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.

MLS Preview: Conference leaders meet as Philly head west to Colorado

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - APRIL 02:  Dillon Powers #8 of Colorado Rapids controls the ball against the Toronto FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Rapids defeated Toronto FC 1-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The weekend is nearing, which means another full slate of ten matches across Major League Soccer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

With Sporting KC and D.C. United kicking things off on Friday night, Saturday is jam-packed with eight matches before the league’s youngest clubs NYCFC and Orlando wrap up the action on Sunday.

Colorado Rapids vs. Philadelphia Union — Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET

There’s not a misprint on the table, Colorado and Philadelphia are both at the top of their conferences. After sitting near the bottom of MLS for the past two seasons, Colorado has shocked everyone, currently leading the league in points (27) with the fewest goals conceded (9). On Saturday, the Rapids put their perfect 6-0 home record on the line when they host the Union, who currently lead the East by two points.

New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC — Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET

Coming off of a massive 7-0 win in the Hudson River Derby against NYCFC, the Red Bulls will look to continue trending upwards when they host Toronto FC. Two of the preseason favorites to top the Eastern Conference, both sides are currently tied on points, although the Red Bulls have a game in hand. For Toronto, Sebastian Giovinco will be keen to prove Antonio Conte wrong after being left out of the Italy squad for EURO 2016 after the Italian boss talked down upon MLS.

[ MLS: Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Montreal Impact vs. Los Angeles Galaxy — Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET

Didier Drogba has scored in each of his last three starts, a streak he will look to keep alive against the Los Angeles Galaxy this weekend. While Drogba will be looking to score, Montreal must make sure their defense is in top form as the Galaxy have scored a league-high 25 goals through 11 matches.

Elsewhere around MLS

Sporting KC vs. D.C. United — Friday, 7:00 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Houston Dynamo — Saturday, 6:00 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew SC vs. Real Salt Lake — Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
New England Revolution vs. Seattle Sounders — Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET
San Jose Earthquakes vs. FC Dallas — Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET
New York City FC vs. Orlando City SC — Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET

Cantona claims ethnicity played role in Benzema, Ben Arfa France snubs

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 14:  Former Footballer Eric Cantona of France speaks during a press conference at the Shanghai Grand Theatre prior to the  Laureus World Sports Awards  on April 14, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images for Laureus)
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Eric Cantona has made the headlines again, this time making some bold claims against France national team manager Didier Deschamps.

Cantona, a former Manchester United legend and French international, questioned whether Deschamps excluded Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from the team due to their North African origins.

[ MORE: Skrtel set to leave Liverpool ]

Speaking to The Guardian, Cantona calls Benzema and Ben Arfa two of France’s best footballers, both of whom will not be playing for the national team this summer.

Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know.

So I’m not surprised he used the situation of Benzema not to take him. Especially after [French Prime Minister Manuel Valls] said he should not play for France. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.

One thing is for sure – Benzema and Ben Arfa are two of the best players in France and will not play the European Championship. And for sure, Benzema and Ben Arfa, their origins are north African. So, the debate is open.

Cantona’s view doesn’t hold much merit as Deschamps did not even have the option of selecting Benzema, the country’s active leading goalscorer. The Real Madrid striker is suspended by the federation, embroiled in a blackmail sex-tape scandal involving French teammate Mathieu Valbuena, who was also left off the EURO roster.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine the Champions League final ]

France is an extremely diverse nation with a large North African population, Benzema of Algerian descent and Ben Arfa’s father a former Tunisian international. Both players were born in France and have received prior call-ups under Deschamps, with Cantona’s quite ridiculous comments likely to cause a stir before the EURO.

FA Cup will no longer have quarterfinal replays

HALIFAX, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 09:  The FA Cup is seen prior to the FA Cup First Round match between FC Halifax and Bradford City  on November 9, 2014 in Halifax, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Starting in 2017, the FA Cup will no longer have replays in the quarterfinal round.

The decision was made in an effort to combat the congested English fixture list, which has been a topic of debate for years now.

[ MORE: Lukaku wants out at Everton ]

This season, Manchester United defeated West Ham in a quarterfinal replay before going on to win the competition.

In a statement released by the FA, these changes aim to add drama to the matches while eliminating an extra matchday needed for replays.

The revamped competition will see eight clubs battle it out over one weekend with each tie to be played to a finish on the day, adding to the drama and impact the competition has enjoyed in recent years.

Other new initiatives will be explored to ensure The FA Cup retains its status and appeal. These plans also form part of The FA’s commitment to help ease English football’s congested fixture schedule.

There will still be replays in the earlier rounds of the tournament, which allows lower level clubs the opportunity to earn a nice financial boost should they force a second match at a Premier League ground.

The Premier League is the only top league in Europe that does not take a winter break, a schedule that has been criticized by multiple managers, including Jurgen Klopp.

Judge hears arguments on US women’s team strike rights

HARRISON, NJ - MAY 30:  The United States team poses for a team picture before the match against the South Korea during an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on May 30, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO — A federal judge in Chicago has heard arguments whether the world champion U.S. women’s soccer team has the right to strike for improved conditions and wages before this year’s Olympics.

Lawyers for the U.S. Soccer Federation told Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman at a Thursday hearing that a no-strike clause is implied in a still-valid 2013 memorandum with players.

[ MORE: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

But a lawyer for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association balked at that claim. Jeffrey Kessler said the federation had “screwed up” by not securing a no-strike clause in writing and can’t argue three years later that such a provision is implied.

The union wants the option to strike before the Olympics start in August, but hasn’t said it will. Many players have voiced concern over gender equity in soccer.