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Lauletta: Amazon takes the lead as new broadcast partners debut

Bianca St-Georges runs over to celebrates with Denise O'Sullivan and Haley Hopkins after scoring her second goal against the Houston Dash.
Photo Copyright Rob Kinnan for USA TODAY Sports

A new National Women’s Soccer League era kicked off Friday night with the league’s first match streamed live on Amazon Prime. It was followed up by Saturday’s return to ESPN and the first women’s professional match ever shown on ABC. Later that night, Scripps made its NWSL debut through ION. The four-year contracts, along with a re-upping with CBS Sports, represent the league’s most ambitious effort yet to bring its product to the masses.

One week in, and Amazon is the clear leader among the four platforms. The opening was a touch on the corny side, but Mike Watts came on to open the actual broadcast and made it all make sense. He and Lori Lindsey made for a strong pairing as they called and analyzed a fun match between the teams that took down the two top pieces of hardware in 2023. Considering how confused some new fans may have been that the highly-anticipated first match of the season—and the broadcast package—did not count toward the regular season, Watts did a superb job of navigating the audience through that nuance without shoving it down our throats.

Brittney Eurton made a sharp debut as Amazon’s sideline reporter from pregame interviews to in-game reports all the way to her postgame chat with Alex Morgan when she was unphased by the arrival of Morgan’s daughter Charlie.

Eurton spent nine years working for the horse racing network now known as FanDuel and has a few entries on IMDB as well. Here she is in a memorable moment interviewing her father Peter after the biggest win of his training career. Her professionalism in this moment is remarkable.

Beyond the voices on the Amazon package, the graphics and stream quality blow away anything NWSL has ever seen. I’m hardly a television expert but know enough to know there is more than one way to define high-definition. The Amazon stream is about as good as it gets. In other words, it was easy to make out all the players without help from the announcers or close-up shots. The graphics were sharp and efficient with the benches sharing screen with the starting XIs.

An X user pointed out that the colors on the score bug did not match the kits, which I admittedly had not noticed. But that is a micro issue that should be easily fixed for future matches. Colors aside, the score was easy on the eyes but never in the way. And then after halftime, the marks for remaining subs appeared, something long overdue for NWSL broadcasts. Amazon was the only partner to indicate this on the weekend.

The ESPN on ABC match, called by WoSo vet Jenn Hildreth, was as expected. Solid production within the realm of ESPN and they even threw us a pregame show. The NWSL is far from being a prized possession on the Worldwide Leader but it is nice to see some games there and have them treated several steps above inconvenient leftovers.

ION was up next and while the overall product was very good, the plans took an immediate detour when Angel City had to reschedule their match from Saturday to Sunday due to unforeseen issues at BMO Stadium. That meant just a single match on ION instead of the promised doubleheader. But hey, it’s better than having one game scheduled go down to zero. Unfortunately, when the match started, audio/video issues left us without announcers for the first seven minutes or so.

Overall though, the broadcast was solid. JP Dellacamera is the old voice of women’s soccer and Jill Loyden is an improving analyst unafraid to offer hard critiques when necessary.

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The ION matches are complete with pre and postgame shows and a bridge show that will link the doubleheader matches but on this night served as a postgame show. We’ll give Lisa Carlin, Darian Jenkins, and Jess McDonald some time to develop chemistry. But I believe this group could be the most vital to the success of this NWSL rights package. There will be plenty of Saturdays with boring games, weather delays, and other issues, but a strong studio show should be a constant and keep people engaged even when the soccer isn’t cutting it.

One gripe that applies to ESPN/ABC and could eventually apply to ION. When I fired up my recording of the Current-Thorns match on ABC, I saw no lineups. That means they showed the XIs during the pregame and not again. Obviously, lineups and formations should be shown and discussed during a pregame show, but they need to be shown again at some point after the window has opened when fans are led to believe they should tune in. My ION recording kicked in during Royals lineups and then went to the Red Stars.

The disappointment on the weekend was the remaining matches that landed on NWSL+. Now before I go on, this is not commentary on the talent or the behind-the-scenes personnel, many of whom I used to work with.  I also recognize that the service is 100% free which is a better deal than Paramount Plus where most matches lived in recent seasons.

That said, there appeared to be no improvements made to the graphics package, music, or any other element of these broadcasts. And worst of all, replays are only guaranteed after 72 hours. It seems like they will show up before three full days pass, and they actually became faster as the weekend went on, but in 2024 replays of streamed events should really be available pretty much immediately.

Around the league

Current 5, Thorns 4

A day to remember at CPKC Stadium not only because of the nine goals but because the match was played at the Current’s brand new stadium in the first professional women’s soccer match ever played on ABC. Current coach Vlatko Andonovski said he had to go into the locker room pregame to calm things down because he didn’t want to risk the players using up all of their energy before the opening kickoff. It turned out that was not a problem as they scored three times in 12 minutes during the first half and led 5-1 in the 2nd before hanging on for dear life. Vanessa DiBernardo went into the history books with the first goal at the new stadium.

The Thorns fought back with the help of a Sophia Smith brace but a slow start and some defensive gaffes spelled their doom.

“It’s disappointing,” coach Mike Norris said. “Just really the way we started the game. We were slow to get into it. Gave a poor goal away and didn’t respond until the 38th minute when we had a decent passage of play.”

Louisville 2, Pride 2

Louisville came out flying with two goals inside of 20 minutes, thanks in part to contributions from debutantes Reilyn Turner and Elexa Bahr. Turner, the No. 6 overall pick from UCLA, assisted on Bahr’s opener and played a gorgeous entry ball to Bahr to set up the second, finished by Uchenna Kanu. Kerry Abello won’t get credit for the Orlando opener but it was all her hard work and cross that was redirected in by Elli Pikkujamsa for an own goal.

The Pride went down to 10 in the 2nd when Kylie Strom was shown her 2nd yellow card but leveled it late on a free kick that Summer Yates brilliantly redirected past Katie Lund. The draw leaves both teams winless all-time on opening day. The play of the newcomers was definitely a bright mark for Racing in Bev Yanez’s coaching debut.

Courage 5, Dash 1

The Dash’s makeshift backline was on full display especially in the 2nd half when the Courage exploded four goals. Two of them came from Bianca St-Georges who made her team debut in the 74th minute and had her brace by the 86th. For a Dash side that scored less than a goal per game on average in 2023, giving up a 5-spot was not a good start to the season. They only conceded three goals once in 2023 (plus twice more in the Challenge Cup).

After the match, the Courage made Sam Mewis the first inductee into the team’s Ring of Honor. Mewis arrived with the team from Western New York in 2017 and was integral in the Courage winning three consecutive Shields and the 2018 and 2019 NWSL Championships. She was later traded to Kansas City and had her career cut short by a knee injury. Mewis was emotional during her remarks to the crowd, saying it has been difficult accepting her injury but that she was leaning into her time in North Carolina that taught her how to handle hard times.

Royals 0, Red Stars 2

The Royals announced a sellout for their franchise opener but the crowd of 20,370 will have to wait to see the first goal, mostly thanks to Alyssa Naeher. After a poor 2023 in the NWSL, Naeher made several quality saves including two beauties on Hannah Betfort. Meanwhile, new center back Sam Staab showed how she can contribute to the attack, taking a nice long throw-in to start the sequence for the opening goal, and lofting in a long ball to Ally Schlegel for the assist.

The Royals clearly have a long way to go, but Ally Sentnor had a decent debut in midfield and Brecken Mozingo joined her for the last 20 minutes. If things go according to plan, that will be a midfield partnership in Utah for years to come.

Reign 1, Spirit 0

In the weirdest start to two teams’ season I can remember, the Spirit were whistled for a penalty after 10 seconds and were literally down 1-0 before touching the ball. The Reign went forward right off the opening kick and Gabby Carle took down Jordyn Huitema in the box. Bethany Balcer stepped up and buried the PK for the only score of the day.

The new-look Spirit are still looking for their attacking shoes. The club traded midfielder Ashley Sanchez to the Courage and were without Trinity Rodman for this one due to a red card in the 2023 finale. Next up is keeper Aubrey Kingsbury who will miss the home opener against Bay FC next weekend after being shown a straight red card for handling the ball outside her area. More on this below.

Angel City 0, Bay FC 1

Asisat Oshoala made history with the first Bay FC goal and Angel City were shut down by emergency defending on numerous occasions. The last of which came at the stroke of 90 minutes when Caprice Dydasco knocked the ball off the goal line after Lysianne Proulx made a save but saw the ball squirt behind her.

The goal came when Tess Boade jumped on an errant pass along the Angel City backline and fed the 29-year-old Oshoala. The Nigerian first came of age as the Golden Ball winner at the 2014 U-20 World Cup when Nigeria finished runner-up to Germany, and was considered a major signing for the expansion side Bay FC.

“As a team we had a pressing game plan,” Oshoala said. “We recognized the moment  “It was something that gave is actual confidence that helped us until the end of the game today.”

Challenge Cup:  Gotham 0, Wave 1

Alex Morgan headed in Savannah McCaskill’s 88th-minute corner kick to deliver the one-off Challenge Cup to the Wave. It was an entertaining match between two quality sides, neither of which were at full strength. Gotham debuted Tierna Davidson at center back and brought Crystal Dunn and Emily Sonnett off the bench. Rose Lavelle’s Gotham career will have to wait thanks to a lower leg injury. Lynn Williams also missed the match for Gotham. The Wave were without Kristen McNabb and brought Alex Morgan off the bench at halftime following her Gold Cup run with the U.S.

Kailen Sheridan earned the shutout for the Wave against the team that drafted her in 2017 and for whom she was the goalkeeper the year then-Sky Blue nearly went winless.

“Ultimately, I wouldn’t trade it because of how much I grew,” Sheridan said of her time in New Jersey. “I grew as a player and a person and realized my passion for wanting to develop women’s soccer in this country and around the world. The level we were at wasn’t good enough. I’m really proud of what Gotham has been able to do.

“Still want to beat them. Just to be clear.”

Mission accomplished.

Talking points

  • Concacaf has announced the W Champions Cup, the fist regional club championship for women. The United States will have three entrants in the even scheduled to kick off in August. Smart money says Gotham (NWSL Champion) and the Wave (Shield winner) will be two of the teams. But who will be the third? Will it be the Courage, who won the 2023 Challenge Cup? If not them, recent precedent on the men’s side goes down the Shield standings which would land on the Thorns. One idea for this year only is to pick a date on the calendar and use the non-qualified team that is highest on the table.
    Going forward, it would seem the USL Super League would get at least one berth. U.S. Soccer sanctioned the league as Division I so it only makes sense to give them equal billing when sending teams into a Concacaf event.
  • PSA that the SEI (Season Ending Injury) designation does not mean a player cannot return this season. Why this does not have a different name is beyond me, but it is something to keep in mind.
  • CPKC looks awesome and all but steps up to the locker room area? That didn’t look like much fun for Debinha when she left the pitch injured.
  • It is early to make refereeing an issue, but there were some absolutely crunching challenges during Week 1, several of which went unpunished. Early in the 2nd half at Lynn Family Stadium, Orlando Pride midfielder Luana went in hard, high, and late on Taylor Flint. Play continued. Luana was already on a yellow card which can be grounds for not giving a second. But not in a case this blatant. This looked closer to a straight red than a play-on.
    Later in the same match, Strom was shown a second yellow for a foul from behind which was likely viewed as a professional foul. Considering it was a ticky-tack foul that did not happen in a dangerous part of the pitch, I thought it could have been let go. That’s not to absolve Strom from blame as you need to be extra careful when you’re on a yellow. After all that’s why they call it a caution.
    The Royals also went in on some hard tackles including the rookie Sentnor. Definitely something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
  • The red card on Aubrey Kingsbury was not for violent conduct but I had my issues with how it went down. First, let me say the margin was razor-thin and I’m glad it was not my decision to make. But do we really want a world in which nine minutes pass between kicks of the ball while we wait out a VAR review? For that matter, why did it take 3 minutes just for center ref Natalie Simon to head to the monitor? If it’s still in question in the VAR room after 15 seconds, isn’t that enough to send the ref over for an official look?
    Meanwhile, the game went 13 minutes into stoppage time, and I’m not opposed to using up all of the wasted time, but it now seems to be the norm to have upwards of 10 minutes added on beyond the 90. I’m just not sure that’s how we want to consume the game.
  • One big disappointment is that the NWSL website is pretty much the same as it ever was.

Free Kicks

  • Here is the full list of players whose names are different than when we last saw them:  Marisa DiGrande (nee Viggiano), Taylor Flint (nee Kornieck), Angharad James-Turner (added Turner), Emily Sams (nee Madril), Clara Schilke (nee Robbins), and Kirsten Wright (nee Davis).
  • Staab was making her 91st consecutive start, extending her league record. Next up is the mark for consecutive appearances which is 93. That record currently belongs to Amber Brooks.
  • The Wave’s Christen Westphal joins Tyler Lussi as players to win the Challenge Cup for different clubs. Westphal and Lussi were teammates on the 2021 Thorns and Lussi won it again last year with the Courage.
  • Royals coach Amy Rodriguez said her best advice for Hannah Betfort after failing to capitalize on multiple outstanding chances was: “Forget quickly and move on.”
    “I can’t wait to get into training with her this week and tidy up some things. Because I know that girl was knocking on the door all night. I can only assume that next week she’ll come out even stronger and better. Hungrier.”
  • The Thorns have now been outscored 10-5 in their last two regular-season games. They closed 2023 losing 5-1 to Angel City when a win would have meant the Shield.
  • Angelina Anderson started in goal for Angel City and to have watched the end of last season, that was the only choice that made sense.
  • The Reign win was Laura Harvey’s 97th as an NWSL head coach. It should really be 98 but officially the league does not recognize forfeited matches as part of the records of head coaches. Either way, she will soon be the first to win 100 matches. The active coach with the next most is Vlatko Andonovski who took down his 69th—and first since 2019—on Saturday.

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