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.

Bologna draws 3-3 at Lazio to secure Serie A safety

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ROME (AP) Bologna secured Serie A football for another season after drawing at Lazio 3-3 in a thriller on Monday.

Bologna moved four points clear of the relegation zone with one match remaining.

Lazio was still celebrating winning the Italian Cup midweek and Joaquin Correa fired the capital side in front in the 13th minute.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

However, two goals in the space of a minute from Andrea Poli and Mattia Destro saw Bologna take the lead early in the second half.

Bastos curled in a stunning effort to level for Lazio in the 59th but Riccardo Orsolini restored Bologna’s lead shortly after.

Substitute Sergej Milinkovic-Savic secured a draw for Lazio with a sensational free kick 10 minutes from time.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Choosing a USMNT XI for the Gold Cup

AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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Noting that most positions on the international stage are up for grabs based on form, there are special opportunities on the wing, right back, and center back when it comes to the USMNT at the Gold Cup this summer.

That’s because of two related things, one fact and one close to it:

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

  1. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are missing from the lineup due to injury. Brooks is easily the Yanks’ No. 1 center back, and Yedlin is a right back when Tyler Adams is unavailable and good enough that Gregg Berhalter tries to shoehorn him in at right wing when Adams is manning that spot.
  2. Mexico’s the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament with more in-form club players in Europe than the U.S., including would-be Premier League Best XI forward Raul Jimenez of Wolves. And who’s going to have to deal with Raul? You guessed it, the big American center backs.

Presuming Berhalter is still wed to Adams as the part-fullback, part distributing midfielder role, that has our lineup for important Gold Cup matches with few sure things.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — XXXXX — XXXXX — XXXXX

McKennie — Bradley

XXXXX — Pulisic — XXXXX

Altidore

Now you may not like that I’ve assumed Bradley and Altidore’s places here, but there’s little doubt both are still quite capable against CONCACAF competition and also have the experience in this exact competition and against Mexico. Surely both are motivated for a bit of redemption as well.

Friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela will give Berhalter a chance to try out players like Tyler Boyd, Marlon Fossey, and Miles Robinson should they impress amongst a 40-player field (although the Jamaica match on June 5 in Washington, D.C. is a day before the final rosters are due for the Gold Cup).

Now what we are trying to solve here is who is the best bet to help the Yanks win the dang thing.

Defenders: Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Tim Ream are the favorites to start at the two center back spots and left back, but Daniel Lovitz will try to push Ream after a rough season at Fulham. Both Walker Zimmerman and Omar Gonzalez are in good form, and you can bet Berhalter will give Cameron Carter-Vickers a chance to earn some time. A flat back four role gives Antonee Robinson hope in place of Ream, and if Adams moves into the midfield, Nick Lima did alright in his right back role in January.

Midfielders/Wingers: The spots around Pulisic should be filled by those who can keep the width of the field but also serve somewhat as enforcers for the No. 10. Sebastian Lletget gives them a good shot on one side, and Paul Arriola provides a similar spot. While Joe Gyau, Josh Sargent, Duane Holmes, and Djordje Mihailovic can hope to challenge, the MLS vets with experience outside the country are good bets to get the gigs.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — Miazga — Long — Ream

McKennie — Bradley

Arriola — Pulisic — Lletget

Altidore

Does that get the job done against Mexico? Probably not, but it’ll give Tata Martino’s men a hassle.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).