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The Week in Women's Football: W-League Preview Part 1; CONCACAF calendar;

This week, we present part 1 of our annual regular season preview for the Westfield W-League's 2020/21 campaign—the league's thirteenth. As in the past, it will be divided into two parts—this week we present our overview of the top 4 finishers from last season: Melbourne City, Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers, followed by the other 5 sides next week. This week, we also have news of changes in CONCACAF's national team events calendar, including a new Nations League tournament to mirror the men's, which should drive more women's national team games throughout the Confederation.

2020/21 Australia Westfield W-League Regular Season Preview—Part 1

The Westfield W-League league is now running a late December thru April schedule—deviating from its traditional late October/early November thru February plan—as it is now dovetailing its start with the men's A-League, which will continue through July. Though there had been discussions and hopes that the league would expand the number of games that each team plays, it will again comprise a 12 game regular season schedule. The league's new schedule will effectively lock out NWSL loanees as well as some imports from European leagues, who in the past were able to spend the winter in a competitive league. The NWSL is planning to start its training camps on February 1, 2021 ahead of their second Challenge Cup tournament and then the regular season with the playoffs to follow, though schedules are still tentative everywhere in the world as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Despite the fact that NWSL loanees won't continue this season, there still will be imports in the league, as well as some Americans that are not tied to NWSL clubs. There has also been some significant player movement within the W-League ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, with some teams loading up on Australians still in the country, including youth internationals—particularly Melbourne Victory—after the mass departure of the senior Matildas to clubs abroad. A few Australians have returned home from stints abroad, most significantly wing back Angie Beard from KR of Iceland to Melbourne Victory, Nikola Orgill from Kolbotn of Norway to Western Sydney Wanderers and Allira Toby from Famalicao of Portugal to Sydney FC.

We discussed the possibility last month of Wellington Phoenix, the New Zealand-based club in the A-League, adding a women's league team for this 2020/21 season and, because of COVID-19, being housed in Wollongong in New South Wales (see: Late last month this effort fell apart, primarily because the New Zealand Football Federation wanted to have New Zealanders considered as Australians for the purpose of the league as is currently done in the A-League on the men's side, rather than as imports (4 per team are currently allowed in the W-League). This same issue has prevented Vancouver Whitecaps from entering the NWSL as a primarily Canadian-stocked team. Tom Sermanni—who led Australia's Matildas on two occasions, was instrumental in the launch of the W-League and now is the Football Fern's head coach—was going to lead the Phoenix side in the league and was saddened by the decision and the idea that a Phoenix team in the W-League would be detrimental to Australian football and the development of their young players. Sermanni told ESPN in Australia, "Rather than condemning a team who is willing to invest significantly to bring a team into the league, the benefits should be looked at. It would even up the number of teams in the league [to ten], which in turn could make it logistically easier to increase the number of rounds. Also, Wellington Phoenix would bring a strong competitive team into the league which would help, not hinder the development of young Australian players and, like the Phoenix men's team that currently contains three Olyroos [men's Australian Olympic Team members], the Wellington Phoenix women's team would also provide opportunities for Australian players. If you look at professional leagues around the world, the Australian league would be the youngest by quite a decent margin, so young Australian players in the W-League [would] probably get more opportunities than young players in any other domestic league in the world. When we bring good international players into the league it's seen as a move that helps develop young players, so surely by that logic a strong team from N.Z., containing a number of experienced international players, would only benefit the league and give the young Australian players the competition they are looking for."

The W-League, with the loss of the North American loanees and so many senior Matildas this season, really needed this 'new blood' from their 2023 WWC co-hosts and the positive boost from a new franchise for the loop, with the last expansion club being Melbourne City six years ago. The W-League will again be very young (as always) with some teams even signing 16-year-olds this season. That is part of what makes the league unique and gives it a special vitality—the power of youth. It is also disappointing that two new A-League franchises over the past year in suburban Melbourne (Western United) and Southwestern Sydney (Macarthur FC) did not enter teams into the W-League, though both have said that this is their intent. We know COVID-19 has changed sports finances in so many devastating ways, but these teams need to seriously plan to come in for 2021/22 to help the league grow ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup. As we get closer to that FIFA Finals, we expect to see more high profile imports come to the league, as well as perhaps more Matildas from abroad to play the season before the tournament at home, to reduce traveling for preparation matches and to help with promotional events.

Westfield W-League 2020/21 Regular Season Preview (In Order of 2019/20 Regular Season Finish)

Melbourne City (11-1-0 W-D-L—34 points—First)

Head Coach Rado Vidosic will try to defend his side's Premiership and Grand Finals titles from last season without an experienced core of internationals who have joined the FA WSL in the off-season: Matilda defender Steph Catley (Arsenal), goalkeeper Lydia Williams (Arsenal) and New Zealand international midfielder Rebekah Stott (Brighton & Hove Albion). They will be hugely missed from a side that surrendered only 4 goals last year.

To replace Williams, City signed goalkeeper Teagan Micah for the 2020-21 season. She started 12 games for Arna-Bjornar this season in Norway (who finished in 8th place out of 10 teams) before returning home in October. She went to France as the third keeper for the 2019 Women's World Cup after playing with UCLA in the States and being capped at the youth level. She has previously played in the W-League with Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers before signing with Melbourne Victory last winter, backing up Casey Dumont—who was stellar for Victory—and did not appear in any MV games.

City's backline also was boosted by the signing of Matilda Jenna McCormick from Real Betis in Spain. Betis, a top five team in Spain over the past few years, has struggled mightily this season and currently is in 14th place in the 18 team league with 7 points from 10 games and only one point above the relegation zone, as four teams will be demoted to division 2 at the end of this season since none were sent down last season but two were promoted after the COVID-19 suspended 2019-20 regular season was never finished. Last season McCormick was with Melbourne Victory and debuted last winter with the full national team after putting her dual football career with the AFL Adelaide Crows (Aussie Rules football code) on hold to concentrate on soccer.

American defender Samantha Johnson has come out of retirement to play with City this season. Johnson (29) played 6 seasons in the NWSL, mostly for the Chicago Red Stars as well as for the Utah Royals in late 2018 and 2019, totaling 91 games in the league. Her decision was based more than about just missing football, "Making the decision to return to football came from my agent helping me realise how to align my purpose off the pitch with on the pitch. I want to help underprivileged kids ... I felt like the investment I was making in the sport wasn't giving me that much of a return as I wasn't aligning those two things but now that I know how to do that, I'm more mentally at ease and more excited about playing." Johnson is a relative veteran of the W-League, having making 13 appearances for Sydney FC (2014/15) and 23 appearances for Melbourne Victory (2016/17 and 2018/19).

Melbourne City has also recruited within the league, signing Brisbane Roar's U-20 international defenders Hollie Palmer (3 years in the league) and Leah Davidson (2 seasons with the Roar), who are both impressive young talent developed by the Roar's academy system.

Forward Rhali Dobson returns for her fourth season at City, with 2 goals in 34 appearances after seven previous seasons with the Jets.

City back-up defender Tyla-Jay Vlajnic (30), who played with the WPSL's Seattle Sounders Women in 2017, became a full international for Serbia during the Women's EURO qualifying play this year. She has been a member of City every year of the club's existence and has 4 Grand Finals winners' medals.

Melbourne Victory (7-2-3—23 points—Second)

Melbourne Victory has been most active on the signing front this season, having lost long-time forward and former English international Natasha Dowie to AC Milan in Italy, recent Matilda defender Jenna McCormick to crosstown rivals Melbourne City by way of Betis in Spain, and Matilda defender Laura Brock (Alleway), who is now with Guingamp in France.

MV made a crucial signing in midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross from Western Sydney Wanderers, who was a revelation last season for the Wanderers and is much talked about by European agents and coaches. The 18-year-old scored four goals and provided three assists in 13 games for the Wanderers last season, including a stunning long range goal in their 2-1 opener over Adelaide United right at the end of the match, which started the club on their path to a historic first playoff season as they added 4 more wins and a tie in the first half of the campaign. Cooney-Cross made her Westfield W-League debut with Victory as a 15-year-old in 2017 and won a Premiership (regular season title) in 2018/19. She has been capped at the youth level. She said about her move, "I'm really happy to be back at Victory. The club is a very special place for me and it's great to see so many familiar faces again. I'm looking forward to working with Jeff [Hopkins—head coach], my teammates and the staff. I know from my last season at Victory what a great environment it is and the professional standards the group demands of each other. I'm excited about building on my form from last season; Jeff has been very clear about the role he wants me to play and I can't wait to step back on the park in front of our members and fans."

Another important addition is four-time Women's World Cup Finals forward Lisa De Vanna, who leads the Matildas in all-time goal scoring with 47 in 150 games. De Vanna played last season in Italy with Fiorentina, scoring 5 times in 14 games in the COVID-19 shortened season. She is in her third stint with Victory and has played for 7 W-League teams since debuting in the inaugural season of 2008/09. She won a league title with Victory in 2013/14 and has won four W-League crowns in total.

An important returnee from abroad for the Victory is Angie Beard (23), who spent the summer playing for KR Reykjavik in Iceland's top-tier the Úrvalsdeild Kvenna. At KR, Beard made 10 appearances and scored once for the club that finished bottom of the table and was relegated. Beard arrived at Victory ahead of the 2017/18 Westfield W-League season and has played 37 games for the club over 3 seasons in the league and 66 over six league seasons, including her first three with Brisbane. She was very impressive last season as a wing back and her return is critical to head coach Jeff Hopkin's plans for the campaign.

A new addition this season is eighteen-year-old forward Maja Markovski, who scored nine goals for Box Hill United in the 2019 NPL Victoria Women's season and was named as the league's 'Rising Star.'

Though we don't expect to see any NWSL loanees this season, that doesn't mean that we won't see Americans in the league as Kayla Morrison signed for 2020/21 with Victory, coming over from Swedish club Morön Bollklubb, which finished third last season in the second tier Elitettan, scoring 5 times in 24 matches. A native of California, Morrison's played 83 consecutive matches for the University of Kansas Jayhawks in college and was named the Big 12 conference co-Defender of the Year in 2017.

Another American who joined the Victory via the state leagues in Australia is Catherine Zimmerman. Zimmerman had two strong seasons in the WNPL with powerhouse Calder United SC of Melbourne. Zimmerman scored 78 goals in her 56 outings for Calder, earning back-to-back WNPL Golden Boots in 2018 and 2019. Prior to arriving in Australia in 2018, the 26-year-old played for Sky Blue FC of the NWSL in her home state of New Jersey, appearing in 5 games in 2016 after finishing at Providence College. Victory head coach Jeff Hopkins said about his new signing, "It's wonderful to have Catherine sign on for the season ahead. Catherine has been the standout striker in the NPLW for the previous two seasons; she's got plenty of pace, is dynamic and is a proven goal scorer, as her record shows."

A veteran NPLW midfielder has also joined Melbourne Victory, as Natalie Martineau (33) moves from South Melbourne FC, where she played more than 150 games and won four Championships with the side in the NPLW.

Another new import for the season is young New Zealand international Claudia Bunge (21), who crosses the Tasman Sea for the first time to play abroad. The central defender was the captain at Northern Lights in New Zealand's National Women's League. Bunge was also recently named Football New Zealand's 2020 Female Young Player of the Year.

The signings of forwards De Vanna, Zimmerman and Bunge should help Victory in both midfield and an attack which is now devoid of former English international Natasha Dowie, who scored 34 goals in 59 appearances for the club for Italy before departing in the off-season.

Some important re-signings are New Zealand international midfielder Annalie Longo (29), who scored twice in 13 games for Victory last season and has played 123 times for the Football Ferns; Longo will welcome Bunge as the second Kiwi on the side this season. Head Coach Jeff Hopkins was pleased to see Longo's return, "Annalie added plenty of drive, determination and creativity to our midfield last season. She also brings a lot of experience, having played at four FIFA Women's World Cups, and her leadership is a huge asset to our squad. Annalie bolsters our midfield group even further as we look to improve on the foundations we have set over the past two seasons. It's great to have her back ahead of another big season."

20-year-old midfielder Melinda Barbieri, who missed all last season with an ACL injury, and was on the Premiership winning side in 2018/19, is back. She is a U-20 international for Australia. Amy Jackson (33), who won the League Goal of the Season title last year, has re-signed as well for her second consecutive season with the Victory, after four years in an early stint with the club. The former Florida International University player won three league titles at Melbourne City from 2015/16 thru 2017/18. Midfielder Lia Privitelli (26) has made 37 appearances over the past four seasons but missed half of last season due to a hip injury. Melina Ayres (24), a U-17 and U-20 Australian international, has 51 W-League appearances in 5 W-League seasons, the last three with Victory after winning two league titles at City.

With the news that 2019/20 standout Casey Dumont will miss the season because of an injury, the club signed Argentinian international goalkeeper Gaby Garton. Garton was raised in Florida and played at the University of South Florida and Rice University in Texas. She has played professionally in Argentina for River Plate, Sol de Mayo and UAI Urquiza. She has also represented Argentina on the international stage and was part of their 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup squad. Melisa Maizels (27) adds further depth to the backstop position—she was on the side last season but did not play. She has 22 appearances in the league across 5 seasons, including time with Perth and Canberra.

Sydney FC (7-1-4—22 points—Tied for Third)

Sydney FC's long-time captain Teresa Polias is back for the 2020/21 season and she leads a contingent of 10 returnees from last season's Grand Final runners-up, while the club added three players from cross-town rivals Western Sydney Wanderers. With this stable core, Sydney should be well-positioned to make their third consecutive Grand Final and fourth in five years. Polias leads the league with 144 all-time appearances. She has played in every W-League season, 10 for Sydney FC after starting out with now-defunct Central Coast Mariners for two seasons.

Forward Remy Siemsen (21), an Australian U-20 youth international who shared the Golden Boot with three other players last season, also returns. She was the 2016/17 Young Footballer of the Year in the W-League when she scored 6 goals for Sydney in her debut season. She scored 9 goals in 8 games with the California Storm of the WPSL in 2018 and returns for her fifth W-League season. She has been discussed by clubs in Europe about a possible move abroad this year or next.

Long-time Canberra United defender Ellie Brush (32) is back for her second season in Sydney; she played 30 games in 2015 and 2016 for the Houston Dash. She has just retired this past August from the Aussie Rules AFL, where she began in the league for its inaugural season in 2017 with Greater Western Sydney. Full and youth international forward Princess Ibini (20), who has 9 goals in 5 seasons, is also back as is midfielder Natalie Tobin for her seventh season and defender Elizabeth Ralston for her eighth—both are former Australian U-17 and U-20 internationals.

From the Wanderers, Sydney FC inked Young Matildas goalkeeper Jada Whyman (21), who spent five years with the Wanderers, forward Cortnee Vine (22), who is joining her fourth W-League team in 6 years after time with Brisbane and Newcastle, and youth and senior international forward Rachel Lowe (20), who played for the Wanderers for 3 seasons with 2 goals in 27 games and spent time in the States at UCLA. Former Australian U-20 international and midfielder Clare Wheeler came from the Newcastle Jets, where she played for seven seasons.

Head Coach Ante Juric is a very experienced coach and will hope to take the team to the Grand Final for the third year in succession, after winning in 2018-19 and then losing to City last season in front of just family and friends as COVID-19 restrictions had just kicked in. Last season's Grand Final appearance was particularly impressive given that, towards the end of the season, two Matildas left for England in Caitlin Foord (2 goals and 4 assists) and Chloe Logarzo (1 goal) joining Arsenal and Bristol City, respectively.

Audrey Bledsoe (Washington Spirit) and Sofia Huerta (traded from Houston to OL Reign early this year) were so instrumental to the team's success the last two years, but will not be back given the early start of the NWSL 2021 season. American Veronica Latsko (Houston Dash), who joined last season after scoring 9 goals in 12 games for Adelaide United in 2018/19, is also a loss; she scored 2 goals last season as she recovered from an ACL injury suffered with the Dash in 2019.

Another impressive young addition to the side is Allira Toby (26), from Famalicao in Portugal, after playing with Brisbane Roar for the previous four seasons—twice leading the side in scoring and netting 14 goals in 52 league games (including one year with Adelaide). She had originally tried to move to Spain after the 2019/20 season but that deal fell through because of the Coronavirus, then Famalicao in Portugal's First Division signed her. The club then tried to terminate her contract after a few weeks, but since she was on a one year deal, they had to pay her. However the club effectively did not allow her to train, though she still stayed in their housing. An inability of club staff to speak English was a big barrier but these situations are still too common in the women's game. While in Portugal, she suspects that she contracted the Coronavirus and was very sick for two weeks. She still wants to return to Europe—certainly not with Famalicao—but should not find any of these organizational issues with the classy Sydney FC and she will be an asset as a potent and experienced striker.

Western Sydney Wanderers (7-1-4—22 points—Tied for Third)

Western Sydney Wanderers had a club record-breaking season in 2019/20 in so many ways—with wins (7), points (22), goals for (24), unbeaten string (6 games), wins in a row (3) and league table position (fourth)—as they made their first ever semifinals. A return to the postseason will be the goal for head coach Dean Heffernan, whose line-up will look very different in 2020/21 from last season.

Western Sydney Wanderers will be severely impacted with the loss of their NWSL loanees from last season, including the trio from the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL: international forward Kristen Hamilton (who was joint Golden Boot winner in the W-League), fellow national team forward Lynn Williams and Irish international midfielder Denise O'Sullivan, who went on loan to Brighton and Hove Albion in the Super League this fall. Sam Stabb (Washington Spirit) and goalkeeper Abby Smith (Utah Royals) were also instrumental in their strong season. The Wanderers also lost Amy Harrison to PSV in the Netherlands—after a season with the Washington Spirit—and Ella Mastrantonio to Bristol City in the WSL. Kyra Cooney-Cross moved back to her first club Melbourne Victory after such an impressive season in the Harbor City suburbs. The Wanderers have tried to replace these losses by recruiting within the W-League.

Defender Nikola Orgill has joined from the Newcastle Jets and spent this fall with Norwegian Toppserien side Kolbotn, playing in 12 matches for the 9th place finisher, who avoided relegation to the 1. Division Women (second tier) for 2021 as they defeated Medkila (the second place side in 1. DivisionWomen) 6-2 on aggregate in the third week of November. Nikola played with WSW in 2016/17. Orgill said about her move back to the Wanderers, "I was really impressed with the style of football the Wanderers played last season and the professionalism of the club and team. It has also been a tough year in Europe with COVID-19 so I was excited to have an opportunity to be back in Sydney around family and friends. Playing in Norway has improved my tactical understanding and ability to analyse the game. There has been a big focus on video analysis and being able to change tactics and formations as a team, depending on our opposition. I think this has made me a more versatile player and will help with the transition to a new club in Australia."

Another playing jumping off what seems to be like the sinking ship that is Newcastle Jets (see more next week) is Libby Copus-Brown (23), who spent six seasons with the side. Leena Khamis joins after playing 12 matches last season with Canberra United and scoring 2 goals. She played with WSW in 2018/19. Since 2008, Khamis has been a prominent part of Westfield W-League history, having scored the competition's very first goal and has won 2 Premierships and a Grand Final in eight seasons with Sydney FC. Midfielder Olivia Price (24), a former U-17 and U-20 international, also moved from Canberra. She played in 55 W-League games and spent the 2017/18 season with WSW after three seasons with Sydney FC.

In goal, Sarah Willacy (25) comes over from Adelaide United, where she had 38 appearances over 6 seasons. She was brought into the Matildas side for an international friendly against Chile last season but did not play. Her backup is expected to be Courtney Newbon, a native of Tasmania, who played five times last season for the Wanderers.

A strong Wanderer returnee is forward and youth international Susan Phonsongkham, who was hurt much of last season. This will be her fourth season with the Wanderers. Courtney Nevin (18) will be in her third season for the side. The youth international has also trained with the Matildas. Caitlin Cooper, who played in the W-League's first season in 2008/09 season with the now defunct W-League side Central Coast Mariners, returns and first joined WSW in 2013.

Ante Covic is back with the Wanderers this season as the goalkeeping coach for the women's side after spending two years with Marconi Stallions as keeper coach. He was a founding player with the A-League side and won an A-League Premiership and AFC Champions League title as well as A-League Goalkeeper of the Year and Champions League Most Valuable Player awards. Covic made a record 97 appearances for the Red & Black in the A-League, Champions League, FFA Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

Note: Next week we will have part 2 of the 2020/21 Westfield W-League Preview, featuring Adelaide United, Brisbane Roar, Canberra United, Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory, along with some other W-League news.

CONCACAF Revises the Women's International Calendar and Launches a Women's Nations League for the 2021-2024 Cycle

On December 10, 2020 CONCACAF announced plans to increase the number of national team matches for member federations, "with the aim of transforming women's national team football across the entire confederation." From 2021 through 2024, they plan to double the number of senior women's internationals. For Women's World Cup Qualifiers from November 2021 and April 2022, the Confederation's plan is as follows:

  • CONCACAF women's national teams ranked 3 and below in the FIFA Rankings will be drawn into six groups of five*;
  • Each team will play a total of four matches (two at home and two away);
  • At the end of the group stage, the six group winners will qualify for a centralized Finals event
  • The top two CONCACAF nations in the FIFA Rankings from August 2020, USA and Canada, will not compete in the group stage and will receive a bye straight to the Finals;
  • *Should more than 30 CONCACAF MAs participate in this competition, a Play-in would be organized ahead of the group stage.

For the centralized Finals for World Cup Qualifiers aimed for July 2022, CONCACAF has designed the following:

  • The six group winners will be joined by the top two CONCACAF ranked nations (USA and Canada);
  • The eight nations will be split into two groups of four;
  • After single round-robin play, the two group winners will qualify for the knockout rounds;
  • The final event will qualify CONCACAF teams into the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023 (the number of WWC qualifiers is yet to be determined).

CONCACAF will also field a new competition in 2023-2400, the Women's CONCACAF Nations League, mirroring the men's competition which was founded in 2018. The previously separate Olympic Games Qualifying competition—which was not as popular with smaller nations in the region as was the Women's World Cup qualifying competition—will be subsumed into the Nations League for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.

The Nations League Group Stage Format, to be held during the FIFA windows of September, October and November 2023 (and April 2024 for a play-in) is as follows:

  • CONCACAF national teams* will be split into groups within three leagues;
  • Home and away matches will be played within league groups;
  • The three top league group winners will qualify directly to the Finals event in Summer 2024;
  • The second league group winners and runners-up from the top league will have an opportunity to compete in a Play-in to qualify for the Finals;
  • *The CONCACAF women's national teams, which compete in the summer 2024 Olympic Games, will not compete in the group stage and will receive a bye directly to the Finals.

For the centralized Finals aimed at June 2024, the format is:

  • The Finals of the 2023-24 CONCACAF women's national team competition will consist of 12 teams split into three groups of four, including:
  • The two CONCACAF national teams which compete in the 2024 Olympic Games (they receive a bye directly to the Finals of this competition);
  • Six CONCACAF national teams which qualify through the Group Stage and Play-In;
  • Four guest national teams from other Confederations;
  • After single round-robin play, the three group winners, the three group runners-up and the two best third-place finishers will qualify for the knock-out stage which will consist of quarterfinals, semi-finals and a final.

CONCACAF President and FIFA Vice President Victor Montagliani said, "This is a milestone moment for our CONCACAF W [Women's] strategy, and I am hugely excited by the prospect of launching these new CONCACAF women's national team competitions. I strongly believe they will provide a development pathway for all of our Member Associations, while at the same time creating strong and competitive finals events to showcase the very best of women's national team football in our region. These new competitions will help us further harness the growth in women's football that we have seen in this region as a result of the last two FIFA Women's World Cups. I am confident they will have a very positive impact on the women's game at all levels in CONCACAF."

CONCACAF Head of Women's Football, Karina LeBlanc, a former Canadian international goalkeeper, an esteemed announcer for women's football on Fox and family ties to Dominica and Jamaica in the Caribbean, said, "As a former international player who is now on the administrative side driving forward the CONCACAF W strategy, I am truly excited by this development for women's football in the region. These new competitions will be transformative for the confederation by providing a consistent structure of matches for all Member Associations. They will accelerate the growth of the women's game in CONCACAF and I can't wait for them to get started next year."

These competitions are expected to be branded and provide a revenue stream to the Confederation, along with the television rights.

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

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