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14 for ’14: Women’s soccer moments of the year

Cliché as it may sound, this was one busy year in the women’s soccer world. From fired coaches to dominant runs in the NWSL, World Cup qualifying and an epic UEFA Champions League final, there is plenty to be thankful for from 2014. Here are our 14 most memorable moments from the year, listed chronologically as to not play favorites:

The Birth of the Dash

The Houston Dash's introduction to the NWSL brings hope of more MLS involvement in the future. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

The Houston Dash’s introduction to the NWSL brings hope of more MLS involvement in the future. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

We lead off with one that started in 2013 and spilled into 2014. As MLS draws out its latest decision on expansion with stadium infrastructure and myriad other factors behind the decision, it is particularly notable that the addition of the Houston Dash as the NWSL’s 9th team happened over a period of about a month. Ownership of MLS’s Houston Dynamo inquired about a team, received positive reports and encouragement from the Timbers/Thorns ownership, and more or less pushed their way into the league on short notice. The Dash were not strong on the field, but they drew adequate crowds to BBVA Compass Stadium and laid the groundwork for more MLS teams to consider adding a women’s team to their profiles.

Disastrous Algarve Cup for USWNT

The USWNT tied Japan to start an ugly and costly Algarve Cup in March. (Getty Images)

The USWNT tied Japan to start an ugly and costly Algarve Cup in March. (Getty Images)

Nine-time winners of the prestigious Algarve Cup, the United States was embarrassed at the Portugal-based tournament in 2014, drawing Japan, losing to Sweden and then losing to Denmark, 5-3. It was the first time the U.S. ever gave up five goals and the first time since 2001 that the Americans lost back-to-back games. The Denmark result was the splashiest of headlines surrounding the United States’ slow fall from grace, and led in large part to Tom Sermanni’s firing. By December, the U.S. finally lost its No. 1 world ranking for the first time in almost seven years.

Sermanni sent packing early

Tom Sermanni was fired by U.S. Soccer after just over a year as head coach of the U.S. women's national team. (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer.)

Tom Sermanni was fired by U.S. Soccer after just over a year as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team. (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer.)

After what appeared to be a smooth debut season as head coach of the U.S. national team, Tom Sermanni fell on hard times at the start of 2014. At the Algarve Cup in March, the U.S. finished last in its group, lost two straight games for the first time in 13 years, and finished 7th. Sermanni survived it, but the proverbial writing was on the wall. Yet the timing of Sermanni’s firing was as much a story as the decision itself. U.S. Soccer axed the Scotsman in the hours following a 2-0 friendly win over China and he was left behind in Colorado while the team continued to San Diego for another match four days later. Interim coach Jill Ellis was eventually named full-time coach and appears to be locked in through the World Cup despite another disappointing showing at the recent International Tournament of Brasilia.

New Reign in Seattle

Kim Little (left) and Nahomi Kawasumi were crucial to Seattle's huge turnaround.  (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Kim Little (left) and Nahomi Kawasumi were crucial to Seattle’s huge turnaround. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Seattle Reign FC made so many moves to improve over the 2013-2014 offseason that Laura Harvey was presented with a tee-shirt on draft day with the phrase, “Has Laura Harvey made a trade today” on the front. But few anticipated the most important acquisition would be Kim Little, who emerged from the unknown on this continent to become the most dominant midfielder in NWSL. With the Scot anchoring the midfield—and occasionally moving up top when a late goal was needed—the Reign played their first 16 games before tasting their first of what was only two defeats all season. The only downside to the Reign’s story in 2014 was their 2-1 loss to FC Kansas City in the NWSL Championship that no doubt left a bitter taste ahead of the current offseason.

Wolfsburg repeat as UEFA champs

Nadine Kessler and VfL Wolfsburg won a second straight UWCL title in May. (Getty Images)

Nadine Kessler and VfL Wolfsburg won a second straight UWCL title in May. (Getty Images)

VfL Wolfsburg won a second straight UEFA Women’s Champions League final on May 22, beating Tyresö 4-3 in one of the best matches in recent memory. Marta scored two wonderful goals and Christen Press set up Vero Boquete for another, but Wolfsburg ultimately prevailed through Martina Müller’s late winner. It was the ultimate win-or-go-home game for Tyresö, whose women’s team folded only two weeks later due to lack of finances. Wolfsburg are in the hunt again, with a tough quarterfinal matchup in March against Swedish Damallsvenskan champions FC Rosengård.

World champs Japan finally conquer Asia

Japan conquered Asia for the first time in May. (Getty Images)

Japan conquered Asia for the first time in May. (Getty Images)

Japan jumped to the forefront of women’s soccer powers with their surprise win at the 2011 World Cup, which they followed up with a silver medal at the Olympic Games a year later. But until this year Japan had never even been the champion nation on their own continent. After a slippery start to the 2014 Asian Women’s Cup, the world champs rallied to draw Australian 2-2 in their opening match and then dominated Vietnam and Jordan to qualify back to the World Cup. Their work not done they beat China in the semifinals on a 122nd minute extra-time goal and then overcame Australia 1-0 in the final to become the Asian champions for the first time. Azusa Iwashimizu, who was sent off the World Cup final match, hit both game-winners.

Solo arrested, plays on

Hope Solo was charged on two counts of domestic violence in June. (Getty Images)

Hope Solo was charged on two counts of domestic violence in June. (Getty Images)

Hope Solo missed the second of two June friendlies against France for what U.S. Soccer at the time called a “family commitment.” Two days after that, Solo was arrested on two charges of fourth-degree domestic violence-assault for alleged actions against her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew. She played for the United States and Seattle Reign FC despite the charges, with both teams citing due process. Media and fans took renewed interest in her case this fall, in light of the NFL’s domestic violence issues, but U.S. Soccer stood by playing her through World Cup qualifying. Solo’s trial is due to start in January, but she has a Dec. 30 hearing regarding her and her attorney’s motion to dismiss the case. Any guilty verdict or admission of guilt would put the United States stalwart’s World Cup in doubt.

Turf war escalates, turns into legal action

BC Place, where the 2015 Women's World Cup final will be played, has an artificial turf surface. All six Canadian venues are scheduled to use artificial turf. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

BC Place, where the 2015 Women’s World Cup final will be played, has an artificial turf surface. All six Canadian venues are scheduled to use artificial turf. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

It wouldn’t be a World Cup without some controversy. Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022, for more serious human rights issues, continue to be a black eye for FIFA. But by August, women’s players’ issues with the 2015 World Cup in Canada being played on artificial turf took center stage as they threatened legal action, which they finally filed in early October. The 2015 World Cup is very much still on course to be the first men’s or women’s senior edition played on something other than natural grass, drawing outcry of gender discrimination for a surface that players and their supporters say is “inferior.” Change seems unlikely, now five months from the competition, but the story won’t go away and it could prove the lasting legacy of the tournament if the turf plays a role for the worse (injuries chief among the concerns).

New stars shine at U-17, U-20 World Cups

L-R: Claire Lavogez (France), Asisat Oshoala (Nigeria) and Griedge Mbock Bathy (France) all starred at the U-20 WWC. (Getty Images)

L-R: Claire Lavogez (France), Asisat Oshoala (Nigeria) and Griedge Mbock Bathy (France) all starred at the U-20 WWC. (Getty Images)

Both the U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups in 2014 provided glimpses to the future, and the talent on display in Canada in August for the elder of the two tournaments was promising. Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala stole the show, and France’s Claire Lavogez looked like a young Louisa Necib as she danced around defenders and entertained fans. The U-17 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica was part of the country’s coming out party in 2014, which included a quarterfinal men’s World Cup run and first-ever qualification for the Women’s World Cup in impressive fashion. Impressively, Costa Rica’s Gloriana Villalobos and Canada’s Jessie Fleming each played in both youth World Cups while also featuring for their senior teams in 2014. Villalobos was only 14 years old during both World Cups; Fleming is 16. Honorable mention to Florida State winning its first NCAA women’s national title, too.

Holiday shines, lifts FC Kansas City to NWSL title

Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn receive the NWSL Championship trophy from outgoing league executive director Cheryl Bailey. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn receive the NWSL Championship trophy from outgoing league executive director Cheryl Bailey. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

If there was one constant from 2013 to 2014 in NWSL it was FC Kansas City playing attractive and effective soccer. But it seemed like everything they did in 2014 paled in comparison to the Reign. A nine-match unbeaten streak looked scrawny next to Seattle’s 16 straight; they failed to beat the Reign in three regular season tries (0-1-2) and ultimately finished a distance 2nd, forcing them to fly west for the NWSL Championship. And that is where the culmination of Vlatko Andonovski’s vision took place in a 2-1 win over the Reign for the title. Lauren Holiday, on her way to being named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year, was a dominant force in midfield including one of the most entertainingly brilliant sequences of the year to create the second goal. Holiday’s pal Amy Rodriguez made clinical finishes on Holiday passes for both goals.

T&T captures, breaks hearts; World Cup to feature eight debutantes

Trinidad & Tobago captured hearts worldwide, but ultimately failed to make the World Cup. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Trinidad & Tobago captured hearts worldwide, but ultimately failed to make the World Cup. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Few Americans gave the Trinidad and Tobago women’s program much thought before 2014, but the second half of the year certainly changed that. First, Dash coach Randy Waldrum signed on pro bono to coach the team through World Cup qualifying. Then Waldrum kicked up an outcry of support after a tweet about the team arriving to train in the U.S. without enough money for meals or housing. Those who helped raise the needed funds were then treated to a month of inspired soccer, starting with a near-miss against the U.S. Unfortunately, T&T’s three attempts to qualify for the World Cup fell short. Two losses in extra time (one in penalties) sent them to a playoff against Ecuador. The South American country pulled out the dramatic win with the only goal of the two-leg tie in the dying moments in front of a wild but ultimately heartbroken crowd in Port of Spain. Ecuador joined Cameroon, Costa Rica (beat T&T to qualify), Ivory Coast, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Thailand as teams sending their women’s side to the World Cup for the first time.

France, England take major leaps

France beat Germany in November to cap off an incredible year. (Photo: France Football Federation)

France beat Germany in November to cap off an incredible year. (Photo: France Football Federation)

Bonjour, Les Bleues! The most impressive international team in 2014 was France, who rattled off victories against Sweden, England, Brazil and, most notably, Germany. Add an impressive draw against the United States and the arrival of the French as a legitimate World Cup title contender was cemented this year. England’s progress under new coach Mark Sampson cannot go without mention, either. The Three Lions won all 10 matches in World Cup qualifying and picked up an impressive 4-0 win over Sweden. The 3-0 loss to Germany in November was ugly, but England seem to have emerged as a team capable of making a World Cup run, though not to the final.

Bailey steps down, NWSL seeks new leader

NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey recently stepped down from her role. (Photo Copyright: Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey recently stepped down from her role. (Photo Copyright: Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

It started with an errant job posting and quickly became reality in November: Cheryl Bailey is on her way out as the executive director of the National Women’s Soccer League. Sources say she wants to spend more time with her family. The move leaves the fledgling NWSL without a commissioner entering 2015, the historically crucial third season. What’s needed is a leader with a vision to get the league through two challenging years – with the World Cup and Olympics – and to a stable point come 2017. Even typing that, however, feels odd the way history has gone. There’s little to report thus far on Bailey’s replacement.

Paths to World Cup title take shape

Twenty-four teams will compete for this trophy in 2015. (USA Today Images)

Twenty-four teams will compete for this trophy in 2015. (USA Today Images)

The World Cup Draw provided no shortage of fodder to help bridge the gap to the tournament opener on June 6. First the seeded teams were arbitrarily placed in groups ahead of the actual draw. Then the United States was grouped with Sweden, Australia and Nigeria which is just about the most difficult trio possible after the teams were divided into pots. Worse yet, if the U.S. doesn’t win the group it could mean a Round of 16 date with Brazil in unfavorable rest and travel conditions. But that also makes things difficult on Brazil, who will likely get the U.S. or Sweden in that Round of 16 match. But for every tough draw there are easy ones and the teams representing the last three World Cup winners—Japan and Germany—should be able to handle group play on cruise control. Meanwhile, France play England in a juicy opening match, but the knockout bracket suggests it may be better to finish second in that group instead of top.

Writing by Jeff Kassouf and Dan Lauletta.

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