Neil Blackmon turns last week’s narrative from the failed WPS to the USWNT
Quite a past week for women’s soccer in this country.
The final decision on the 2012 season was made by the WPS governing board, but not really.
Dan Borislow’s civil lawsuit seeking an injunction against the WPS for its (Borislow’s words) “threatened action to immediately terminate his Florida franchise at the conclusion of the 2011 season” was both the impetuts and the death knell.
From a legal perspective, the costs of that litigation to this point alone were steep for a league already in financial dire straits—but the prospect of continued litigation pushed things over the top, according to league officials. As such, while the US Women’s National Team was putting on a clinic of hurricane-like dominance in Canada, one that began to answer many of the post-World Cup Final “Questions” about the sustainability of USWNT dominance; the WPS, facing more hearings in court, was quietly meeting to drop the hammer on the WPS 2012 campaign.
Without being too legally technical—the ruling by a Florida judge appears to follow the letter of the law: the manner in which the WPS took action against Borislow was, in fact, not compliant with its own bylaws and mediation procedures.
Borislow was (is), by all accounts a dreadful owner.
If you saw the understaffed and ill-equipped training facilities his MagicJack side trained on in Palm Beach County, or the stadium they played in–as I’ve witnessed–you could understand why.
But it was more than that.
The WPS sets floor requirements for operations by each of its franchises within the league bylaws. According to league officials and the respondent complaint in the civil lawsuit, Borislow’s club was not up to floor requirements in several areas: player treatment (training, medical bills and media access), payroll deadlines, facility guidelines and owner-team communication.
This is all dreadful stuff—especially given Borislow’s background in horse racing— it appears he treated his franchise, and his players, like they were race animals. Then again, given his lengthy disputes with the IRS—this isn’t necessarily someone who has a reputation for playing by the rules or respecting institutions.
The problem for the WPS was its response to these concerns.
Contractually, it was a violation of its mandated mediation guidelines to take or even feign preemptive legal action to terminate the franchise. Mediation must come first, and in failing to address these concerns according to its own bylaws, the league violated its contractual obligations to Borislow. The problem, of course, is the costs of the litigation that ensued because of the WPS breach forced the governing body’s hand—so while in the view of an outside observer it would appear Borislow committed the wrong and should be the villain in the story—the WPS was forced to cancel the 2012 season in order to keep fighting in court.
The players become victims of the league’s trust as well. The league is tentatively scheduled to begin play again in 2013—but no one paying attention should be holding their breath. We’ve heard for well over a decade now that a women’s professional league would finally latch on, have continuous operations and succeed. It simply hasn’t happened.
What’s worse? The collapse of the league has overshadowed a more worthwhile discussion–one on the performance of this Olympic Qualifying version of the USWNT and what that dominating performance says about the state of the women’s game in this country. This isn’t to say the success of a professional league stateside and the state of the women’s game in American aren’t connected—to suggest that would be naïve.
It is that the success of the women’s national team has and should, in the near future, continue to occur regardless of whether a professional league is ultimately successful.
The state, and culture, of the women’s game in America is strong, professional league or no—and views to the contrary are placing too many eggs in one basket. In fact, I’d argue they are making a causal link between US Women’s National team success and pro league success that simply shouldn’t exist: it should never be, and is unfair to make it be, the burden of the women on the USWNT to “save” the professional league in this country.
WPS or no—is the state of women’s soccer in America still strong? In my view, that discussion brings us back to the central questions that lingered after the American loss to Japan in Frankfurt last summer. In the aftermath of that loss, there were a number of critics who suggested that the US Women’s National team, and the US Women’s program in general, had a great deal of work to do if they were to retain their place among the world’s elite. These folks made (and make) a couple of central arguments.
First, they suggest that the American “style” of play is too reliant on athleticism and physicality to maintain its competitive excellence. Other countries play more technical, attractive football and eventually their infrastructure will catch up. Second, they suggest that without a sustainable professional league stateside, the Americans can’t slow the closing of the gap.
Granted, it was just a qualifying tournament—but thirty eight goals to zero later, it is safe to say the rumors of the death of US Women’s soccer have been greatly exaggerated. And its apple pie American fitting that an old Mark Twain one liner best sums up the state of at the very least, the national team, after completing what was perhaps the most dominant qualifying performance for an international tournament in the history of their sport.
AndJapan are World Champions and that is a great story, well and good, but it is their sport—their being the United States Women’s National Team. TSG has already outlined the nature of the technical dominance in Maura Gladys’ piece early last week, found here. But one additional point about the dominance in this tournament is worth noting before focusing on the second criticism.
While one certainly could point to the lacking competition in the early matches, there’s still the matter of 11-0 against three above-average to good international sides. Both explanations for this dominance are sound answers to the notion that the Americans can’t keep pace with an ever-improving world in the women’s game.
First, the tournament demonstrated tactical excellence. It was a fine reminder that for all the bluster and overreach that occurs when one criticizes managers—they do matter. Pia Sundhage experimented with and then installed a new formation for this tournament, a 4-2-3-1 that she felt would be more responsive to the way international sides had defensed the Americans in Germany last summer.
Utilizing three advanced players to support the brilliant (but yes, aging) Abby Wambach had two immediate benefits: first, it allowed the United States’ most cerebral player, Carli Lloyd, to dictate proceedings from her holding midfield spot. We saw this benefit from the first experiment with the formation (a 1-1 draw against Canada last September), but the real benefits occurred later in the tournament, particularly against Canada. The new formation allowed the US to gobble up loads of possession, which it seemed they should be able to do in the first place– yet a review of the Women’s World Cup by Sundhage showed the American edge in possession, long a mainstay of the side, had fallen on diminishing returns.
In addition, the American defense picked up the slack and corrected some of the imperfections that bruised them in Germany this summer. Against Mexico, after conceding two early goals, the Mexicans settled down and pressed the American midfield, nearly neutralizing the possession edge the Americans held early. The United States, deploying a makeshift backline in the absence of perhaps their best defender, Ali Krieger, injured earlier in the tournament, held steadfast. This defensive togetherness was another critical message sent in Canada.
It’s possible this adjustment won’t reap similar success this summer. And as Jeff Carlisle has written at ESPN—the loss of the WPS does create questions about training and preparation ahead of the London games. But the message the Americans sent should also be praised. Lose to Mexico in a qualifier playing one brand of soccer? Fine, Sundhage seemed to be saying. We will do something different and we will thoroughly out-class you doing it. The new tactics worked wonders, and in the Mexico match, where Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx struggled in the new tactics to dictate proceedings, it still was effective because the more advanced wide players were able to exploit the Mexico defense with dynamic runs on the ball towards the Mexican center. This created traffic, set pieces and of course goals. As for Lloyd, she was able to channel her inner Clint Dempsey a bit—finding her first international hat trick on a night where on the ball she simply couldn’t find the game or a rhythm. But isn’t that what the most splendid players do—find ways to impact games where they aren’t at their typical level of competitive excellence? America still has the lion’s share of these players. And they have the tactician at the helm now to find the correct, and at times, innovative, ways to deploy them.
As for criticism number two—your writer’s view is that the current structure of women’s soccer in America is capable of sustaining competitive excellence even without a successful professional league. First, the United States has a longstanding and rich competitive history in women’s athletics, and soccer, more than most those sports, is culturally embedded to the extent that the program itself is, at the risk of all the attendant Wall Street jokes, “too big to fail.”
American women have an enormous head start. They have structural support, both at the grassroots and the institutional level, and this head start mattered in getting them where they are today and matters still. During the Women’s World Cup, Chris Sprow properly pointed out that other nations are catching up—but some of that was natural. The gap in class was massive and some reduction was inevitable. The fact that it closes a bit isn’t the sign of the US losing its status as an international power—on the contrary—it is proof that the US developmental model was the right way to build. Dominance is tougher now in international women’s soccer—just as it is in international basketball, for example, it doesn’t mean it is going away.
The success of US Women’s soccer is cultural. Brandi Chastain made them World Champions a second time in 1999 and in so doing made the US women a larger than life iconic image of what women in sport were capable of, and yes, it was, in no small part, because she shed her shirt celebrating the winning penalty kick. Being America’s sweethearts for a summer and an advertising gold mine in the aftermath has its benefits, but what’s always worth keeping in mind is the larger, less symbolic effect of Chastain’s goal. The US winning was no large-scale surprise—the team was brilliant and truthfully should have won— it was the manner in which it won, the drama of a nation holding its breath, that was the overarching cultural message.
Chastain and that team mainstreamed what Mia Hamm and the 91 group already knew when they won in 1991—the women could play, and in this culture, that’s something we’ve come to embrace, and expect. The boys who teased other boy on the playground with phrases like “You play like a girl”, with all their attendant cultural undertones, now had a story even the most avid opponent of soccer had to reckon with. US Women’s dominance is a “new normal”: women can play, and not just that, they can, at least in this culture, play better than the boys. More than that, 1999, as well as the aftermath of this summer’s tournament, had a tangible impact on the youth league participation and competition: enrollment in girls’ soccer leagues skyrocketed after Chastain’s clincher (and again this autumn) and with increased participation comes increased competitive quality. Women’s soccer in America, at least at the youth levels, is as healthy as ever and more than capable of feeding the monster it has become.
Have there been troubling moments? Of course. In between Chastain’s Rose Bowl moment and this past summer in Germany, there were Gold Medals and more victories, and a FIFA ranking that never fell below second. But it was safe to say that as the Women’s World Cup approached last summer there were reasons to wonder about the sustainability of the US Women’s competitive excellence. For one thing, on the field results raised an eyebrow or two. The Americans needed a brilliant goal from a brilliant young player just to qualify, after a disastrous (by their standards) trip to Cancun forced them into a qualifying playoff. There were losses in friendlies to the likes of England last April, a prospect unthinkable just a decade earlier. Many felt this was a direct indictment of development in America.
This is what I’ve dubbed the “DiCicco 2007 panic” criticism. And let’s not forget—we responded in the immediate aftermath of the worst of those troubling moments—the 4-0 loss to Brazil at the 07 WWC—by integrating women into the USSF developmental academies. In the end, of course, the USWNT made it to Germany anyway, and we all know how that story ended. Before an audience that could watch every women’s game at the tournament on ESPN (by itself a remarkable step in the right direction), the US provided more drama than even the most optimistic ESPN producer could have hoped for, and the game in Dresden against Brazil provided, in the Rapinoe to Wambach, 120 +2 goal, what was surely “the” defining moment in American sport in 2011. And yes, they lost the final, in penalties no less, which until Frankfurt seemed an American victory birthright.
But these past two weeks, in Canada, we’ve seen answers to questions about whether this was a structural problem. Youth, and the performances of two young women in particular, helped remind us that in the US, as in other footballing superpower nations, stars will emerge. It’s in the culture and they are in the system. Twenty-one year old Canadian-American Sydney LeRoux scored five goals in one game, coming off the bench.
Her performances in the remainder of the tournament were, for the most part, equally impactful. And while she heard taunts and saw signs in her hometown of Vancouver that will doubtlessly be part of her American playing experience, we should focus less on whether her playing for America makes all the criticism of Giuseppe Rossi look silly and more on the fact that she’s one part of the answer to the “Who replaces Abby Wambach when the time comes?” question. Given that the men’s program is still searching for Brian McBride, it’s nice to know who Bobby Fischer could be for one of our national teams.
Meanwhile, the best baby horse in any international country’s stable can’t even start for her own national team. The answer we get when we ask why, apparently, is that she lacks the experience and understanding of the “nuances” of the game to simply place in the first eleven night in and night out. Like Grant Wahl, I’m not particularly sure what that means, but ask any Manchester United fan who has heard Sir Alex Ferguson say similar things about his young prodigies over the last two decades if they are complaining. The Sir Alex “ease brilliance in” strategy has paid dividends for Pia and the Americans (see Italy, October 2010), and if isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Morgan was, as ever, at her best when it was absolutely essential—which is encouraging because the Yanks don’t just need an heir to Wambach, they need a “rally around me” spiritual leader too—a player who understands the moment and revels in the grandiose. Alex Morgan seems to be such a player, and at 22 no less.
As well as the 4-2-3-1 worked, there were moments where the US front line was flat and static— and against Canada and Costa Rica, Morgan continued to prove she can change the dynamics of a game. The thought of her and LeRoux being the national team partnership for the next several years sends a fairly strong message about US player development.
As for concerns about the WPS—sure, it would be nice if the professional league wasn’t forced to cancel a season to pay for litigation and promise us a return in 2013. But we’ve been here before. We’ve seen women’s leagues come and go. The USWNT rolls along like a freight train anyway.
And yes, a greater investment is needed from both US Soccer and Major League Soccer to promote the women’s sport and professional play stateside. But it is certainly not the job of the USWNT to save professional women’s soccer in America. The reality is more people watch them today than ever before. An Olympic Qualifying tournament is newsworthy for large media sports outlets. But a few weeks of headlines and attention-grabbing performances aren’t going to sustain a women’s professional league—so let’s remove that burden from these women. Let’s worry less about the professional league, and more about yet another bump in girl’s participation following last summer’s World Cup. More girls signed up to play this fall. We need to build more fields (looking at you, MLS).
Beyond that, the central tenet of why people think a women’s league is so critical to sustained US excellence is flawed. The reality is keeping women here professionally won’t matter so long as great young talents from other countries continue to come to America to play collegiate soccer.
Say what you will about Title IX, but it is a built-in buffer to the women’s national team’s stalled development, and as long as those programs remain well-funded and the best youth teams in the world, the US will benefit. A study by the Wharton School of Business at Penn on Title IX found that for all the criticisms surrounding the law, there are no questions about its positive impact on women’s soccer. What’s more—the women on our soccer national teams don’t have to be pioneers anymore—but they above all other female athletes are viewed as role models capable of traversing gender stereotypes and promoting athletic excellence, according to this United Nations Study. This means success is expected in our culture and people will respond to make sure results remain tremendous.
This is ultimately the “Chastain argument.” Many of the girls playing college soccer today—indeed—many of the young women on this national team—were sitting in front of televisions or in stadiums in 1999 watching Mia Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy, Danielle Akers and others play soccer. They were engaged, enthralled and inspired by what they saw.
And this past summer, there was another generation just like them that watched Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Christie Rampone and yes, Alex Morgan, play soccer. They are engaged, enthralled, and inspired by what they saw. And when this group of 38 goals to nothing women reaches the end of their era—WPS or no–those girls will be ready to pick up the baton. Indeed, the rumors of the US Women’s soccer program’s death have been greatly exaggerated.