This week, we present some interesting comments from a media conference call with recently appointed NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler, focusing on her role, the overall state of the league and future expansion possibilities. We also present some views from Canadian national team head coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller ahead of the Tournoi de France tournament in France and then the results from the first two rounds of matches. We also examine the SheBelieves Cup in the U.S., focusing on the first game between England and the U.S.
NWSL Commissioned Lisa Baird and Chicago Red Stars Owner Arnim Whisler talk about the league's future.
Newly appointed NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird brings extensive marketing experience at an executive level, including work in sports with the National Football League and as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Chief Marketing Officer. She participated in a media conference call with Arnim Whisler, Chicago Red Stars owner on February 28. Baird is expected to raise the league's sponsorship revenues exponentially, building the league's awareness and value beyond their current 9 cities and primarily local community presence, even though it is a national league, "I think talking to who I think is on the prospective sponsor list will be really important early on; that will be something that the owners and I will want to make a real priority going into the season."
Beyond current and prospective sponsors, she wants to engage the larger women's soccer and sports community, "I will be engaging in meetings, phone calls with all of the stakeholders around women's soccer and that will be a learning process for me. I was pretty overwhelmed by how many people, not only that I knew, that are anxious to see the league succeed, [and who] have reached out to me over the last literally few hours to offer their counsel and help in any way."
On the league's relationship with U.S. Soccer, which is the founder and main financial benefactor for operational expenses for the NWSL, Baird said, "I know the owners and I are going to have and develop our own independent vision of what we need to be going [forward] as a league and, regardless of what specific contractual support there is, I suspect there will always be a close collaborative relationship with the federation."
Whisler added to that topic when he said that he was disappointed with the view portrayed by some of the media that U.S. Soccer and NWSL were in conflict over the future direction of the league, "We have a great relationship [with U.S. Soccer] and I was distressed a little as to how it was portrayed in some of the articles. We are partners in growing the best women's national team in the world and the best women's soccer league in the world. It has gone very well and we are as aligned as a board [of directors] as we have ever been. We have nothing but optimism about the year going forward. The relationship with U.S. Soccer is not viewed as an impediment. The manager and partner agreement that we have, both parties are on the same page. When we are all ready, we'll move to the next model, whatever that is. They will remain a very important partner, just like the MLS will, the USL will, the WNBA will and other leagues and constituencies that matter to what we are trying to do for women." As an aside, Canada Soccer is an important partner as well, as they have paid for the salaries of some of their national team players to participate every year since the inaugural season of 2013, with 9 players allocated to six NWSL clubs for the 2020 season.
In terms of more international ownership or involvement, Baird said that she met with an Olympique Lyon representative during her interviewing process (they purchased Tacoma Reign FC late last year) and that some of the earliest messages that she has received since her appointment have been from people she worked with in Europe and Asia who are clearly following the NWSL from abroad. Baird stated emphatically, "We can be a league that has global appeal. I will certainly be leveraging my relationships that I have built over the decade in the Olympic movement to advance our prospects." Note: earlier this week Reign FC's name was officially changed to OL Reign.
Whisler again added to the idea of more international teams or groups investing in the league when he said, "We were excited to talk to international folks; for a while OL certainly added some additional fuel—we had calls immediately from other clubs around the world. As we look forward, we can use other men's and women's leagues as a proxy but we are stronger with great owners, wherever they come from, whether NWSL owners or international clubs or major other sports teams in a marketplace that we want to operate in.We are looking for a rich diverse passionate group of owners and it has been great to see the international discussions pick-up."
This reporter asked a follow-up question about expansion possibilities, whether men's pro (MLS and minor league franchises), other sports teams dueling staff (which was done between the Tacoma Reign, Tacoma Defiance in USL Championship and the baseball Tacoma Rainiers last season) and independent sides, like Whisler's Red Stars, were seen as the preferred approach in the future. Baird couldn't comment on which model she wanted as she doesn't officially start until mid-March but did say, "The NFL's power is in diversity of ownership. An independent owner who has been a long-time owner in [the] league can have an incredible powerful impact in the same way that they are an associated pro [franchise] because they bring a diverse point of view and they are united with a common love and passion for the game and the common purpose of growing it."
Whisler clarified the Board of Directors view on expansion, "We believe 14 teams is a pretty good near-term target; from a competitive parity standpoint we are not sure how far we'll go beyond that and how fast. We are at 10 teams [with Louisville Proof entering for 2021] and 4 to go—that is going fast and we have far more teams that want in then we have spots available. We have a lot of discussions going on and also decisions about geography, type of owner long-term commitment… and what it means, but it is a really a bright and exciting time from broadcast to expansion to what we think we can continue to be able to do to improve compensation and other player amenities and things that keep us at the forefront of global women's leagues."
Whisler was clear on the Board of Directors vision of Baird's role, "I want to be clear about a couple things. Lisa is our commissioner and the elements of the board, the committees, [and] the executive committee have stepped in at various places where we could be helpful. We'll be equally happy to be nudged back into the background and as Lisa wants information or guidance, we'll provide it. But the ExCo isn't there to tell her what to do; we're there as an efficient means to get ideas and input and/or decisions from the rest of the board that are helpful. So, we're very excited for Lisa to think through all aspects of how we're going to be run, from committee structure to the relationships in the marketplace and we'll be working with her as she needs us."
This is an extremely positive hire as Lisa Baird has the well-earned track record to attract sponsors to the league. She did deal with soccer as one of the Olympic Games sports and she will definitely get up to speed quickly on the league and the sport. As she said during the conference call, "We're at a time in the momentum of this league where, not only the passion of the fans, but the purpose of women's sports and women's soccer, is ripe for being a platform for companies' communication and their purpose within the landscape. I actually don't think I'm going to have to do a lot of persuading of sponsors that creating a partnership with the league is the right one for what they want to do." The news on the prospects for more expansion sides was also promising, as that has not always been a positive topic about the league—only 2 true expansion teams have joined in 7 years after the launch in 2013 (Houston and Orlando, who are both part of Major League Soccer clubs in those two cities).
Canada participates in new Tournoi de France
Canada Kenneth Heiner-Moller recently discussed his Canadian national team, fresh off of qualifying for their fourth consecutive Olympic Games Finals through CONCACAF by finishing second to the U.S. last month by a 3-0 scoreline. This month, the Maple Leafs flew to Calais, France to participate in the Tournoi de France with the host nation, 2019 WWC runners-up Netherlands and CONMEBOL power Brazil (tournament games are also held in Valenciennes). Canada lost to the Netherlands 2-1 at last summer's Women's World Cup in France at the Round of 16 stage.
Heiner-Moller talked about Diane Matheson's return to the team from long-term injury, having missed all of the 2019 NWSL season with the Utah Royals and has not played with the national team since March of 2019 at the Algarve Cup, saying, "Diana has worked hard behind the scenes to be ready…She was on my mind going into the qualifiers but I thought this would be a great opportunity to see her in this environment against some of the best teams in the world….She understands the game and [is] not just able to speak about it but able to execute it on the pitch. Just in my time [with the team], she has been playing so many different positions and knows the game from so many different perspectives. Hopefully she will add some composure to our play."
This reporter asked about Jordyn Huitema's growth during her first season in France with Paris St. Germain. Huitema was one of the stars in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Finals, winning the Golden Boot as the Tournament's top scorer. Heiner-Moller said, "She has been maturing so much, one being away from your family, the facilities you know and the players you know….As a person she has grown outside of the pitch. On the pitch, working with her sometimes in the Super 8 in B.C. [British Colombia], I can tell her to lower her back shoulder but when she played here it was easier; now she is training with the team and in a league with the best center backs in the world and if she doesn't do that, play the game well off the ball…the pace she has is great but it is also about timing her runs and [she] has added so much to her game; her potential is pretty steep and improvement has been remarkable [since being in Paris]."
Heiner-Møller also talked about the three FIFA top 10 ranked opponents that they will face in France, "This four-nation tournament will be a great opportunity for preparing ourselves for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. It is crucial as a program that we deliver a massive performance at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in Japan. The tournament in France will give us the opportunity to face great oppositions and to measure ourselves against some of the top football teams in the world." Canada will have played five consecutive 'Tier 1' teams, which include world-class talent like Amandine Henry of Olympique Lyon and France (who once played with Christine Sinclair with the Portland Thorns), Shanice van de Sanden of Olympique Lyon and the Netherlands and Marta of the Orlando Pride and Brazil in this tournament, after losing to the U.S. in the CONCACAF Final, and will then face Australia on April 24 in Vancouver. Heiner-Moller added, "We are going to play Tier 1 [teams] and [it will] give us some great insight on our players and who are already at the level to play Tier 1 teams across [multiple] games. We need to play more Tier 1 opposition and I'm sure they [the players] are super excited." Brazil and Netherlands have qualified for the Olympic Games while France is involved in 2021 UEFA European Championship Qualifying.
Canada's roster for France featured all the players who recently helped Canada qualify for the Olympic Games as well as the return of Diana Matheson and center back Vanessa Gilles. Stephanie Labbé, Kadeisha Buchanan, Jordyn Huitema and Ashley Lawrence were named to the CONCACAF Olympic Games Tournament Best 11 all-star team, while Labbé won the Golden Glove and Huitema the Golden Boot. Both France-based players Buchanan (2015, 2017) and Lawrence (2019) are recent Canadian Players of the Year. In addition, twenty of the side was on the 2019 WWC squad. In addition, seventeen players were part of the Rio 2016 bronze medal winning squad, while veterans Diana Matheson, Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, and Desiree Scott were also bronze medalists at London 2012.
CANADA ROSTER FOR FRANCE TOURNAMENT
GK- Sabrina D'Angelo | SWE / Vittsjö GIK
GK- Stephanie Labbé | USA / NC Courage
GK- Kailen Sheridan | USA / Sky Blue FC
CB- Kadeisha Buchanan | FRA / FCF Olympique Lyonnais
CB- Vanessa Gilles | FRA / FC Girondins de Bordeaux
CB- Rebecca Quinn | USA / Seattle Reign FC
CB- Shelina Zadorsky | USA / Orlando Pride
FB- Gabrielle Carle | USA / Florida State University
FB- Allysha Chapman | USA / Houston Dash
FB - Ashley Lawrence | FRA / Paris St-Germain FC
FB- Jayde Riviere | USA / University of Michigan
M- Jessie Fleming | USA / UCLA
M- Julia Grosso | USA / University of Texas at Austin
M- Diana Matheson | USA / Utah Royals FC
M- Sophie Schmidt | USA / Houston Dash
M- Desiree Scott | USA / Utah Royals FC
F- Janine Beckie | ENG / Manchester City
F- Jordyn Huitema | FRA / Paris St-Germain FC
F- Adriana Leon | ENG / West Ham United
F- Nichelle Prince | USA / Houston Dash
F- Deanne Rose | USA / University of Florida
F- Christine Sinclair | USA / Portland Thorns FC
Canada lost its opening match 1-0 in the Tournoi de France in Calais to the host nation France on a 55th minute goal from Vivianne Asseyi (Bordeaux). Starting Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan said after the game, "I think we have a lot going into the next couple of games and it's a good start from us and we can take a lot from this and move forward and really come out [as] the team we know we are and the team that came out of the qualifying tournament. We need to make sure for the next game we show up and are really prepared and we possess [the ball] more."
Matheson, who substituted in late with a few minutes remaining, said after the game, "I think there were a lot of good things. We're disappointed we didn't get the result but we'll take a lot out of it for the next game. I think we look at why there was as much time on the ball for France in that game and how we can tighten things up and then I think it's about quality on the ball for the next game. It was nice to get that under the belt and it's been nice to get back on the field."
Canada's starting 11 against France featured Kailen Sheridan in goal, Jayde Riviere at right back, Sophie Schmidt, Kadeisha Buchanan and Rebecca Quinn at center back, Allysha Chapman at left back, and Desiree Scott, Ashley Lawrence, Janine Beckie, Jordyn Huitema, and Christine Sinclair from the midfield up through to the attack. In the second half, Heiner-Møller replaced Chapman with Jessie Fleming (46'), Huitema with Nichelle Prince (70'), Rivere with Gabrielle Carle, Scott with Julia Grosso and Beckie with Diana Matheson (83'). In the second game of the day, Brazil and Netherlands played to a scoreless draw.
In the second set of matches on March 7, Canada and the Netherlands played out a goalless draw. Heiner-Moller said, "We wanted to have another chance at the Netherlands after the FIFA Women's World Cup [where the Maple Leafs lost 2-1 in the final group stage match] and I think we showed some good perseverance. Sometimes when you're playing against 10 players [Netherlands goalkeeper Lize Kop (Ajax) was sent off in the 49th minute after receiving a red card on a challenge on Nichelle Prince (Houston Dash), you force things. I think we had some great opportunities, but unfortunately couldn't find the back of the net."
Canada's starting XI featured Sabrina D'Angelo in goal, Ashley Lawrence at right back, Vanessa Gilles and Shelina Zadorsky at center back, Allysha Chapman at left back, and Desiree Scott, Jessie Fleming, Sophie Schmidt, Adriana Leon, Deanne Rose and Christine Sinclair from the midfield up through to the attack. In the second half, head coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller replaced Leon with Nichelle Prince, Sinclair with Jordyn Huitema and Schmidt with Diana Matheson (46'), and Rose with Janine Beckie and Scott with Julia Grosso (65').
Goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo posted the fourth clean sheet of her career while central defender Vanessa Gilles earned her first start and second international cap for Canada.
In the other match the same day, France defeated Brazil 1-0 on a Valerie Gauvin (Montpellier) goal headed in from a few yards from the goal line from a perceptive Amel Majri (Olympique Lyon) pass. The win gave France an unstoppable advantage at the top of the table and they will win the Tournament title, no matter what happens in their last game on March 10 against the Netherlands (2 points), while Canada (1 point) and Brazil (1 point) meet as well in the final match day.
U.S. Defeats England 2-0 to Open the SheBelieves Cup
The U.S. Women's National Team defeated England's Women's National Team 2-0 on March 5 in Orlando, Florida in front of 16,531 as the SheBelieves Cup opened. In the first match, Spain defeated Japan 3-1 with Lucia Garcia (Atletico Club Bilbao) scoring a second half brace. Christen Press (Utah Royals) scored in her seventh consecutive game and midfielder Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars) appeared in her 100th game for the Americans, the 40th player to earn that achievement. Press's goal came on a nice curling shot past Carly Telford (Chelsea) in goal from a Carli Lloyd assist (Sky Blue FC) in the 53rd minute. Lloyd then finished the scoring two minutes later from close in on goal after a chip from Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns). In a match played at a frenetic pace throughout a good portion of the 90 minutes, the U.S. outshot England 22-8 (6-3 for shots on goal), with 8 corner kicks to 6 for the visitors.
USWNT SheBelieves Cup Roster by Position (Club; Caps/Goals):
GOALKEEPERS (3): Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns FC; 3), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride; 25), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars; 61)
DEFENDERS (8): Abby Dahlkemper (North Carolina Courage; 58/0), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars; 25/1), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage; 101/24), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride; 107/1), Kelley O'Hara (Utah Royals FC; 129/2), Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals FC; 174/0), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars; 31/0), Emily Sonnett (Orlando Pride; 44/0)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars; 99/19), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC; 83/18), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit; 42/12), Samantha Mewis (North Carolina Courage; 64/18), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit; 16/0)
FORWARDS (7): Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC; 165/33), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC; 291/122), Jessica McDonald (North Carolina Courage; 17/4), Christen Press (Utah Royals FC; 135/56), Mallory Pugh (Sky Blue FC; 62/18), Megan Rapinoe (Reign FC; 165/51), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage; 25/9)
Of the three players on this roster who were not on the Olympic qualifying squad, two were on the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup championship team in forward Mallory Pugh and defender Tierna Davidson. Three players who were not on the 2019 World Cup Team made the 2020 SheBelieves Cup roster in defender Casey Short, midfielder Andi Sullivan and forward Lynn Williams. In his short time as coach (7 matches), head coach Vlatko Andonovski has already looked at 50 different players.
DEFENDERS (7): Millie Bright (Chelsea; 34/0), Rachel Daly (Houston Dash, USA; 33/3), Grace Fisk (West Ham United; 0/0), Alex Greenwood (Lyon, FRA; 44/3), Steph Houghton (Manchester City; 117/13), Abbie McManus (Manchester United; 17/0), Demi Stokes (Manchester City; 57/11), Leah Williamson (Arsenal; 14/1)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal; 60/7), Jill Scott (Manchester City; 146/24), Lucy Staniforth (Birmingham City; 15/2), Georgia Stanway (Manchester City; 16/2), Keira Walsh (Manchester City; 26/0)
FORWARDS (7): Toni Duggan (Atletico Madrid, ESP; 76/22), Bethany England (Chelsea; 5/2), Lauren Hemp (Manchester City; 3/0), Chloe Kelly (Everton; 1/0), Nikita Parris (Lyon; 47/14), Alessia Russo North Carolina, USA; 0/0), Ellen White (Manchester City; 89/35)
England's roster includes 15 of 23 players who were included on Phil Neville's World Cup squad, including eight of 11 players who started the semifinal. England will be without a few players though, as World Cup semifinal starting goalkeeper Karen Bardsley (who grew up in Southern California and attended Cal State Fullerton), defender Lucy Bronze (who played at the University of North Carolina) and forward Beth Mead are injured.
Three new players either recently or still do play collegiately in the U.S. North Carolina forward Alessia Russo has a year of eligibility remaining, while defender Grace Fisk (University of South Carolina but now plays for West Ham) and goalkeeper Sandy MacIver (Clemson) concluded their eligibility last fall. MacIver just signed with Everton. Russo led UNC in goals last season with 13 and also had three assists. Fisk has made 30 appearances for England at youth level and captained the bronze-medal winning U-20 World Cup squad.
England is looking to turn around a bad string of results since losing in the Third-Place Match of the 2019 Women's World Cup to Sweden. Since France last summer, England drew Belgium 3-3, lost to Norway, 2-1, lost to Brazil 2-1, beat Portugal, 1-0 and then lost to Germany 2-1 in front of a record crowd of 77,768 at Wembley Stadium. England won its most recent game in November, defeating the Czech Republic 3-2 away. England will host the 2021 UEFA Finals so they do not have to qualify and these top caliber tournaments are critical to their preparation.
In the second set of matches on March 8, England defeated Japan 1-0 on an Ellen White (Manchester City) goal in the 83rd minute from a Toni Duggan (Atletico Madrid of Spain, after two years at Barcelona) pass. In the second match, the U.S. earned its second tournament win with a 1-0 triumph over Spain, who brought an entirely domestic club-based side, with the exception of defender Irene Paredes (Paris St. Germain of France). Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars) scored on a header in the box from a Christen Press (Utah Royals) free-kick far out on the left wing late in the match.
Next Week: We will look at recent news from women's football in Africa, including the Final Round of Olympic Games Qualifiers between Cameroon and Zambia, as well the UEFA 2021 European Championships Qualifying Games played this month and updates from the friendly internationals played throughout the world.
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