Riley’s comments shed light on bigger issues

Jeff Kassouf August 10, 2011 19

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.

  • Greg

    Good article. Personally, I think it’s time for US Soccer and the USWNT to put much more effort into the growth of WPS. We’ve heard plenty from players who have said that they deserve a professional league (the only fully pro women’s league in the world if I’m remembering correctly), but they have yet to maximize their own pre and post-WWC value for the betterment of the league: players taking extended leave before after the Cup, players failing to mention the pro league in interviews, players not showing up at matches to cheer on their teams and interact with fans.

    The next step in the evolution of women’s soccer is at the pro level, and US Soccer needs to realize that its best interests lie there. Let’s cut down on these extended training camps, use younger US pool players in the 4 nations tournament and Algarve Cup (and maybe even the Olympics after 2012… :O) while the senior members concentrate of CONCACAF, the World Cup and WPS. There’s always going to be a give and take between club and country – the men’s game is no different – but now is the time for US Soccer to put their time, money, and good will behind the American pro league.

  • Eight

    WPS needs USWNT post-WC and post-Olympic momentum/stars to stay alive financially – this should have been obvious. USWNT need WPS to stay competitive and improve/breed players in between camps – US Soccer needs to realize this. Just look at the French national team.

    They should be working together – in harmony during these times. Coaches don’t like it? Would you prefer to be coaching a semi-pro team? The inability for WPS to work well with pretty much any one else seems to be a theme.

  • PASoccerdad

    8 – you seem to be agreeing that they should work together then you say WPS needs to suck it up…. OK, Terrific

  • Ron Bishop

    The two sides need each other to succeed.

    WPS needs to stabilize and grow, providing a larger pool of dedicated soccer professionals. This would put less strain on each team. Several teams also lost players to foreign national teams, so this isn’t just a USWNT & WPS issue. Other countries need to either develop their leagues or work together with the WPS. I’m not a businessman so I don’t have any suggestions on how to accomplish this task.

    WPS needs to adjust it’s schedule to work with International play (especially with so many foreign players) or just live with the consequences.

  • PASoccerdad

    we have been discussing tis at big soccer, Jeff – this was my take also on the comments

  • Kilted Ref

    Interesting article Jeff. A couple of comments though. From what has been posted in the press by the players themselves, is that Pia has been a positive influence on the team almost to a fault. It seems to me, that at some point, players at the highest level should know that everything that they do may have an affect on whether they play, both on and off the pitch. Also, while they may be at the top of their game, they should recognize that a coach may decide to use another player for purely tactical reasons, and that does not reflect directly on one players performance. While A-Rod is an excellent player, there were times, where she could have done better. She should acknowledge that and not let that fact that she did not start a game “destroy her confidence”. If her confidence was based on her starting, or playing the whole game, then what could you say about how a coach should keep up the confidence for a back-up Keeper that never plays one minute of the Cup? As for Reily’s comments, had he have phrased it differently, it probably would have not been an issue.

    This was the first time I have seen DB comments regarding WPS players verses USWNT players. Obviously the one true amateur here is Borislow, and his exit as a representative of WPS is warranted.

    It is apparent that USSF needs to work better with all of it’s members. it’s in the best interest of the USSF to support all the leagues whether it is WPS/MLS or USYSA/AYSO. We need to have a very visual plan of support for all these leagues with vision toward the national teams. This also includes a vision for the Officiating Team. This is an area that I believe we seriously lack vision. It would be helpful that these visions would also include albeit in parallel, with collegiate soccer.

    While I don’t think that WPS should shut down for National games or International tournaments, the lower league needs to work at planning for the best outcome. All leagues deal with international tournaments so why should WPS be any different?

  • E

    If the WPS wants to succeed and be taken seriously within the professional sports industry, they can not have such thin skin. The comments Riley made were not in reference to the WPS (like DB) and were not offensive or personal in any way. It was one coach criticizing another coach, who isn’t even a member of the same league. This is immature and reflects poorly on the WPS. I sat on the board of a youth soccer organization that was run in a similar fashion – if that is what the WPS wants to be, then maybe they should delete the word “professional” from their title.

  • Deegley

    Once again it’s not so much what you say as how you say it. By Riley choosing to make his statements an attack against the National coach and the way she handled players rather than the problems with scheduling and development he wasn’t moving the issues further along, he was clouding them. If he was “honest” and his comments were about those issues, he should have said it straight out, not by using questions about his team to bring it up. I think he knew if he said it straight out he would have gotten more than a few hours community service. The issues clearly exist and clearly need to be addressed. He didn’t shed any light, everyone knows they are there. Now, if he had said that “We need to work more closely with US Soccer and the USWNT to make the best possible environment for both WPS and the USWNT to excel” he might have had more people talking about it. As it is, how willing do you think anyone is going to be to talk to him about any of this? I’d expect more from a professional coach.

  • Quick as a Flash

    Paul’s comments were designed to rebuild his player’s confidence. So it was a self interested statement at the expense of Pia. Did he really even mean what he said? Most followers of the game thought Pia was too reluctant to sub out players that were not getting results.

    I think it was conduct unbecoming.

  • Batfink

    Deegley, I personally think what Riley did was add more fuel to a topic the USSF presumed/hoped would go away quietly. Riley was left with no option but to force the issue for discussion now, because the actions and form, post and pre WWC of USWNT pool players, has been nothing but random and frustrating for everybody involved in the still undecided future of the league.

    Sundhage is an adult the same as Riley, but this has been handled like WPS is a parent with a scruffy looking poor child, having to force their infant to apologize when accused of bullying the USSF rich kid, who seems entitled to everything they want or need.

    I still don’t feel the long term NT players, or the USSF, honestly believe in what WPS can provide in any future successes of the WNT. By making his comments so loud, and target so obvious, Riley’s opinions should have sparked debate between the various parties involved, and not silenced it all over again. Who benefits from that?

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  • SoccerFan

    I don’t think you can blame Pia for pulling A Rod. If I was the coach, I for sure wouldn’t have started her for the France game and possibly even Japan. Amy is an excellent player but did not play her best during the World Cup. And this happens, players go through slumps in their games. Amy’s just happened to be during the biggest tournament in the world. With Lauren Cheney, Meagan Rapinoe, and Alex Morgan playing as well as they were, Pia’s substitutions and the change for the starting line up of the Japan game were not surprising. I mean, I called the exact starting line up for the Brazil game and I’m just an 18 year old kid from small town USA.

    But with that, US Soccer should work better with the WPS by supporting them more and communicating more. The WPS will be what helps keep US Women’s Soccer the force in international play that it has been since the 80s. Coaches in the WPS just don’t need to blame the national team coach for obviously making the right decision in the Women’s World Cup FINAL and other games in the WWC. I am sure Paul Riley would have made a similiar decision if he was in Pia’s shoes.

  • Eba Jones

    The operation of the WPS leaves much to be desired. While some of the best players in the world play in the WPS the level of soccer is far below that of the European women’s leagues. With the rest of the world catching up to the U.S. we may see more players flee to Europe to play in very competitive, very professionally run leagues. Ali Krieger is a good example of a US player who elevated her game in Europe and was a stalwart on the WNT. I find it interesting that she turned down multiple offers from WPS teams and chose to return to Germany. She will participate in all the FIFA dates and I think baring injury will be our right back again. How would Alex Morgan, Meagan Rapinoe and others benefit from playing in a high intensity league with great coaching?

    • Greg

      It is widely believed, even among European-based players and coaches, that the WPS is the best women’s professional league in the world; European-based players who have/still do play in the WPS say this almost to a woman. Unfortunately, many people let the WPS’s struggle to catch on unfairly influence their opinion about the quality of the soccer played.

      The closest leagues to the WPS are Germany and, probably, France. But, outside of the top 2-3 teams in each of those leagues, there is a lot to be desired. No league in the world has the depth of talent 1-6 that WPS has, and if you watch matches from these three top leagues, the quality of play in the WPS clearly outmatches those leagues.

      In addition, the WPS, despite its struggles, far outdraws both leagues in terms of attendance (5 of 6 WPS teams outdraw every German side and it would be six of six if magicJack had their stadium act together, and no team in France even draws 1000 per match).

      • Batfink

        Not quite right, as the French league is actually quite weak. Lyon like many other teams in other European domestic leagues, is simply one of a few quality sides that compete on a more professional level. European sides use the Champions League to meet more quality opposition on regular basis, while domestic leagues are used to nurture promising future NT talents.

        The quality of play between the top sides in leagues like the Frauen Bundesliga, is actually far easier on the eye than what you typically see in WPS. The major difference with leagues like Bundesliga versus WPS is that the toughest games can only take place a few times each domestic season, which shouldn’t be surprising in leagues usually comprising of at least 12 teams. Just look at the talent drop off between the 6 teams of WPS, with a WNY and ATL Beat.

        The Women’s UEFA Champions League has now given elite Euro sides an even bigger talent pool to play against over the course of a season, with many of the seriously elite sides being built around loads of quality national team talents. At this level there is more than enough competition, but still mainly played within a semi pro atmosphere.

        This is where lifestyle benefits of WPS become attractive for top foreign talents, who can’t always find adequate financially attractive pro set up’s on European soil. Coming over as already developed top players, foreign stars don’t use WPS to become better players, but rather better pro athletes.

        • Greg

          Yes, after the top 3 sides in France the league is actually fairly weak (as is Germany), as I said in my first post which I think you might have misread. But, they are still the top two leagues in Europe in terms of quality and talent, and their domination of the Champions League attests to this. But, those top sides will play only 2-4 really “competitive” matches in league play, and a handful (2-5) in Champions League play as the “competitive” matches there only start around the quarterfinals.

          In contrast, the WNY Flash will play around 7 league matches against magicJack and Philadelphia alone (and if you were to drop any of those 3 teams in Germany or France they would immediately contend, going in as favorites or, at worst, co-favorites with a Lyon or Frankfurt). Add Boston and Sky Blue FC and you’re playing quality competition week in and out in WPS. Having so much talent squeezed into only 6 teams means that you can’t take a week off in WPS.

          As for the quality of play, from what I’ve seen of Germany, France, England, Norway, Sweden, and others, the level of play in WPS is much faster, more physical, just as skilled, with much better defending, and goalkeeping depth that can’t be matched in any other league. Unfortunately, there are many people who believe that the possession-based style of play seen by the French and Japanese National Teams is employed just as effectively by every European club team, which is just not true. And, WPS squads are increasingly utilizing this style, with Philly and WNY being two of the most attractive squads style-wise that I’ve seen in club play.

          When foreign players come to the WPS they aren’t fully developed as they haven’t had the consistency of quality opposition that they get here. The WPS makes them better because of this, and because of the league attributes that I mentioned earlier.

          • Batfink

            Riley’s comments opened up good debate again, but your view point sounds like what SPL clubs and it’s fans used to think before reality slowly set in.

            Speed of WPS play is based on the direct nature of ball movement, not a superior style implemented by the leagues various teams. The robust athletic nature of the American game is what the foreign talents take back home with them, not new tactical or technical appreciation for the sport.

            The continued disconnect between the USSF, and WPS, will mean foreign leagues only need one or two teams to provide pro environments for their WNT to become competitive internationally with the US. Not a good look for a US program once a good decade ahead of everybody, that recently over the course of a WWC looked anything but great, eventually loosing to a nation with less female players than a decent sized MLS crowd.

            Once other national FA’s or feds follow Japan’s lead, and also begin to mandate a strategic approach to the athletic side of their women’s game, the U.S. will slowly become a increasingly less threatening factor in the future international landscape.

            WPS may be a elaborate castle built of sand right now, but Riley is right to ask questions of the lack of USSF involvement in the future direction of the league if they seriously want U.S. global influence to remain relevant.

  • PASoccerdad

    Yet, She never pulled Loyyd or Boxx for their VERY poor performance

  • Akers4Ever

    The poor relationship between USSF and the WPS is glaring and disappointing. Helping each other or at the very least supporting each other is win-win. There must be something we are all missing because I don’t get it.

    You know what I like best in my forwards? Goal scorers. If the most Riley expects from Rodriguez is hitting the crossbar, his expectations are too high. If you want a field goal, then she’s your huckleberry.