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.”

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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.

PHOTOS: Tottenham release new images of stadium development

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Tottenham Hotspur is cracking on with work at White Hart Lane.

Big time.

[ MORE: Mourinho wields the axe

Spurs have already demolished part of their current home as they continue to construct their new $570 million stadium next to the footings of the original stadium which has stood for nearly 117 years.

Check out the dramatic images below to see a large chunk of White Hart Lane missing as part of the redevelopment which will see a brand new 61,000 seater stadium built on land adjacent to the current White Hart Lane stadium, with the their old home to be demolished next summer.

[ MORE: Manchester derby cancelled ]

Next season Tottenham’s home will have a reduced capacity of just under 30,000 and they will have to move away to another stadium for at least the 2017-18 campaign as work to demolish the original WHL continues.

Wembley Stadium is said to be the favorite to house Spurs for at least a season with the English Football Association confirming talks had taken place between the two organizations.

All being well, Spurs plan to move into their new home for the start of the 2018-19 season with a whole new area created around the stadium with schools, housing, shops and more included in the Northumberland development project.

I know they won’t enjoy comparisons to Arsenal but their new digs — check them out in full here — looks very similar to the Emirates Stadium but, crucially, it will have an extra 740 seats to make it the biggest club stadium in London…


USMNT youngster Zelalem in Arsenal squad for US tour

Gedion Zelalem, USMNT U-23s
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Gedion Zelalem, 19, is heading to the United States of America with Arsenal.

[ MORE: Mourinho wields the axe ]

On Monday Arsene Wenger and his squad — he named 23 players to the roster which included teenager Zelalem — flew to the U.S. ahead of their game against the MLS All-Stars in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday.

The Gunners will also play Chivas Guadalajara at StubHub Center, Carson, Calif. on Sunday to round off their two-game tour of the U.S.

[ MORE: Allardyce bullish on England ]

Wenger has named a strong squad for the tour, with the full list below.

The only major absentees are players who made a deep run in major tournaments with their countries this summer.

Arsenal’s French contingent who reached the final of EURO 2016 — Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud — aren’t in the squad, while Alexis Sanchez is omitted after winning Copa America Centenario with Chile and suffering an ankle injury plus Aaron Ramsey hasn’t been named in the squad after reaching the semifinals of the European Championships with Wales.

Mesut Ozil is also left out after reaching the final four of EURO 2016 with Germany but the likes of Jack Wilshere, Granit Xhaka, Santi Cazorla, Petr Cech, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla all make the trip.

As for Zelalem, Arsenal boss Wenger thinks highly of the youngster who was born in Germany but spent his formative years in Maryland, hence why he was able to obtain U.S. citizenship and play for the U.S. national team. The fluid two-way midfielder has silky skills on the ball but is still young and his body is yet to develop into a powerful unit.

That perhaps explains why Zelalem is yet to make his debut for Jurgen Klinsmann’s full national team but he did play a starring role in Tab Ramos’ U-20 side during the World Cup in 2015. His progress with the U-23 side has somewhat stalled in recent months after Zelalem was loaned out to Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish second-tier last season. After a good start to the campaign with Rangers he found minutes hard to come by in the second half of last season.

ProSoccerTalk spoke to Wenger about Zelalem in the summer of 2015 and he said he will always give him, and other youngsters, a chance to impress in preseason before either including him in the first team squad of loaning him out.

With Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny and Xhaka in front of him in the pecking order for a midfield spot, it seems likely that the young U.S. national team prospect will again spend time away from the Emirates Stadium in the upcoming season.

A few strong performances in preseason could change that though.

Report: Man United make several star players available for transfer

WIGAN, ENGLAND - JULY 16: Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho looks on during the pre season friendly match between Wigan Athletic and Manchester United at the JJB Stadium on July 16, 2016 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho’s is about to wield the axe at Manchester United.

The Daily Mail claims that up to seven high-profile international players at United will be put up for sale this summer.

[ MORE: Manchester derby cancelled ]

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian are apparently surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, while Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young and Memphis Depay have all been told they won’t be regulars, per the report.

Mourinho has already added Eric Bailly, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibramimovic to his squad this summer and is looking to trim his wage bill considerably to tidy up the roster left behind by Louis Van Gaal.

Negotiations over Paul Pogba’s massive $130 million move from Juventus are said to be continuing behind-the-scenes and all of that adds up to a bloated squad at United.

What of the three highest profile players who are apparently up for sale? Well, we all know Mourinho’s thoughts on Mata.

[ MORE: Allardyce bullish on England job ]

The Spanish playmaker, 28, was sold by Mourinho when he took over at Chelsea for his second spell in charge of the club. It was claimed Mata’s defensive abilities was the main reason Mourinho sold him to United and now it looks like the Spanish international could be on the outside looking in once again.

As for Schweinsteiger, 31, the German national team captain endured an injury hit first season at United last season and played 31 times, scoring twice. He was a key signing in Van Gaal’s era but now the veteran midfielder may be moved on, especially if Pogba does arrive.

Memphis’ struggles last season are well documented with the Dutch winger, 22, scoring just twice in the Premier League all season after his $40 million move from PSV Eindhoven. With Mkhitaryan arriving, plus the emergence of Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford last season, open slots in wide positions seem to be sparse in Mourinho’s squad.

That also spells bad news for Young and Januzaj, with the latter loaned out to Borussia Dortmund last season, while the full back position seems stacked too as Rojo and Darmian appear to be behind youngsters Luke Shaw and Timothy Fosu-Mensah in the pecking order.

Mata and Memphis could still fetch sizable transfer fees, while Schweinsteiger may be tough to move on given the fact that he’s reportedly on almost $200,000 per week at Old Trafford. Young, Januzaj, Darmian and Rojo may be hard to move on too, but loan deals seem likely if United picks up a chunk of their wages.

With Mourinho and his team heading back to Europe following the cancellation of their International Champions Cup friendly against Manchester City in China on Monday, the serious business of trimming down his squad and making tough decisions has already begun.

Winds of change are swirling around Old Trafford.

Allardyce on England unveiling: “Time to stand up and be counted”

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25:  Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce attends a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Sam Allardyce gave his first press conference as the new manager of the English national team on Monday and the overriding theme was easy to pick up: confidence.

Allardyce, 61, strode into the room with a huge smile on his face and gave forthright answers, as expected, on his appointment as new boss of the Three Lions.

[ MORE: Manchester derby cancelled ]

The former Sunderland manager insisted England hasn’t “hit rock bottom” and admitted this “will be the greatest challenge for me in my long career.”

Asked about his style of play and his somewhat direct tactics clashing with the now widely-stated DNA of the English FA, who want to be a passing team, Allardyce shared his belief that he has always adapted his playing style to the players at his disposal.

“I think choosing styles of systems depends on the players available and who we are playing. My coaching technique is to try to give players the opportunity to win football matches, home or away, and make them aware of the opposition,” Allardyce said. “I think the bonding of the team is exceptionally important and trying to create that team spirit and have some fun. I have enjoyed my life in the game, this job is the pinnacle and I want to enjoy this the most.”

He also pointed to diminutive forward Jermain Defoe playing up front on his own last season for Sunderland and the Englishman scoring 18 goals.

Allardyce is still trying to dispel the myth he is a long-ball merchant and it could take some time to convince England’s fans despite the overall reaction to his appointment being a positive one.

When asked if Wayne Rooney would still be his captain when his first game rolls around — a World Cup qualifier at Slovakia on Sept. 4 — Allardyce was coy, not confirming if Rooney would indeed be his skipper.

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25: Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce poses after a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Allardyce also gave some interesting comments when asked about the possibility of having a winter break in the Premier League and the former Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United and West Ham United boss was crystal clear in his belief that the PL should take a break.

“I have been an advocate of that for 10 years or more. The demand on players is enormous,” Allardyce said. “The Premier League is the best league in world so demand has to be on the players. It would help the Premier League and us at international level if we could try and achieve it. In my time when we finish at Christmas, in January and February it is always the most difficult time to get players through.”

With the English national team the youngest in terms of average age at EURO 2016, Allardyce was asked about the potential of the players he is inheriting.

“It is not potential anymore, it has to be reality and they have to stand up and be counted. The young players have a lot of experience now and some has been bitter. They don’t want to feel like that again,” Allardyce said. “Potential is not a word I want to use, you want the quality player to produce his best performances immediately. This squad of players is very experienced and going forward hopefully will produce better.”

One thing is for sure, “Big Sam” tells it like it is and we can expect plenty more honest answers in the years to come as England first aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and then improve drastically on their recent poor record in major tournaments.