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The Week in Women's Football: NWSL squad changes; Parsons chat; Yanez makes big move

This week, we look at some news around the NWSL since the 2022 Championship game, with the competitive schedule set for next season, some free agent signings by clubs and another coach has resigned amid controversy with player relationships, even though she was cleared of violating any league rules.

NWSL Off-Season News

NWSL Sets Calendar for 2023

The NWSL announced that, for the league's 11th season, they will feature a 176-game schedule, including the fourth installment of the newly reformatted UKG NWSL Challenge Cup, but in 2023 it will be integrated around regular season matches (running concurrently and will comprise six weeks from April to September), as is done with Cup competitions for men's and women's leagues throughout most of the world, rather than as a Pre-Season tournament, which the NWSL ran in 2021 and 2022. The CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Players] and NWSL rules allow teams the flexibility to hold a six-to-eight-week preseason camp opening as early as January 23 but no later than February 6, ahead of the 2023 regular season kickoff on March 25, followed by the start of the 2023 UKG NWSL Challenge Cup in April.

The Challenge Cup will feature three groups of four teams playing double round-robin matches for a total of six contests. Following group play, four teams will square off in semifinal matches on Wednesday, September 6 ahead of the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup Final on Saturday, September 9. The 2023 UKG NWSL Challenge Cup will also be the first-ever women's professional soccer tournament to achieve pay equity with its U.S. peers in the men's game. This is the result of the partnership between NWSL and UKG, a leading provider of HR, payroll, and workforce management solutions for all people.

Comprised of a balanced 22-game regular season schedule (the same as in 2022), the 132-game regular season will be played over 22 weeks, eliminating mid-week matches to minimize schedule congestion for player safety and optimal performance. The schedule has been formatted to limit the number of regular season games staged during the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in July and August, in order to ensure that the league's top players are able to compete for both club and country with minimal conflicts. In total, each team will play 28 matches between the regular season and the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup group stage, 14 games at home and 14 games on the road.

As with the 2021 and 2022 seasons, six teams will qualify for the NWSL playoffs, which will begin in late October with the top two seeds receiving a first-round bye. The quarterfinal round will be played on October 22, followed by the semifinals on November 4. The 2023 NWSL Championship Game will be staged the following weekend on November 11.

Mark Parsons returns to the NWSL and the Washington Spirit

In a bit of an unexpected development, the Washington Spirit announced a press conference with only three hours' notice on Monday November 21—the same day as the first match for the U.S. men against Wales in the World Cup in Qatar—and then dropped a press release for their new head coach only about twenty minutes before the call, who was none other than Mark Parsons, the former Spirit assistant and head coach, title winning coach in Portland and who was let go by the Netherlands following a disappointing Women's EURO in England after a year in charge of their women's national team.

During the press conference to introduce their new coach, this reporter asked Parsons a question that related to a year ago, when he said that he was leaving a very successful stint with the Portland Thorns to take the Netherlands job in order to return to Europe and his wife and daughter, who were living in the U.K. After the difficulties of COVID, everyone could understand that, though he effectively was trying to coach Portland and the Dutch side at the same time for much of the 2021 season.

I wrote at the time about the huge disconnect between his press conference in Portland, which was very much, "I really didn't want to do this but there comes a time in every man's life…" while stressing the living in Europe as his prime reason for the move. Now disgraced President Gavin Wilkinson talked about the fact that, after that day's press conference, they didn't want to talk about Parson's departure until the end of the season (months away) and had even tried to bury the news—a real shock coming from him with how the Thorns management suppressed Paul Riley's abuse of players while he was the head coach. Yes, that order was ignored by many. A few hours later, the Netherlands announcement presser couldn't have been any different, and quite the celebration by Parsons with hints of, "This is my town now—I'm the new sheriff" (See: The Week in Women's Football: Parsons joins Netherlands; Aluko new director at Angel City; Eastern European book review - Tribal Football).

So, I had two questions for Parsons; "After talking about the importance of returning to Europe for your family, what changed?" and "What are your thoughts about your brief spell in the Netherlands?" To the first question he said, "I finished with the Netherlands and Europe was the center of my life there. Then I met Michelle [Spirit owner Michelle Kang], who wants to give her players and her team the very best. It is a team with lots of talent. It's about building a team. It was a surprise to me and my family; the opportunity was too good." He said that his wife and daughter will still be based in England and come over for visits. Parsons was also comfortable that Angela Salem, his former player with the Thorns, is the D.C. team's General Manager.

For the Netherlands question, he explained, "The experience was a very important one. I gave everything….I felt that there was too much of a cultural and language change. It was the best step to part ways…even if we had won the EUROS, it could have been the same outcome [that was really never ever likely to happen—see below]." He then emphasized that the, "[The] Washington club is special to him," as it gave him his start as a head coach. He felt that he developed and learned from the Dutch job experience.

A few weeks earlier Parsons told Charlotte Harpur of the Athletic about his time with the Netherlands, "It was the hardest job in women's football and I jumped into the lion's den. I gave everything I had. The staff were excellent in helping [with] the transition. The players were excellent in committing to the process. It was a very, very challenging job situation. It also wasn't the perfect fit."

He was the first ever foreign coach in the position and has since been replaced by Dutch native Andries Jonker, who was an assistant on the men's side to Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the past; Jonker guided the side into the WWC Finals with a last minute WWC Qualifying win over Iceland (1-0), after defeating Scotland 2-1 in a friendly four days earlier. In October, a friendly against fellow-2023 Women's World Cup side Zambia was cancelled before the side lost at home to Norway (2-0). In November, the Dutch triumphed over Costa Rica (4-0) and Denmark (2-0), both at home, with Dominique Janssen (27—Wolfsburg of Germany and ex-Arsenal of the WSL) scoring once in each game.

Parson's Netherlands team lost to France in the quarterfinals stage at the 2022 Women's EURO but his days seemed numbered earlier during the tournament when Jill Roord admitted that her new coach's meetings took too long compared to those of his predecessor Sarina Wiegman [now the head coach of England and who has won the last two Women's EURO titles], with players also arguing with him. Parsons side lost 5-1 to Wiegman's England team in a June friendly and then was eliminated from the tournament by France [1-0 in extra time] in the Quarterfinals; Parsons was then promptly jettisoned by the Dutch FA.

Parsons also told Charlotte Harpur in his Athletic interview, "I would love to work as close to my family and drive home after training and see them. I'm in a profession where I may not have that choice. The goal is to be in England at some point, the U.S. is another, and we have to see."

The U.S. it is then, and specifically Washington D.C. for Parsons. Don't get me wrong—I think he will bring stability to a D.C. franchise which won the league title in 2021 and crashed out of the playoff race early in the 2022 season, finishing second from bottom in the 12-team league.

Parsons was the head coach for the Portland Thorns FC from 2016 to 2021. With Portland, Parsons led the club to a NWSL Championship in 2017, the NWSL Shield [regular season title] in 2016 and 2021, five consecutive playoff appearances and two NWSL Championship matches. Parsons was named the NWSL Coach of the Year in his first season with the Thorns and was a finalist for FIFA Women's Coach of the Year in 2018. Before making the move to Portland, Parsons led the Washington Spirit through its first three seasons in the NWSL, making the playoffs in each of his final two seasons. His additional coaching experience includes roles with the Washington Spirit Reserves (2013), D.C. United Women U-20 (2012) and Chelsea Women (2004-2010).

Parsons has been around the NWSL since year one so this is a good move for both parties. Hopefully the drama around his time in the Netherlands will go away and he can do what he does best, which is just coaching, in order to guide a talented but young side back into the playoffs.

Turmoil in Portland—Rhian Wilkinson resigns as head coach and Merritt Paulson will step away as the team owner during a week of turmoil for the Thorns

In the last week of November, there were a number of surprising decisions in Portland. First Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Thorns and MLSPortland Timbers, announced on December 1 that he was selling the former as a result of the Yates Report findings of a toxic environment at his club. The Timbers Army fan club may have a problem with him staying on as owner of the Timbers but at least there is an opportunity for the Thorns to rebuild a player-focused organization (see Yates Report article link: The Week in Women's Football: Examining the Yates report; offering our own recommendations - Tribal Football).

Then former Canadian international player and 2022 NWSL Championship winning head coach resigned on December 2. She had been investigated by the league and cleared for expressing to one of her players that she had feelings for her, after the player had initiated the discussion and admitted her own feelings for Wilkinson. Nothing advanced with the relationship and, despite the league investigation finding in her favor after she self-reported the situation, other players on the team pushed for her ouster. Wilkinson posted on social media, "During my time as the Thorns coach, a player and I formed a friendship that turned into more complex emotions.

"In mid-October the player shared her feelings for me, and I reciprocated. While this was a human moment, it went no further than this expression of feelings for one another. In an effort to follow NWSL and NWSLPA processes to protect player safety, and to be transparent as possible, the player and I immediately stopped spending time outside of training together, and soon after stopped all communication outside of work. In less than a week, I reported myself to human resources to make sure I had not crossed any ethical lines….Once you've lost the locker room, which I have, there's no return. When the locker room [for] whatever reason, is gone, it's gone."

Maybe the Thorns and the league in general needs to apply a typical organizational rule of no dating or personal relationships between employees, even at the peer level, much less between coaching management and players.

Gotham FC makes free agent signings

Gotham FC has signed NWSL veteran goalkeeper free agent Abby Smith (29) to a three-year contract. Smith said, "I couldn't be more excited about my decision to join Gotham FC. This experience has been educational and empowering. I feel so fortunate to be amongst the first class of athletes in the NWSL to benefit from the new CBA's free agency policy. Gotham FC made their feelings known immediately and I was so impressed by their support and professionalism throughout the entire process. This organization values its players and its community, and those two qualities are most important to me. I can't wait to come to New Jersey and get to work on the field and in my new community."

Goalkeeper Abby Smith was with the 2022 NWSL Champions Portland Thorns in 2022 and has signed for NJ/NY Gotham FC for the 2023 season

(Photo Courtesy NWSL/Gotham FC).

Since her selection by the Boston Breakers in the third round of the 2016 Draft, Smith has played 56 matches over her NWSL career for Boston, Utah Royals FC/Kansas City, and Portland, who she joined in August of 2021. In 2019, she played for Western Sydney Wanderers FC in Australia on loan from Utah. Smith played four years at the University of Texas and has represented the United States on the U-17, U-20, U-23 and senior national teams. In 2017, she was called up to the U.S. National Team for friendlies against Sweden and Norway. Smith is a very good pickup for Gotham FC, who struggled in defense last season, surrendering a league high 46 goals in 22 games.

The suburban New York City club also brought in another free agent in two-time WWC winner Kelly O'Hara, who played the last two years in D.C. and won the 2021 league title with the Spirit, scoring the winning goal in overtime in the championship match. Kristen Edmonds also came into the side as a free agent. She started 44 games over the last two seasons for the Kansas City Current, including all three playoff matches in the Current's run to the NWSL Final in 2022. Edmonds previously played five seasons for the Orlando Pride, scoring 10 goals in 72 appearances. In her first season with the club, she led Orlando in scoring with 6 goals and 2 assists. Edmonds started her NWSL career with the Western New York Flash, making 29 starts in 31 appearances in the 2014 and 2015. Edmonds also played Iceland, leading Stjarnan to the league title and the Icelandic Women's Cup Championship in 2011. She then played for WFC Rossiyanka of the Russian Premier League, including UEFA Women's Champions League matches. She played collegiately in the State at Rutgers University.

Bev Yanez joins Racing Louisville's coaching staff from NJ/NY Gotham FC

Racing Louisville FC signed Beverly 'Bev' Goebel Yanez as an assistant coach for the 2023 season. Yanez (34) joined Racing after two years as an assistant at NJ/NY Gotham FC, where she helped the team reach the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup final and the 2021 playoffs. Yanez will work closely with Racing players on individual development and be the lead assistant on head coach Kim Björkegren's staff. The California native is currently enrolled in a U.S. Soccer Federation A-Senior license course.

Before her coaching career, Yanez was a standout midfielder and forward in Australia, Finland, Japan and the U.S., including six seasons with OL Reign in Washington State. Yanez helped the then Seattle Reign win back-to-back NWSL Shields and reach two NWSL finals, tallying 25 goals and nine assists in 123 appearances. She was a Best XI selection and MVP finalist in 2015.

A proven winner across multiple competitions, Yanez won the 2011 Women's Professional Soccer League title with the Western New York Flash; the 2011 Finnish Naisten Liiga crown with PK-35; back-to-back Japanese Nadeshiko League championships with INAC Kobe; and the 2017 Australian W-League crown with Melbourne City. The first-ever draft pick from the University of Miami also claimed the Nadeshiko League Golden Boot in 2013. In all, Yanez totaled 49 goals in 195 professional appearances over a 10-year career. In addition to her two years with Gotham as a coach, Yanez has worked as an assistant for the U-15 U.S. Soccer Youth National Team.

Racing coach Kim Björkegren said, "I'm glad to welcome Bev to Louisville. We have been looking for a coach who can work closely with our players and provide individual feedback. We have many young players in the squad, and we are sure Bev will help them take the next step in their development. Bev also has experience in the NWSL, both as a player and a coach, and she has a good understanding of what it takes to be successful in the league. We have already talked a lot, and I believe she is not only a good coach but that her personality will be perfect for us."

Yanez's husband, former Columbus Crew midfielder Othaniel "OT" Yanez, is a University of Louisville grad who starred for the Cardinals and was a fourth-round pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. He was also the team captain and MVP of the Louisville Lightning, which played in the Professional Arena Soccer League.

Cameroonian international defender Estelle Johnson joins the North Carolina Courage as a free agent

In North Carolina, the Courage signed former Gotham FC free agent defender Estelle Johnson (34) for the 2023 season. A ten-year veteran of the NWSL with over 10,000 minutes played, Johnson had been with NJ/NY Gotham FC since 2019. Johnson has always been known for her efficiency as a passer and in the 2022 regular season, she connected 538 of 654 total passes for an 82.3% success rate.

Defender Estelle Johnson, in action with Gotham FC, has joined the North Carolina Courage for the 2023 season.

Photo credit: Vincent Carchietta of USA Today.

Her professional career dates back to 2011 with the Philadelphia Independence of the WPS. Johnson was then selected in the first round, seventh overall, of the 2013 NWSL Supplemental Draft by the Western New York Flash (now Carolina Courage). She spent two seasons with the Flash before a trade to the Washington Spirit ahead of the 2015 season and then was traded to then-Sky Blue FC for the 2019 season. Johnson has been a member of the Cameroonian National Team (where she was born) since 2019. She played every minute of the Lionesses' four matches in the 2019 FIFA World Cup to lead them to the knockout stages, where they fell to England in the Round of 16.

San Diego Wave signs two Chicago Red Stars for 2023

San Diego Wave Fútbol Club has signed free agent and former Chicago Red Stars midfielder Danielle Colaprico to its 2023 roster on a two-year contract through the 2024 NWSL season. The 2015 NWSL Rookie of the Year and NWSL second team XI in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Colaprico has played over 150 matches and scored 6 times in her 8 seasons in the league, after being the ninth overall draft pick in the 2015 NWSL College Draft from the University of Virginia, where she was the program's all-time leader in assists and appearances with 44 and 100. Colaprico has represented the United States at both the U-23 level and the senior Women's National Team, earning her first senior cap in late 2018 as a second half substitute against Portugal in a friendly.

She played 3 seasons in Australia on loan from Chicago, her first two with Adelaide United Reds in 2016/17 and 2017/18 and then transferred to Sydney FC ahead of her third season down under, where she won a league title in 2018/19/

Colaprico's teammate in Chicago, forward Rachel Hill, also has moved west to join the Wave. She signed a two-year contract. Hill joined the Red Stars in 2020 through a trade with the Orlando Pride before being loaned to Linköpings FC in Sweden. In her three seasons with the Red Stars, Hill played in 70 matches and scored 6 goals.

Hill made 60 appearances for Orlando Pride from 2017-2019 and scored 11 goals. During that time, Hill was loaned to Perth Glory in the Australian A-League where she led the league in assists in 2017 with six and tallied 15 goals overall through two seasons in 2017/18 and 2018/19. On the international level, the forward played with both the U-20 and U-23 U.S. Women's National Teams. Hill played in the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Canada, where the U.S. fell in the Quarterfinals to North Korea. Collegiately, Hill attended the University of Connecticut and was a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy in 2017/18 and 2018/19.

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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