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The Week in Women's Football: NWSL Challenge Cup; Iceland start 2020 season; Interview with Breidablik coach Halldorsson

This week, we have an important announcement concerning the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup that was due to start this weekend in Utah with 9 teams, as Orlando Pride has stepped out of it with a number of positive COVID-19 cases among players and staff. We also look in-depth at Iceland's top tier women's league which just started their 2020 season this month. We talk with Thorsteinn Halldorsson, the coach of Breidablik, on his side's fast start to the season and examine the albeit reduced number of imports—but still some key internationals with fascinating resumes—across the league in 2020.



Orlando Pride Withdraws from 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah.

On June 22, the Orlando Pride announced that it would withdraw from the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup tournament in Utah, due to a number of positive COVID-19 test results among their players and staff while they were still training in Florida. Even though all the individuals (6 players and 4 staff members) were asymptomatic, the club felt that it was in the best health and safety interest for the entire event that they withdraw. Orlando Pride Executive Vice President Amanda Duffy (formerly the league President and Director of League Operations) said, "This was obviously a difficult and disappointing outcome for our players, our staff and fans, however this is a decision that was made in order to protect the health of all involved in the Challenge Cup. While we were all excited to see the 2020 Pride on the field this weekend, our priority is now making sure our players and staff safely recover and providing any support wherever and however possible." The club had been training in Orlando and had not yet gone to Utah, while the western state itself has seen an increase in positive COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks as the American economy has opened up and more people have been active as the summer season started. The news that a few of the infected players had visited a packed bar in recent days (oh the power of social media) could renew fissures within a squad that on the best of days cannot be described as 'Happy Camp.' One hopes that the league and the Pride will resume league play after the Utah tournament is completed at the end of July.



Australia-New Zealand wins bid to host the 2023 Women's World Cup after Japan ends their bid a few days before.

On June 25, FIFA's Council selected Australia-New Zealand as the joint host of the 2023 Women's World Cup against the last remaining bidder Colombia from CONMEBOL, with a final vote tally of 22-13, with UEFA representatives supporting Colombia and CONMEBOL and CAF, CONCACAF backing the AFC and Oceania joint bid. Earlier in the week, on June 22, the Japan Football Association surprising made a late decision to withdraw their bid, which formally began in March 2019 at a time when there were 9 bidders from Asia, Africa and South America, including a unified Korean bid that never came into fruition. JFA Chairman Kozo Tashima said, "We've discussed this multiple times as a board this month ahead of today's decision. Everyone involved in the bid is very disappointed but they've all supported this decision. I hope everyone understands that we've made this decision for the benefit of women's soccer around the world, and that our fans will continue to support Nadeshiko Japan and the many women's club teams in the country….Because the Olympics and World Cup women's tournaments have the same teams (in contrast to the men's under-23 tournament at the Olympics), there was concern over whether hosting the women's tournament twice in two years would be perceived negatively….Withdrawing from consideration) will allow us to focus on our priority of making next year's Tokyo Olympics and the WE League a success. We want to continue focusing our efforts to promote grassroots women's soccer. We want to succeed next year at the Olympics, create a WE League that girls will want to join as players, and then win the World Cup again." We reported on the fully professional WE League, due to start next year, in last week's column: (https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-darwin-launch-all-indigenous-side-jordan-swaps-birmingham-for-ol-reign-canadian-hof-news-4330633).

It was a surprising move after FIFA had rated Australia-New Zealand's bid about even with Japan's, with the former scoring 4.1 to 3.9 for the 2011 Women's World Cup champion's federation bid. Japan proposed 8 stadia and their train system provides easy ground transport between venues to the Australia-New Zealand bid that will use 13 sites and require air travel between most cities. FIFA however wasn't pleased that Japan bucked from the proposed July-August period, proposing to host the tournament earlier in the summer when it is less humid. Colombia was far behind in FIFA's evaluation at 2.8. Earlier this year we evaluated the bids in this column and felt that Colombia's was a financial risk, yielding a small profit at best, and that was before the Coronavirus pandemic hit. Brazil had earlier stepped out of the running due to a lack of government and other guarantees to FIFA. We are a big fan of South America (having traveled extensively on the continent and opened a research office in Brazil) and hope that the continent will host the Cup in 2027 or 2031, but with women's soccer struggling in a very difficult economy for all sports leagues, Australia-New Zealand makes the most sense financially and—with both countries strong sporting culture—should be fantastic hosts and provide an overall boost for the women's game, so a heartfelt congratulations to them for their success. We will come back to this important award in our column in the weeks to come, as part of our regular coverage of the game in Australia and Oceania.



Iceland's Urvalsdeild kvenna starts the 2020 season with overall a limited impact from the Coronavirus pandemic

TribalFootball.com talked exclusively with Thorsteinn Halldorsson, the head coach of Iceland's top tier Urvalsdeild kvenna side Breidablik since 2014, who has led the side to two league titles and three runner-ups spots (including in the 2019 season) as the league's summer season started this month. The league has experienced relatively little impact from the Coronavirus compared with other leagues around the world, starting about a month later than last season, with some reduction in the number of imports (see below) but with a limited number of fans allowed. Breidablik's 2019-2020 Women's Champions League campaign last summer and fall was quite outstanding for the club from the town of Kopavogur (population 30,000), located just south of Reykjavik. Breidablik won their preliminary group that included host side SFK 2000 of Bosnia-Herzegovina, ASA Tel Aviv of Israel and Dragon 2014 of North Macedonia, winning all 3 games with an 18-2 goal advantage. They then shocked Czech Republic power Sparta Prague 4-2 on aggregate (winning 3-2 and 1-0) in the two leg Round of 32 tie, before falling to French mega-club Paris St. Germain 7-1 on aggregate in the Round of 16. The team has made a fast start to the 2020 season, with two consecutive wins. Breidablik defeated FH 3-0 at home on June 18 and then Selfoss away 2-0 on June 18. Note: Breidablik won their third game in a row on June 23 with a 6-0 thrashing of bottom side KR (0 points with a 1-12 Goals For/Goals Against record) to keep their consecutive game shutout streak going with three to open the season and remain top of the table with 9 points and a slight advantage in goal difference (+11 to +10) over 2019 champions Valur. Icelandic international Berglind Porvaldsdottir (28), who played at the last EUROS Finals in 2017, leads the team with 4 goals from 3 matches—she played with Milan for a short time this season until their league was shut down for the pandemic, after a spell with PSV in the Netherlands, Verona in Italy and previously was a star with Florida State University

When asked if his side's 2019-20 Women's Champions League campaign form carried over to contribute to Breidablik's strong start this summer, coach Halldorsson replied, "It is not because of that [WCL campaign]. The teams were very different, with 5 starters gone from last year." When asked about their two wins to start the season, he felt that the games were very different, with Breidablik dominating in the first game against FH but was not as fluent in the second match against Selfoss, which was more physical, "We scored early in both games, [in the win over Selfoss] we didn't create chances but we played well defensively."

Breidablik historically is not a large importer of talent form abroad. Halldorsson explained, "We get them from our youth [sides] as we are a big club. Talented young players want to play for us." The club's focus is to develop their own youth players who can advance to the top flight, as well as fielding other young Icelandic talent that join from other local clubs.

Iceland is one of the very few countries that has seen relatively little disruption to their league campaign planning from the Coronavirus pandemic. As of late June, Iceland had recorded only 1,806 COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths since it was first detected in the country in late February. Medical staff took the lead rather than politicians and an extensive testing program including contact-tracing of foreigners entering the country and natives returning from trips abroad, that was led by a police detective which culminated in a limited shutdown for the country of only 365,0000 people, with a smaller negative economic impact than in other Scandinavian countries. Fans will be allowed in the stadiums for men's and women's matches to start the season, with 200 people in each section of the ground at the start. Then restrictions will be eased, to allow more fans to attend. Halldorsson said that he wasn't yet sure of the full impact of the virus on other women's teams in the league but he did feel that there were fewer imports this year overall (A review of rosters in the top two leagues confirms this). Iceland has long been an entry point to Europe for young Americans, Canadians, Australians (see below) as well as imports from England, France, Germany and even as far away as New Zealand, Mexico and Tunisia. Some players use the country as a shop window for larger European sides (which also play longer seasons than Iceland's approximately 4 month regular season), with Norway and Sweden popular destinations after a year or two in Iceland. Some imports do stay on for longer stints in the country, such as Breidablik's former American defender Samantha Lofton (28), who played at the club in 2017 and 2018 and now is a soccer missionary for the Ambassadors out of Cleveland, and has traveled to Mexico, Peru and Rwanda for the organization. Lofton had a short stint with the Portland Thorns in 2016 and who made the roster of the now defunct Boston Breakers in 2015 but did not appear in any games after finishing her collegiate career at James Madison University. Breidablik has not had any imports in their side for the last two years, going with an all-Icelandic lineup. The Breidablik head coach felt that budget concerns were part of the reason for fewer imports this season coming to the league in this COVID-19 pandemic crisis season, while some imports may want to avoid traveling abroad during such a period of unknowns, as well as clubs wanting to give young players a chance, a trend which Breidablik is a proponent of and has certainly been successful with.

Another recent trend that Halldorsson has noticed is that, while U.S. colleges are still popular with young Icelandic players, with last year as many as 40 going abroad to school (though it is not easy for league coaches as the player misses the latter half of the season at home when they depart to join their American college for August pre-seasons), but Halldorsson said that more seemed to be coming from the second tier [1 Dield Kvenna] and that, "Premier League [Urvalsdeild kvenna] players now want to be professionals in Europe." This season in general he has seen more Icelandic players come home to play domestically with fewer opportunities abroad, a result of the uncertainly of club budgets and transfer window changes in some countries, with England, France and the Netherlands not completing their 2019-20 women's seasons. He felt that "the Coronavirus effect could impact European leagues next year as well."

Breidablik did not qualify for the 2020-21 Women's Champions League campaign as 2019 season runners-up—only one spot is available for Iceland—and 2019 league champions Valur (which pipped Breidablik to the title by only 2 points—50 points versus 48, with both clubs not experiencing a loss all season) will play in the 40 team Qualification Rounds, still scheduled for this year (which we will discuss in next week's column). Halldorsson said that Iceland should have 2 qualifiers in the 2021/22 season as the tournament expands (see our report late last year: https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-st-kitts-and-nevis-take-huge-leap-concacaf-olympic-qualifying-schedule-ucl-format-changes-4309080) but both sides will still need to go through the Qualification Group Stage as Breiedablik's strong WCL results last season were not enough to boost their points differential so that one team advances directly to the Round of 32, "They [Icelandic clubs] have to do very well over 3-5 seasons to get through [to avoid the initial round].

At the national team level, Iceland's women's national team is doing well in the EUROS, currently tied for the lead in Group F with Sweden on 9 points after 3 games, with Hungary, Slovakia and Latvia seemingly out of the running for one of the top two spots. The 9 Group Winners and 3 of the 9 second place teams with the best records advance directly to England 2022 and the other six second place teams will face play-offs against another Group's second place finisher. International matches were due to be played in March, April and early June, but are tentatively now set for September, October and November, though some if not all will likely bump into next year.

The Icelandic league has always been an interesting one to follow, even more so this year as it is a barometer of a fairly normal league season. Breidablik, with their very sharp coach and domestic-focused young squad, along with their fast start to the season, is a title contender (they have previously won the league crown 5 times this century in 2000, 2001, 2005 2015 and 2018 and 17 times in all dating back to 1977, along with one 1 Deild kvenna crown in 1988 and 12 FA Cup and 4 League cup triumphs) and we could see them in the Women's Champions League for the expanded edition in 2021-22. In 2006-2007 they made the quarterfinals of the then European Women's Cup (now Women's Champions League) but fell to eventual champions Arsenal 9-1 on aggregate.

Note: Less than a week after this interview with Thorsteinn Halldorsson, in subsequent communication on June 25, we learned that one of their Icelandic players returned from college in the States and tested positive for Coronavirus, so the team is now in quarantine for two weeks. We will follow the Icelandic league and Breidablik's unfortunate situation and see how league officials deal with the scheduling conundrum.


Imports around the League

Australian Laura Hughes (19) has made an immediate impression at Throttur Reykjavik, scoring once for her side as they opened their season with two straight defeats, losing to IBV away 4-3 to open the season on June 14 and then losing at home 2-1 to Valur four days later. They now have 1 point and are in 8th place after 3 games, just ahead of the two relegation spots, following a 2-2 away draw against Fylkir on June 23 (in third place with 7 points), as the latter dropped their first points of the 2020 campaign. Hughes, a midfielder, has played three seasons with Canberra United at home, winning the club's Rising Star award for the 2018/19 season. She wants to return to the W-League this winter, if the league launches this winter, as there have been some doubts with the economic problems clubs have faced with the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Hughes' fellow import at Throttur—Stephanie Ribeiro of Norway—is also in her first year in Iceland, having played at Avaldsnes in 2019—but did not see any action—and at Grand Bodo in 2018 where she scored 4 times in 10 matches. Already this season, Ribeiro has 3 goals to place joint second for the Golden Boot.

Note: Defender Jenna McCormick won a league title with Starjnan in her first stint abroad a few years back and became part of the Australian Women's National Team in late 2019, helping the team qualify for the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year.

The coach of Throttur is Nik Chamberlain from England, who went to school at Auburn University-Montgomery in the States, while their other import is 22-year-old American Mary Vignola, who played at the University of Tennessee and with the U.S. U-17 national team, scoring 9 goals and adding 5 assists in her senior season last fall. Throttur won the second division title last season, with 15 wins and 3 losses for 45 points, 6 ahead of FH who were also promoted to the top tier for 2020.

FH's (sitting 9th with 0 points) only two imports are American defender Taylor Sekyra (23), who was a four year impactful defender at the University of Washington, and her countrywoman Maddy Gonzalez (24), who played at the University of Santa Clara in California, in attack.

Three other teams started the 2020 Urvalsdeild kvenna season off with 6 points from their first two matches. Reigning Champions Valur (9 points and second on goal difference to Breidablik after 3 games) have gone with an all-domestic based roster, but with some well-known Icelandic internationals in 29-year-old defender Elisa Vidarsdottier, who played two seasons in Sweden with Kristianstad in 2014 and 2015, international defender Hallbera Gisladottir (33), who has had short spells in Italy with Sassari Torres in 2013/14 and in Sweden with Pitea in 2012 and 2013 and Djurgarden in Stockholm in 2017, and 33-year-old forward Margret Vidarsdottir, who played for many seasons at Kristianstad in Sweden and won a Frauen Bundesliga title in Germany with Turbine Potsdam in 2011-12.

Fylkir FC of Reykjavik (7 points after 3 games in third place) has Scotland import Amy Strath, who joined the side from Aberdeen (Second Division in Scotland) last summer and won the Cup last season with Fylkir—she played at Butler Community College in Kansas in the States, the University of Bridgeport and Newman University of Kansas. She told Aberdeen FC's website after her first season with Fylkir in 2019 on going professional from the American collegiate game, "The hardest part was that it was halfway through their season and my first game was three days after I arrived. It was a lot of pressure moving from playing college football to being professional. There was so much more to it than just playing football—the sponsors, interviews, the pressure to deliver was much greater. It was also a strict routine in terms of training and watching what you eat and how you live. I was playing in front of a couple of thousand people where I was used to playing on front of a couple of hundred in the States so that was a lot of extra pressure too."

Also in defense at Fylkir is Chloe Froment (24) of France, who finished as UEFA U-17 national team runner-up in 2011-12. She played on Olympique Lyon's youth side and at Long Beach State University in California. The club also has two Serbian imports in 37-year-old midfielder Vesna Smiljkovic, who is in her first year with the club but a played for years at Valur (winning the league title last summer) and IBV before that and has been in the league since 2008. A long-time national team member with Serbia, she is now a naturalized Icelandic citizen. Fellow Serbian Marija Radojicic (28) won a league title in Austria with Neulengbach and 3 at home, two with Masinac Nis and then one with Spartak Subotica in 2012/13. American Kyra Taylor is in her second season at the club, having played at University of California-Riverside and caught the eye of the coaching staff at a player combine in California sponsored by a local player's agent who has been active for years in matching players with clubs in Northern Europe.

The other undefeated club after two games in 2020 was Thor/KA Akureyri, which crashed to Valur 6-0 on June 24 away in their third match, which was an important match to sort out the top of the table, and now are joint fourth with 6 points. Thor/KA has goalkeeper Lauren-Amie Allen (24) of England, who played with second division Tindastoll last season, which finished as League Cup runners-up. Their other two imports are defender Gabriela Guillen (28) of Costa Rica, who played in the 2020 CONCACAF Olympic Games Finals and was on her country's U-17 World Cup side in 2008 in New Zealand and the 2010 U-20 WWC Germany team, as well as for their first ever senior World Cup in Canada in 2015, seeing playing time against Spain. Guillen played collegiately in the States with Creighton University in Nebraska and many seasons at home for Deportivo Saprissa. Also joining Thor this season is midfielder Madeline Gotta, who we profiled a few months ago, as the former Gonzaga University Bulldogs had started to play with second division Zaragoza in Spain but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut the league down in March. She then was out of contract and free to pursue other clubs. (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). Gotta went back to San Diego and finished her degree through online courses, as universities shut down in person classes in the States in March. She was interested in Iceland's league and was able to sign with Thor/KA. She did have to do a short quarantine period when she arrived in Iceland until her COVID-19 tests came back negative.

KR Reykjavik (0 points for tenth and bottom of the table) has defender Tijana Krstic of Serbia (25), who has been with the club for 3 seasons and won a Lithuanian League and Baltic Women's League title in 2017 with regional power Gintra-Universitetas to go with 3 Serbian league titles previously at home with Spartak Subotica. Ana Cate, who grew up in America but has been capped by Nicaragua, is another import who has stayed in Iceland for years, having first started playing in the league in 2014 but transferred this season to KR from HK/Vikingur (who were relegated last season), and played college soccer at Auburn University in Alabama.

Selfoss (joint 6th with 3 points) won the FA Cup last season and Super Cup this season and has 5 Americans, including two goalkeepers: Kaylan Marckese (22), a college draft choice of Sky Blue FC in 2019 from the University of Florida, and well-known ex-NWSL keeper Kelsey Wys, who is in her second season with the club after 4 seasons with the Washington Spirit, one with the Western New York Flash and one with the Newcastle Jets in the W-League. They also have a pair of American defenders in Cassie Boren, also in her second season with the club, and Alli Murphy (26)—both of whom were teammates at Texas Tech University; Murphy is also in her second season and played with PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands in 2018-19 and before that had one appearance in two seasons with the Houston Dash (2018) and Washington Spirit (2016). Tiffany McCarty (29) is another NWSL high-profile veteran who joins Selfoss after playing in the NWSL in six of its previous seven season, with the exception of a year with Medkila in Norway in 2017—she played two matches over the past two seasons with the Washington Spirit (2018 & 2019). The Florida State University alumni had 10 goals and 5 matches in the NWSL. Homfriou (Frida) Magnusdottir (35) still leads the front line for Selfoss in her second season, after four seasons in Norway with Avaldsnes (2013-16) and time in Sweden and Denmark and two seasons with the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS. Magnusdottir won over 100 full caps for Iceland's national team.

UMF Stjarnan (joint fourth with 6 points) has a Women's World Cup veteran import in 2011, 2015 2019 WWC New Zealand women's national team midfielder Betsy Hassett (29). Hassett has over 100 caps for her country and is in her first year with the club after three seasons with KF. The well-traveled Hassett has played in the Netherlands (Ajax), Germany (Werder Bremen and SC Sand), Norway (Amazon Grimstad), England (Manchester City in 2014) and at the University of California-Berkeley in the United States. English native Shameeka Fishley, who played with Sassuolo in Italy in 2018/19 and Verona in 2017/18, is in her second season with Stjarnan and already has 2 goals this season. She played at Davenport University in Michigan in the States and at the youth level for Chelsea and at both the youth and senior level for Huddersfield Town at home.

IB Vestmannaey IA (joint 6th with 3 points) is located on an archipelago off the southern coast of the country and once again is a heavy importer of talent from abroad. They have 3 Latvians in defender Eliza Spruntule (27), who won 5 titles in a row at home form 2014-2018 with Rigas FS, midfielders Karlina Miksone (20) and Olga Secova (27), the latter who won 3 titles with Riga from 2016-18. American Grace Hancock is a defender in her first season abroad, playing previously at Washington State University in Pullman. Midfielder Fatma Kara has one goal in two games this season after playing the last two seasons with HK/Vikingur. She was born in Germany but has played for Turkey in last year's EUROS qualifiers. Hanna Kallmaier of Germany (26) has played in the past with Kvarnsveden in Sweden's second tier and Bayern Munich's second team, also in the second tier, as well as collegiately for the University of Kansas, playing 72 games from 2012 through 2016. Two other American imports include Danielle Tolmais (25) at forward who played the last two seasons in the French top tier with Lille and ASJ Soyaux after starting at Saint Malo in League 2 in France, finishing runner up for the Coupe de France Feminine last season with Lille after playing at St Louis University. Tolmais has played for France at the U-23 (B) level as her father was born in France and she qualifies as a dual national. Miyah Watford (21) played collegiately at Murray State University in Kentucky, scoring 31 goals and 14 assists in 55 games. Watford, in her first game in the league against Throttur, scored 2 goals, with the first coming in the 6th minute. Fatma Kara scored the winning goal with a penalty kick in the 4-3 victory.



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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Tim Grainey

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