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2020 Tokyo Olympics

20 things to watch in women’s soccer in 2020

Photo Copyright Daniela Porcelli for The Equalizer

It’s 2020, and that means it’s the year after the year — the encore to the World Cup bump. Will the attention stick around? How much will the sport grow? Who and what should we be watching? Below are my thoughts on all that more for the 2020 calendar year.

For those who like to skim the actual article, I’ll put this up high: We’re going to try something different with the comments to start 2020. We’ll share a prompt, and that will guide the comments section for this article. Our goal is to have an interesting, on-topic discussion. Which story are you looking forward to in 2020?

1. Olympics present another litmus test

Will the United States get back on the podium? What about Japan, playing at home? They’ve been preparing for Tokyo and even maybe sacrificed 2019 to some degree to prepare for 2020. How do the Netherlands follow up their World Cup run? And can an English-heavy Great Britain make a run ahead of a 2021 European Championship on home soil?

The lack of France and Germany at the Olympics will be mighty interesting. The U.S. certainly has the talent and continuity of players to win a fifth gold medal and become the first team to win the Olympics the year after winning the World Cup. Knockout tournament soccer is always a little wild, though, so we’ll see…

2. Tough decisions ahead for Vlatko

Vlatko Andonovski faces plenty of difficult decisions as he prepares for his first major tournament as head coach. First is qualifying, which is a pretty safe assumption. Among the most-watched things will be how Andonvski utilizes Carli Lloyd, and whether or not Alex Morgan returns in time to be match fit for the Olympics.

Lloyd looked spectacular at center forward in Andonovski’s first two matches in charge in November. Morgan has said she wants to come back and play after she gives birth to her first, due in April. Nobody is going to know what that means until after she does that, but there’s no doubt it’s going to be a tough timeline when a roster of only 18 players demands that each be 100 percent ready to go.

Vlatko Andonovski is prepared for the USWNT job

3. The equal pay lawsuit carries on

The U.S. women’s national team’s fight for equal pay is set to go to trial before the Olympics, which really isn’t what either party wants. Do we see a settlement beforehand? We’ve seen a lot of numbers thrown around but not much progress made between the parties. Mediation went nowhere over the summer. So, what happens next?

U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro, who hasn’t done himself any favors while publicly discussing the matter at the New York City victory parade or the introduction of Andonovski as coach, continues to use the term “equitable pay.” Players aren’t interested in that term.

The players being granted class status in November was a battle won, but there’s a lot that still needs to play out in this fight. Players have taken a generally more amicable approach for a while. I’m curious to see how much that changes in 2020.

4. Christine Sinclair will break the international scoring record

Photo: Canada Soccer

Canada appears to be spiraling, but there will absolutely be cause for celebration soon as Christine Sinclair closes in on Abby Wambach’s all-time international scoring record of 184 goals. Sinclair is one goal short, meaning she is very likely to tie and eclipse the mark at Olympic qualifying, which begins for Canada on Jan. 29 against lowly St. Kitts and Nevis.

In classic and classy Sinclair fashion, she will surely downplay the accomplishment and be happy that it is behind her. That doesn’t mean it should be downplayed by media. This is a generational accomplishment from one of the best players in the sport’s history, and it’s only taken this long because Canada doesn’t actually play as often as they should. At least it will happen on TV; it almost took place in a game without a live feed in October.

5. Will anyone new crack the U.S.’ Olympic team?

Sophia Smith is the most interesting new face in January camp for the U.S., and I wouldn’t be surprised if another player or two from December’s identification camp gets a call-up for the SheBelieves Cup.

Andi Sullivan had a very good 2019 for the Washington Spirit. What does that mean for her international career? The U.S. midfield is already crowded, and it’s one of the relatively younger groups on a relatively old team.

Brace yourself for another year of debating the fullback position. Midge Purce is in January camp for another look there, but Casey Short is the most likely addition to the Olympic 18 after being snubbed from the 2019 World Cup team.

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6. Courage. We always have to watch the Courage

The North Carolina Courage are the most dominant team in U.S. women’s pro soccer history, especially when you extend that history to their Western New York Flash days (as you should, to be clear). The National Women’s Soccer League’s failure to secure an expansion team for 2020 means North Carolina’s roster won’t be pillaged for another year — and that’s a problem for the rest of the league.

There will be at least one expansion team in 2021 (potentially more), which means there will be an expansion draft. North Carolina’s number of U.S. internationals is going to mean that the Courage must give somebody up come that time, unless they get really creative.

Paul Reilly and Charlie Naimo are experts at juggling that process so I don’t expect they’ll be hurt terribly, but the Courage are going to look different after this year. The three-peat is North Carolina’s to lose.

No, North Carolina’s dominance is not bad for the NWSL

7. Are there any challengers in the NWSL?

In the end, nobody could touch the Courage in 2019. The Portland Thorns really didn’t do it at all, as seen by the 6-0 whooping at Providence Park in September. The Chicago Red Stars were North Carolina’s biggest challenger in the regular season, and North Carolina wiped the floor with the Red Stars in the final. Oh, by the way, Chicago doesn’t have Sam Kerr anymore, either.

I really like what the Washington Spirit did in 2019. Obviously, they weren’t content with that. Richie Burke has made a lot of changes already this offseason, but are they for the better? We’ll see. Continuity is very difficult to establish in this league.

So, whether or not they’re a challenger to break up the quadropoly of North Carolina, Portland, Chicago and Reign FC, remains to be seen.

8. What happens to the league’s bottom dwellers?

Sky Blue FC showed a lot of promise in the back half of the 2019 season, and they were better than their futile record of 2018. Might we now see a return to the mean in 2020? That will depend on another relatively unknown coach, Freya Coombe. Burke was unknown and that worked out quite well in year one for Washington. Andonovski’s rise from unknown in 2013 always provides a word of caution on judging coaches by their past resume.

Marc Skinner wasn’t a terribly familiar name in the U.S. market when he arrived to coach the Orlando Pride in 2019, and that did not work out at all in year one. Orlando finished dead last in 2019, behind Sky Blue, which is frankly unacceptable. The Pride have been generally poor since entering the league in 2016 but for one playoff run on the heels of Marta and Alex Morgan carrying the team in the back half of the 2017 season.

There’s a lot of debate over whether Skinner has been given a fair leash or too much benefit of the doubt to be returning after that season. The one thing worth reiterating is that he was not set up to succeed. I don’t think anybody would have succeeded in that job the way that the team has been managed from the highest point since its inception. But now he has a full offseason to make his own moves, and the Pride need to show more direction in 2020.

9. Selecting the 2023 World Cup host

Photo Copyright Daniela Porcelli for The Equalizer

Four bids remain to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup: Brazil, Colombia, Japan, and a joint bid between Australia and New Zealand. Colombia would seem the greatest outsider, particularly with Brazil also in the mix.

Could the FIFA Council see the prospect of putting the World Cup in South America for the first time as a way to increase the global footprint of women’s soccer? Among the things Brazil has going for it is its time zone, which is favorable for both the Americas and Europe. Both Japan and Australia/New Zealand present significant challenges there. And if you think TV still isn’t a major player in these conversations, you’re kidding yourself.

A decision is expected in June. At this stage, before inspections and further details, I’d be mostly guessing, but I wouldn’t mind a trip Down Under in a few years.

10. Individuals owning the moment

Sam Kerr is gone from the NWSL after winning MVP for a second time in 2019. Where do the MVP and Golden Boot races go from here? There are a handful of Courage players once again worth mentioning.

Kerr was the rightful MVP in 2019, but the talk around her, combined with the speculation of her impending and inevitable transfer to Chelsea, took the spotlight away from the season that Debinha put together. If Debinha’s performance in the final set the stage for 2020, we’re about to be in for a treat.

Debinha, once the Courage’s secret weapon, isn’t a secret anymore

Denise O’Sullivan is likely to continue being integral to the Courage, as are Crystal Dunn (with another international tournament splitting her season) and Lynn Williams (maybe with the same issue?). The standout performances in the NWSL are likely to once again come from players not heading to the Olympics. The league will once again take a “break,” but U.S. players will likely miss a good deal of league play again, this time a month deeper into the season.

The Olympics might provide a further international spotlight for players like Vivianne Miedema, who continues to light up the WSL with Arsenal. That international window is brief — and not nearly as focused as the World Cup — but it shouldn’t be underestimated how many new observers there are for certain teams and sports.

Will that also mean a return to Team GB for Kim Little? And, for the umpteenth time, we ask: Could this be the last major tournament for Marta? I think that answer depends on how serious Brazil’s bid is to host the 2023 World Cup.

11. Pia Sundhage coaching Brazil

Sticking with Seleção, there is no more intriguing team in 2020, among the world’s traditional big players, than Brazil. Brazil’s status among the elite continuously eroded over the past decade due to ongoing mismanagement and neglect of the women’s game from the CBF. The appointment of Pia Sundhage as head coach in July is the most promising thing the federation has done in a long time.

If Sundhage can bring defensive and tactical discipline to a squad which never lacks technical ability, it could finally be the perfect recipe for Brazil. Thus far, the results have been there. Brazil is unbeaten in eight games under Sundhage. Among their six victories are a narrow win over England a 4-0 thrashing of Canada. Another big test awaits in the March international window.

Also, please give us all the content of Pia Sundhage and Marta jamming on the guitar.

12. Watching the youth

It’s a World Cup year for the U-20 and U-17 age groups, which offers another chance to see the next generation of talent. We’ve seen programs like Spain and the Netherlands take strong youth national teams and translate that to greater success at a senior level. Which teams will win in 2020? Equally, which players will be discovered?

On the U.S. front, it’s hard to be optimistic about the state of development. All but one youth national team head coaching job (boys and girls) is vacant, and the women’s pyramid is being hit by some of the in-fighting and hand-wringing which has played the men’s side of development. U.S. Soccer and new women’s national team general manager Kate Markgraf need to take action and get things on track.

‘We need to evolve’: How Kate Markgraf plans to keep the USWNT on top

13. Who will be signed using the NWSL’s new allocation money?

Each team has now has the option of spending an additional $300,000 per year on players. Some might max that out and others might sit on it or trade it away. I think there’s an expectation that some big names are coming to a place like Portland, which is a desirable location and a place that is the most likely and willing to pay. Orlando needs a lot of work. Do the Pride go out and use that allocation money to bring in a few top internationals?

Skinner will try to go to the well in the UK and see who he can bring in. Scottish forward Claire Emslie was good in batches for an otherwise pretty bad team, so bringing her back is a good start.

The key for any team while shopping for international talent will be finding those who are in the upper echelon and who are not going to the Olympics. Whereas in the World Cup year that’s a challenge, because most of those world-class players would be at the World Cup, the structure of the Olympics actually allows for you to go get a world-class player because of the small Olympic field

France’s absence from the Olympics is going to be weird; it will also be to the benefit of the NWSL. I’ve heard very loose scuttlebutt that French players are certainly some of the targeted and more appealing players to bring in via allocation money, which isn’t surprising. We’ve seen that at least with Amandine Henry joining Portland, and a previously failed attempt for Wendie Renard to join Orlando (due to an inability to pay her enough) that there is some desire from French players to come to the U.S.

14. Keeping a close eye on Tacoma

While we’re on the topic, how does the OL Groupe’s ownership of Reign FC play out? There’s reason to be optimistic about a new group investing in a team in the league. If you’re looking at this from a glass-half-full perspective, the alternatives for the Reign were likely selling the team to someone in another market.

We really haven’t heard a definitive, explicit answer about what the long-term branding of this team will be; for now, it remains Reign FC. Lyon wants to grow its brand in the U.S., so there is no way there won’t be Lyon branding somewhere in some capacity.

Similarly, the proposed soccer-first stadium in Tacoma is a good sign that the team might stay there, but the Reign aren’t the ones putting up the money for that. OL Groupe president Jean-Michel Aulas previously talked about having his eyes on the Miami market, which is certainly a larger and more glamorous one than Tacoma. Perhaps the happy medium is getting back into Seattle center at some point.

Exclusive: Bill Predmore on why he’s selling Reign FC to Olympique Lyonnais

15. The exhausting NWSL expansion conversation

Louisville is confirmed to be joining the NWSL for the 2021 season. Will Sacramento soon officially join as a second team?

Logistically, handling an expansion draft for two teams at once is tough in a league with complicated mechanisms like federation players and, now, allocation money. History provides no confidence that a third expansion team would be locked up for 2021, but could you imagine three at once?

The NWSL has long been in desperate need of expansion after contracting from 10 teams to nine ahead of the 2018 season. Adding 22 new jobs at once is great and gets good players off of benches and onto the field. Adding 44 jobs at once sounds like a lot but is a net positive. Adding 66 jobs, in one full swoop? That threatens to dilute the quality of the league on multiple levels, either picking apart what current teams have built or leaving the expansion teams in a terrible starting place.

If I’m betting, I’d say Sacramento joins Louisville and 2021 brings yet another year of odd teams (11) and annoying bye weeks. Maybe Atlanta makes for No. 12 in 2022, but as I’ve written ad nauseam, these things often change.

16. U.S. Soccer and NWSL: A telenovela

Megan Rapinoe and U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro after the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup final (Photo by Lewis Gettier)

NWSL owners asked U.S. Soccer for eight figures in support, spread out over several years, and they were told to go back to the table in December. Thus, the federation’s management of the league looks set to continue, which is the opposite of what most expected for 2020.

There isn’t much incentive for U.S. Soccer to take the deal right now. The federation’s goal is to advance the development of American players and U.S. national teams. League owners want more autonomy, and their business objectives might not necessarily line up with those of the federation. So, why would U.S. Soccer pay more to control less?

Getting that figured out impacts a lot of other things, including hiring a commissioner. Right now, there’s no definition of what power a commissioner would have. Why would anyone want the job, then? Until there’s a long-term plan, there will continue to be short-term drama.

Speaking of drama, what will the USL have to say about the women’s game?

17. FIFA’s future plans for women’s soccer

We ended 2019 with the news that Gianni Infantino is thinking about the idea of the Women’s World Cup being held every two years, and I think most reasonable people will be happy to see that idea get buried in the holiday news lull, never resurface.

More interesting will be FIFA’s plans for women’s club soccer. The ICC has stepped in and held a pseudo women’s international championship the past two years in the U.S., but the tournament is going to need to make good on expanding that competition significantly in 2020 if it wants to truly grab hold of the market. FIFA will absolutely be watching what happens there.

18. Champions League(s?)

Will Lyon win the UEFA Champions League for a fifth consecutive year? The forthcoming changes to the competitions format are welcomed, particularly for creating more games between top teams. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if it brought some parity, too.

Will other confederations invest in a continental competition? South America would be wise to beef up the Copa Libertadores. Asia just ran a trial of a champions tournament — a four-team round-robin between league winners from Australia, China, Japan and South Korea. Logistically, any Concacaf competition would be limited to the U.S. and Mexico to start.

The bottom line is, there needs to be investment in the club game. That’s where sustainable changes are made.

19. U.S. players going abroad

Rose Lavelle (Photo by Lewis Gettier)

U.S. players are in demand, as ever, and once the 2020 Olympics wrap up, they’ll have more freedom to cash in on their performances. Expect several players to be in negotiations to go to major European clubs at the end of 2020. As the current U.S. women’s national team collective bargaining agreement stands, only three contracted players (a national team contract without allocation to an NWSL team) can play abroad in 2021.

In theory, the very best players — those who bring value on and off the field — could make more money by playing abroad in 2021 and 2022, forgoing a national team contract and only getting paid by the federation for the camps they are called into. That’s one direction we could be headed toward in the equal pay lawsuit, which will dictate a lot of things going forward. Adding to this: it didn’t take long for U.S. players to wonder why they can’t get allocation money.

Expect Rose Lavelle to be the most in-demand player when the time comes.

20. Looking at the right KPIs

Attendance often dictates conversations about the popularity and health of a sport, and this site is guilty of that at times, too. What we need to watch in 2020, however, is wider-scale investment in women’s soccer.

Will the NWSL finally secure major, national sponsors (plural)? Will the league have the guts to take some risks on its next media rights deal? The idea of the A+E setup was innovative; the rigidity of the league and the oddity of the partner caused the failure.

Attendance is important, but different teams and leagues make money in different ways. If there aren’t sponsorships and media rights deals to be had coming out of a ground-breaking 2019, there are bigger problems than we thought. We need to be looking at multiple key performance indicators for the NWSL and the sport at large.

I’ll end this column by echoing what I have for a while now: There’s still a major gap in media investment in the sport. I’ve seen that firsthand and fight that battle every day. Four percent of all sports media coverage is dedicated to women’s athletics. Yet again, in a year-opening post, I ask: Who will step up and do something about it? We’re doing our part here, but we could and should be doing a lot more. That takes investment from gatekeepers.

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