Anja Mittag, Christie Rampone

America’s Captain ready for another run

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Only her face and hands were exposed to the sharp Portland evening, the winds from an unexpectedly frigid November night circling and attacking players, media, and fans assembled at the basin of Jeld-Wen Field. Long black sleeves and pant leggings were complemented by a knit cap, the women’s national team training shirt, and the half-sneakers, half-cleats players use on FieldTurf. With frozen breath clouding her face as she stood at the side of the Timbers’ home field, Christie Rampone was in a place few expected at this stage of her career: Preparing for another game.

“I thought I’d have this amazing feeling after the (2012 Summer) Olympics,” the 37-year-old Rampone said, reflecting back on what was supposed to be her final major tournament, “like ‘I’m done, this is it.'”

It’s the reaction everyone expected. Rampone was the second-oldest out-field player at the Olympics. At Canada 2015 — the U.S.’s next major competition — she would turn 40, three years older that the most senior out-field player at Germany 2011. With little competitive soccer in the national team’s near-future, Rampone was supposed to use Wembley Stadium as her swan song.

But she didn’t. When the U.S. Women’s National Team captain was finished winning her third gold medal (the States defeating Japan 2-1 in August’s final), there was no feeling of completion. Redemption against a Japanese team that had denied Rampone a third World Cup in Germany provided no closure for a career with nothing left to accomplish.

But accomplishment can be overrated. Too often onlookers look at players like Rampone (or, on the other side of U.S. Soccer, Landon Donovan) and ask why a player would continue after all the boxes are checked, even though for many, no such checklist exists. Some athletes define themselves by their resumé. Others take pride in the process.

“I love the journey,” Rampone confessed, with pride. “Winning is obviously the main goal, but for me, it’s the journey to get there. The ups and downs. The highs and lows. Just being with my teammates.

“I’m not quite ready to give that up. I don’t feel it.”

source: Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 12, 2012: Rampone attends Citi’s Every Step of the Way Culmination Event at a Citibank Branch in midtown in New York City. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images for Citi)

Part of those ups and downs is women’s international soccer’s three-year stretch between meaningful tournaments, a span that includes the U.S.’s current Fan Celebration Tour: 10 cities, 10 states, 10 chances to cash-in on the U.S. team’s London success, and zero opportunities for competitive matches. It’s part of a mystifyingly unbalanced women’s soccer schedule that allows the sport to fade into irrelevance for three years before staging the World Cup and Olympics in a 14-month window.

It also creates the kind of slog that could deter an older player who can justify moving on – especially if that older player has won a combined five Olympics and World Cups. To have to spend two years playing meaningless friendlies around the obscurity of Algarve and Women’s Gold Cups may seem anti-climatic, particularly for somebody with two children and a husband in New Jersey.

But for as tough as it may be for Rampone to fly cross-country to play an exhibitions like the one against the lightly-regarded Irish on a frigid night in the Pacific Northwest, it’s all part of the job she loves.

“If my kids said to me, ‘Hey, Mom, you’re done traveling, I want you home,” I’d do it in a second,” Rampone explained.

“[The children] love it. They love the travel. Rylie, my oldest, she doesn’t want me to stop. She goes ‘I’ll miss it.’ Yeah, well, eventually [retirement is] going to happen. But why now?”

Rylie’s urgings should give some relief to U.S. national team fans who’ve seen the team’s dependence on Rampone grow despite the captain’s increasing years. While part of that is due to the changes at the back (Rampone was the only defensive player other than goalkeeper Hope Solo to start the 2008 and 2012 gold medal games), Rampone’s personal contributions – her maturity, as a player – are the main reasons for her prominence. Her recovery speed, still as good as any in the game, combines with her experience, intelligence and leadership to keep her in the conversation among the best defenders in the world.

It’s a remarkable place to be for somebody who started her career as an attacker, her 5’6″ height normally a deterrent to a role in central defense. As her career evolved, she was moved to fullback, often played wide in a three-women defense, and then settled into the middle under Sundhage, a position she’s made her own.

source: AP
Rampone, center, high-fives figure skater Sarah Hughes after they threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays, Monday, Aug. 27, 2012, at Yankee Stadium in New York. At left, Rampone’s daughter, Rylie, 6, wears her mother’s gold medal. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

“[I’m] just more a confident player, especially playing in the center,” she says when asked to compare herself to the 27-year-old version of Christie Rampone. At no point does she mention an area of her game where she feels she’s worse. “You’re organizing. You’re dictating [the game]. You’re seeing the game. I just feel so confident out there when I’m playing that just everything else flows.

“Still having the speed, the recovery speed, I’m there to help everybody else out … Just being able to be the one solid person back there that can help [the game] flow.”

Hers is not the type of vocal, front-of-camera leadership you see from her teammates, most notably Abby Wambach and Hope Solo. Minute-to-minute, there’s little in her words that separate her from her teammates, though her on-field actions speak to national team experience that dates back to 1997.

“I feel like I’m more the calming effect on the field,” is how Rampone explains her leadership style, “because I’m not like Raaar. It’s just more of a when I speak it means something.”

In a squad that, under Pia Sundhage, was often left players to sort out their own internal problems, Rampone’s level-headed leadership often provided crucial balance. Combined with her on-field contributions, for which U.S. Soccer has no replacement lined up, Rampone’s decision to persist becomes a particular blessing.

Should she stay with the team though the next World Cup (Canada 2015) and Olympics (Brazil 2016), Rampone could become the most-capped player in national team history. That honor currently rest with Kristine Lilly, whose 352 appearances are 79 more than Rampone’s 273. Over the last four years, U.S. soccer has played 78 games, though that includes an eight-match schedule in 2009. Up that slightly, a Rampone could pass Lilly after Brazil.

“I would love to continue to play,” Rampone said, “at least for a year or two, see where the team’s at, because I really am still enjoying it.”

That “year or two” timeframe is a curiously short one for a standout defender who seems committed to the next cycle. The next major tournament doesn’t start until June 2015. A three-to-four year commitment will be needed to get through the next Olympics, at which time Rampone will be 41.

But the numbers were less reference to her age or performance than deference to the changes happening above her within the team. Sundhage, who guided the team through the last cycle, has left the U.S., taking the head coaching position with her native Sweden. With her went all of the preferences and biases each coach develops in a job.

Now former-Australia head coach Tom Sermanni is stepping into the position, and although Rampone is familiar with him from their time together at the Women’s United Soccer Association’s New York Power, the captain’s taking nothing for granted.

source: AP
Tom Sermanni, new coach of the United States women’s soccer team, poses for a photo outside the United States Soccer Federation Headquarters after an interview on Oct. 30, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

“I’ll just talk to him, feel him out, see if I’m going to get a call in,” Rampone says, modestly. “Playing with [Sermanni] would be unbelievable. I would be sad if I couldn’t get a few games under him.”

It’s an excessively modest assessment. Rampone is clearly the best defender on the team, somebody who has had no problem maintaining her high level of fitness. She’s neither injury-prone nor visibly slowing down, something that would mark that end to her effectiveness at the international level. With uncertainty surrounding every other position along the back, her exclusion from the team’s future plans would be anywhere from unlikely to a huge, unnecessary risk.

As somebody who wants to get back into coaching when her playing days are gone (as an interim head coach, she led Sky Blue FC to Women’s Professional Soccer’s 2009 title), Rampone was deferential to her new coach’s potential plans:

“It’s just up to where he sees me and what he wants to do. I have no idea, his thoughts.”

There was no fear in her words. She wasn’t afraid of competing for a spot or being told she was too old. (“I’ve had a great career. If I’m able to keep playing … I want to do it. If not, I’ll move on.”) If anything, Rampone welcomes the competition.

“Every coach comes in with their philosophy and their thoughts. Will he want to go younger? Will he want to sick with the same or just bring everybody in and everybody fight it out, just like the good old days? Just grind it out, earn your spot, which I’m hoping. That way it just makes it more competitive here.”

Rampone’s questions will start to be answered this week when Tom Sermanni joins up with the national team  on Dec. 7 for a three-game observation period before assuming full head coaching responsibilities in January.

He’ll likely observe what U.S. Soccer fans already know – what he, likely, already knows. Despite retirement expectations and a future of two major tournaments in her 40s, Rampone remains a crucial part of the U.S.’s chances in 2015 and 2016. With player and family set to continue, Rampone may yet become the most capped player in team history, a worthy status if she’s able to add to her five major titles.

Why Arsenal can win the Premier League title

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LONDON — Before the 2015-16 Premier League season began, all of the momentum was behind Arsenal’s bid to win the Premier League title for the first time since 2003-04.

Eight weeks in, despite a topsy-turvy start to the season, the momentum is once again building behind Arsene Wenger‘s men as they rode a blistering start to seal a 3-0 win over fellow title contenders Manchester United on Sunday.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Many would suggest United fell at their first major hurdle this season, with Arsenal’s fluid front three of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil ripping apart their makeshift backline. But what about the Gunners, can they kick on and sustain a lengthy title challenge?

[ MORE: Brendan Rodgers fired ]

Manchester City is their biggest challenger, with the offensive power of Manuel Pellegrini‘s side making them the title favorites. However, considering how easily Arsenal brushed aside United thanks to their supreme attacking talents, Wenger’s men have supreme attackers of their own and sent out a message out to the rest of the PL. At least, that’s what striker Walcott had to say after he set up two goals and put in a dominant display.

“After the Olympiakos disappointment we started this game completely differently. We caught them on the break, we maybe eased off in the second half but the clean sheet was crucial for the whole team today,” Walcott said. “This game will send out a message to the Premier League that we are ready to have a go this season.”

So, according to Theo they are ready, but why can Arsenal win the title?


After his summer signing from Chelsea, the Czech Republic stopper has cemented himself as the undisputed No. 1 for the Gunners… no matter what Wenger says. The Arsenal manager was lambasted for leaving Cech out of Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League defeat to Olympiakos last week, as his replacement, David Ospina, made a howler to hand the Greek side a 3-2 defeat, but Cech proved his importance to Arsenal once again on Sunday. Looking past his mistakes in the opening day defeat to West Ham United, Cech has already made several stop saves this season (hence the bemusement for him being left out of the UCL games) and although Arsenal led 3-0 after 19 minutes on Sunday he was called into action at pivotal stages.

Right on half time Anthony Martial got free in the box and Cech saved at close range, gobbling up the Frenchman’s low shot. Not long into the second half he showed great bravery to dive at the feet of Bastian Schweinsteiger and he was faultless throughout as he claimed high balls and marshaled Arsenal’s backline. Cech, 33, won everything possible with Chelsea, now he could be the key cog in Arsenal’s quest for glory.


Arsenal’s success on Sunday was largely down to having a settled front three who all knew their jobs and performed them with ruthless efficiency. With Walcott through the middle, Alexis Sanchez off to the left and Mesut Ozil off to the right, the Gunners possessed the perfect amount of creativity and pace. With Olivier Giroud up top, the Gunners are sometimes too reliant on knocking high balls up to the Frenchman and hoping for the best. With the Walcott-Sanchez-Ozil trio, United couldn’t deal with their movement in behind their backline.

It may have been Sanchez and Ozil who got the goals, but Wenger reserved special praise for Walcott after the game as his non-stop running saw the England international lauded by the home fans throughout.

“I hope and I believe it can,” Wenger said when asked if the trio is the answer. “I must say, Walcott had a hugely committed performance today and a very convincing one. He didn’t score but I like to praise the strikers when they don’t score but contribute and give assists. He was involved in two goals and he showed that he can fight and commit and protect the ball as well. He is gaining aspects of his game as a center forward and is improving.”


When you look at the rest of the Premier League, the title race doesn’t seem wide-open. Yes, United, City and Arsenal have all lost two of their opening eight games of the season, while Chelsea has lost four times, but when you look at it overall, only Arsenal and City have the credentials to challenge for the title. Given City’s tendency to blow hot and cold, there may have not been a better time for the Gunners to win the title in the past 10 seasons.

Arsenal have now faced Chelsea away and Manchester United at home, while their next six PL fixtures (trips to Watford, Swansea, West Brom and Norwich, plus home games against Tottenham and Everton) give them a chance to set up a battle with City for the top spot between now and the busy festive period. Wenger agreed with Walcott and believes his side sent out a statement to the rest of the PL as they thrashed United.

“To win in a big game is always a statement and we are in it, you know. We are two points off the leaders Manchester City,” Wenger said. “I hope that result today will give us belief and ambition to fight for it [the title], yes.”

Who next? Klopp, Ancelotti main contenders to take over at Liverpool

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With Brendan Rodgers fired by Liverpool on Sunday, the first question many are asking is: who is next?

Rodgers, 42, was sacked just eight games into his fourth season in charge at Anfield, as a poor start to the current campaign, coupled with spending over $280 million on largely under-performing new players in the past two summers, has seen the Northern Irishman lose his job.

[ MORE: Rodgers fired by Liverpool ]

Despite almost leading Liverpool to their first Premier League title in 2013-14, Rodgers’ side have been on a downward spiral ever since. With the likes of Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling all leaving Anfield over the past 12 months, the pressure has been building on Rodgers as his new recruits haven’t been up to scratch.

[ MORE: Twitter reacts to Rodgers getting sacked ]

The former Swansea City manager is famed for creating an attractive brand of soccer, but with talk surrounding a transfer committee making plenty of decisions on signing new players, his assistant coaches being fired in the summer and growing unrest as Liverpool have failed to win any silverware during his time in charge, it proved too much for Rodgers to withstand.

Let’s take a quick look at the main contenders to take over at Anfield:

  • Jurgen Klopp – The former Borussia Dortmund manager is the overwhelming favorite to take over. His passion and ability to reignite a sleeping giant with a large fanbase (see: Dortmund) will resonate strongly with Liverpool’s owners. He won two Bundesliga titles at Dortmund with a young, exciting team and also led them to the UEFA Champions League final in 2013. The German coach speaks very good English and is currently on a self-imposed sabbatical after leaving Dortmund at the end of last season. Klopp has been waiting for a chance to manage in England for quite some time. Now, it seems to have arrived.
  • Carlo Ancelotti – He delivered the Premier League during his two seasons at Chelsea, and Ancelotti is a man with an incredible resume when it comes to winning the biggest trophies at the biggest clubs in Europe. He led AC Milan to a Serie A title and two UEFA Champions League trophies, then led Real Madrid to Champions League glory in 2014 before leaving last summer. Many believe Ancelotti is a man you bring in to manage top class players, which Liverpool is lacking at this point in time. At 56, could this job be too late in his career to undertake?
  • Frank de Boer – A long shot, the Dutch manager has done exceptionally well with a small budget and a group of young players at Ajax. He has won four Dutch titles in five years as Ajax boss. This would be way out of left field if it happens, but de Boer has the pedigree from a fine playing career and has cultivated an exciting playing style in Amsterdam.
  • Walter Mazzarri – The former Napoli manager brought plenty of success to Stadio San Paolo as he brought an attacking brand of soccer in a 3-4-3 formation and took the Serie A side to the UEFA Champions League. He didn’t fare so well at Inter Milan, but Mazzarri has a track record of working with exciting attacking players such as Hamsik, Cavani and Lavezzi.
  • Who else? – That is the biggest question and perhaps points to why the decision to fire Rodgers is baffling, if Liverpool don’t have a replacement already lined up. Current PL managers such as Garry Monk and Ronald Koeman have been mentioned, as well as Zenit St Petersbug boss Andre Villas-Boas, but the truth of the matter is, outside of Klopp and Ancelotti, there doesn’t seem to be many managers capable of taking Liverpool to the next level of challenging for silverware and getting back into the UEFA Champions League.