“Can Twitter save women’s soccer?”

If you are on Twitter and in the women’s soccer community, you have heard the rumblings of a hashtag-slash-trending-topic movement to draw attention to the USWNT game versus Italy on November 27. ESPN3.com will be carrying the webcast, and folks want to prove to ESPN that people give a damn about the game.

I understand why women’s soccer fans expect and demand more of ESPN and other major media outlets when it comes to coverage of the sport. I don’t necessarily agree, as I’ve said in previous entries, but I get it. When the internal media production stagnates and is unwilling to evolve, it’s time to beg for outside help. It’s also time to take matters into your own hands.

I do believe in the power of Twitter, particularly in the hands of players and fans. I do believe this game needs to be watched by casual fans of US soccer. And I think it’s really important that fans are exposed to the background of how the USWNT ended up in the mess they’re in. I think it’s important that fans be dissatisfied with the lack of media coverage both internal and external, because in a way, that played a part in the past six or so years of complacency.

Of the two of us here at Cross-Conference, I am probably the wrong one to be writing this post. But I was asked, as a women’s soccer blogger, and even though I don’t root for the USWNT, I do admire the initiative. If you get enough people talking about and pushing for change, becoming part of the change, you have a better chance of effecting it.

Use #uswnt when you tweet about the game, and tweet often. This isn’t just about the national team–it’s about women’s soccer in the US.

Or it’s about Alex Morgan. Who can say, for sure?

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Chile, look the other way

Last night, the conversation got rolling on Twitter about why I dislike Alex Morgan’s inclusion on the USWNT roster right now. As I’ve said, I understand that when a player gets that call, she goes, because a spot on the World Cup roster is what every women’s soccer player aims for, right? And as we have seen with Leslie Osborne, chances at these spots can be taken away so easily, so a player doesn’t pass up an opportunity when it presents itself. I’m sure Morgan has weighed the pros and cons and clearly she made her decision, but for various reasons, this call-up doesn’t sit right with me.

Disclaimer: I don’t cheer for Cal, and I don’t root against them. I don’t dislike Alex Morgan, but my criticisms of the way she plays are nothing new.

Let’s start with the “big” picture, the senior national team, which doesn’t seem to have cultivated or developed new forwards in the past three years. With the World Cup less than a year away and CONCACAF qualifiers happening now, I should probably be grateful that the new blood comes “late” rather than “never.” I shouldn’t question that Alex Morgan is the new blood, in particular, because she scored the game-tying goal against China’s U-23s… which should tell you something about this World Cup run.

This USWNT isn’t going to win the World Cup. Even if the tournament wasn’t being held in Germany (a hostile environment, to be sure) the US wouldn’t have good chances. Set aside, for a moment, that the athletes have to be in a winning mentality and have to think that they can do it–yes, miracles happen. Realistically, what are the US’s chances of getting that miracle? Realistically, what are the chances that Alex Morgan is going to perform that miracle or contribute to it in any way?

So Morgan has belatedly committed to a national team that hasn’t decided it needs her. The US will need her down the road if she reaches her potential, yes, and considering how long Amy Rodriguez has been around, Morgan could stick on the roster forever regardless of her performance. But if you pay any attention to CONCACAF, you know Morgan isn’t needed right now. This trip, for her, is about finding her small place on the team and filling a spot on the roster. Definitely, chemistry is needed for a strong team. Definitely, the coaches should have been working on that sooner. This call-up reeks of half-hearted experimentation. The 2010 senior WNT depressingly resembles the U-20 WNT, in that there are problems no one is truly fixing. This is a team that could get out of CONCACAF, but they will only progress through the knock-out stages of a World Cup if they feel like showing up on game days. They might not.

Flash back to when Christina DiMartino was called up to the USWNT. I never expected that to happen, even though I love the way she plays. That is a player that can provide a real spark and doesn’t care what size the opponent is. Nothing stops her. She is small (short and slight), though, and I would think that could have been a concern. Maybe chemistry was a factor, too. Maybe she wasn’t filling any of the currently open roles. But she plays a speedy, graceful, dangerous game and she doesn’t crumple when an opponent sneezes on her. Maybe Morgan has the chemistry. Maybe she is filling Tasha Kai’s role. She is speedy and graceful, and she has scored a couple goals, but per DiCicco’s report in 2008, we know that she has more issues than injury and equilibrium. Even if she has solved the nutrition problems, she is still the wilting violet on the field. These aren’t U-20s or college kids that she would be up against in Germany.

While we have DiCicco’s report and 2008 on the table, let’s not forget that Alex Morgan did make a commitment when it came to the U-20s. She made the commitment well in advance of the college season (her sophomore year, by the way). This year, in her senior season, she is a team captain. She has played in 11 of 17 games, totaling 915 minutes. 11 Bears have scored this season, and of 37 goals, 14 are Alex Morgan’s. In the Pac-10, Cal holds a 2-3-1 record. This summer, I asked, “Will Alex Morgan try to make something of her senior season at Cal?” The games she missed were at the core of Cal’s schedule: Portland, UCLA, both Arizonas, Stanford. Cal meets Oregon today Friday, but the Bears haven’t had any luck so far against the teams below them in the Pac-10. They close against Oregon State, currently unbeaten in conference play.

Although the statistics are hugely in Morgan’s favor, she doesn’t carry her college team alone. Often overlooked, Megan Jesolva is a key part of this team, even when she isn’t at 100%. DiCicco nearly took her to Chile and spoke highly of her in his report despite only having her in one or two camps. She has since played for the U-23s (although thanks to ussoccer.com, you wouldn’t know that). Morgan and Jesolva combined would have made Cal a solid team this year, despite the loss of players such as Lisa Kevorkian (all the rage at Boston University now), last year’s captains, and a starting keeper. Jesolva recently voiced her intent to continue her soccer career past NCAA, which is a pleasant surprise–but is it likely? She keeps narrowly missing opportunities. Her fellow players voted not to take her to Chile; by the time the U-23s scooped her up, the Nordic Cup was no more; she is graduating to the pro leagues in a year where WPS is massively scaling things down (possibly for its final run) and the women’s soccer world will focus on the senior World Cup. Jesolva’s chances with Cal have steadily decreased the longer Morgan has been away as part of the USWNT’s attempt to integrate some youth.

Overall, I really doubt Jesolva (or anyone else) begrudges Morgan this one shot at the USWNT. But I think it’s a gamble, and it’s selling Morgan, Jesolva, and Cal short. The Bears aren’t a Final Four-bound team, but they are much better than their record. They just weren’t prepared for Morgan’s Once In A Lifetime shot at the ailing USWNT. All the best to her, of course, but I have to wonder at the cost. In the sea of voices showering her with nothing but praise, I’m sure at least one blog entry of doubt is merited.

Edit to link: There is not enough anger in my post. Now a word from someone much more invested.

Cal Bears 2009, in which Alex Morgan resembles Hope Solo (only better)

Although I was initially going to make this post along with (or instead of) the one about Hope Solo’s latest comments, I’m glad I held off. The discussion in the comments of that post has been good, and the delay gave colleges time to throw all sorts of preseason news at us–including this gem from DailyCal.org:

McGuire Looks to Build Unity After Late-Season Struggle

[U]nity was an obstacle last fall. [Head Coach Neil] McGuire quit briefly for personal reasons following a loss to Sacramento State, and the remainder of the season seemed to reflect internal conflict. […]

Although he attributes the downturn in Cal’s performance last season largely to injuries and is monitoring the players’ health, there could be other reasons to the Bears’ late loss of momentum.

The team’s record prior to McGuire’s short departure was 6-3. Following his absence, it was 5-6-1.

While he is aware of some of last season’s problems, McGuire also believes that the Bears’ have a fresh start this year.

“This is the 2010 team.” he said. “It’s not the 2009 team. It’s a different team, it’s a different attitude, it’s a different vision.”

I think that the average women’s soccer fan, if they pay attention to California Berkeley at all, do so because of Alex Morgan. I used to pay attention because the Bears have given my teams some grief over the years (and they gave up Chioma Igwe to SCU), but in recent seasons, I’ve paid attention because Cal is a friend’s alma mater. Knowing someone that is on-campus and cares about the team certainly does affect how I perceive the team. So with that in mind, I realize that not everyone was as caught up in the Bears’ 2009 season as I was. Not everyone is going to be insulted by The Daily Californian‘s new stance on the team and McGuire.

My unease with McGuire started early last last season, with the 4-1 win over Nevada. Alex Morgan had a hat trick and Lisa Kevorkian tallied a goal as well. In the writeup, only the coach is quoted:

“Lisa’s reading the line very, very well for us,” McGuire said. “She’s kind of a goal-a-game player. Sometimes it can be a first-class goal, and sometimes it can be off scrap.” […]

“Morgan has to credit the service she received,” McGuire said. “The first goal she worked for because she won the ball and scored. The rest of the goals she scored came from tremendous work from her teammates. That’s what our offense is all about – whether it be Alex scoring the goal and receiving from her teammates or her passing to her teammates.”

My discomfort came particularly from McGuire’s phrasing in talking about Morgan’s goal. “Has to credit,” and so on, as though Alex Morgan, whose modesty isn’t affected or simply fed to the media, wouldn’t have credited them herself? Morgan is Cal’s goalscorer (and what a shame that they have lost Kevorkian to grad school) but Megan Jesolva is the key component behind the forwards. I’m sure the team knows this. When she is injured, the midfield–and subsequently the team–struggles.

And Jesolva did get injured last season. Her first game out, Cal (ranked 7th at the time), lost 1-0 to Cal Poly. Even McGuire acknowledged where the problem was, if not how the team ended up that way: “One of the problems we have been having is that our midfielders are trying to do too many peoples’ jobs. That drill is meant to confine our midfielders to a given space and give them a real sense of what their responsibilities are.”

The Bears followed up with a 1-0 loss to Sacramento State. Immediately following the game, McGuire quit the coaching position: “Reportedly, McGuire was so upset after the game that he told his squad in the locker room that he was done, leaving the Bears without a head coach for Sunday’s matchup against No. 11 Santa Clara which resulted in a 1-1 draw.” This from student journalist Joseph Cannon, who had an established relationship with the team and would continue to cover the situation as it unfolded. The news broke, however, through star player Alex Morgan’s twitter account:

October 3

  • @alexmorgan13: you turned your back on us once we can and will turn our backs on you for good. you are not welcome back
  • @alexmorgan13: practice time… will there be an unpleasant surprise? i hope not
  • @alexmorgan13: happy about how practice went…so READY for tomorrow’s game!!!

October 4

  • @alexmorgan13: game [today] vs. santa clara… i have a good feeling about this one
  • Santaclarabroncos.com noted in its original release regarding the game that Neil McGuire was not with the visiting Bears.
  • Callbears.com: Volunteer assistant coach Kelly Lindsey managed the team today as head coach Neil McGuire was attending to personal matters.
  • @alexmorgan13: bears tied the broncos 1-1… we wanted it more…we fought until the end. 110 minutes later. good job bears i love you girls

October 5

“I wasn’t happy or sad. I was indifferent. My team is the only thing that matters to me. And if (McGuire) ever comes back, then we will deal with it then.” McGuire has shown his emotions after losses before, like last year when he kicked the team out of the locker room after a brutal collapse against Cal State Fullerton. But he has never done this before.

“It’s really important for us to sit tight and let Neil and the administration work through this,” Lindsey said. “We just have to try to keep the wheels on the bus until a final decision is made and we can all move forward.”

Cannon’s article came late enough that it was published on the same day as the “official channels” at Cal announced McGuire’s return:

Head Coach Neil McGuire Returns to Team. Neil McGuire, who missed Sunday’s game at Santa Clara to attend to personal business, has returned to the team and will continue as Cal’s women’s soccer coach. Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour reiterated her support for McGuire, who has guided the Golden Bears to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearance in his first two seasons at the helm.

The juxtaposition of Cannon’s articles to the official statements given by McGuire and Barbour (echoed by The Daily Californian here) could raise some eyebrows… or some ire, as demonstrated by Andrew Brining on Bleacher Report. He wasn’t the only one. Alumni weighed in, and Morgan continued to tweet.

October 6

  • @alexmorgan13: long long day. big headache, tired, frustrated. Thank you for all the support in the past few days.

October 9

Cal would salvage their season and make the postseason tournament despite McGuire, which I think bears a lot of quoting here.

“I think we took the team as far as we could have taken it, considering all the adversity we were up against,” junior Alex Morgan said.

It wasn’t much of a team at all, though. The Bears were divided, players versus coach.

“A coach is a coach, players are what make a team,” senior co-captain Brianna Bak said just days after McGuire temporarily left the team for personal reasons.

That statement became almost a mantra with the players, who would turn any question regarding “the situation” with their coach into a chance to talk about the bond they shared as sisters.

“It’s in the past now,” McGuire said less than a week after the incident, which was chronologically correct but realistically improbable, as he had yet to speak with each player individually.

There weren’t any examples of dissent from the players in games or during interviews, yet it began to surface in their record. After starting off with a promising 6-3 record, Cal finished the season going 5-6-1, tossing together a rough 4-5 trip through the Pac-10.

And while I think it’s telling that Kelly Lindsey (yes, that Kelly Lindsey, the one that turned Sky Blue FC’s season around last year) was named associate head coach in February 2010, Shek Borkowski probably says it better than I could.

McGuire is right. This year’s Bears are not the 2009 team. The individual players combined for a striking whole, but who’s to say whether 2010 could overcome the same kind of adversity? I have a lot of respect for the 2009 team and the seniors that graduated, and not just because of how they functioned as a team. Sandwiched between the coaching mess at Sky Blue FC and Hope Solo’s recent outburst on Twitter, the Cal debacle informs and reinforces my pro-player, pro-social media stance at any level of the sport.

I don’t have faith in the “appropriate channels.” I don’t think the Cal story could have unfolded like it did without new media components. I think that if Alex Morgan had taken her complaint to the “appropriate channels,” not only would nothing have been done (as we see in McGuire’s continued head coaching position), but nothing would have been said, either. The players, their relationship with the student journalist, and their willingness to take advantage of the open forum of the internet made the other side of the story public.

But as we’ve discussed in comments on my previous post, just because the information is out there, doesn’t mean people have or will see it. I know I wouldn’t have been able to read as much as I did if I wasn’t guided to the sources by someone on that campus who cared enough to find the news and share it. Since so much of women’s soccer has to be passed along this way, I don’t see why people are so quick to discredit it. A degree of judgment needs to go into how much of each story you accept, but how do you justify telling Alex Morgan, Joseph Cannon, and the 2009 team that their side doesn’t count, simply because it hasn’t been filtered by a system that doesn’t want to acknowledge them anyway?