This week we present some personal reflections of the highlights of 2019 for women's football, a year in which the Women's World Cup in France was such an artistic success on the field and equally successful in terms of stadium attendance and television ratings around the globe, that FIFA quickly decided to expand the 2023 Women's World Cup to 32 teams, up from 24—a result that many thought wouldn't happen until the 2031 at least. We also interview a Greek National Team member who is playing at the University of South Alabama for two years while she obtains a Master's degree. We also look at Canada, including the roster for a U-20 national team camp and some end of year player awards for Canadian national team members.
Top 9 Memories of 2019 For Women's Football
Best game of the year—Scotland versus Argentina in Paris in the 2019 WWC Group Stage
Argentina, despite not ultimately advancing to the Round of 16, was one of the star attractions of the 2019 WWC First Round, finishing with two points and three goals scored with four allowed (they scored more goals in their final match against Scotland than they did in their six games in the 2003 and 2007 finals, when combined they scored two goals and surrendered 33), beginning their tournament with an excellent draw again Asian power Japan 0-0 in their opener. Though they did allow three goals to Scotland in their last game, their fightback to tie the game in the last 16 minutes—with the tying goal and excellent wing play throughout the match from their Spanish-based forward Maria Bonsegundo (Valencia after a year at Sporting de Huelva) a particular highlight—was superb. Everyone in the press box felt cheated when the referee Ok-Ri-Hyang of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea didn't add on approximately 5 minutes for time spent with VAR on some disputed plays. Scotland ultimately fell short of advancing on goal difference in their first ever Women's World Cup appearance.
Sam Kerr's departure from the Chicago Red Stars and indeed the NWSL at the end of the 2019 season, where she played in all seven seasons and many of us watched her mature into the World Class talent that she is, is a huge benefit for the English Super League, which despite attracting a number of European stars—including many from current European champions Netherlands—some still consider the league a step below Germany and Sweden in caliber. That perception should no longer be the case, as Sam Kerr's move is a huge endorsement for the FA Women's Super League, as Kerr could have joined any big club on the continent. The major unknown at this point is will Ker's defection from America entice other NWSL players—particularly American World Cup stars in France such as Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, Tobin Heath and others—to go abroad on a more permanent deal particularly after the 2020 Olympic Games, rather than the recent half season or full season contacts that Alex Morgan (Lyon in 2017), Carli Lloyd (Manchester City in 2017) Crystal Dunn (Chelsea in 2017-18) and Heather O'Reilly (Arsenal in 2017-18) have inked.
Damallsvenskan Swedish National Team Written Off Too Early
I have closely followed, reported on and seen live games in the Swedish Damallsvenskan league for over two decades but of late there seems to be no end to the refrain that the league is slipping in importance behind big spending England and Spain, as well as the tendency of clubs in these countries as well as France and Germany to pick off the top talent. By extension, Sweden's national team has been written off in tournaments, which seems odd in that they won Olympic Games Silver in 2016 and Bronze at the 2019 WWC. The latter result and an exciting league season in 2019, with tiny and largely unknown Vittsjo finishing third with a tremendous defense including Canadian international Sabrina D'Angelo in goal while surrendering a league low 13 goals in 22 games, behind Champions Rosengard and Goteborg. The league had 8 teams in the race for the top two spots most of the season. I think it is clear now—do not overlook Sweden at the Tokyo Olympics and Damallsvenskan clubs still are excellent developers of Swedish talent mixed with solid imports, including national team players from other countries.
Former Women Players Charting A New Career in Broadcasting
With the 2019 Women's World Cup and more leagues covering women's football games, we have seen the emergence of more young talent on broadcasts, particularly in the all-important analytical and interviewing roles. This group has included Georgia Yeoman-Dale in Australia, Jessica Houara in France and American Heather O'Reilly—who will probably combine announcing with her job as assistant coach at her alma mater of the University of North Carolina. They and others like them have all successfully made the switch from professional league and international football careers into the broadcast booth, bringing new and insightful talent to announcing and can talk intelligently about the game in an energetic way to a growing audience for the women's game. We hope this trend continues unabated.
Vltako Andonovski—New U.S. Women's National Team Head Coach is an American Dream Story
Vlatko Andonovski came to the U.S. from what is now North Macedonia to continue his professional soccer career in indoor soccer. He was a surprise selection to lead FC Kansas City in the inaugural season of the NWSL in 2013. He told ESPN recently, "I'm not arrogant by any means and I know that when I came in the league I was nobody. I know that every coach in the league was way ahead of me. I knew that I had to do a lot of work to catch up and be able to mesh with the product on the field." Seven years later, two league championships and five playoff berths with FC KC and the Tacoma/Seattle Reign have propelled him to the top coaching spot in U.S. women's soccer, replacing Jill Ellis, who retired after winning her second consecutive WWC title in 2019. Andonovski has discussed the opportunities America has provided him, "When I look back, I could not believe that was going to happen [being named the American women's national team head coach], when I came to the country [at age 24], first of all, it was for me to enjoy the game and play the game that I love. I never even thought about being a coach. But once I started coaching in the back of my mind, I thought about it all the time." He will bring a fresh perspective and new ideas on players, particularly those playing in the NWSL. His appointment validated U.S. Soccer's decision in 2013 to start the league (at a cost of at least US$10 Million) to develop American talent—and clearly not just on the playing field.
Western Sydney Wanderers Turnaround in Season 8
The Western Sydney Wanderers have been the story of the 2019/20 W-League season so far, still undefeated after 6 games (5 wins and a draw) and were joint top the league table with Melbourne City at the halfway point of the season. After winning the wooden spoon last season with only four points, new head coach Dean Heffernan has WSW well on their way to their first ever playoff spot with a trio of imports from the North Carolina Courage, including U.S. internationals forward Kristen Hamilton (second in the league with 5 goals) and Lynn Williams (4 goals). Heffernan also shored up his defense with Abby Smith in goal from the Utah Royals and Sam Stabb from the Washington Spirit—both on their first contracts in Australia. Smith was a late signing by WSW and did not play any games this season for Utah but was in goal for 17 games in 2018.In addition, Republic of Ireland international Denise O'Sullivan (North Carolina Courage) joined in a limited guest player role to bring the number of Courage players to three. Seventeen-year-old Australian youth international Kyra Cooney-Cross has 4 goals, including 2 long range strikes worthy of goal of the year status. It will quite an interesting second half of the season with 3 of the current top 4 sides—Melbourne City, Canberra United (joint fourth with Brisbane Roar) and the Wanderers—having missed the playoffs last season, while Champions Sydney FC were blasted by the Wanderers 5-0 a few weeks back.
North Carolina Courage Is Supreme in NWSL for Second Consecutive Season
In the NWSL Championship Final on October 27, the Courage defeated the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 by building up an insurmountable 3-0 first half. The game attracted a facility record crowd of 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. In 2019, the Courage lost four more games and finished with 8 fewer points than last season, along with losing the final of the Women's International Champions Cup tournament to Lyon this summer—whereas they won the title in the event's first season in 2018—but the team still is one of the top club sides in the world. A trio of Courage players has gone to Australia—two of them for the first time in Kristen Hamilton and Lynn Williams (see above) and in six games have set a club record for points in a season, turning the Wanderers around. We hope that FIFA quickly launches a women's club World Cup to measure the top sides in each region against each other rather than in a quasi-friendly tournament.
NWSL Solidifies ahead of Year 8
Portland Thorns became the first women's club to exceed 20,000 in average attendance across a season—still an astounding achievement. Olympique Lyon Group is purchasing the Reign and Louisville FC (a USL Championship second division side—is joining the NWSL in 2021—with other expansion possibilities in Atlanta and Sacramento. The league's biggest problem over the past couple of seasons, Sky Blue FC is cleaning up its organizational problems and moving to Red Bull Stadium in suburban New Jersey, an easy commute from New York City. An increased salary cap and the ability to pay more to top players shows the league is stable and focused on growth and development, rather than on survival as it was through its first four to five seasons. The league will change in the future, but we are optimistic that most will be for the positive.
U.S. and Netherlands are the Top Teams in the World
The U.S. Women's National Team won their second Women's World Cup in a row in 2019 and looked very strong throughout the tournament. The Netherlands lost in the final 2-1 but appeared in their second consecutive major tournament final, after winning the 2017 European Championship at home. The Netherlands—with so many of their players with clubs throughout Europe as their domestic league is improving but is still probably 9th or 10th best in Europe—have supplanted Germany, France, England, Norway and Sweden as the most dangerous national side in Europe and will try to keep that momentum going for the 2021 EUROS in England and 2023 World Cup, at a site still to be determined.
Greek International Plays Football While Going to Graduate School at the University of South Alabama Before Turning Professional
Athanasia Moraitou is a 22-year-old midfielder from Germany who is playing at the University of South Alabama; she tallied 1 goal and 6 assists in 17 games for the Jaguars who finished the season 16-2-4 (W-T-D) and lost in the first round of the NCAA 64 team playoffs to 2018 defending champions Florida State University (2-0). Moraitou played in her native Germany with Sindelfingen (67 appearances and 14 goals) in the first and second tier and Cloppenburg in the second division of the FrauenBundesliga (31 appearances with 1 goal). She will play a second and final season at South Alabama in 2020, finishing a Master's degree in Public Administration in a year and a half. Moraitou is also well established in the Greek national team program, playing for the U-17's, U-19's and, since 2015, 15 matches with the full national team, including all 3 matches thus far in the UEFA 2021 European Championships Qualifiers.
Greece currently sits third (4 points in 3 games) in their difficult EURO Group I, with Germany in first and undefeated with 12 points in 4 games, followed by Ireland (7 points in 3 games) and Ukraine and Montenegro are tied at the bottom with 0 points after 3 games each.
Moraitou explained that at the start of the EUROs campaign, "Our goal was to finish in third place—we have to be realistic. But after the tie we played against Ireland [1-1, with a last minute equalizer in Athens on November 12], we thought we could get more and get into the EUROS [Finals]. We will try to do our best to achieve our goals. You never know. Maybe it works." That tie was one of the shocks of the last round of EURO matches and through a spanner into the works of the Irish, who hoped to cruise to a second place spot behind Germany and avoid playoffs for the last two spots for second place clubs.
The fact that Greece is able to be so competitive and raise their objectives is very impressive, particularly since the nation's football federation essentially disbanded their women's program for almost two years—doing untold damage to the development of the game—after the 2004 Olympic Games that they hosted. They had recruited almost half of the Olympic roster from their American diaspora—most were still in college—in order to avoid being embarrassed. That they did is the general perception, losing 7-0 to eventual finalists Brazil, 3-0 to the eventual champions U.S. and 1-0 to Australia.
When asked about the improving Greek national team program and the support from their football federation, Moraitou indicated that there has been movement forward but that there is still a long ways to go to catch up with the top nations in Europe and abroad, "It could be more and better [efforts for women's football]. The structure and organization is a little bit missing and it is hard to have a good championship there and many girls try to go to Europe to play somewhere else, which is good for the national team. They don't give too much attention to women's soccer in Greece….It is better than 5 years ago but not perfect. It needs…more people watching and better advertisement." She was encouraged that the national team match versus the Republic of Ireland was "the first time you could watch women's football on TV." Those who tuned in saw an exciting game with the late heroics and hopefully will inspire more broadcasts and increased audience attention.
After her last season of college eligibility in the fall of 2020 at South Alabama, Moraitou wants to play professionally, explaining that, "I want to continue and play pro if I can get the chance. I don't know where; if I get the chance to play here in the States than I will play here too. If it is in Europe, that's fine too. Besides Germany, I would think to go to Spain, Italy or England." She has teammates from the full national team playing in England and Italy. Forward Veatriki Sarri (21) has three goals this campaign for her country and plays with Sheffield United in England, who are currently second in the Women's Championship with 28 points, three points behind Aston Villa in the race for the lone promotion spot to the FA Super League. Sophia Koggouli plays in Italy with Tavagnacco, who currently sit in 11th place in one of the two relegation spots with only 5 points from 10 games. She previously spent time with Fiorentina and Verona; so far this season Koggouli has 2 goals in 5 games—including her side's only goal in their October 12th 2-1 defeat on the road to second place Fiorentina (22 points).
Off the current Greek team, most play for three time reigning champion PAOK, while three play with Apollon of Cyprus: defender/midfielder Kyriaki Kynossidou (31) as does midfielder Danai-Eleni Sidira (28) and forward Eleni Markou (24), who has 3 goals in this EURO campaign. PAOK currently leads the Panelinio Protathlima domestic league, with 27 points after 9 games and 5 points ahead of Aris.
Moraitou is an example of a top international player who is leveraging college soccer in America to receive an advanced degree (having completed her undergraduate work in Germany) while still actively engaged in her international team's European Championship qualification run. Many players from abroad come to the States to play four years as an undergraduate. She is showing a different path to success in her soccer and business career and it will be interesting to track if other internationals do the same in the future. Programs like South Alabama—who rely on imports to supplement their sparse local talent in an area that is not traditionally seen as a strong base for youth soccer—has ten of 28 roster players from abroad in 2019, including England, Germany, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and Switzerland. Their coach is Richard Moodie from Stenhousemuir in Scotland. He attended Carson-Newman College in the U.S. where he later coached the men's and women's sides and also played with the Columbus Crew in MLS. Even though a graduate student might only have a year or two of college eligibility, Moraitou's recruitment has clearly been a benefit to the player's academic career, her international sojourn with Greece and her coach and teammates.
Canada Soccer Uses a Heavy Base of U.S.-based College Players for a Recent U-20 CONCACAF Women's World Cup Qualification Camp
Canada Soccer held a Women's National U-20 Excel camp in Burnaby, British Columbia from December 13-18 last month. The five-day camp was a key part of Canada's preparations for the CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship in early 2020. The 2020 CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship will take place from February 22 through March 2 in the Dominican Republic. From the competition, the top-three teams will qualify for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in 2020 in Costa Rica and Panama, the second ever co-hosting of a FIFA World's Championship since the 2002 men's World Cup in Japan and Korea Republic.
Seventeen of the 20 players in the camp have participated at either a FIFA or CONCACAF youth tournament over the past five years. Every player also has experience coming through the Women's National Excel Program, several since as early as 2014, as well as Excel Centers across Canada. Thirteen of the 20 currently play at a U.S.-based university.
Most recently, Canada's U-20 team held a 13-day camp in England this past summer featuring a pair of Canada victories against Northern Ireland and England.
Both the Women's U-20 and U-17 National Teams are coached by Women's Youth National Team Head Coach and former international (with over 180 caps), Rhian Wilkinson.
Canada Soccer's Women's National Youth Teams have won four CONCACAF titles: the 2004 and 2008 CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship, the 2010 CONCACAF Women's Under-17 Championship, and the 2014 CONCACAF Girls' Under-15 Championship. Canada has qualified for seven editions of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup (including a silver medal at Canada 2002 in its inaugural year as a U-19 event) and all six editions of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup (including a fourth-place finish at Uruguay 2018).
GK- Anna Karpenko | CAN / Super REX Ontario
GK- Kayza Massey | USA / West Virginia University
CB- Maya Antoine | CAN / Vaughan SC
CB- Samantha Chang | USA / University of South Carolina
CB- Jade Rose | CAN / Super REX Ontario
CB- Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal | CAN / Vancouver Whitecaps FC Girls Elite
CB- Sonia Walk | CAN / Super REX Ontario
FB- Emma Regan | USA / University of Texas
FB- Élisabeth Tsé | CAN / CS Phénix des Rivières de Québec
M- Marika Guay | USA / Santa Clara University
M- Mya Jones | USA / University of Memphis
M- Lara Kazandjian | USA / University of Memphis
M- Maya Ladhani | CAN / Super REX Ontario
M- Penny Mulenga | USA / Texas Tech University
M- Caitlin Shaw | USA / University of Oregon
F- Caleigh Boeckx | USA / Rice University
F- Tanya Boychuk | USA / University of Memphis
F- Jessica De Filippo | USA / University of Louisville
F- Kaila Novak | USA / UCLA
F- Andersen Williams | USA / Texas A&M
Canada's Ashley Lawrence wins Canadian Player of the Year Award
In other Canadian national women's team news, Ashley Lawrence has been voted the Canadian Player of the Year for the first time, which is voted on by Canadian media and coaches, after a terrific season with Canada Soccer's Women's National Team and professional club Paris Saint-Germain FC in the French League and UEFA Women's Champions League. In 2019, Lawrence led Canada with four assists at the international "A" level. She was one of four footballers to play in all 15 matches, featuring primarily at right back as she led Canada in minutes played for the second year in a row.
Canadian Women's National Team head coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller said, "Ashley Lawrence is a fantastic, positive individual with great character and someone who looks at ways to improve her game all the time. She is a world-class player with a fast-paced drive on the ball; she has the ability to pass, cross and shoot with both feet; she is able to play at several positions on the highest level. In 2019, her leadership abilities continued to develop both on and off the pitch, providing a positive impact on both her younger teammates as well as her own game."
At the club level, Lawrence helped Paris Saint-Germain finish second in the league standings in the 2018-19 Championnat de France, the same position they hold four months into the 2019-20 campaign. In cup competitions, she helped PSG reach the Quarter-finals of both the 2019 Coupe de France and 2018-19 UEFA Women's Champions League. The club has also qualified for the Quarter-finals of 2019-20 UEFA Women's Champions League to be played in March and April 2020.
Lawrence, 24 years old, has made 83 international appearances for Canada Soccer's Women's National Team since making her debut as a teenager on 12 January 2013. She played her youth football for Brams United SC and Erin Mills SC before attending West Virginia University and then turning pro with Paris Saint-Germain FC. She was 14 years old when she made her debut in the Canadian youth program in 2010 and she won Canadian U-17 Player of the Year honors in 2011 and 2012.
Christine Sinclair is Canada Soccer's Player of the Decade
Christine Sinclair was named Canada Soccer's Player of the Decade for the past ten years. The seven-time Canadian Player of the Year has won two Olympic Games Bronze Medals (2012 and 2016) and was her countries flag bearer at London Game Closing Ceremonies in 2012. She is a four-time finalist for the FIFA World Player of the Year and played in 5 Women's World Cups.
At the club level, she won three regular-season titles and four playoff titles. In Women's Professional Soccer, she won the double in both 2010 with FC Gold Pride and 2011 with the Western New York Flash. She was the league championship game MVP in 2011 of the WPS, the last game of the league's three year existence. In the newly-established National Women's Soccer League, one of Canada Soccer's legacies of the FIFA Women's World Cup, she helped Portland Thorns FC win the NWSL Shield (regular season champion) in 2016 and the NWSL Championship in 2013 and 2017. She holds second-place all-time in the NWSL for goals scored (49).
Since 2000, Sinclair is Canada Soccer's all-time record holder in goals scored (183) and international appearances (289), including 10 goals in 21 matches at five FIFA Women's World Cups and 11 goals in 15 matches at three Olympic Football Tournaments. She is a 14-time Canadian Player of the Year and 16-time Canada goal scoring leader. Steven Reed, Canada Soccer President, said, "Christine Sinclair is a once-in-a-generation athlete that has been at the heart of Canadian sport for over 20 years, but what she accomplished in the past 10 years has changed the sport forever in our country. Christine is the Canada Soccer Player of the Decade and unquestionably one of the greatest and most-loved athletes Canada has ever watched."
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