French aims to lift Pilots to new heights
For Michelle French, watching the U.S. women repeat as World Cup champions was emotional.
"When you've been through it and you know the amount of effort, the lack of sleep, the emotional investment that goes into being successful as a (coaching) staff and then, hopefully, as a team, I have so much admiration and appreciation for what that staff did this go-around, with this World Cup," says French, who is preparing for her second season as coach for the Portland Pilots.
Four years ago, French lived it as a behind-the scenes member of the U.S. staff that won the World Cup title in Canada.
This time, she watched from restaurants while on recruiting trips, or while at gatherings — until the final match, which she made certain to watch from home, to really focus on the game and "be intense about it."
Like most observers, French was impressed with the U.S. team.
"Whether that's the tactical adjustments, whether it's execution in the final third, whether it's dealing with the pressure of stepping up to take a PK that propels you to the next round or wins a World Cup. Everything they did turned to gold this tournament, and I couldn't be more happy for them," French says.
Such success doesn't happen overnight, as French knows first-hand. It's also not guaranteed to continue.
The strong performances from European countries — seven of the quarterfinalists were from Europe — indicates a power shift might be happening.
French says the European structure gives those countries one big advantage, one that might be able to overcome the population advantage of the United States.
The top teenage players in Europe are playing professional soccer, competing against women 10 or more years older than they are.
"Those best (teenage) players are already playing in the second division or getting time with first division teams in France or England or Sweden. You compare that to the U.S., our 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds are playing against 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds," she says. "Some of the players they're competing against are great, and some are kids just playing club."
French says by playing professionally against women, young players in Europe are learning to play a more sophisticated game and to deal with more physical competition.
The United States still remains a trendsetter for women's soccer, however.
"Coming out of every World Cup, there seems to be some new trend that teams are going to follow. In '15, a lot of it was about attacking transition or scoring on set plays," French says.
Transition goals and set-piece goals were again significant themes of this Women's World Cup, but French saw tactics play a larger role as coaching staffs continue becoming sophisticated at scouting their own team and the opposing teams.
Without the professional club model of Europe, it's critical that players are challenged by coaches who push them beyond their comfort zones, French says.
College soccer is one place that happens, and French is now immersed in returning the Pilots to the elite level they reached under former coach Clive Charles.
After a spring season that French was "really, really excited about," she says her second Pilots team will be better than her first, which finished 11-9 (4-5 in the West Coast Conference).
Like many coaches, French and her staff used the spring to test new tactics and push players to develop. She is looking for the Pilots to be more dynamic on the attack than in 2018, when Taryn Ries had 15 goals and three assists for a team that scored 30 goals and allowed 21.
"We need to become more diverse in the way that we create scoring chances and in who actually produces goals for us," French says. "Taryn had an exceptional year for us, and I feel like she can repeat that again. But I would love for more players to be involved in the success that we have on the offensive side."
Even with a significant portion of last season's squad returning, UP could have as many as five new starters.
"We're going to look completely different than last year," the coach says.
French says she feels good about a defensive group that returns plenty of experience on the back line and in defensive midfield.
There will be a new goalkeeper with the graduation of Rachel Lusby, who played all 20 games as a senior. Sophomore Payton Woodward, a transfer from Kentucky, was the goalkeeper during spring, but French sees a competition for the job involving junior Madison Zamora, who is from Phoenix and missed spring but is expected to be healthy. Two freshmen — including 20-year-old Swedish youth international Jenny Wahlen — also might factor in the goalkeeping competition.
Woodward is one of five transfers who have joined the program.
"The transfer portal will prove to be very beneficial for our program over the next few years," French says, noting that the roster has 10 seniors and nine juniors, meaning there will be openings for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
"Not that we don't want to bring freshmen in (too). We want to try to get the best players here," she says.
Center back Kendra Steele, who started all 20 games as a sophomore last season, was the only Pilot to enter the transfer portal.
The experience on the 2019 UP roster goes beyond age. French says the players who return from last season now understand what she and her coaching staff expect of them.
"There was a lot to learn in the spring, but you can tell physically, their commitment and competitiveness in training (has improved)," French says. "I think they've really bought in and they can feel the culture shift here, and that's starting to show on the field as well."
One new approach will mirror that of the U.S. team.
The 28-player roster that will begin training Aug. 7 and play an exhibition at home seven days later against British Columbia is the largest in recent memory for the Pilot women.
"It's going to be one of the most competitive environments that we think has happened here in a long time," French says. "Best-case scenario — kind of tying it in with the U.S. — we can have two really great groups of people that can be starters and they should be pushing each other on a daily basis to be (a starter) every weekend."
That depth will be tested by a schedule that includes road games against Washington, Oregon and California and a Sept. 1 game in Seattle against perennial national power North Carolina. Also on the schedule are games against 2018 NCAA tournament programs Denver — Sept. 8, for the official home opener — and Seattle.
Watching friends and players she worked with win another World Cup took French back to her time with that program.
"I couldn't help but feel withdrawal in that (championship) moment. But I like to look forward more than look back," she says. "When I do look back, I have such fond memories of the time that I spent with U.S. Soccer and with the national team at the World Cup and the Olympics. But now it's full steam ahead, as it has been this last year and a half, with the Portland Pilots."
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