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Aug. 18, 2019 — Did Olympique Lyon just pull a New York Jets?

With a 23-yard golazo from Dzsenifer Marozsán, Olympique Lyon beat the North Carolina Courage 1-0 in the final of the 2019 International Champions Cup, a four-team competition for women’s club sides which also included Manchester City and Athletico Madrid.

In the absence of a FIFA Women’s World Club Cup, this is likely the closest thing you’ll find to a world championship for women’s soccer club sides. And, I think, this is an enormous upset of near-biblical proportions. That’s because the perception has been that the best competition, the best teams always come from the National Women’s Soccer League, the current nine-team league atop the American women’s soccer pyramid.

Now, there has been some speculation in the world football intelligentsia about when a FIFA-sanctioned competition for women’s club sides would begin.

Of course, a large part of having an organized worldwide competition is how well the individual continental federations are organized, and how committed they are to the women’s game. For me, I think the most interesting areas of the world when it comes to organizing the pro game for an international club competition will be Africa and Australia.

Africa has had numerous great players on the level of Mercy Akide and Francisca Ordega, and it will be interesting to see what kind of statement a Ghanian or Nigerian side can make on the world stage. It will also be interesting to see whether women’s soccer will take root in majority-Muslim nations, where sports are often taboo for women.

Australia’s well-financed A-League has relied on a number of players coming over from other nations which already have strong domestic leagues, such as the United States. It’s entirely possible that an American player who helped an A-League team to the title in the wintertime could also come over and get an NWSL team its cup championship. The question is, which team is cup-tied to this particular player?

They’ve already solved this on the men’s side, but we’ll see if there is a “cup tied” situation for a future FIFA women’s club championship. I have a feeling it could happen sooner than anyone wants.

Aug. 14, 2019 — The start of a bureaucratic era?

It was in 2000 when I parked myself on a practice field at the United States Naval Academy to interview Kate Sobrero for a story that ran on this website.

My impression of her that day was of someone who is intelligent, polite, and very good at what she does. At the time, Sobrero was a defender for the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

This week, Kate Markgraf was selected to be the first general manager of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. This selection, along with the promotion of Earnie Stewart to be the common Sporting Director of both the men’s and women’s national programs, as well as the future hiring of a men’s national team GM, are the start of what could be a problem in the long term.

The problem is that U.S. Soccer is beginning to believe that the mere imposition of a group of people to do certain tasks — the construction of a bureaucracy — is what could help the men’s national soccer team get back to the World Cup and keep the women’s senior national team on top of the world even as all but one sub-senior national team coaching position is currently vacant.

Too, not all of American soccer is speaking with one voice. It’s still a fractured mish-mosh including a development academy, a rebel group of youth teams with its own national footprint, high schools, colleges, and several levels of semiprofessional soccer leading to MLS on the men’s side and the NWSL on the women’s.

I’m not sure that trying to organize all this is in the best interest of the game nationwide. Not one person can, I think, even if given the authority to do so.

Which, inevitably, means that Kate Markgraf, as the first to be hired as U.S. Soccer GM, is going to be the first to resign or be fired from the same position.

Such is the nature of bureaucracy.

 

July 27, 2019 — A road to equality?

The last couple of days, stages in the nearly 3,200 km test which is the 2019 Tour de France have had to be significantly shortened — once because of a hailstorm and the blockage of the route by a mudslide, and today because of a threatened heavy rainstorm which could have done more road damage.

While the Tour has been going on, a group of women have been riding the stages of the Tour de France a day before the men come through, in a demonstration and protest about the lack of an official women’s Tour de France.

The Amaury Sports Organization has not organized a Tour Feminin since 1989. It runs a one-day stage race in the midst of the men’s Tour, but that’s it.

I wrote about this disparity in the sport, in comparison to many other distance events such as swimming, running, and triathlon, a few years ago. Amazingly, the problem still exists.

Now, I look back to a quote I got from the former Saturn race director Giana Roberge the day I did the story:

By keeping the races shorter, it becomes more of a race of tactics and less of a race of attrition.

Think about it: the last two days of the Tour de France had to be shortened, which changed the nature of the competition for this year’s yellow jersey altogether. But the people of France still came out to see the race.

I can understand the conundrum that Tour organizers may have when it comes to having women in the race. But I think it’s high time that there be true equality — eventually — when it comes to cycling.

Now, I’m not saying that the tour should race over the exact same length and difficulty as the men. But the women can put on a good account in races that last four to six hours in a day, and with a reasonable climbing difficulty in the Alps and Pyrenees.

Yep, I’m advocating that the women get the chance to climb Pau and Mont Ventoux and Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez. It’s just that I think the races that lead to these mountains need to be shorter so that the race is tactical and not just one of survival.

I envision what is happening right now; the women ride the course one day, and the men ride the next day. Only the Tour’s traveling circus would have to close public roads for two days, rather than one, and crews would have to leapfrog each other as the two Tours go around France.

In order for this to come to pass, women are going to have be at the table within ASO. They need to have the agency to make the decisions on length and difficulty.

It’s about time.

July 18, 2019 — What’s missing in the WNBA?

Last night, at a takeout place near home, I actually got to sit down and watch part of a WNBA game on an NBA TV simulcast.

The item that led the news of the day in one of the world’s most high-profile women’s pro basketball leagues? The news that Riquina Williams of the Los Angeles Sparks was being suspended for 10 games for her part in a domestic violence incident.

This follows on allegations over the weekend involving the Seattle Storm’s All-Star forward Natasha Howard and her spouse.

The 2019 WNBA season has been more about disappearances, rather than a maturing league bringing the game of women’s basketball to the fore. Sue Bird, with a knee injury, is lost for the season. So is her teammate Breanna Stewart, who tore her Achilles tendon.

Maya Moore has not reported to the Minnesota Lynx, expressing a desire to do ministry work. Skylar Diggins is missing the season to have a baby.

And two other high-profile players, Angel McCoughtry and Diana Taurasi, couldn’t start the season because of major injuries.

Now, I recognize a lot of these player disappearances are out of the control of the various teams and owners. But the Moore situation came just after the Lynx put its franchise tag on her, which puts less freedom of movement on her for her next round of contract negotiations.

Aside from player disappearances, some WNBA teams have made befuddling moves from large arenas in the middle of their territories to out-of-the-way buildings barely better than high-school arenas. The New York Liberty, having played parts of most of its last few seasons either at the Prudential Center in Newark or in Madison Square Garden, has been relegated to playing at the 5,000-seat Westchester County Center in White Plains. The team barely took in an average of 2,000 fans a game last year.

The Washington Mystics, having filled the current Capital One Center on several occasions in the 1990s, is relegated to playing its home games at the practice gym of the Washington Wizards, a place that barely seats 4,500 people and is located far from the center of town.

It’s as if though the WNBA has been complicit in hiding its most valuable asset — its teams — under a bowl, to borrow a Biblical parable.

I can’t see this as being terribly sustainable over the long haul.

July 14, 2019 — To break a tie

In the sports world today, there were two unprecedented tiebreakers implemented in order to determine a winner after a tie.

One, in an individual pursuit, saw the Wimbledon men’s singles final determined by a tiebreaker, the vision of Jimmy Van Alen had finally come to the All-England Club after nearly 50 years. But unlike much of the rest of the world, this 12-point tiebreaker came only after Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had played to a 12-12 game score in the fifth set.

The institution of the fifth-set tiebreaker came only after a couple of ridiculously long matches featuring U.S. player John Isner affected the scheduling of courts at the Club, including one which went 70 games to 68 in the final set in 2010.

The other tiebreaker came in a team sport, cricket. They held the final of the ICC World Cup, a competition featuring one-day international (or ODI) rules, where teams had 50 overs, or groups of six attempts, at scoring as many runs as they could by running in between two sets of stumps 22 yards apart.

In the final, England, the host nation, played upstart New Zealand. At the end of 50 overs for each team, the score was tied at 241 runs apiece. Now, I thought that perhaps the game would be decided in favor of New Zealand, since they spent only eight outs getting the same number of runs that England did in scoring theirs while expending all 10 outs.

Instead, the game went to what was called a “super over,” which saw each side getting six deliveries to score as many runs as they could. Oddly enough, the two sides each scored 15 runs off their six deliveries in each over, so the winner was determined by the number of times each team had scored either a four (hitting the ball to and over the boundary surrounding the Lord’s cricket ground), or a six (hitting the ball over the boundary on the fly). In the tiebreak, England won 26 to 17 on boundaries.

Now, I’ve seen some interesting tiebreakers implemented in sports like field hockey and lacrosse. But to me, the super over is something that shouldn’t be done just once. Instead, why not go for another super over and get a clear winner?

Or make it a really “super” over and have 10 deliveries per team rather than just six, and restrict the placement of players as in the “power play,” where teams score more runs than usual.

July 8, 2019 — More than just equality

As much as the U.S. women’s soccer team’s dominating performance at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup served as a platform for pay equity, human rights, and Title IX, there’s so more that needs to be done outside of the stated goals of various team members.

Shockingly left unsaid was the state of the National Women’s Soccer League, the nine-team American league which started in 2012 and is the longest-lasting women’s pro soccer league in U.S. history.

The NWSL has survived by paying its non-Federation based players very low-ball wages, playing in some very small stadia (as low as 4,000), and pretty much tolerating any and all contravention of field, ownership, and leadership standards.

If you remember, the final season of the Western New York Flash was marred by a controversy when a late-season game was moved from Rochester’s soccer-specific stadium to a site with a baseball diamond, resulting in the kind of narrow pitch not seen since the days of the North American Soccer League.

The Boston Breakers played their first NWSL season at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville, Mass., on artificial grass which was, according to the players, not very well kept. Too, the capacity was barely 3,500. Boston made a move to Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium at Harvard University, which was only a little larder, then folded after the 2017 season.

Sky Blue FC is a team which is still playing, but is barely hanging on. Ownership issues involving the sitting Governor of the State of New Jersey, plus poor accommodations at Yurcak Field at Rutgers University has hampered this franchise, and the team’s supporters have banded together in protest of the way the team is being run.

Now, the current run of success of the senior women’s national team has gotten the attention of at least one major sponsor: Anheuser-Busch. Of course, given the fact that the beer company has been a major sponsor of soccer back to the 1970s, this isn’t much of a stretch.

But it’s going to take more than just one sponsor to help keep the league going. Major League Soccer, as started back in 1996, had Bud, Honda, MasterCard, and the Bandai toy company, amongst others. The package of sponsors, both leaguewide and within each club, has evolved and expanded over the years.

I’ll be interested to see when and if the NWSL is willing to commit to that kind of finance structure going forward. I think it’s going to require about a dozen more kinds of commitments like this in order to keep the league going.

In other words, there’s a lot more work to do.

July 7, 2019 — What the Holland women’s soccer team didn’t learn from its field hockey team

This afternoon, the U.S. women’s soccer team defeated Holland 2-0 in order to win its fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup.

It was a game that was eminently winnable on the part of the Dutch, as their bend-but-don’t-break defense and the goalkeeping of Sari van Veenendaal did something that nobody had done during this World Cup: hold the United States without a goal for the first half.

That was the good part of how Holland, the current European champions, were able to make the championship final. But in the second half, it all fell apart.

It didn’t have to, had the football team taken a few simple lessons from the current world women’s field hockey champions in the same country.

Holland’s stickwomen, which went 15-1 in FIH Pro League play this year, attacks from different points on the pitch. But the soccer team attacked up the middle almost every single time it had the ball. If you drew a line from the sides of the goal box and extended them upfield, this 20-yard corridor was the entirety of the Netherlands’ attack area, and you saw that Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn were able to cheat in towards the center of the park to help center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper, making it nearly impossible to get a shot of any quality on goalie Alyssa Naeher.

But what I think also happened is that the U.S. team out-cultured Holland, the same way the reverse has happened in field hockey. Here’s what I mean: back in 1991, when the United States participated in the first world tournament which would retroactively be named the first Women’s World Cup, one aspect Anson Dorrance brought to the team from his days at the University of North Carolina was the concept of “play for each other.” For three decades, the ethic of the U.S. team was to not let their teammates down by a slack bit of skill, not going 100 percent for a loose ball, or through losing.

The Dutch hockey system, however, has relied on grass roots. The game has taken a strong hold in Holland’s society. Entire families often join a single hockey club, with children playing on age-group sides, and the adults on social sides unless they are at an elite level, in which case they would be on the club’s best team. This has given the Dutchwomen tremendous success, having won 11 world titles since 1971 and three Olympic golds, making the medals stand every Olympiad since 1996.

I have a feeling the shoe may be on the other foot very soon, especially given Holland’s dominion over field hockey the last 50 years.