Having recently returned from 10 days in Western Canada it was a rare weekend spent without much attention paid to NWSL activity. I did, however, enjoy talking soccer with a wide array of people who traveled to Edmonton and Vancouver for the back end of the World Cup. Managing to work NWSL into almost every conversation along the way, I learned that almost everyone has some level of awareness about the league. So why did people from all corners of the United States travel to Vancouver for the World Cup final—almost all of them having bought tickets in December and then hoped—when many of them won’t travel more than a few hours to watch NWSL?
The very unscientific evidence points to two main factors. The first is a local team to cheer for. Not much can be done about that. Yes, most established leagues claim fans from all over whether or not there are teams in the area, but that takes plenty of time to build. The second is the lack of accessibility through television. It seems that streaming matches on YouTube attracts the most passionate fans but is not necessarily the best conduit for bringing in new ones. (One group did tell me they had recently purchased an HDMI cable for the express purpose of watching the streamed NWSL matches on their television.) The league announced a deal with FOX a few hours before the United States-Germany semifinal, but the games are sporadic and not at all until July 22.
Not everyone was a stranger to NWSL, though. There was Red Stars season-ticket holder and Equalizer fan Kathy (if you’re reading and I have your name spelled wrong, please let us know) who I chatted with in my bleary state heading to the airport the morning after the final. And then came the random meet-up at the airport with Maggie Dziubek of the Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134.
At least in the short-term it appears some who watched the United States win the World Cup either at BC Place or elsewhere are going to be NWSL supporters. The Houston Dash, Seattle Reign, and Washington Spirit have already reported bumps in ticket sales. Whether these are just passersby just looking to say they were in the same building as Carli Lloyd or Hope Solo, or the start of a new, more vibrant fan base, remains to be seen.
The NWSL—right now—is in a position that neither of its predecessors enjoyed. In 2003 after unfortunate circumstances brought the World Cup to the United States from China, there was hope the event would give a boost to the league. But finances were so grim the board had no choice but to pull the plug less than a week before the tournament kicked off. Eight years later, WPS enjoyed a bump both in buzz and attendance immediately following the 2011 World Cup. But the league was already a wounded bird that could not be nursed back to life.
In the winter of 2001-2002, when things were very different for U.S. club soccer. WUSA was just out of its first season and Major League Soccer was on the brink of extinction. For one brief moment, an argument could be made that the women’s game was healthier than the men’s at the club level. But decisions made by both leagues set a course where WUSA was bankrupt two years later and MLS reached a boom era it enjoys today.
The takeaway should be that MLS almost literally grew its local fan bases from nothing to rabid in nearly every market. It was no easy task, and it will be that much more difficult for NWSL and its clubs to pull off. But if is going to happen, the future starts this week.
More World Cup thoughts
Four things I liked about the World Cup:
— One of the reasons I like sports so much is that it is one of the few avenues that blindly unites people from all walks of life under a common banner. This goes quadruple for the World Cup. So many different cultures convene on a few cities, all united behind the beautiful game. It is safe to say that on any other type of trip I would not have been in as many conversations with complete strangers, many of whom felt like old friends after only a few minutes. That may be a shortcoming on my part but I think it is also human nature.
— So often in women’s sports, the focus is on how the aesthetics should be more like the men. Often times it is a worthy end game. But the handling of the Laura Bassett own goal from the way her teammates and coach reacted, to how England coach Mark Sampson emotionally but articulately addressed every question over and over again, to the outpouring of support from around the world, offered at least one example of how the women’s side should be creating the precedent instead of striving for it. Bassett went out smiling when England beat Germany for third place, but the stoppage-time own goal is likely to stay with her for the rest of time. And don’t get me wrong—players should be criticized for poor performances or wrong mental decisions. But it can absolutely be done with a human touch.
— The FIFA volunteers, to a person, were extraordinary. They were friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to go above and beyond to be helpful. “How do you get to Point A?” “Would you like me to walk you there?” These are small things that make what can be a daunting experience much more comfortable. Any journalist debating whether to attend a future World Cup for fear of being in a foreign land, know that at least inside the walls of the stadiums, the FIFA volunteers will steer you in the right direction. The gentleman who checked me in, a German native living in Edmonton, offered a sightseeing suggestion, the name of which escapes me. The codicil was, “I would not go alone though, or if you do be sure to make some noise every now and again. You’ll want to keep the bears at a distance.” I appreciated the suggestion, but I passed.
— Teams tributes to injured teammates was touching. Colombia held up the jersey of Melissa Ortiz after scoring against Mexico. Ortiz was injured before the World Cup and left off the roster. When Kozue Ando injured her ankle in Japan’s opening game, her teammates placed a teddy bear on what would have been her seat on the bench. That was until the final when Ando returned from Japan after surgery to take her seat back. She did not walk out on crutches though. Instead, Erina Yamane carried her piggyback to and from the bench for both halves. On a slightly different note, Abby Wambach took a moment out of her long coveted World Cup celebration to acknowledge Crystal Dunn and others who did not make the final cut for the U.S. roster.
Three things I did not like about the World Cup:
— All of the talk about the sporting integrity of the draw. Yes I know it was FIFA rigged (volunteers good, officials bad) at least among the seeds, and yes that was a travesty. But the Germany-France quarterfinal was probably the best match of the tournament yet much of the social media discussion focused on what a shame it was to be happening in the quarterfinals. I didn’t think anything about the match was a shame once it started. And it’s not like it was impossible for a blind draw to have yielded the exact same result.
— I believe that the discussion of refereeing in soccer is more of a global epidemic than something limited to this World Cup. That said, all four teams took penalties in the semifinals and at best one of them was the correct call. And even that one was botched because if you’re calling that a penalty against Julie Johnston I don’t see how it is not a red card as well. Beyond that, Colombia may as well have been playing rugby for how many times they should have been called for hand balls in the box. The decision to limit the referees to women was always absurd, but I’m not sure the best men would have gotten it that much better. The world needs some ideas on how to rectify this. The Women’s World Cup was just the most recent example.
— The scheduling was a joke. Australia had to fly from Edmonton to Moncton to play Brazil in the round of 16 after Brazil played their last group match in Moncton. China played the United States in the quarterfinals with two extra days rest after the round of 16. Australia had the same luxury against Japan with that spread closer to two-and-a-half days (55 hours passed from the end of Australia’s match to the start of Japan’s). Remarkably, none of these produced wins for the more rested or lighter traveled teams, but it could have created quite a commotion if it had. And there really is just no reason to make such an inane schedule.
Week 12 Takeaways
Okay so I did watch a little…
Foord not enough: Caitlin Foord returned for Sky Blue only six days after Australia were eliminated from the World Cup. It was not enough to see the struggling club end its winless streak which is now at 10 games. Foord’s Australian teammate Sam Kerr had to wait for paperwork to clear and could not play. At some point Kerr could find herself in a three-woman front with Nadia Nadim and Kelley O’Hara. That would be something, but the likelihood is that it is too late for Sky Blue to salvage the season.
Blues break out: FC Kansas City have been desperate for the return of their national team players, but in the short-term, they got the best performance of their season from the B-team. Erika Tymrak, Liz Bogus, and Shea Groom all had superb matches in a 3-0 drubbing of the Spirit. And that Yael Averbuch free kick!
Reign gut out point: The Flash must be sick of the Reign by now. Last season, Western New York led all three matches late but came away with no wins. On opening weekend of this season, a young Flash team was run off the park, 5-1, and it could have been worse. Last Friday, the Flash dominated the match in every aspect but the score. The 1-1 draw left fans of both teams frustrated. Flash fans wanted three points. Reign fans wanted to know what happened. But credit to Laura Harvey’s side for somehow escaping with a point.
— The Flash have signed Austrailan forward Michelle Heyman and waived Jordan Angeli. Angeli was on the disabled list and was not certain to play again this season. That injury was not related to the ACL tear that kept her away from the pitch for three full years. Expect many more players to be waived as the World Cup players return.
— Cami Levin was sent off Friday night and will miss Sky Blue’s return match against the Thorns on Saturday.
— Speaking of Sky Blue, their coach Jim Gabarra now holds the dubious distinction of having been through 10-match winless streaks with two different franchises. It happened with the Washington Freedom during the 2010 WPS season. That Freedom team wound up in the playoffs.
— I would really like to see all the NWSL teams begin the 2016 season ticket push now that more eyes than ever will be watching. The scheduling mechanics may not be set and some teams will be in different venues. But it is a long offseason and getting a jump start on next Spring is a good idea.
— The switch of the final to October 1 is problematic for a few reasons. For starters it was not really announced other than to be buried in the FOX announcement. Playing the match on a Thursday night during the school year is hardly incentive for families to make much of an effort to attend. And there will be 18 days separating the semifinals from the final. That is four more than between the AFC and NFC Championship Games and the Super Bowl. And since there will not be anything close to the same sort of buildup as there is to the Super Bowl, dropping the final on a random Thursday after two and a half weeks is just very counter-intuitive.
— My current 2016 U.S. Olympic roster. Some of this is based on what I know. Some of this is based on what I think.
GK: Ashlyn Harris, Hope Solo
D: Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Amy LePeilbet, Becky Sauerbrunn
M: Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Kealia Ohai, Kelley O’Hara, Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe
F: Crystal Dunn, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Christen Press