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FIFA to upgrade flights, raise prize money for Women’s World Cup

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) In a concession to women’s football, FIFA will start funding business-class flights for some 2019 Women’s World Cup teams’ travel to France.

FIFA official Emily Shaw also tells a women’s sports law conference total prize money will “significantly increase” from $15 million shared among 24 teams at the 2015 edition.

She says the total sum will be confirmed by the FIFA Council, which meets from Oct. 25-26 in Rwanda.

FIFA has been urged to close an equality gap between women’s and men’s World Cups. The 32 men’s teams will share $440 million prize money in 2022.

Currently, FIFA offers “business-class return flights for 50 people” to all men’s World Cup delegations.

Shaw, FIFA’s head of women’s football governance, says flight upgrades will be paid except for team flights under four hours.

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

USWNT: Tobin Heath’s time is here with World Cup looming

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Less than a year ago, Tobin Heath lamented that being injured was the “worst thing in the whole entire world.”

Now healthy, the midfielder for the Portland Thorns and the U.S. national team looks like she’s having the time of her life.

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“I feel like it’s been nice for me to be out on the field for a while now,” she said. “I always try to get better and better and improve my game. I never feel like I’ve reached it. I’m also in a great place to find my best form here in Portland. I’m supported by amazing people, so I get the freedom to be able to grow and improve as a player because of the people around me.”

Heath and the Thorns host a National Women’s Soccer League semifinal match against the Seattle Reign on Saturday. Portland went 12-6-6 this season to capture second place in the nine-team league, behind the North Carolina Courage.

The other semifinal, between the Courage and the Chicago Red Stars, was originally scheduled for Sunday in Cary, North Carolina, but because of Hurricane Florence it was moved to Tuesday night at Portland’s Providence Park. The championship game is set for Sept. 22 in Portland.

Heath spent the better part of last year dealing with injuries, and in January she had ankle surgery. The timing of the procedure was crucial because the national team needed a healthy Heath for World Cup qualifying this fall.

[ MORE: USMNT beats Mexico on Tyler Adams’ first int’l goal ]

She came back in late April and has since regained her form as one of the top players in the world. She ranks third on the Thorns with seven goals but leads her teammates with seven assists.

“Sometimes I zone out watching what she’s doing on the field and I have to get myself back into it,” said Lindsey Horan, Heath’s teammate on both the national team and the Thorns.

Heath has also had an impact on the national team so far this year as the United States prepares for World Cup qualifying in October and the chance to defend its title next year in France.

Known for her footwork and dribbling skills, Heath was the national team’s Player of the Year and the NWSL’s MVP in 2016.

She had a goal and two assists in the U.S. team’s last game, a 4-0 exhibition victory over Chile in San Jose, California, earlier this month.

Her play drew the praise of former teammate Heather O’Reilly.

Now 30, Heath made her debut with the senior national team in 2008. She’s a three-time Olympian, earning gold medals with the team in 2008 and 2012. If the United States makes the field for the 2019 World Cup in France, it will be her third.

[ MORE: What did we learn about USMNT this international break? ]

The match against Chile was her 138th appearance with the national team. She has 21 career goals and 33 assists. Since working her way back from injury, she has three goals and four assists as well as four straight starts.

Heath has been with her club team, the Thorns, since the NWSL’s first season in 2013. Portland won the league championship in the league’s inaugural year, then again last season.

She’d like to add another.

“I always say we’re a championship team, so we’re built for these types of moments,” she said. “The season has been interesting with all its ebbs and flows and different periods we went through together. But the team is strong and we’re collected. With that, I think there’s anything we can deal with.”

USWNT star Horan secures NWSL No. 2 seed for Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Lindsey Horan scored two goals and the Portland Thorns secured home-field advantage for the NWSL semifinals with a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Reign on Friday night.

[ USMNT-BRAZIL: Full recap | Player ratings ]

The victory gave the Thorns a second-place finish in the league’s standings, behind North Carolina. Portland will host the third-place Reign on Sept. 15. North Carolina will host the Chicago Red Stars in the other semifinal the next day.

The Reign went up early on Jess Fishlock’s goal in the fourth minute, stunning the sellout crowd of 21,144.

Ellie Carpenter had a chance for the Thorns in the 24th minute but her shot from distance caromed off the far post. Horan broke through in the 30th minute to tie the match, blasting a shot that that came back to her after Christine Sinclair was challenged in the box.

Heath curled a shot from distance out of Reign goalkeeper Lydia William’s reach in the 49th minute to give the Thorns the lead before Horan’s second goal, a header, in the 82nd.

Horan now has 12 goals this season, second only in the league to Chicago’s Sam Kerr, who has 15.

Megan Rapinoe did not play for the Reign because of a rib injury that also kept her out of the U.S. national team’s two recent exhibition matches against Chile. Allie Long also missed the game for the Reign because of a right knee sprain.

Portland hosts the league championship Sept. 22.

USWNT’s Ellis: VAR should be used at Women’s World Cup

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U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis believes that video review should be put to use at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, because “that would be the fair thing” after the system was implemented — to great success — at the men’s tournament earlier this year.

[ MORE: New USMNT head coach to be hired by end of 2018 ]

“Let’s all start a plan, and a movement, to make sure that it is,” Ellis said this week. “Because that would be the fair thing, right?”

“I know there’s training involved with VAR, but guess what? There’s people trained and they just performed in a men’s World Cup,” she noted following a recent friendly against Chile. “So they’re available.”

It wasn’t announced until March of 2018 that VAR would be in place for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, though the turnaround for readiness wasn’t a massive obstacle to overcome as testing and training had long since been taking place.

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Star midfielder Megan Rapinoe echoed her coach’s sentiments, doubling down on a matter of fairness being at play as FIFA must make a decision ahead of next June’s tournament in France:

“They obviously did it for the men’s World Cup, so I think it’s essential to the spirit of the game. If we don’t have it, it’s just utter discrimination.”

If FIFA were to go through all the preparation and scrutiny they endured in order to use VAR for the men’s World Cup, only to turn around and not do the same for the women’s tournament 12 months later, it would send a clear message that they value and respect one over the other. Nothing would confirm that long- and widely held belief in clearer fashion.

USWNT announces timeline for hiring a general manager

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The U.S. Soccer Federation says it will identify a preliminary list of candidates for the new position of general manager for the women’s national team by November.

[ MORE: Tim Weah can’t escape famous name on back of PSG, USMNT jersey ]

The U.S. Soccer Board of Directors announced the creation of the GM position for the men’s and women’s national teams last December. Former U.S. midfielder Earnie Stewart started as GM of the men’s side this month.

Because the next 10 months are expected to be busy for the women’s team, with World Cup qualifying next month and the tournament set for next summer in France, the women’s GM will initially serve in an observation and support role, aiding coach Jill Ellis.

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U.S. Soccer expects to identify up to 10 candidates over the next two months before conducting interviews through next year. The field will be cut to two or three before a final recommendation is made to the board.