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

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USATSI

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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USATSI

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.”

What USWNT's Megan Rapinoe told FIFA president after World Cup final

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AP

What USWNT's Megan Rapinoe told FIFA president after World Cup final

A day after United States Women's National Team star Megan Rapinoe slammed FIFA for its treatment of women's soccer players, she briefly got an audience with the organization's president. 

Gianni Infantion was on hand for the USWNT's 2-0 win over the Netherlands in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup final Sunday in Lyon, and was on the field to hand out individual and team awards after the match. That's where and when Rapinoe, who also won the Golden Boot (tournament's top scorer) and Golden Ball (tournament's top player), briefly spoke with Infantino. 

"It was to have a discussion," Rapinoe told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap on Tuesday. "It was to have a conversation. ... I think we always have to be open to progress, and sometimes it takes people a little bit longer to get there. But, I think his eyes are opened up and I'll definitely continue to peel them open at all times, but I'm looking forward to having a conversation with him and seeing how we can use FIFA money a lot better."

Fans at Parc Olympique Lyonnais booed the FIFA president and chanted "equal pay, equal pay" after the match. On Friday, Infantino announced intentions to double the prize pool for the Women's World Cup. Had it applied this year, that still would have left the women's share nearly $400 million shy of the total available for the 2022 Men's World Cup in Qatar. That, coupled with the scheduling of CONCACAF's Gold Cup final and CONMEBOL's Copa America final on the same day, are major reasons why Rapinoe told reporters Saturday that "I don't think that we feel the same level of respect certainly that FIFA has for the men and just in general."

Rapinoe and her teammates have faced a similar fight stateside. Twenty-eight USWNT players are suing U.S. Soccer for "institutionalized gender discrimination," and their suit alleges that U.S. Soccer is paying the women less than their counterparts on the men's team despite bringing in more revenue, television viewers and trophies. The two sides agreed to mediation last month, and USWNT striker Alex Morgan said the chants in Lyon drove home that the public is on the players' side. 

[RELATED: Why Rapinoe sees Twitter feud with Trump as positive]

"Well, I think clearly we have the fans' support," Morgan told Schaap. "There's no denying that, but just moving forward I think we really want a collaborative approach with U.S. Soccer and I think we're very optimistic about that. They've done an incredible job of supporting us. This World Cup just shows what federations do support their teams, and who really made it the furthest. You look at England, France, our team [in] comparison to Brazil -- who has so much potential, who could easily make it into the final given their quality but don't quite have the support. So, we have to continue to push that along and I think that we're doing that."

They might be starting to gain congressional support, too. After West Virginia University women's soccer head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown highlighted the pay gap in a letter to Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Manchin introduced a bill Tuesday that would bar any federal funding for the 2026 Men's World Cup. The United States is set to co-host the event with Mexico and Canada, and Manchin's office told the Huffington Post that federal funds "can be and will likely be used in a variety of ways" for the tournament., such as infrastructure, security and "assistance for [facilities] upgrades."