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USWNT legend O’Reilly scores stunner on night to honor her career

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USWNT hero and North Carolina Courage playmaker Heather O’Reilly gave her special day its just desserts.

The 34-year-old New Jersey native scored a sweet goal late in North Carolina’s 6-1 demolition of Orlando Pride on Saturday night, which just so happened to be the evening chosen to celebrate her 17-year career.

[ MORE: Fan banned from all NWSL games ]

O’Reilly dribbled down the left before cutting to the middle and slashing a shot across the goal and inside the far post.

She has 231 USWNT caps with 47 goals, a Women’s World Cup crown, three Olympic gold medals, three top-flight domestic titles, two Women’s College Cups, and an FA Cup with Arsenal Ladies.

The Courage have four matches left in the regular season and look set to again be the No. 1 seed, so O’Reilly may yet have more memorable moments left in her playing career.

Fan banned from all NWSL games after investigation

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A person who directed racist taunts at Portland Thorns’ goalkeeper Adrianna Franch has been banned from attending National Women’s Soccer League games.

A fan at the Sept. 6 game between the Thorns and Utah Royals in Salt Lake City first called attention to the unidentified person on Twitter. The tweet was later deleted, but both the Thorns and Royals, as well as the league, investigated the incident.

The NWSL issued a statement Saturday saying the person was identified. In addition to being banned from NWSL matches, the person – who was not identified publicly by the league – was also banned from attending events at Rio Tinto Stadium.

“NWSL will not tolerate inappropriate fan behavior,” the league’s statement said. “Racism has no place in our sport.”

The Royals also offered “thanks in no small part to assistance from fans seated in the vicinity,” for identifying the offending party.

A few days after the incident, Franch posted a statement to Twitter: “The situation surrounding our game Friday night is not a NEW issue, nor is it a first for me. RACISM is NOT okay in any form!! We as a HUMAN RACE can be better and should be better. We as a SPORT can help show the way.”

Franch was on the roster of the U.S. national team that won the Women’s World Cup this summer in France.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

NWSL players say investment key to sustaining World Cup bump

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While record crowds at National Women’s Soccer League games are evidence of a World Cup bump, players want the momentum to extend beyond the ticket office.

Portland drew a league-record 25,218 fans to a game against the defending champion North Carolina Courage earlier this month, and last weekend Sky Blue staged its first game at Red Bull Arena before a club-high 9,415 fans. The Chicago Red Stars had to open the upper-deck section at SeatGeek Stadium when they drew more than 17,000 to a post-World Cup game.

Across the league, attendance is up about 15% overall this year, with the most dramatic swings coming after the United States’ victory this summer at the Women’s World Cup in France. That’s the bump: Both the NWSL and its male counterpart, Major League Soccer, traditionally see increased interest during a World Cup year.

In the NWSL, the bump is likely to be larger once the entire season plays out. In 2015, following the national team’s World Cup victory in Canada, the league drew an average of 5,046 fans per game, up from the league’s all-time low average attendance (4,137) in 2014. Following last weekend’s games, average attendance across the league was 6,917.

But players aren’t satisfied. In addition to bringing in new fans, they want sustained growth and stability.

The key is investment.

“We’ve won two World Cups back-to-back. We’ve done everything on the field to encourage and inspire players and kids and parents and coaches, boys and girls to come to the games,” said Carli Lloyd, who plays for Sky Blue and is a member of the U.S. team. “Now again it’s up to the people with money to market it, to buy into this, to invest in it, and to promote it.”

While the NWSL has been incrementally drawing bigger crowds since its inception in 2013, there have been recent questions about the league’s health.

The league and A&E Networks terminated their broadcast agreement in February, leaving the NWSL with no TV partner. Last season, a game aired each week on the Lifetime channel. A&E surrendered its stake in the league, but Lifetime remains a jersey sponsor.

The NWSL has also been operating without a commissioner since 2017, and there’s been no new teams coming on board despite persistent rumors to the contrary. The league contracted to nine teams before the start of the 2018 season when the Boston Breakers folded.

But there have been recent positive developments beyond attendance. Budweiser announced a multi-year sponsorship deal with the league this summer. The NWSL also reached an agreement to air 14 games this season on ESPNews and ESPN2, including the playoff semifinals and the final. ESPN recently signed an agreement for worldwide rights to the league.

“I think that it’s going to take a lot of investment from owners. We want it to grow, we want big companies to come on as sponsors, like the Budweiser thing is huge. We want more teams, we want a longer season,” said North Carolina’s Sam Mewis, echoing Lloyd.

It’s a sentiment that players amplified in France.

“Hopefully it grows, hopefully we get more teams, and more people buy into us and realize how important it is for the women’s game – and that our NWSL gets better and better so we can get better for our national team,” Lindsey Horan said before the World Cup final.

One club that has provided something of a blueprint for NWSL success is the Thorns. The team drew an average of 16,959 fans per game last season, and that’s risen to 20,072 this year. For perspective, that’s better than the average attendance for seven Major League Baseball teams.

The Thorns have been able to capitalize on the game’s roots in the city. The University of Portland’s women’s team won NCAA titles in 2002 and 2005. Current U.S. team star Megan Rapinoe and Canadian star Christine Sinclair both played for the Pilots.

“They’ve been the same from the get go. I mean we lost the championship last year against this team and they stayed at least 30 minutes to continue to chant. So you know if anything the Thorns fans are the ones that have started the hype in this county,” Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch said.

Some have suggested that Portland’s model – it is affiliated with Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers – is one key to sustained growth. Four teams, the Thorns, the Houston Dash, the Utah Royals and the Orlando Pride are connected to MLS teams. At least two other MLS teams, LAFC and Atlanta United, have expressed interest in adding a women’s team.

At the end of this year, U.S. Soccer’s management agreement with the NWSL will come to an end, which could potentially give greater control to the league’s owners and a more hands-on approach to growth. The federation currently pays the salaries of the national team players and has also invested considerably in the league, and that support is not expected to end.

Players say they’re hopeful for the league’s future – even beyond the bump.

“I think that we’re taking steps in the right direction,” Mewis said. “I feel like it’s stable. I don’t know like how tuned in I am to what goes on behind the scenes, but I’m relying on it and I’m counting on playing here for a long time.”

NWSL: Sam Kerr focused on leading Red Stars to title

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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (AP) Sam Kerr sat down on a metal bench after taking a few extra shots after practice. Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames poked fun at her competitive streak, and Kerr just laughed it off.

If the Aussie star is on her way out of town, it was hard to tell on a picturesque summer afternoon in suburban Chicago. While speculation abounds about where Kerr might play next season, she is focused on leading the Red Stars to the franchise’s first NWSL title.

“I want to win the NWSL. I’ve never done it, and I love Chicago,” Kerr told The Associated Press. “The NWSL’s given me so much. I think it’s made me the player who I am.”

And that’s one of the world’s most dangerous attackers, capable of creating a prime scoring opportunity for herself or one of her teammates in seconds. It’s easy to see why Chelsea might be interested in bringing her to Europe, or why she might draw lucrative offers from Lyon or Real Madrid.

What Kerr decides to do about her future could be a major test for the NWSL after it saw renewed interest in the wake of the United States’ championship in the Women’s World Cup last month. While the top Americans play in the NWSL, the loss of a foreign star like the 25-year-old Kerr would be a blow to the league as it tries to grow in the coming years.

“The best players in the world are in this league,” Dames said, “and if you want to be one of the best players in the world, you need to come into this league and prove yourself, not prove yourself in leagues where the competition is a little different or the quality of the teams in the league from top to bottom are a little different.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why Sam has really excelled, is because a lot of the other perceived top players in the world I don’t think could have the success that they’re currently having where they are in this league.”

Taking in the whole picture like a defense unfurled in front of her, Kerr seems at ease with the discussion.

“I think there’s a lot of new women’s teams coming forward, and I think it’s just fans wanting me to go to their club,” she said. “It’s new teams, new fans, which is great. That’s what happens in the men’s game. The more talk about women’s football, the better.”

Kerr, who captained the Matildas in the World Cup, splits time between Chicago and the Perth Glory in Australia’s W-League. She is the all-time leading scorer in each league, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Kerr scored her NWSL-best 13th goal Wednesday night, but the Red Stars’ five-game win streak was snapped by a 2-1 loss at Sky Blue FC. She also led the NWSL in goals in each of the previous two seasons, including a league-record 17 in 2017 when she was the NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner during her final season with Sky Blue.

With Kerr powering the attack and Chicago fully stocked once again after the World Cup, the Red Stars are second in the NWSL standings heading into this weekend, one point back of Portland and one clear of North Carolina.

“I think she’s just so dynamic,” said defender Katie Naughton, who also plays with Kerr in Australia. “Her movement on and off the ball is just something that you don’t necessarily see in the women’s game a lot.”

Kerr was acquired by Chicago in a three-team trade on draft day in January 2018 that also featured U.S. stars Carli Lloyd and Christen Press. Midfielder Nikki Stanton, Kerr’s longtime girlfriend, also moved to the Red Stars as part of the deal.

While the couple is competitive, Kerr said they know when to leave it back on the field.

“She kind of knows when I’ve had a bad game or when she’s had a bad game, and we don’t bring it up,” Kerr said. “It’s actually better, because it’s someone, you know when you talk to your parents and they say the wrong thing and annoy you, so we kind of know what to say to each other.”

Kerr, the youngest of four siblings, grew up in an Australia rules football family. Her father, Roger, and Daniel, one of her two brothers, played professionally. Soccer “was kind of seen as a little bit of a girls’ sport compared to an AFL game,” Sam Kerr said.

Sam started focusing on soccer after she had to stop playing AFL when she was 12 because there was no women’s league for the hard-hitting sport. The women have their own league now, and Kerr has received several offers from its teams over the years.

“It would be amazing to play AFL and maybe one year I will retire there,” she said, “but yeah, I’ve just grown to love football now. … I can’t see myself back there.”

Match between Courage and Thorns draws record crowd

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A National Women’s Soccer League record 25,218 fans watched the Portland Thorns beat the North Carolina Courage 2-1 at Providence Park on Sunday.

The game featured numerous stars from the U.S. national team that won the Women’s World Cup this summer in France. Among them was Crystal Dunn, who scored in the fourth minute to put the Courage on top early. The Thorns evened it on a North Carolina own goal in the 56th minute and went ahead on another in the 82nd.

The game was a rematch of last season’s NWSL championship, which the Courage won 3-0

The NWSL is in its seventh season. The previous league record crowd was 23,403, set at a match between the Orlando Pride and Houston Dash in 2016.

The attendance record for a women’s club league match was 34,148, set at the inaugural game of the now-defunct WUSA between the Bay Area CyberRays and Washington Freedom at RFK Stadium.