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.

Premier League roundup: Foxes, Spurs pace the PL, New club in drop zone

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez (R) and Kasper Schmeichel (L) of Leicester City celebrate their team's win in the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Say it again, folks: Leicester City isn’t going away.

The Foxes went into the Etihad Stadium and battered Manchester City on Saturday, and now lead the table by five points. Leicester is ahead of fifth place Manchester United by 13 after a 3-1 win over City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

We also have a new second-placed team, and a new side in the drop zone as well. Let’s run through the eight games we caught Saturday from the United Kingdom.

Manchester City 1-3 Leicester CityRECAP

Robert Hugh scored two goals and Riyad Mahrez had one sandwiched in between as the Foxes continued their surprising run at the top of the league with a comprehensive win over Man City. Sergio Aguero pulled one back late because, well, he’s Sergio Aguero. City blew a big chance to state their title claim.

Stoke City 0-3 Everton – RECAP

Mark Hughes has watched his Potters give up three goals for the third-straight match, and the Potters fell to 1W-1D-3L during the most recent injury absence for Geoff Cameron. Meanwhile, the Toffees got goals from three different players in the first half in moving up the table.

Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Watford – RECAP

Spurs kept knocking, and finally broke through when Dele Alli‘s cross found ex-Burnley back Kieran Trippier. It was a dominant win for the new second-place Spurs, while Watford is 10th.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on February 6, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
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Aston Villa 2-0 Norwich City – RECAP

The visitors left Villa Park in the drop zone after falling to goals from veterans Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joleon Lescott. Norwich trails Newcastle by a single point.

Swansea City 1-1 Crystal Palace – RECAP

Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Hennessey were the stars here, though the first bested the latter on an early free kick to make it 1-0. Scott Dann tied it up, and Hennessey made several saves to make sure Palace picked up a point for the first time in six PL matches.

Southampton 1-0 West Ham United – RECAP

Maya Yoshida put Saints up early, and Southampton was able to hold off the Irons despite going down to 10 men thanks to Victor Wanyama‘s sliding takedown of Dimitri Payet in the 53rd minute. Southampton has pulled to within a pair of points of sixth-place West Ham.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on February 6, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
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Newcastle United 1-0 West Bromwich Albion – RECAP

Nothing’s easy for the Magpies, who dominated possession and shot attempts but only beat the Baggies once. The goal belonged to Aleksandar Mitrovic off another slick feed from reenergized Jonjo Shelvey, and the Magpies are one point clear of the drop zone.

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland – RECAP

Playing without a sick Jurgen Klopp didn’t seem like a problem when Roberto Firmino scored a goal and set up Adam Lallana for another. Sam Allardyce‘s Black Cats provided a shock late, though, as Adam Johnson and Jermain Defoe picked up goals to keep Sunderland within four points of safety.

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 25 15 8 2 47 27 20 7-4-1 8-4-1 53
Tottenham Hotspur 25 13 9 3 45 19 26 7-4-2 6-5-1 48
Manchester City 25 14 5 6 47 26 21 9-1-3 5-4-3 47
Arsenal 24 13 6 5 37 22 15 7-3-2 6-3-3 45
Manchester United 24 11 7 6 31 21 10 6-4-2 5-3-4 40
West Ham United 25 10 9 6 38 29 9 5-5-2 5-4-4 39
Southampton 25 10 7 8 33 24 9 7-2-4 3-5-4 37
Everton 25 8 11 6 46 34 12 4-4-5 4-7-1 35
Liverpool 25 9 8 8 32 36 -4 4-5-3 5-3-5 35
Watford 25 9 6 10 27 27 0 5-3-5 4-3-5 33
Stoke City 25 9 6 10 24 31 -7 5-2-5 4-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 25 9 5 11 26 30 -4 4-2-7 5-3-4 32
Chelsea 24 7 8 9 32 34 -2 4-4-4 3-4-5 29
West Bromwich Albion 25 7 8 10 23 32 -9 4-4-5 3-4-5 29
Bournemouth 24 7 7 10 29 39 -10 3-4-4 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 25 6 9 10 24 33 -9 4-5-4 2-4-6 27
Newcastle United 25 6 6 13 26 44 -18 4-5-4 2-1-9 24

Norwich City 25 6 5 14 28 48 -20 4-3-5 2-2-9 23
Sunderland 25 5 5 15 30 49 -19 3-3-6 2-2-9 20
Aston Villa 25 3 7 15 20 40 -20 2-4-6 1-3-9 16

Official: Vardy rewarded for stellar season with new 3.5-year contract

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Manchester United, his eleventh consecutive goal in the Premier League, during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. Vardy becomes the first man to score in 11 consecutive English Premier League soccer matches after finding the back of the net against Manchester United today.(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
AP Photo/Rui Vieira
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Jamie Vardy has been handsomely rewarded for his stellar 2015-16 Premier League season, in the form of a brand new three-and-a-half-year contract that will keep the 29-year-old striker at Leicester City until the summer of 2019, the club announced on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

So back off, Chelsea and Liverpool and Manchester City and anyone else who might have dreamt of poaching the 18-goal-scorer (so far) this summer; the Foxes’ star man is staying put.

According to numerous reports, Vardy’s new deal will pay him more than $115,000 per week, nearly doubling his previous $65,000-per-week contract, which he signed at the start of the 2014-15 season.

When you score goals like this, on top of having already broken the Premier League record by scoring a goal in 11 consecutive games, you’re bound be paid like one of the world’s top strikers, which is exactly what Vardy’s been this season.

From non-Football League side Fleetwood Town, to top of the Premier League and title favorites, to financially set for the rest of his life… all in less than 48 months’ time.

Southampton 1-0 West Ham: Yoshida, Saints overcome Wanyama red

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and West Ham United at St Mary's Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Southampton, England.
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  • Yoshida strikes early
  • Wanyama sent off for third time this season
  • Another clean sheet for Forster

Maya Yoshida‘s early goal held up despite Saints playing with 10 men for nearly 40 minutes, and Southampton beat visiting West Ham United 1-0 at St. Mary’s on Saturday.

Victor Wanyama took a straight red card for cleaning out Dimitri Payet, but Saints closed down the Hammers to move with two points of the visitors’ sixth place in the Premier League table.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Adrian made sure Saints couldn’t take an early lead as he got vertical to stop Cedric‘s eighth minute header.

He couldn’t stop Yoshida, though, who ran to the door step to finish off a good bit of combination play and suspect West Ham spacing.

Fraser Forster kept up his hot play when he two-handed Winston Reid‘s header of a Payet free kick. A corner kick followed, but merely produced a Saints counter.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Mark Noble slipped Enner Valencia through early in the second half, but a low shot spun right to Forster.

Then Wanyama lost his head, and picked up a straight red card for a sliding through Payet. It was the second-straight fixture between the sides that saw referee Mark Clattenburg send Wanyama off.

Reid and Collins were confused on a Forster goal kick, allowing Shane Long to put a shot over the goal.

An absolutely gorgeous dribble from Oriel Romeu freed up Charlie Austin for a chance to salt it away in the 88th minute, but Austin’s blast flew past the goal.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ranieri refuses to believe Leicester is title favorites, but they are

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The entire globe is talking about Leicester City being the favorites to win the Premier League.

Their manager Claudio Ranieri is having none of it.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Following Leicester’s stunning 3-1 win at fellow title-contenders Manchester City on Saturday the Foxes are five points clear of second-place Tottenham Hotspur.

Ranieri, 64, is refusing to accept his team are the title favorites — bookmakers have slashed their odds on winning the title and now make them the favorites at 13/8 — despite having a sizable lead with 13 games to go.

“I don’t believe them,” Ranieri said. “They said I was first to be sacked! But I hope they are right.”

Up next for Leicester is the small matter of a trip to Arsenal next Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), who will be five points behind the Foxes if they beat Bournemouth on Sunday.

Ranieri spoke to Leicester’s website about his side keeping their focus and keeping their dream alive.

“We know it’s a crazy league. We have to try in this crazy league but there are some big teams who have to win. We enjoy of course and we want to fight, but without pressure. For us it’s important to play and continue in this way because it’s a strange league,” Ranieri said. “We are alive and we want to fight. We go to Arsenal next and I hope we will concentrate as well as we have in the last two matches and continue our dream.”

With a 13-point gap over fifth-placed Manchester United as things stand, Leicester look almost nailed on to at least qualify for the UEFA Champions League which is something they’ve never done before.

A quick reminder of Leicester’s odds of winning the PL title at the start of the season: 5,000/1. If they manage to stay the course and pull this off it would be the biggest shock in PL history. Period.

While all the other title contenders have to play in the Champions League, Europa League and domestic cup competitions, Leicester only has 13 more games this season and that means their players will stay fresh and focused. They have no pressure and are playing with the freedom of a team who have no worries. They ere expected to battle against relegation this season and last year they only escaped the drop with a remarkable run of seven wins in their final nine games. This season it is so completely different.

Don’t listen to Ranieri. They can do this and given City’s stumbling form and Arsenal’s erratic finishing of late, they should be the favorites.