The head start is gone; the rest of the world has caught up.
The development system is just too inefficient.
Jill Ellis will finally get exposed.
The lingering obsession with pace, power and fitness will eventually sink the United States.
That signature American arrogance will be their undoing.
People in and around women’s soccer in the U.S. have been hearing, and saying, things like this for the better part of two decades. They’ve been saying it the past month too. There’s at least a kernel of truth in many of these sayings.
After wallowing in misogyny and institutional sexism for decades, many of the sport’s traditional hotbeds are finally waking up to the women’s game.
The American youth club soccer landscape is indeed a chaotic, cash-driven crab barrel that caters to the white and wealthy, where marginalized groups are overlooked and under-represented and culture and craftsmanship take a back seat to crass consumerist scorekeeping. College ball is a pretty hot mess, too.
Talent trumps everything
As steady as Jill Ellis’ hand has been on the helm this summer and as bought-in as her team appears, her cumulative track record remains open to examination. She still serves up several head-scratching decisions a year and she’ll always be associated with the 2016 Olympic faceplant, one of the biggest fiascoes in USWNT history. Even when she’s flawless, the fearsome riches of quality at her disposal inevitably obscure efforts to divine just what share of the credit she truly deserves.
Her charismatic, supremely talented players have built a strong case in their pursuit of gender equity from the U.S. Soccer Federation. Nonetheless, they work full-time in the most advanced and lavishly-supported women’s national team program on the planet. Occasionally, they come off sounding tone-deaf about that and their place in the wider world of WoSo.
So yes, there are complicated and imperfect aspects to the USWNT as the defending world champs approach the summit again this weekend. Their sport is evolving quickly and there are absolutely no guarantees that what has worked up to now will continue to work into the future.
And in all likelihood, all that won’t matter when they face the Netherlands in Lyon, France in the final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup on Sunday.
An imperfect system that’s still too big to fail
“We win any way possible and it is the DNA of this team to win no matter what,” U.S. center back Abby Dahlkemper told reporters earlier this week.
The USWNT are a machine. They’re a thoroughbred competitive powerhouse a quarter-century in the making that has in recent years managed to refresh itself without losing hold of the established magic that’s been passed down from generation to generation. The depth of the player pool is the envy of the world. Each roster is a shark’s mouth of gleaming, razor-sharp teeth with endless rows of replacements waiting to push forward to fill any gap.
The program sits atop an enormous, cutthroat soccer pyramid founded on the sheer overwhelming numerical superiority of some 2 million registered players from youth to adult across the richest nation on the planet.
It’s prominently failed to value and mobilize the country’s Hispanic, immigrant and blue-collar populations. This has allowed a tradition of direct, often brutally physical play to take root and shortsightedly severed the elite tiers of youth play from the dominant U.S. cultural paradigm of high-school sports. And American women’s soccer can still call on an incredible depth and array of resources – human, infrastructure and beyond.
Dozens of thousands of youth clubs and coaches dot the map and competitive leagues abound. There are about 600 NCAA Division I and II collegiate women’s soccer programs, offering thousands of athletic scholarships and hundreds of quasi-professional, highly-competitive training environments. And there are many more schools at the NAIA and D3 levels. (Even if many of the governing body’s outdated rules and regulations are an active hindrance to nurturing new generations of modern footballers.)
It’s run on a shoestring and troubling threadbare in important ways. But the federation-affiliated professional league, NWSL, is the most fiercely competitive top flight in the world. It’s about to get it’s time to shine too, with a newly minted ESPN TV contract. The league is cauldron of demanding soccer and dedicated pros where even poverty-line contracts are keenly pursued and USWNTers past, present and future vie for the attention of Ellis and her staff.
And on those rare occasions when the senior squad fail to perform –- like against Sweden in Brasilia three years ago — or the infamous 4-0 WWC semifinal loss to Brazil in Hangzhou, China in 2007 — or the epic 2011 final loss to Japan –- their adversaries still must get everything right to defeat them. The margins for error are so big on one side, and so tiny on the other.
“We step on the field every time and we know we’re going to get the [opponent’s] best game and we have to play to our very best,” veteran defender Kelley O’Hara said this week. “I don’t think we ever underestimate anything. I think that’s what what people project onto us.”
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Culture, we are often told, eats strategy for breakfast. And as often as Ellis, April Heinrichs, Sunil Gulati, the mandarins of the NCAA and USSF boardrooms, various figures in various youth organizations and other powers that be may have goofed up on strategic stuff over the years, the cumulative size, history and momentum of women’s soccer’s place in the United States endures.
The intoxicating allure of the beautiful game is that any team can win on any given day, and that should cheer both the marked underdogs in orange and the neutral viewers on Sunday. What’s just as liable to chill their hearts, however, is the a sprawling, star-spangled stack of institutional advantages piled atop the opposite side of the ledger.
And those are probably not going to fade away any time soon.
The USWNT concluded a statistically perfect Group F campaign with Thursday’s steely 2-0 win over Sweden at Stade Oceane, a deep-blue pearl in northern France’s maritime hub of Le Havre where Bob Bradley once coached the local side.
One way or another, both the location and nature of that swashbuckling defeat of their Viking bogey team lent a seafaring tint to our thinking about the journey ahead for the defending champions as they begin the Women’s World Cup knockout stages with Monday’s round-of-16 match vs. Spain in Reims.
The US are heavily favored in this one (although they’ve been bet down from -310 to -270 over the past 24 hours). This a match-up for the US against a fast-rising women’s soccer protagonist that probably arrives a bit too soon for the Spanish success story.
But even if you buy into the conventional wisdom, it’s only the first of four high-stakes chapters for the Yanks if they are to keep hold of their trophy. So please, come sail away with us.
The enemy armada
Finally pushing past their nation’s outmoded notions of proper femininity, La Roja have risen in the women’s game in recent years. They’re powered by the same technical craftsmanship and loving relationship with the ball that earned their men’s national team a World Cup and two Euro titles from 2008-12.
They can pass as well as anyone. Growing up immersed in a deeply soccer-reverent culture, their tactical understanding is high. Like others at France 2019, their players carry a flinty (and inspiring) chip on their shoulders wrought by years of dealing with institutional sexism. But unfortunately for Spain, the key to their hopes of upsetting the USWNT revolve around a skill set that has proven to be their weakest link: Finishing
It’s often the centerpiece of an aspiring underdog’s game plan, not just in terms of their own ability to efficiently convert scoring chances but also the disruption of the favorites’ attack. Despite plenty of possession and interplay, Spain have scored just three goals in three games at this tournament to date, all of them in their 3-1 defeat of South Africa – and two of those from the penalty spot.
La Roja can control the tempo and create chances. They lack a clinical striker capable of converting all that into advantages on the scoreboard. Meanwhile the USWNT are blessed with a wealth of that type, from the starting trio of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath to menacing reserve options like Carli Lloyd and Christen Press to the all-around talents of Lindsey Horan and Julie Ertz.
I am the captain of my soul
Confidently sweeping aside Sweden, even given the Norse side’s less-than-full-strength lineup, posted a potentially powerful message from the USWNT. Never mind all that talk about dodging a quarterfinal meeting with France: We’re the reigning champs, and the rest fear us, not the other way around.
“They [the USWNT] love being favorites, they love the spotlight and attention, they accept the pressure and enjoy it. They have won everything and are still hungry,” wrote Spanish playmaker Vero Boquete, a national-team icon who currently plays in the NWSL with Utah Royals FC, in a pregame column for Madrid-based publication El Pais.
“In English, the word ruthless defines them well, they do not have or feel compassion and pity for anyone.”– Vero Boquete
Boquete is pointing out a persistent advantage for the Americans, whose history of success and relentless mentality typically provides the psychological equivalent of a one-goal lead at the opening whistle.
Even against a confident rival like Sweden, the US put their foot on the throat early – via that 3rd-minute set-piece tap-in goal for Lindsey Horan – and did not relinquish their superiority. They rode that mindset in a different way when they visited Spain for a friendly back in January:
That leg up tends to dissipate against the type of elite opposition you encounter in the World Cup’s latter rounds. But landing early blows is a key ingredient for any favored side and will continue to be important as the USWNT look ahead to a rugged European slate of likely knockout opponents (Spain-France-England-Germany, anyone?).
Don’t give up the ship
The USWNT’s chief availability concerns are apparently-minor injuries to influential starters Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz. Morgan has a reasonably decent backup in the form of the iconic Lloyd, but the situation around Ertz is more complicated.
Sam Mewis has been excellent in deep-lying and box-to-box midfield roles in her two matches. Has she been good enough, perhaps, to keep her on the pitch even if Ertz is ready to return to the No. 6 role? Can those two be sandwiched into a midfield also graced by the all-rounder Horan and playmaker Rose Lavelle? Or might one of the center backs make way so that Ertz can shift back into the defensive line?
These are knotty personnel and tactical questions for coach Jill Ellis, and that’s even before we arrive at potentially the most crucial one: How will she respond to the first real signs of adversity in this tournament?
Are players and coach alike ready to weather a salvo from an upstart like Spain and delivery a flurry of fire in response? Is the USWNT mystique still all-powerful, or a leakier galleon than it appears?
Even if Spain are sent tumbling to the ocean floor, rest assured that France, Germany and others are watching closely for signs of weakness or vulnerability as the US go about that task.
There was the “Send-Off Series presented by [processed meat company redacted],” with three overmatched opponents dispatched by a combined score of 11-0.
Then the hype and hyperbole of media junkets like the team visit to Twitter’s NYC headquarters, and a quiet training camp at Tottenham Hotspur’s posh facility in the London suburbs.
Finally, the tournament proper began – albeit with two glorified training sessions, lopsided wins over hopelessly outgunned adversaries.
“We are climbing up a mountain now,” Carli Lloyd told reporters after Sunday’s 3-0 defeat of Chile, “and it’s only going to get harder.”
After months – no, years – of preparation, anticipation and pontification, the USWNT are finally about to face a legit challenger as they wrap up group-stage play vs. old enemies Sweden.
And the Scandinavians are not just the only thing remotely resembling a challenge in Group F – they’re one of a handful of teams that have a realistic chance of knocking them off in a head-to-head battle.
Why are Sweden such a problem for the U.S., and who else can pose problems for the defending champions? Let’s dig in.
The legacy of Brasilia
Sweden, of course, upset the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, bunkering-and-countering their way to a penalty-kick shootout win.
Led by former USWNT coach Pia Sundhage, the Swedes exploited U.S. wastefulness by snatching a goal on a quick counterattack, then outlasting them in PKs.
It was a stunning collapse for the reigning world and Olympic champs, a painful failure that set off a cascading series of consequences, from the de facto end of Hope Solo’s career to coach Jill Ellis’ rejiggering of her team’s tactical foundations.
“I think was the first time that we had seen a team, Sweden – a very established, a very veteran, a very experienced team – take an approach to sit low on us, meaning to sit in their own half,” Ellis told reporters during the USWNT’s send-off series. “Usually, you play teams potentially that can’t match up with you, and so they take that approach, but here was a world power in soccer taking that approach.
“I remember talking to my staff coming out of the Olympics and saying we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for this piece of the evolution.”
Ellis spent most of the ensuing three years tinkering with possible solutions. She tried a three-woman back line along with several other formations. She done some dabbling with a high press and evaluated a long list of players before, somewhat strangely, settling on a very similar group to the one used in those Olympics.
Her most enduring takeaway, it appears, is the need to push additional numbers into the attack against defensive, deep-lying opposition.
Ellis typically starts Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath as an attacking trident atop a 4-3-3 shape, backed by pure playmaker Rose Lavelle and the do-it-all, box-to-box skills of Lindsey Horan.
She then goes a step further by fielding Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara – both converted attackers – as fullbacks. She gives Dunn and O’Hara the freedom to range forward deep into the attack. That often leaves just the two center backs and one holding midfielder (usually Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkember and Julie Ertz) minding the defensive shop.
It’s easy to pull off those kinds of swashbuckling overloads against the likes of Thailand and Chile, of course. Teams with more quality and higher levels of fitness and tactical intelligence are another matter.
With their experience, cleverness, discipline and technical ability, Sweden are eminently capable of exploiting the gaps such an aggressive approach can leave in the back. In fact, that’s exactly how they rocked the U.S. in Brazil, with a quick, clean passing combination springing Stina Blackstenius in transition to outwit the USWNT and push them onto their heels:
Whereas Ellis appears to have concluded that a higher quantity of players in the attack is the way to beat bus-parking opponents, other coaches tend to focus on the qualities of the players involved – typically crafty ones, comfortable in tight spaces – and their collective shape and capacity to combine. In this regard, it’s worth wondering whether Ellis’ response to the disaster of 2016 could end up heightening the odds of a redux this summer.
“Just from a physical standpoint, they’re a much stronger team, much more organized defensively, and tactically just a lot smarter than the other two [Group F] teams,” Rapinoe said of Sweden this week. “So it’s going to be a battle. we’re going to have to be really patient … we’re going to have to break them down and kind of play the game within the game in order to open it up for us.”
Other snakes in the grass
The other top teams in the world are smart enough to deploy Sweden’s Olympic gambit; the problem for the U.S. is that they’re also capable of challenging them in additional ways as well.
Germany and Norway are disciplined defensively and can also emphasize possession to control a match’s tempo if need be. They can pose danger on set pieces, another crucial area where any USWNT letdown can be punished by elite competitors.
Japan gave the world one blueprint on beating the Americans when they pulled off their upset win in the 2011 WWC final, matching psychological resilience with tiki-taka pass-and-move mastery.
European champions the Netherlands are the United States’ equals in terms of technical and tactical levels, though the Oranje would probably be less comfortable in a bunker posture. Rising powers England clearly outplayed the U.S. when they faced off in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year, and were a bit unlucky to only take a 2-2 draw:
The USWNT and Canada have quietly built a fierce rivalry over the years, exemplified by their blood-and-thunder classic in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics, and while results have canted lopsidedly in favor of the U.S., at some point that will likely change.
And remember, a Sweden rematch could well crop up down the line in the tournament final.
The host nation cometh
And then there’s France. It’s true that they’ve accrued a reputation for choking in big moments over the years, yet they also possess the ability to match or eclipse the U.S. in all the aforementioned phases of play – and can fall back on the enormous factor of home-field advantage this summer.
And unless Sweden manages to defeat the USWNT on Thursday, the bracket says the U.S. and France are likely to meet up in the quarterfinals in Paris on June 28. Les Bleues were deserving 3-1 winners when they faced off in January:
What you want vs. what you need
Which brings us to one last wrinkle: It’s entirely plausible that a loss to Sweden this week is the best thing that could happen to the USWNT at this juncture.
The U.S. already booked their tickets to the knockout rounds. A loss to Sweden would drop them to second in Group F. That would drop them into the opposite side of the bracket, where they’d meet the Netherlands or Canada in the round of 16. Advance there, and Germany awaits as the likely quarterfinals matchup.
Is facing the two-time World Cup winners really better than having to beat the talented host nation? In this case, it might just be so. But that’s not the main reason a Sweden loss could benefit Ellis & Co. in the longer run.
The biggest benefit to a group-stage setback lies in the mental and tactical lessons it would force the favorites to process on the fly.
Much has been made of the USWNT’s great chemistry and sky-high collective confidence, and not without cause. But much the same could be said of the 2016 and 2011 squads. The United States Women carry a decades-long culture of success and camaraderie, and they’re used to winning, whatever the circumstances.
But that, combined with the small number of teams who can go toe-to-toe with them, can be perilous. The USWNT are rarely really tested.
Three years ago, everything was going great in Brazil, until it wasn’t – and just like that, their string of Olympic success was over.
Given how heavily Ellis has wagered on her front-foot tactics, the Sweden match might be her last chance for a reality check before the knockout rounds, where mistakes and oversights can be quite costly indeed.
By one set of standards, Major League Soccer is an industry leader when it comes to its relationships with the LGBTQ community.
The league is home to the only out athlete currently active in one of the five major men’s North American sports leagues (or top-division soccer league): Minnesota United midfielder Collin Martin. Also, now-retired LA Galaxy starter Robbie Rogers made history as the first active professional athlete to come out in 2013.
Where MLS gets it right
Last year 17 of 23 MLS teams held “pride night” activities, as did this year’s expansion newcomers, FC Cincinnati, in their final season in USL. The league has a partnership with the You Can Play Project and many past and present players participate in the Athlete Ally initiative.
In recent years, several players have been fined and/or suspended for their use of homophobic language on the field. Rainbow flags and similar symbols are common sights in the stands at most MLS matches and many organized supporters groups make clear their allyship with marginalized groups.
MLS’s “Soccer For All” campaign includes “gender,” “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” among its list of descriptors in stating that “everyone is welcome” at its games and events. The campaign is used to commemorate Pride Month along with other comparable occasions celebrating diversity and tolerance. On May 22, the league will kick off “Soccer For All Month,” an effort to “showcase the collective efforts taking place throughout the league to foster more inclusive communities.”
Where MLS has room to improve
And yet, many LGBTQ soccer fans are routinely left cold by MLS, alienated by what some perceive as tone-deaf and ham-handed responses to topics that matter to them. A handful of examples:
- League and team commercial partnerships with corporations like Etihad Airways which have checkered – or worse – records on treatment of LGBTQ employees and other human-rights matters
- MLS owner/investors’ support of, and donations to, politicians espousing homophobic and anti-LGBTQ policies and practices, including the United Arab Emirates, which owns New York City FC’s parent company
- MLS and NYCFC’s inability or unwillingness to deal forcefully with the presence among that club’s supporters of skinheads, white nationalists and other far-right extremists espousing violence and bigotry towards minority groups
- The recurring phenomenon of fans yelling a homophobic Spanish-language slur during goal kicks and free kicks in MLS games
- Incidents of stadium security and other staff at MLS games confiscating banners expressing support for LGBTQ rights and other progressive causes
Chris Billig is one of MLS’s more prominent critics in this area.
“They’ve had great moments, don’t get me wrong. Especially when they started the whole ‘Don’t Cross the Line’ awareness program in 2012,” said Billig, a soccer fan and activist who runs the LGBT.soccer website, in a recent conversation with High Press Soccer. “The video that year specifically called out racism, sexism and homophobia. It was a very deliberate effort that year to call out forms of discrimination and abuse and say, ‘these kind of things are not welcome here.’
“Over the years it morphed into … a generic, be-nice-to-everybody kind of thing and everybody’s welcome, and now it’s just ‘Soccer For All,’” he continued, noting that the official “Don’t Cross the Line” videos have been removed from YouTube.
“I would love to have a Soccer For All Month, it’s a great idea to say we’re welcoming for all, but the one thing that’s frustrating is that they use Pride Month to do it. So it’s almost like a little bit of an erasure of our community – it’s your month, but we’re going to make it for everybody now.”
Even with room to improve, still ahead of peer pro leagues
Compared to generally conservative counterparts in baseball and American football, MLS looks pretty open-minded. While the NFL was riven by controversy over some players’ decisions to kneel during the national anthem in response to police violence and brutality, MLS commissioner Don Garber went so far as to issue a statement affirming “support of players’ collective and individual right to freedom of expression” in such situations.
Garber looked somewhat less deft when responding to questions about the dangers posed by white supremacists at NYCFC games, however, with a cautious answer that left many fans from marginalized groups wondering if league leaders understood what was at stake for them.
The debate will soon fire up once again, as MLS is set to unveil a national corporate sponsorship deal with Chick-fil-A, the restaurant chain which has become a lightning rod for its financial support of homophobic charities and causes. Multiple sources tell High Press Soccer that the partnership has already been a flashpoint within league circles, with many employees expressing their discomfort with the move.
And compared to the dozens of out players in the National Women’s Soccer League, where the 2015 arrival of marriage equality in the U.S. was openly cheered by most teams’ social-media accounts (not to mention the U.S. Soccer Federations’), MLS having only one out player in its current ranks and two in its history looks less progressive.
“I think MLS is in a very difficult spot, where they know that a large percentage of their fanbase is somewhere right of center, and votes Republican, and they don’t want to offend or scare away their fanbase,” said Kim McCauley, a longtime soccer journalist and pundit with SBNation.com as well as a member of the LGBTQ community.
The league’s two prime demographics, notes McCauley, are traditionally suburban soccer-playing families and young urban professionals – segments of the population that often fall in very different places on the North American political spectrum.
“The unfortunate reality of the political climate is that by not taking sides, you are taking sides,” she added. “And I think they would’ve been correct 10 years ago in the way that they are handling these situations. The difference between the farthest-left politically acceptable discourse and the farthest-right politically acceptable discourse wasn’t really that wide of a gap compared to what it is today.
“But now you have a problem with the people who are in power being actively hostile to LGBT people. You have the supporters of those politicians in MLS supporters’ groups, and sneaking banners into the stadium that are supporting fascist ideology.”
Seeking place in a muddled middle ground
As the United States’ wider political dialogue becomes more and more rancorous and divisive in the Trump era, the mild middle ground has become a lonelier, less safe place to stand.
“MLS is in a position where, if they don’t want to antagonize LGBT fans, they can’t really ride that line anymore and say that they want to be apolitical,” said McCauley. “By not taking sides, you are basically saying it’s OK that people with violent ideology are making LGBT people uncomfortable at our games. So I understand where they’re coming from and I get why they’ve taken this position, but it’s not really a viable position anymore.”
Asked to comment on this, the shift from “Don’t Cross the Line” to “Soccer For All” and other aspects of this topic, an MLS spokesperson provided the following statement:
“We are extremely proud to continue to evolve the Soccer For All platform. The campaign captures the unique spirit and diverse environment that embodies MLS. It reflects the collective efforts taking place throughout the league to foster more inclusive communities.”– MLS statement
Billig believes that some leagues in Europe, where hooligan culture has left a dark history of violence and extremism hanging over the game, have benefited from a more explicit outreach to their LGBTQ fans, such as the English Premier League’s “Rainbow Laces” partnership with Stonewall and the Football v Homophobia initiative.
“[They’re] bold about it and not having any kind of fear of what the blowback will be from some sectors of their fanbase. But it’s also a whole different world over there,” he said. “Things like homophobia and racism get investigated by police, where over here we’re still in a pure free-speech kind of zone in this country, where we don’t police even hate speech.
“I follow the comments sections; U.S. Soccer and MLS and anybody else who does this kind of stuff gets a lot of grief for it,” he added. “They’re trying to broaden what they’re doing so that ‘everybody feels welcome’ and that kind of thing, when I feel like the LGBTQ community, still to this day, needs a very explicit and specific welcome into soccer. Still.”
Pointing to Nike’s bold, and ultimately profitable, embrace of Colin Kaepernick, McCauley suggests that getting off the fence in either direction would benefit MLS – not only in financial terms but in the depth of their audience’s interest and devotion.
“If they decided ‘hey, we’re going to go all-out, support the troops, full-blown patriotism, farther right than the NFL,’ I think they would attract a sh*tload of fans. I think they would make a lot of money,” said McCauley.
“And I think if they went the complete opposite direction, of going all-in on supporting trans equality and black lives matter and all-in social justice, I think they would also make more money from that. They’re in a place where they don’t want to offend anybody and by doing that, their actual passionate fanbase is very, very small.”
Billig points to MLS’s Black History Month roundtables as an example of an effective contribution to a wider dialogue, and singled out LAFC for their committed and effective strategies to stamp out incidences of the homophobic goal-kick chant at their games at Banc of California Stadium. Ultimately, he stressed, both words, actions and perceptions are important elements in this sphere – not only for fans but players and staff members, too.
“Look, we still only have one active player right now on the men’s side that’s out, and heck, we still have women[’s players] coming out,” said Billig.
“That’s why I really feel like these deliberate acts of welcome are still important. Because I think showing that we have a safe space as fans at the game is great, but we really need to show that players who may be considering coming out have a safe space as well, that those goal-kick chants aren’t going to turn into something worse if they come out of the closet.”
They’ve dueled 156 times in domestic play over the decades. But over the next week, the first-ever European meeting between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur will unfold under the hot spotlights of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals – with a brand-new stadium heralding a new era on one side and one of the dominant teams in the modern game chasing history on the other.
Since the draw this all-Premier League matchup has been a subject of anticipation and no small amount of pride among devotees of English soccer. City’s early status as clear favorites has been amplified even further in recent weeks, however.
The reigning EPL champions have kept up a fearsome pace in their hunt for an unprecedented quadruple, running neck-and-neck with Liverpool atop the league standings and on the hunt for FA Cup and Champions League glory to add to the Carabao Cup trophy they hoisted in February.
With Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Brighton & Hove Albion, the Cityzens are 21-1-1 across all competitions in 2019 and look eminently capable of winning their second continental title ever, and their first since the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Spurs, meanwhile, have little choice but to take an aspirational approach to this clash. Though they finally moved into their gorgeous, and long-delayed, $1.3-billion new home this week, they’ll carry the debt incurred on the building for years. On the pitch, their undersized squad have slumped badly of late, losing four of their last six in the EPL. They also face a dogfight just to qualify for next season’s UCL with a top-four finish.
Injuries and Odds
Man City always smelled like the odds-on bookies’ choice here and the events of the past month have only tilted the numbers further in their direction. Do these lines underrate the potential influence of Spurs’ loud new home-field advantage? That’s an intangible for discerning punters to weigh.
Odds are from 04/08/19 on FanDuel NJ Sportsbook. As always, home team is listed first. If you need a refresher, visit how to bet soccer or how to bet Champions League.
|Tottenham +320||Draw +270||Manchester City -120|
|Manchester City -240||Draw +350||Tottenham +700|
|Odds to Advance to Semis|
|Manchester City -600|| |
Leveraged by their stadium financing to the reported tune of $838 million in total debt, Tottenham have been unable to buy reinforcements for manager Mauricio Pochettino in recent transfer windows, leaving them with little depth compared to City’s luxuriously-assembled roster.
Last month, Erik Lamela picked up a hamstring injury, the same fate that had already sidelined Serge Aurier, while Eric Dier and Fernando Llorente have been dealing with hip flexor and concussion issues, respectively. In better news, Harry Kane’s ankle ligament healed ahead of schedule earlier this spring and their other Harry, the Winks variety, just returned from a month out with hip and groin problems.
As for the blue side of Manchester? While Pep Guardiola still has three competitions to juggle, he also has both the quantity and quality of players to platoon with along the way. All things considered, their injury list is short as they enter the most decisive stage of the campaign.
That said, the most prominent concern is a highly influential one: Sergio Aguero limped out of the league win over Fulham with what appears to be a groin or similar soft-tissue knock. A scorer of 27 goals across all competitions this season, the Argentinean marksman is not easily replaced but will surely be focused on being fit enough for some sort of role in the Champions League series.
Fullback is suddenly a concern for Pep Guardiola, with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker over the past week sustaining what are likely hamstring injuries and Fabian Delph also sidelined at present.
Combined Manchester City-Tottenham Starting XI
With cerebral managers in both technical areas and high-level talent all around, these two sides can trot out any number of tactical looks, making even basic lineup predictions something of a fool’s game. Our best guess uses a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 shape not far from their usual norms.
Here’s the combined starting XI for Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur using a 4-3-3:
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Considering the overall investments of their Abu Dhabi ownership, Man City might just be the most expensively-assembled squad in world soccer history, and it shows here. That’s a lot of sky blue. Meanwhile, Spurs are blessed with ample quality along the top lines of their depth chart, but can’t hold a candle to the Cityzens’ deeply-stacked roster of reserves and rotation options.
First off, it’s safe to say that Sergio Aguero saunters right into this XI is he’s fully fit and ready to go. With his status in doubt, I’m placing Harry Kane at the No. 9 spot, given how prolific and influential he’s been for both club and country. His Danish teammate Christian Eriksen also sneaks in, thanks to the elegant playmaking skill set and ice-cold veins that have caught the attention of Real Madrid and other global aristocrats.
After that, the front six takes on a distinctly sky-blue tint. Raheem Sterling is enjoying a breakthrough season and will surely play a significant role in this tie, while Bernardo Silva has become a steady City regular even while handling multiple tactical and positional assignments. At his best, Leroy Sane is pure, unplayable lightning along the flanks, and the fact that he’s been platooned at times this season says more about his team’s strength in depth than his own contributions.
In central midfield, Guardiola is spoiled for choice and any number of potential combinations would be quite daunting to Tottenham. I’m guessing that he fields three of his most trusted soldiers – Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho and David Silva – in hopes of dominating the engine room, though don’t be surprised by a trademark tactical twist like an inverted fullback or a five-man midfield.
Injury questions complicate decisions along the back line. I’m guesstimating that Kyle Walker’s hamstring will recover in time for him to take part, though Spurs’ Kieran Trippier is a close second. Conversely, even as second- or third-choice at City, Ben Mendy’s plenty good enough to win the race on the left corner.
In the middle, Toby Alderweireld is one of the most wanted center backs in world soccer, so he features alongside Aymeric Laporte, though Nicolas Otamendi would have reason to feel hard done by in this scenario. As for goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris is a World Cup winner with a penchant for the spectacular – the problem is that it sometimes includes spectacular (and costly) gaffes, so the multilayered skillset of Ederson wins out for now.
Along the touchlines? Mauricio Pochettino is one of the fastest-rising managerial figures on the planet and a huge key to Tottenham’s ambitious climb towards the European elite. Alas, his track record simply isn’t as long or as trophy-strewn as Pep’s yet, so City’s Spanish schemer is the unavoidable pick here.
For years, and for a variety of reasons, the Chicago Fire have been the proverbial “sick man” of MLS, suffering sustained struggles both on the field, at the gates and in terms of relevance in their market.
The 1998 MLS Cup champions have been an underperforming club in the United States’ third-largest metropolitan area – or more accurately, in a small village at the southern fringe of that metropolis – for the better part of a decade, and thus a matter of steadily growing concern to league executives.
The situation might’ve hit a nadir last season, when the Bastian Schweinsteiger-led squad backslid from 2017 playoff contenders to cellar dwellers while the front office feuded with supporters’ groups and attendance faded to such embarrassing levels that it all became a topic of conversation on a national-TV broadcast:
“We need a new stadium solution or a different stadium solution in Chicago,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPNFC in February, grouping the Fire with stadium-challenged peers in New England and New York City. “Those are three of the top markets in the country and if they’re able to solve what are legacy stadium projects and move to the downtown urban core, I’m convinced that those teams in large cities will give the league even more wind in its sails.”
Garber and his colleagues always had more pressing matters to deal with, however, from television ratings to Chivas USA to the Columbus Crew to expansion in Miami and beyond.
Now it appears that the Fire and MLS are finally ready to take drastic action to address what might be dubbed “the Chicago problem.”
Return to the lake?
On Tuesday James Vlahakis, a Chicago-based attorney who worked for a firm retained by the Fire in years past, dropped a bombshell on Twitter, alleging that the MLS franchise is close to buying itself out of its 30-year lease at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois to return to Soldier Field, the downtown NFL venue on the shores of Lake Michigan where the Fire began their existence two decades ago.
A return to the lakeshore would be welcomed by most Fire faithful; not so much on an accompanying rebrand, with “Chicago City FC” one mooted name to help signal a new era for a proud fanbase fallen on hard times.
The chatter quickly picked up further momentum in the wake of Vlahakis’ tweet, with another account posting what might be an inside glimpse of a new logo for the mooted “CCFC,” alongside the Latin phrase urbs in horto magico, or “city in a magic garden,” a play on the Chicago city motto and a popular soccer song traditionally chanted by Fire supporters.
Yet another member of the Fire community subsequently posited that the rebrand is less a done deal than a trial balloon floated by club management, who are known to have convened focus groups to better understand their disillusioned market over the past year or so.
Where there’s smoke?
So is there legitimate fire, so to speak, underneath all this billowing online smoke? Multiple sources have confirmed as much to High Press Soccer, albeit with a few cautions.
One person with knowledge of the situation said that it’s not quite a done deal, with the actual buyout funds not formally in place yet. Another said the transaction has been approved by MLS. Two people believed that the rebrand is a new and possibly incomplete element of a general “return to downtown” strategy that’s been in the works for a few years.
Another confirmed the Vlahakis tweet’s mention of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a key cog in the process of returning to Soldier Field, adding that this imposes a deadline of sorts on the Fire’s move – Emanuel will leave office when his newly-elected replacement Lori Lightfoot is inaugurated on May 20.
A Bridgeview buyout would be no small matter. In financial terms, SeatGeek Stadium (which was named Toyota Park from its 2006 debut until this year) was something of a triumph for MLS when it opened, as the Village of Bridgeview publicly financed the entirety of the $95 million venue – and locked the Fire into a seemingly ironclad lease as a consequence. It’s turned out to be a financial disaster for the community, whose population is small enough to fit inside the stadium’s 20,000 capacity.
A triple whammy of hefty debt to service, wider economic recessions and scant commercial development around the facility has seen Bridgeview’s tax rates skyrocket and credit ratings tank, as the Chicago Tribune documented in detail in 2012.
With the village piling more and more debt atop its initial costs over the years, lawyer and soccer journalist Miki Turner – who broke down the details of said lease in a post last year – estimates that a lease buyout could cost the Fire and/or MLS as much as $125 million. That’s a steep price to pay for acknowledging the club’s failures.
That said, it’s probably within the means of Fire minority owner/investor Joe Mansueto, whose net worth is estimated at more than $3 billion, to say nothing of the league’s recent cash windfalls from expansion fees which have skyrocketed to $150 million per team.
One source told HPS that in 2020 Mansueto – who came on board last year and currently holds a 49 percent stake in the club – will take full control from incumbent owner Andrew Hauptman, a scion of the Seagram beverages empire whose management of the Fire has been widely and bitterly criticized by fans.
Beyond the immediate question of Chicago’s future, a powerful piece of symbolism is at work here: SeatGeek Stadium was the third soccer-specific venue in MLS history, the vanguard of a trend that many have credited for saving the league from collapse after the turn of the century. Unfortunately for the Fire and fellow suburbanites like the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, MLS conventional wisdom shifted after the Seattle Sounders joined the league and reaped huge crowds of young, hip city dwellers at their downtown stadium, a trend that has only accelerated in the decade since.
Should the Fire vacate SeatGeek, it would be the first time an MLS team has left a soccer-specific stadium, offering a cautionary tale about the limitations of such brick-and-mortar achievements in the face of questionable leadership and poor results on the pitch.
The Fire front office have thus far declined to respond to this week’s rumors and reports, releasing only the following club statement:
“We don’t comment on social-media speculation from individuals outside the organization.”
Editor’s Note: In order to better gauge the quality of each Champions League Quarterfinal pairing–and identify matches with upset potential–High Press Soccer will analyze combined starting XI for the match-ups. Up next: Barcelona vs. Manchester United
For most of the planet, it’s the tastiest of this year’s four UEFA Champions League Quarterfinal fixtures, a meeting of European royalty with eight continental championships between them, and a rematch of this tournament’s 2009 and 2011 finals.
FC Barcelona and Manchester United will clash on the 10th and 16th of April for a place in the semifinals. And while both proud clubs are accustomed to spending time in the business end of this competition, they arrive at this stage in quite different circumstances.
Barca are motoring along at the top of La Liga, 10 points clear of the field and in contention for a treble. They might not be quite as all-conquering as the peak of the Pep Guardiola years, but remain an elite group illuminated by the greatness of Lionel Messi.
Meanwhile ManU are still riding the euphoria of Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s genial leadership in the ragged wake of Jose Mourinho’s latest bridge-burning departure, happy to play the plucky underdogs as they mount a late dash to make something of their 2018/19 campaign.
Injuries and Odds
Barca are generally favored, as you’d expect given these teams’ respective places in their domestic standings and the fact that the Catalans are on a 13-game unbeaten run – they haven’t lost a match since their defeat to Sevilla in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Jan. 23.
|ODDS TO ADVANCE TO SEMIS|
|Manchester United +235
Overall, Manchester United are the underdog to advance, priced at +235 at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. They’re even the underdog at Old Trafford for leg 1, listed at +260 to Barcelona’s +100 (Draw +270).
The injury picture here is clouded by the intrusion of the international break. Man United regulars Anthony Martial, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw all departed their national team camps early or did not join them altogether due to knocks of varying severity.
In most cases that’s good news for the Red Devils, mind you – all will make the Barcelona series their top priority. It also appears Solskjaer will have Jesse Lingard available at something close to full fitness as the attacker puts a hamstring problem behind him. And Alexis Sanchez is hustling to recover from a knee injury in time to be available for selection against his former club.
Paul Pogba served a red-card suspension in the second leg vs. PSG and should be available for the UCL quarters, though he’s done his side few favors by suddenly piping up publicly about his interest in a move to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid at some point.
Barcelona’s list of casualties is shorter, but potentially more costly. Luis Suarez picked up an ankle injury in the league win over Real Betis (where Messi notched his incredible hat trick) and Ousmane Dembele aggravated a hamstring issue in the UCL defeat of Lyon, so both of them are far from certain to be ready for ManU. As always, breath will be held across the city as Messi takes the field for Argentina during the window.
*UPDATE: Sure enough, Messi picked up a groin issue in his country’s humbling loss to Venezuela in Madrid on Friday! While subsequent reports suggested it was a fairly minor injury, managing the maestro’s health now becomes another plate for the FCB technical staff to spin.
On the brighter side, defenders Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen and influential central midfielder Arthur have all recently overcome injuries and could play key roles. And while FCB face a more congested schedule in the leadup to this series, their hefty lead in La Liga gives Ernesto Valverde more room to rotate his squad down the stretch.
Combined FC Barcelona vs. Manchester United Starting XI
Both sides have utilized 4-4-2 and other looks this season, though we’ll elect for a 4-3-3 shape that’s their best, most proactive option in most cases.
As illustrious and expensive as the Mancunians’ roster may be, it’s hard for anyone to hold a candle to Barca’s. The 25-time Spanish champions boast one of the highest wage bills in the world and even when you move past names like Messi, Suarez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, individual quality abounds. This lineup reflects that.
Here’s the combined starting XI for Barcelona and Manchester United. Barcelona is blue and the Red Devils are red. For manager, I’m going with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Even in goal, where David de Gea bears a glittering resume that still isn’t enough for a segment of football hipsters who’d always pick ter Stegen and his deeply Barcelonista skill set. The Spaniard edges it here, but not by much.
Pique has struck up a sturdy partnership with Clement Lenglet at the heart of the Barcelona back line, and while they may well prove susceptible to the English archetype of the bruising target striker, they bring so many other qualities to the table as to put the likes of Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof or Chris Smalling in the shade. In the fullback slots, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto are also vintage Barca, relatively slight in stature but attack-minded two-way technicians.
Busquets is aging, yet remains a tempo-setter par excellence and has benefitted from the intelligence of the shape-shifting Rakitic, who can fill an orthodox box-to-box role or any of the many permutations of it that Barca regularly ask him to. Arthur is a younger option who may well go on to eclipse the Croatian, but for now we’ll give Rakitic the nod. ManU’s sole midfield representative is Pogba, whose form has swung wildly from anonymous to world-class over the past year or so, but has been a lot closer to the latter under Solskaer.
Up top, Suarez – should he get healthy in time – and Messi, scorer of a whopping 39 goals and 18 assists in 37 games this season, stroll straight into this XI with no questions. That final slot is a bit trickier to fill, especially given Dembele’s injury troubles. Many on the red side of Manchester would advocate for Martial, Rashford or even Lingard here. However, Lukaku is the call for me.
Yes, his first touch sometimes escapes him and he can often look labored and ponderous. But he remains the Red Devils’ leading scorer and not by accident. His physical presence has few equals and given Barca’s past difficulties against direct, muscular teams (remember the Chelsea battles of old?), the Belgian offers the No. 9’s skill set that stands the best chance of unsettling Pique and Lenglet.
As for the managerial comparison: Valverde carries a far longer and richer resume than Solskjaer. However, the quietly inspiring Norwegian will be making his return to the Camp Nou 20 years after he scored the winner there in ManU’s legendary comeback win over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, so I’ll make a modest concession to the powerful mojo contained therein.
United have the wind at their backs and will play without fear; that said, it will take all that and a great deal more to derail Messi’s quest for his third Champions League trophy hoist.
The US Soccer Federation (USSF) has been riding a roller coaster of agony and euphoria for several years running, from the stunning failure of the men’s national team to qualify for last year’s World Cup and the contentious presidential election that followed to the joy of the 2015 Women’s World Cup triumph and the awarding of 2026 men’s World Cup hosting rights.
The latest episode of soap-opera drama opened with a flourish one week ago Friday – International Women’s Day – as past and present members of USWNT filed a class-action lawsuit alleging “institutionalized gender discrimination” by the USSF.
USWNT just one of many complaints…
It’s a World Cup year for the USWNT. So in echoes of their 2015 adventures, the defending world champions are ramping up their final countdown to France ’19 with action not only on the field, but also on the docket and in the court of public opinion.
The latest in a string of contentious legal cases facing USSF, it joins complaints by the North American Soccer League, the US Soccer Foundation and Hope Solo, whose individual – and very similar to the USWNT’s – gender-equity case rumbles on and has already intertwined with the new one filed by her former teammates.
Like those, this is a complex topic, and defies easy conclusions once you plunge into it. For those in need of deeper context, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Soccer, as well as this unique perspective from High Press Soccer, have posted informative pieces on the details and legal intricacies of the players’ litigation.
In a detailed, expansive argument running a shade under 25 pages in length, the legal counsel – which includes high-powered celebrity sports lawyer Jeffrey Kessler – for a group led by stars Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn laid out what they contend is a deep pattern of inequality and mistreatment compared to their male counterparts.
Will they be successful? There’s a lot going on here, much more than can be squeezed into one article. But here are a few factors to consider, some of them easily overlooked in all the sound and fury swirling around this topic.
*Chickens coming home to roost
The players are taking the next formal legal step in a process that began three years ago when they filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that finally gave them clearance to file suit last month. That’s only part of the reason for the timing of Friday’s filing, which seems to have caught the federation by surprise.
The players and fed agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement two years ago that runs through 2021 and explicitly addresses some of the complaints in the new lawsuit. But the USWNT are about to step into the national and global spotlight thanks to their World Cup quest, providing them with a bully pulpit that’s only been amplified by the #MeToo movement and a wider societal shift on matters of equity and justice in the four years since they charmed the country on their title run. Not only that, it’s a fine time to paint the federation as the bad guys, given their recent string of slip-ups and setbacks.
That, combined with another savvy public-relations rollout by the players, has put the early wind at their backs. The USWNTers lined up a fairly massive wave of press coverage in the wake of their filing, making the morning talk-show rounds to state their case to largely sympathetic journalists and pundits in front of millions of viewers.
All that positive press is probably likely to continue all year, even if the team falls short of their goal of defending their world title. And with so many others nurturing beefs with the fed lately, there’s a distinct sense of karma biting back:
How many lawsuits is this now? Maybe there’s a problem with how the sport has been governed the last 20 years.
U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination https://t.co/cdzsIzy6Xy
— Erik Stover (@ErikStoverNYC) March 8, 2019
*The past is never dead
For their part, US Soccer and its leaders are laying low for now, keenly aware that the optics and zeitgeist are not in their favor. Their response will likely come in the courts, where it will take months, probably years, for this case to wind its way to resolution. The fed has navigated through these scenarios before.
There’s a deep, colorful backstory here. Multiple generations of USWNT players have clashed with USSF over the years, often frustrated by what they’ve perceived as double standards, paternalism and institutional sexism – not just at home but all the way up to the FIFA’s highest levels.
That’s at times led to awkward relations with the USMNT, which has a separate union and CBA of its own (in other countries, like Norway, who in 2017 instituted a landmark deal to pay their men’s and women’s national teamers exactly the same, the WNTs and MNTs are often represented by the same union).
On Friday, though, the men’s players union released a statement in support of the lawsuit, stating that “an equal division of revenue attributable to the MNT and WNT programs is our primary pursuit as we engage with the US Soccer Federation in collective bargaining” this year.
So what would that actually look like in practice? It’s tortuously difficult to tell, given that the path to a system based on “an equal division of attributable revenue” is fairly unprecedented and winds through the arduous give-and-take of two separate collective-bargaining processes.
*The dangers of complexity
As is common in the early stages, this lawsuit contains a laundry list of complaints and allegations, and not all of them will stand up as well in court as they do in the headlines and social-media posts.
While the general concept of equal pay for all is an easy one to rally support for, the differences between the MNT and WNT’s contract situations are big enough that even the players themselves have conceded that they are seeking “equitable” and not necessarily “equal” conditions as the men.
“We’re trying to figure out where women’s soccer is going, so we may not have the same exact structure as the men…So equal isn’t the right word. It would be equitable, because we are asking for a different structure.”
The core of the USWNT roster are full-time federation employees, a rare arrangement in world soccer, where players tend to work for club teams and are more like contractors when called up to their national team, as is the case with the USMNT. US Soccer makes this investment in the women’s team in order to provide them with stability in a wider environment marked by chronically low club wages and two failed US professional leagues this century.
When male players don’t get called up to the national team, they don’t get paid by their federation. But the USWNT enjoy guaranteed contracts (renewed on an annual basis) that include benefits like maternity leave, childcare on road trips and a guaranteed minimum number of matches per year – and that last bit is important, as each match and training camp is a chance to earn per-game and performance-related bonus pay.
The current CBA, signed in 2017, has arguably addressed some of the worst injustices plaguing the WNT, including inequities in bonus pay, travel arrangements and matches on artificial turf. Of 34 home matches since the start of 2017, only three have been played on turf, one of which was a record crowd in the burgeoning soccer hotbed of Cincinnati. Another example: Though the lawsuit uses older date ranges that strengthen their case, over the past year or so the women have flown on more charter flights than the men.
From the USSF point of view, that’s a highly progressive setup in the chauvinistic environment of world soccer, where most women’s national teams are chronically overlooked and underfunded. FIFA, not US Soccer, sets budgets and payouts that are much smaller for Women’s World Cups than their men’s equivalents, setting the tone for a global patriarchy that forces female players in other countries to struggle just to compete, much less carve out sustainable and lucrative careers.
From the players’ perspective, the fed has made some movement towards true equity between the genders, but remains well short of what’s needed. The big question is how they prove that in court. This World Cup year provides them with a platform to make their case, but that’s only the first step.