Is The NWSL Broken Beyond Repair?

A discussion originated on an National Women’s Soccer League-related forum in which I’m active wherein the original poster discussed potentially withdrawing support from the NWSL and its teams due to several issues with the league and its US Soccer Federation parentage. The following started as a response to that thread. This is definitively editorial in nature, so I hope the readers will forgive the departure from journalistic convention into the use of the first person pronoun. After all these are one person’s opinion. That person happens to be ‘this reporter’, but usage of that convention in an op-ed seems at best stilted.

“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

Is the NWSL flawed? Yes. I’m sure that anyone who has been paying any attention can rattle off lots of ways it is.

Is it still the best option we have? Yes.

Unfortunately, there’s a weird chicken-and-egg situation. The league won’t grow without better infrastructure and simultaneously, can’t [afford to] develop better infrastructure without growth. It’s almost comically minor-league – perhaps even bush-league – that the league office is something on the order of three full-time employees and a handful of interns, and at least in the non-MLS co-owned/partnered markets the situation is likely at least as sparse (I know in Seattle it absolutely is and that the turnover rate is incredibly high – we’re on our third or fourth media contact of the season, and have had I think seven now in my three years covering the team). People are stretched to the breaking points and beyond – and this is just the off-field administrative stuff.

The NWSL has abdicated its responsibility to the writers and photographers who cover the league and the game, allowing a self-selected clique of accredited media to form an officially sanctioned media association. I think this is solely because someone from that pool noted that such a thing was probably needed and the league Director of Communications simply didn’t have the bandwidth to oversee the formation and governance of one. This group alleges that it models itself on the Baseball Writers Association of America, ostensibly to ensure access and facilities which empower the press to do their jobs, but elects to ignore the tenet of “[t]he main requirement for membership is still that a writer works for a newspaper or news outlet that covers major league baseball on a regular basis.” Rather, what the NWSL Writers’ Association seems to have arrogated unto itself fits the BBWAA’s description of a chapter Warden (see Article 3, Section 4 of the BBWAA constitution while conveniently ignoring that primary qualifier and seemingly using it to exclude media who have covered the league for other outlets. [nota bene: The Goalkeeper Guys were both nominated to the NWSL Media Association by our local representative, Jacob Cristobal, but were not accepted by the unknown composition of that group. We love Jacob and see him as a brother-in-arms covering the team, and thank him for the nomination while indemnifying him from defending the decision. He’s a good guy, and if you don’t already read his stuff, you should.]

The player payscale is simultaneously ridiculous and sustainable – as wrong as it is for anyone who works as hard as the players for potentially as little as $7000 a season (assuming they make the roster and aren’t amateurs who may work as hard for nothing), there isn’t the revenue stream to support it being higher – and even though team owners are reasonably well heeled it’s an unreasonable expectation to demand that they lose more to pay better. We’ve also seen in past leagues what results when compensation rates are significantly higher – leagues folding in three years because they become fiscally untenable. That option is obviously not viable from past experience.

So, how then to fix it? I don’t have the answer, but I suspect that it involves significantly more investment from the US Soccer Federation as the lead partner in the coalition of associations which underwrite the NWSL – particularly given the general track record of the US Women’s National Team – into both the infrastructures and on-field product. Getting more teams will help – it seems ludicrous that there are only five NWSL teams in the top 20 US markets (#3 Chicago, #5 Houston, #6 Washington, D.C., #10 Boston, and #15 Seattle) and the list of those other 15 is studded with places which come up over and over again – NYC, Northern and Southern California, Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis. Adding eight to ten teams at once is probably disastrous, but if I’m in the commissioner’s office, I’m actively recruiting potential ownership groups in those places and building a plan to include them as rapidly as seems feasible. Adding presences in those places will help build revenue, and has the chance to make it possible for the league to get a TV contract which doesn’t see it displaced by NASCAR second-tier truck racing and high-school football (in the past two years, playoff games have been shoehorned around such events, resulting in such disasters as a semi-final match featuring Washington at Seattle having a 10 pm Eastern time Thursday kickoff even if this made it unrealistically late for fans of the visiting team to watch).

Sure, having almost every game since the league’s inception available for viewing and live-broadcasting those which aren’t televised via YouTube is great, and makes it possible for fans without deep pockets to follow their teams away from home. But I don’t think anyone can make the argument that doing so is an acceptable alternative to having a regular nationally televised match broadcast on a significant outlet. As with so many of the things we’ve seen above, if you’re already a fan, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t know about the broadcasts; but if you’re not, they’re not easily discoverable – and that accessible discovery goes a long way in building interest.

I’d be looking at ways to make the merchandise more readily available by getting it into national distribution and offsetting the hit to owners by giving them a share of the profits – this has been cited as a reason why it hasn’t been done yet; that by making merchandise available strictly through the teams and league stores it drives all that revenue back to the owners. This strikes me as one of two things: either a well-intentioned mistake on the part of the league or a tacit acknowledgement that there simply isn’t the overhead and infrastructure to hire a league merchandising and marketing director worthy of the title who could get this sort of thing done. There are so many places in Seattle I can go and buy merchandise from our other professional sports teams. For that matter, I can buy Seattle Supersonics gear, and the Sonics were uprooted to Oklahoma City eight years ago. I know of a single store which isn’t online or the team’s Match Day popup in the stadium where I can find Seattle Reign stuff, and that one’s limited to t-shirts. I strongly suspect that this particular outlet (if you’re curious, the Simply Seattle! store at 1st and Pine) bought a handful of shirts in their most common sizes for women, youth, and men from the team itself simply because people asked for them.

I’d also want to focus on some way to get the players – not merely the cadre of national team stars – visibility and name recognition, at least within their communities. For instance, if you’re a sports fan in Seattle or Portland, you probably know who Clint Dempsey or Diego Valeri are; if you’re a soccer fan, you probably know Alvaro Fernamdez and Darlington Nagbe. Sports fans probably recognize the names Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe – but what does that say about the Jess Fishlocks and even moreso the Hayley Rasos of the league? I’d be surprised if 2% of self-identified sports fans in Seattle know who Jess is, and would suspect that the Portland number might be less than 2% even among self-identified soccer fans for someone like Raso. Yet it’s the intensity and drive of the Fishlocks and Rasos – and of the twenty or so players on each team’s roster who aren’t well-known names from the US. If you can find me someone who isn’t a die-hard fan, family member, classmate or former teammate of Andi Tostanoski, Didi Haracic, or Allie Wisner who knows who they are, I’d be shocked.

 

So, the NWSL thus far has failed at a logistic level; it has failed to properly treat its players and particularly those amateur players who train with the teams and fill out the rosters when national team players are off representing their respective countries; it doesn’t market itself well enough to get more than a toehold of national broadcast coverage for anything but some of the most important matches each year; it hasn’t managed to establish a presence in more than a quarter of the largest metropolitan areas, and remains nearly invisible and hard to detect outside the cities where it does have a presence.

Still, it’s a start. We need to support it, lest it go the way of the WUSA and WPS. What do you think can reasonably be done to make the league a better and more sustainable presence? Chime in! Your opinions are as valid as mine.

Kawasumi, Reign Top Breakers 2:0

Two years ago, the Seattle Reign made a run for their first NWSL Shield on a remarkable undefeated skein which ran nearly the entire length of the season. Part of that roster was Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi, then on loan from Kobe Leonessa.

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Nahomi Kawasumi sends her first of the match past a diving Jami Kranich.

The Reign match against the Boston Breakers on July 2 marked the return of ‘Naho’ to the Reign lineup – but this time, not on loan. It didn’t take long for her to display the form which contributed to her becoming a fan favourite, opening the scoring in the 15th minute by converting a Manon Melis cross which deflected off of Boston defender Kassey Kallman and slotting it past netminder Jami Kranich, who had little chance diving to her right.

The half would end with the score still at 1:0, but not without more Reign scoring chances. Jess Fishlock had one roll just wide in the 23rd, and Kim Little drilled a Kawasumi cross in the 43rd solidly off the corner of the frame.

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Boston goalkeeper Jami Kranich catches a chipped shot from Seattle’s Kim Little in front of the Scottish international.

Little’s pursuit of her 30th NWSL goal continues, with the Scottish star generating four solid scoring chances, but seeing none register on the scoreboard, with Kranich extending vertically to capture Little’s chip in the 54th minute.

Nine minutes later, Kawasumi would round out the scoring with her second of the night, converting a pass from Keelin Winters at the top of the box to provide the final margin of victory.

The Reign defense merits note as well, coming into the Boston match with a skein of four consecutive clean sheets, two each behind goalkeepers Hope Solo – now off in training camp with the US National Team – and Haley Kopmeyer.

Kopmeyer would register three saves on the night to earn the fifth in the skein of shutouts, leaving the Reign holders of a new league record and three minutes short of another for the longest time without conceding a goal.

Nahomi 'Naho' Kawasumi scores her second of the night.

Nahomi ‘Naho’ Kawasumi scores her second of the night.

Arsenal pays a visit to Seattle

Seattle Reign FC 1
Arsenal Ladies FC 1
International Friendly – May 26, 2016
Memorial Stadium – Seattle, WA

 

Seattle Reign FC began the 2015 slowly. An early season international match with China was played to a 1-1 draw and coincided with the side getting their collective feet under them and making a long run towards a 2nd consecutive NWSL Shield.

Arsenal Ladies FC visited Seattle this week. After enjoying what the city had to offer in the way of Pike Place Market and other landmarks, the Gunners took to the Memorial Stadium pitch and showed their quality and why they recently won the Women’s FA Cup in front of a record English crowd.

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Mid-season friendlies are potentially both an opportunity and a problem for a team. For Seattle and Laura Harvey, it was an opportunity to get back on the pitch only a few days after a disappointing home loss to Chicago Red Stars. It was also an opportunity to get 90 minutes to her depth and regular subs like Lindsay Elston, Havana Solaun, and Paige Nielsen while getting a full half a match to a few players further down the bench.

 

Both most recent BBC Footballer of the Year recipients saw action during this match, with Arsenal’s 2015 recipient Asisat Oshoala and Seattle’s 2016 winner Kim Little each seeing about a half of action.

 

For two teams who had never met there was an interesting history or connection between them. Players had met before on different teams and in internationals, but specifically that Reign FC coach Harvey and midfielder Little both having won trophies during their tenures at the London club.

 

Number 17 scored in the 17th for Seattle. Bev Yanez struck a top of the box shot into the upper corner to get the scoring underway, showing the form she has maintained over the past few seasons.

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Even with a block of subs available to each coach the game did not suffer from a lack of continuity. Harvey chose to use her subs in a block, other than the 30th minute substitution of Jessica Fishlock. Fishlock, only a month removed from a fractured leg, started and seemed her usual self. The 30 minutes was according to plan and Fishlock seemed pleased with how it went after the match.

 

The PK in the second half was a reasonable call. Although not a hard foul, there was clear contact and Arsenal converted, tying the match. Both sides pushed for a win down the stretch, and the friendly ended up with a 2nd half yellow issued to each side.

 

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There has been internet chatter about a Women’s Club World Cup like is played in December in the men’s game. After watching two sides that could be a part of something like that play an international friendly in Seattle FIFA needs to get to work on it.

For Arsenal, the trip to Seattle is followed up by an international break and some time to get ready for their next match.

For Seattle, Portland beckons on Sunday the 29th with important points available in a match with many internationals missing.

 

 

Cascadia is thriving

May 14, 2016
Seattle Reign FC 1 – Portland Thorns FC 1
Memorial Stadium Seattle, WA
NWSL Regular Season

It was not that long ago that the Cascadia Derby between Seattle and Portland was a USL First Division match between the Sounders and the Timbers. In 2016, it is not only those teams in MLS, but the women’s pro game bringing passion to the stands. Two bus loads of Rose City Riveters arrived clad in red and positioned themselves across the Reign supporters groups. Seattle drums competed across the pitch with the Portland chants while their beloved Reign and Thorns competed on the pitch.

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The first half saw both sides getting some chances, but physical play with every ball being challenged kept both sides off the board early. The turf got a victim in the the 4th minute when Manon Melis had to come off due to a nasty looking knee injury. Carson Pickett came on into an attacking role, switching Kiersten Dallstream to the right side opposite Meghan Klingenberg and setting up a game long battle between the two number 25’s.

However, the scoreless first half quickly changed in the 2nd half. Portland got an opportunistic goal from Nadia Nadim in the 46th when she out jumped Reign keeper Hope Solo over Reign defender Lauren Barnes, stunning the crowd. Seattle bounced right back with Bev Yanez tying the match in the 49th with a powerful header on a Barnes corner. Suddenly, it was a 1-1 thriller.

Christine Sinclair made her 2106 season debut in the 56th. With Tobin Heath missing on a red card the Thorns were looking for some veteran presence as the match moved into the final third. With both Sinclair and Dagny Brynjarsdottir on the pitch the Thorns had a 15 minute significant height advantage up top, but a more defensive substitution took away their brief twin towers.  Less direct play followed.

The game continued to be physical on both sides, with Seattle captain Keelin Winters going down in the 62nd. There were bodies on the ground several other times. The Seattle trainer was busy for a while. It wasn’t until the 87th minute when the referee finally reached into his pocket to book Lindsey Horan for a pull back on Little.

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Both teams pressed down the stretch. Kim Little nearly gave Seattle a lead late with a flick on to herself for a volley, but it went high.

Neither side nor coach seemed satisfied with the result post game, and there were some clear frustrations evident post match. One ended up getting fined for expressing that frustration.

Cascadia is thriving.

Quick Thoughts: Portland Thorns FC 1: 1 Seattle Reign FC

Neither team left Memorial Stadium with the three points each hoped to earn in tonight’s match, but with the one apiece each probably deserved. It became the tale of two halves: the first marked by tentative play and with each side looking as if they were afraid to make the mistake which would put the opposition ahead; then the second, which started with a fire in the head of both teams which saw Portland’s Nadia Nadim opening the scoring seconds into the new half, only to be answered by Seattle’s Bev Yanez three minutes later.

It’s not an understatement to say that this is a rivalry game, and one between two teams which are building a not inconsiderable dislike for one another.

DSC09400Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” could have been the theme song for the second half hits reel, as the game took on the sort of physical tone more commonly associated with Western Hockey League matchups between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Portland Winterhawks, as Reign players were being knocked to the turf repeatedly – and with the match referee calling for immediate medical treatment on three incidents.

Surprisingly, only two yellow cards were produced, likely the result of two of the three most severe collisions being on 50-50 balls. Even so, the visitors where whistled for six fouls in the half.

Two sets of matchups stood out- the #16s on both side, defenders Emily Sonnett of Portland and Carson Pickett of Seattle, the latter of whom ended up slotting into a midfield position after the departure of Manon Melis in the fifth minute with an unidentified leg injury.

The other pair, the #25s, Portland and US Women’s National Team defender Megan Klingenberg and Seattle’s Kiersten Dallstream, getting the rare start at forward.DSC09235

More in a bit, as I have the time to sift through photos and figure out why Word Press is showing me white text on white backgrounds.Rebooting fixes everything, right?

Update, 17 May: OK, so rebooting doesn’t fix everything, but reinstalling WordPress fixed us.

Anatomy of a textbook save

Growing up, in youth sports and the like, we get taught the fundamentals. At a certain point, they stop being drilled every practice, just because it is assumed that they have become so ingrained in the player.

For those who may have discovered the game later, or who didn’t play the position, sometimes professionals manage to make something look completely routine. It’s probably worth investing a little time in breaking down the routine, because just because something looks simple doesn’t make it that way.

Thanks to burst-mode digital photography and a shooting perspective to the left of the goalkeeper not much above the six-yard box it’s possible to walk through a save Caroline Casey of Sky Blue made on Manon Melis of the Seattle Reign frame by frame.

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Our view starts two strides after Manon Melis has taken service on a ball switched to her from either Bev Yanez or Jess Fishlock. Merritt Mathias is making a far-post-run, but the defender (I believe Erica Skroski) is well positioned to deny the pass if Melis can even see Mathias. Casey makes the right decision to stand her ground and “make herself big.” Her alternative choice is to attack the ball, which leaves the opportunity that Melis will step around her and put the ball into an unprotected net or chip over her should she go to ground.

From Melis’ angle, she can likely see a little space short-side and a fraction far-side, particularly if she can get the ball up, but not far enough to miss the top corner. Casey has her squared well, and particularly with the angle of Melis’ shoulders, can expect to have the shot come either right at her or to her left.

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Melis makes a little adjustment in launching the shot, and drives it on frame. Casey adjusts by lowering her centre of mass while keeping her ‘wingspan’ wide.

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Sure enough, the shot comes right for her.

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Because of Melis’ momentum, Casey doesn’t have the chance to try to catch- her option is to put the ball somewhere safe. In this case, it spins out to her left, and safely crosses the touchline.

DSC06679 Never giving up on the play, she recovers her feet and focus while the returning left centre back peels off to pursue the ball- or more accurately, make certain that Melis doesn’t have a good angle to get to it.

If it looks simple, it largely is, particularly if the play is developing slowly. The six-frame sequence illustrated here, though transpired in between a third and a half-second- there isn’t time to think, just react, and it’s only experience which makes the difference. Some of us never succeeded in subduing the instinct to challenge the shooter here.

Seasons change and streaks end

Seattle Reign FC 1
Sky Blue FC 2
Seattle, WA – Memorial Stadium – April 17, 2016

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The Seattle Reign FC entered the 2016 with a two year unbeaten run on the home turf at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium. The team that came closest to ending that streak late in 2015 was Sky Blue FC. But for a Jess Fishlock header with 89:56 showing and stoppage time looming the streak would have ended. Instead, the streak continues into 2016 and is one of many storylines for the Reign FC in year 4 of the NWSL.

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The 2015 late season game saw Sky Blue grab an early goal a bit against the run of play and then almost hang on before a late equalizer. Natasha Kai’s 15th minute header slipped past the Reign defense and with it one-nil at the half, shades of deja vu were written all over this match. Hope Solo kept the Reign close with a penalty save in the 36th, drawing a yellow prior delaying the kick.

The second half kicked off with more pace and in the 52nd Seattle equalized as Little to Fishlock led to a ball across the goal and a Merritt Mathias header. Early second half pressure from the Reign had paid off, but Sky Blue never let the tying goal alter their approach.

Sky Blue showed commitment to pressure and effort in spite of less possession and gathered a weak Reign defensive clearance to get it to 2-1 with a goal by Kelly Conheeney in the 68th wide open at the far post.

Pressure on the ball throughout the match put Sky Blue into a number of good positions in spite of Seattle possession. Sky Blue played composed high pressure defense throughout, making up for relatively less experience on the field with smart hustle and opportunistic finishing. Leadership in the defensive end by Christie Rampone and dangerous runs by Kelly O’Hara were difference makers in the match.

For the Reign, the streak is over. For Sky Blue FC a hard earned win to open season four.

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2015 in Seattle gave local soccer supporters an opportunity to watch three amazing streaks continue.

In August at the 89:56 mark just as stoppage time would begin, it was Jess Fishlock off of nice Kim Little cross. The Reign FC two season home unbeaten run was safe.

In October, late in the USA v Brazil friendly in Seattle it was Carli Lloyd from Meghan Klingenberg. The USWNT home unbeaten streak would last after all.

In November, the UW scored first, but WSU rallied and took a 3-1 victory. WSU sustained its 12 year run over its cross state rivals.

Three impressive streaks. A few months later and only one of them continues.

 

The streaks were of completely different types.  The Reign had stormed through two seasons of top tier league play.  The USA had played a mix of various qualifiers and friendlies over a several year period.  The college rivalry is annual with players turning over in eligibility cycles. The opportunities for these streaks to continue and what they represent is different. It will be several months before the next opportunity for the UW to end that streak.

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