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The Lowdown: Professional women’s soccer returns to North Carolina

Lynn Williams tried to evade Emily Sonnett (sliding) during the first ever North Carolina Courage home match (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Lynn Williams tried to evade Emily Sonnett (sliding) during the first ever North Carolina Courage home match (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

As Christine Sinclair writhed in pain after taking a high challenge from Yuri Karamura, one of the younger fans in attendance could be heard shouting to the Canadian great that she was not in NASL and that she should stop faking it and get up. If the young man was unaware that Sinclair is among the last players who will ever embellish on an injury, he can be forgiven. Saturday night’s North Carolina Courage win over Sinclair’s Portland Thorns FC was the first women’s pro match in the state in 14 years.

“In some ways it was a long time coming,” Curt Johnson, president of the North Carolina Courage and NASL counterpart North Carolina FC, said. “On the other hand, the runway was very short to launch.”

You probably know the story by now. In December the Carolina RailHawks were rebranded North Carolina FC, and owner Steve Malik announced his intention to take the club to the highest level of both the men’s and women’s games. Barely a month later, Malik purchased the Western New York Flash franchise from the Sahlen family (an MLS expansion bid is pending). Saturday night, 6,298 were on hand at Sahlen’s Stadium (as part of the deal the Sahlen family included a sponsor arrangement for naming rights to what was WakeMed Soccer Park, which remains the name of the complex) to witness the first home match for the new club.

“I was so excited because it was like the biggest thing for girls my age growing up,” season ticket holder Rebecca Law, who went to WUSA Courage matches as a child, said. “Hearing the players that were going to be on it and women’s national team players they were going to be playing against, it was just so exciting. I was almost like shaking during the game.”

{RELATED: Thursday Q&A with Courage midfielder McCall Zerboni}

Law conceded that outside of national teamers Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams, she will need to familiarize herself with the players as the season rolls along. She has still followed soccer since WUSA folded, taking the old Courage to the graveyard with it, but not so much the women’s club scene. At the recent season ticket holder event, Law said many fans were just getting familiarized with the players they will be pulling for through the summer. Now 90 minutes into the home schedule, favorites are already beginning to take hold.

“I really like (Jess) McDonald,” Law said. “She was incredible to watch. And (Debinha) was a firecracker. She was awesome.”

McDonald spent the back end of her college career playing for the University of North Carolina—a school oddly underrepresented on such a talented team. She remembers winning the 2008 national championship on the same pitch she assisted Debinha on the Courage’s first-ever home goal, and said she can feel the intensity of the soccer culture upon her return.

“Overall the fan base has always been incredible,” McDonald said of the area. “We’re in the middle of the triangle area with Duke, NC State, and the University of North Carolina—the women’s soccer programs at those schools are so dominant it just carries over to our team. Those three schools being in that triangle has really helped with this city being a soccer city.”

The school most affiliated with the area is UNC thanks to 21 College Cup wins and a wide net of alumni making their marks around the globe. Johnson said that all three schools and their coaches were supportive of the acquisition of an NWSL franchise as were several prominent alumni.

“So many people—all three of those head coaches—have been very supportive as we worked to get the NWSL team,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of players that have either played their college soccer or their youth soccer in North Carolina that we would like to get here.”

 

Houston, TX - Sunday Oct. 09, 2016: The Courage will pay homage to the 2016 NWSL champion Western New York Flash this weekend

Houston, TX – Sunday Oct. 09, 2016: The Courage will pay homage to the 2016 NWSL champion Western New York Flash this weekend

Johnson was sure to add that there won’t be too much tinkering with a club that arrived at his doorstep readymade and in possession of the NWSL Championship trophy. “The Sahlens did a fantastic job with Paul (Riley, head coach) and Charlie (Naimo, technical director) of putting together a talented young group of really good, hardworking people.”

He said the quick turnaround from purchase to season opener was made easier by an exceptional staff, but was also quick to praise the players. “It’s been huge to have a championship team coming into the market.”

“We adjust really well to situations like that,” McDonald said. “Last year we were driving from Buffalo to Rochester for home games.”

The Courage and NWSL are treating them like a new club for purposes of statistics, but this weekend the Sahlen family will be down from Western New York and will present returning players with NWSL Championship rings from the 2016. Joe Sahlen, the patriarch, will be honored for his contributions to soccer and women’s soccer.

“I think that’s pretty cool,” McDonald said. “I think it’s going to be a really cool ceremony for us. Them coming in and congratulating us, we can’t do anything but show the utmost respect for them.”

The Courage do not plan to release season ticket holder data, but Johnson said they are on pace to beat budgeted numbers for merchandise, concessions, and sponsorship as well as attendance. Saturday’s opener brought club record merchandise sales, topping the then-Railhawks friendly last summer.

“We significantly beat that number,” Johnson said, “with a smaller crowd.”

Time will tell what the women’s soccer scene will be like as the weeks and years go by. As Johnson said, “We’re just getting started.”

Rebecca Law, for one, does not plan to make Saturday night a one-off. “I hope to keep the energy up for the remainder of the season.”

Just for the moment though, the North Carolina Courage should take a bow on a fine debut put together in tight timelines.

“The evening was really good,” Johnson said. “It was a special night. We were pleased with it.”

stray observations from week 2

-My Player of the Week ballot: 1) Jessica Fishlock — was her usual multi-dimensional self and had a goal and assist in the Reign’s ruthless beat down of the Dash; 2) Debinha — another fabulous effort bossing the midfield and opening space for Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams and scoring the only goal didn’t hurt; 3) Danielle Colaprico — as per the norm, snuffed out most opponents’s attacking options in the spine of the pitch and her distribution opened the game up for Julie Ertz and Vanessa DiBernardo to control things further up the pitch.

-I thought McDonald was offside on the ball in that led to the Courage goal on Saturday night. Her take: “No. Definitely not.” In fairness, the replays did not offer the best angle.

Marta of Brazil

Marta (Photo Copyright Jeff Kassouf for The Equalizer)

-Marta, jetlag and all, changed the game almost immediately on Saturday. The “almost” qualifier comes because she entered on a defensive free kick and the Spirit scored before she had a chance to touch the ball. When she finally did, her quality was evident. Marta also backtracked and won the ball that started the series of possession that led to rookie Danica Evans slotting home the equalizer. Can’t wait to see what the Brazilian will bring once she’s rested and training with her teammates. “She changed the game,” Pride head coach Tom Sermanni said. “You saw her class and her quality and her creativity for that last 25-30 minutes. Considering the travel that she’s had and the commitments she had over the last few days, she showed what kind of pro she is.”

-It never felt like Sky Blue had a chance to score in the 2nd half in Boston on Sunday.

-Randy Waldrum is taking a lot of flack for making several defensive changes on Saturday following a shutout, and rightly so. But that does not excuse Jane Campbell for being downright awful in her NWSL debut. Even if benching your starting keeper after a shutout (Janine Van Wyk was apparently unavailable, so not every change was on Waldrum) sends a bad message to everyone, it’s not like he picked a keeper off the street. At the end of the day, Andressa’s absence in midfield hurt, and the Dash played one of the worst matches I have seen by an NWSL club.

-Yup, that finish by Megan Rapinoe, who had the vision and patience to let the ball drop in and get herself into a better position. Contrast that with how many shots have been blasted over the bar from outside the 18 by players unable or unwilling to see the entirety of their surroundings.

-Not sure yet how I feel about Julie Ertz as an attacking midfielder, but she did score the only goal in a Red Stars win.

-Sure, FC Kansas City missed Amy Rodriguez, but is it possible their midfield was never going to be good enough anyway? Yes, I know it’s early.

-The keepers in the Breakers-Sky Blue game were both impressive. Abby Smith looks like her injury never happened, and Kailen Sheridan has good command of her box and seems to move well laterally. Don’t be surprised to see those two opposite each other in a U.S.-Canada match one of these days.

Attendance

Apologies to all, but attendance tables are pushed back until Week 3. There were some rough Week 2 numbers though. Here is a quick look:

Orlando Pride: 14,452 (second largest crowd in club history)
Chicago Red Stars: 2,143
North Carolina Courage: 6,298
Seattle Reign FC: 2,727 (smallest crowd since June 6, 2015, the night the World Cup kicked off)

Boston Breakers:  2,329 (smallest weekend crowd since 2015)

A note on Willie Anderson

Two Saturdays ago, Thorns coach Mark Parsons was ambushed during a live television interview on KPTV that preceded the station’s broadcast of a Portland Timbers match. Hours after coaching his team to a season-opening victory, Parson was nice enough to join Nick Krupke and Willie Anderson for a chat. The interview exposed both men’s complete absence of knowledge about the Thorns or their recently completed match, but it was Anderson who stepped over the line with his questions.

The first was a fair question, presented poorly, about what led Parsons to coaching women. It was Anderson’s second question that sent the interview spinning into embarrassment. “When you get mad, I’m sure you get mad at times, do you scream at your team? Do they cry? Or do they just look at you and go…?” A facial expression completed the question.

Mark Parsons having fun on the bench. He kept a straight face after being asked an inappropriate question by KPTVs Willie Anderson during a live television interview on April 15.

Mark Parsons having fun on the bench. He kept a straight face after being asked an inappropriate question by KPTVs Willie Anderson during a live television interview on April 15. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Parsons never flinched. Thinking quickly on his feet the NWSL Coach of the Year kept things from becoming entirely awkward by running with the yelling concept and telling Anderson he saved his yelling for referees. No one would have blamed Parsons had he called out Anderson for asking a childish, sexist question.

Anderson, who played for the NASL Timbers and is well known in the city, followed up during the week by issuing the standard apology.

“I put my foot in my mouth and am very sorry. I have the utmost respect for women’s soccer and the Thorns. I’ve spent the last 10 years coaching girls’ soccer. I love the game and am so grateful to be a part of it. I regret what I said and hope everyone will forgive my mistake.

Only Anderson’s inane questioning of Parsons comes across worse than what stands out as a particularly obtuse apology. For starters, he didn’t put his foot in his mouth—he exposed himself as someone with crude and dangerous ideas about what it means for grown men to coach professional, grown women. Furthermore, he is the television professional and the one doing the asking. That meant he had control of the situation. In a world where every athlete’s answer is nitpicked and dissected more than ever, sometimes we overlook that a questionable statement or sentence may have been an answer to an oddly phrased or uncomfortable question. Anderson, who was the one doing the asking, deserves no such latitude. Sure it’s live television and mistakes happen, but the questions felt less like mistakes and more like a character reveal.

And must we even delve into Willie Anderson coaching girls for 10 years? Please. Is he really trying to convince us that sexists don’t coach girls’ sports? This is a familiar refrain that seems to pop up across all forms of bigoted thinking.  And it’s weak.

The best part of all though was the sentence: “I have the utmost respect for women’s soccer and the Thorns.” Do you know the best way to show that you have such respect? By not putting yourself in situations where you need to say it—in a cowardly, prepared statement no less. After all, Anderson put Parsons on the spot in a live television interview, so why should he get away with nothing more than a prepared statement.

I don’t know Willie Anderson and, to be honest, never heard of him until he interviewed Mark Parsons. I did contact the Thorns to see if he wanted to add anything here and was directed back to his apology. I’m sure he has much to offer to the soccer world and beyond. But the questioning to Parsons was a hatchet job, and if you’re going to cross over to the WoSo world, you best be prepared to do better than that.

News, notes, and nuance

-Kassey Kallman put in another 90-minute shift over the weekend to extend her consecutive minute streak to 3,780—a new NWSL record. She entered the day tied with Brittany Taylor. Kallman has started and completed 42 straight regular season matches.

-Lauren Barnes and Christine Nairn started again for the Reign, the 87th regular season appearance for both. They continue to show the way in the race to be the first players to see action in 100 NWSL contests.

-The Reign became the second team to score five goals in a game by five different players, excluding own goals. On July 27, 2013, the Breakers beat the Spirit 5-2 on goals by Mariah Nogueira, Lianne Sanderson, Rhian Wilkinson, Heather O’Reilly, and Cat Whitehill. The Reign goalscorers on Satursday were Jessica Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe, Kristen McNabb, Bev Yanez, and Katie Johnson. (h/t to Jen Cooper for this one.)

-The goal referenced above was Cat Whitehill’s only NWSL goal.

-For the fifth time in as many seasons, one and only one team is 2-0-0 to start the season. The Courage joined Sky Blue FC (2013), Seattle Reign FC (2014), Portland Thorns FC (2015), and Washington Spirit (2016). None of the previous four have won the NWSL Championship, and the 2015 Thorns fell short of the playoffs altogether.

-For the first time since 2013, every team has at least a point through two games. And where no team has opened 2-0-0 and won the title, FC Kansas City in 2015 started 0-2-0 and wound up NWSL champs.

-Nothing firm on the status of Meghan Klingenberg, who only lasted 45 minutes for the Thorns on Saturday night, but I’m led to believe whatever took her off the pitch is not serious.

-I get why the WNY folks are salty about the Sahlens going to North Carolina to present rings to the players. But it’s a pretty neat and unnecessary thing for them to do. And whatever drove the family out of NWSL, the last people to blame should be the players.

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