Is Rapinoe’s protest effective?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Twitter debate over my Guardian piece on the Washington Spirit derailing Megan Rapinoe’s protest last night. Granted, in nearly 30 years of journalism, I’ve resigned myself to a low bar. If I don’t have a high school cross-country coach running into the newsroom to yell at me about something I didn’t even touch or a gaggle of Alex Morgan fans threatening to kill me “twice” or buy my book to slap me with it, it’s a good day.

Low bar notwithstanding, I think people have raised some good questions. I’ve seen some tangential debate on why we play the national anthem before domestic sports events in the first place.

As one Guardian commenter put it: “They don’t do that in Europe or in most other countries around the world. Only when there’s an international game are the country’s national anthems played. In fact at some football clubs like Dortmund, Liverpool and Celtic, they have their own “national anthems” i.e. You’ll Never Walk Alone.

I read — and now I forget where, perhaps a message board somewhere — an interesting take pointing out that Rapinoe’s decision to kneel for the anthem, like Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand, isn’t starting a conversation about race relations. It’s starting a conversation about Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick. (To add to that point: I don’t even remember why NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf declined a traditional observance of the anthem. I just remember that he did, and it was controversial.)

When I mentioned that on Twitter, I got a couple of good responses that boiled down to “Whose fault is that?” The media’s? The athlete’s?

Good question.

When Rapinoe first took a knee for the anthem, I was optimistic that the conversation would go beyond Colin Kaepernick — who, frankly, might not be the best person to lead the discussion. The one-time QB sensation has lost his starting job in San Francisco and may come across as bitter for reasons that have nothing to do with the nation’s problems with race. “OK, now someone else is doing it,” I figured. “Now it’s not just about Kaepernick.”

Last night, things changed. And if you hang out in my circles on Twitter, it’s pretty unanimous that the Spirit blew it. If you chat with people I know on Facebook or BigSoccer, including people whose politics would never be described as “conservative,” it’s a different story.

screenshot-2016-09-08-at-7-53-52-pm

No, I don’t agree with that, as my Guardian piece should make clear. But within the echo chamber of women’s soccer fans on Twitter, I’m still going against the groupthink because I think Rapinoe undermined her own protest by calling Spirit owner Bill Lynch “homophobic.”

I also said it made little sense to use that term on someone who willingly bought a women’s soccer team and made a special effort to bring in players who were “out” well before Rapinoe was. Some people have challenged me on that point, saying the Spirit have been the only club not to go along with other NWSL teams on hosting LGBTQ Pride events or cheering decisions in favor of gay marriage.

One person decided to lighten the mood on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/RealMeMP/status/773852222438379520

But seriously, such litmus tests can be tricky. When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, basketball teams raced to put American flags on their jerseys. Some refused to wear them because they opposed the war, and they were ostracized. Some opposed the war but wore the flag anyway. And veterans’ opinions were not as one-sided as one might think: Princeton coach and Korean War veteran Pete Carril was outspoken in defense of players who were not wearing the Stars and Stripes. (I can’t find any record of it, but I recall one of the last college teams to give in to the pressure to wear the flags was Duke, coached by West Point alum Mike Krzyzewski.)

Still, for sake of argument, let’s say Lynch isn’t as progressive on gay rights as the WoSo community would like. If I were the Spirit’s PR consultant, I’d be yelling at Lynch every day to follow the crowd on such things.

But is “homophobia” something Rapinoe should bring up?

Upon watching the video (see below), I found a subtle distinction. Rapinoe didn’t bring it up. It was brought up by Think Progress reporter Lindsay Gibbs, who asked about it (around the 11:15 mark).

So if you’d prefer to blame the media for sidetracking the discussion, fine. Blame Gibbs if you like (though it was certainly not her intent, and she couldn’t have foreseen Rapinoe’s blunt answer) for raising a question that wound up overshadowing the rest of the conversation as surely as the Spirit’s ham-fisted decision to reschedule the anthem overshadowed everything else last night. (Not that ESPN would’ve led SportsCenter with Crystal Dunn’s goal under any circumstances, but still …)

Not that Rapinoe had to take the bait. And she didn’t have to say she thinks Bill Lynch is homophobic in such direct terms.

The follow-up question tried to steer things back to race relations. And Rapinoe gamely tries to expound on it. But within a few seconds, she’s talking about being a woman and fighting for equal pay.

Rapinoe readily concedes that she doesn’t have all the answers. That is, as a lot of philosophers have said, the sign of a wise person. And I have to stress here that we’re looking at all of this — Lynch’s decision, Gibbs’ question, Rapinoe’s answer — with the benefit of hindsight. (I wasn’t even there. I had to coach a youth soccer team. Practice was canceled for the same reason the Spirit-Reign game was delayed, but by the time we cleared the field, it was too late to make the epic weeknight drive to the Plex.)

But we have to use this hindsight to ask whether Rapinoe’s protest is effective. As it stands now, it’s not. We’re not talking about race relations. We’re talking about Rapinoe, Lynch, homophobia accusations, overshadowing the Spirit’s big win (which wasn’t THAT big — they were likely to clinch a home playoff berth in the next week or so anyway), etc.

That’s absolutely not entirely Rapinoe’s fault. Nor is it entirely Lynch’s fault.

I wouldn’t even say it’s entirely the media’s fault. The point I tried to raise in the Twitter conversation that prompted this post is that it’s human nature to focus on what’s most controversial. I’ve been tweeting today about the Paralympics. I debuted a new feature finding interesting live sports around the Web. I retweeted the Landon Donovan news.

But guess what people want to talk about.

Like Rapinoe, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know the next step. Should the entire WNT take a knee during the national anthem of their upcoming friendly? (My gut says that would backfire horribly on the grounds that when Rapinoe kneels as a member of the Reign, she’s making a point internally, but if she does so while wearing the U.S. uniform, she’s showing up her countrymates in front of others. As they said in Animal House, only WE can do that to our pledges.)

Should Rapinoe try harder to steer the conversation to race relations? Should the Reign, who have issued sharp, professional statements in support of Rapinoe without flinging mud at anyone else, establish a partnership with a group working to end racism?

So far, Rapinoe’s actions aren’t working. But that’s no reason to give up.

 

 

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Spirit dropped the ball, then Rapinoe dropped it again

My complex reaction to a wild night in which Spirit owner Bill Lynch tried to quiet Megan Rapinoe’s protests but wound up amplifying them — and then Rapinoe made horrible use of that platform.

Source: Washington Spirit gave Megan Rapinoe fans by stopping her anthem protest | Football | The Guardian

U.S. women in the World Cup semifinals: Decisions, decisions

Jill Ellis made three lineup changes for Friday’s quarterfinal win against China, two out of necessity. The result: Still just a 1-0 win against a team that had little attacking punch, but the team looked better and felt better.

And it was the kind of performance U.S. fans had wanted to see. Amy Rodriguez was buzzing around making things difficult for China, Alex Morgan was a looming threat, and Carli Lloyd was unleashed. Not that the trio was perfect — A-Rod shanked a great chance like a beginning golfer, Morgan didn’t quite have the scoring touch, and Lloyd had a few giveaways. But this was not the lumbering attack we had seen in the past. Abby Wambach gave some inspiration from the bench and was ready to go if needed.

Then two players stepped up in surprising roles. The versatile Kelley O’Hara was a menace on the flanks, and young Morgan Brian looked like a composed veteran in a holding midfield role.

So now what? What happens when the USA takes a giant leap up in competition from a young, easily rattled Chinese team to a ruthlessly efficient German team that absorbed a couple of hours of French pressure and fought back to win?

Player-by-player:

Rodriguez: Did the German defense look a step slow against France? If so, they could be tailor-made for the speedy A-Rod. Then again, Sydney Leroux has some wheels, too.

Morgan: You just sense that it’s coming, don’t you? She made pivotal plays against Colombia and has the potential to create something magical.

Wambach: She may have another clutch goal left on her head or in her feet. She’d be perfect to bring in against a tired German defense in the second half.

Megan Rapinoe: Has to play. She’s the most creative winger the USA has.

Lloyd: Has to play in the same role she played last night. Don’t forget who scored the winning goals in the last two Olympics, and she scored again last night.

Brian: Clearly the best option at holding mid now. Lori Chalupny can play there at club level, but she hasn’t been tested there at international level in a long, long time.

Lauren Holiday: Unfortunate. She was miscast as a holding mid for months, and now it might be too late to get her back on the field in another role such as attacking mid or second forward. But we would’ve said the same about O’Hara before last night, right?

Tobin Heath: Just isn’t turning those nifty moves into anything concrete right now.

O’Hara: Maybe the best option on the right flank? Her pressure, passing and willingness to test China with an occasional medium-range bomb were outstanding last night.

Christen Press: Can she bring the same tempo-changing ability as A-Rod?

The defense isn’t in question — Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger have been so outstanding that we often forget Hope Solo is even playing.

So those five are sure starters, and I’d add Rapinoe, Lloyd and Brian to that list. Everything else is up for grabs.

Here’s one reasonable lineup that builds on last night’s success:

football formations

And here’s one that’s a little wilder:

football formations

But I’m not sure Ellis needs to do anything that drastic. She has already shown the flexibility for which I was pleading at SoccerWire. They did not play “Whack it to Wambach” for 90 minutes last night.

And as a result, I’ve gone from thinking Germany is a sure bet to thinking we may see an epic on Tuesday.

U.S. women’s national team: What are they doing?

I figured it out. The USA is playing a 4-3-3 formation with fluid interchanges in midfield.

No, wait — it’s a 4-5-1, with one target forward and two traditional wingers.

Or maybe it’s a 4-2-4, with Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday as the only actual midfielders.

No, no. I’ve got it. It was Col. Mustard with the lead pipe in the conservatory.

In some senses, the Jill Ellis Way isn’t all that complicated. At least, it wasn’t in Monday night’s rather routine 6-0 rout over Haiti that clinched first place in their World Cup qualifying group and moved the team into the semifinals, the first of several chances the team could have to make it to Canada 2015 but also the only chance they should need.

On Monday in lively RFK Stadium, the USA lined up with …

– a traditional back four (Whitney Engen took a turn at center back in place of Becky Sauerbrunn, while Kelley O’Hara joined the right back mix, but neither Engen nor O’Hara made a compelling case for the starting XI).

– Lauren Holiday in her new spot as a deep-lying midfielder who can switch the point of attack and play long through balls.

– Carli Lloyd in her central not-quite-defensive but also not the playmaking midfield role.

– Tobin Heath (left) and Christen Press (right) on the wings.

– Abby Wambach as a target forward, putting to rest (for now) the talk of making her a sort-of playmaking midfielder.

– Megan Rapinoe all over the damn field.

“We asked Abby to sort of stay high and leave the space open for Pinoe and Carli to get into,” Ellis said. “Megan has a pretty free role and roams a lot, and sometimes that’s a good thing.”

U.S. Soccer calls it a 4-3-3. That’s about as close as we’ll get.

Ellis has been fond of using numbers rather than names to refer to positions. The left wing is an 11. The right wing is a 7. Center mids who are not the attacking midfielder are 8 and 4, though the 8 may attack more than the 4.

The numbering system is an odd fit for this team. It dates back to a particularly rigid era of English tactics, when Hungary could turn up at Wembley and completely flummox the hosts by dropping the center forward back into midfield.

So then what would you call Rapinoe, who turned up on both flanks and, early in the game, alongside Wambach at center forward? Do you take the average of 11, 7, 10 and 9? (At least 9.75 would’ve been a decent score in the old gymnastics scoring system.)

“I think when I start in the 10, more central, then I have the freedom to roam. I can shift out wide, which is a 7 or 11,” Rapinoe said. “But if I start out wide, then I’m supposed to stay wide more.”

This team is more fluid than that. Particularly in Rapinoe’s case and to some extent in Lloyd’s. The wingers are sometimes midfielders, sometimes forwards.

Ellis said the team’s “mantra” is to get that early goal and set the tone. So it was little wonder that the formation looked like a 4-4-2, with Heath, Wambach, Rapinoe and Press all surging ahead like a direct counterpart of Haiti’s back four.

But it didn’t really work. The USA got an early lead off a Haitian lapse, with the visitors’ defense clearing the ball and pulling up but making the crucial error of leaving Wambach unmarked, then failing to account for Lloyd firing home after the keeper punched clear of Wambach. A few minutes later, the fault lines in the attack appeared — a cross went into space that Wambach and Rapinoe occupied. The moment of “I got it, no, you got it” hesitation surely cost the USA a second goal.

Asked if she and Wambach realized they shouldn’t be in the same place, Rapinoe laughed in agreement.

“It’s definitely different for me to be in the box like that to get on the end of headers like that. But I do my best. …

“It’s a bit of an adjustment, of course. I’ve been playing out wide, predominantly, for three, four, five years now. I come inside when I play out wide, anyway, to occupy that space a little bit. I’m not just going to run past you on the wing. So it’s pretty similar to my (wing) role, it’s more my starting position.”

It didn’t matter on this night, of course. Haiti had nothing to offer. By my count, they got into the U.S. box with the ball twice, tumbling each time as if in search of some call from the referee to give them a chance at the penalty spot. Their best chance was in the 33rd minute, when the USA faltered in the center at let Marie Jean Pierre race toward the goal, but Whitney Engen recovered and put her foot directly in front of Jean Pierre’s 25-yard shot. The other Haitian chance, if we’re stretching the definition of the word “chance,” was from roughly 35 yards out and near the right sideline, struck hard but nowhere near Ashlyn Harris’ goal.

Shek Borkowski, the affable Polish-American coach who has made Haiti his major project, gave a mixed report in the press conference. It was something along the lines of “Yes, we’re making some progress, but these players need to avoid getting caught up in the excitement of staying in nice hotels, a lot of these players are on the way out, I’m off to coach the U20s and get them ready to replace the senior players, good night.” He made no effort to hide his team’s strategy for this game — bunker and counter — but they simply weren’t effective. Trinidad and Tobago showed that it’s possible to pull a near-upset with an organized defense and an intelligent counterattack, but Haiti had neither.

And so we didn’t learn that much from this game. Meghan Klingenberg looked great going forward from left back, combining with Tobin Heath for some creative flank play that provided some relief from the endless parade of crosses, and she scored her first international goal on a blistering drive from 25 yards out. But can you anoint her the new left back starter after a game in which she was hardly asked to play any defense?

Chris Hummer, the SoccerWire entrepreneur and former Washington Spirit GM, was not impressed with what he saw from the USA. To channel the spirit of Pia Sundhage, my glass is half-full. I saw some creativity on display — some dummies, the occasional backheel, a pretty combination between Holiday and Leroux, etc. Holiday’s quality is a nice fit for that deep-lying (No. 4) role.

But it’s true that the U.S. tactics were less than subtle, sometimes bringing up bad memories of the team fruitlessly whacking the ball to Abby Wambach in the 2003 World Cup semifinal against Germany.

“Obviously, we were looking for diagonal balls and balls in the box, and I thought they defended very hard,” Ellis said. “Gradually, we sort of wore them down.”

And again, we’ll have to see if all of these things work against better opponents. How will Holiday fare defending a European playmaker? What happens when the opposing defense does not neglect the towering presence of 173-goal scorer Abby Wambach?

Friday night’s semifinal will be a step up in class — Costa Rica, Mexico and Jamaica all look considerably better than Haiti and Guatemala. The stakes are high, so the USA may have to resort to the tried-and-true whack-it-to-Abby ball just to make things comfortable. Then we’ll see what happens when the team tackles more powerful opposition later on.

So, Megan Rapinoe, should we in the pressbox and stands give up trying to figure out Ellis’ numbers?

“Yeah, I think so.”

She did say Holiday was a 6 and Lloyd was an 8. But some experts on English Football Positional Numbers (EFPN) would say 6 is a center back. Um, no.

Look — the English persist in calling center backs “center halves” because, a century ago, the people who wore those numbers were in the midfield of a 2-3-5 formation. When Ellis lines up the team in a 2-3-5, we’ll worry about the numbers again.

Just know this — Rapinoe is an effective playmaker with room to roam, Holiday is good the deep-lying role, Lloyd is always going to figure out a way to get into the attack, Heath is creative on the left flank, and Wambach is still a pretty good target forward.

And I’m now convinced that the players, at least, know their roles. We’ll see how they execute them against better opposition.

Notes:

– Ashlyn Harris had little to do on a rare start in goal.

“You have to be switched on, you have to be ready, you have to expect it. You have to play high off your line in case the ball goes over and takes a bad flick off a defender’s head, you have to be there to clean it up. But you also can’t flirt with danger. If they’re breaking our pressure and they can hit it over my head, I have to make sure I’m back in a good position. … I have to be a leader out there, be a voice, make my presence known, and when the ball comes, make sure I’m ready and I’m not sleepy.”

But she did get to soak up the love from her home fans in Washington, where the Spirit faithful chanted her name before kickoff.

“I’m in my home, you know. These are my people, these are my supporters. These are the people who’ve been there for a long time, rooting for me. It’s humbling, it’s honoring. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before at a national team event, and that’s pretty special, and I’m going to keep that with me for a long time.”

– Hope Solo was one of the first players to walk past the mixed zone. I didn’t see anyone ask to speak with her, but it’s possible someone down the line asked. The bulk of the media attention was on the goal scorers.

– Attendance was listed at 6,421. It felt like more, in part because the area underneath the pressbox and mezzanine was roped off, moving fans either to the corners or to the far sideline, where the crowd was strong and loud.

– University of Virginia midfielder Morgan Brian scored a goal to the delight of the plethora of Cavaliers fans in the crowd. She often plays a little farther back on the field, but not this time.

– The big game tomorrow sees Mexico and Jamaica play for a spot in the semis.

Hmmm … maybe I should take up gambling. I’d be happy to put down some money on Jamaica at those odds.

Highlights:

An instant classic at Old Trafford

I’m just going to state for posterity what should be remembered about today’s Olympic semifinal, in which the U.S. women beat Canada by the odd goal in seven:

  • Christine Sinclair is a brilliant player, and it’s nice to see her finally getting a worthy showcase, even in a loss.
  • Fellow Portland alum Megan Rapinoe should now be alongside Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan as the stars of the U.S. team. She’s already one of the best crossers of the ball in any level of soccer. Her second goal today was simply superb.
  • Referee Christiana Pedersen wasn’t up to the task. Many of her calls, including the barely precedented delay of game call on Erin McLeod and the subsequent harsh handball call, favored the USA. But she also let far too much go uncalled, including a “Wambach sandwich” on a set piece in which the U.S. target forward was held and clobbered in the head by two different players.
  • The referee should not take away from the performance of the players. The game was a thrill to watch.
  • It’s a pity this game wasn’t the final. Canada deserves a medal. That’s the best game I’ve seen that team play, and it comes on the heels of a sturdy quarterfinal performance.

Classic games usually have their share of messiness and controversy along with the brilliance. This one certainly did. And it’s one in which both teams deserve to be remembered for their efforts.

Will WPS stars sign up for another season?

Here’s a bit of irony: iTunes, in shuffling through my music library, has just called up Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered.

If you look at the list of players who have and have not signed with WPS teams for 2012, you’ll see that an awful lot of players are in the “have not” category. That includes most of the U.S. national team assembled for Saturday’s revenge friendly against Sweden.

A couple of sticking points:

1. When will the WPS season take place? The Olympics fall rather inconveniently in late July and early August. (Yes, if things go awry in January’s qualification tournament, that could be a concern for the Canadian players and not the Americans, but we have no reason to assume such things.)

2. The league has no collective bargaining agreement at the moment. That’s also ironic in a sense, given today’s events — there’s no salary cap, so the league isn’t preventing owners from paying Borislow-style salaries to stack their rosters.

WPS CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan had this to say in a conference call last week: “We certainly believe that a CBA is a vital component. At the same time, we have to kind of move forward as it stands. There’s a tremendous amount of talent.”

The union, though, is a little disappointed with progress so far. Here’s a statement:

This off-season the players union has been busy working with players on various matters, but talks with the league have seemingly stalled regarding scheduling, salaries, contract terms, and other issues subject to bargaining. The owners have not responded to player proposals regarding minimum salaries in any real way and are proceeding as if uninterested in a CBA. The players recognize WPS is in flux but find the league’s lack of responsiveness disappointing – a CBA would only contribute to the stability and professionalism of the league and there is no reason one could not have been reached before free agency opened. We are, however, moving forward with plans for next year and are hopeful and excited about the 2012 season and beyond.

The next key date for the league is Sunday. Each year, pro leagues and teams go through a review with U.S. Soccer’s professional leagues task force (in the past, that group has included USSF secretary general Dan Flynn, executive VP Mike Edwards and board member Carlos Cordeiro), which makes recommendations to the U.S. Soccer board. That board will meet Sunday before the MLS Cup final in Carson, Calif. For a thriving league like MLS, this review won’t generate any news. For a league that needs to apply for a waiver on the minimum of eight teams, there’s a bit more to discuss.

If you need to catch up on today’s news, check out the espnW story on Dan Borislow’s lawsuit and read the preceding two posts.