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The Week in Women's Football: Complete NWSL semi-finals and championship review

This week we review the 2019 NWSL Semifinals and Championship Final and present the league end of season award; we also discuss the Coach of the Year winner, particularly as the new U.S. women's national team coach is set to be announced on October 28 (tomorrow) and we touch on that as well, as that choice has profound implications for the NWSL. We also touch base on a new expansion franchise for the league—starting in 2021—and announce the key re-signing of an international superstar. On the international front, there is an announcement out of Sweden about a new streaming service that will broadcast women's football matches from leagues around that world; this service is set to start in Quarter 1 of 2020.



2019 NWSL Playoffs

The Chicago Red Stars fell at the semifinal stage in the four previous NWSL seasons but finally made the promised land of the NWSL Championship Final for the first time with a 1-0 win over the Portland Thorns on September 20 in front of 9,218 fans in Bridgeview Illinois. The difference in the game was an Australian international Sam Kerr goal in the 8th minute from a perceptive long pass b Japanese international Yuki Nagasato from near midfield that put her in goal all alone. The Thorns had made the Championship Game in the two previous seasons, winning the crown in 2017.

In the other semifinal game, also on October 20, North Carolina took a late lead on a Heather O'Reilly penalty kick in the 88th minute after dominating the match, though Seattle's defense was outstanding, led by American youth international and 2016 U-20 Women's World Cup starter Casey Murphy in goal. The Reign seemingly rescued the game right at the end of injury time through substitute Ifeoma Onumonu's (ex-University of California-Berkley) goal. The wheels came off for the Reign in the overtime periods when North Carolina peppered the Reign with shots and added goals by Brazilian international Debinha on her 28th birthday, 2019 WWC winner Crystal Dunn and an own goal by Lauren Barnes from a shot by substitute Kristen Hamilton to win 4-1 in front of a spirited crowd of 7,422.

In the Championship Final on October 27, the Courage defeated the Red Stars 4-0, building up an insurmountable 3-0 first half lead with goals by Brazilian international Debinha (4'), U.S, internationals Jess McDonald (26') and Crystal Dunn (45'). Another U.S. international, Sam Mewis, added a fourth (61') in the second half for the final 4-0 scoreline. The game attracted a facility record 10,227 at Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer in Cary, North Carolina—which had been designated as the host site early in the season—and the Courage became the first club in league history to win a NWSL Championship on their home field. The Courage won their second consecutive title and third in four seasons for the Carolina Courage/Western New York Flash franchise. Debinha deservedly won the Golden Ball as the Championship game MVP. Long-time U.S. international Heather O'Reilly played her last professional soccer match for the winning side, her second after winning with FC Kansas City in 2015. O'Reilly was an announcer for ESPN last summer at the Women's World Cup and will take a job as an assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina.



NWSL awards/U.S. women's national team head coach announcement

Australian international Sam Kerr won the 2019 MVP award for the second time, while also winning the league's Golden Boot Award for the third consecutive time, setting a new league record with 18 regular season goals

The NWSL announced the 2019 Best XI and Second XI on October 24 and a total of nine players are members of the two championship game finalists—the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars. A total of 16 players, including 14 Americans, who played in the FIFA Women's World Cup this past summer were named. The imports on the two teams include Sam Kerr (Australia) on the Best XI and Abby Erceg (New Zealand) on the Second XI. The Best XI selection was divided among six teams, with the Red Stars having three players, the Washington Spirit, Utah Royals and Portland Thorns with two each and the Orlando Pride and the Courage with one. The Second XI included three from the Courage and Reign FC, and two from the Red Stars and one each from the Thorns, Royals and Sky Blue FC.

There was considerable consternation among the NWSL regular media, coaches and on social media, who felt that the selections were more reflective of the players Women's World Cup accomplishments than those during the league. For example, Rose Lavelle only played 6 games all season for the Washington Spirit, while Debinha, Jalene Hinkle and Lynn Williams of the Courage did not make either team, nor did Casey Murphy or Lauren Barnes of the Reign. Crystal Dunn tweeted that the selections are "very hard to understand" if they are supposed to take into account the entire 2019 season, while Carli Lloyd added, "Lots of uneducated people." Probably the most bewildering selection was Ali Krieger of Orlando in the Best 11—she played on 13 games for a team that surrendered a league high 53 games in 24 games and at times seemed like they couldn't prevent a goal if they were playing with a beach ball. The voting breakdown was 20 percent each by fans, club owners/GMs/coaches and media and 40 percent by players. It makes you wonder how many of the voters watched the games.

2019 NWSL Best XI
Goalkeeper: Aubrey Bledsoe (Washington Spirit)
Defenders: Abby Dahlkemper (North Carolina Courage), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars)
Midfielders: Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit)
Forwards: Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Sam Kerr (Chicago Red Stars, Christen Press (Utah Royals)

2019 NWSL Second XI
Goalkeeper: Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
Defenders: Lauren Barnes (Reign FC), Abby Erceg (North Carolina Courage), Kelley O'Hara (Utah Royals), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns)
Midfielders: Bethany Balcer (Reign FC), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage), Yuki Nagasato (Chicago Red Stars)
Forwards: Kristen Hamilton (North Carolina Courage), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Megan Rapinoe (Reign FC)

The NWSL Player's Association made their own All- Star selections—the first year in which they have done this as they were established in 2018—and they seem to be a much better reflection of the top players from league play in 2019, though they only had a "Best XI" selection and not a "Second XI."

NWSL Players Association Player of the Year

SAM KERR – Chicago Red Stars

NWSL Players Association Rookie of the Year

BETHANY BALCER – Reign FC

NWSL Players Association Team of the Year

GK – AUBREY BLEDSOE – Washington Spirit

DEF – ABBEY ERCEG – North Carolina Courage
DEF – JAELEN HINKLE – North Carolina Courage
DEF – BECKY SAUERBRUNN – Utah Royals
DEF – CASEY SHORT – Chicago Red Stars

MID – DEBINHA – North Carolina Courage
MID – CRYSTAL DUNN – North Carolina Courage
MID – DENISE O'SULLIVAN – North Carolina Courage

FWD – KRISTEN HAMILTON – North Carolina Courage
FWD – SAM KERR – Chicago Red Stars
FWD – LYNN WILLIAMS – North Carolina Courage

Coach of the Year
The NWSL named Vlatko Andonovski of Reign FC as the 2019 Coach of the Year. Upon learning of his award, he said:
"It was an emotional and challenging year for our team. But also a very satisfying year in that we dealt with a lot of adversity and many of our players performed at their best and gave their best efforts, which is all we can ask as coaches. Success is a team effort and individual awards are of course a reflection of the players and the entire organization, so I thank them, as well as our assistant coaches, our ownership and all the staff." It was the second time that Andonovski had won the Coach of the Year title, also winning in the inaugural season with FC Kansas City in 2013. Andonovski joins Laura Harvey, currently of the Utah Royals, and Paul Riley of the Courage as coaches who have won this award twice but becomes the only coach to win the award with two different clubs.

List of NWSL Coaches of the Year:

YEARCOACHCLUB
2013 Vlatko Andonovski FC Kansas City
2014 Laura Harvey Seattle Reign FC
2015 Laura Harvey Seattle Reign FC
2016 Mark Parsons Portland Thorns FC
2017 Paul Riley North Carolina Courage
2018 Paul Riley North Carolina Courage

2019 Vlatko Andonovski Reign FC

U.S. Women's National Team Head Coach

On October 28 in New York City, according to multiple reports, Andonovski (43) will be introduced as the new U.S. women's national team head coach, replacing recently retired Jill Ellis, who led the team to back-to-back Women's World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019. The main criticism of Vlatko is that he has never coached a national team side at any level. I don't think it matters—he has the support of national team players who have spoken on the record and has coached two of the leaders of the team—Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long—with the Reign for the last two seasons. He is known as a player's coach and is brilliant with the fans and the media. He has faced criticism as a professional coach before. In late 2012, when the NWSL had first been formed by U.S. Soccer, he was selected to lead FC Kansas City and was criticized for having no serious outdoor coaching experience with men or women, having been an assistant coach for the Kansas City Comets of the Major Indoor Soccer League for a couple of seasons. I was writing for another media outlet at the time and my editor asked me to dig into why he was selected. I interviewed one of the owners of FC Kansas City—one of the owners not involved in alleged email exchanges a few years later that sexually objectified current and potential NWSL players, which led to them leaving the organization. He said that they felt that Andonovski has special qualities and had been involved in coaching female youth soccer and had already put together a plan mixing local players with American professionals and internationals. He was also working with a local women's soccer coach on the FC Kansas City staff who knew the women's players well.

Andonovski, a native of Macedonia (now North Macedonia), played for clubs at home before coming to the U.S. in 2000 to play professional indoor soccer in the National Professional Soccer League and Major Indoor Soccer League. With FC KC, he built a winning side around former U.S. national team goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, U.S. two-time WWC winner Becky Sauerbrunn, Canadian international midfield Desiree Scott and American forward Erika Tymrak, who are all still playing with the now Utah Royals.

The other important aspect that makes this hire unique is that Vlatko comes directly from a U.S. pro league (while reportedly the runner-up for the job, English native Laura Harvey of the Utah Royals, also had coached all seven years of NWSL). The only other head coach of the American side with American pro soccer league experience was Pia Sundhage of Sweden, who had coached in the WUSA but that league was long defunct when she took charge in late 2007. Thus, Andonovski has current knowledge of the play of the 2019 U.S. Women's World Cup winners—all of who played in the NWSL this season—as well as with strong future national team prospects like Ashley Hatch of the Washington Spirit and his goalkeeper in Tacoma, Casey Murphy. His appointment is a strong statement in the importance of the NWSL and the league has developed not only national team players but now a U.S. head coach.

I think Andonovski will do well. He will be cognizant that Greg Ryan was fired with 45 wins, 9 ties and only 1 loss in 2007, in part because of a 4-0 semifinal defeat to Brazil in the Women's World Cup, but also due to how he switched Brianna Scurry for Hope Solo ahead of that game. Two or three national team losses will bring unrealistic criticism. Andonovski's first priority will be the 2020 Olympic Games Qualifying within CONCACAF—which should be no problem—and then advancing to at least the Final Game next year. I for one think that U.S. Soccer were spot on with the appointment of Vlatko Andonovski as the new women's national team coach.

NWSL Expansion News

On October 22, five days ahead of the 2019 NWSL Championship Game, the league received some good news when USL Championship (second division side) FC Louisville announced that they would join the NWSL in the 2021 season, after their new stadium is completed. FC Louisville won the 2018 USL title with a 1-0 win over Phoenix Rising last November (in Phoenix's Didier Drogba last game of a storied playing career) and the team's attendance is fourth best in the league in 2019 with 9,041, a significant increase from 2018's 7,891 (also fourth). Louisville is set to begin NWSL play in the 2021 season at Lynn Family Stadium, the soccer-specific venue with a capacity of nearly 14,000. NWSL President Amanda Duffy, (who formerly worked at the club as President after time in the USL League Officer as an executive) said, "We are very excited to welcome John Neace and Louisville City FC into the NWSL. With the club's growing, passionate fanbase, coupled with its strong ownership group, and its significant investment in a soccer specific stadium in a downtown location, we are thrilled to bring the highest level of women's professional soccer to the area."

Louisville City Football Club President Brad Estes said, "We are incredibly honored to be joining NWSL, the greatest women's soccer league in the world. We can't wait to welcome these incredible athletes with open arms and support them in their mission to win championships. This market is hungry for more pro soccer, and we know our NWSL team will be a shining star in this league and in our community."

The expansion marks the first time the city of Louisville has had a top-tier pro sports team since the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association ceased operations in 1976, after launching in 1969.

Marta Re-signs with Orlando

In other important news for the league, the Orlando Pride announced on October 24 that six-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year Marta (33) had re-signed with the club, which was somewhat surprising as there were rumblings that she would return to Europe after two frustrating, playoff-less seasons in Florida. This is a plus not only for the Pride, who finished with the wooden spoon last season at the bottom of the table, but for the league as well to keep arguably the highest profile women's player in the world in their fold. Orlando Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner said "It's wonderful for the club and the fans to have Marta, whose career speaks for itself, back with the Pride next season. Marta is effervescent—nothing compares to the experience and passion she brings to our roster and I think this year she showed just how much she gives to this team. Everyone knows the quality that she possesses on the field, which we are of course thrilled to have back, but having the leadership and mentoring abilities of the greatest player to play the game will be critical to the continued growth of the Orlando Pride." This past summer at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, Marta set a record for most career goals by a single player in the World Cup with her 17th, passing Germany's Miroslav Klose on the men's side. She also became the first player, of either sex, to score at five World Cup tournaments.

Swedish Company Plans a Broadcasting Service for Women's Leagues Around the World.

Swedish sports rights agency Spring Media is partnering with Red Bee to launch Wnited, the world's first global OTT service dedicated to women's football. This was announced on Monday at Sportel Monaco 2019. Launching in Q1 2020, Wnited will aggregate high-level multi-camera content from top tier leagues in Europe, Asia and the Americas, as well as national team matches to global audiences. With both free and paid subscription-based consumption options, Wnited will launch on the Red Bee Managed OTT Platform, which includes award-winning ultra-low latency live feeds.

Tobias Osmund, CEO, Spring Media explained, "Women's football has reached a turning point when it comes to both viewership and media interest and we believe we're just at the beginning of a steep growth curve. We are now launching a streaming service with access to some of the world's best women's football content and with the Red Bee OTT platform, we are sure to deliver the highest quality viewing experience to football fans as they visit the new home of women's football."

Wnited will include a free, ad-supported viewing option as well as a subscription-based offering for viewers looking for an enhanced and ad-free experience. Wnited will be formally launched in Q1 2020, offering 300+ live matches, highlights, catch-up shows and documentaries, covering world-class women's football from around the world to global audiences. Two top leagues are already confirmed to host its best live matches on the Wnited, with many more to be announced leading up to the launch.

This column will keep readers updated as the company releases more information about this exciting new channel.



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

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