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The NWSL’s VAR era makes its Hollywood debut – Equalizer Soccer



LOS ANGELES — The roof was ready to blow off BMO Stadium 15 minutes into Sunday’s Angel City FC opener. In more ways than one, a new era was on display for the National Women’s Soccer League.

Jun Endo just scored what appeared to be another stunning second goal for the home side —following up a golazo from 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick Alyssa Thompson in her NWSL debut — and it appeared that the rout was on for Angel City against quasi-rival NJ/NY Gotham FC, who finished a miserable 2022 season in last place.

Then, over a minute later, after most of the sellout crowd of 22,000 fans waved their pink team flags as Endo, easily identifiable by her pink hair, celebrated her 40-yard chip of an out-of-position goalkeeper, referee Elijio Arreguin jogged over to the video booth to review a potential foul. Arreguin emerged from the screen over a minute later and called off the goal for a what was determined to be a foul prior to the shot.

Six minutes after halftime, video review went against Angel City again, awarding Gotham a soft penalty kick that Margaret “Midge” Purce converted. Prize offseason acquisition Lynn Williams scored 14 minutes later to boost Gotham to a 2-1 victory on opening weekend.

It took until the final of six NWSL opening-weekend games for VAR (video assistant referee) to play a major role in a game result, and when it did, it came down in arguably the most high-profile match of the weekend. It was chaotic and entertaining, an unscripted drama playing out in front of a sellout crowd that continues to raise the standard for the league as it begins its second season.

“It was a crazy movie, that game,” Purce said.

Sunday’s match began with new Gotham captain Ali Krieger exiting the match injured after 10 minutes from a non-contact injury. Jenna Nighswonger, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, replaced Krieger — who recently announced that this would be her final season of a pro career spanning three decades — in a position that Nighswonger had never played.

Then came a stunning debut goal for the No. 1 draft pick, the VAR decisions, Williams’ game-winner, and the referees getting booed off the field by the home crowd. It was everything the NWSL should hope for in a tentpole game: drama, goals, storylines.

“I think that the NWSL is its own magical beast. It’s like Wild, Wild West out here,” Williams said, acknowledging that she was nervous for her first league game back from injury a year later despite having already returned to action with the United States national team.

The NWSL is back indeed, and VAR adds a new wrinkle to a league already known for chaos. Part of the formation of that identity has been a historical underinvestment in officiating that has led to game-changing calls and endless controversies.

VAR won’t eliminate those debates; Sunday’s game served as evidence that it will only encourage more of them. After the second time video review struck against Angel City, for Gotham’s second-half penalty, three Angel City players received yellow cards for their individual dissent of Arreguin.

“We need to look at our experience of VAR tonight and learn from it,” Angel City head coach Freya Coombe said. “For many players on the team, it was their first exposure to VAR and I think that’s just a learning moment for all of us.”

Neither team played all that well in a game defined by mistakes and refereeing (arguably one in the same still). Angel City was certainly the better team in first half as Gotham absorbed pressure, but the home side never really recovered from the letdown of Endo’s goal being called back. What followed were defensive errors, including captain Ali Riley’s errant backpass that put Angel City in the position to give up the penalty kick.

“I think as far as breakdowns in the second hall, we just didn’t take care of the ball,” said Angel City defender Sarah Gorden, playing her first official game for the team after missing all of 2022 with a torn ACL. “We didn’t have the urgency to go forward and score and honestly, it’s good for that to happen the first game, because now we know exactly where we need to build, where we need to get better. It’s good to be disappointed the first game because we can work on exactly where our breakdowns were.”

Whether either of these two teams will be good over the long-haul of the season remains to be seen. Gotham lost 12 straight games last year en route to a last-place finish, and while there is a new coach in charge and some new additions (Williams the most notable), plenty of work remains.

Angel City is a team with much greater expectations. “Ambition” was the buzzword around the team during preseason. They want to play with ambition in individual moments. They have ambitions of winning trophies in year two.

There is talent there, especially whenever forwards Christen Press and Sydney Leroux return from torn ACLs (Leroux’s timeline is ahead of Press’, Coombe told The Equalizer last week, but neither has returned to team training yet). Questions remain as to whether it will all come together over the course of the full season in a league that is both unpredictable and unforgiving.

Sunday was a reminder of that. Last season, Gotham would have likely dropped that result given the early-game adversity. VAR helped, but the visitors also managed to regroup and turn around a 1-0 halftime deficit to pick up three points in one of the toughest places to play in the league.

“At the end of the day, it’s football,” Purce said. “Football, you know, the prettiest team doesn’t always win the game and that is what it is. We did a really good job and earned that win, so I’m proud of that.”

The column explained

Call this the editor’s and writer’s note: Each week, I’ll be writing about pressing topics in the NWSL. This column is a mix of reporting and commentary, a deep dive into something important and news nuggets in other sections. It will be exclusively for subscribers of The Equalizer. This is one of dozens of monthly stories that are subscriber-only. Need more details? Here are all of last year’s columns.

I’ll be adding and substituting sections throughout the weeks. Please send me your feedback with some subsections you would like to see, or topics you want covered, at

Starting with two contrasting ones that we will aim to make regular as a way of looking at who is on the rise and who isn’t, without falling into the tired trap of doing power rankings:

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Eye-catchers: Trinity Rodman does it herself

Trinity Rodman had a number of great individual efforts in the Washington Spirit’s 1-0 win over OL Reign on Sunday, and her game-winning goal was the culmination of those efforts. She backed it up with a fun celebration, too. Rodman remains as one of the most talented forwards in the league.

Eyebrow-raisers: Pride get rocked in Portland … again

The Orlando Pride opened the season with a 4-0 loss away to the Portland Thorns, confirming suspicions that this team has a lot of work to do with an underwhelming and relatively inexperienced roster. Yes, opening away to the defending champions is a tough way to start the season, but at some point, you just have to be competitive. In this fixture last year, the Pride lost 6-0. Circumstances were different, sure, but there is a lot of work to be done in Orlando. The good news is, there is time.

Tactical trends to watch

18-year-old San Diego Wave forward Jaedyn Shaw started in a role that head coach Casey Stoney described as a second No. 10 of a box formation. Shaw had previously played as more of a traditional wide forward. She looked good in the role and, more than anything, it indicates just how important she will be to that team. Saturday brought a 3-2 win over the Chicago Red Stars.

Emily Sonnett started in a defensive midfield role for OL Reign in a 1-0 loss to the Washington Spirit. Sonnett’s versatility is more known for her ability to play center back or fullback, although she has previous experience as a No. 6. Reign coach Laura Harvey has talked about this being a way to get Sonnett on the field. Harvey is also a coach who will look out for her players’ international careers, and at the very least, it will be a helpful coincidence if Sonnett can prove capable in a position of need for the United States as she fights for a World Cup roster spot.

Tara McKeown started at center back for the Washington Spirit alongside Sam Staab. It’s a curious move on paper, moving the forward back there, but Spirit head coach Mark Parsons said recently that McKeown has the right qualities for the position. She was part of a Spirit back line that pitched a shutout to start the season.

Surveying stadiums

The three West Coast teams pulled their weight as expected in what was announced beforehand as an opening weekend that would break an attendance record. San Diego started off the weekend with 30,854 fans, just shy of a sellout at 32,000, which is the NWSL record that the team set last year. Angel City followed by announcing a sellout crowd of 22,000 on Sunday.

The crowd of 15,204 in Portland is undeniably solid, although noticeably short of a sellout in a market that used to set the standard. The fallout continues from extensive scandals in Portland. The team is currently for sale. Perhaps new ownership will rejuvenate the fan base.

Crowds like these are not yet the standard across the league, as the league’s first game of the season, in North Carolina, showed on Saturday, with 4,948 in attendance for the North Carolina Courage‘s 1-0 win over the Kansas City Current.

What VAR we talking about?

This column already dedicated plenty of space to the big moments in LA, but it should be noted from the jump this season: The NWSL as a league — a league which loves to promote its own chaos as entertainment (as it should!) — can’t have it both ways with VAR. That is to say: we cannot pretend that the more controversial things did not happen. Jun Endo’s would-be goal is a highlight that should be shared by the league and analyzed at length. And most objective viewers would have a lot of trouble saying there was a “clear and obvious error” in not calling a foul on Dani Weatherholt before Endo got the ball. Let’s celebrate when the refs correct a wrong call and spare the integrity of a game. Let’s also debate when they might have still got it wrong. This is a league that collectively tries to run and hide from any modicum of perceived negative news, but these moments between the lines are part of the game and the product. They cannot be ignored.

They said that

“I think frustrating sums it up.” – Rose Lavelle making a point she repeated on several occasions while discussing the Reign’s 1-0 loss to the Spirit.

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How San Diego and Portland returned to core values in a dramatic draw – Equalizer Soccer




(Photo Copyright Abe Arredondo-USA TODAY Sports)

Since the San Diego Wave entered the National Women’s Soccer League last year, every match with the Portland Thorns has been close, with only one game decided by more than one goal. Heading into Week 9 of the 2023 NWSL season, both West Coast teams sat at 15 points, one behind current table leader NJ/NY Gotham FC. Both squads were coming off slight rough patches, so their matchup on Friday was going to test their resilience.

Earlier in the week, San Diego and Canadian national team goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan told The Equalizer, “I think there’s always [an] edge when you play Portland. They’re consistently a top-level team, and you always want to beat the top. They’re coming for us just as hard as we’re coming for them. But yeah, definitely a little edge there. And I’ve got a bunch of my Canadian crew over there, so it always feels good to hand them the loss.”

Portland came out aggressive early, maintaining possession and using its press to keep San Diego away from the ball and out of the Thorns’ defensive third. In response, San Diego did what it’s been known to do well: It absorbed the attack, defended well, and tried to use its speed and counterattack to create chances.

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How the USWNT depth chart is adjusting to injuries ahead of the World Cup – Equalizer Soccer




Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Only eight weeks remain until the first match of the 2023 World Cup kicks off, but U.S. women’s national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski is still facing some uncertainty regarding his World Cup roster.

On Tuesday, forward Catarina Macario announced that she has removed herself from World Cup selection due to the setbacks she’s faced recovering from the ACL tear she suffered last June. Despite hopes that she would rehab in time for the tournament, she has yet to take the field competitively in almost a year. Tuesday also brought the news that midfielder Rose Lavelle might not get any club minutes ahead of the World Cup, thanks to a setback in her recovery from an unspecified knee injury.

These two injuries are worrying enough, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of injuries the team has faced over the past couple of years. Players are out or of a questionable fitness level across all lines, but with the United States talent pool as deep as it is, there are plenty of choices Andonovski can make to round out the squad.

It’ll be another month or so before the roster is revealed, but here’s a rundown of the biggest challenges the team is facing and what solutions they may find.

Worrying trends

Injuries are an unfortunate fact of life for most professional athletes. What’s been so concerning these past couple of years is the sheer number and severity of the injuries.

In addition to Macario, Mallory Swanson is also out after tearing her patellar tendon this past April. She had been in phenomenal form up until her injury and many people expected her to lead the attack in Australia and New Zealand. Additionally, midfielder Sam Mewis, forward Christen Press and defender Abby Dahlkemper were all key parts of the 2019 World Cup team and all haven’t seen competitive minutes since last year after all facing serious injuries.

Even among players that are shoo-ins, there are questions about fitness. In addition to Lavelle, captain Becky Sauerbrunn has been out with a foot injury for the past few weeks. And although Julie Ertz is back and looking good after more than a year away from the field, we’ve hardly been given a big enough sample size to really gauge her form. And, like Lavelle and Sauerbrunn, she’s also been marked as questionable thanks to what was reported as a thigh injury.

Of course, it’s very possible Lavelle, Sauerbrunn and Ertz are on minutes management specifically to keep them fresh for the World Cup. But the fact three key players need such careful management isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring amidst all the other injuries – especially with so many bubble players also in questionable form. For example, defenders Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger have had a rough time finding their form after returning from injury. Lindsey Horan hasn’t quite been herself either after rehabbing from a lingering knee issue. Taylor Kornieck has just returned from an extended abdominal injury and Midge Purce has missed games with a hip injury. Although not currently injured, Kelley O’Hara and Megan Rapinoe have been increasingly injury-prone in recent years.

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The last time the United States previously faced even close to this many injuries was when Abby Wambach, Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill all missed the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Wambach broke her leg in a friendly against Brazil while Osborne and Whitehill both suffered ACL tears. Despite a less-than-perfect performance in the final against Brazil, the U.S. did in fact go home with Olympic gold that year off a game-winning goal from budding star Amy Rodriguez in her first major tournament.

Likewise, Andonovski is going to have to look for up-and-coming young talents to be the difference-makers during the World Cup as the U.S. looks to defend its title and compete for a third consecutive championship. Luckily for him, there are quite a few to choose from.

Exploring the depth

Although it seemed unlikely at the beginning of this year, it is increasingly likely that Angel City forward and teenage phenom Alyssa Thompson has worked her way onto the World Cup roster. She’s the closest the United States has to a replacement for Swanson which is evidenced by her being immediately called up to finish the second of the pair of friendlies against Ireland after Swanson was injured during the first leg. Whether Thompson gets significant minutes with players like Alex Morgan, Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith ahead of her is yet to be seen, but there’s no question she’s a player the team will want to build around in the future.

Although not a young up-and-comer, it is as good as certain that Lynn Williams will be on her way to her first World Cup this July. After returning from her own major injury in 2022, she’s come back in excellent form and has five goals in eight games with Gotham. Although the loss of Swanson and Macario will be felt acutely, an attack featuring Smith, Morgan, Thompson, Rodman and Williams is hardly something to sneeze at. Ashley Hatch and Megan Rapinoe are also good bets to step in and round out the group. Although Hatch has been getting called up to the senior team since 2016, this will be her first major tournament, should she get the call from Andonovski.

In terms of midfield depth, both Sam Coffey and Taylor Kornieck have received senior call-ups, although they’ve missed the most recent camps. Coffey has been on a hot streak with the Portland Thorns and notched two assists last week against the Chicago Red Stars. Kornieck is just coming back from injury, but offers versatility across the line, and at 6’1″ she’s the tallest field player in program history which gives her a unique angle no other player can match.

There’s also been increasing noise around whether versatile midfielder Savannah DeMelo is deserving of a call-up to the national team. The Racing Louisville player has been on fire lately and has scored four goals and notched an assist in her last five appearances. With all the questions surrounding the midfield, could DeMelo have a shot at making the roster? Possibly, but Andonovski has said in the past he wants to bring players with senior team experience, and DeMelo, unfortunately, remains uncapped. Only once in United States history has a player with no caps made a World Cup roster – Shannon Boxx in 2003 – so it seems unlikely, but if Lavelle faces an even more severe setback or another player drops in form significantly, DeMelo may find herself on the plane to Australia and New Zealand.

Injuries everywhere

While it’s certainly far from a positive development, the one thing the United States has going for it in terms of injuries is that they’re far from alone in losing key players. Almost every single top team has lost at least one important player, most often to ACL tears. To name just a few, Canada’s Janine Beckie tore hers in the NWSL preseason, England’s Leah Williamson ruptured hers in April, and Dutch star Vivienne Miedema tore hers in November. And just yesterday, it was announced that France’s Delphine Cascarino ruptured her ACL as well. Of these players, only Miedema has a shot at making the World Cup roster, but even if she does, there’s no guarantee she’ll be in top form.

ACL tears are nothing new in women’s sports but as schedules get denser and play becomes more physical and demanding, they seem to be happening more often. While more needs to be done to prevent these injuries in the future, in the meantime, they’ll almost certainly impact how this World Cup ultimately plays out as coaches rework their rosters to accommodate missing players. That’s the task ahead of Andonovski as he’s tasked with finalizing the 23-player roster for the United States and seeing if he can put together another championship squad despite some key pieces missing.

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Macario, Lavelle news; USWNT roster questions – Equalizer Soccer




OL Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle

Photo credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Bekki Morgan and Jeff Kassouf react to the news that Catarina Macario will not be on the roster for the Women’s World Cup, and that Rose Lavelle may not play in the NWSL before the tournament. What can we expect from the U.S. women’s national team midfield this summer? How will Mallory Swanson’s injury impact the forward line?

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