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USWNT by position: Context and concerns for each group

Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Sophia Smith and the USWNT will look to bounce back from two losses in October. (Richard Sellers/Soccrates/Getty Images)

When the U.S. women’s national soccer team scheduled friendlies against England and Spain for an October trip abroad, no one quite knew what to expect. The USWNT hadn’t faced many nations in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings since the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and player absences continued to pile up.

Still, what happened on the trip proved a shock to the system, as the U.S. lost two games in a row for the first time since 2017.

Losses have served as an important part of the World Cup cycle for the USWNT in the past, but the performances against England and Spain nevertheless have fans taking a long look at the panic button.

While a number of issues the USWNT faced this week provide context to the performances on the field, the team also returns to home soil with legitimate causes for concern.

Execution in the midfield

Context

It’s both impossible and unfair to ignore the off-the-field circumstances surrounding the USWNT this week. The Sally Yates report for U.S. Soccer, which detailed years of abuse in the NWSL, dropped just five days before the matchup against England.

For days, players had to field incredibly heavy questions from the news media, some about their direct employers, while also turning their attention to the upcoming matches. While USWNT players have never shied away from using their platform, the toll became evident throughout the week.

The USWNT didn’t lack for energy in their blockbuster battle at Wembley Stadium. Despite a number of significant absences, they were able to keep up in a sometimes frantic transition battle in which they didn’t see much of the ball.

Against Spain, though, the team ran out of gas, mentally switching off on the corner kick that led to Laia Codina’s opening goal—a cleanup shot after the U.S. got caught flat-footed in a goalmouth scrum. The USWNT trailed going into halftime and struggled to force the issue in the second half.

Concerns

There’s no shame in a letdown once the adrenaline wears off, especially after the week the USWNT players had, very far from home. But that letdown only makes the success of Vlatko Andonovski’s system all the more important, as it becomes the backbone that players can rely on when they aren’t firing on all cylinders.

While some progress has been made, top 10 opponents can still make the USWNT feel uncomfortable with concerning ease.

The midfield style, which still prioritizes a ball-winning No. 6 covering superhuman amounts of space, doesn’t lend itself to either Andi Sullivan’s or Sam Coffey’s strengths. Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle generate turnovers by pressing opponents’ backlines, but that aggressiveness means the players behind them can be caught in isolation.

We saw during the Concacaf W Championship how the approach can work against teams that concede possession. But neither England nor Spain are that kind of opponent. Against the Lionesses, the USWNT only held the ball for 31.3% of the match, and they paired that with 67.7% passing accuracy.

England and Spain were not able to seize as many opportunities from turnovers as they could have, so the results in both games could have been worse based on the lack of cohesion in the midfield.

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Megan Rapinoe started on the left wing against both England and Spain. (Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Evaluating the attack

Context

It feels like every time the USWNT takes the field, another important player is missing. In addition to the previously known absences of Catarina Macario, Christen Press, Tierna Davidson, Sam Mewis, Julie Ertz, Kelley O’Hara and more, the U.S. traveled to Europe without Mallory Pugh, who left camp for a family matter, and without Alex Morgan, who is working through a knee injury.

Adding to the list of October casualties, Emily Fox suffered a concussion against England, resulting in another call-up for North Carolina Courage defender Carson Pickett. Pickett is more than capable of showing what she can do on the world stage, but the last-minute nature of her call-up didn’t set her up for success against Spain.

Concerns

When faced with limited options, the USWNT pulled a few interesting cards. Sophia Smith moved centrally as the team’s main playmaker, and she shined against England. On the wing, Trinity Rodman’s consistent minutes were new at the international level, and she stepped up in big moments.

Other decisions felt distinctly less interesting than they could have been, especially on the left side of the pitch. Megan Rapinoe started both matches at left wing, a decision likely made when Pugh left camp. Rapinoe is clearly an essential locker room presence, and she remains a late-game sub who can turn the tide, but Pugh’s off-ball work was missed in both games.

There’s nothing wrong with seeing what your depth chart can do in the face of injury, but the slotting in of Rapinoe speaks to a larger lethargy. There have been opportunities to bring new forwards into the player pool in recent months, but Andonovski has not taken advantage. Plus, Rapinoe already has so much experience under her belt, so what are she and the coaching staff learning from these losses?

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Naomi Girma's performance against England proved one of the highlights of the European trip. (David Rogers/Getty Images)

What to make of the defense

Context

As with the attack, there are both injuries and absences to take into account when looking at the USWNT defense.

By the second game in the international break, the team started two outside backs who originally joined the squad due to injuries to other players. Crystal Dunn is still working her way back to fitness, and both Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnet were missing. The U.S. traveled with just three center-backs: Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook and Naomi Girma.

Girma was a revelation against England, with a sense of spacing and an understanding of how and when to go to ground. Andonovski has avoided pairing her with Sauerbrunn in 2022, which possibly has to do with both players being more comfortable on the left side of the central defense. But it could also mean that Tierna Davidson and Abby Dahlkemper, both out due to injury, still have opportunities to get back in the rotation.

Concerns

The USWNT defense can get overwhelmed when opponents break through. In these matches, they weren’t helped by turnovers in the midfield. Still, in top-tier international competition defenders frequently are called upon for quick decision-making and one-on-one urgency, which the U.S. lacked in both matches.

The USWNT defense can get overwhelmed when opponents break through. In these matches, they weren’t helped by turnovers in the midfield. Still, in top-tier international competition defenders frequently are called upon for quick decision-making and one-on-one urgency, which the U.S. lacked in both matches.

The USWNT’s penchant for prioritizing distribution over defensive comfort can cost them against top teams. While sometimes the only way for players to improve is through the kind of competition we saw this week, the defense has not looked settled or confident yet.

The issue doesn’t always lie in physical attributes but instead can come down to confidence in making decisions. Andonovski needs to decide how long he can wait for the defense to improve before making the call that the group isn’t coming together.

Clark, Martin Square Off in First Pro WNBA Matchup

Kate Martin #20 of the Las Vegas Aces and Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever look on during the game
Things looked a little different Saturday night as the former Iowa teammates went head-to-head in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa teammates Caitlin Clark and Kate Martin shared the court once again on Saturday, this time as professionals.

It was Martin’s Aces that got the 99-80 win over Clark’s Fever in Las Vegas. The pair's former coaches Lisa Bluder, Jan Jensen, Jenni Fitzgerald, and Raina Harmon were all in attendance to watch their Hawkeyes — Clark, Martin, and former national player of the year Megan Gustafson — take the court.

"It’s super special. It’s cool for our program, cool for Lisa, for Coach Jan, for all of them," Clark said in a pregame press conference. "They’ve known me since I’ve been 13 years old and now I’m 22 getting to live out my dream and they’ve been a huge part of that and helping me get here and helping Megan and Kate to get here too. It’s a great moment for them and I’m sure they’re not complaining about a trip to Vegas."

As for her college teammate, Clark had nothing but good things to say ahead of the showdown. 

"I’m just really happy for her and everything Coach [Becky] Hammon says about her is so true," she said. "Every person that played at Iowa and was around her knows that to be true. She’s the ultimate teammate, ultimate person, ultimate leader."

In the end, Martin stole the show with 12 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, while Clark amassed eight points, seven assists, and five rebounds over 29 minutes of playing time. 

"It was weird," Martin admitted after the game. "I'm not going to lie — just looking out on the court and seeing her in a different jersey than me, it was obviously different. But it's really fun. We're both living out our dreams right now."

The Aces next meet the fever on July 2nd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Barcelona Beat Lyon to Win Back-to-Back Champions League Titles

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas celebrating after beating Lyon at the 2024 Champions League final
Ballon d'Or winners Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas helped Barcelona to a second-straight UWCL title on Saturday. (Ramsey Cardy - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona was crowned champion of the Champions League on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Lyon in Bilbao.

Alexia "La Reina" Putellas, who recently re-signed with Barcelona, came off the bench to score the team's second goal. Fellow Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí provided the team’s first. After the game, defender Lucy Bronze said Putellas was nicknamed "the queen" for a reason.

"Alexia is the captain of the team and she's the queen of Barcelona for a reason,"  defender Lucy Bronze told DAZN. "She's got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and it just sealed the win for us. It was amazing."

The victory marked Barcelona's first win over Lyon in a UWCL final, having previously gone up against the French side at both the 2019 and 2022 Champions League finals. It's also Barcelona's second Champions League title in a row.

"It's hard to win it once, but to do it back-to-back, Lyon showed how difficult it is and this team has finally done that," Bronze said. "I think we go down in history as one of the best teams in Europe."

This season, the team also secured a quadruple for the first time in club history, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. The win ensures that coach Jonatan Giráldez — who has officially departed the team to join the NWSL's Washington Spirit — leaves Europe a champion.

"It was an incredible game. I am really happy, it's one of the best days of my life for sure," Giráldez told broadcaster DAZN after the game. "We did an amazing job. I am very proud of all of them."

Following the win, Putellas said her team "can't ask for anything else."

"Our objective was to win four out of four," the Spain international told reporters. "We have achieved everything we wanted. Every minute of sacrifice has been worth the effort — and I'd say that not after the game, but before, just entering in the stadium, with all the support we had here, it was worth it."

2024 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Aitana Bonmatí said that the crowd support made it "feel like Camp Nou."

"I am on cloud nine right now," she said. "It is an historic day which we will remember forever."

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

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