A Rant on Why it Matters that the USWNT is Not the #1 Team in the World

hype

A Rant on Why it Matters that the USWNT is Not the #1 Team in the World

An HGS guest post by @Fitzcamel

It’s hard, seeing something you love go astray. Worse, when you are powerless to do anything but watch it happen. I suspect that’s true in many areas in life. Me, it’s how I’ve felt about the U.S. Women’s National Team for oh, the past six months. Many aspects of how the WNT has been run have left me dismayed, or frustrated, or sad, lately. If I had to pick just one as most aggravating, though, it might be the continuing insistence of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s PR arm that the WNT is the best team in the world ™. We’re not, of course. I’m not sure anybody who follows women’s soccer closely thinks that we are. Who is? Germany, probably, or Japan. Might be France, if they ever figured out how to match their talent with results in big matches. But not us, not any more.

That doesn’t stop the federation from saying so, though—over and over again, at every opportunity, during the play-by-play of every meaningless friendly against second-tier opposition. It’s no different from the way WNT press officer Aaron Heifetz and his minions try to gin up statistical triumphs for the fanbase to be excited about: running up the score against Guatemala in 2012 Olympic qualifiers, say, or the number of international victories in 2013 (mostly in meaningless friendlies against second-tier opposition), or, God help us, #chasingMia.

I find it hard to believe that USSF is so ignorant or naïve as to believe the hype. No, it’s BS, a Potemkin Village to fool little kids and casual fans. Serious fans know it, the soccer media knows it, and USSF knows it. It’s still just PR, though. So why so infuriating? Because as far as I can tell, the federation’s whole approach to the WNT since at least the last World Cup has been a desperate (and unavailing) attempt to maintain that façade. That would explain the consistent choice to give starters minutes in frequent friendlies scheduled against beatable teams, rather than the world’s best; and, conversely, the consistent failure to use the Algarve Cup as a developmental opportunity for young and fringe players, a la the MNT’s January camps. And of course, the decision to fire Tom Sermanni after the 2014 Algarve, and to install Jill Ellis with a mandate of steady-as-she-goes.

The true number one team in the world would not be so scared. The best sides know they’re the best, and thus that they have margin for error—they can pick experimental squads, rest key players, try out new approaches, take risks. They can lose, without the sky falling. A defeat here or there in a friendly doesn’t ultimately say much about a top international side. What matters are the big ones—the World Cup, the Olympics, the continental championships. At least, that’s what I would have thought; but plainly USSF doesn’t agree with me.

No, evidently in the federation’s view it is crucial to make sure everybody still believes we’re the best in the world. That’s apparently how USSF thinks it can get the best return on the money it’s spending on women’s soccer—carefully craft a celebrity image for certain players (Abby, Alex, Hope, Syd, Pinoe), and surround them with a best-in-the-world halo. I guess the idea is that if USSF stops hiding the fact that the halo isn’t actually there any more, it all falls down—endorsers and fans won’t be interested in spending money on the WNT if we’re number two, or three, or four. And who knows, maybe USSF is right? Maybe the best way to make money, in the short-term, is to prioritize the WNT’s image and marketing over its soccer. Of course, USSF is theoretically in this to further the sport of soccer in this country, not maximize short-term shareholder value. Maybe that’s only true when it comes to the MNT.

The flip side of the federation being worried that the money spigot will dry up if fans know where the WNT actually stands on the international stage is that those who are bringing in the money now are the ones calling the shots. And thus did the gods bring us player power. Or, at least, the power of certain players. And those players, beyond the natural desire for playing time and success, have every reason to be keeping a weather eye out for their own financial futures, given where women’s soccer is right now. So the veterans have too much incentive to push to keep themselves in the squad and the lineup well past time; and the federation would rather try and eke out one more World Cup with the old, familiar (lucrative) veterans rather than take the risk of switching things up now. After all, we’ve seen what happens when a side is in the middle of a tactics/personnel transition—and no team has ever gone from the seventh-place match at the Algarve to triumph at a World Cup, right? (What? Oh.)

These problems are only exacerbated by the sheer insularity of the USSF when it comes to the WNT, above and beyond the quasi-club-team structure and culture of the national team itself. The federation genuinely seems to think that it can do what it wants regarding the WNT without ever being held accountable by the media, or anybody else, either. The tone-deafness of its handling of the Hope Solo mess over the last two months is only the latest example.

To be fair, USSF does have good reason to think no one will be held to account for how the WNT is run. It hasn’t happened yet, after all. For one, there’s still not much money in covering women’s soccer. So there are very, very few people who are able to report on and write about the sport full time, let alone with enough of a readership to have much leverage with USSF. That, in turn, allows Heifetz et al. to bully and blackball their way out of facing much serious criticism or negative coverage from people with a deep, passionate knowledge of the subject.

And the journalists who have developed, or are handed, more of a megaphone? There aren’t many who know enough about women’s soccer to ask the right questions, who care enough about the sport (and have the editorial leeway) to write about it regularly, and who have enough critical distance and professional pride to go beyond the first layer of glib, canned responses from the team and the federation. The result tends to be sporadic spikes in media attention, followed by a return to the usual lull—the fire alarm, not police patrol model of journalism. And too often the coverage that does occur merely invents the wheel fresh each time, rather than building on what was learned the last time around.

The result is that USSF and the WNT never have to face consistent, searching scrutiny grounded in a thorough knowledge base. Has there been meaningful investigative journalism into the revenue model of WNT friendlies and player endorsements, and where that money goes? No. Do many people ask whether it makes sense to have named April Heinrichs as the overall technical director on the women’s side, after she coached the WNT to defeat in the 2003 World Cup semis and won the 2004 Olympics playing longball? Not that I’ve seen. After Tom Sermanni gets fired, the party line that the WNT needs a coach who “properly understands the American mentality” appears in endless stories. Attempts to get an honest answer about what that actually means? Not so much. The U17 team can fail to qualify, and the U20s flame out humiliatingly in the current youth World Cup cycle, to a chorus of dismay; but when it becomes clear that the coaches who presided over these fiascos aren’t going anywhere? Crickets. Jill Ellis talks a good game about a fluid possession game and all that—does anybody from a major media outlet question whether it makes any sense to keep starting the same limited set of players and send a squad with an average age of 28 to World Cup qualifiers? For that matter, is there serious critical attention paid to Ellis’s decision to forgo selecting any specialist defensive midfielders in favor of sticking Lauren Holiday, of all people, into that spot? Ha.

No, instead of meaningful journalistic oversight, we get too much happy talk, and recitations of the WNT’s gaudy record (mostly in meaningless friendlies, etc), perhaps leavened with the suggestion that the WNT needs to modernize its tactics, and that the rest of the world is catching up. The notion that we’ve not only been caught but passed hardly enters the picture.

And this, ultimately, is what gets to me. I have little doubt that USSF’s desperate attempt to maintain the lie that we’re number one will ultimately be self-defeating, at the World Cup and beyond. In the meantime, as a WNT supporter I have to swallow the spin from Ellis and from the federation (as duly passed on by some in the media), while watching the technical and tactical gap between the U.S. and France, Germany, and Japan continue to widen. The USWNT is not the best in the world; and if the USSF continues as it has been, we’re not going to be the best again for a good long time.

We Need to Talk: Meaningful or Meaningless?

wntt_bb_main_tuesdays_0

TV’s first all-female sports talk show hit the air Tuesday night. Toward the end they ran a segment called “Meaningful or Meaningless,” i.e. is Orton over Manuel at QB for the Bills meaningful or meaningless. I thought I’d use that tactic to share my thoughts on the show. So fasten your garter belt, here we go!

Meaningful or Meaningless: There is an all-women sports talk show on national television.

HGS Sez: Meaningful

Whether or not you feel this show is necessary, or has questionable goals, or can succeed, giving a platform to voices that have traditionally been marginalized is a good thing. There is unprecedented visibility for women in sports media right now and rather than wait for an invitation to the men’s sports-media table, a group of women have seized a table of their own (though yes the timing is coincidental and fortuitous). The show may not run for 10 seasons, but it will provide an outlet for fresh voices and a showcase for the participants that may lead to more opportunities down the road.

Meaningful or Meaningless: The 10-minute domestic violence segment touched on the Hope Solo situation for less than 30 seconds.

HGS Sez: Meaningful

Why so little time spent on the Solo issue, which was 48-point headline material less than a week ago? Was that what they felt the (non?)story was worth, or were they loathe to criticize a fellow female athlete? I’m certainly not suggesting the Solo horse needs to be beaten further, but I was surprised they blew past it so quickly. But maybe they needed more time for…

Meaningful or Meaningless: Dara Torres, Lisa Leslie and Swin Cash all spoke candidly about their personal experiences with domestic violence.

HGS Sez: Beyond Meaningful

Not only was it extremely powerful to hear these women discuss how domestic violence directly affected their lives, it was compelling to watch Leslie and Cash defend the differences in how each dealt with the men who abused them. It seemed as though Leslie challenged Cash about the way she handled her relationship, while Cash’s trembling voice revealed just how difficult it was for her to escape. These are two of the most successful basketball players in USA history, and my gut wretched as they shared their personal struggles. That kind of honest, unscripted storytelling made for excellent television.

Meaningful or Meaningless: Lisa Leslie said Derek Jeter is “fine” during a segment on Jeter’s retirement.

HGS Sez: Meaningless

If any male sportscaster capped a broadcast with “And you forgot to mention, Alex Morgan is fine,”  he’d be excoriated on social media and disciplined by his bosses for blatant objectification. You simply cannot comment on a player’s looks like you’re sitting around your living room with your girlfriends. If you want to be treated like a pro, act like a pro, and that includes not talking about how cute you think a player is. What a player looks like is meaningless when it comes to his ability (or legacy) as an athlete.

Meaningful or Meaningless: My opinion

HGS Sez: Meaningful AND Meaningless

You know what they say about opinions… they’re awesome! And since I’m probably the ONLY blogger who will write about this…

Overall I liked most of “We Need to Talk.” I usually watch sports on mute because I get so tired of the commentators filling space with nonsense, so I’m not exactly the target audience for a show that trades in opinions. What I did enjoy was hearing from the athletes. In particular, having Torres in-studio the day Michael Phelps was arrested for DUI and former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask on-hand the day the Raiders fired coach Dennis Allen – while incredibly lucky timing – provided much more informative and personal perspectives than a reporter could give. You won’t be surprised to hear I preferred the part where Swin Cash challenged Roger Goodell to the part where Cash and reporter Allie LaForce danced in front of a big-screen TV. But I guess the guys on ESPN/Fox/Etc have their own antics and so it’s hard to criticize them for having fun. The lack of testosterone was completely refreshing; let’s not overdo it with the estrogen. We get it. You’re women.

Of course as with any new show there were bobbles – a cameraman tip-toeing into a shot; the questionable decision to have five people border a round table resulting in wide shots that too often featured the back of Torres’ head. And there were nerves all around (except perhaps the rock-solid Andrea Kremer) that contributed to a rushed feel. They crammed a lot of topics and segments in there, maybe too many. But it’s just the inaugural show, plenty of room for tweaking.

So will I be back next week? Yes. This is appointment television for me because I believe in the growth of opportunities for women in all facets of sports. And if they invite a few hockey players to the show, that’ll make me happy too.

The Spectacular Piling-On and Humiliating Character Assassination of Hope Solo

Note: this post title is in reference to a Washington Post article originally titled “The spectacular rise and humiliating fall of Hope Solo.” It has since been changed to “How Hope Solo went from soccer star to center of an assault controversy.” The original title lives in the article’s URL, for now.


Scene: Washington Post Newsroom

Editor (on intercom): Cindy, come on in here, would you?

Cindy Boren: Sure, be right there.

Editor: And grab McCoy on your way in.

Cindy: Hey Terrence, boss wants to see us.

Terrence McCoy: Ok, but President Obama is about to…

Editor: MCCOY!

Terrence: Yes sir!

(Cindy and Terrence enter the editor’s office)

Editor: Cindy, that piece you wrote on Hope Solo was fantastic. Unprecedented number of hits on the website.

Cindy: Thank you, sir!

Editor: And the follow-up was brilliant too – changing the conversation from “no one is talking about her” to “people are really talking about her now!”

Cindy: I’m glad to hear it’s getting a lot of page views, sir, that was my goal!

Editor: In particular I enjoyed how you alluded to the U.S. Amateur Sports Act without doing any actual investigating about it at all. Simply stunning!

Cindy: I do my best, sir.

Editor: But we’ve got a problem. There are people out there writing rebuttal articles and blogs that are being very well-received. They’re making us look like amateurs who don’t know anything about women’s soccer and are only covering this because the Ray Rice story is huge and we want to make some tenuous connection to a famous, pretty girl who also allegedly committed the same crime. Terrence, I’d like you to write a new article about her.

Terrence: About women’s soccer, sir? But I’m the foreign affairs writer and we just bombed Syria and Iraq. Shouldn’t I focus on that?

Cindy: You know, sir, we could ask Steven Goff. He IS the WaPo’s Soccer Insider, after all. If anyone on our staff has ins with the Women’s National Team and can get some insight on this from the people involved, it’s Steve.

Editor: No, we need someone who won’t appear as biased. He knows too much, is probably friendly with some of the players. We need something by a soccer outsider.

Terrence: How about Sally Jenkins? She’s been writing about sports for the WaPo for years? I’ve only written two other sports articles in the last month and a half.

Editor: And those were about the Oscar Pistorious case and the kid who lied about breaking his ankles, right? And you did cover the recent celebrity nude photo hacking scandal, didn’t you?

Terrence: Yes, sir.

Editor: Solo was one of them, wasn’t she?

Terrence: She was, yes.

Editor: Then make sure you include a link to her nudes.

Cindy: A link to naked pictures of her that were illegally hacked from her iCloud account and released without her permission?

Editor: Oh who cares, you can find the pictures anywhere. We might as well take advantage of it. Tell you what, we’ll link to it and then when people complain about it, we’ll remove it.

Terrence: Are you sure I’m the right person for this, sir? I mean, Congress just decided to take two months off instead of debate about war in Syria and now we’re at war…

Editor: Pish posh, Terrence! This girl might actually play in a soccer game next month, and we’ve got to stop her!

Terrence: Alright, alright. Cindy, can you send me some links to other articles about this so I can do some research for my piece?

Cindy: Of course. I’ll send you mine and the one Christine Brennan wrote back in August.

Editor: Brennan wrote about this last month? So people were talking about it… Hmmm…. Oh well, it’s brought us a ton of traffic…

Cindy: Wasn’t there some drama with her and her teammates a few years ago?

Terrance: Was there? I’ll Google it and see how much I can dig up from her past.

Editor: And try to get someone on the team to say she should be suspended.

Terrence: Ooh, that might be tough. But let me see if I can craft a vague, misleading paragraph that implies that.

Editor: You’re the man for this job, Terrence, I just know it. Keep up the good work, you two.

Cindy and Terrence: Yes sir!

to be continued…

The Color of Money: Bruce Levenson, the Atlanta Hawks, and Atlanta Thrashers

Today came the news that former Atlanta Thrashers co-owner and soon-to-be-ex-Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson jotted down some stream-of-consciousness garbage in which he perpetuates and caters to both black and white stereotypes (and Southern ones, too, for good measure) and emailed it to his co-owners. You can read the text of that email here.

Devising a marketing strategy by drawing lines between and around the type of people one wants to market toward isn’t a bad thing. I just did that last week at my job. It’s called segmenting. Done properly it can help a business reach a target audience.

But it’s the way Levenson paints large groups of people with a broad stereotypical brush that hurts my heart: his implication that a majority-black crowd inherently has fewer “fathers and sons;” that “southern whites” were not comfortable being in the minority; and most harsh: “the black crowd scared away the whites.”

And so I wonder: when the Atlanta Spirit Group drafted Evander Kane and signed Dustin Byfuglien, Johnny Oduya, and Anthony Stewart, and brought in Nigel Dawes, Sebastian Owuya and Akim Aliu – all players of African descent and together comprising a full 20% of black hockey players in the NHL in 2010 – did they appreciate these men as the highly skilled elite athletes they truly are? Or did they just see skin color?

In 2010 blogger Harrison Mooney wrote a long, complex post about this issue and ultimately lauded ASG’s efforts to engage a segment of the Atlanta community it had not traditionally tried to connect with. I suppose that’s true. It’s still (or was) a business. And as Mooney points out, Kane was a legit number four pick in the 2009 draft, while Byfuglien and Oduya were part of a Chicago Blackhawks team that had just won the Stanley Cup.

But as was borne true again and again with the Thrashers, having two or three skilled players surrounded by muckers and grinders does not a winning team make. We had Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa and still only won the lame Southeast Division once. Atlanta Spirit prioritized marketing over building a winning hockey organization, and as a result my team is in Winnipeg.

Ultimately, though, business decisions are less important than who you are as a person. If this were not the case Levenson wouldn’t be selling; Donald Sterling would still own the Clippers. Bruce Levenson looked out at his all-white Thrashers and wanted them to be more black. Then he scanned his too-black Atlanta Hawks crowd and told his staff to make them more white. This is a man who does not value people as anything but a wallet – and the whiter the wallet, the better, because to him whiter wallets contain more green. That might make him a great businessman, but it makes him a lousy human being.

2015 Women’s World Cup – You Want to Go After the Grass, You Have to Go After the Green

Over on The Equalizer, Jeff Kassouf reports several high-profile international women’s soccer players including Abby Wambach and Germany’s Nadine Angerer have retained legal council in preparation for a turf war (womp womp) over the use of artificial grass at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

Finally.

I’ve been frustrated by the lack of cohesive action from the players. As I’ve said before, many of them seem reluctant to stand up for their basic human rights; why would they stand up for their sport?

Carli Lloyd even went so far to suggest woso fans should start a petition to get FIFA to use grass. That’s just lazy. Petitions carry no legal weight and are easy to ignore. They’re the fast food of social activism. Sit on your couch, click a button, boom. Instant gratification. You don’t even have to get up.

FIFA doesn’t care about the fans. They care about money. Look at what happened in Brazil – there were protests in the streets, cops in riot gear, tear gas grenades – and still 26.5 million people in the U.S. alone watched the final. FIFA can literally bulldoze entire neighborhoods of fans – or turn their backs while hundreds of workers die in Qatar – and the matches will sell out. For every person who sets their boundary and says “this is not right, I won’t go,” there are a dozen more lined up to take their place. FIFA knows this. Fan anger isn’t a gnat FIFA must swat away; fans don’t even get that close.

For the people who want change, I’m reminded of the immortal words of Billy Ray Valentine, who said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly):

“You know, it occurs to me the that best way you hurt rich FIFA is by turning them into poor FIFA.”

You wanna go after the grass? You gotta go after the green. And there are only two groups who can do that:

1. The Sponsors – who are rightly sitting this one out so far. Angry tweets and cursing barely move the meter of today’s media, and sponsors may not even know this is an issue. Or perhaps they’re waiting to see what happens. Now something’s happening. If Wambach, Angerer et. al. can rally a large group of players to sue or boycott, that will make news. Once it hits the news, the sponsors will have to decide whose side they’re on. Will they choose a group of athletes who simply want equal footing (womp womp) in their own sport? Will they back up that choice by withholding dollars? Or will they bow to the Evil FIFA Overlords and keep forking over dough to a governing body that made $2 BILLION in Brazil?

Actually, it might be the latter.

2. The Players – So that leaves it up to the group who arguably has the most to risk by speaking up. Careers are short. Endorsements are fewer than in the men’s game. And that sucks for them. FIFA’s ridiculous, arrogant decision to stage the Cup on fake grass has put the players in the impossible position of choosing to play or to fight. (And don’t think FIFA isn’t counting on them shutting up and playing. I’m looking at you CanWNT.).

But for the love of Mia, if they’re not going to fight for the integrity of sport they love, why are they playing?  If they’re not going to stand up for themselves NOW, for the opportunity to put their team and their country in the best position to win at the tournament that likely represents the pinnacle of their careers, when will they? When they’re done playing and have less to risk? When they’re perched on a chair in a TV studio, fat checks all cashed?

It’s easy for me to sit here and wonder why the players didn’t mobilize sooner (I didn’t even have to get up). I know that. But all along it’s been the players who have the power. They are the only ones who can force FIFA to treat them equally, with the respect they deserve. They’re starting to realize it now and beginning to work together. I’m proud of Wambach, Angerer, Vero Boquete, Teresa Noyola and the others who shouldered this weight with their letter to FIFA. I, the fans, the sponsors, the community – we can support the players with our blogs and tweets and voices. But change must begin with them.

Finally, it has.

Updated: Women’s Soccer Pro, Semi-Pro and Pro-Am Teams in North America

This map is interactive. Click on the check boxes to show or hide a league’s teams. Scroll down in the white box to see all the leagues. Zoom in or out with the +/- buttons. Move the map around with the hand.

Click here to go to a larger version.

I’ve finally updated the WoSoPro map for 2014. I decided to use the stadium locations for the pins rather than the contact information, just in case, for example, the contact person lives in a land far, far away. Twitter handles are included for most teams.

Enjoy!