combine her two passions, so when they traveled for soccer tournaments, they also sought out scientific activities for their aspiring marine biologist.

She remembers going to a tournament in North Carolina and visiting the Aurora Fossil Museum, where fossils are recovered from a local phosphate mine. Across from the museum are two “spoils piles,” where visitors can dig for shells, coral and shark teeth.

Phallon curated a collection of tiny shark teeth, but always hoped for something a bit bigger.

“I was always on the hunt for a Megladon tooth,” she says. “But I never found it.”

Then, Phallon pauses and smiles.

“I’d still look,” she says. “No shame. I would still go in that pile.”

When it came time for college, Phallon chose Miami, far from her hometown but close to the ocean. And on her way to a senior season in which she led the ACC in saves and saves per game, Phallon took the next natural step in her quest to become a marine biologist.

As a freshman, she joined the university scuba diving club and got certified. Soon, she moved on from recreational diving to scientific research, studying the animals she loved so much in their natural habitats.

“I fell in love with that instantly,” she says. “Just being able to watch animals be their goofy selves. Like fish are so funny.

“You’ll be diving in California and see a Garibaldi fish, this bright orange fish. And you’re just like in this beautiful kelp forest looking around, and then you’ll see this orange fish staring you dead in the eyes. Or, you’ll go past a kelp crab, and it will literally square up with you, even though you are 100 times its size.”

Phallon can go on and on about the ocean creatures that fascinate her. She’s committed to them in the same way she’s committed to her team. For Phallon, there’s no such thing as a moderate interest, and when she’s passionate about something, she dives in head first.

After college, Phallon signed on to play with Stade de Reims in 2019. While living in France, she learned how to be a professional. She also saw a sea slug in person for the first time — both equally important occurrences in her eyes.

Phallon didn’t speak a word of French when she arrived — “That’s on me,” she says — and even basic things like shopping for groceries were a challenge.

There was a cheese aisle and a ham aisle, she says. Peanut butter was labeled as an exotic food. Phallon remembers calling her mom with “soggy eyes,” trying to fight the tears as she explained that she couldn’t read anything and had no idea what to buy.

She felt just as out of place on the field. In her very first game, she was up against French national team forward Valérie Gauvin and Montpellier.

“I remember, when the whistle blew, she was looking me dead in the eyes,” Phallon recalls. “She probably wasn’t actually looking at me. She was probably looking past me, but it felt like she was looking dead into my soul.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is real.’”

But Phallon quickly found her footing. And by the time she left France, she was her team’s captain and was speaking French proficiently thanks to a certificate course she took.

Phallon misses France — the pastries, the scenery and, of course, the aquatic life — but when her agent called last year at the end of her third season, she was ready for a new challenge: the NWSL.

The U.S. pro league was always in the back of her mind, but Phallon tries to stay flexible when it comes to setting goals.

“My goal is always to just be the best that I can be,” she says. “So that allows me to be very open to where life takes me. It’s just about where I will grow the most.”

Phallon signed with OL Reign in 2021, serving as the club’s backup goalie during her first season. This year, she earned the starting spot and ran with the opportunity, finishing the season as the NWSL leader in save percentage (81.0) and tied for first in clean sheets (nine) with Portland Thorns keeper Bella Bixby. Appearing in all 22 games, she helped her team come from behind to win the NWSL Shield and earn a place in the semifinals as the No. 1 seed.

Phallon is up for the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year award, and in June she was included in the USWNT’s 59-player roster as the team prepared for the Concacaf World Cup qualifying tournament.

She didn’t make the final roster, but coach Vlatko Andonovski said in early October that she’s a player he has his eye on as the team prepares for the 2023 World Cup.

Phallon’s growth to this point didn’t happen by accident. It was a calculated progression.

Jimena López, a defender for OL Reign and Phallon’s roommate, signed with the team at the same time as Phallon last season. The NWSL was already in full swing by the time the two left their European squads to join the Reign, so most of the players already had established roles.

Phallon added extra training to her schedule. The Reign start practice at 10 a.m., and Phallon leaves the house at 8. She’s the first one in the locker room, López says, and she also stays late.

López watched as Phallon improved her distribution, got better with her feet and also paid attention to the mental side of soccer, seeing a sports psychologist in addition to her physical training.

“She’s a very laid-back person, but very determined,” López says. “Whenever she gets her mind on something, she practices, practices, practices until she gets it how she wants.”

Phallon has been a driving force for the Reign’s success this season, and the organization rewarded her with a contract extension through the 2024 season.

López and the rest of the OL Regin defenders are especially grateful to have Phallon in the net behind them.

“I know she’s my friend so I’m a little biased, but I think she’s the best keeper in the league right now,” López says with a laugh. “Her athleticism, her reaction, I think it’s unseen in the league. It’s awesome to know she’s back there to save our butts if we make a mistake.”

Making the move to Seattle also opened doors for Phallon as a research diver.

She’s a member of several Facebook groups devoted to scuba diving. One day, while scrolling, she saw a post about volunteer opportunities at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

Moments later, she was crafting an email to express her interest in joining the research dive team.

She excelled in the interview, and the staff persuaded her to go beyond what the role required. So in addition to doing rockfish research, Phallon gives dive talks, teaching kids about the animals they can find in the Puget Sound.

She details the 20 different species of rockfish, kelp and their importance to the ecosystem, and advises her listeners on how they can live more sustainably to help ocean life.

When she has free time, López likes to watch Phallon do her thing at Point Defiance. And like the rest of the spectators, she can’t help but get drawn in.

“I’m actually really interested in it,” López says. “Because of her, I’ve learned a lot about marine life, kind of unexpectedly.”

Phallon also teaches visitors about her favorite animals in the aquarium. She loves the rat fish because “they are the funkiest fish you’ll find.” One time, a rat fish bit her.

“It felt like a little syringe, like a needle,” she says excitedly. “It was so interesting.”

Less funky and more adorable is the Pacific spiny lump sucker, which Phallon says is the “cutest fish in the pacific sound.”

“They look like tiny golf balls, and obviously they are horrific swimmers, because just look at their bodies,” she says.

When she was living in France, Phallon decided she needed a creative release. Her head is full of thoughts and ideas, and she wanted to find a way to get them all out. She started with motivational artwork, and then moved onto cartoon comics of marine animals. Those are the drawings that populate her “Inktober” series throughout October, which she uses as a way to educate her social media followers on aquatic life.

Sometimes, after games at Lumen Field, kids and their parents will approach Phallon to discuss her dive talks or the facts she posts on social media.

OL Reign fans have embraced their goaltender’s nerdy off-field persona, which only adds to her excitement for playing in Seattle.

“One time I was doing my pregame stretches and a little girl called my name,” Phallon says. “I looked and she rolled out a sign that said ‘Octopus Army.’ It blew my mind that someone had a sign at Lumen Field of a little series I made on PowerPoint.”

(Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)

So much of the ocean is unknown. Scientists have studied and charted less than 10 percent of the great abyss, and everything else is simply unanswered questions.

When she first started diving, that made Phallon uneasy.

When you dive, the water starts off clear, but eventually you’ll come to a drop-off. After that, it’s pure darkness.

“That used to get me a little bit, because you don’t know what’s right there,” she says.

But she’s no longer the little girl who had to disprove Santa. Phallon is curious. She thirsts for knowledge. And when there are answers to be had, she’ll seek them out. But when there aren’t, that’s OK, too.

Right now, Phallon is swimming out of her life’s clear water. The OL Reign are getting ready to play Kansas City in the NWSL semifinals on Sunday. Phallon will take the field as her team’s starting goaltender, like she has all season long. But the outcome won’t be known until the final whistle blows. There could be a championship game to play, or the start of an offseason to figure out. There could be USWNT appearances in her future. But right now, she just doesn’t know.

She might dive in Belize or in Mexico. There might even be a Megalodon tooth waiting to be uncovered.

“I like to keep my mind clear and not be so end-goal focused,” she says. “I guess because it is such a progression, and there never really is an endpoint. It’s just about being the best that I can be.”

Phallon isn’t afraid of the drop-off. There’s plenty to discover in the darkness.

Eden is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

The NWSL’s first full month of regular-season play has come to an end, not without a whole host of surprises since the North Carolina Courage were crowned Challenge Cup champions.

Just Women’s Sports puts a bow on the NWSL in May with the first monthly Best XI of the season. The first-place San Diego Wave FC and second-place OL Reign each earned three roster spots, while Angel City FC, tied for second in the standings, has two. Overall, five of the league’s 12 clubs are represented.

Alex Morgan, F, San Diego Wave FC

The Diamond Bar, Calif. native, in her first season with the Wave, has reached a new peak in her career. Leading the league in scoring with six goals, Morgan became the second player in league history to record six goals in the first six matches of the season, joining Christen Press. She’s recorded 15 shots and nine shots on goal — both the third most in the league this season.

Mallory Pugh, F, Chicago Red Stars

Pugh played only two games in May, but in this case, quality trumps quantity. She returned from a concussion on May 22 to tally three goals and an assist in just two games. Her speed and ball movement are the difference-maker in Chicago’s dangerous attack, with Pugh directly affecting nearly half of their nine goals.

Christen Press, F, Angel City FC

The action shot of Press jumping over a frazzled Trinity Rodman while the Washington forward is lying on the ground basically sums up the Angel City striker’s month. The threat she poses to opposing backlines in one-on-three situations with her speed and shot placement consistently leaves defenders wondering what they can possibly to do to stop her.

Taylor Kornieck, M, San Diego Wave FC

Kornieck has been a key playmaker for the breakout Wave, who are second in the NWSL with eight goals so far this season. A standout on headers and long through-balls, the former Pride player is also a box-to-box midfielder who creates chances of her own in front of the net (she’s currently ranked second in the league with 16 shots).

Sam Coffey, M, Portland Thorns FC

In five starts through five games, the rookie has logged an impressive 86.1 percent passing success rate, and her distribution has been key to the Thorns’ strategy to spread the field. Used to more of an attacking role, Coffey has been a quick learner in the six position.

Rose Lavelle, M, OL Reign

Lavelle has successfully carried out her roles in both distribution and in the attacking third, recording two goals and a 93.3 percent success rate in long passes. She leads the league in shots (21) and shots on goal (12). Her dribbles up the middle continue to set the Reign up for dangerous chances in the box.

Sofia Huerta, D, OL Reign

Huerta was one of the most notable chance creators in the NWSL this past month, assisting on header goals by Lavelle and Bethany Balcer. With five chances created on Wednesday against the Kansas City Current, she is now the top creator in the NWSL since 2016, tied with Lynn Williams at 188. And since Sunday, she is just one assist away from tying Jessica McDonald as the league’s all-time assists leader.

Katie Naughton, D, Houston Dash

The Dash have recorded two shutouts and only three goals against on their current four-game unbeaten streak, and Naughton is a big reason why. A highly underrated defender, the 28-year-old has put up unbelievable numbers since the season started, including a 100-percent tackle success rate, an 88.9 aerial duels winning percentage, an 82.2 percent success rate in passes and a 73.7 success rate in duels.

Naomi Girma, D, San Diego Wave FC

It’s easy to forget that Girma is only a rookie since she has transitioned so seamlessly into San Diego’s starting lineup. The 2022 No. 1 draft pick has played every minute of the Wave’s six matches and recorded an exceptional 85 percent passing success rate. Her calmness and composure are paramount to a backline that has conceded only three goals this season.

Jasmyne Spencer, D, Angel City FC

Having played for five NWSL teams since 2013, Spencer has found consistency with Angel City, starting all five games on a backline that’s allowed just two goals in May. Her hustle stood out in the Challenge Cup and hasn’t slowed down since. The former attacker shuts down the top forwards in the league, while also putting her own attacking skills to use on the flank.

Phallon Tullis-Joyce, GK, OL Reign

With four clean sheets, the Reign’s new starting goalkeeper now leads the NWSL in shutouts. Tullis-Joyce is also second in saves with 24, two behind the Kansas City Current’s Adrianna Franch, helping the Reign move into a tie for second place in the standings with just four goals against.

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