“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?

World Cup Qualifiers: Mexico and Canada

Canada after the 4-0 win over Costa Rica

There are not enough pictures of Mexico's historic 2-1 win over the US

And what is the word from the US camp?

“We needed to use the flanks a little more and get a better transition. We tried to keep possession in the wrong situations, so when we had the chance for transition to play that final pass, we didn’t. We waited to long.” -USWNT Head Coach Pia Sundhage (courtesy of ussoccer.com)

Let me boil that down for you: We waited too long.

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.

Musing on Borkowski, fan contributions, and narratives

Although there are points on which we don’t agree, I do think that Shek Borkowski writes a good, thought-provoking blog. I went to his site to find a link to his 9/16 entry, found that he had written more in the meantime, and got caught up in reading the more recent entries. So here is a small plug for his site, and he is on Twitter @shekborkowski.

Last week, Borkowski posted this entry on WPS and the German Bundesliga. Is less of a “Germany is better, nya!” and more of an explanation as to what advantages players have in the German setup, despite the potential in the US. Rather than putting the reader on the defensive by saying “Germany is superior and the US will fail,” Borkowski lays out his points and foregrounds his concern: “I have a vested interest in seeing women’s professional football succeed in the US but I am worried.” After the comparison, he continues, “Today and tomorrow, WPS represents the only real, long term chance American women’s football has in staying competitive internationally.”

Then:

In America, we the fans of women’s football, participants, administrators, referees and coaches are the only asset WPS owners have. […]

Nothing else. Without us, the fans, unlike in European countries where women’s football is subsidized, they are doomed. […]

All of us involved in women’s football always can find reasons not to attend games, but 2011 is the year of no excuses.

We must do all we can to support WPS, we can’t count on baseball or basketball fans to support the league, we must do it.

This morning, my co-writer reminded me of the lesson that I grew up with, as a Catholic, that there are basically two ways to contribute to an organization or cause. One way is monetarily. You put your money where your mouth is. Buy the ticket, go to the game. I am the sort of fan that would much rather buy a ticket to a WPS game than a USWNT game. The league adds another layer to development, where players that aren’t crowned in NCAA are getting the opportunity to show on home soil that not every American player peaks in that limited four-year time-span. The league is where the US pool can diversify and build both talent and consistency, which is admittedly lacking at the W-League/WPSL level. There needs to be recognition that just because the USWNT no longer formally has months of residence and frequent friendlies doesn’t mean that the USWNT player pool hasn’t been in a residency, playing competitive international-level games April through September. Supporting WPS goes a long way towards supporting our national team, so you can have Natasha Kais, Hope Solos, and Abby Wambachs in the future, after those names have retired.

The other way of supporting is through service. Time and energy. Volunteering for those jobs and positions that the teams and league can’t afford to spend money on. Becoming active in keeping this league. Speaking as a monetarily-challenged (read: poor) grad student with a 1.5- to 2-hour drive to my nearest WPS teams, my opportunities to be involved with traditional volunteer positions seem limited. My co-writer, who is about 600 miles from her nearest WPS team, has even more limited options–but that doesn’t stop her, or me, from doing what we can. We have the knowledge and means to talk about the league, teams, and players in various types of media. So we do. We write and podcast, and we’re gradually stretching to see what more we can do and add.

Additionally, I do go to games when I can. I am fortunate to have returned to a part of the East Coast where I have relatively easy access to US women’s soccer at all levels. I did not go to the WPS playoff game between Philadelphia and Washington, but that was because I was already locked into plans to go to the Boston College-Rutgers game, where a number of future professionals and internationals were playing. I feel a little guilty about missing that WPS game, because I know from living in St. Louis that any WPS game could be the last. But then, instead of a WPS game, I was at an NCAA women’s soccer game, not at home on the couch playing video games.

Hope Solo is half-right about statistics. There are intangibles that matter. If you can’t affect the numbers, there are other things you can be doing. One of the intangibles that keeps sport alive and relevant is story. If you know the history, if you know what inspires you to care about the sport, you can pass that on to share or strengthen the same interest within others. (For instance, I don’t care if one keeper has a better statistical average against a team. I care that the other keeper earned the starting position over time and has dedicated her performance in this tournament to a recently deceased relative.) You know how Our Game Magazine is trying to drum up subscribers? They have some of the stories that the mainstream media isn’t hooked into. When you talk someone into going to a game or following a team or player, you have those stories, too.

To come back to Borkowski, he’s right. It’s packaging as much as product. Sometimes it’s packaging more than product. The stories are part of the packaging. Mechelle Voepel, a women’s basketball journalist, grasps and executes that well–she draws me in when I’d just as soon ignore basketball altogether. When you can describe why someone could care instead of just telling them that they should, you can sell. Teach a man to fish, and all that. Our experiences as fans are just as much a part of building the league and interest in the league as anything the leagues or teams are doing.

But of course, in order to share those experiences and stories, we have to have them, first.

Hope Solo – Gonna take a mighty swipe at the high hog

Hope Solo, WWC 2007Does everyone remember back in 2007, when Hope Solo watched the USWNT get their asses kicked in the World Cup, then made a statement to the Canadian media that amounted to, “Greg Ryan is an idiot for benching me because I am this US team’s number one GK, and there are no stats in goalkeeping–shut up, Heifetz, I’ll say what everyone is thinking if I want”? Originally, the video of this statement was available online, unedited, but I guess what aired on TV were the incendiary clips that got Solo kicked off the team. Rioting ensued, Solo apologized on MySpace, and she became the major storyline of the USWNT for the next two years.

Now it’s 2010 and Solo has returned to filing complaints in public spaces. This time, however, she is skipping the middleman. Earlier this season she complained about American soccer commentators

I’ve heard the best commentating throughout these wc games! All from other countries. We have a long way to go here in the US! They truly know how to let the game be played and speak for itself. They have funny little comments and then return to the game. And they don’t over analyze!!!! It makes watching the games much less frustrating and much more enjoyable!

WPS reffing and discipline

Here we go again… Protection

What are we the legal system now? Perhaps jail time too? An orange jumpsuit? The guillotine? Trying to make an embarrassment out of people? Should I be laughing! I just don’t know anymore.

Anybody want to join us for some community service? Its a tough task laying out by the pool while trying to put back tasty beverages.

[A/N: The above occurred around a red card incident with Solo’s Atlanta teammate Kia McNeill, who came studs-up (about shoulder height) at opposing goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. This was McNeill’s third red card in two years. The discipline committee reviewed the incident and added two additional suspensions–a total of three games missed–and four hours of community service, which clearly means little in WPS. An appeal was made, to no effect.]

and in response to team/league press releases

Lucky? I don’t think so. When will little old atlanta get a bit of credit. Who writes these press releases?

Most recently, Solo has caused a stir following Atlanta’s 2-0 loss at Boston (which she preceded with a minor rant about officiating).

To all the boston fans and especially the young kids that I didn’t sign autographs for I’m sorry. I will not stand for An organization who can so blatantly disrespect the athletes that come to play. Perhaps the WPS or Boston themselves Can finally take a stance to the profanity, racism and crude remarks that are made by their so called “fan club” To the true fans, I hope to catch you at the next game. Thanks for your support and love for the game.

There is a lot of discussion right now, with Boston’s Riptide defending themselves and both Boston and Atlanta’s front offices talking about making a joint statement. Et cetera. I agree that the issues that have been raised by Solo and the ensuing reactions definitely open the main door on the soccer-and-race discussion for WPS, but since it looks like the “discussion” is about denying racism instead of acknowledging that it is a mainstay in soccer and–founded or not–Solo’s allegations can be used as a chance to combat it early on in the league…

Admittedly, I let myself get distracted by the media issue. One of the things that people have been saying is that Solo should have filed her complaint about the Riptide through formal channels instead of making her accusations in front of 1.8k followers on the internet. She should have signed for the young fans and spoken to the media immediately after the game.

Wait, what?

Solo is not the most PR- or Twitter-savvy player on the USWNT or in the WPS, but she seems to have learned her lesson about speaking to the media (the mediators) immediately following an infuriating match. Regardless of her intentions, not engaging with fans–particularly the young ones that are often clamoring for signatures while wearing the opponents’ gear–immediately following an infuriating match is probably a good thing, considering her temper and opinionated nature.

Solo’s grasp of Twitter and microblogging leaves much to be desired, but she is her account’s sole mediator. She bypassed a more immediate outlet (the fans and press at the field) for a slightly less-immediate outlet where she would have control over expressing her message. WPS established Twitter as one of the league’s legitimate media components from the start, so this platform stands above a statement made on MySpace–I don’t see any comparison between the two except that they are both player-controlled and on the internet. These 140 characters can’t be edited at the source, only posted or deleted. Nearly a week later, nothing has been deleted.

Last year, when Sky Blue FC axed two coaches in mid-season, there wasn’t any transparency. Complaints were filed through the “right” channels and implied in mediated ones. Information from all sides of the story was sorely lacking. We see a lot of this in women’s soccer, so it’s key when the players, especially, take possession of the messages that end up in public.

Even more so, it’s fascinating to see the high-profile Hope Solo adjust her approach to a tension-filled situation in a positive and slightly more controlled manner now that her options for mediation have changed. It’s taking so long for the “right channels” to address this formally that it’s hard to believe the fans ever would have heard about such a serious accusation if Solo hadn’t taken it upon herself to apologize to young fans for her absence.

Edited to include the “joint statement” from the Breakers and Beat, poorly named “Solo statement”:

Westwood, MA (August 9, 2010) –The management of the Atlanta Beat and the Boston Breakers have worked together over the past several days to look into the alleged incidents of fan misconduct and the subsequent post-game public comments of beat goalkeeper Hope Solo during the Breakers-Beat game at Harvard Stadium on Wednesday, August 4th.

After interviewing fans, players, security personnel and team employees, it seems clear that a few individual fans shouted comments towards the field that crossed the line from traditional heckling to abusive language that is neither respectful of the players, nor apppropriate for the family friendly entertainment environment that the Breakers pride themselves on. The Breakers organization extends an apology to all members of the Beat team & staff and to any Breakers fans that were offended by the actions of these unidentified individuals. The Breakers have also pledged to place additional stadium security in closer proximity to the stadium sections adjacent to the visiting bench and goalkeeping areas to further ensure a safe and enjoyable game environment for all participants & spectators.

The coordinated review of the Breakers and the Beat also conclusively showed that at no time was there any organized or coordinated singing or chanting of racially insensitive slogans or profanity by the Riptide supporters group or any other group of fans. The Beat regret that a member of their organization used social media to make public allegations against the Breakers organization and its supporters group without first bringing her concerns to the attention of either club. The Beat and its players understand that the remarks were from a few individuals and not representative of the Breakers organization or the Riptide supporters group.

Both teams look forward to contesting the remainder of this exciting WPS playoff race on the field and to their next head-to-head competition on August 21st, when the Breakers and the Beat meet at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain, Connecticut.

Now, a word from Coach Tony DiCicco

I was looking for some old research materials this morning and came across Tony DiCicco’s in-depth recap of the US U-20s 2008 campaign, in which they won gold at the World Cup in Chile. The 100+ page report opens with this really great reminder:

However, we cannot confuse our success in 2008 with “everything is right with USA girls’ and women’s soccer.” […] the fact is we are losing ground in the women’s game worldwide.

Emphasis his, not mine. This recap came right after the US won gold at the Olympics and at the U-20 level, and the U-17 won silver in their inaugural tournament.

I have a love-hate relationship with this document. I am not a fan of DiCicco and I don’t like how he handles players, but I don’t think that makes his overall assessment wrong. I really do appreciate how he broke everything down in this document and gave a frank assessment of the team over the course of the year that he had them.

Allow me to explain

Remember when we had Clarissa to explain shit to us? That was pretty terrific, wasn’t it?

Clarissa explains it all

I miss it. And since I’m feeling a little nostalgic, I’m thinking there are a few things about the USWNT that might need explaining.

  1. Shannon Boxx is the holding midfielder. She is not the #10, not the playmaker. Yes, she scores goals, but there are plenty of holding midfielders who do that. Think Michael Bradley. Think Daniele De Rossi. Think Roy Keane. On second thought, stop thinking about Roy Keane.  Shannon Boxx. She is the USs only true holding midfielder. And try as they might, they have not found anyone who even remotely gives her a run for her money.  (The only player I can think of on the horizon is Portland’s Keelin Winters, who is perhaps a year away from really being able to compete on the full national level.) Now Shannon Boxx is a machine, and I don’t see her dropping off too many levels next year, but conjecture is not an appropriate sub in a tournament.  She protects the back four like no one else in the country.
  2. Megan Rapinoe shoots from distance. I notice a lot of people whinging about this, because they only just heard about her last year when she joined the Red Stars. Shooting a lot from distance is her thing. One might say it’s her favorite thing. She did it to score against Brazil in the 3rd-place match in the 2004 U-19 Women’s World Cup. She did it to score against UCLA in the 2005 NCAA Championship. Yes, she misses a lot. But shooting a lot is what she does, and if she didn’t, we’ll, then we wouldn’t have that amazing goal against Brazil. Complaining about that side of her game is like complaining about Wambach falling down a lot. It doesn’t matter if or when you’re right; it doesn’t change a thing. Everyone knows about it, and coaches put her in anyway. She has vision and a canon. And when she was gone in the second half against Sweden, even Pia admitted she was missed.
  3. We don’t really have a #10. There’s no true playmaker, and while Wambach has improved tremendously in this aspect, do we really want her the job of feeding balls to far less consistent goal-scorers? I would suggest Rapinoe for the job, but we’re all tired of me harping on about it. (Seriously, when Tobin gets healthy? Pinoe in the middle.) Lloyd was frustrating when she was healthy. Lori Lindsey is terrific for Philly, but she owns that team. She drives them. The opportunity for her to own the WNT has passed, and I think it shows. The same may be true for Huffman, who is perhaps not a playmaker by nature.

This is not all, maybe. But even Clarissa only had half an hour each week.