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The Week in Women's Football: Debinha explains choosing Kansas over Arsenal; NWSL transfer wrap; expansion chat

This week, we look at some player and head coach signings within the NWSL during the off-season, a national award in Canada that Portland Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc has been given for her long work to further the game and touch on what we view as the leading cities in the expansion market race for two new teams for the 2024 season.

We finish with a quick look at some significant growth for the USL's W League ahead of year two in 2023, while the professional Division 2 Super League will hold off for a year and launch in 2024.

DiBernardo and Guatrat leave Chicago for Kansas City

Chicago Red Star midfielders Vanessa DiBernardo and 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cup winner Morgan Guatrat (who also won a U-20 WWC in 2012 with the U.S. in Japan) have both joined the 2022 season Championship runners-up Kansas City Current on two-year contracts as free agents during this off-season. Gautrat (29) played for the University of Virginia before the Houston Dash selected her with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. She was traded to the Red Stars in 2017.

DiBernardo (30) played collegiately at the University of Illinois and professionally with the Red Stars since 2014, who drafted her fourth overall in the College Draft that year and, since the 2015 season, has made the playoffs every season, including two championship runner-up finishes. DiBernardo has played internationally for the U.S. at the U-17, U-20 and U-23 level, but not at the full level, and also qualifies through family ties to play for Italy and Argentina. She leads the Red Stars side all time in minutes played, games played and assists.

Racing Louisville signs young Brazilian international defender Ary Borges and Finnish defender Eli Pikkujamsa

Racing Louisville signed Brazilian international midfielder Ary Borges (22) to a three-year deal with Racing through the 2025 season. She said upon her signing, "I am thrilled about this new challenge. It will be an honor to represent Racing Louisville FC and play in the NWSL, one of the top leagues in the world. I am ready and very much looking forward to taking on this new opportunity. Go Racing!" Borges has four goals in 22 national team games, including two scores in this summer's Copa America Femenina, helping Brazil win its fourth consecutive title. She is expected to be selected for Brazil's Women's World Cup Finals side this summer.

Borges scored 37 goals in 87 appearances over three years with Palmeiras in Sao Paulo, with 18 goals in 32 appearances this year, for a side which won three titles in 2022: the 2022 Campeonato Paulista, the 2022 Copa Libertadores Femenina and the regular-season shield in the Brasileiro Serie A. She scored 3 goals in the CONMEBOL club championship, finishing in a tie for third. She was also named the Campeonato Paulista's midfielder of the year.

Racing also signed Finnish international defender Eli Pikkujamsa (23) to a two-year contract with a mutual option for a third year. She turned professional at age 15 and was also a Youth Olympics silver medalist in snowboarding as a teenager. She has 20 caps for Finland and started three games at last summer's UEFA Women's Euro 2022. She played for three seasons in Sweden with KIF Orebro and had six goals in 27 games in 2022, with her club finishing ninth in the Damallsvenskan. She was an Örebro teammate in 2022 of former Racing midfielder Freja Olofsson, who is now with Real Madrid. Prior to her move to Sweden, she played professionally for four years at home, debuting first for her hometown club FC TPS in 2015, then suiting up for FC Honka in Espoo for two seasons.

Debinha leaves the North Carolina Courage as a free agent, reportedly bound for England, she decided to stay in the NWSL and signed with the Kansas City Current.

Iconic Brazilian international midfielder Debinha left the North Carolina Courage after six years, as a free-agent. She was closely linked with Arsenal in England's WSL, particularly since Dutch international forward Viv Miedema and English international Beth Mead are both out with ACL injuries. However, she signed with the Kansas City Current on January 9, 2023 on a two year deal, with an option for the 2025 season.

She explained her move to the media: "As a professional athlete, I always want to get better and to be on a competitive team that fights for titles; with excellent professionals I'm sure it will help me in that goal and Kansas City showed that last season. The plan that the club has shown me left me really motivated, because of the entire training facility and the construction of a stadium for a women's team. All of this made me want to be part of it and made me think about being here today. I'm happy for this new journey that is just beginning."

The fact that Debinha is staying in the NWSL is a huge positive for the league, which has struggled over the past two seasons with sexual harassment and destructive cultural team environment findings, which were fostered by coaches and team administrators, and largely ignored by team executives and owners. The fact that she turned down interest from a WSL side will help NWSL clubs in their recruiting this season and beyond, particularly after the 2023 Women's World Cup with international prospects.

Debinha joined the Courage in 2017 and the club had offered her a new contract but she wanted to experience a new club. She played in Norway with Alvadsnes in 2014 and also at home and in China. Debinha appeared in her 100th NWSL regular season match in the 2022 regular season finale at San Diego. She scored 35 regular season career goals in six seasons, including a career-best 12 in 2022 to earn NWSL First Team Best XI and was an MVP finalist. She also had nine goals in 16 career Challenge Cup games, including five in 2022 to help the Courage claim the Championship. Debinha, who also had 20 assists across all competitions with the club, was a massive part of the North Carolina Courage's winning culture and claimed two NWSL Championships, three NWSL Shields (regular season title), the 2018 ICC [International Champions Cup] Championship and, most recently, the 2022 Challenge Cup title. She was the Most Valuable Player at the 2019 NWSL Championship, delivering the Courage its second straight league title.

Internationally, Debinha appeared in all six 2022 Copa América Femenina contests, making four starts, and tied with Adriana (Corinthians of Sao Paulo) for a team-best five goals, and one behind the Golden Boot winner Yamila Rodriguez of Argentina (Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires). She scored the winner in the championship final on a first-half penalty to give Brazil the 1-0 win over Colombia. She has scored 57 goals in 129 national team games. She has played for Brazil in the 2010 U-20 Women's World Cup (a side that did not advance from the Group Stage), the 2019 senior WWC, and the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games Finals.

Washington Spirit re-signs co-captain Tori Huster

Free agent defender and Washington Spirit Stallworth Tori Huster, who was a free-agent after the 2022 season, signed again with the Spirit for her eleventh season, having joined the club for its inaugural season in 2013. She is also the current President of the NWSL Players Association. She was out injured all of last season but retained her captaincy; she won a WPSL-Elite title in 2012 with the Western New York Flash. Huster (33) spent time with the U.S. U-23 national team and played multiple seasons on loan in Australia with the Newcastle Jets and Western Sydney Wanderers.

Dash hires Sam Laity from Seattle as their new head coach

In late December, the Houston Dash named long-time OL Reign assistant coach Sam Laity (46), a native of Plymouth, England, as their new head coach for the 2023 season, the fourth permanent coach in club history, which dates back to 2014.

Former WPS and NWSL player Alex Singer—who played at the University of Virginia, in the WPS and for the Washington Spirit for two seasons in the NWSL as well as in Australia, Germany, Norway and Sweden and, after retiring worked in management for Octagon sports agency before taking the Dash General Manager job last August—told the media, "We are thrilled to welcome Sam and his family to Houston. From the first conversations I had with Sam, I knew he would be a great fit for the team, club, and city. As we went through the interview process, Sam stood out as the ideal candidate to lead the team. He is a players' coach with the respect and trust of players, staff, and stakeholders across our league and sport. He has seen the ups and downs through the evolution of the NWSL and knows what it takes to be successful. His deep knowledge of this league is an invaluable asset but most importantly, his values align with the culture we want to build and the competitive product we want to see on the field."

Laity (46) has coached in more than 200 NWSL regular season and playoff games during his tenure as an assistant coach at OL Reign. Laity also served as an interim head coach during the 2021 season for six games and finished with a 4-0-2 (W-D-L) record. Laity helped lead the Reign to a NWSL best 11-7-4 (W-D-L) record last season, winning the NWSL Shield as the top team in the regular season, their third in team history. The team made the playoffs in six of their ten previous seasons. Laity also served as an assistant coach under current United States Women's National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski from 2017 to 2019 with the Reign. Laity has become a key figure in the Seattle soccer community for the 10 plus years he has lived in the Emerald City.

Laity currently holds a UEFA "B" License and a NSCAA Master Coach Diploma. He is enrolled in the U.S. Soccer Federation's "A" senior licensing course. Laity graduated from the University of St. Mark and St. John in 2001 in Plymouth, England, with a degree in Sports and Exercise.

Laity said: "One of the reasons why I'm sat here today is I'm ambitious, and I want to win. I think that most relationships in life that are successful are the ones that involve compatibility. What was very, very clear from day one in my initial conversations with Alex [Singer, and other club officials], was that we had our values aligned, and that was really, really important for me. As it's been noted a number of times, having been in a club like Seattle where success was expected, and that was winning championships….

"It is very, very, very beneficial for me to be here and experience this challenge with the Houston Dash. When you've lived in Seattle for 22 years now, my next step was always going to be very, very big. So, the next step for me had to be the right step. The relationship and the connection that we have has already proven that I'm in the right place [and] that waiting for a position like this and not jumping into a position because I wanted to be a head coach, having that patience, has served me well. I'm ecstatic. I'm very excited. If we can start training tomorrow I would."

Laity talked about how the game has changed in his 10 years in the league: "Well, professionalism. Number one, I want to say that we were having this conversation about OL Reign, how we ended up with the players that we had there. Initially, the first part was that we were a destination club, not because we were winning. We were a destination club because of how we treated players…. The standards sort of, I wouldn't say for every club but league-wide, were pretty poor [back when the league started in 2013] and the players were exposed to some pretty poor resources and poor standards. For the Reign, I think we always recognize this as a club that looked to do the right things for the players. Even if it was something as simple as, you know, providing lunches after training and taking care a little bit more when it comes to things like travel….

"So, I've seen professionalism improve dramatically and we've obviously seen resources improve…. The exposure, the exposure for the league. It's so pleasing for me to see now that players are recognized for who they are as human beings, but also the value that they bring into the sport and they bring to the communities…. Players can spend time and dedicate their life to their craft, into a sport that they love to play. Because it wasn't always possible. The next change is VAR next season [which the NWSL is implementing for the first time]. So, let's see how that goes. But it's been a positive evolution, for sure. I think this league is stronger than people think it is. It's been an evolution."

Laity officially takes over from James Clarkson, who led the team from December 2019 until April 2022. Previously, now Nigerian national team manager Randy Waldrum and present Ireland manager Vera Pauw were the first and second head coaches for the franchise that joined the league in 2014. Clarkson was suspended before the start of the 2022 regular season; with two interim coaches—first Sarah Lowdon of England [who has been retained by the club after doing a superb job during her stint as acting head coach] and then Juan Carlos Amoros of Spain [who signed a long-term deal recently with NJ/NY Gotham FC]—leading the club into the post-season in 2022 for the first time ever in club history.

LeBlanc wins a prestigious award in Canada

Karina LeBlanc, the former Canadian international goalkeeper and now the General Manager of the Portland Thorns, was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada at the end of 2022, which is one of the country's highest honors. LeBlanc was recognized for her contributions to the sport of soccer worldwide as well as for her use of soccer as a tool for social change. The Order of Canada recognizes people across all sectors of society who have made extraordinary and sustained contributions to Canada. Since 1967, the Order of Canada has honored more than 7,600 people 'whose service has shaped our society, whose innovations have ignited our imaginations, and whose compassion has united our communities.' LeBlanc's investiture ceremony will take place at a later date.

LeBlanc was a CONCACAF champion and Olympic Games Bronze Medal winner from her international career as a goalkeeper. She was the first player to represent Canada at five FIFA World Cups from 1999 to 2015, including a fourth-place finish at USA 2003. She played her club football in Canada and USA, won league titles in Boston and Los Angeles, and playoff titles in New Jersey and Portland.

Before joining the Thorns, she served as Head of CONCACAF Women's Football from 2018 to 2021. She is in the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame and has also served as an ambassador for UNICEF in Canada. We congratulate Karina LeBlanc on her much-deserved national honor in our country; she has always been a leading light for women's football and is an amazing and charismatic person to deal with.

NWSL Expansion News

We mentioned last month that the Minnesota Auroa was withdrawing its application for a NWSL franchise in bidding for 2024 (See: The Week in Women's Football: Canadian pro league update; reviewing summer US leagues - Tribal Football). With the NWSL planning to add two teams for the 2024 season, Salt Lake City, Utah is thought to be a lock—returning to the market that had stellar crowds for three seasons (averaging 9,466 in 2018 and 10,774 in 2019) but was moved to Kansas City after the 2020 COVID-interrupted season when the league forced out their owner for making racist and sexist remarks and cultivating a hostile climate—with the second franchise coming from either San Francsico, Boston or Tampa ownership groups. San Francisco would be my cautious bet to win that second spot—with too many fresh memories of the Boston Breakers run on a shoestring and always in the running as "basket case franchise of the year" along with Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC.

As far as Tampa, it is very close to Orlando (less than 90 minutes' drive time), the latter of which hasn't been the strongest of markets, particularly since the 2018 season for the seven-year-old franchise. If Tampa is that promising of a market, perhaps the Pride should either move their operations there or hold some of their home matches in the city each season.

USL W League targets 65 teams in 2023 and the launch of the professional Super League is delayed until 2024

The USL W League had 44 teams in 2022—its debut season since re-launching after the league folded in 2015 following over two decades of play. The summer semi-professional league that allows high school and college players to retain their amateur eligibility while playing top level games, is targeting 100 teams by the 2026 season. The USL Super League, which is targeting 12 teams for launch, was originally planning to start this year but will now begin in 2024, which will give more time to solidify funding sources at the league and team level, in order to maximize their entry into the professional level. It will be a division II professional league, below the NWSL level, and will play a Fall-Spring season, with kick-off set for August of 2024. The NWSL plays a Spring-Fall season, while the W-League, UWS and WPSL are summer season leagues.

In addition, in 2023, the USL Academy Cup and League, which launched a pilot girls' division in 2021, is seeing significant growth and has expanded to 38 teams who are set to contest the Academy Cup. The new USL Academy League will also feature up to six girls' divisions in 2023 and hopes to increase to more than 12 divisions by 2026.

This news is part of a new plan, documented by the USL, to take the women's game in America to the next level by maximizing player potential, delivering a world-class fan experience, and growing the business of USL clubs—which is titled Step Up: The Bold Next Phase in the USL's Women's Soccer Strategy, and was announced on January 10, 2023. This new plan comprehensively lays out a clear pathway from youth to professional, including the launch of the professional USL Super League, continued expansion of the pre-professional USL W League, and the establishment and growth of the USL Academy for girls. One positive sign of the USL's strategy is that, after just one year, the W-League has seen 20 players from the 2022 season have signed professional contracts, either domestically or internationally.

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham is on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

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