2019 Women’s World Cup

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USWNT’s Rapinoe wins 2019 Women’s Ballon d’Or

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Megan Rapinoe topped off an iconic calendar year with France Football’s biggest prize, the Women’s Ballon d’Or award.

Rapinoe scored six goals to go with three assists as she led the U.S. Women’s National Team to another FIFA Women’s World Cup title. She scored the decisive goals against France in the quarterfinals and the Netherlands in the final, but it was her place as the heart and soul of the USWNT that led her and the national team to win. The 34-year-old absorbed all the pressure on her and her team and still produced on both sides of the ball.

Rapinoe had nine goals and seven assists across the calendar year for the USWNT. In addition to winning the World Cup, she won the Golden Ball and the FIFA award for the best women’s soccer player of the year. She’s also in the running and is now surely the front runner for the 2019 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year.

England right back Lucy Bronze and Rapinoe’s USWNT teammate Alex Morgan finished in second and third place, respectively.

Italy women’s team awarded for ’emancipating’ female game

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ROME (AP) The Italy women’s national soccer team was awarded the Foreign Press Association’s Invictus award Monday for promoting and “emancipating” the female game in the country with its run to the World Cup quarterfinals.

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Head coach Milena Bertolini and forward Barbara Bonansea were given the award during a ceremony at the Rome-based association.

With soccer dominated by men in Italy and few opportunities for girls, Bertolini recounted how she had to dress up as a boy to play as a kid.

“Now things are changing, thanks to the Italian federation’s school programs,” Bertolini said.

Bertolini and Bonansea lamented that female players are still not considered professionals and therefore are not permitted to earn more than $33,500 per year by Italian law.

“It’s not about the money, it’s a question of rights,” said Bonansea, who also plays for Italian champion Juventus.

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While Italy’s men’s team is a four-time World Cup champion, the women had not played in a World Cup for two decades and entered as a prohibitive underdog during its opening match against Australia in France in June. But the Azzurre came back from a goal down for a 2-1 win courtesy of Bonansea’s two scores , with her second coming in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

“That goal shaped our World Cup, both in terms of results and in terms of promoting women’s soccer in Italy,” Bertolini said. “The strong emotions on the field were transmitted to everyone who was watching. I still get goosebumps now just thinking about that goal.”

The Azzurre went on to win their group then beat China in the first knockout round before losing to eventual finalist the Netherlands.

In a country of 60 million people, a total of more than 20 million spectators watched Italy’s five matches on RAI state TV, setting audience records for women’s soccer game after game.

The Invictus award is dedicated to “promoting the positive effects of sports in terms of integration and emancipation by the vulnerable sections of society.”

Lloyd: Coming off bench at World Cup “rock bottom of my entire career”

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The upper echelon of the USWNT player pool, especially the veteran generation, just swims in a different competitive gene pool.

Comments from a recent podcast featuring Carli Lloyd are the latest evidence of this, as the USWNT legend calls not starting regularly at this summer’s World Cup “the worst time of my life.”

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She says she was happy to be a part of it and happy for her teammates but doesn’t back down from the “worst” diagnosis. Yeah, you read that right.

“I’m not going to lie and sugarcoat it,” Lloyd said on Julie Foudy’s Laughter Permitted podcast. “It was absolutely the worst time of my life. It affected my relationship with my husband, with friends. It really was rock bottom of my entire career. But somehow, you see light at the end of the tunnel, and I can honestly say I’m having more fun now playing than I ever have in my career. I think I just learned a lot throughout it.”

To be fair, Lloyd hasn’t backed up anyone in almost a decade and has since won a Ballon d’Or. Not many elite athletes get used to being second (or fourth) fiddle, especially on a major stage like that.

The personalities on this team are as big as any produced by Ronaldo’s Brazil or Zidane’s France. Some may laugh at this, but it shows what a tremendous job Jill Ellis did in marshaling the team to two-straight World Cups, the first with Abby Wambach in a sub’s role and the second with Lloyd.

It also shows the marvelous competitive nature of Lloyd and the resilience of players who know they’d start for any number of teams in the world. Lloyd says in the podcast that she believed she was playing at near her best level despite being moved from midfielder to forward.

Obviously no player prefers a sub’s role to starting, but — wow — if it isn’t bewildering to hear Lloyd talk about her supporting role at age 37 being the worst time of her life. Different types.

NWSL players say investment key to sustaining World Cup bump

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While record crowds at National Women’s Soccer League games are evidence of a World Cup bump, players want the momentum to extend beyond the ticket office.

Portland drew a league-record 25,218 fans to a game against the defending champion North Carolina Courage earlier this month, and last weekend Sky Blue staged its first game at Red Bull Arena before a club-high 9,415 fans. The Chicago Red Stars had to open the upper-deck section at SeatGeek Stadium when they drew more than 17,000 to a post-World Cup game.

Across the league, attendance is up about 15% overall this year, with the most dramatic swings coming after the United States’ victory this summer at the Women’s World Cup in France. That’s the bump: Both the NWSL and its male counterpart, Major League Soccer, traditionally see increased interest during a World Cup year.

In the NWSL, the bump is likely to be larger once the entire season plays out. In 2015, following the national team’s World Cup victory in Canada, the league drew an average of 5,046 fans per game, up from the league’s all-time low average attendance (4,137) in 2014. Following last weekend’s games, average attendance across the league was 6,917.

But players aren’t satisfied. In addition to bringing in new fans, they want sustained growth and stability.

The key is investment.

“We’ve won two World Cups back-to-back. We’ve done everything on the field to encourage and inspire players and kids and parents and coaches, boys and girls to come to the games,” said Carli Lloyd, who plays for Sky Blue and is a member of the U.S. team. “Now again it’s up to the people with money to market it, to buy into this, to invest in it, and to promote it.”

While the NWSL has been incrementally drawing bigger crowds since its inception in 2013, there have been recent questions about the league’s health.

The league and A&E Networks terminated their broadcast agreement in February, leaving the NWSL with no TV partner. Last season, a game aired each week on the Lifetime channel. A&E surrendered its stake in the league, but Lifetime remains a jersey sponsor.

The NWSL has also been operating without a commissioner since 2017, and there’s been no new teams coming on board despite persistent rumors to the contrary. The league contracted to nine teams before the start of the 2018 season when the Boston Breakers folded.

But there have been recent positive developments beyond attendance. Budweiser announced a multi-year sponsorship deal with the league this summer. The NWSL also reached an agreement to air 14 games this season on ESPNews and ESPN2, including the playoff semifinals and the final. ESPN recently signed an agreement for worldwide rights to the league.

“I think that it’s going to take a lot of investment from owners. We want it to grow, we want big companies to come on as sponsors, like the Budweiser thing is huge. We want more teams, we want a longer season,” said North Carolina’s Sam Mewis, echoing Lloyd.

It’s a sentiment that players amplified in France.

“Hopefully it grows, hopefully we get more teams, and more people buy into us and realize how important it is for the women’s game – and that our NWSL gets better and better so we can get better for our national team,” Lindsey Horan said before the World Cup final.

One club that has provided something of a blueprint for NWSL success is the Thorns. The team drew an average of 16,959 fans per game last season, and that’s risen to 20,072 this year. For perspective, that’s better than the average attendance for seven Major League Baseball teams.

The Thorns have been able to capitalize on the game’s roots in the city. The University of Portland’s women’s team won NCAA titles in 2002 and 2005. Current U.S. team star Megan Rapinoe and Canadian star Christine Sinclair both played for the Pilots.

“They’ve been the same from the get go. I mean we lost the championship last year against this team and they stayed at least 30 minutes to continue to chant. So you know if anything the Thorns fans are the ones that have started the hype in this county,” Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch said.

Some have suggested that Portland’s model – it is affiliated with Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers – is one key to sustained growth. Four teams, the Thorns, the Houston Dash, the Utah Royals and the Orlando Pride are connected to MLS teams. At least two other MLS teams, LAFC and Atlanta United, have expressed interest in adding a women’s team.

At the end of this year, U.S. Soccer’s management agreement with the NWSL will come to an end, which could potentially give greater control to the league’s owners and a more hands-on approach to growth. The federation currently pays the salaries of the national team players and has also invested considerably in the league, and that support is not expected to end.

Players say they’re hopeful for the league’s future – even beyond the bump.

“I think that we’re taking steps in the right direction,” Mewis said. “I feel like it’s stable. I don’t know like how tuned in I am to what goes on behind the scenes, but I’m relying on it and I’m counting on playing here for a long time.”

Jill Ellis content to get off USWNT ‘roller coaster’

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PASADENA, Calif. — Jill Ellis likened her tenure in charge of the U.S. women’s national team to an amusement park ride. She also compared it to a tumultuous ride on a five-year wave.

The most successful head coach in program history seems quite content to get off this merry-go-round on her own terms.

Ellis was upbeat Friday when she joined her players at the Rose Bowl for their first workout ahead of a five-game exhibition Victory Tour designed to bring the World Cup winners to their legions of domestic fans. The tour got a slight damper Tuesday when Ellis announced she will step down at its conclusion.

Before her team’s first game since her decision, the only two-time Women’s World Cup-winning coach expressed pride in her work and optimism for the future without her, starting with the Tokyo Olympics next year.

But more than anything else, Ellis exuded calm about her decision to walk away on top.

“When I took the job … it was the beginning of a cycle, and now I feel like this is the end of a cycle,” Ellis said. “I know the Olympics is very close, but that begins another cycle, if that makes sense. I think the timing is now. … I mean, five and a half years is kind of a long time in this job, which has been great and such a privilege. But I didn’t give much consideration to coaching next year.”

Ellis likely could have stayed on through Tokyo, but decided to give a head start to her successor. She had a few words of advice for whoever steps into her large shoes.

“It’s a roller coaster. Put your seatbelt on,” Ellis said with a grin. “Enjoy the ride, because you’re going to expect highs and lows. It’s the wave analogy. It’s the trough and the crest. You can’t have a beautiful ocean without both of those. You can’t have this journey without all the highs and lows.”

The 52-year-old Ellis lost exactly seven of her 127 games since May 2014, winning eight tournaments and half of the nation’s four World Cup titles. When her team raised the trophy last month in France, the Americans reaffirmed their status as the world’s dominant program.

“Well, I’m selfishly sad,” World Cup hero Rose Lavelle said. “I’ve really enjoyed having her as a coach. I feel like I’ve grown so much the past three years, and I’m sad, but I’m happy she went out on top and now has some time with her family to enjoy.”

No coach can match Ellis’ international accomplishments, yet she still faced near-constant scrutiny for her tactics, lineup decisions and substitution patterns – even from former and current players for a team that never lost a game at two World Cups.

Megan Rapinoe said she “wasn’t super surprised” by Ellis’ decision.

“It’s obviously a very difficult job to have, and to be able to go out on top is obviously a nice way to go,” the Golden Ball winner added.

Christen Press praised Ellis for her ability to create a structured training environment similar to the stability of a men’s club team – a difficult feat given the unstable, traveling nature of national teams.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that any program in any sport would have this level of meticulous detail and control,” Press said. “I think Jill was able to do that because she was in the system before she was the head coach. We’re taking everything that we do on the road, so every single training facility is different. When you have a meeting is different. What you’re eating is different. It’s the head coach’s job to oversee that, and it was such a seamless thing for us. We could really focus.”

After this tour ends Oct. 6 in Chicago, Ellis will spend at least the next year working for U.S. Soccer as an ambassador. That hasn’t stopped widespread speculation about her long-term plans, but Ellis isn’t sharing in it.

“I haven’t given any thought to my future, I really haven’t,” Ellis said. “I just felt the timing was right. The timing is right for whoever the new coach is. The timing was right for me on a personal level with my family. I’m going to still be working in a capacity for a while for U.S. Soccer, so I haven’t even thought about coaching another team at this point. “

The U.S. women are opening the tour with the team’s fifth-ever game at the famed Rose Bowl, where they won the World Cup in 1999 on Brandi Chastain’s penalty shot. A statue of Chastain celebrating her goal was dedicated outside the stadium last month.

Rapinoe and Alex Morgan won’t play in the tour opener at the Rose Bowl while they recover from minor injuries.