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The Week in Women's Football: Interview with Ukraine star Kozlova; Damallsvenskan shock; Spirit visit Qatar

This week, we interview Nicole Kozlova of the Ukrainian Women's National Team, which is awaiting their opponent in the final playoff stage among 6 second place finishers for the next Women's EURO Finals in England, which were moved to the summer of 2022 from this coming summer after the COVID-19 pandemic affected sports schedules globally.

We discussed with Kozlova her team's success in qualifying and her innovative approach to helping young talent in the Ukraine to play in American colleges on athletic scholarships. We also look at some NWSL news, including a contingent of Washington Spirit staff and executives traveling to Qatar last month, Kansas City signing an Argentinian international, two new Chicago Red Stars acquisitions from Sky Blue FC, and some news from the Swedish Damallsvenskan, with Steph Labbe leaving North Carolina for Sweden and the sad story of Goteborg switch transition from the high of winning the league title to being disowned and seemingly wound-up by their long-time sponsor in a matter of a few short weeks.

Nicole Kozlova of Ukraine Interview talked exclusive to midfielder Nicole Kozlova of the Ukrainian National Team, which pipped favored Republic of Ireland to finish second in Group I of Women's EURO qualifying last month, behind heavily favored Germany, which finished top of the group and advanced directly to the finals. We have discussed in past columns about the increasing improvement of club and national teams in Central and Eastern Europe in regional competitions and Ukraine's national team in 2020 has certainly fulfilled that promise.

Kozlova, a native of Toronto, has been part of Ukraine's national teams program for four years, first at the U-17 and U-20 level and since 2019 with the senior side. She is also a red shirt sophomore at Virginia Tech University at Blacksburg, Virginia. She talked about the qualifying campaign and said that, "There was a rough start with the draw, facing Germany twice to start and then Ireland away. A lot of people thought it was over [after a pair of 8-0 defeats to Germany in the spring of 2019 and a narrow 3-2 loss in Dublin in August of 2019 left them pointless with 5 games left]. We knew what had to be done [five straight wins]. We beat Montenegro [3-1 away in September 2020] and Greece was on the ball for most of the first half and we didn't put away our chances [winning on four second half goals 4-0 in September at home, with Kozlova scoring a brace] and then had the Ireland big game [on October 23 in Kyiv]. We knew it was going to be a battle for all 90 minutes and that would decide the group. We deserved it for all of our hard work [during the qualifiers]."

She felt that the team is receiving more attention and interest at home among the general population, "We received more attention and 100,000 streamed the [Ireland] game on YouTube live. We should have even more attention for the next stage." However women's football is starting from a small base of players in the country; Kozlova explained, "There are more girls playing in Toronto than in all of Ukraine—only 3,000-4,000 [are playing in the nation]." She said that things are improving for the women's game with the FIFA recommendation that men's professional teams should add women's teams, since the top men's teams are successful and well-supported in Ukraine.

Nicole Kozlova in action for Ukraine. Photo courtesy Nicole Kozlova/Ukraine Football Federation.

Kozlova said that most of her teammates play their club ball at home; while she is based in America, a few others are playing abroad as well. Defender Darya Kravets is in her second season in France with Reims and defender Lyubov Shmatko and midfielder Tamila Khimich of Ukraine have been playing with Minsk in Belarus since 2017. Midfielder pair Olga Ovdiychuk and Natiya Pantsulaya had a short spell with Atletico Madrid last season and have returned to Zhytlobud-1 Kharkiv at home. The most common transfer destination among Ukrainian international team members over the years has been to the Russian league, though Pantsulaya has played in Turkey with ALG Spor, where 22 year old midfielder Yana Derkach—who played for her country in EURO group games in 2019—is now.

Kozlova and her family are actively helping with the development of young players in Ukraine with a program that is ground-breaking and extraordinary, particularly when you consider that Kozlova is only 20-years-old. They have created a program to aid talented younger players, "to try to go to the U.S. for a NCAA athletic scholarship." Kozlova and her family facilitated that because, as she explained, "She wants to leave an impact." She further detailed the background of this program, which is one the most outstanding grassroots types of approaches that we have encountered; [we feel it is absolutely phenomenal], "Women's soccer in Ukraine is very stigmatized. A society there considers soccer as a men's sport and parents do not allow girls to play soccer. Sometimes they don't even know girl's soccer exists and can be played at a high level. Players themselves also do not see any future for them and many quit. Our objective was to break the stigma and show that Ukrainian girls could be successful in the NCAA. We have decided to choose one girl per year and help her with all the needed preparation such as English and Math tutors, SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test for College Admissions], IELTS [International English Language Testing System], portfolio creation and all communication." Her coach at Virginia Tech, coach Charles "Chugger" Adair (who played professionally in the U.S. for 10 years including with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, the U.S. national futsal team, A.A. Ghent in Belgium and various indoor soccer teams in the U.S.), agreed to send all the profiles to NCAA Division 1 universities.

In 2019, Kozlova started with a very talented player who received many offers from college coaches but did not have the academic background to pass the college exams. Kozlova explained, "In Ukraine, it is common for athletes to attend sports schools and then turn professional." In 2020, they were more successful: the U-17 national team captain—Yuliia Khrystiuk from Vinnytsia, Ukraine—is now at Old Dominion University in Virginia and another U-17 international—Nadia Ivanchenko—signed with Southeast Missouri State University. Kozlova noted, "For 2021 we might not be able to help anyone due to COVID. [There is] too much uncertainty at the NCAA [programs] and no U-17 competitions in Europe." She is optimistic for the future of this unique grassroots program however, "The hope is that, after we help out a few girls and families, it will become something younger girls in Ukraine [will] want to achieve and [they will] start learning English from a young age and taking their academics and soccer seriously, and hopefully grow the number of girls playing soccer from a young age." This is just a stellar idea and the program shows such great initiative and vision for this young international-caliber athlete. This is the type of thinking that we would love to see eventually running a national federation in the future. We simply say, "Keep it going Nicole!"

Nicole Kozlova preparing to cross the ball while on Ukrainian women's national team duty. Photo courtesy Nicole Kozlova/Ukraine Football Federation.

When asked about her own future football career, she said that she wants to play in Europe after college and specifically the UEFA Women's Champions League is a goal. She said that her dream leagues to play in would include: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and England and even Scandinavia. When asked about joining Ukraine's top women's league, she said that she would rather play in another country [at a higher level of competition].

Kozlova played only one game for Virginia Tech in their abbreviated 2020 Fall Season (13 games), appearing for 47 minutes in the November 10 ACC Tournament quarterfinal 1-0 defeat to traditional powerhouse the University of North Carolina, with the tournament held at Sahlen's Stadium in Cary, North Carolina (the home of the NWSL's North Carolina Courage). The Hokies finished with a 5-0-8 (W-D-L) record in 2020. She stayed in Ukraine for much of the fall and trained there, particularly ahead of her country's last two Women's EURO qualifiers, because otherwise she would have had to do fourteen day quarantine if she returned to Virginia ahead of the crucial last match against Montenegro, (a 2-1 win) on December 1.

Ukraine is a country that is reliant on a largely home-grown core group of players so it is extraordinary that their diaspora player from Canada is making a huge impact on the youth national team members, creating college scholarship opportunities for them to not only help them grow individually with an education and experience abroad but also on the football side as well. We will follow Ukraine's progress in the knock-out stage for a Women's EURO Finals spot this spring. The draw for the playoffs is currently scheduled to take place on March 5, with the games slotted for April, 2021.


Washington Spirit delegation visits Qatar in December

As part of a cultural exchange, a delegation from the Washington Spirit traveled to Qatar on December 12, 2020 for a one-week stay. The club participated in a variety of events that are a part of the U.S.-Qatar Year of Culture. This trip built on the relationship the Spirit started earlier in 2020 when staff and players—including Paige Nielsen, Tori Huster and Dorian Bailey—participated in the Qatar National Day of Sport event held on February 7th at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C. In order to ensure optimal safety of all travelers, the delegation underwent COVID-19 testing prior to, during and upon return from the trip.

Spirit Managing Partner Steve Baldwin talked about the rationale for the excursion, "During the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet numerous people that I wouldn't have met without my association with the Spirit. One of those people is Qatar Ambassador, His Excellency Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani. One of the things Ambassador Al Thani and I have discussed repeatedly is the power of sport to bring people together. The Ambassador invited a Spirit delegation to visit Qatar where we will learn about their country, [the] culture, as well as work with the Qatar Women's National Soccer Team and young girls in Doha. We are also excited to get an exclusive look at the 2022 World Cup preparations. We are honored to represent our country and sport during this trip and are grateful for the invitation extended by His Excellency."

The Spirit delegation included five players: Tori Huster, Aubrey Bledsoe, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab and Dorian Bailey as well as Nicole Hawkins (Chief Communications Officer) along with Baldwin. On their second day they met with the Qatar Foundation which was located near Education City. Within Education City are branches of U.S. Universities including Northwestern University, Texas A&M University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgetown University and Carnegie-Mellon University. Baldwin authored blog posts during the trip, saying that on day 2, "Among the things we learned was that 60% of the graduates of these schools [at Education City] in Doha are women." Later that day the players conducted two clinics for girls ranging from 7-14 years old from the foundation and then held a 40 minute training session with the Qatar women's national team.

Greetings from Doha – Days 3 and 4

Washington Spirit players before their 5 v 5 exhibition game, including members of the Qatar Women's National Team. Photo Courtesy Washington Spirit.

On one of their last days before they left, the group members received individual 4 wheel dune buggies to drive the sand dunes outside of Doha, visited the Souq Waqif for a meal and shopping and then had dinner with the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Greta Holtz, members of her team and Qatar Football Association General Secretary Mansoor Al-Ansari.

These sort of exchanges are very important for the growth of the women's game globally and shows young females and their parents in particular that women's football is a viable past-time in countries where there has been social apathy and even disdain for the sport, particularly in Africa and West Asia. We would like to see more NWSL teams do these sorts of exchanges to countries in other regions as well, including Africa but also countries in East Asia and Oceania, where the women's game is still struggling for support. These efforts also position the NWSL as a global leader in the sport, along with the growing profile of the FA WSL in England and Spain's Primera Division Femenina.

Kansas City signs Argentinian international Mariana Larroquette

Argentinian international forward Mariana Larroquette signed with Kansas City of the NWSL (stepping in for the Utah Royals franchise for 2021) on a two year contract. She is the second Argentinian in the league after Estefania Banini, who played with the Washington Spirit from 2015-18, and currently is in her third season with Levante in Spain, with the club currently in fifth place in the Spanish league with 25 points after 12 games and only 5 points behind leaders Barcelona (30 points from 10 games). Larroquette has played most recently in Norway with Lyn, making three appearances for the club in 2020, which finished in sixth place in the 10 team league with a 6-3-9 (W-D-L) record for 21 points. Her career began with River Plate, where she remained from 2010-15. She then joined Universidad de Chile from 2016-17, before returning home to Argentina to play for UAI Urquiza from 2017-20. Larroquette has scored eight goals in 16 appearances for Argentina. She was part of the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup team. She scored three times during last year's Pan American Games competition, where Argentina took the silver medal behind Colombia and ahead of Costa Rica. Larroquette was also part of the U-20 Women's World Cup teams for Argentina in 2008 and 2012.

Chicago Red Stars acquire two Americans—one a Women's World Cup winner and the other a U-20 Women's World Cup winner

Chicago Red Stars on December 29, 2020 acquired forward Mallory Pugh and midfielder Sarah Killion Woldmoe from Sky Blue FC, in exchange for the fourth and eighth overall selections in the 2021 NWSL Draft, a conditional first round pick in the 2022 NWSL Draft and an international slot for 2021 and 2022. At 22 years old, Pugh has made 63 senior appearances for the United States Women's National Team, with 13 goals and 17 assists for her country. She made her National Team debut at 17 years old in January of 2016 and became the youngest player to score for the U.S. in the Olympics a few months later. Pugh was also selected to the roster for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. She made three appearances and scored a goal in route to her first World Cup trophy. She only played in one game for Sky Blue FC in 2020 due to injuries; she joined the team in January of 2020 after a trade from her original NWSL team, the Washington Spirit.

Woldmoe was selected second overall by Sky Blue FC in the 2015 NWSL Draft. She has made 116 NWSL appearances and has 11 goals and nine assists in her career. She played all six games for Sky Blue FC in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup (where Sky Blue lost to Chicago 3-2 in the semifinals) and played all four games during the NWSL Fall Series. She was a member of the U.S U-20 World Cup team that won the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan, along with Chicago teammates Julie Ertz, Morgan (Brian) Gautrat, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Kealia (Ohai) Watt. She has had a few national team camp invitations but has yet to make her debut—that could change playing with a more competitive Red Star side than for Sky Blue that had not made the playoffs in her career until reaching the semifinals in this summer's Challenge Cup.

Canadian international goalkeeper Steph Labbe signs with Swedish Damallsvenskan powerhouse Rosengard

Canadian international goalkeeper Steph Labbe (34), who played the last two seasons with the North Carolina Courage and helped the club win the 2019 league championship, has moved the other way to Larroquette, going to Scandinavia from the NWSL to join Rosengard of Sweden. She came into the side as a backup but largely started for the Courage, pushing 2018 starter Katelyn Rowland to the sidelines, with Rowland playing only 6 regular season games to Labbe's 16 (with 8 shutouts) in 2019. During the 2019 season, she had a 76% save success rate. Labbé started four matches during the shortened 2020 season for North Carolina with 2 shutouts. Courage Head Coach Paul Riley said upon revealing Labbe's move abroad: "Stephanie was brilliant for the club and brought us some fantastic success. She is an incredible goalkeeper, professional, and person who gave our club everything she had day-in and day-out. It's been awesome to share this journey with her and I look forward to seeing her garner more success at her new home. She is one of the best and it's a privilege to have been a part of her career. She is special." Interestingly, Labbe is not the first Canadian national team goalkeeper to play with Rosengard as Erin McLeod had a two year stint with the club in 2016 and 2017. McLeod's first season was marred by an early season ACL tear but she started in 13 games in 2017 for the runner-up side in the league.
Labbe also played in the NWSL for the Washington Spirit in 2016 and 2017. She has extensive experience in Sweden, playing with Pitea in 2009 through 2011, with Orebro from 2021-2014 and Linkopings for part of the 2018 season, after a short summer season with the Calgary Foothills at home in the UWS. She played collegiately at the University of Connecticut.

2020 Swedish Damallsvenskan Champions Kopparbergs/Goteborg is Being Withdrawn from the League

In other news from Sweden, many were stunned by the news on December 29 that 2020 Damallsvenskan champions Kopparbergs/Goteborg was folding its independent women's team, leaving the country's second most populated city and the home to Volvo Car and Truck operations without a top tier women's team. Ironically, the city is due to host the UEFA Women's Champions League Final this spring. Kopparbergs, a local brewery, first invested in the previously struggling Gothenburg team in 2003. Always a team that featured World Class stars—including former Swedish international Lotta Schelin, American goalkeeper Hope Solo and others—they have built up their side until in 2019 they finished second in the league and then just weeks ago won the 2020 championship for the first time ever by a healthy 7 points over traditional power Rosengard from a 17-3-2 (W-D-L) record for 54 points. Kopparbergs has yanked its funding for the senior side but will keep alive their junior sides up to the U-19 level.

Kopparbergs chairman Peter Bronsman told the afternoon paper Goteborgs-Posten that it was a financial decision—understandable during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has been so devastating to sports leagues around the world—but there was more to the decision. There have been a few warning signs in the past few years as the club tried to merge with local men's side IFK Goteborg, who have since started their own women's team. Bronsman hopes that other local men's professional sides in the Gothenburg region—including Hacken, Ois and Gais—will eventually take their Damallsvenskan place after future promotions from local leagues—but don't expect that any time soon as none of the four competed in the top two women's leagues in 2020. Hacken is probably the most successful playing in Division 2 (fourth tier) this season and IFK started in Division 4 (the sixth tier) but has moved up to Division 3. Brosman said, "Now that the other men's teams in Gothenburg are opening up activities for the girls as well, we think they should take the baton." Brosman then focused on how difficult it was to be a top side in Europe, which seemed to be more of the motivator for him to make this unfortunate decision, "Of course, the men's Swedish teams will keep up with the trend that is going on in Europe. A women's team will not have a chance otherwise." [Goteborg fell in the Round of 32 last month in the Women's Champions League to Manchester City 5-1 in the two leg tie but played well and even led the first match at home, which finished 2-1 to City. In 2019, they lost at the same stage to German powerhouse Bayern Munich 2-2 on away goals.] The decision reportedly was made the day after the second leg loss to Manchester City on December 16.

Brosman continued with his convoluted reasoning, "You should know what is happening. The outside world does not stand still. When Lyon called Lotta Schelin [she signed with Olympique Lyon in the summer of 2008] we did not even know they had a women's team; a few years later they were the best in the world and became a power factor. The teams we have met in the Champions League now did not exist then. We were very early…We have seen what it looks like in Europe. In Bayern Munich and in Manchester City, what facilities they have, what training opportunities they give their players and how fast it goes. A few years ago we beat Manchester City 8-0, now they have run past us. They have done so terribly well…I feel that I have made a decision that is sad for the moment, but just the right decision to develop women's football. We [have] become redundant. It's sad, but true. What will happen to women's football in Gothenburg in the short term? They probably go down a little…They play in Division 3 and Division 2 [which is not the case at the current time as we have shown above]…We could have waited….but then I think we [then] lose to international clubs and had a hard time against the best teams….This will be the best in the long run. My assessment is that it takes between ten and 15 percent of a men's club's turnover to win Swedish Championship gold in the women's Swedish league." Just for clarification, there are women's clubs in the top tier in Sweden that are spending a fraction of Brosman's 10%-15% target for women's football spending and surviving in the league, according to a Swedish media member who covers the women's league closely. Men's Allsvenskan (Sweden's top tier) teams typically have budgets between US$14 Million and US$20 Million a year. Rosengard is estimated to spend about US$2 Million a year but teams that are mid-table in the Damallsvenskan can compete well on US$1 Million a year, and other clubs like 2020 fifth place village side Vittsjo and Pitea IF—who won the league title in 2018—spend far less than $1 Million, drawing Brosman's math into question.

There seems to be a lot of ego involved in Brosman's decision, as if winning a European Champions League title was the only goal that was important. It is also quite bizarre that Brosman felt that, after the club finally captured the Damallsvenskan title for the first time, that this was the best time to yank his funding. It is a detriment to Goteborg right now but it's best long-term that women's football is done with this type of owner, who doesn't see a long term benefit in growing the game in Sweden and just seems to want continental-wide titles and recognition.

This story is also quite personal to this writer—for almost two decades I traveled to Goteborg at least twice a year on business with Saab and Volvo Cars and would often catch a women's match in the city, sometimes in a small stadium in the middle of a public park. One evening I was playing football on the community fields' downtown in the city when the club came to train on the same plastic pitch, led by former Swedish international forward Lotta Schelin, after they faced Malmo (now Rosengard) the night before—which I also covered in the large Ullevi stadium in the city. I interviewed some of the players and staff on both days. If the team does survive (see below) that is excellent but either way the league will continue to survive. I talk to many players around the world who want to play in England, Spain, Germany and France but Sweden is not top of mind initially for them but it should be. The Damallsvenskan is stable, high quality and oftentimes a launching pad to players to go to other leagues. Also, the league has produced four different champions in the last four years and the competition level for the top six-seven teams is as good as anywhere else in the continent. The league will survive this terrible decision but it is always much stronger to have a team in Goteborg.—whether the current franchise or a new one.

2019 Women's World Cup winner Emily Sonnett spent the latter half of the 2020 season with Goteborg on loan. She told Equalizer Soccer on December 30, after the Spirit had announced her acquisition from the Orlando Pride—who she did not play with in 2020 after an earlier trade from the Portland Thorns in January of 2020, "I'm sad that I'm hearing this. I don't think you want to see any organization, especially in the top flight, share that kind of news. You want women's football to continue to grow. I'm saddened to hear that coming off the championship season. Thinking of the girls and the club, hopefully something gets figured out." It would be nice but with the Damallsvenskan starting in the spring, it initially looked unlikely that the team could be saved [a franchise moving to the city is common in Mexico and the U.S. but is quite unfamiliar in a country in which the clubs are built on youth development] and the players seemed headed towards dispersal to other clubs.

We looked at Gothenburg's international players last week in our 2020/21 Women's Champions League Round of 32 review (see: The Week in Women's Football: Bidding for World Cup; Champions League round-up - Tribal Football). Current Swedish internationals who would be free to move on include Pauline Hammarlund (26), who last month was named to The Guardian's Top 100 List of Women Footballers in the World for 2020, and had 12 goals to finish second in the league in goal scoring to fellow Swedish international Anna Anvegard (23), who played with league runner's up Rosengard and won the league title in her first season with the Malmo-based club in 2019 along with an Elitettan title with Vaxjo in 2017. Hammerlund added five assists in her fifth season with the club and the 2020 title was her second in Sweden, after winning the 2012 crown with Tyreso as well as the UEFA U-19 European Championship in 2011-12 with Sweden. In Göteborg's final game of the season, Hammerlund scored once and set up three other goals in an emphatic 7-0 win over fourth place side Linköping. Swedish international forward Stina Blackstenius (8 goals in 19 games), who featured in the 2019 WWC in France and transferred to Goteborg from Linkoping this season after 3 years in Montpellier, could move abroad again with the folding of the club. Swedish international defender Elin Rubensson (27) has been with Goteborg since 2015, after a move from Rosengard, and will also be in strong demand by other sides.

On December 31, the Guardian reported that the Goteborg team is likely to be saved with new investment and, at this point, plan to remain in the Damallsvenskan to defend their title—Happy New Year to that. As we went to press, after talking to key sources in Sweden, it appears that Goteborg will play in the top tier in 2021 without Brosman involved, though the situation is still confusing and in flux. Now it will be a damage assessment of how many players will remain from the championship team—with Natalia Kuikka of Finland transferring to the Portland Thorns and Sonnett returning to NWSL from her loan spell— with others likely to follow. Results on the field in 2021 will ultimately tell just how much Brosman's short-sighted decision has affected the team moving ahead. Certainly, this was not the offseason that Goteborg expected after winning the title. We will keep the reader informed of what happens in the months to come with this story.

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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