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The Lowdown: When coaches take the honest approach

Rory Dames pulled no punches about what he thought of his team's performance on the weekend.

Rory Dames pulled no punches about what he thought of his team’s performance on the weekend. (Photo: Chicago Red Stars/Smith)

In 2001 I spoke to Ian Sawyers, then head coach of the Bay Area CyberRays about his club’s WUSA semifinal match against the New York Power. I inquired about the possibility of the match going to penalties and the mouthwatering possibility of the CyberRays’ Brandi Chastain lining up to take a decisive spot kick against the Power’s Gao Hong—a rematch of sorts from Chastain’s now iconic World Cup winner for the United States against China just more than two years prior.

“I’ve thought about it,” Sawyers said of his potential PK lineup, “but I’m not going to tell you.”

No tips. No insight. No interesting quote to help make the story more interesting. That was his prerogative of course. Had Sawyers ever gotten into a coaching position of national prominence his persona would have trended closer to Bill Belichick than Steve Kerr; closer to Jill Ellis than Paul Riley.

But sometimes coaches get honest. When it happens, we all eat it up. No one who watched the Red Stars play Sky Blue FC to a 1-1 draw on Sunday at Toyota Park could have walked away thinking the Red Stars played to their potential. Despite playing without three of their best players due to national team call-ups, the Red Stars squandered some early chances, were gradually pushed back on their heels, and generally looked a bit lackluster.

Many coaches will sugarcoat subpar performances, refuse to mention any specific player, and in a week like this one, fall back on the absence of the national team players. Rory Dames is not most coaches. This much was noted as he sat down for his postmatch press conference and said, “We were poor in the game.”

Fortunately, someone asked him to expand on it, and he picked apart basically every element of the evening. “I don’t know if I have enough time to go through all the areas,” he began. “We couldn’t build at all. We were way too direct. Our speed of play was way too slow. We were second best on first balls, second balls. We couldn’t keep them where we wanted them. You can pick an area. The only place we were better than they were was quality chances. From actual performance in the game we were second best in every phase.”

Next came a question about Sofia Huerta scoring her first goal of the season a week after Jen Hoy scored her first two. Much has been made of Huerta having every one of her NWSL goals and assists in games without Christen Press and their chemistry has been called into question often, including here. Still it was a positively framed question. Dames did not bite.

“Sofia and Jen both have qualities good enough to be able to score in the league. They’ve shown that,” Dames said. “Sofia probably should have scored three today if we’re going to be honest. And they won’t need us to tell them that. The only time we actually made a pass in the last third, we scored. Everything else was just kicking and running. A majority of the time Jen and Sofia weren’t where they were supposed to be, or making the movements they were supposed to make. But I’ll give them credit. They competed to grind out some balls and get some chances.”

Huerta later joined the press conference and, unprompted, put the loss of two points on herself for not being able to finish a chance that would have made it 2-0.

{CURREN: NWSL Week in Review — controlling what you can}

As someone who writes about the league it is always refreshing to hear a coach offer an honest assessment of his team and players. But there are some who will never—ever—say anything specifically negative about a player in public. Others believe in either all out honesty or that sometimes it takes something from outside the locker room to get a player to snap to attention about something. Dames clearly falls into one of the latter two groups. He has always been blunt and direct. Yet he is in his fourth season guiding the Red Stars through NWSL and his team has been better every year.

Dames was later asked how not having Christen Press, Julie Johnston, and Alyssa Naeher impacted the match: “We would have played a lot quicker out of the back with Julie. The ball moved way too slow between Katie (Naughton) and Sam (Johnson). Michele (Dalton) put the ball in play and put us into some bad spots a few times. Alyssa’s decision making is a little better. Christen obviously has some qualities around the goal that I don’t think anybody else in the league has.

“I don’t think that’s an excise for the performance. These guys are going to have to be able to perform at a much higher level than they did tonight the entire Olympics. And they know that. I’m not saying anything they don’t know.”

When Huerta came in she sat to Dames’s right. Naughton went to his left. Dames did not alter his facial expression as Huerta discussed her goal and lack of a second goal and Naughton talked about adjusting to the speed of play as an NWSL rookie. Then came a question asking the players to put letter grades on their performances. They both chuckled nervously while Dames folded his arms and looked at each of them like a parent waiting to see if their child is about to craft a lie or come clean about something. Huerta asked Dames if he wanted to answer. “Nope.”

In the end Huerta and Naughton both declined to answer. But the energy behind the table was positive. And while watching a postmatch press conference on YouTube is hardly a meaningful glimpse into the inner workings of the Red Stars, it is always a better sign to see positive vibes rather than negative.

The national team players will return next week and should be available when the Red Stars host Portland on June 12. Things could change before then but right now the Red Stars are on top of the table with the Thorns second (the Spirit, third behind the Thorns on a tiebreaker, have a match in hand and have dropped the fewest points.) That much should show how quickly the Red Stars respond to Dames’s comments.

And if they don’t? You can bet Dames will let us know about it.

note: All quotes are courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars press conference available on YouTube; the post is open to the public, but a thank you goes to John D. Halloran of American Soccer Now for bringing Dames’s comments to light.

postscript: Chastain and the CyberRays won that semifinal without the need for penalties. But they earned one in the course of the match. Chastain took it, going with her right foot as opposed to the left she used in the World Cup. She beat Gao again. The television broadcast barely acknowledged the irony. A week later the CyberRays won the championship in a penalty shootout. Chastain, the fifth taker, got her wish when Julie Murray ended the match before she had to take her kick.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 7 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

FRIDAY
Western New York Flash – 3,940

SATURDAY
FC Kansas City – 3,104

SUNDAY
Portland Thorns FC – 18,114
Chicago Red Stars – 2,502

WEEK 7 TOTAL: 27,660
WEEK 7 AVERAGE: 6,915

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,670 (3 games)
2015 average: 15,639
2015 thru 3 games: 13,590

2. Orlando Pride — 13,152 (3 games)

3. Houston Dash – 6,271 (3 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 3 games: 4,575

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,189 (4 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 4 games: 2,484

5. FC Kansas City – 3,929 (5 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 5 games: 3,295

6. Western New York Flash – 3,822 (3 games)
2015 average: 2,860
2015 thru 3 games: 1,928

7. Washington Spirit – 3,819 (3 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 3 games – 3,583

8. Boston Breakers – 3,588 (4 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 4 games: 2,521

9. Chicago Red Stars – 3,018 (3 games)
2015 average: 4,210
2015 thru 3 games: 1,969

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,699 (3 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 3 games: 1,419

SEASON AVERAGE: 5,768
2015 Average: 5,046

Free Kicks

Direct

-The Reign are now winless in four straight matches (0-2-2.) They did not go more than two games without winning through all of 2014 and 2015.

-The postponement of Friday night’s Dash-Spirit contest keeps a streak alive of at least one NWSL match being postponed every season. Weather delays zapped Sky Blue-Dash in 2014 (eventually played after the completion of the regular season) and Red Stars-Spirit in 2015 (abandoned after kicking off.) In 2013 the Breakers decided not to fly to Kansas City while Kia McNeill was stuck in her apartment on lockdown in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

-Sarah Hagen was feeling ill which is why she was subbed off during the first half of the Pride’s loss in Kansas City on Saturday. She is back in training and seems to be fine.

-There was no official statement on Tasha Kai’s injury, but I was told it is “not bad.”

Indirect

–Here is my Player of the Week ballot:
1) Erika Tymrak – The maligned midfielder returned to the starting lineup and was a difference maker in FC Kansas City’s first victory of the season. Tymrak drew the foul that led to the opening goal and scored the second; 2) Lynn Williams – She bagged two for the Flash thanks to excellent movement off the ball and quality finishing. It seems Williams is finally rounding into form after offseason knee surgery; 3) Michelle Betos – Betos was always in the right place, making every save against the Reign and did it with some nerve discomfort that forced her backup Emily Kruger to warm up on multiple occasions.

Also considered: Erica Skroski switched to right back for Sky Blue and again showed off her high soccer IQ with a solid if not spectacular performance in the absence of Kelley O’Hara; Kim Little just always creates a positive alternative to whatever was happening at the time she received the ball.

-Last week I said Christie Rampone was still capable of playing at the level required to go to the Olympics. The difference, it seems, is the level of daily fitness required to hang at national team camps. Rampone has often skipped training sessions with Sky Blue as a means of “managing her body,” something she cited when she withdrew from this week’s camp, all but ending her international career. It must not be easy to take that kind of decision, but Rampone made the announcement in the same understated way she has played soccer—efficiently, classy, and with a pretty good chance you barely took notice.

-On the subject of coaching honesty, Randy Waldrum did not get to see how his forwards responded from his scathing criticism a week earlier. The Dash figure to be sitting on go when their season resumes June 12 in Seattle.

-Speaking of Seattle, I am very worried about the Reign and it’s not because they are 2-3-2 and have not won since May 1. I’m worried because they are not playing with the same zest that was the hallmark of back to back Shields the last two seasons. Not enough players are getting forward to make them truly dangerous and their deadly counterattack is missing in action. Megan Rapinoe and Manon Melis should help once they get healthy and Jess Fishlock should have the rust knocked off for the next one. But maybe the player they miss the most is the one no one talks about—and rarely talked about while she was playing—Stephanie Cox.

-I’ve been a Thorns skeptic since they put together their current team, but my hat is off to them for the effort it took to hold the Reign to a scoreless draw on the weekend. Maybe an in-form Reign side wins by open goals but let’s also give the Thorns some credit for helping keep the Reign from being at their best.

-Hayley Raso takes far too much time to make decisions once she gets on or near the ball. Unless that changes it will prevent her from ever making a major mark on NWSL.

-I was quite surprised Leah Galton did not start for Sky Blue on the weekend. I do, however, think Tasha Kai probably works best as a second half substitute.

-The more I think about it the more strongly I disagree with U.S. Soccer pulling players out of their NWSL matches to start camp three days early.

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