Favorites emerging in U.S. Soccer’s quest to replace Pia Sundhage

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If you’re looking to get up to speed on Pia Sundhage’s potential replacements, you won’t get a better dossier than Lauren Barker’s post at Stars and Stripes FC. Of the five people who were interviewed last week, Barker profiles the three who seem to have the best chance of being the next U.S. Women’s National Team coach (though U.S. Soccer is doing a good job keeping the candidate).

Allow me to build on Lauren’s good work …

Right now, Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum appears to be the favorite. As Barker notes, if there was a line of succession to the role, it would be his turn. Three of Sundhage’s four predecessors had significant head coaching experience at the college level, where Waldrum’s been extremely successful. In this Anson Dorrance, North Carolina-dominated era of college soccer, Waldrum’s managed to win two national titles. Given U.S. women’s soccer’s dependence on the college game as its exclusive provider of talent, expertise with NCAA soccer is the significant advantage Waldrum has over most of his competition.

That competition is coming from Paul Riley, the former coach of the Philadelphia Independence. Though a favorite among those who watched his WPS teams, Riley was initially considered a long shot for the position. The England-born coach had vehemently spoken out against Pia Sundhage’s use of Amy Rodriguez, claiming the then-Independence forward’s confidence was destroyed by Sundhage’s handling of her at the 2011 World Cup. There, Sundhage benched Rodriguez, a long time (struggling) starter for the team, as the likes of Lauren Cheney, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath started getting more starts.

U.S. Soccer has apparently seen the outburst for what it was – a tactic designed to boost Rodriguez’s spirits. Riley may yet replace the coach he so ardently attacked.

During his two years in Women’s Professional Soccer, there was little doubt Riley was the league’s best coach. He won consecutive Coach of the Year awards while taking teams with inferior talent to back-to-back championship games (including in Philadelphia’s expansion year of 2010). He skillfully manages to be both demanding and a players’ coach, adding the tactical acumen to leverage his players’ work and trust. Most tellingly, Riley managed to take an array of different attackers (Tasha Kai, Veronica Boquete, Rodriguez) and turn them into weapons, hinting his plans were as influential as the players’ talents.

Unlike Waldrum, Riley doesn’t have an extensive college background. He started his coaching career at C.W. Post – a small Division II program in Long Island – but left in 1997. From there he went into the U.S. semi-pro ranks, initially coaching in the PDL before switching to the women’s game. Like Sundhage, he’s a foreign-born, has significant domestic experience, and manages to be a personality (a completely different one than Sundhage) without putting himself center stage.

Gulati, however, hinted last week that all things being equal, U.S. Soccer would prefer an American coach. Does Riley qualify? He’s been in the United States for 30 years, but he was born in England. To some, he might not be as American as the Texas-born Waldrum, but how much “American” do you need to qualify? At some point, you’re either American or you’re not.

(Trivia: Waldrum and Riley were born two days apart in 1961.)

Right now, it looks like Waldrum’s college success (along with his time coaching the U.S. Women’s U-20 National Team) have given him the inside track, but Riley’s close enough to be considered a co-favorite. Barring a last minute surge from the pack, one of these two will win the race.

Barker mentions one of those pack members: former national team coach Tony DiCicco, who most fans will know for his work as an ESPN analyst during the 2011 World Cup. More recently, he spent two disappointing years as head coach of the Boston Breakers, results overshadowed by his role in guiding the U.S. to first at the 1999 World Cup.

The major concern with DiCicco would be the change in approach to him from Sundhage. On a spectrum of styles, DiCicco’s would be far removed from Pia Sundhage, a head coach whose close relationship with her players was a unique combination of peer and parent – one inspiring deep loyalty. As we saw on ESPN’s set last summer (in the relationship between Brandi Chastain and her former coach), DiCicco’s style is closer to a traditional coach-player relationship. With a veteran team coming off five years of Sundhage, switching to DiCicco may prove too drastic.

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.”