by Eric Fulton
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off early Thursday morning (our time) in Australia and New Zealand. For the next month, the best national women’s soccer teams will compete to see who the best in the world is. The United States Women’s Team has been the most successful women’s international team in the World Cup, winning four titles, including the previous World Cup in 2019. However, coming into this year’s World Cup, they will go through some adversity with a couple of key players not available for the entire tournament due to injuries and a new head coach taking over the team.
Players Becky Sauerbrunn and Mallory Swanson will not participate in the World Cup due to injuries. While both players will be sorely missed on the team, they will have a new voice as former FC Kansas City head coach Vlatko Andonovski takes over the head coaching duties. With a lot going on, the focus is to win, and they still have what it takes to extend their record by winning a fifth World Cup.
Here are five players everyone should focus on during the U.S. run toward that fifth World Cup.
5. Alyssa Naeher – Goalkeeper
Alyssa Naeher is the most experienced goalkeeper on the roster. She has made 91 appearances for Team USA with 53 clean sheets. Naeher ranks third all-time in caps, wins and shutouts for a goalkeeper in U.S. history. Her shutout in the CONCACAF final helped the United States clinch this year’s World Cup appearance and the Summer Olympics in 2024.
4. Crystal Dunn – Defender
Crystal Dunn has made 132 appearances, scoring 24 goals and 19 assists in international play. Dunn is also a two-time Olympian. In the last World Cup in 2019, Dunn played a key role in defense against host country France shutting down France’s attack and helping the U.S. win that match. Dunn started all six matches in 2019, scoring one assist in the tournament.
3. Rose Lavelle – Midfielder
Lavelle has made 88 appearances, scoring 24 goals and 20 assists in international play. In 2021 and 2022, Lavelle played 38 matches for the United States, scoring nine goals and 11 assists, while playing 2,518 minutes. In the 2019 World Cup, Lavelle won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player in the tournament. She scored the clinching goal in the 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in World Cup Final.
2. Alex Morgan – Forward
Making her fourth World Cup appearance, Alex Morgan is one of the best women’s soccer players of all time. Last year, Morgan became just the 13th player in USWNT history to reach 200 matches played. She is also a two-time United States Female Soccer Athlete of the Year, a four-time CONCACAF Player of the Year, and a three-time Olympian. Her performance in the 2019 World Cup was one of the greatest of all time. She scored six goals and added three assists in France. Five of her six goals came in one game alone against Thailand, which tied a single-game record for the United States. Morgan will look to continue to add to her 121 goals and 49 assists in Australia and New Zealand.
1. Megan Rapinoe – Forward
Rapinoe announced recently that this year will be her final World Cup as she plans to retire at the end of the year. You know she would love to finish her career in a blaze of glory. Rapinoe is one appearance away from reaching the 200 matches played milestone. She has scored 63 goals and 73 assists in her international career, both rank in the top 10 in USWNT history. Her play in the 2019 World Cup was memorable and unforgettable. She won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot as the most outstanding player in the World Cup with her six goals and three assists. She scored a penalty kick goal in the World Cup Final, which was her 50th career goal. Rapinoe has even made a tremendous impact off the soccer field, advocating that her teammates and women’s soccer, in general, should have equal pay to men’s soccer. The two-time World Cup champion received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2022.
The United States Women’s National Team will be in group E of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Teams in Group E include Vietnam, Netherlands and Portugal. The United States and the Netherlands played in the final in 2019, with the U.S. winning the match 2-0. The USWNT’s first game will be against Vietnam on Friday, July 21 at 8 pm Central time and can be seen in the U.S. on Fox. The championship match will be on Sunday, August 20 on Fox.
by Julian Spivey
The second half of the Major League Baseball season gets underway tomorrow with two and a half months of tight pennant races and wild card fights ahead of us. It should be a thrilling second half, but before the first pitch of it is thrown let’s take the time to recognize the best (and a worst) from the first half of the season.
Best Team: Atlanta Braves
Shortly before the All-Star break, the Atlanta Braves became the first team of the season to reach the 60-win mark. The Braves are 60-29 and hold an 8.5-game lead on the Miami Marlins in the National League East Division. The team has a +147 run differential, meaning they are absolutely demolishing teams on the offensive side of the game while keeping runs at a minimum from the mound – which is wild as their two best pitchers of 2022 – Max Fried and Kyle Wright – have combined for just 10 starts this season due to injury and both have been out since the first month of the season. Fried, the team’s ace, should return by the end of the month and Wright is slated for about the end of August. That will be like adding two big arms at the trade deadline for the squad. The offense has been lights out for the team all season with six players (Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna Jr., Sean Murphy, Marcell Ozuna and Austin Riley) all at 16-plus home runs. Acuna and Olson are both in the top five in baseball in On-Base Plus Slugging percentage and Olson and Albies are the top two in the National League in Runs Batted In. Acuna also leads the N.L. with 41 stolen bases, which is 17 more than the next-closest player in the league. Things can change in the game’s second half and especially in the postseason, but as of July 13, the Braves are far and away the scariest team in baseball.
Biggest Surprise: Miami Marlins
You may have said, “Really?” in the previous paragraph when you saw the Miami Marlins were in second place in the National League East Division at 8.5 games behind the Braves. After all, the N.L. East is the division of last year’s N.L. champion Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets, by far the highest payroll in Major League Baseball this season at over $348 million. You’d be really surprised to find out – if you didn’t already know – that the Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara, who ran away with the N.L. Cy Young Award in 2022, has been pretty disappointing this season with a losing record and Earned Run Average of 4.72 (his ERA was 2.28 last season). Now, the Marlins aren’t the only surprising team in baseball this year – not even close. If you take a look atop the National League Central Division standings you’d likely be stunned to see the Cincinnati Reds with a one-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, but what truly makes the Marlins a surprise is they have the second-best record in the National League at the All-Star break, despite allowing five more runs to their opponents this season than they have scored. That kind of makes me believe the Marlins are somewhat pretenders this season, but as of now, they are three games ahead in the N.L. Wild Card standings and might just stick around for the postseason.
Biggest Disappointment: New York Mets
OK, so the San Diego Padres have been massively disappointing this season. They are four games under .500 with the third-highest payroll in the game at over $246 million with a lineup of perennial M.V.P. candidates like Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Xander Bogaerts that should be absolutely crushing its opponents. However, their 8.5-game deficit to the National League West Division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers and six-game deficit in the Wild Card hunt isn’t insurmountable and what’s going on in Queens, N.Y. is even more embarrassing. The highest payroll in baseball – by A LOT – shouldn’t be 18.5 games back in its division at the season’s midway point, but that’s exactly where the Mets find themselves at 42-48 and with disappointing seasons from usually stud pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and their two biggest offensive stars in Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor both hitting under .240. Mets owner Steve Cohen has been attempting to buy himself success with this franchise and it’s been a nightmare thus far.
A.L. MVP: Shohei Ohtani
Baseball’s unicorn Shohei Ohtani just keeps on growing more mythical by the game. Not only has he been the American League’s best hitter overall with a .302 batting average, league-leading 32 home runs and 71 RBI (second in the A.L.) he’s been statistically the hardest pitcher in the league to hit with an opponent’s batting average of .189. There is absolutely no way, whatsoever, anyone can take the A.L. M.V.P. from him this season. The only thing keeping Ohtani was three consecutive M.V.P.s is the fact that New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge set the A.L. single-season record for home runs last season. There is one thing that could potentially keep Ohtani from winning M.V.P. this season and that’s if the Angels trade him to a National League ballclub before the trade deadline in just over two weeks (which would likely be the smartest thing for the franchise but seems unlikely at this point) as he’s set to be a free agent after the season and some team is going to break Fort Knox open to pay the game’s most unique player in its 150-plus year history.
N.L. MVP: Ronald Acuna Jr.
While the National League M.V.P. race may not be as over as the A.L. one is at the midway point of the season I’d say that Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. should be damn close to having it on lock. Acuna leads the N.L. in On-Base Plus Slugging, is second in batting average, eighth in home runs, 11th in RBI (but remember he’s a leadoff hitter), first in stolen bases by a mile, first in runs scored, second in hits, third in On-Base Percentage and second in slugging percentage. Los Angeles Dodgers teammates Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are probably the closest competition to him for M.V.P., but not only are their numbers not better but they likely would split the vote.
A.L. Cy Young: Gerrit Cole
There are a handful of pitchers deep in the American League Cy Young hunt at the season’s midpoint, including Shohei Ohtani (Los Angels Angels), Nathan Eovaldi (Texas Rangers), Framber Valdez (Houston Astros), Shane McClanahan (Tampa Bay Rays) and Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees). The two frontrunners right now are likely McClanahan and Cole, but I’m giving Cole the edge simply because his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is almost a full point higher than McClanahan’s, likely because Cole strikes out more batters. I do like that McClanahan is on the A.L.’s top team at the All-Star break and that his ERA is more than 30 points lower than Cole’s. He also has a slightly better winning percentage, but I’ve got to go with the analytics here.
N.L. Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
The National League Cy Young race is even more wide open than the American League’s, but the pitchers aren’t as big of names (for the most part) and don’t quite seem to be having as dominant of seasons as their counterparts. My six contenders at this point in the season are Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) – the outlier on the not-big-names thing -, Marcus Stroman (Chicago Cubs), Justin Steele (Chicago Cubs), Bryce Elder (Atlanta Braves), Blake Snell (San Diego Padres) and Zac Gallen (Arizona Diamondbacks). Gallen has the best record at 11-3, but the highest ERA of the bunch at 3.04. Steele and Elder don’t strike out nearly as many batters as the others and Ks are sexy to Cy Young voters. Snell has a losing record and the lowest WAR of the bunch but leads them in strikeouts. Stroman and Kershaw have the highest WAR at 3.1, but I’m going to give the edge to the elder of the bunch in Kershaw as his ERA is 40 points lower than Stroman’s. Kershaw already has three Cy Young wins in his career, but his most recent came in 2014 when he was 26. He’s now 35 and arguably still the best pitcher in his league. His longevity is amazing. He did, however, land on the injured list shortly before the All-Star break with shoulder soreness, which could play a major role in his second half.
A.L. Rookie of the Year: Josh Jung
Josh Jung’s first half was so good that he was voted by the fans as one of five Texas Rangers ballplayers to start for the American League team at the All-Star Game manning the hot corner at third base. Jung, who was probably behind Gunnar Henderson (Baltimore Orioles), Masataka Yoshida (Boston Red Sox) and Anthony Volpe (New York Yankees) on most people’s A.L. Rookie of the Year prognostications prior to the season has been a huge part of the surprising upstart season for the Rangers. Jung has hit .280 with 19 home runs, 56 RBI and a 2.7 WAR.
N.L. Rookie of the Year: Corbin Carroll
Corbin Carroll had such a breakout first half of the season for the Arizona Diamondbacks that he was rightfully voted into the starting outfield for the National League’s All-Star squad. The D’Backs’ center fielder has hit .289 with 18 home runs, 48 RBI, 26 stolen bases and a 3.7 WAR. He’s running away with the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award at the midpoint of the season and it seems like the Diamondbacks will have a really good one patrolling center for them for the next few years or hopefully longer.
by Julian Spivey
NASCAR’s first foray into racing in the streets last weekend in downtown Chicago was a complete success when it comes to the actual NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, July 2.
The overall weekend, which was billed as something more akin to a festival than a sporting event, was a pretty big failure – though it was all the fault of the weather and nothing to do with NASCAR or the city of Chicago itself.
The sight of NASCAR cars going around the streets of downtown Chicago with the city skyscape in the background, images of traffic on nearing streets and the ‘L’ train going by in the background made for the most unique backdrop in the sport’s history, or at least since the days of driving around on the beaches of Daytona.
It gave hope of the sport, which has seen a drop in the number of fans from its early-to-mid-‘00s heyday, could capture a new audience with the bulk of people attending the Chicago street race saying it was their first time at a NASCAR race. The race was the most-watched one televised on NBC in six years, which includes every championship race of the last six seasons, which was amazing considering the race was delayed by more than an hour due to heavy rain and flooded streets.
The Chicago street race gave me hope that NASCAR could do anything. As a fan of more than two decades, I’d started to wonder if the sport could do anything right, let alone anything it set its sights on.
The race was historical, not simply because it was the first of its kind in the 75-year history of the sport, but also by how it ended. Three-time Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen came over from his homeland of New Zealand to run the race for Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 team, which is sort of a special team used on a very select basis that brings champions from other types of racing into the sport for one-offs. The car had run last year’s Watkins Glen race and this season’s Circuit of the Americas race in Austin, Texas with former Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen, with a top finish of 29th place. van Gisbergen didn’t just come over to run this race – he came over and won this race. He looked like one of the best on track from the opening minutes of practice, which he led, qualified third and after some pit strategy and the race being shortened by 25 percent (mid-race) due to impending darkness placed him back in the pack he was able to almost cruise from 18th position to the win by the end of lap 75. It was a dominant performance that frankly in the minds of some may have left the regulars of the sport looking a tad embarrassed. van Gisbergen was the first debut winner in a NASCAR Cup Series race since open-wheel star Johnny Rutherford won a qualifying race (which at the time were points-paying races) at Daytona International Speedway in 1963, 60 years ago. He was the first New Zealander to ever win a NASCAR race and just the sixth non-American winner in the series’ 75-year history.
Pretty much everyone within the sport and the majority of the fans – at least those who didn’t already have it out for the sport doing a street race or the event being held in Chicago – deemed it a success, which was something that felt like a miracle given how the rest of the weekend and the day leading up to the race on Sunday early evening went.
Most want to see the sport continue with a street course into the future and the sport is contracted to hold another one next summer in downtown Chicago, but unlike with most tracks, its future isn’t set in stone. The deal for NASCAR to compete in downtown Chicago was agreed to under a previous city administration and the current mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, doesn’t seem to be as gung-ho about the event taking up city streets and affecting local businesses, despite the excitement the event garnered. The city has until 180 days (six months) before the next race to decide whether it wants to bring the NASCAR race back to the city, which means there’s a chance the 2024 race will appear on the NASCAR schedule and still not happen. If the race is canceled for the 2024 season it would make it nearly impossible for NASCAR to run a street race in 2024.
Either way, the sport will likely look into holding street races in other major cities across the country, though it’s doubtful any would be bigger than Chicago, the third largest city in the United States – though don’t think NASCAR wouldn’t try to ask about the two larger ones – New York City and Los Angeles (where the series has held an exhibition race to open the season the last two years in the L.A. Coliseum).
As for the rest of the Chicago weekend, that turned into a disaster, sometimes the weather just wins. That’s likely the biggest issue with the sport running races on city streets, postponements could be tricky or even non-existent based on the length of them.
The Xfinity Series race, the NASCAR support series that typically runs the day before the Cup Series’ premiere event, was delayed before the halfway point (which typically would make a race official if weather or other issues arose) due to lightning strikes and postponed to the next morning. The next morning came record-setting rain for the time of year for the city of Chicago and NASCAR made the unprecedented decision to call the Xfinity Series race official despite reaching the halfway point, awarding the win to Cole Custer, the leader at the time of the postponement.
The NASCAR weekend, which as previously mentioned was billed more like a festival than a sporting event, was to feature multiple concerts by megastars like The Chainsmokers on Saturday and Miranda Lambert among others on Sunday. Every single concert during the weekend was canceled either due to lightning or torrential rain and flooding.
I can see how those who paid ticket prices, which were among the highest, if not the highest in the sport’s history, would’ve been disappointed to the point of cursing NASCAR for the rest of eternity – and I hope the sport was able to reimburse fans in some way, though with Sunday’s race happening I’m not sure the sport will believe there are grounds to do so. It’s the risk you take when purchasing tickets for a sporting event, even if it was billed more as a festival.
As a sporting event, the NASCAR Chicago race was a major success by all metrics – entertaining race, historic winner, huge TV ratings, beautiful images, etc. It would be a shame if racing in the streets doesn’t continue.