In May 1996, one team had established itself as the doormat of a new league. Its big-name allocations turned out to be out of shape and disinterested. Its defense was horrible. The team started 1-6.
The league itself had a front office that kept a lot of central control, with a lot of personnel decisions falling into the hands of its deputy commissioner, Sunil Gulati. National team players were the stars, but they missed much of that first preseason, and teams were barely acquainted with each other.
Major League Soccer turned out to be OK. Gulati lost his job but is now president of U.S. Soccer, which has taken a direct role in launching the National Women’s Soccer League.
That team? Well, they won the U.S. Open Cup. And MLS Cup. And the next MLS Cup. And the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup. And the 1999 MLS Cup. It’s D.C. United.
So that’s a roundabout way of saying it’s a little absurd to break out Seth Davis’s Sharpie and write down any team in last place in the NWSL’s debut season.
I’m sure I’m developing a rep as a Washington Spirit apologist, and it’s fine to apply all the standard disclaimers because I’m writing a book about the team. That said, a few facts bear repeating:
1. No team has played anything like the murderers’ row of preseason games the Spirit endured. Five games, all against top-class NCAA competition. Three of them in a week with a limited number of players available. By comparison, Portland, Sky Blue and Boston have been virtually invisible, with one or two preseason games. So we’ve had plenty of chances to dissect the diluted Spirit’s apparent weaknesses, while we know virtually nothing about the rest of the teams. (See the unofficial crowd-sourced tracking of preseason games at BigSoccer.)
2. Few teams have had a chance to play with their full rosters. The U.S. and Canadian national teams have been busy. Mexico has had some idiosyncrasies in clearing its players to play (something that deserves a more substantial investigation).
3. As we saw with many MLS teams in Year 1, we’re going to wait a while for some players to come back from Europe. And some teams may have midseason overhauls.
Add all of this together, and there’s no reason to assume the 2013 Washington Spirit will resemble the 2011 Atlanta Beat. (Which, incidentally, won all five preseason games — then one out of 18 in the regular season.)
And it’s only fair to apply such caution to the league as a whole. MLS had more than two years to prepare after winning its sanction in late 1993. The NWSL is throwing everything together as we go, and they’re doing so with low budgets.
History tells us to be patient. And history tells us things can be different when the federation(s) is(/are) working hand in hand with a new league from the outset.
So call me Pollyanna if you like, both about the Spirit and the league. I think cynicism is too easy, and it’s unfair to pile the dirt on teams and leagues that have yet to complete a regular-season game, much less a season. If you do so, may the ghost of Juan Berthy Suarez haunt you forever.
(Shameless sort-of plug: Google Books has posted parts of my MLS book, including a few bits about the disjointed opening game.)