Pia Sundhage

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Culture shift? Tournament of Nations has three female coaches

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An ongoing shift in women’s soccer has been apparent at the Tournament of Nations – not on the field but on the sidelines.

Three of the four teams participating in the international event have female coaches, a rare majority in soccer.

A year ago, the two teams playing for the gold medal at the Rio Olympics were both led by women, Sweden’s Pia Sundhage and Germany’s Silvia Neid. And Jill Ellis led the U.S. national team to the Women’s World Cup title in Canada the year before.

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Ellis and others in the sport believe that recent events show women are making important and necessary gains in soccer – but there’s more work to be done.

“I think it’s forward-thinking federations that are about hiring competent coaches but also willing to provide opportunities,” Ellis said. “I know we’ve recently hired technical advisers for our academies and they’re all female and I think that’s great. We’ve got to have more coaches out there and more role models for young coaches. I think it’s great.”

The inaugural Tournament of Nations concludes on Thursday night in Carson, California. The U.S. women rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Brazil 4-3 on Sunday in San Diego and will face Japan in the tournament’s final match.

U.S. Soccer hopes to host the tournament each summer that there isn’t a World Cup or Olympic competition. In addition to Ellis, Emily Lima is the new coach for Brazil and Asako Takakura manages Japan. The only male coach in the event is Australia’s Alen Stajcic.

Lima and Takakura are former players who are relatively new to their teams: Lima took over Brazil last fall following the Olympics and Takakura was appointed after Japan failed to make the field for Rio. Both are the first female coaches for their teams.

Another sign of a possible culture shift in the sport: Five of the top 10 teams in FIFA’s world rankings are coached by women.

The trend has not been lost on Moya Dodd, a former Australian national team standout and vice president of the Asian Football Confederation who has been a vocal advocate for women’s soccer.

“When given the opportunity, women coaches are phenomenally successful. All but one of the World Cups, Olympic golds and Euros in women’s football since 2000 have been won by female-coached teams,” Dodd said, adding that’s 11 of 12 tournaments at the sport’s highest level.

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However, Dodd said any shift is far less apparent below the senior national team level and at the club level, where female coaches are scarcer.

For example, among the 10 National Women’s Soccer League teams, there’s just one female head coach: Laura Harvey of the Seattle Reign.

Dodd also points to the NCAA, where the number of women coaches has dropped. A recent study of women’s collegiate teams by the University of Minnesota gave soccer a “D” grade with just 26.2 percent of teams with female coaches in 2016-17, a drop from the previous season.

“In the U.S.A., the percentage of female college athletes coached by women has halved since Title IX was introduced. It seems that women face barriers that grow higher as women’s sports become bigger,” Dodd said.

In an email exchange with The Associated Press, Dodd added that she sees unconscious bias as one of the biggest obstacles women much overcome.

“The characteristics that are seen as assets in a male coach – being tough, having strong opinions, or yelling at players (like Alex Ferguson’s famous `hairdryer’ treatment) would characterize a woman as difficult, emotional or hysterical,” she wrote. “Yet if she is motherly and caring, she doesn’t fit the definition of a coach. In other words, gender stereotypes work against her at both ends.”

At the UEFA Women’s European Championship, there are six women coaches among the 16 teams that took part. Of the four teams playing in Thursday’s semifinals – England, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria – one has a female head coach, Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands).

The women’s Euros are played every four years as the premier competition in the UEFA Confederation. In the last edition, four of the 12 teams were coached by women.

Japan’s Takakura gave added perspective when it comes to female coaches: they should be treated the same as men.

“From my point of view I think it’s good news to have female coaches,” she said through a translator. “But as a coach the gender doesn’t really matter; it doesn’t matter if it’s a he or a she. As a coach, you have to educate and develop your players.”

FULL INTERVIEW: USWNT’s Hope Solo in lion’s den on Swedish TV

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If you can’t beat them, but also aren’t allowed to play domestically, join them.

That could be the case for suspended USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo, who is pondering offers abroad.

Those include clubs in Sweden, whose national team Solo famously blasted for playing like “a bunch of cowards” in the USWNT’s elimination from the Summer Olympics. Solo says she hopes Sweden would welcome her if it comes to that.

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Solo was suspended six months for the aforementioned comments, and had her contract terminated by U.S. Soccer.

She joined Norwegian talk show host Fredrik Skavlan late Friday to talk about all of that, and the crowd had a laugh as the host opened the conversation by saying, “You are very famous in Sweden.”

She apologized for using the words “cowards” but went onto defend her original position. She said that by “cowards” she meant “not Olympic-spirited”.

Yep. Totally the same thing.

“If anyone actually listened to the interview, and I’m not sure if you have, I wasn’t enraged, I wasn’t emotional, I wasn’t angry. I Just had this conversation with the journalists in the room after the game,” Solo says. “I didn’t mean to come across that the players were cowards or the coach was a coward. I meant the style of play wasn’t very Olympic-spirited.”

Moving on from that, there was a very layered discussion on her suspension and — oddly enough — it was another American guest in Tyra Banks who phrased this probing question:

“There are people in American sports, men, who have said and done the most crazy violent things,” Banks said. “They get a slap on the wrist. They get suspended for a bit and then you see them right back, doing everything, playing like crazy and having endorsers coming right back. I’m stupefied, confused right now.”

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That’s really the rub, isn’t it? Solo was clearly suspended as a culmination of her actions and words over the years, not for breaking the Olympic spirit (as embarrassing as her words were). But she claims the suspension has to do with her leading the fight for equal pay in a new collective bargaining agreement for the USWNT, and there could certainly be something to that.

As with many athletes, reconciling some salient points with an abrasive personality and sometimes eye-rolling comments (see below) is a challenge.

Other things:

  • Solo said she’s never allow her kid to play goalie because it’s “thankless”
  • Solo claimed she spoke with Sweden’s Lotta Schelin immediately after the game, and that the Swedish star was totally okay with her “cowards” comments.
  • Solo on why she didn’t speak to Pia Sundhage, who blasted Solo’s “cowards” comments after the game, “I didn’t have the chance to speak to her. She coaches the other team. It’s kinda hard to speak to Pia or have a relationship with Pia anymore.”
  • Related a conversation with her husband that, “People don’t understand the best part of retirement is you can wake up every single morning and actually decide what you want to do, without obligations”. 

On that last one: Yes, yes they do. I think nearly everyone understands this frame of mind, even if some are hit hard by retirement.

Again, that’s part of the issue here. Solo makes some good points, but her unique personality makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Hope Solo lashes out following USWNT loss, calls Sweden “cowards”

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After crashing out of the Olympics in the quarterfinals, USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo had some strong words for Sweden. She didn’t like their style of play, and she let it be known.

“I think we played a bunch of cowards,” Solo said following defeat to Sweden on penalties after a 1-1 draw. “The best team did not win today. I strongly believe that.”

Solo, never one to disguise how she feels, was asked to clarify her comments. She continued, “Sweden dropped off. They didn’t want to open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball. They didn’t want to play great soccer. It was a combative game, a physical game. Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their gameplan was. They dropped into a 50. They didn’t try and press. They didn’t want to open the game, and they tried to counter with longballs…I think it was very cowardly.”

A “better” team losing to a less talented side that bunkers in and frustrates the favorites is an age-old tale, and this sentiment is nothing new following this kind of result. We saw it during Euro 2016 when Portugal squeaked by Iceland, Cristiano Ronaldo criticized the Icelandic squad for playing “small” after playing to a 1-1 draw.

However, it’s impossible to deny that Sweden simply did what they had to do to advance past a powerful opponent. The Americans knew exactly what they would face, and they failed to execute an effective strategy to break down the defensive-minded Swedes. It’s not as if they were surprised by this style of play. Solo said it herself they were aware of the game plan. So her explosive comments are more likely out of frustration than anything else – exactly what the Swedes were looking for.

Former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage threw at the Stars and Stripes exactly what everyone expected, and the U.S. still came up empty-handed. Solo finished her comments with “I don’t think they’ll make it far in the tournament” which is funny considering Sweden’s win over the USWNT moves them into the semifinals – two wins away from a gold medal.

Sundhage followed up Solo’s comments by responding, “I don’t give a crap. I’m going to Rio, she’s going home.”

Solo later tweeted, “Losing sucks. I’m really bad at it.” She did not apologize to Sweden for her comments.

Women’s World Cup: Germany defeat Sweden, 4-1, advance to quarterfinals

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Germany, currently ranked No. 1 in the world in both the men’s and women’s game, is the first nation to book its place in the quarterfinal round of the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

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The two-time Women’s World Cup winners (2003 and 2007) advanced to their seventh straight quarterfinals appearance (out of seven) by knocking off Sweden, the current No. 5 team in the world, 4-1, on Saturday.

Anja Mittag opened the scoring for Die Nationalelf when she finished her driving run through the heart of the Swedish midfield and defense with a perfectly placed, curling effort from 22 yards out. Mittag’s fifth goal of the tournament pinged off the inside of the far post and found the back of the net in the 24th minute.

Celia Sasic doubled the Germans’ lead when she converted from the penalty spot 12 minutes later, giving her goal No. 4 of the 2015 World Cup. Sasic grabbed her second of the game and fifth of the tournament in the 78th minute, when she headed home the rebound of Simone Laudehr’s shot off the far post to make the score 3-0.

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Sweden pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute, when Linda Sembrant headed home Therese Sjogran’s free kick toward the German penalty spot, but it was very much too little, too late for Pia Sundhage’s side.

Dzsenifer Marozsan restored Germany’s three-goal lead in the 88th minute, when her half-clearance/half-shot floated over the head of Sweden goalkeeper Hedvin Linahl and tucked itself just under the crossbar and inside the far post for Maroszan’s first goal of the tournament.

Germany now await the outcome of Sunday’s round of 16 matchup between France and South Korea, the winner of which will face the tournament’s overwhelming favorites in the quarterfinals next Friday. A semifinals showdown with the US women’s national team could follow.

Three things learned: US women sound in defense, still looking for goals from forwards

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The United States sits atop Group D at the 2015 Women’s World Cup after a scoreless draw with Sweden on Friday at Winnipeg Stadium.

A matchup of two of the world’s top five teams didn’t yield any goals as each played more conservatively and neither team made much of their limited opportunities.

These are three major talking points from the match:

Wide space was there, but U.S. couldn’t take advantage of it: Sweden – by design – dropped off and made the United States take the game to them, a tactic that teams ranging in quality from world No. 6 England down to Iceland have found success with this year against the United States.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis said she prepared for all scenarios but expected Pia Sundhage’s Sweden team to apply high pressure. Sweden did the opposite, giving the U.S. space on the flanks and challenging them to do something with it.

“If you look at the personalities that they do have, and the depth that they have on the team, they can come up with different kind of games,” Sundhage said. “Today we saw a battle and a tactical game, I think.”

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The tactic worked for Sundhage against her old team and Ellis didn’t adjust to it until the 58th minute, when she brought on Amy Rodriguez for Morgan Brian and dropped Christen Press to the right side of midfield. But the match seemed to be begging for the creative flare of midfielder Tobin Heath to take advantage of the space being given on the flanks. Heath, however, never saw the field.

[ KASSOUF: This United States team the one that Pia Sundhage built ]

U.S. defense shines: Meghan Klingenberg’s clearance off the line in the 77th minute is the headline-grabber of a defensively sound performance from the U.S. women. Monday’s opening win against Australia exposed some of the Americans’ weaknesses in wide areas, but Friday’s scoreless draw against Sweden showed off the athletic prowess of the United States’ back line.

Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston cleaned up everything – including their own mistakes – in front of goalkeeper Hope Solo, who wasn’t asked to make heroic, game-altering saves like she was against Australia, when she twice bailed the U.S. out in the opening 13 minutes.

The U.S. will need the defensive unit to remain as strong as it has been, because…

Forwards still struggling for goals: Ellis says her starting forward pair of Christen Press and Sydney Leroux was not as efficient as they needed to be.

“We could have been better and more productive from the two them,” Ellis said postgame.

The same can be said for most recent combinations of U.S. forwards, who scored against minnow opponents in recent friendlies but haven’t collectively found a rhythm.

Every forward on the roster saw playing time on Friday as Ellis threw numbers forward toward the end of the match, inserting Rodriguez into the match in the 58th minute, Abby Wambach into the match in the 67th minute and getting Alex Morgan another 12 minutes of game time.

Wambach’s 72nd minute header was the best chance of the game for the United States.