Talking out women’s soccer’s future, with U.S. Soccer at the head of the table

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U.S. Soccer on Wednesday held a summit to discuss the immediate future of women’s soccer. The result? Reason for cautious optimism.

The meeting comes at a topical time — six weeks after Women’s Professional Soccer’s official closure and two days prior to the USWNT’s final domestic pre-Olympic friendly at Rio Tinto Stadium. Below you’ll find something of a primer.

 

So, what is it exactly?

A women’s soccer-themed TEDtalk? A closed-door summit? A brainstorm session? A think tank? A combination thereof, really.

And its raison d’etre?

Determining the best course of action to keep make a women’s soccer league sustainable in the U.S. The demise of Women’s Professional  Soccer was probably inevitable, despite the many residual effects supplied by the USWNT’s performance at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Its reasons for folding are manifold, although, yes, this guy had a lot to with it.

Judging by USSF President Sunil Gulati’s comments in initial reports, U.S. Soccer seems quite keen to lend a helping hand to the effort – something U.S. women’s soccer fans have long been clamoring for as that sentiment was conspicuously absent throughout WPS’s struggles. The very existence of the so-called task force indicates a level of cooperation from those involved in every station within the WoSo community. That can only be a positive thing.

When was word of the task force first made public?

Gulati first floated the idea while speaking to a select group of media prior to the USWNT’s friendly match against China on May 28. That was 10 days after Women’s Professional Soccer officially closed shop after a five-month ‘hiatus’.

Who was in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting?

Details are sparse, but as per Jeff Kassouf’s report, “…Officials from WPSL, USL, U.S. Youth Soccer and [former Women’s World Cup winner and Boston Breakers head coach] Tony DiCicco.” Beau Dure shared news that representatives from MLS also had seats at the table.

What came out of the first meeting?

Again, details remain sparse, but there are faint signs of encouragement. For one, news that a brand new women’s soccer league is in the works with a launch date sometime next year. Again thanks to Kassouf’s reporting, we know the new coast-to-coast venture will apparently feature 12-16 teams. The league will take a ground-up approach and not apply for Division-1 status, thereby sidestepping exorbitant fees.

Boston Breakers head coach Lisa Cole offered more insight via Twitter. Cole underlined the need to start at a semi-pro level which appears to be the safest way forward. After all, WPS and its failed predecessor the Women’s United Soccer Association were the only fully-professional, top-flight leagues in the world during their respective tenures, and looked how that turned out. Modest…expectations…

But we’ve heard that line before. What’s to say it will be different?

Lessons learned from the failures of WPS and the templates provided by other top women’s soccer leagues around the world, all of which are semi-pro in all but name.

And the new league might have something else going for it. As the USWNT’s string of near-capacity crowds indicates, the  team’s recent surge in popularity is very real. The tremendous uptick in interest (Hope Solo! Abby Wambach! Alex Morgan!) translated to bigger attendances in the final two months of the 2011 WPS season. But by then it was too late. The start-up league could benefit from interest drummed up by the USWNT’s exploits at the Summer Olympics and its inevitable post-tournament friendly tour – if national team players agree to take part, of course.

Still, everything boils down to the pesky dollars and cents part of the equation. WPS and its original driving force Tonya Antonucci made an earnest attempt to avoid the excessive spending and oversized expectations that damned the erstwhile WUSA. While the WUSA overspent itself out of existence, WPS arguably did the opposite. Both leagues ultimately shared the same gloomy fate.

By eschewing the fully-pro route altogether, the new league will look to adopt a more modest, realistic approach – for real this time.

Report: Newcastle’s Clark knocked out on Spanish dance floor

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A wild story out of Spain says an Englishman knocked Newcastle United defender Ciaran Clark unconscious at a night club.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

Clark was on vacation in Spain, where he was spending time at Crystal’s Bar in Punta Ballena, Magaluf very early Sunday morning.

Clark and a man “in his 30s” got into an argument that saw the Irish defender knocked out, according to the BBC.

Clark was left unconscious and taken to hospital after an argument between him and the suspect broke out on the dance floor.

The 28-year-old suffered cuts and bruises to his face.

Clark, 28, scored twice in 20 Premier League appearances this season, his second at St. James’ Park.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 9 — Iceland’s next step, Brazilian bounce back?

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Brazil is one of the favorites of the 2018 World Cup, while Iceland is the smallest nation to qualify for the world’s biggest tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

On Friday, both enter their second match days feeling quite different after 1-1 draws.

They won’t face each other, of course, but the contrast is striking nevertheless.

Brazil opens the day’s action when it squares off with Costa Rica, who fell to Serbia in the opener. For Serbia, a dark horse of the tournament, it will be a meeting with Switzerland.

Then there’s Iceland’s bid to climb into the Group D driver’s seat by knocking off Nigeria. A win from Iceland would make Lionel Messi and Argentina’s task of qualifying for the knockout rounds extremely unlikely.

Below is Friday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group D
Nigeria vs. Iceland: Volgograd, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group E
Brazil vs. Costa Rica: Saint Petersburg, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Serbia vs. Switzerland: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”