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.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)