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Analysis

Riley’s comments shed light on bigger issues

Paul Riley has plenty of challenges in Portland, but he's the perfect man for the Thorns job.

Women’s Professional Soccer is requiring Paul Riley to serve four hours of community service for comments he made that were “considered prejudicial and critical of a partner of Women’s Professional Soccer, as well as not in the best interest of the sport of soccer.”

That is a pretty strong accusation; one that by its language would seemingly pass down a greater punishment than four hours of community service. But it did not come with a fine or suspension because, quite simply, the offense was pretty tame.

The comments WPS is fining Riley for came in this article on Philly Soccer News in which Riley said that U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach Pia Sundhage “destroyed” forward Amy Rodriguez’s confidence and that Sundhage “did nothing to help WPS out this year.”

How WPS and U.S. Soccer were going to work together in a Women’s World Cup year was an issue for the 12 months leading up to the tournament. In the end, U.S. players missed approximately half of the 18-game WPS season.

WPS coaches can sugar coat it as much as they like, but missing the majority of their starting line-ups and star players – who are paid by the club – for a large chunk of the season was anything but ideal. It was downright frustrating.

Sure, the World Cup is a far bigger stage that requires more attention. But the club vs. country issue will be even more prevalent in 2012 – assuming there is a WPS – when the Olympics roll around through late July and August. The Olympics will interrupt a more critical juncture of WPS next season – the home stretch heading into the playoffs (and, in the current schedule set-up, players would likely miss the playoffs in entirety).

Few seem to want to speak openly on the issue. Riley, however, did and now he is being punished (magicJack owner Dan Borislow has also repeatedly said WPS shouldn’t play during the World Cup, saying “the league decided to have amateurs play while the [national team] was away.”)

Riley spoke honestly on a subject that has been a hot button issue which nobody wants to touch. There is a bigger issue at hand here. This isn’t Pia v. Paul. Taking sides in the controversy does nothing to help find a resolution. This is U.S. Soccer and WPS getting on the same page.

In the short-term, the Women’s World Cup and the U.S. Women’s National Team had to take precedent heading into this critical year for women’s soccer. The rise in attention that the U.S. team’s success has brought WPS is undeniable.

But in the long-term, it is clear that WPS coaches could use more ‘give’ rather than ‘take’ from U.S. Soccer. Riley spoke because he felt like he needed to say something. Should he have said nothing heading into 2012, an Olympic year, when this USSF-WPS tango could happen again?

This isn’t about agreeing with what Riley said about Rodriguez. It is not even about agreeing with what Riley said about Sundhage. This is a bigger picture issue: As low on the totem pole as it may be, WPS needs more assistance from U.S. Soccer.

And that is not just player management and development. The last thing Sundhage is thinking about when benching Rodriguez in Germany is, ‘I wonder what this will do to her form with Philadelphia?’

This issue – the elephant in the room since WPS began – is about how well WPS and U.S. Soccer can work together. U.S. players said last year that they were burnt out heading into World Cup qualifying. They’ve spoken again this year – albeit at a lower volume – about a tiring stretch of travel and play. So how can these two entities, together, make this league last? That’s really the issue that gets raised in this small-scale mess.

It will certainly require careful scheduling around a congested calendar and better communication between club coaches and the federation. But the relationship could also use development on the business side, a sector WPS is still rewriting in search of answers.

WPS issuing a seemingly meaningless penalty that requires Riley to do four hours of community service by Sept. 30 – hardly even a slap on the wrist – suggests that perhaps the league was not in total disagreement with Riley but felt that at least something had to be done to stand by U.S. Soccer. Riley was certainly critical, but I’m not sure what the punishment references in calling his comments “prejudicial.”

Sundhage surely won’t appreciate the comments (and who would?), but this incident should not serve as a brick wall standing between a better relationship for U.S. Soccer and WPS. If anything, it should be a less than conventional way of opening conversations that need to be had both on the field and in the boardroom.

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