Professionalism Off The Pitch

“Let the product on the pitch speak for the league.”

You hear that often from supporters of women’s pro WoSo. And it’s true, the product on the pitch speaks volumes about the league. It says that the league is full of professional players who display the finer points of skill and technical ability in an increasingly more tactical style of play. But for the league to prosper and take it’s rightful place among all sports leagues it has to be professional off the pitch as well.

This weekend saw the beginning of the fourth season of NWSL. A landmark among women’s professional WoSo leagues in the USA. No previous league made it to opening day of season 4. It was an opportunity for the league to really step up and blow its own horn across the country in every member city, whether that team was playing at home or not. But it did not. For various reasons given there was no TV game, just streams that really weren’t any better than last year, and in one case worse. There were no sell outs, not one of the 5 venues managed that feat. Some came closer than others, but no cookie for any team. One team* had their home season opener at a venue that isn’t even their home field. Washington Spirit gave a nod to leagues past and the history being made of a season 4 by having pro WoSo vet and former NT player Briana Scurry do their first kick. Other teams did nothing..and I mean literally nothing to recognize the accomplishment. There was some MSM buzz, but not much, and some blog buzz, maybe a little more, but for the most part even some new fans didn’t know the significance of the start to the 2016 season.

On top of that, the few nods to this being anything special fell embarrassingly flat. The 2-time NWSL champions FC Kansas City were given their rings in a pre-game ceremony and in all pride tweeted a photo of the new rings only to have fans bring the glaring typo of NWSL as NSWL on the rings to their attention. The league in what I’m sure was meant to be a clever play on words debuted a new slogan of sorts that really fell flat before bouncing around the internet as a sort of Malaprop. STRONG HER – FAST HER – FURT HER debuted the new NWSL buzzword “furt”. And in what I’m sure was meant to be a grand gesture, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush flew to Houston to announce that this year’s championship final would be in the worst kept secret location of Houston on October 9th. On top of the league’s less than stellar presentations some of the teams had their own faux pas, such as wrong team names in graphics, OTT homer commentators with wrong facts, and glitchy streams.

These are just a few of the things that stuck out for me this past weekend and are indicative of less professionalism off the pitch than the teams, the fans and the sport deserve. It doesn’t take money to do what Washington did with Scurry. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to read the proof in the case of the rings. Someone with a good eye (and literally all that was needed was one good eye) could have caught the typos in graphics and whoever came up with the Strong – Fast – Furt slogan should go back to school or let a friend read your copy. It all smacks of laziness, or a careless attitude, neither marks of a professional.

I know the league and teams tend to focus on the big picture when resources are stretched and to a degree that’s understandable. What needs to be realized is that the small things that go wrong off the pitch can derail all the hard work done to make the players and the product on the pitch be as professional as possible. One glaring example is the post FOX Soccer did about the rings typo. That single post undid a lot of hard work by everyone involved with the NWSL to be taken seriously as a league. It will be the introduction to the league for many people and one that won’t make them want to know more. I don’t think FOX Soccer demonstrated their stated “commitment” to the league with that post, but the damage is done.

If this all seems a bit nit-picky to you, think about the saying “the devil’s in the details”. In the case of trying to attract and keep serious supporters of women’s soccer all it might take is a culmination of overlooked details for current supporters to say enough and new supporters to say not enough.

I’ll continue to try to hold the league and its teams to a high standard on and off the pitch. If you have anything to furt her the conversation, let me hear it in the comments.

*Disclaimer: I was at the FCKC v WNYF game in Children’s Mercy Park.

2016 – Season 4

April 16, 2016 – A day that will forever be a part of WoSo history in the USA. The start of the fourth season of a women’s professional soccer league has come and gone..and it was good.

The very first game was between the Washington Spirit and the Boston Breakers at the Maryland SoccerPlex. While there were some stream glitches and it wasn’t sold out, it did feature a first-kick by women’s pro WoSo and NT veteran Briana Scurry, a Joanna Lohman bicycle kick game-winning goal, the debut of Boston’s new manager, Matt Beard, from across the pond, and Jim Gabarra’s return to Maryland. The Spirit defeated the Breakers 1-0.

The second game of NWSL opening day saw the 3rd year Houston Dash dispatch the veteran Chicago Red Stars in what might be called surprising fashion as many have pegged Chicago to figure prominently in the playoffs. Houston’s draft picks showed up to play with both Rachel Daly and Janine Beckie scoring along with vet Carli Lloyd. Chicago never really got their attack in gear only able to generate one goal from Christen Press. The Dash defeated the Red Stars 3-1.

The other second game, sharing starting time with Houston v Chicago, was league champions FC Kansas City hosting Western New York Flash. The game was played at Children’s Mercy Park, home to Sporting KC of MLS fame. The now infamously misspelled “NSWL” championship rings were given to players prior to kickoff. The game also featured two uncharacteristically less than stellar games from KC’s  NTers, Sauerbrunn and O’Reilly. While Broon’s handball led to the game-winning PK taken by WNY’s Sam Mewis, she also failed to win anything in the air and was struggling to keep up when often stranded by her teammates in the 3-5-2 formation employed, O’Reilly was hellbent on making an impact often to the detriment of her decision making, not to mention being owned by WNY’s Jaelene Hinkle most of the game. HAO had the opportunity to make it all right when a stoppage time PK was earned by FCKC, but she hit it off the post and that was the game. Western NY looked solid and pressured KC in an unfamiliar tactical formation. The Flash certainly earned their 1-0 win over the Blues.

On Sunday the opening weekend’s first game was Seattle Reign FC welcoming Sky Blue FC to their fortress, having not lost a game at home, ever. The game was a bit of back and forth with Tasha Kai celebrating her return to pro WoSo with the SBFC opening goal. Seattle doesn’t often have to come from behind but they did with a Merritt Mathias goal to even the score. Sky Blue wasn’t having it though when preseason invitee Kelly Conheeney used a little backheel to put a Taylor Lytle chip into the net. That sealed the Reign’s fate and Sky Blue handed them their very first defeat at Memorial Stadium with a final 0-1 score.

In many fan’s mind the final game of the opening weekend, Portland Thorns FC hosting Orlando Pride, was the one to watch. There’s not much the talk leading up to this game left out; two MLS-owned teams, one veteran one expansion upstart, former star player returning to face her old team and fans, NT players on display, much touted atmosphere, new coach for the Thorns, wily Scot at the helm for the Pride. It delivered on all fronts. The stream was exceptional as always, even if the commentators skew heavily in favor of the home team, and the crowd was big and loud giving PTFC the boost they expect. The Pride struck first with the opening goal coming from former Thorn and current Matilda, Steph Catley on a right side free kick. The Thorns quickly realized the Pride were there to play and picked up their game scoring two goals that would see them take home the win. The first was from Dagny Brynjarsdottir on a Tobin Heath assist and the second was from Lindsey Horan again on a Tobin Heath assist. Heath played as we would all like to see her perform for the USWNT, maybe it was the captain’s armband that spurred her performance. As it turned out former Thorn Alex Morgan didn’t figure much in this game with only a few chances that went unfinished. The Thorns took this one with a final score of 2-1.

All-in-all a very good start to the league’s historic 4th year. The product on the field is as good, and I might say better than it’s ever been. Despite some glaring miscues – the misspelled championship rings being one, the NWSL “furt“her graphic being another – the intent to be better is there, it’s the execution that suffers.

Oh, almost forgot that the site of this year’s NWSL final was announced as Houston on October 9th. It was such a non-announcement that it’s easy for anyone to forget. Once again, it’s in the execution, folks.

Hope everyone is able to get to a game this year or buy a ticket to your favorite team even if you can’t attend. It’s all about getting more money in the game at this point. The pieces are coming together they just need more dollars to get them to slide into place.