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The Week in Women's Football: 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup Preview

This week we preview the AFC Women's Asian Cup, being held in Jordan from April 6 to April 20, which also doubles as the Women's World Cup Qualifiers for the Finals in France in the summer of 2019. We also briefly summarize the first round of games.


2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup Preview

We look at the prospects of the 8 teams, with 5 advancing to France WWC 2019, which should see at least one unheralded team and perhaps a first-time WWC participant advancing, which ultimately should help propel the growth of the women's game in that country.


Group A

China PR is one of two teams to bring an entirely home-based squad to the tournament, along with Vietnam in Group B. Goalkeeper Zhao Lina (Shanghai Women's FC) is back in the squad after she had retired from international play in January. A quarterfinalist in Canada after not qualifying for the 2011 event in Germany—the only time they have not played in the Finals which they have twice hosted and finished runners-up for in 1999—it's hard to imagine China not advancing, particularly since they were drawn with Jordan and the Philippines—who both have never advanced—and Thailand, which qualified from the 5th-6th place match four years ago.

Jordan has led the way in developing the women's game in West Asia, winning the WAFF (West Asian Football Federation) Championship on three occasions, reaching the top 50 in the FIFA Women's World Rankings (now ranked at 51st) and hosting the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2016. Their goal is to finish fifth or better to make the Women's World Cup as the first team from West Asia to ever make the finals. Finishing in second will take them through automatically without the stress of a fifth place winner-take-all situation, which saw Thailand defeat host Vietnam four years ago 2-1 in the crucial playoff. Jordan has beaten Group A rivals Thailand and the Philippines (5-1 last year in the qualifiers in Dushanbe, Tajikistan) within the last year and should have strong support at home, particularly if they get off to a strong start and create some momentum on the field, which should transfer to the stands.

Jordan is using a home-based side, with the exception of three imports: Sarah Basem Abu-Sabbah—born in Dusseldorf, Germany and plays at Bayer Leverkusen—who was a star at the 2016 U-17 World Finals which her country hosted—and two Americans. Midfielder Alia Abu El Hawa who will be a senior this fall at Virginia Tech University and has played 51 games with 47 starts in three seasons, with 0 goals and 1 assist and only 1 shot on goal. Raised in the Washington D.C. area, El Hawa talked about her recruiting process by Jordan: "The coaching staff at Tech told me that the Jordanian National Team's coach Mike Dickey was interested in having me join the team, but he didn't know if I was Jordanian. I am originally Palestinian and Iraqi, but my dad was born in Jordan, so that's how I am able to play with this team." The other American is high schooler and goalkeeper Salma Mohanad Ghazal of Sugarland, Texas.

Another Jordanian with experience abroad is Stephanie Al-Naber, the emotional pulse of this side in midfield; she currently plays for Shabab Al Ordon Club at home after time in Denmark and the United Arab Emirates.

Another import for Jordan is their American head coach Michael Dickey. Dickey worked for 6 years for the United States Soccer Federation, primarily in a scouting and training role with elite players. He also was head coach of the U.S. U-14 Women's National team for five years, the U-15 Women's national team for two years and the U-17's for one year. He was an assistant to the U.S. at the first U-17 Women's World Cup (in 2008 in New Zealand) under head coach Kazbek Tambi. In 2009, he helped train India's Women's National Team, explaining: "I was a guest coach for the Indian women's national team. They asked me to go over there as a guest coach and I said 'yeah'. A couple of weeks over in India, and working with their women's team, and helping them prepare for a really big international tournament, which they wound up winning. So, that's a really fond memory. Very unique from my career."

Jordan has invested heavily in this team, staging games and camps in Bosnia, Croatia, Japan, Latvia, Spain, Thailand, Turkey and the United States. Their young American-raised keeper Salma Ghazal said: "We played a lot of known teams in La Liga like Atletico Madrid. They were incredibly strong; it was a different style of football but we learned so much as a team. We didn't win all the games but we learned a lot. They play at a different speed and there were so many different factors that came into how they play that we had to adapt to; it helped us grow. We also played against a lot of national teams. We played Mexico, Poland and Latvia. It was a really good mix and, just as when we played in Spain, it helped us come together….Of course, our first goal is to qualify [for France 2019] but we want to win our group and I think we can, I think we can be first [in Group A]."

Jordan should be in the quintet to make it to France, which would be a just reward for their federation's extensive support of the women's game over the past decade or so. Making the Women's World Cup would send a message and provide a road map to other countries—particularly those in the Arab World—of how to build a winning national team. They are a standard to follow for countries within regions where the women's game is not universally acclaimed, or seen as a threat to men's sports or the traditional role of women in the home.

The Philippines has had a head coaching carousel for the past year and is now led by Frenchman Rabah Benlarbi, after he originally was named an assistant coach in February of this year, replacing English coach Richard Boon, who had taken his side to California, and to Japan for training camps. Boon in turn had replaced Let Dimzon late last year; Dimzon had taken the side to the SEA games in August and had stepped in for Buda Bautista, who earlier in 2017 had qualified the side for the Asian Cup final round. Benlarbi is experienced with the game in Asia on both the men's and women's side, having served as the head coach in Myanmar for their men's youth nation teams—which saw him guide the nation to fourth place at the 2017 AFF U-18 Youth Championship—and at the club level. Benlarbi was the United Arab Emirates national team's fitness coach at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, and assisted with Japan's men's national team and China's women's national team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Benlarbi played at home for PSG and Lens in Ligue 1. The Philippines has appeared in this tournament in the past and hosted it in 1999, but since qualifiers were added after 2003, this is the first time they have qualified for the continental finals.

The Philippines (ruled by the Americans for thirty-plus years at the beginning of the last century), have a number of players from the U.S. including:

Ryler Bugay (Marquette University)—a midfielder who in three seasons has 40 starts in 55 appearances for Marquette, with 1 goal and 1 assist, and is originally from the State of Indiana

Kearra Bastes-Jones (Crescenta Valley Soccer Club)—most likely the starting goalkeeper

Calah Simarago (University of California-Santa Barbara)

Quinley Quezada (University of California—Riverside)—has five goals and three assists in 46 games and will be a senior this fall

Jessica Miclat (University of California—Irvine)—a sophomore who was previously in the U.S. U-18 national team pool

Sarina Bolden (University of Loyola—Marymount)—a forward who scored 6 goals in the 2016 season and has been a U.S. U-23 national team camp player

In addition, Claire Lim is currently unattached—one of a dozen on her team without a club—but scored five goals in the Tajikistan qualifiers and played at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Other Americans who tried out for the team included: Carissa Christensen (Texas Tech), Chandler McDaniel (Virginia Tech) Dylan Patterson (Winthrop), Sofia Harrison (Slippery Rock University) and Hanna Parado (University of North Florida), who played at last year's AFC Women's Asian Cup Qualifiers and Southeast Asian Games earlier this year.

We have seen other countries rely on their American diaspora to build their national side (notably Mexico for almost two decades and Greece during the 2004 Olympic Games) but the Philippines would be better placed long-term to develop their talent at home and build a viable national league, with support from a few diaspora rather than wholesale imports.

The Philippines finished second to Jordan in last year's qualifying tournament in Tajikistan, also involving Bahrain, UAE and Iraq. The Philippines had 10 points on a 3-1-1 (W-D-L) record and their tie versus Bahrain on a late Sara Castaneda goal ultimately gave them the finals berth as Bahrain finished third on 8 points (2-2-1). Castaneda is one of the club-less players, who has played collegiately at home.

Thailand is attempting to make a second consecutive Women's World Cup with 22 of their 23 player roster based at home, with their one import being Suchawadee Nildhamrong of the University of California at Berkeley. Thailand is expected to pip the Philippines for the third place spot in Group A, but will have an extremely rough draw this time in the 5th-6th playoff if they make it that far, most likely against South Korea—who made the Round of 16 in 2015, a dozen years after their initial finals appearance in 2003. Thailand advanced from the qualification round with 6-0 and 1-0 defeats of Palestine and Chinese Taipei respectively. If Group B's form book goes awry, likely the Thais could face Australia or Japan, which would not be any easier for a side that does not score a ton of goals. Thailand lost to Australia last month 5-0 in a friendly in Perth. Thailand had no shots on goal while the Matildas had 32, with Perth native Lisa De Vanna scoring a brace.


Group B

Australia, which has won the Asian Cup once in 2010 and lost the 2014 final 1-0 to Japan, is using 9 NWSL-based players, led by 2017 AFC and NWSL Player of the Year Sam Kerr (Perth Glory/Chicago Red Stars in 2018) plus two who play in Norway—Tameka Butt and goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold, who joined Arna Bjornar a few weeks ago. Australia finished fourth at the 12-team Algarve Cup in Portugal last month but had significant injury problems as Kyah Simon, Emily Gielnik, Steph Catley, and Hayley Raso either missed the Portugal tournament completely or sat out some of the games.

Head Coach Alen Stajcic's squad also includes a return to the Westfield Matildas for Melbourne City and ex-Notts County defender/midfielder Aivi Luik. Luik last represented Australia at senior women's international level in 2015 but it has been six years since she has had regular call-ups and just missed out on a World Cup Finals spot in 2011 and the Olympics in 2016. She was with the side that last won the Asian Cup eight years ago; she has won three consecutive W-League titles with City and played last season for Valerenga in Norway.

Stajcic has an experienced squad with 1,108 full international caps on aggregate, for an average of just over 48 caps per player. A few of the younger players should see some valuable game time however, including the Brisbane Roar's Arnold, who kept the most clean sheets of any keeper during the Westfield W-League season with 6; she will likely contest the starting keeper position with Lydia Williams, who has played in Sweden and for the past five years in the NWSL. Emily Gielnik (who has played in Canada, England, Japan and Norway) has 29 career goals in eight seasons with 2017/18 Premiership winners Brisbane Roar, along with four goals from just 15 appearances for the Westfield Matildas. Gielnik (25) could have a breakout fortnight in Jordan.

Australia should glide to the semifinals and are a strong choice to win the tournament. With another continental title, they could rise to the top of favorites to win the Women's World Cup in 2019.

Shirt Number

Name

Club/Country

A-International Caps (Goals)

1.

Lydia WILLIAMS (gk)

Melbourne City FC, Australia / Seattle Reign, USA

65 (0)

2.

Caitlin COOPER

Sydney FC, Australia

9 (2)

3.

Aivi LUIK

Melbourne City FC, Australia

16 (0)

4.

Clare POLKINGHORNE

Brisbane Roar FC, Australia

101 (8)

5.

Laura ALLEWAY

Melbourne Victory, Australia

52 (2)

6.

Chloe LOGARZO

Sydney FC, Australia

24 (3)

7.

Steph CATLEY

Melbourne City FC, Australia / Seattle Reign, USA

63 (2)

8.

Elise KELLOND-KNIGHT

Uncontracted

90 (1)

9.

Alex CHIDIAC

Adelaide United, Australia

7 (0)

10.

Emily VAN EGMOND

Newcastle Jets, Australia / Orlando Pride, USA

69 (14)

11.

Lisa DE VANNA

Sydney FC, Australia

132 (43)

12.

Casey DUMONT (gk)

Melbourne Victory, Australia

3 (0)

13.

Tameka BUTT

Brisbane Roar FC, Australia / Klepp IL, Norway

64 (9)

14.

Alanna KENNEDY

Melbourne City FC, Australia / Orlando Pride, USA

63 (3)

15.

Emily GIELNIK

Brisbane Roar FC, Australia

15 (4)

16.

Hayley RASO

Brisbane Roar FC, Australia / Portland Thorns, USA

22 (1)

17.

Kyah SIMON

Melbourne City FC, Australia / Houston Dash, USA

78 (22)

18.

Mackenzie ARNOLD (gk)

Brisbane Roar FC, Australia / Arna Bjornar FC, Norway

17 (0)

19.

Katrina GORRY

Brisbane Roar FC, Australia / Utah Royals, USA

63 (14)

20.

Samantha KERR

Perth Glory, Australia / Chicago Red Stars, USA

61 (21)

21.

Ellie CARPENTER

Canberra United, Australia / Portland Thorns, USA

16 (1)

22.

Larissa CRUMMER

Melbourne City FC, Australia

19 (3)

23.

Michelle HEYMAN

Canberra United, Australia

59 (20)

Japan also is using primarily a home-based squad, with only four from abroad with 2 in the U.S.—Rumi Utsugi and Nahomi Kawasumi of Seattle Reign—and one each in Germany and France: Kumi Yokoyama of Frankfurt of Germany and Saki Kumagai of Olympique Lyon in France. Eight play for NTV Beleza while 5 are with INAC Kobe Leonessa and 3 come from Urawa Red Diamonds. The veteran quartet of Saki Kumagai, Aya Sameshima, Rumi Utsugi and Mizuho Sakaguchi have collected 400 international caps for the Nadeshiko, who are the reigning Asian Champions.

Republic of Korea head coach Yoon Duk-yeo has named 23 players for the Asian Cup and made two changes to the playing group that finished joint seventh at last month's Algarve Cup in Portugal, with Kim Do-yeon and Kim Hye-yeong replacing the injured Sim Dam-young and Shim Seo-yeon. Most of team is home-based (18), with two in Japan, one in England, one in Australia and one in Norway.

Chelsea star and Taegeuk Ladies all-time top scorer Ji So-Yun has 99 appearances and with one more game will become the fourth Korea Republic international to reach 100 caps. She scored during their first leg 2-0 victory last month over Montpellier in the UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinals, helping to advance the London club to the semifinals. Norwegian-based midfield leader Cho So-hyun (Alvadsnes), Melbourne Victory forward Jeon Ga-eul and INAC Kobe Leonessa duo Cho Ye-seul and Lee Min-a, the latter whom was her country's player of the year in 2017 and scored two of four goals in four Algarve Cup games, are the other imports. Ga-eul played with Melbourne Victory this past season and is expected to link up at home this season with Hwacheon KSPO, who lost the 2017 championship final last November to Incheon Red Angels 6-0 on aggregate.

Vietnam uses an entirely home-based side. Ho Chi Minh City FC, the 2017 Champions and Regular Season champions, has supplied 8 players. Ho Chi Minh City won the title on penalties 4-3 after a 1-1 tie against Ha Nam FC in the final, who supply six players. Losing semi-finalists Ha Noi and Than Khoang Sa has 5 and 4 members in the Jordan team, respectively. Ho Chi Minh City FC and Ha Nam FC advanced to the final on penalties as well. Ha Noi also has a second team that plays in the 8 team top flight league.

For over a decade Ho Chi Minh City's goalkeeper Dang Thi Kieu Trinh (32) has been competing at the AFC Women's Asian Cup. The side advanced to Jordan by going undefeated in their qualifying group in April of 2017, defeating Syria 11-0, Singapore 8-0, Iran 6-1 and a 2-0 victory over second place Myanmar, which was their only loss of the tournament. Four years ago, they lost to Thailand in the 5th-6th place playoff for the final World Cup Spot. They draw this time was brutal to them as Korea Republic, Australia and Japan all made the Round of 16, Quarterfinals and Final respectively in Canada and if they pull a tie or two off of the top three sides, it should be considered an achievement.


First Round Matches

In the first round of matches on April 6 and 7, in Group A, host Jordan held a 1-0 lead over the Philippines at halftime on a 15th minute goal by Maysa Jbarah (Amman Club). However, the wheels came off in the second half as Yasmeen Khair (Shabab Al Ordon) put through her own net in the 51st minute and then Sarina Bolden (Loyola Marymount University in the U.S.) scored in the 76h minute on her international debut with an assist by Maria Park (currently without a club) to give the East Asian side a 2-1 upset victory over the hosts.

Monday's game against Thailand is crucial to Jordan and a loss could destroy their World Cup hopes in a puff of smoke, with likely little chance to pull an upset over China. Two goals in the second half from Song Duan (Dalian Women's FC) and single strikes from Wang Shuang (Wuhan FC) and Li Ying (Shandong) gave China a comfortable 4-0 win over Thailand in their first match.

In Group B on April 7, Japan defeated Vietnam 4-0 with goals by Emi Nakajima (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Mana Iwabuchi (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Kumi Yokoyama (1FFC Frankfurt of Germany) and substitute Mina Tanaka (NTV Beleza). In the nightcap, Australia tied Korea Republic 0-0, despite almost a 2 to 1 advantage in possession.


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

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

Tim Grainey
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Tim Grainey

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