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

Dan Lauletta April 25, 2017 30
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.

  • Steglitz49

    The road to France has been mapped out for UEFA teams. Matches will be played home and away from Sep 11th 2017 to Sep 4th 2018:

    Group 1: England, Russia, Wales, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kazakhstan
    Group 2: Switzerland, Scotland, Poland, Belarus, Albania
    Group 3: Norway, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Northern Ireland

    Group 4: Sweden, Denmark, Ukraine, Hungary, Croatia

    Group 5: Germany, Iceland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Faroe Islands
    Group 6: Italy, Belgium, Romania, Portugal, Moldova
    Group 7: Spain, Austria, Finland, Serbia, Israel

    The group winners will join host nation France directly. The 4 best runners-up will play-off. This consist of 2 rounds of 2-legged knockouts in Oct and Nov 2018.

  • Constant Weeder

    Willie Anderson was a wing for the (old) Portland Timbers in the (old) NASL, back when it was the top US league. It was fun to watch his duels with opposing backs. I haven’t followed his career since then, but as a (now former) fan, I was very disappointed in that interview. Aside from the obnoxiousness, that was just a dumb question.

    • Steglitz49

      One wonders what he would have asked Norio Sasaki after the WC-11 final or after Norio disciplined a miscreant among the Nadeshiko.

      • Ron Rocha

        Good one! Had to read it twice…

    • Debbi McNiven

      I had season tickets for the NASL Timbers and loved Willie Anderson. He, along with a number of former Timbers such as John Bain, Bernie Fagan, and Clive Charles, returned to Portland when their playing days were over and started soccer clinics and academies, and coached high school and college teams in the area, and turned us into Soccer City USA. It was so shocking when Anderson asked these questions of Mark Parsons. I’m sure he was trying to be funny, but boy did he miss the mark. The apology was weak and not enough. This broadcast team is going to have to do much better in the future to erase the unpleasant taste it left in my mouth.

      • Constant Weeder

        Don’t forget the Gant brothers and their niece, Christine Sinclair.

  • guest

    any flash fans travel to the match?

  • mockmook

    Ohh, Dan (the Hero) Lauletta, way to stand up to the sexists — you sound so proud, riding in on your white horse….

    C’mon, sure, stupid questions, but anyone with a shred of self confidence will just let this roll by.

    And, to call the questions “dangerous”? Drama queen, much?

    • Constant Weeder

      He didn’t call the questions dangerous, rather the ideas (and attitude) behind them. They are dangerous because men with dismissive attitudes toward women are at risk of thinking that “no” from a woman means “yes”.

      • mockmook

        Wow, how you got there from here is amazing.

    • Lorehead

      Mockmook, you hero, riding in on your black horse to defend the guy who you admit was in the wrong?

      • mockmook

        Challenged is hysterical over-reaction.

        I bet Dan spent more words of condemnation on this twerp than he did on condemning the Pulse Nightclub shooter — he probably didn’t condemn that guy at all.

        • Lorehead

          I think his reaction here is sober and appropriate. Also, you just spent more words condemning criticism of sexism than you did sexism, and I have never heard you condemn right-wing terrorism even when I have specifically asked you about it.

          • Terry Lash

            I’m not sure, but you guys might be shouting past one another. You both, and I, agree the comment was egregiously sexist and ill informed. It is disturbing, but is it worth debating more? Isn’t Anderson really a nobody who now should be ignored after the initially appropriate condemnation?

    • guest

      HOW IN THE WORLD DID YOU BECOME A FAN OF WOMENS SOCCER?!

      • mockmook

        I’m a fan of strong women, not women who let what that twerp said effect their lives at all.

        • Lorehead

          I’m a fan of strong commenters, not men who let what Dan Lauletta said affect their lives at all.

  • guest

    plush’s new role fully defined as running “a wholly owned subsidiary focused on developing partnerships between brands and properties in the Sport, Entertainment, Media and Marketing industries” at BHSC

    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/bhsc-global-llc-announces-properties-group-formation-300444824.html

    During his tenure with the NWSL, Jeff negotiated the league’s transformational media agreement with A&E Networks, the creation of the joint venture, NWSL Media and the addition of the expansion, Orlando Pride. Over the course of Jeff’s 25-year career, he has driven significant business results at a number of highly respected properties, including as Managing Director of the MLS’ Colorado Rapids, as a member of Major League Soccer’s Board of Governors, and as Director of Corporate Development for IMG.

    “I have spent my entire career in the sport and entertainment business and I am thrilled with this opportunity to build and lead a global organization that embodies the best of all that I have experienced in my career,” shared Plush. “We have a boutique, client-centric mentality with a tremendous amount of experience as senior executives and operators. With an on-the-ground presence in the United States, South America, Europe and Asia we are well-positioned to serve our clients and grow our business.”

  • “I’ve spent the last 10 years coaching girls’ soccer. ”

    Well, that’s fairly disturbing.

    • Lorehead

      The best case here is that he knows how small children behave, and thinks grown women act the same way?

    • mockmook

      Yes, yes — we must all now condemn him from now until eternity. I mean, he said unfunny. politically in-correct jokes (which he apologized for).

      Burn the heretic!!!

      • Lorehead

        What a cromulent effort to engage in productive dialogue with someone who disagrees with you. Surely your comment made a positive contribution to the discussion and you should be proud of it. (I will just concede up front that I could do a better job of that myself.)

        • FlyingSquirrel42

          “Cromulent” is a cool word. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I need to find out so I can start using it.

          • Lorehead

            It’s an old joke from an episode of The Simpsons. Someone quotes, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” Another asks, “Embiggens?” “It’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

      • LaRaza4Trump

        No, in fact, the opposite will happen. Life will go on and his interview will quickly be forgotten.

        But there’s a real problem if you’ve been coaching girls’ soccer for 10 years and those are the questions you come up with. How you can spend that much time doing something and then ask such terrible questions is beyond me.

        He’ll get many more second chances, and hopefully he is or will become better than what he showed in that embarrassing interview.

      • FlyingSquirrel42

        I think your PC radar is turned up to 11 (as Spinal Tap would put it).

      • I’d like to get to the point where people don’t treat women’s sport and female athletes as a punchline. And where the easy joke to make isn’t one that disparages women or one that degrades men simply be comparing them to women.

  • Bruce

    Just got a promotional email from the Red Stars. They’ve apparently moved on from hawking snapbacks to inviting Moms to the park for pre-game yoga and a chance to sit in on a Julie Foudy sock talk.

    Crazy idea if anyone from CRS is listening: promote your *team*, its *stars* and the *games* they play. Create *original content* that supports *story-lines* that make fans care about the season arc and game outcome. Above all ,*ask fans to attend* a game – and not just hawk tangential sh!t to the few hundred faithful- and people might actually show up.

    Instagram takeovers != sports marketing. Get over it.

    It’s painfully obvious that fewer than 300 tickets have been sold for the next home match (May 6 vs HOU).

    Refusing to go to any games until you show you care at all.

    • Steglitz49

      Barcelona gave away tickets for free and 12,000 showed up. Wonder what would happen in Chicago? 1,200?

    • Bryan

      I received a promotional email with their stars in it – Press and Short were in it I believe, plus the other teams stars. Not sure why you think it hurts to do something before for people to come to the park and have an experience? We’ve seen Houston do it (movie night) and other teams in both NWSL and MLS. I actually am excited about the Foudy SockTalk and then going to the game. Have purchased tickets for both.

      They’ve just posted “Inside Looks” on all three new signings. Hopefully, they continue to do this.

      They have done more Instagram takeovers than any other team I follow? They had one every day in Portland if I recall.

      If you are a fan though wouldn’t you want to help support? Just going through your posts you seem to complain more than help the team, which is something you don’t see any other fan doing for any team. For myself, I bought four tickets to the match to bring my friends out to so they see first hand what it is like. I’d rather support and do my part than complain.