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.

Manchester United said to be offering $12 million bonus to Zlatan Ibrahimovic

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 12:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Paris Saint-Germain beats Eliaquim Mangala (20) and Joe Hart of Manchester City to score, but his goal is disallowed during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg match between Manchester City FC and Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium on April 12, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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The Premier League sometimes seems to deal in funny money, and it might take just that to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic across the English Channel.

The Swedish superstar, 34, is leaving Paris Saint-Germain this summer and is reportedly being targeted by several Premier League clubs.

[ MORE: LVG issues statement ]

With his old pal Jose Mourinho expected to take over at Manchester United, there’s been a natural batch of gossip linking the pair. Goal.com has claims of extraordinary dollar signs for the trophy-collecting Ibrahimovic.

Goal’s French site claims that Ibrahimovic would get close to a $12 million signing bonus to go with a huge weekly salary of approximately $363,000. Add that up, and you’re talking more than $560,000 a week.

The report spreads rumors of a $400,000-per-week offer from Major League Soccer for Zlatan, and that acquisition would certainly quell the minor storm caused by China’s acquisition of many big names.

We’ve always thought Ibrahimovic was more an Arsenal-style player, but imagine Mourinho running the Swede with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford? Bonkers.

Ajax hires Peter Bosz as new coach to replace Frank de Boer

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 30:  Peter Bosz manager of Vitesse looks on ahead of the UEFA Europa League Third Qualifying Round 1st Leg match between Southampton and Vitesse at St Mary's Stadium on July 30, 2015 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
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AMSTERDAM (AP) Ajax has signed Peter Bosz as its new coach, replacing Frank de Boer who announced earlier this month he was leaving the club after nearly six years in which he won four Dutch league titles.

Bosz, a former player and technical director at Ajax’s arch rival Feyenoord, is leaving Maccabi Tel Aviv to join the Amsterdam club on a three-year contract.

[ MORE: USMNT-Ecuador preview | Klinsmann eyes semis ]

In a statement late Tuesday, Bosz says it is an honor to join Ajax. He says, “I am very ambitious and so is Ajax.”

Ajax director Edwin van der Sar says that in Bosz, Ajax has hired a coach “who can make our talented squad even better.”

Ajax finished second behind PSV Eindhoven in the top flight Eredivisie season that has just ended.

WATCH: Neymar caught a bit offguard in first look at his wax figure

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 22:  Neymar of FC Barcelona celebrates aftr scoring Barcelona's 2nd goal during the Copa del Rey Final between Barcelona and Sevilla at Vicente Calderon Stadium    on May 22, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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I remember the first time I saw the first of many life size wax replications of my body.

That is a sentence I am unlikely to ever utter, but Neymar is a different story.

[ MORE: USMNT-Ecuador preview | Klinsmann eyes semis ]

The 24-year-old Brazilian superstar was caught on camera witnessing his wax figure for the first time, and we can watch it thanks to FC Barcelona.

Look at this guy, looking at that guy. The most interesting part for me is his fascination with how well they did with his tattoos, which of course are easier to duplicate than, you know, a face:

Morris “completely respects” Klinsmann’s keeping him off USMNT roster

SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 20:  Seattle Sounders FC forward Jordan Morris speaks on stage during We Day at KeyArena on April 20, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for We Day)
Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for We Day
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Seattle Sounders striker and USMNT star-in-waiting Jordan Morris struck a mature note when asked about his exclusion from Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man roster for this summer’s Copa America Centenario.

Some will have considered the youngster a lock for the roster, with Morris already boasting rarefied air as a college player to become something close to a national team regular while still in school.

[ MORE: USMNT-Ecuador preview | Klinsmann eyes semis ]

But Klinsmann opted for in-form San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski, and it has become old hat for MLS players to gripe when their name is not called by the German boss (See: Benny Feilhaber, Brad Evans and Landon Donovan).

Don’t count Morris in that group. Of course the youngster doesn’t have the tenure to rally against the man who gave him his shot in the first place, but that hasn’t stopped others from acting entitled to a roster spot.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“[Klinsmann] told me not take it too hard and that there was a lot of competition,” Morris said. “I completely respect his decision. There were a lot of good forwards playing and they’re all playing really well. I wish those guys all the best. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this summer.”

Morris can still end up on the roster through injury, and it’s easy to see him as the next name up should an attack-minded player take a knock. Stefan Frei told us last week that Morris is remarkably professional, and this is no exception.

The youngster did admit increased motivation from his omission, stating that “it gives you fuel to your fire to try and get back in the mix a little bit”. We have a feeling he won’t be out of that mix for long.