This week, TribalFootball.com interviewed recently capped Argentinian international Sophia Braun, who will be a senior this fall at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. She is an example that Argentina is broadening its recruiting scope for women's footballers.
We also have news on more United Women's Soccer teams joining its new Southwest Conference for 2021 and lastly examine some news from Oceania, with one young Fijian moving to the professional ranks in Europe and more women's leagues being developed in the region, while the Solomon Islands has selected 47 players for a national team camp entirely from their domestic league. We also have some coaching announcements in the region, with former Barbadian international and Wellington Phoenix star Paul Ifill taking over as Samoan women's national team coach.
Gonzaga University defensive midfielder Sophia Braun debuts for Argentina at the SheBelieves Cup
Having played at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, I typically catch news affecting their women's program, which has been building in recent seasons and sent Madeline Gotta on to play first in Spain's Second Division with Zaragoza, then Iceland with Thor/KA in 2020 and who has recently joined Sweden's Damallsvenksan side Vajxo in 2021 (see:https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-exclusive-with-zaragoza-midfielder-gotta-caf-u17-world-cup-qualifiers-new-champion-in-zambia-4321504).
However, I was pleasantly surprised when watching the first game of the recent SheBelieves Cup in the U.S. involving Argentina and Brazil to see that Sophia Braun, a central midfielder at Gonzaga, was starting for La Albiceleste. Raised in Portland, Oregon, Braun (20) qualified to play Argentina as her mother is a native of the country and Sophia holds dual citizenship. She broke into the U-17 national team side after one of the AFA [Argentine Football Association] coaches saw her play while scouting in the U.S. and she went to a youth camp where she, "broke into the system." She played in the U-20 World Cup Qualifiers last March in Argentina, "It was when COVID hit so the tournament was suspended halfway through when I was down there. It was supposed to resume in January but was completely cancelled….We wouldn't have made it through anyway. [Argentina was undefeated in Group A but with one win over Ecuador and ties against Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia left her side third on 6 points (+1 Goal Differential) and out of the top two, who advanced to the Final Round, as Venezuela (10 points, +13 GD) and Colombia (7 points, +11 GD) advanced.] I outgrew the U-20's now so I can't play with them anymore."
Braun received her first two full international caps during the U.S. friendly spring tournament against first Brazil (4-1 loss) and then Canada (1-0 setback). She started against the Brazilians before being substituted for Kansas City NWSL recent signing Mariana Larroquette (who played a few games for Lyn of Norway last season after playing at home and in Chile) and as a substitute in injury time against the Maple Leafs.
Photo: Sophia Braun (#22) looks to clear against the University of Washington. Photo Courtesy Gonzaga University Athletics Media Relations
She explained that. "Carlos [Borrello—Argentina's full and U-20 national team coach] called and said that they were trying to play friendlies in Africa but instead [they were a late replacement for Japan in the SheBelieves Cup] I could play here since they were coming to the U.S." She missed a few practice with the team in Argentina but met them in Orlando. Only five players were able to come in from Spain for the games [technically because of COVID, clubs were able to not release players during the recent FIFA international window as they were friendlies] compared to eight based with clubs in Spain on the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup Finals side.
The Argentinian side was one of the true revelations of the 2019 Women's World Cup and their 3-3 last group match tie with Scotland—which knocked the U.K.'s WWC debutants out of a Round of 16 berth—with their 3 goals coming in the last 20 minutes, was one of the best games I have ever seen. Argentina's previous appearances at the 2003 Women's World Cup in the U.S. and the 2007 event in China (on both occasions I covered one or two matches live) were largely forgettable.
When asked about the different level and style of play between the full international side and playing at Gonzaga, Braun said that it was, "Super different; they say you increase levels of competition for soccer—the game gets faster and faster. I think the South American style is not as athletic and it is all technique. For me personally, I am more of a technical player so that fit well into my style. I definitely had to adjust [however]; they defend a lot differently than what I am used to. I played center back with the U-20's and center-mid in the SheBelieves—my usually position. It is more man-to-man [with Argentina]; they wanted you touching your defender at all points and I do more team defending, reading the play and adjusting in that way [at Gonzaga] and some of the movement is different. We have forwards slide over and mark both center backs [in college] but with Argentina they were having me step out and try to mark a center back. At Gonzaga we cover for each other and it was a different style."
When asked about playing professionally after her senior season this fall at GU, she said, "I do think I would first of all want to play somewhere in Europe. To have another experience of another playing style would be something super beneficial. I think I would fit in really well with their style there [targeting Spain]." South America is definitely an option too. Regarding the NWSL, she said, "I would for sure be interested in that. I know the draft is pretty small and I'm coming from Gonzaga, which is not a huge name for women's soccer program, but I would definitely be interested in playing here too."
Before pursuing a professional career, she still has a senior season to complete this fall and she is in the midst of her junior season, as most western U.S. conferences switched from a fall to a spring season for the 2020-21 academic year. She said, "I am super-exited. I think we have gotten so much better. Even this spring, we have been doing really well [GU has 5 wins and 2 losses this season with three games cancelled due to COVID or inclement weather in the abbreviated season]. Obviously [for] my senior year, we want to make the tournament—it's been a while since that happened—but I know we can and we are getting better and better each year." Note: Gonzaga has made the NCAA playoffs only once (in 2005) in 28 past seasons.
Since Chris Watkins took over as Bulldogs head coach in 2017 from BYU in Utah, his team has been building and finished with 12 wins in 2019 (tied for their all-time record). The 2021 fall season should be exciting and, with Gonzaga's improving reputation in a difficult West Coast Conference led by Santa Clara, BYU, the University of Portland and Pepperdine in suburban Los Angeles. NWSL sides and other international clubs will be looking more at Gonzaga players, particularly with Braun playing internationally while at the school; she is only the second full international from Gonzaga, with the first being Walker Loseno with Greece at the 2002 Greece Olympic Games, along with seven fellow Americans to boost the side in that event.
What's significant about Sophia Braun's recruitment and integration into the Argentinian national team program is that it has rarely happened with their diaspora in the past. Their goalkeeper, Gaby Garton—who leads the Australian Westfield W-League in shutouts with six in her first league season with Melbourne Victory [and did not make the long trip to the U.S. as Melbourne is in a tight playoff race]—is an exception, but after growing up in Florida and playing at the University of South Florida and Rice University in Texas, she went to Argentina to play club ball. With the focus on boosting their women's league at home and more players going abroad, recruiting selected talented diaspora—especially at the youth national team level—is an important growth strategy for the AFA. Braun said that for players like herself and Garton, "Our experience of the game is lacking in their playing style," and the coaching staff there have asked her about other players in America of Argentinian heritage. It's great to see Argentina building off of their 2019 Women's World Cup success and looking further afield for talent to continue their ascent in the women's game.
New UWS Southwest Division adds Two More Teams for 2021
The UWS Southwest Division is up to eight teams in its inaugural season for 2021. Williamson County FC (based in northern Austin) and the Lone Star Republic Women's team have both recently joined the league. Lone Star Republic was founded in the summer of 2020 (based in Richardson, Texas, in suburban Dallas) Lone Star Republic also fields multiple men's teams that have competed in the Dallas Soccer Alliance, NISA Independent Cup, U.S. Open Cup qualifying and the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL).
The two clubs join Texas based clubs: Bat Country FC (Austin), CTX Hornets (Kyle), FC Austin Elite, Dallas International FC, San Antonio Athenians and Side FC 92 (Tulsa, Oklahoma) in the UWS Southwest.
Fijian star forward Trina Davis signs with a professional side in Israel.
Trina Davis (19), who led Fiji to a best ever second place finish in the 2018 Oceania Women's Nations Cup, which also doubled as the 2019 France Women's World Cup qualifiers for the region. She scored five goals in five games while still a high schooler in Seattle, including two in a 6-1 semifinal upset of heavily favored Papua New Guinea. PNG have won five consecutive gold medals at the Pacific Games in women's football and had staged the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in 2016, a real positive for the women's game in the region. Davis recently joined Israeli power ASA Tel Aviv, which is affiliated with Tel Aviv University. Though she will be playing in Europe, she is still committed to playing for Fiji in internationals, "Fiji will always be my team and my home, I will always play and represent Fiji no matter where or what team I play for. Fiji is going to the World Cup 2023, mark my words. I am in contact with coach [Marika] Rodu and have assured him that I will be available for Fiji during the play-offs. Fiji is my first priority and I love to play for my country." Davis was raised in the Seattle area by a Fijian mother and had originally committed to Grambling University. She is thought to be the first Fijian to play professionally.
Trina Davis proudly wears her nation's flag at the Oceania Women's Nations Cup in New Caledonia in 2018. Photo Courtesy of Fiji Football Association
Women's Leagues begin in Fiji and Papua New Guinea
In other OCEANIA Women's Football news, Fiji is starting a new Women's Super League this year, the Digicel Women's Super League. Teams include Labasa, Ba, Nadroga, Suva, Tailevu Naitasiri and Rewa. The football federation is also holding a 12-team senior division as a second tier with one team relegated and promoted between the two leagues each year. The 12 teams in the Senior Division are: Nadi, Lautoka, Rakiraki, Tavua, Navua, Lami, Northland Tailevu, Nasinu, Dreketi, Nadogo, Seaqaqa and Savusavu.
Papua New Guinea's Women's National League had 14 teams divided into two conferences with eight in the Northern Conference and six in the Southern Conference. Poro FC and Sepik FC have advanced to the semifinals as the top two, respectively from the Northern Division, which also includes Bara FC, Tusbab Laidamon FC, Markham FC, Morobe Tulip FC, Rainy Lae FC and Pacific Gardens FC. In the Southern Conference, FC Genesis advanced as champions by one point from 10 games over NCD Hekari United FC, with POM City FC, NCD FC, Pom City Academy FC and Amoana FC finishing out of the playoff picture in 2020-21.
Soloman Islands selects 47 players for their national team camp from their local league
The Solomon Islands has selected 47 players for their women's national team training camp in Honaira, based on performances in this year's inaugural Solrais Women's Premier League. Most come from the top four teams in the league, namely RSIPF Royals, Koloale FC, Naha FC and Frigates United but players from four other sides are included: Solright FC, Renbel ibis, Marist FC and Haura. The Solrais Women's Premier League had 8 teams last year but plans to expand by two to ten total for the second season, to start this spring (2021).
Sylvester Meanu'u, Koloale FC
Sera Alpelofosia, Naha FC
Margaret Kolefa, RSIPF Royals
Corina Roatava, Frigates United FC
Kathy Aihunu, Koloale FC
Wendy Basi, Koloale FC
Cathy Foasimae, Naha FC
Carlrose Gwali, RSIPF Royals
Nain Siholi, Frigates United FC
Rose Kakabi, Frigates United FC
Lorina, Frigates United FC
Elsie Tuvina, Marist FC
Nancy Vave, Naha FC
Rose Biru, Koloale FC
Lisa Solo, Koloale FC
Jenelle Fakasori, Naha FC
Brenda Masae, RSIPF Royals
Claudia Votu, Haura FC
Delmay Wahaho, Solright FC
Mary Grace, Solright FC
Emelda Tehekeni, Koloale FC
Rashida Mekawir, Naha FC
Serahlyn Saeni, RSIPF Royals
Jacklyn Ikama, Naha FC
Madlyn Saukari, Solright FC
Alisha Donga, RSIPF Royals
Aisha Matanani, RSIPF Royals
Francina Mautai, RSIPF Royals
Mary Maefiti, Koloale FC
Sharon Gaote'e, Haura FC
Hilda Saukoni, Frigates United
Rose Paia, Haura FC
Betty Maenu'u, Marist
Crystal Annie Bakolo, Koloale FC
Agnes Noesi, Koloale FC
Almah Gogoni, Naha FC
Doreen Vaea, Frigates United
Merina Joe, Koloale FC
Elam Sagwe, Renbel ibis
Daphney Vaiyu, Frigates United
Mesalyn Saepio, Koloale FC
Ileen Pegi, Koloale FC
Layda Samani, RSIPF Royals
Joy Timo, Naha FC
Dealyn Kali, Naha FC
Heidi Eric, Haura FC
Sandra Wale, RSIPF Royals
Samoa has named former Wellington PhoenixA-League scoring icon Paul Ifill as their new women's national team coach. To followers of the A-League, Ifill is well known, having made more than 100 appearances for the Phoenix from 2009-2014, after playing in England. Ifill (41) has operated the Paul Ifill Football Academy as well as working with up-and-coming players on an individual basis. He also coaches the Wairarapa United FC women's team in New Zealand. Ifill hopes to run training camps for New Zealand-based Samoan players this year and will explore what travel options are available once border restrictions ease throughout the Pacific. The Samoan women's team are ranked 99th in the world and Ifill, a former Barbados international, said he wanted to make the most of his first appointment with a national team, "My main aim throughout my coaching career has always been to make everyone I work with better at what they do, whether it be the coaches, team managers or players. With the above in mind, I will work tirelessly to ensure that the Samoan women's national team have a clear philosophy and playing style. I'm looking forward to educating myself and my team in our understanding of the Samoan culture and how we can use this to our advantage."
Samoa, like other Pacific Island nations, will be priming themselves to capture a berth in the 2023 Women's World Cup Finals as Oceania will be one of ten teams competing for three play-in spots, now that New Zealand will qualify as a host.
Football Ferns Erin Nayler, Annalie Longo and Hannah Wilkinson celebrate New Zealand's co-host appointment for the 2023 Women's World Cup. Photo Credit: Phototek/Oceania Football Federation
Meanwhile, New Zealand Football have announced that Leon Birnie will continue to coach the women's national U-17 team during the next youth World Cup cycle for 2021-2022. Birnie was in charge of the Young Football Ferns for their historic bronze medal run at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Uruguay in 2018 and was set to guide them to the 2021 edition but it was cancelled due to COVID-19. Birnie said, "We're working with the federations, or clubs in each federation, to make sure ID processes are correct, and making sure I can get into the right environments to view players. I'm doing ID games across the country and in every federation so that'll be the first part of the ID process. The purpose of that is to identify a group to come into the second week of the school holidays for an ID camp." The top tournaments for the 2021/22 cycle are the OFC qualifiers and the 2022 edition of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, which FIFA will stage in India after the 2020 tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Other OCEANIA news
New Women's Football Development Officers were hired in the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa and the Solomon Islands.
Tahiti has set up a U-15 and senior women's competition on Moorea Island.
Kiribati and Tuvalu are two new Associate Members of the Oceania Football Confederation which both joined in 2020; we hope they start to develop women's football quickly.
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 yours copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey
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