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USWNT 2022 player grades: Andi Sullivan midfield question lingers

MONTERREY, MEXICO – JULY 14: Andi Sullivan of United States controls the ball during the semifinal between United States and Costa Rica as part of the 2022 Concacaf W Championship at Universitario Stadium on July 14, 2022 in Monterrey, Mexico. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

It’s the end of the calendar year for the U.S. women’s national team, with 2022 performances all wrapped up in a bow. Naturally, that also means it’s time for end-of-year report cards to evaluate how each player did in the run-up to the 2023 World Cup.

Again, a quick set of criteria: Despite the team’s first three-game losing streak in decades, the U.S. lost only three games total in 2022. A failing grade would indicate a player is wildly unprepared for the game at this level, which is not something we saw from the group playing the lion’s share of minutes this year. Likewise, an A+ indicates a player with all-star, team-on-their-back, best-in-the-world status.

Throughout this series, which will grade players by position, I’m going to avoid those who didn’t get minutes in 2022 and those who have missed significant time due to injury.

So far, we’ve graded the goalkeepers, outside backs and center-backs. Now, let’s take a look at the defensive midfield position.

Lindsey Horan – B+

Even your average USWNT fan will tell you that Lindsey Horan is not a No. 6, a fact that makes her 2022 all the more impressive. Horan carried extra responsibilities this year, stretching herself positionally and stepping into a leadership role in the midfield. At times, Horan sat deeper to assist in the defensive midfield while also connecting lines with the attack.

Horan is still one of the best players in the world when it comes to reading space and putting opposing defenses under pressure. Her grade comes from doing an admirable job with a difficult task. Horan does not typically play as the lone defensive midfielder: She’s had a No. 6 partner with Olympique Lyon and a No. 8 partner with Portland. For the U.S., she’s a little bit of both, and it can take her out of games at times. Still, she remains a locked-in starter for the foreseeable future, as long as her lingering knee issue doesn’t flare up at the wrong moment.

Andi Sullivan – B

Whether Sullivan is the answer for the USWNT’s pure defensive midfield position is one of the team’s biggest questions going into 2023. She took on heavy responsibility this year, trailing only Alana Cook and Sophia Smith in minutes. Grading Sullivan requires evaluating how the U.S. uses the defensive midfield role itself, as she would sometimes find herself taken out of the game in possession and struggling to know when to step defensively.

I don’t think Sullivan is the inherent issue, but rather the way she is deployed. Sullivan’s ceiling at the club level is in the A range, but it’s still unclear whether that excellence can carry over to the international stage. Instead of being asked to move the ball quickly in transition, if Sullivan can become part of the possession triangle with the two center-backs, she could be an infinitely more dangerous weapon.

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Sam Coffey made a splash at the club and international level in 2022. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sam Coffey – B

A true rookie in a new position, Coffey has been slowly working her way into the USWNT system and hasn’t gotten enough experience to be clearly evaluated at the international level. Coffey had an excellent season with the 2022 NWSL champion Portland Thorns, but she played in only four international matches. Three of those matches were losses to England, Spain and Germany, during which she was a favored 60th-minute substitute. Neither Sullivan nor Coffey has the ability to solve the U.S. midfield on their own, and their like-for-like substitutions have disrupted the possibility of the two playing together in a double-pivot formation.

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Jaelin Howell has seemed to fall out of favor with the U.S. after a standout college career. (Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

Jaelin Howell – Incomplete

Coffey’s ascension appears to have put Howell’s development on the back-burner. The 2022 No. 2 draft pick failed to make her way back into USWNT camp late in the year despite multiple injuries. Howell had a Julie Ertz-like physical profile while playing for Florida State and needed to cover a large cross-section of space in her rookie season with Racing Louisville. Louisville’s on-field struggles seemed to have an adverse effect on Howell’s place on the U.S. depth chart. She has the style that seems to fit Vlatko Andonovski’s vision for the No. 6 position, but she has not had the chance to show she can execute it at the international level.

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

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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