Why Brandi Chastain thinks Kate Markgraf was right choice for USWNT GM

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Why Brandi Chastain thinks Kate Markgraf was right choice for USWNT GM

Brandi Chastain and Kate Markgraf know each other well.

That’s to be expected of two of the most-capped players in United States Women’s National Team history, and of two women who played alongside one another in one of the most memorable games in American soccer history. Chastain and Markgraf played every minute of the 1999 World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl, and Chastain’s goal in the penalty shootout clinched the USWNT’s second World Cup win.

Twenty years later, Markgraf is leading the USWNT into its future. U.S. Soccer hired her as the team’s general manager last week, and Chastain thinks her former teammate is the right woman for the job.

“I'm very optimistic about her position and the changes and the influences that she'll have,” Chastain told NBC Sports Bay Area last week on behalf of Clover Sonoma’s “Strong Inside” campaign.

Markgraf, 42, will be tasked with leading the search for and hiring the next USWNT manager after Jill Ellis announced last month she would step down from the position. Ellis faced criticism for her tactical decisions, but became just the second coach to win consecutive World Cups when the USWNT lifted the trophy a month ago in France.

Chastain said that the talent pool has never been deeper, and pointed to breakout USWNT star Rose Lavelle as “a player that we can build a team around.” But what kind of team Lavelle leads is anyone’s guess, as many aspects of the next Olympic and World Cup cycle are true unknowns until a new manager is in place.

“[It’s] a big question with a lot of variables and without having leadership there, it will be hard to say what the next young players are because we don't know what style we're playing,” Chastain said. “We don't know what our philosophy is going to be. We don't know what our focus will be.”

The USWNT will in due time, but it was clear that Chastain and Markgraf were on the same page about some of U.S. Soccer’s broader goals. Although she had not yet spoken to her former teammate at the time of our interview, Chastain echoed Markgraf in identifying U.S. Soccer’s need to prioritize and streamline development.

Last week, Markgraf told reporters it would be her “whole focus” to do so. That covers a range of initiatives, including continuing to support NWSL -- which is managed by U.S. Soccer -- and also overseeing the youth national team setup.

Along those lines, Chastain thinks Markgraf is well-equipped to improve the sport’s accessibility in underserved and underprivileged communities. Five of the 23 USWNT players to make the trip to France were women of color, and the costs of entering soccer’s pipeline to colleges -- and, eventually, the pro ranks -- often are prohibitive for families outside of wealthy suburbs.

“I think she's been watching other countries around the world and their coming-of-age in women's soccer, and how much they have been influenced by opportunity,” Chastain said. “... I feel that she's seen the growth of women's soccer on a global scale that could potentially influence how we look for players here in this country, and who do we value and how do we value [them].”

[RELATED: How Chastain still inspires 20 years after iconic goal]

Markgraf, who has not served as a general manager before, will have to make these decisions in the shadow of the USWNT’s gender discrimination lawsuit. Mediation between the players and U.S. Soccer broke down late last week, just days after Markgraf’s hiring. The legal fight might not affect on-field performance -- the USWNT won the World Cup four months after suing U.S. Soccer, after all -- but the two sides appear headed to federal court.

Two decades ago, Markgraf’s relative inexperience didn’t show en route to a World Cup crown. And if you ask Chastain, her former teammate won’t show any in her new position, either.

How Brandi Chastain still inspires 20 years after famed World Cup goal

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How Brandi Chastain still inspires 20 years after famed World Cup goal

Brandi Chastain’s legacy is set in bronze. Well, at least part of it is.

The two-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist scored the most famous goal in American soccer history 20 years ago last month at the Rose Bowl, drilling a left-footed penalty kick into the top corner to clinch the United States Women’s National Team’s second World Cup title. The Rose Bowl unveiled a statue of Chastain’s iconic celebration last month, and the Bay Area native says she’s “grateful” for the honor.

But the gold, silver and bronze that came in Chastain’s decorated career aren’t what she’ll remember most. 

“[It] wasn't the reason to get started,” Chastain, 51, told NBC Sports Bay Area this week, speaking on behalf of Clover Sonoma’s “Strong Inside” campaign. “It wasn't the reason to stay in it, and it won't be the reason to continue. 

“But the reasons are about the people, and how you get to influence young people's way of not just playing the game, but how they see themselves in society and how they can organize themselves in teams, and how they can become leaders and possibly make positive change.”

Chastain retired from the sport in 2010, and that mindset has guided her post-playing career. She is the executive director of California Thorns FC, a U.S. Soccer development academy program associated with NWSL’s Portland Thorns. She coaches the under-14 team, and the boys varsity soccer team at Bellarmine College Preparatory.

Chastain, along with World Cup-winning teammate Julie Foudy, co-founded the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative in 2005. According to Chastain, BAWSI has provided a free after-school exercise program for nearly 20,000 elementary-school girls in underserved communities since its inception. 

Along with the rest of the World Cup-winning “99ers,” Chastain was cited as an inspiration to many on the 2019 team. By sealing the United States’ first back-to-back titles with this summer’s run in France, the 2019 iteration joined their predecessors in American soccer lore. 

Chastain said she was happy to be someone young women looked up to, since she didn’t have examples of women playing professional sports when she was a young, aspiring athlete. 

“Now that I see these young players that I coach,” Chastain said, “that they are looking to the [USWNT] and they are looking at other national teams, and they have those resources. They have those mentors. … It makes you feel good that these national team players are saying that we’ve had good representation before we came here, and we hope to follow in their footsteps.”

Chastain recently partnered with Petaluma-based dairy Clover Sonoma for its “Strong Inside” promotion that highlighted her, NBC Sports Bay Area Giants reporter Amy Gutierrez, former Stanford basketball star Jennifer Azzi and American middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño as women who are inspiring future generations to find their inner strength.

“It's just a testament to how long she has stayed in the spotlight,” Kristel Corson, Clover Sonoma’s vice president of sales and marketing, said of Chastain. “And that people are still recognizing what she did [20 years ago] as something that's still so important, even in today's world as women athletes are fighting for equal pay and sort of equal rights across the board, she has continued to be in that spotlight and stand up for women and stand up for young girls, helping them achieve what they need.”

Amid recent organizational changes within U.S. Soccer, Chastain sees an opportunity to continue to pay it forward. 

U.S. Soccer officially hired Kate Markgraf, Chastain’s former teammate, as the USWNT’s general manager earlier this week. Markgraf will be tasked with hiring the team’s next leader after Jill Ellis, who is only the second coach to win back-to-back World Cups, announced last month that she would step down.

Chastain said she wants to “become a part of coaching” the youth national team set-up, with an eye on “hopefully one day working with the national team.” Even with all she has accomplished in soccer, she has plenty of passion for the sport.

“I still love soccer as much as I ever have -- maybe even more,” Chastain said. “I'm hoping that, with my age, that will be an asset in terms of my experience and the fact that I've been in this game for over 43 years, and I want to continue to give back.”

USWNT star Megan Rapinoe will be obvious choice for Sportsperson of Year

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USWNT star Megan Rapinoe will be obvious choice for Sportsperson of Year

Ten days into the second half of 2019, we already have a leader for Sportsperson of the Year, an award presented by a variety of media outlets, the most visible being the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award given by Sports Illustrated.

It is a rare sports honor insofar as it is designed to reward impact beyond mere athletic feats. The Golden State Warriors, back-to-back NBA champs willing to exercise social conscience, earned the distinction in 2018. The year before, Houston Astros star Jose Altuve and Houston Texans star J.J. Watt were honored excelling on the field and also their contributions to disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Here in 2019, Megan Rapinoe is blowing away the field.

After invading foreign soil and dominating the best of international competition, the United States Women’s National Team returned home to the classic America experience of adoration and derision. The most passionate reaction, both ways, is reserved for Rapinoe, the co-captain and team leader who has been subjected to the centuries-old tradition reserved for women who see injustice and inequality and dare to push back.

She’s the lesbian agitator that, you know, keeps getting political, bringing up such matters as social inequality based on race, sex and ethnicity, as well as pay inequality for women.

Rapinoe was crusading again Wednesday, addressing a crowd of tens of thousands in New York City after she and her teammates were celebrated with a parade down Broadway. She said things people need to hear, the kind of comments that have resulted in her being described as a “polarizing” personality.

“We have to be better,” Rapinoe implored. “We have to love more, hate less. We’ve got to listen more and talk less. We’ve got to know that this is everybody’s responsibility. Every single person here. Every single person who is not here. Every single person who doesn’t want to be here. Every single person who agrees and doesn’t agree. It’s our responsibility to make the world a better place.”

Yet there are Americans who claimed not to root for the American soccer team because of Rapinoe, who spares no one in her expressed pursuits. She is another in an expanding list of high-profile athletes making it abundantly clear that she would not accept an invitation to the White House from President Donald Trump.

Rapinoe has made clear that she can’t accept the man’s agenda, both implicit as well as explicit, and reiterated as much Tuesday in an interview CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“Your message is excluding people,” she said. “You're excluding me, you're excluding people that look like me, you're excluding people of color, you're excluding Americans that maybe support you.”

She pointed out that the Trump agenda -- identified by the MAGA acronym -- is a call to return to a time in America when racial, ethnic and sexual and discrimination was legislated.

“It might have been great for a few people, and maybe America is great for a few people right now,” she said. “But it's not great for enough Americans in this world," she said.

"You have an incredible responsibility as the chief of this country to take care of every single person, and you need to do better for everyone.”

Women who so brazenly challenge men of power tend to receive the figurative backhand. Go away. The president’s response last week to Rapinoe’s vow to not visit the Trump White House amounted to “Shut up and win.”

They did win, posting a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final on Sunday for their second consecutive World Cup victory. They received a standing ovation from the crowd in Lyon, France. Rapinoe, who led the way, received the Golden Ball award (best player) and the Golden Boot award (top scorer).

But Rapinoe will not shut up. Neither will her teammates; Alex Morgan, the Silver Boot award winner who, like Rapinoe, donates a portion of her earnings to soccer-related charities, said in May that she wouldn’t accept an invitation from the Trump White House.

Upon returning home, the national team should be held up as role models for humanity as well as ambassadors for a sport and a country. They shouldn’t have to tolerate disdain from the far-right, often the first to chant “U-S-A, U-S-A,” after American success on a global stage.

[RELATED: Steph Curry congratulates USWNT on World Cup victory]

Rapinoe is here to win soccer games while reminding us of how much work we have to do.

“This country was founded on a lot of good ideals,” she said recently. “But it was also founded on slavery. We just need to be really honest about that and be really open about talking about that.”

If Ali were alive, he’d be honored to present any award, much less one named for his commitment to social activism, to Rapinoe.