United States women’s national team players are in the spotlight this week. They are on schedule at the dawn of what should amount to little more than the formality of qualifying for the Olympic Games this summer, but they are a surprise part of the news cycle due to a lawsuit filed against the team by their own federation.
As this is normally an NWSL column, the pertinent question would be, ‘How does the legal action taken by the U.S. Soccer Federation impact the league as it prepares to embark on its fourth season?’ The problem is that there is no answer to the question. It’s not that the league is collateral damage to either side, but both sides are jockeying over bigger issues. It’s kind of like the music program being cut after a district budget war gets settled.
I don’t expect anything bad is about to come of NWSL, and I don’t even believe it would be a death blow if the U.S. players decide to use playing in the league as leverage. My gut feeling is that doesn’t happen. There are enough issues at play and enough bargaining chips that the sides figure to be smart enough not to cut off something that figures to ultimately be a long-term benefit to everyone involved (if not the current players, per se, the entirety of current and future national team players).
That said, there was a time I’d have said the same about the World Series being cancelled over a labor dispute; or an entire NHL season. And while there are clearly issues to be ironed out ahead of the next collective bargaining agreement—many of them revolving around equality issues—the current lawsuit is not about a CBA but about whether a CBA exists at all and what the players’ options are.
So far, the federation filed a lawsuit and the players’ lawyer issued a rebuttal (and U.S. Soccer issued a rebuttal), and the Olympic qualifying tournament will go on as scheduled beginning Wednesday night. The first red-letter date is Feb. 24. That is when the current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) may or may not expire, which may or may not allow the players to strike or take other legal action. The next major event on the calendar after that is the SheBelieves Cup in March. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman set March 3, 2016 — the date of the first SheBelieves Cup games — as the date for an initial status hearing.
My knowledge of the situation mostly runs out from here. For more insightful thoughts I recommend following Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) of philly.com, who has been front and center in coverage of the case thus far. And here is a strong piece from Soccer America that highlights some of what is going on.
I will close by saying that neither side wants to sabotage the Olympics, NWSL, or any other significant part of the suddenly tenuous relationship between the United States national team and their bosses. Cooler heads don’t always prevail in these cases, but we’re staying cautiously optimistic they do in this case.
Five things to know: CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying
Now here are five things to ponder ahead of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship:
Will the legal issues have any impact on the tournament?
In short, no. The players know the goal is to punch their ticket to the Olympics and they are paying lawyers a tidy sum to do the posturing and negotiating on their behalf. If you’re looking for overlap, look to the postmatch comments. That would be when, if at all, the players address the lawsuit. On the field it will be business as usual.
Is there a scenario in which the United States won’t qualify?
The smart answer is ‘no.’ The United States is far and away the dominant team in the tournament and the draw favors them as well. But being that qualification essentially comes down to a single match, there has to be at least an iota of wiggle room allowed for the emergence of the bizarre and confounding. And unlike 2010, when a stunning loss to Mexico relegated the U.S. to an intercontinental playoff to qualify for the World Cup, there is no fail-safe here for the sides that lose in the semifinals.
The United States is in the more difficult group, meaning they should get the softest semifinal opponent for the match that will determine whether or not they go to Rio. Assuming they finish top against Mexico, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico, and Canada finishes top of their group, the decisive semi is likely to be against Trinidad and Tobago. So while a single match is never a completely foregone conclusion, it would take something akin to the earth revolving around the moon for the United States not to make it through.
What are other U.S. storylines to watch?
The main objectives for the United States over the next two weeks is to put together a series of strong performances in their first matches of consequence since the retirements of Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday, in particular. They are also without Megan Rapinoe and Christie Rampone, who are both injured, and Heather O’Reilly who was left off the roster. Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux, each pregnant, are also out of the Olympic picture. Last time the U.S. women were in this situation at World Cup qualifying in November 2014, they were rather underwhelming, especially at the start of the tournament. The flipside is that most other teams in CONCACAF spend much of the 90 minutes in a bunker, sometimes employing up to five defenders. But Jill Ellis’ side should roll through all comers with minimal to no worries.
Who else should qualify?
Canada. If not, Costa Rica. Less straightforward than the United States, but Canada are the next-best team in CONCACAF and should end up in Brazil later this summer. Group play against Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, and Guyana should be little more than a formality. That will likely set up a semifinal against whoever wins the Mexico-Costa Rica group match with the winner of that semi advancing to the Olympics. Both Mexico and Costa Rica are capable on their best days, but Canada should beat either of them.
Anything other than qualification would be a major blow to a program already in a state of flux. The country has not really capitalized on the buzz that accompanied the World Cup to the Great White North, although the federation says the national team will finally play on home soil ahead of the Olympics should they secure a berth. And this could be the final opportunity for Christine Sinclair to lead Canada into a major international tournament.
What is the NWSL footprint?
Of the 20 players on the United States roster, only Mallory Pugh is not currently on an NWSL roster. Nine of the 20 Canadian players are in the NWSL. Costa Rica boasts No. 2 overall pick Raquel Rodriguez, who will spend her rookie NWSL season at Sky Blue. Mexico, which did not allocate any players to NWSL this season, has called up Dash goalkeeper Bianca Henninger.
The American college system is well represented around the tournament and several former NWSL players are on the Canada and Mexico rosters.
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