2019 Women’s World Cup

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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.

Ellis stepping down as USWNT coach

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Two-time World Cup champion Jill Ellis is going out on top.

Ellis, 52, is stepping away from the United States women’s national team after 127 matches and a 102W-7L-18D record since 2014.

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The Portsmouth, England native won everything but Olympic gold with the USWNT, and was named the 2015 Women’s World Coach of the Year.

In a statement, U.S. Soccer announced that Ellis will stay with the team through the victory tour and then moved into an ambassador’s role. It also says the new USWNT general manager’s hiring is “imminent.”

From USSoccer.com:

“The opportunity to coach this team and work with these amazing women has been the honor of a lifetime,” Ellis said. “I want to thank and praise them for their commitment and passion to not only win championships but also raise the profile of this sport globally while being an inspiration to those who will follow them. I want to sincerely thank the world class coaches and staff with whom I’ve had the privilege to work – they are quintessential professionals and even better people. And finally, I want to thank the Federation for their support and investment in this program, as well as all the former players, coaches, and colleagues that have played an important role in this journey.”

Ellis sometimes confounded with her lineup choices, but ultimately did a masterful job navigating the deepest squad pool and group of egos in the world. She transitioned the USWNT from a side focused on Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd to a group that utilized a more complete attack, and won World Cups with both Wambach and Lloyd accepting super sub roles.

Who the USSF chooses to take her place will have a gigantic hill to climb, as Europe is investing heavily in women’s soccer and the sport is as competitive as ever. The new coach will also have to help keep the USWNT on track on the field as it battles the federation for equal pay and conditions.

Rapinoe’s wide-ranging book to be published next year

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NEW YORK — Soccer star Megan Rapinoe has scored again, this time with a book deal.

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Penguin Press announced Thursday that Rapinoe’s book, currently untitled, will be published in Fall 2020. Penguin is calling the book a “perfect vehicle” for an “honest, thoughtful, unapologetic” take on everything from soccer to nationalism to gay rights. Meanwhile, a division of Penguin Young Readers will work on a Rapinoe book for middle graders.

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Rapinoe became an international celebrity this summer after she helped lead the U.S women’s soccer team to a World Cup championship. She openly denounced President Donald Trump and said she would refuse to attend a White House celebration if invited. Trump tweeted in response that Rapinoe should “never disrespect our country, the White House or our flag.”

Argentina women’s team players critical of coaches after roster changes

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The Argentine national team is facing controversy after making a host of changes to its roster for the 2019 Pan American games despite a solid showing in the World Cup earlier this summer.

Most notably, 29-year-old Estefania Banini, who captained the side at the World Cup, was left off the roster. She lashed out on social media, claiming on Instagram that she was left off after making internal comments critical of the coaching staff and trying to improve the team’s ability to compete.

“No rest, not injured, permission from my club, I have enough to be in the national team,” she wrote. “From 5 years old I trained to defend the blue and white, fighting for my place equally without discrimination. The coaching staff decided to leave me out…because we have our differences, they decide to put an end to my dream of defending the shirt.”

Banini goes on to explain that she wants coaches “with enough experience we can learn from” and who can help grow the game in their country. She said what they don’t want is something they experienced at the World Cup – “being told ‘just defend because we don’t want to concede 11’ when going out to play.”

Other players left off the roster for the Pan American games are Ruth Bravo and Lorena Benitez, both of whom were starters at the World Cup less than a month ago. Bravo, along with Belen Potassa, posted similarly critical comments on their own social media accounts after being left off the roster, with much of the content word-for-word to what Banini wrote.

Argentina performed well in the group stage of the World Cup, nearly advancing in the final seconds of the group stage before a 3-3 draw with Scotland saw them fall just short of passing Japan into a qualifying spot. They managed a 0-0 draw with Japan in the opening match and fell to England by a close 1-0 scoreline.

Banini has been outspoken in the past, criticizing the Argentinian federation back in 2014 for not supporting the women’s game enough. With her most recent comments potentially costing her a place in the team, some of her teammates had her back. Soledad Jaimes and Florencia Bonsegundo, also both starters in the World Cup, resigned their places on the Pan American Games roster in solidarity with their teammates, believing them to be unfairly treated.

“While 18 teammates pack their bags for the Pan American Games, I decided to withdraw from the roster,” Bonsegundo wrote in her own Instagram post. “Today I have to take a step forward for this struggle that we all started and that few have the courage to do. I understand that in this way I am protecting you more [the fans] because I know that in a future with properly trained players, Argentina may be at the level of the world powers! I’m still dreaming of a country with greater equality, without discrimination and where the voice of women is taken into account with the same weight as that of a man”

Argentina was drawn into a group with Panama, Costa Rica, and Peru for the Pan American games, with their first match set for July 28.