This week we talk to defender Sydney Miramontez of the Utah Royals, about her experiences playing professionally in the U.S and last winter for the Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia's W-League. We also give our prognosis for each of the six first round groups at the Women's World Cup which begins on June 7, as we prepare to report from a number of games in France later this month.
Sydney Miramontez discusses her career in NWSL and the Australian W-League
Sydney Miramontez is in her third year in the NWSL, playing in 2017 for FC Kansas City and since then for the Utah Royals in Salt Lake City. She represents a large group of Americans who are not on the national team radar but striving to have a long professional career in soccer. These players are fundamental to their teams, particularly now that so many the internationals—American, Canadians and others—are away with their national teams for the Women's World Cup. During the last off-season, she played for the Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia. Despite the fact that the Wanderers only finished the 2018/19 season with one win and one tie for 4 points—nine points adrift of eighth place Canberra United—Miramontez was very appreciative of her time down under: "I was looking to get more game experience. The Western Sydney Wanderers coach at the time, Dan Barrett, was looking for a defender who could essentially play both outside back and center back and I have played both professionally so it ended up working out. I'm incredibly thankful that Dan and the club gave me the opportunity to come in essentially at the last minute, be an addition to the team and be able to get the experience that I was vying for." Miramontez said that her Utah Royals teammate, midfielder and five year NWSL veteran Lo'eau LaBonta, helped her adjust to a new country and league, as LaBonta had played with the Wanderers in 2017/18 and again in 2018/19.
Somewhat surprisingly Dan Barrett was let go recently as head coach by the club, replaced by Dean Heffernan, a name familiar to followers of Australian men's soccer as he was a long time A-League player—including with WSW—as well as with Huddersfield in England in 2010, a stint in China and a couple of caps with Australia. His former teammate with the A-League Wanderers, ex-captain Michael Beauchamp, will assist him along with current W-League assistant coach Catherine Cannuli. Cannuli is also the Women's Technical Director at Southern Districts Football Association. Barrett, prior to the 2018/19 season, was head coach for three seasons at Sydney FC, taking the club to two Grand Finals, and assisted former Matildas Head Coach Alen Stajcic for the two previous seasons at Sydney F.C. He brought a number of Sydney FC players to the Wanderers last season but the club struggled to score all season. Miramontez said: "I have really good things to say about Dan. I'm thankful our paths crossed and that I had the opportunity to play for him. It's unfortunate that he won't' continue with the club but wherever his soccer career takes him next he will be well off. I wish him the best of luck."
Miramontez found that the Wanderers were quite a professionally-run club: "We had some hard losses but something I will always take away from the experience is that it was empowering to work with a group of girls and staff day-in and day-out that, no matter the circumstances and results, everyone was willing to work for each other and that is a true testament to that organization and what Western Sydney is all about. I was able to be in a consistent training environment, which is something I wanted to have for my [NWSL] offseason development."
On the men's side, the Wanderers were the second club in the Harbor City area to join the A-League/W-League and won the A-League Premiership (regular season title) in their inaugural campaign in 2012/13. They have appeared in three A-League Finals and won the prestigious Asian Champions League crown in 2013/14, though they have been out of the A-League playoff reckoning in the past three years. In 2012/13 they also joined the W-League, achieving their best finish of 6th place that first season, with a club best 13 points.
Miramontez emphasized: "I think Western Sydney on the W-League side is doing a really good job in being a leader for the W-League; I was very impressed with what they were doing outside of soccer and providing opportunities for players outside of the pitch…They want to be that model for the rest of the teams [in the W-League] and they want to see what other clubs are doing and what is going on in the States. They constantly are asking what they can do better and improve. They have commitment and want to provide those opportunities for women."
Thinking about the W-League in general, Miramontez said that the Australian national league has added more big name players and become more competitive and: "a very popular place to play." She explained that: "The W-League is growing and it is a process, same as in the States; we want it to grow faster but we understand that it is a process. The W-League is a little behind but will get there."
When asked what she thinks that the W-League will look like in the future, she said: "In 5/10 years, it needs to be a longer league. Right now they like to have the ability to have American players come over. [With a longer season] then people can put their time and effort into being in a full-time career. Some of the players had full 9-to-5 jobs [and] we had girls with families and young kids. With a longer season, you make more money and can put more into soccer to make it a full-time career. There is something very special about the W-League—you get that sense of people who have great passion and are willing to sacrifice and do anything for the opportunity to play. It's neat that high schoolers are playing at the pro level and can go on to be future stars for the Matildas and go overseas; that is special for the league." She felt that a longer league season needs to come first and then the W-League can try to grow the number of teams from that point.
Note: For further discussion on future issues facing the W-League, see my column from March 2019: https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-future-of-the-w-league-uws-preview-mexico-squad-for-cyprus-cup-4271291.
Miramontez said that a return to the Wanderers and the W-League is "in the cards." She felt that the personal experience was very good and she received "great things from playing abroad."
Meanwhile, back in the NWSL, her Utah Royals have had a great start to the 2019 season and are currently in a tie for first with the Washington Spirit, with 4 wins and 1 tie for 13 points in 6 games; they also lead the league in defense with only three goals allowed. Unfortunately, Sydney has had to watch from the bench as she picked up a foot injury during the second week of the Royals preseason training in a non-contact situation but is now cleared to play. She said that there is a change in mentality this season over the Royals inaugural campaign, when they had a strong defense, but finished fifth and two points out of the playoff picture: "Last year we lost our identify but came together late last year. This year, it started from day one. We pay attention to detail and show our strengths. We are a solid defensive team—we take a lot of pride in that—and now see how we can implement that into our offense and the goals have been coming; we want to be the best on both ends [of the field]."
Photo: Sydney Miramontez in training for the Utah Royals. (Photo Courtesy of the Utah Royals).
Miramontez played her collegiate soccer at the University of Nebraska for head coach John Walker. Walker is a Canadian who came to Nebraska in 1994 when the school became the first Big 12 conference school to launch a women's team. His squads have made the NCAA playoffs 12 times, including twice making the Quarterfinals—one game away from the College Cup (Final Four). He has assisted Canada's national team program and has sent a number of players to professional and national team careers, including Ari Romero for Mexico—who is currently with the Houston Dash—and a number of Canadians internationals including Brittany Timko (Baxter), Christine Latham, Sharolta Nonen and Karina LeBlanc. Walker's assistant since 2015 has been Ian Bridge, a long-time Canadian national team assistant from 1997-2009 and during the entire Evan Pellerud years when he came from Norway as head coach and galvanized the program (2000-2008). Bridge was also the head coach for the U-19 FIFA World Cup Team which lost to the U.S. 1-0 in overtime in the first ever age level FIFA Women's World Cup in 2002, which attracted 50,000 fans to the final in Edmonton, and helped to spur the growth of women's football in the country. He headed Canada's 2004, 2006 and 2008 World Cup teams as well (at the U-20 level). This reporter has covered women's football at the collegiate level for years and I have to admit that I always enjoyed covering the Huskers—their coaches were cordial, open, and informative while the players were always happy to talk tactics. John Walker's program has never made a College Cup but that does not speak to the positive affect that he has had on so many of his players. Miramontez said: "I owe my professional career to John [Coach Walker]; I was ready to move on and content with what I had and didn't think that playing professional would be in the cards for me. He said 'I think you have an opportunity if you want to.' It was his belief in me and he has texted me during the injury to provide encouragement. He has an ability to get the best out of players. He is a critical part of my soccer journey. He was able to fine tune some of the unique skills that I had and allowed me to continue on and live out this dream that I didn't think was possible." Sydney's sister Sinclaire is currently a senior at Nebraska.
Sydney Miramontez has discovered a path as a professional soccer player in America, when one was not apparent to her in college. Her career path has led to a stint abroad in Australia's vibrant W-League. Her story should give hope to younger players that, just because you do not have national team experience, you can still have a productive professional football career. Though certainly helping national team members to play at home, the mission of NWSL was also to provide opportunities to more American women to play and Miramontez is a successful product of U.S. Soccer's planning when they started the league after the 2012 Olympics.
WWC 2019 Predictions
This reporter will be covering the 2019 Women's World Cup in France, the fifth time as a journalist and sixth event overall. This tournament is always a benchmark to monitor and assess the growth and changes in the international game as well as to watch some top shelf football. We provide a quick overview of the First Round, in which we will see teams such as the U.S., Jamaica, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Scotland, South Africa and New Zealand at a minimum, as well as select the 16 teams which are most likely to advance to the knockout stage. Note: Highlighted teams are this reporter's pick to advance to the Round of 16 from each group.
France has heavy expectations to match their brothers' World Cup Victory in Russia last year but they have the personnel to make their second semifinals (after 2011). Norway is hard to predict; after a disastrous last place finish in Euro 2017, they looked very strong in World Cup European Qualifying with their same Swedish coach Martin Sjogren as at the EUROS—who took Linkopings to the Damallsvenskan title in 2016. Anything beyond the Round of 16 would be a plus. Nigeria, coached by another Swede in former Swedish National Team Coach Thomas Dennerby, should advance past the group round for only the second time in 8 WWC appearances. Korea Republic is improving but not quite at the level yet of the other nations, appearing in their third Finals.
Germany has not gotten the pre-tournament attention that other teams have but the two-time World Cup Champions (2003 and 2007) have made the semifinals in 5 of their 7 previous tournaments. With new coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who previously coached Switzerland's national team and is very savvy, the side has a change to add a third star as World Champions. Spain should improve on their 20th place finish in 2015 and anything less than the Quarterfinals will be a severe disappointment; the team will leverage their quite vibrant and now a destination for international stars national league and quite healthy youth national teams' results (2018 U-20 Womens World Cup second place in France last summer and Champions in the 2018 U-17 Final in Uruguay). They have the youngest head coach in the tournament in 37-year-old Jorge Vida, who coached Spain U-17's to third in 2010 and second in 2014 in the FIFA age group world event. China needs to pull points off the Europeans as only a win over South Africa might not be enough to see them through to the Round of 16. South Africa will learn from the experience and hopefully send more players abroad for more experience after the Finals.
Arguably Group C is the most competitive of the six groups. Australia should made history by advancing to their first semifinals. Their offense is potent with Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Haley Raso, Emily Gielnik and Lisa De Vanna capable of scoring at any time, as long as they can stay solid in the back, they will go far. Jamaica will score in the tournament with their impressive counterattacking and will press Italy for second. The Reggae Girlz are the youngest team in the tournament (23 years 7 months) and are the only Finals team to have no players based at home—one even is currently based in faraway New Zealand. Again three teams should advance and Brazil could do a Norway from Euro 2017 and bomb out in the group stage, with Marta recently injured in training. Brazil hasn't won a game since last July. Cristiane, Marta and the other old guard (including 41-year-old Formiga, who is appearing in her seventh Women's World Cup) may be past the sell-by date at this level—averaging 28 years 5 months—second oldest behind U.S., though the North Carolina Courage midfielder Debinha should be a revelation in her senior world tournament debut.
England and Japan will vie for first place, while Scotland has enough to advance to the Round of 16 in third. Scotland's 3-2 victory on May 29 before a women's national team record crowd of 18,555 at Glasgow's Hampden Park was a perfect send-off for the debutants, with both teams showing well in an entertaining game. For Argentina ,Sole Jaimes—a star in Brazil's domestic league and now with Olympique Lyon—scored one goal in five league games this season in France and is one to watch but Argentina looks out of their depth in this group. Part of the problem is that they still have Carlos Borrello as their head coach from their 2003 and 2007 appearances. In 2003, he had the team hopping around like bunnies during pre-game warm-ups and in 2007, he told this reporter that he hoped to have a competitive team after 4-5 more WWC cycles (2023-2027)—we look forward to that and it was the best advertisement for job security ever! We hope that the Federation builds off their first WWC appearance since 2007 and doesn't put the team into mothballs again until the next major qualifiers, but the presence of Borrello once again is not reassuring.
Canada and 2017 European champions Netherlands should easily advance to the Round of 16 (at a minimum). Canada won't have the energetic John Herdman (now coaching the men's side) and Kenneth Heiner-Moller doesn't always seem to have the fire that Herdman used so productively through two successful Olympic Game campaigns (Bronze Medals at both events). Canada probably will again miss the semifinals as in 2015 at home, which they made once in 2003 when they finished fourth under Norwegian coaching legend Even Pellerud. The Netherlands should also make the quarterfinals, one round better than in 2015. Cameroon was a delight in Canada in 2015 when they also advanced and they should do so again, adding Sky Blue FC and NWSL veteran Estelle Johnson in defense. New Zealand should be in the reckoning, and despite seasoned veterans in midfield and defense such as Abby Ercig (North Carolina Courage), Ali Riley and Ria Percival (both Chelsea), it is tough to expel the memory of their 5-0 dismantling by the U.S. on May 16 when they had one shot on goal to 25 for the Americans. If veteran international and U.S. leagues head coach Tom Sermanni can get more out of this team by drawing out their potential and boost their scoring potential, then this group could be a complete toss-up.
This group should come down to the last group match day between the U.S. and Sweden as to who advances in first place, with the nod going to the Americans. Sweden should make the Quarterfinals while for the reigning champions, anything less than a Finals appearance will be a supreme disappointment and head coach Jill Ellis is taking the oldest side among the 24 teams (29 years on average). Despite their focus on playing European sides the last few years, their defense could come unstuck in the latter rounds. The offense with Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd largely as a substitute, Christen Press and Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh and Tobin Heath coming out of midfield is probably the most lethal in the tournament. Chile is a good side and has a shot at one of the top four third place teams and a chance to advance to the Round of 16 in their first tournament but—similar to China—only if they pull points off of the two heavyweights in this group and not become complacent against the Thais. Thailand, in their second tournament, should be improved over 2017, when they lost to Germany and Norway by identical 4-0 scores but bested Ivory Coast 3-2.
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