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The Week in Women's Football: Infantino influence on women’s game, SheBelieves Cup under way

This week we present our thoughts on the FIFA Presidential Election, update the SheBelieves Cup National Team Tournament in the U.S. with England, France and Germany, present some NWSL player news, review the first three match days of the Asian Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Japan and look at the CONCACAF U-17 Women's World Cup Qualifying Tournament in Grenada.


INFANTINO ELECTION POSITIVE FOR WOMEN'S GAME

FIFA's election last week of Gianni Infantino as the new President of the global soccer enterprise is highly positive and hopeful for the future of women's football. Certainly the change in attitude alone from Sepp “Hot Pants" Blatter and his periodic condescending remarks about the women's game and their players is a refreshing step forward. The fact that Infantino was a chief administrator at UEFA since 2009, seeing the success of the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany and France's successful bid for the 2019 World Cup, is promising. Infantino said that he would push for a Women's Club World Cup—which will help grow and improve national leagues around the world—and have a women's division at FIFA in charge of plotting the future, which is music to the ears of those invested in the women's game. The FIFA Congress also passed a reform package that included a diversity plank to have: “Women take on greater decision-making roles within FIFA" (at least one representative from each confederation on FIFA).

It was hard to get over the feeling that if the pre-election favorite Sheikh Salman bid Ehrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain had won, it would have been a setback for women's football—not even considering his somewhat lukewarm stance towards reforming FIFA. Bahrain sits 84th in FIFA's world rankings (18th in Asia) for women's national teams, between Fiji and Guam, which could be about where women's football would have fallen on his agenda. The women's game has seen progress in the last decade in Bahrain but they are still building support structures and changing perceptions about the appropriateness of the game at home. Infantino is much better placed to help a women's committee and support them in increasing support for the game. We don't need one model to build the game around the world; we need different models for different countries and different regions and those involved in the women's game should be setting these strategies. Canada and the U.S. have different needs than Western Europe, Africa and South Asia. Programs that have worked in similar markets should be applied, such as in helping to start and promote national leagues. Rather than the profession NWSL—which is appropriate right now only for the U.S. and Canada, Australia's Westfield W-League, the Netherlands' and Belgium's joint country BeNe League that ran for three seasons and England's two division WSL are probably more appropriate benchmarks for countries wanting to improve their women's league structure. Introducing young girls to the game in school and all-sports clubs is a priority in many developing markets.

Hopefully new FIFA best practices will include transparency in bidding for international tournaments (we still are a bit bemused by Papua New Guinea hosting the U-20 Women's World Cup later this year).

Long-shot FIFA Presidential Candidate Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the president of Jordan's Football Association—who finished third in both rounds—has become a leading West Asian country in the sport, building towards competitiveness with the top five Asian national teams of Australia, China, Japan, Korea DPR and Korea Republic, even hiring a national team manager from Japan in Masahiko Okiyama. The nation is hosting the U-17 WWC this year, has had a national league for over ten years and national team player Stephanie Al-Naber has even played top-league ball in Denmark. Jordan also was the first West Asian or Arab nation to have ever played in the Women's Asian Cup--which has had 23 participants in their 17 editions which began in 1975—when they were a finalist at the 2014 edition in Vietnam. Despite their impressive resume, Jordan is still developing the game at home and fighting resistance to the game; Infantino was the best choice as FIFA President for the women's game to continue its growth at the global level.


SheBelieves Cup involving 4 of the Top 5 FIFA Ranked National Teams in the World Kicks Off.

On Thursday March 3, the SheBelieves Cup, begun this year to help the Americans prepare for the Olympic Games this summer, saw the U.S. defeat England 1-0 and Germany overcome France by the same score, in front of 13,027 at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. Four of the five top FIFA ranked women's national teams are participating, and though it is a friendly tournament, it is arguably one of the best national team events of the year outside of the Olympic Games. England played solid defensively but also had some viable attacking play and technical ball control, frustrating the Americans until Crystal Dunn, near the top of the penalty area, scored with a laser shot into the upper far post past goalkeeper Karen Bardsley in the 72nd minute, five minutes after coming into the match. Dunn has 7 goals in 7 games this season, including a 5 goal outing against Puerto Rico last month, and is tied in the team lead in goals with FIFA's 2015 World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. German defender Leonie Maier scored from a close range header in the 83rd minute for the win over France.

On March 6, 2016, Alex Morgan scored an injury time goal with an assist from 17–year-old Mallory Pugh to give the U.S. their second win of the tournament over France 1-0, before an impressive crowd of 25,363 in Nashville, Tennessee. In the second match of the day, England rode Toni Duggan's (Manchester City) early goal (9th minute) for a 1-0 lead over Germany until less than 15 minutes left, when Gilly Flaherty's (Chelsea) own goal (76th minute) and Babett Peter's (Vfl Wolfsburg) penalty kick (82nd minute) swung the match to the 2003 and 2007 World Champions.


NWSL UPDATE

Amanda DaCosta, who won two WSL league crowns with Liverpool, returned to the U.S. last season and played with the Washington Spirit. She was traded to Chicago Red Stars during the off-season and, despite her goal to eventually play for the U.S. full national team, decided to play for Portugal late last year (qualifying through her parents). Da Costa, who periodically wrote columns for Tribal Football while she was at Liverpool, explained her decision: “I'm turning 27 in October. While I know that's still young, playing internationally has always been one of my dreams and I don't know how much longer my career will last. When Portugal reached out to me this time around, it just seemed right. I've been living in the moment ever since, and who knows where this will take me exactly, but so far I have absolutely no regrets. While it's not easy being part of a different culture, I've been able to get caps, learn another language and meet some European-based family members for the first time. All of that has been a true blessing."

The former U.S. youth standout made her senior international debut this past December in Portugal's 2-0 loss to Spain, a 2015 Women's World Cup finalist.

Canadian National Team Goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who played three years in NWSL with Chicago and Houston Dash, will play in 2016 with Swedish powerhouse FC Rosengard. Fellow Canadian national teammate winger Josee Belanger played with Rosengard last season but has joined the Orlando Pride in NWSL for 2016. McLeod previously played in Sweden with Dalsjofors GoIF before NWSL started.



ASIAN OLYMPIC QUALIFYING UPDATE

In the Asian Football Confederation Olympic Qualifying Final Tournament, with three of the five match days complete, Australia needs only a tie against DPR Korea on Monday March 7 to clinch an Olympic Games berth. China, two points behind Australia, also is well placed for one of the two Olympic Games spots allocated to the AFC. China meets fourth place Korea Republic on Monday while Japan and Vietnam, the two bottom placed sides, attempt to win their first game of the tournament.

Australia shocked two-time World Cup finalists Japan 3-1 on February 29 in chilly Osaka (2 degrees Celsius) for an excellent start to the six team league format tournament. Lisa De Vanna and Michelle Heyman scored in the first 40 minutes and Katrina Gorry (1 FFC Frankfurt) tallied in the second half. Yuki Ogimi (who also plays at Frankfurt after time with Chelsea and Wolfsburg) scored Japan's consolation goal in first half injury time. Australian head coach Alen Stajcic, who won a W-League title in charge of Sydney FC in 2012-13, said after the game: “It is a very historic win, I think it's the first time we've beaten Japan in Japan and from my memory, it's the first time we've beaten a World Cup champion in an official tournament so it's certainly a big moment," Indeed, Australia had lost four and tied three previous matches in Japan dating back to 1989 and was knocked out of last summer's World Cup by Japan at the quarterfinal stage by a narrow 1-0 scoreline. Australia now has a 6-8-10 (W-D-L) record all-time against Japan in 24 matches. Stajcic continues to impress after guiding Australia to the quarterfinals in Canada, including a 1-0 Round of 16 win over Brazil. Stajcic was brought in to lead the side just prior to the final round of Asian Qualifying for that World Cup, when the players had mutinied against former coach Hesterine de Reus of the Netherlands. Stajcic's sides play smart, strategic ball and Australia is poised to be a top four side in one of the next FIFA tournaments. Stajcic should be recognized as a major force in women's football coaching.

Japan's Coach Norio Sasaki said after the loss: “We have no regrets about the result because we came fully prepared with a plan that we thought would work but they never really allowed us to settle into a rhythm…Australia played a really aggressive style of football but the key point really was the defensive organization of Australia and we need to switch our mindset to the next game." Japan has made four of the past five Olympics, including the last three in a row.

In the battle of the Korean peninsula, also on day 1, DPR Korea tied the Korea Republic 1-1. DPR Korea is trying to make their third consecutive Olympic games and was disqualified from 2015 WWC qualifying for a steroids doping scandal at the 2011 WWC in Germany, when five players tested positive and team officials said that it was due to using musk deer gland ointment to recover from lightning strikes during training. Korea Republic's goal is to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time. Jung Sul-bin put Korea Republic ahead in the 32nd minute, but DPR Korea's Kim Un-ju scored from distance in the 80th minute.

Also on day 1, China defeated Vietnam 2-0. China's captain Li Dongna missed a 51st minute penalty before Gu Yasha's 57th minute strike finally opened the scoring for China. Zhang Rhi scored the second goal in the 63rd minute. China missed the 2012 Olympics for the first time in their history but has a strong history at the Games, losing the 1996 final to the U.S. and making the quarterfinals in 2008. This is a different and more confident side now than four years ago since French national team manager Bruno Bini took charge last September. Bini took France to fourth place finishes at both the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. Vietnam qualified for the AFC finals ahead of Jordan and Thailand, who knocked them out of WWC 2015 in a crucial AFC fifth place match for one last spot in Canada.

On match day 2 (March 2) Australia continued its dynamic march to the Olympics by destroying Vietnam 9-0. Kyah Simon (Boston Breakers) scored a first half hat trick.

Emily Gielnik scored in the 10th minute and Alana Kennedy (Western New York Flash) scored in the 19th minute to give the Matildas a 5-0 lead at the intermission. In the second half, Emily van Egmond, Claire Polkinghorne and substitutes Ashleigh Sykes and Michelle Heyman added goals in the commanding win.

Also on match day 2, Wang Shuang scored from the penalty spot in the 92nd minute to give China a share of the points versus DPR Korea. Ra Un-sim scored in the 38th minute for DPR Korea. Japan tied Korea Republic 1-1 in another disappointing result from Japan, and both teams—World Cup participants last summer--were winless from their first two games. Ji So-yun missed a penalty for Korea Republic in the 70th minute. Japanese substitute Mana Iwabuchi (Bayern Munich) scored in the 84th minute but Jung Sul-bin scored in the 87th minute after longtime Japanese goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto (Okayama Yunogo Belle) failed to catch an easy cross and dropped it at the feet of Jung, who buried the ball into the net from close range. Japan's coach Norio Sasaki had mixed emotions after the game: “I told the girls that if they believe and play their own football then the result will come. Unfortunately we couldn't get the three points. But it's not the players who need to regret that, it's me. The fact we couldn't score wasn't only with regards to the final play, but at the moment we are also not accurate enough with the pass before that."

On match day 3, Australia continued its perfect run in Japan with a 2-0 victory over Korea Republic. Kyah Simon netted after just 48 seconds before Emily Van Egmond's penalty gave Australia their 2-0 advantage after 15 minutes, which they maintained for the remainder of the match.

China defeated Japan 2-1 with goals from Zhang Rui (14') and Gu Yasha (58'). Kumi Yokoyama (AC Nagano Parceiro Ladies) scored Japan's lone reply in the 64th minute.

Japan is sitting 5th with only 1 point and is 6 points adrift of second place China; they look set to miss the Olympics in 2016—shocking given that they finished first, second and second in the last three major FIFA tournaments for women: the 2011 WWC, 2012 Olympics and 2015 WWC.

DPR Korea defeated a surprisingly difficult Vietnam side 1-0 with a 90th minute goal from substitute Ju Hyo-sim for their first victory of the tournament and is third after three games on 5 points. DPR Korea's Kim Un-hyang had seen an earlier penalty saved by 30-year-old Dang Thi Kieu Trinh (Ho Chi Minh City FC), who had a terrific match in goal for Vietnam.


CONCACAF WOMEN'S UNDER-17 WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS

Some interesting facts emerge in analyzing each team's 20 player roster for the eight team field in the U-17 CONCACAF Championships in Grenada, which will send the top three teams onto the FIFA U-17 World Championships later this year in Jordan. Canada, Guatemala, Haiti and the U.S. are utilizing entirely home based teams, with Canada including six from the Vancouver Whitecaps (Major League Soccer and former USL W-League side) organization. The other four teams have players from the United States and/or Canada, showing that even at this young age level, utilizing the diaspora from more advanced markets is a proven method to increase the credibility and competitiveness of these national team programs. Costa Rica has two players from North America: midfielders Carmen Marín (Futuro Soccer Academy/CAN) and Emma Víquez (Dallas/USA). Grenada has three players from their vast diaspora in the U.S., including 10-year-old forward Melania Fullerton (Beasley Elementary in Mesquite, Texas).

Solar Chelsea East Dallas coach Jaime Arnold, where Fullerton plays, says: “Melania is a powerhouse and leader on the field. She keeps coming and coming, giving 110 percent every time she steps onto the pitch. With her speed and quick footwork she is able to stun her opponents but there's one thing she has that you cannot teach and that's heart."


Jamaica has recruited the majority of their roster from outside the country, including 10 from the U.S. and 4 from Canada, while their head coach--Jamaican-American Lorne Donaldson--has been a long-time youth and professional coach in Colorado. Mexico also has 10 players from the U.S., which reflects a long standard of Technical Director Leo Cuellar's 18 year reign in charge of the women's program, to split his squads fairly equally with native Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent.

Two stadiums in St. George's Grenada are being used for the March 3-13 event.

In Group A matches, Canada and Haiti have advanced to the semifinals. Canada defeated Guatemala 3-0 and Grenada 7-0, while Haiti blasted host Grenada 13-0, with four first half goals from Nerilia Mondesir, and squeaked by Guatemala 3-2. Mondesir scored the winner in the 89th minute after Haiti gave up a 2-0 halftime lead and lost Wagnelda Millien in the 57th minute after she received her second yellow card. In the later match, the head coaches of both sides—Shek Borkowski of Haiti and Benjamin Monterroso of Guatemala--are their full national team coaches, emphasizing the importance of this tournament and their national youth sides to the growth of their total programs.

In Group B, the Americans are through to the semifinals, as the U.S. defeated Jamaica 8-1 and Mexico 1-0, while Mexico defeated Costa Rica 4-2 in their first match. Costa Rica beat Jamaica 3-2. Mexico and Costa Rica are tied for second and a semifinal spot; on Tuesday March 8, Mexico faces Jamaica while Costa Rica plays the Americans.


Tim Grainey
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Tim Grainey

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