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The Lowdown: Thoughts on the USWNT vs NWSL

(photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

(photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Sometime during the Red Stars annihilation of the Breakers two weekend ago it came to light that Jill Ellis’s pre-Olympic camp was set to begin Friday, July 1. That meant the NWSL match that night and the three the following day would have to be played without the 23 players from the league who were invited to camp later that week.

The reaction was not great. Ticketholders for this weekend felt gipped by the idea they had invested their money on false pretenses. Skeptics wondered aloud—again—if U.S. Soccer’s support for NWSL was any more than mere lip service and a way to offset residency costs by funneling players to club teams easily controlled by sport’s domestic governing body.

The club-v.-country debate has raged for decades, but NWSL’s relationship with U.S. Soccer is not exactly typical since the federation funds the league office and pays its most important players. In the days since the announcement I have spoken to several people—all off the record—about the situation. Here are six thoughts.

“If they weren’t invested they would just pull the plug”

When I was learning how to drive my father told me that none of the other cars on the road wanted to hit mine any more than I wanted mine to hit theirs. It was the ultimate common sense statement, but I needed to hear it to calm me down. This comment had a similar ring to it. Whatever the ultimate motivation the fact is the USSF helped get NWSL off the ground and has helped it gain relative stability and an unprecedented fourth season. The execution of the relationship has not always been the best, but then again how many relationships are perfect?

An important point to remember as well is that just because US Soccer decided to pitch in and make a domestic league happen does not mean the organization lives and breathes it as its sole or even most important objective. There are other matters like winning the gold medal in Rio, managing the men’s side, youth teams, and countless other things. Of course there is room for improvement and probably always will be but so long as US Soccer continues to prop up the league I’m willing to give them some benefit of the doubt.

Do fans have a right to feel cheated?

There is a counterargument I have heard from many fans and some club higher-ups that any time you buy a ticket to a sporting event you do so at your own risk insofar as your favorite player could be injured, benched, suspended, or attending to a personal matter. While that is true, I am sorry to say it does not apply here.

The problem started when the league unveiled the schedule and pounded its chest about going dark for the FIFA windows in June and September (the September window was a dark week for NWSL in 2015 as well.) And while no one specifically said the Olympic players would be available every other week of the season, making a big deal about going dark for the June friendlies silently implies the players’ availability wouldn’t be impacted in the weeks immediately preceding or following. (Which is how every other federation handled it and how the FIFA window generally works in the more established men’s game.)

Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, news of the May camp overlapping with NWSL games came to light because of a Twitter thread between Allie Long and a fan where Long indicated that she would not be present for the Thorns’ May 29 match against the Reign because she would be in camp with the U.S. When this nugget hit the information superhighway the league stayed silent, this time silently implying it was true. It turned out to be true, and at least a few fans who had made Memorial Day weekend an NWSL weekend were put off by it. And I don’t blame them.

I don’t necessarily blame the teams either. If it were me I wouldn’t jump up and down to announce that my best players wouldn’t be around on a given weekend. But at least one high-ranking team official acknowledged that the league and teams need to be better at communicating with fans. Even a cryptically worded statement to give fans pause about Memorial Day weekend would have made the teams look better than they did when the camp dates were announced.

As far as this weekend is concerned it is neither a FIFA window nor is the following weekend when the U.S. plays South Africa in a friendly. But that match was announced at the end of May in the days before the weekend when the Olympic players were in camp without a match. So the natural reaction was, “US friendly July 9, that means the national team players should be there through the July 2 matches.” Yet they won’t be. And again the information got out in the wrong way, this time via a report by Steven Goff of the Washington Post.

But that leads us to…

When did the teams know the dates?

This seems to be the crux of just about every major controversy. Who knew what and when and why wasn’t it communicated properly? Rarely is the answer black and white. This is no different. Depending on who you talk to the camp dates were either locked in as early as February before the NWSL schedule was even announced or they were still in flux as recently as the recent owners’ meetings.

That said, multiple trusted sources have indicated that as recently as a few weeks ago it was still believed the Olympic bound players would be wearing NWSL uniforms this weekend. That’s not to say there were not camp dates thrown around a few months ago, but it seems they were only locked in over the last few weeks, possibly as a reaction to Canada also kicking off their camp July 1.

Again communication comes into play but again different elements must be looked at. Jill Ellis is charged with winning the gold medal and has a right to ask for the players whenever she thinks is best. NWSL helps Ellis—probably with this roster far more than her World Cup roster—but the reality is that the long-term impact of a successful domestic league won’t take full hold until Ellis is long gone. As for U.S. Soccer they are invested in the league but also want to stand behind the head coach of the women’s senior team.

July 1 seems particularly harsh

Two NWSL teams play July 1. Six more play the next day. As I said last week there is no way I can accept that starting camp July 1 instead of a soft opening two days later is going to impact the podium in Rio. And I think the news would have gone down a bit easier if this camp spanned the entire week instead of the very day of an NWSL match. Right or wrong, opening camp July 1 has the look and feel of a slap in the face to NWSL.

What happens next year?

Another great question. 2017 is a non-Olympic, non-World Cup year that won’t even have a qualifying tournament for Ellis to worry about. The league and owners are cautiously optimistic that national team camps can be streamlined to make things work better for NWSL. One thing is for sure though. If the league can stomach an off week for a FIFA window in a year without a major tournament there is absolutely no reason the national team can’t make do with having its players for the same few days everyone else takes theirs.

Ticket exchanges?

A friend who silently followed my Twitter rant on this issue a few weeks ago reported being offered a chance to exchange Broadway tickets for a future show because one of the biggest stars in the theater business was not going to be performing that night. When I asked an NWSL owner if a similar request from a ticket holder would be honored the answer was a categorical no. The other players work too hard and have too much to offer to say yes.

Again I can see both sides of this. But remember that known absences for national team duty are a far cry from the natural churn of players going in and out of the lineup for the reasons mentioned earlier. I’ll close with this point. If you were a New England Patriots fan and were granted a ticket to one game of your choosing this season, but one game only, would you pick one of the games when Tom Brady is scheduled to be suspended? Or would you wait and pick a game when the face of the franchise is likely to play?

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 10 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

WEDNESDAY
Portland Thorns FC – 16,931

THURSDAY
Orlando Pride – 6,870

FRIDAY
Western New York Flash – 3,024

SATURDAY
Washington Spirit – 3,448
FC Kansas City – 3,041

SUNDAY
Orlando Pride – 7,143

WEEK 10 TOTAL: 40,457
WEEK 10 AVERAGE: 6,743

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,735 (4 games)
2015 average: 15,639
2015 thru 4 games: 13,795

2. Orlando Pride — 10,694 (5 games)

3. Houston Dash – 5,846 (4 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 4 games: 4,647

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,288 (5 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 5 games: 2,654

5. Washington Spirit – 4,131 (5 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 5 games – 3,025

6. FC Kansas City – 3,781 (6 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 6 games: 3,338

7. Boston Breakers – 3,672 (5 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 5 games: 2,445

8. Western New York Flash – 3,542 (6 games)
2015 average: 2,860
2015 thru 6 games: 2,306

9. Chicago Red Stars – 2,948 (5 games)
2015 average: 4,210
2015 thru 5 games: 5,097 (includes doubleheader with Fire with announced attendance of 16,017)

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,879 (5 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 5 games: 1,298

Free Kicks

Direct

-The NWSL season is exactly halfway over. That means 50 games down, 50 to go.

-Kelley O’Hara started in an attacking role for the first time this season after Kelley Conheeney reported not feeling well in the lead-up to Saturday’s match. Sky Blue coach Christy Holly elected to replace Conheeney with Erin Simon with O’Hara moving up and Simon slotting in as an outside back. Not only was O’Hara effective in a higher position but Holly got to give his Olympic break back line a trial run.

-The U.S. Deaf women’s national team is currently in Italy at the Deaf World Cup where they are defending champions. Follow the tournament here and the team via Twitter @USDeaf_WNT

-The Flash’s seven goals on Friday night tied the single game NWSL record set by the Thorns when the beat FC Kansas City by the same 7-1 score on July 13, 2014. Their five goals in the first half was an NWSL first.

-The Thorns are also the only team to score six goals in a game, something they did twice in 2014. Paul Riley was the coach of that team meaning the current Flash coach has been on the right side all four times an NWSL team has scored six or more goals in a game.

-The Breakers finally scored in the run of play through Christen Westphal on Friday and at that moment it looked like maybe they had a chance to snap their nearly two-year run of away futility. Her goal cut the Flash lead to 2-1 in the 38th minute. The Breakers promptly conceded three goals in the final seven minutes of the half on the way to a record-equaling 7-1 loss.

-The Breakers also made a trade and international signing, inking French midfielder and former Paris Saint-Germain player Ghoutia Karchouni. To make the deal they moved a 2nd round pick in 2017 to the Red Stars for the required international roster spot.

-Lauren Barnes’s departure from the Reign’s 0-0 draw in the 65th minute marked the first time she had been out of a match since August 6, 2014. The regular season minute streak reached a Reign record 2,855 minutes before Carson Pickett replaced her. Barnes has started a club record 39 straight games. Before sitting out June 28, 2014 and being used as a late sub July 2, she had started 35 straight. (aside – I will purchase two tickets to an NWSL match in any stadium for the first person who tweets me @thedanlauletta with the name of the player who replaced Barnes on August 6, 2014.)

Indirect

–Here is my Player of the Week ballot:
1) Christine Sinclair – She may not have been the best player minute to minute but all Sinclair did was make winning plays over the course of two games to help the Thorns win them both. She won’t get an assist on Lindsay Horan’s 90th minute winner on Sunday in the Orlando heat but it was her pass to Hayley Raso that stretched the Pride defense to its limits. Her goal may have been the result of a Julie Johnston blunder, but the incredibly hard working Sinclair put herself in the right spot to capitalize; 2) Lynn Williams – Tough to pick a player from the Flash’s 7-1 demolition of the Breakers but Williams had her imprint on most of the good things that happened. Jess McDonald and her hat trick and Makenzy Doniak could just as easily have landed here; 3) Raquel Rodriguez – Scored a fantastic goal to set the tone for Sky Blue’s win in Washington and was a defensive presence helping her side disrupt the Spirit on every line.

-My Player of the Month ballot is likely to look like this: 1) Becky Sauerbrunn; 2) Lynn Williams; 3) Danielle Colaprico

-The worst part about watching the Breakers get knocked around on Friday night is that it looked like they quit on the match. And it’s not the first time this season. What is next?

-Great work by Sky Blue to come up with a game plan and execute it to near perfection against the Spirit on Saturday. The best part is watching how much rookies Raquel Rodriguez and Leah Galton devote themselves to defending. That type of thing makes everyone else’s job easier and can be infectious in a club.

-I cannot say enough about the tenacity of the Thorns. As talented as they are their best attribute might be an unwavering desire to play hard for 90 minutes. Combine that with their mass of quality players having clicked much quicker than most–certainly I–expected and there is little question the Thorns are now the favorites to win the title. Much can change as players go into and out of the Olympic cauldron, and the next several weeks could be dicey, but the Thorns are the team to beat. Oh, and one of their gutsiest performances of the season was the 0-0 draw against the Reign when they were severely undermanned and clearly the second best team on the day.

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