The NWSL, USA Curling and the dangers of inadequate investigations

The accusations of abuse in the NWSL deserved a professional, thorough investigation.

They got that. It’s the Yates Report.

A second report, commissioned by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association, has some utility. It is, however, flawed in multiple places. 

In some cases, dangerously flawed.

As usual, the media reporting on the situation doesn’t help. Everyone from accused sexual predators to coaches who apparently yelled at players are lumped together under the heading “abuse.” 

The nuances are important here, and to the investigators’ credit, they ask the powers that be to consider what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable moving forward. The NWSL doesn’t want any Bobby Knights, nor should it. Players and staff will have to decide if they would abide by a Mike Krzyzewski or even an Anson Dorrance. (“Lost control of her bowels” is a disturbing phrase to describe a fitness test, and “mess with us mentally to pick out who were the weaklings” is a phrase that might have raised a yellow or red flag for the investigators.) 

That discussion is all well and good. It’s clear from the report that players have different levels of what they consider “abuse,” and it’s something they should be able to talk through. Absolutely.

Unfortunately, in other areas, the bad guys are predetermined, and the conclusions aren’t always justified.

Consider this bewildering passage concerning Rory Dames. To be sure, there’s no defending his behavior as described here and in the Yates Report unless everyone else involved is lying. But then we get to things like this: “Dames told the investigator that he revoked the media credentials of a player’s boyfriend because he concluded that the boyfriend’s presence was “not positive” based on a conversation with a USWNT coach.” 

This point is raised because the NWSL/NWSLPA investigators want to take a US Soccer investigator down a notch for failing to follow up on this “explanation as to the treatment of this player.”

The NWSL/NWSLPA investigators do not, however, take issue with the fact that a player’s boyfriend has a media credential.

Note to journalists: If you start dating a player on a sports team, stop covering that team.

The “guilty until proven innocent — and even then, still guilty” approach isn’t surprising in a sport that holds strict adherence to The Narrative. Players are always right. The lawyers they hired are always right, which is why they get millions of dollars after losing in court. Coaches who cross them — whether they’re perceived as abusive or whether they pull a Tom Sermanni and start tinkering with the lineup — are always wrong. Referees are always wrong. Everyone who has ever worked for the league is wrong. Everyone who was interested in women’s soccer before everyone else got interested in women’s soccer from 2011 onward is wrong.

What’s more disturbing is that the investigators have some fundamental misunderstandings of how to fight abuse. We’ll get to that.

But first, let’s see how someone’s career has been shredded over flimsy, out-of-context conclusions and months waiting in limbo.

James Clarkson

Here are some of the complaints against former Houston Dash coach James Clarkson, who was temporarily suspended for what turned out to be an entire season and will not have his contract renewed.

  • “(A)nother said she felt under the microscope based on the position she played and feared she would be cut from the team.” Well, yeah. It’s professional sports. Ask NFL players about their job security.
  • The coach thought some players had been drinking the night before a preseason game and that they were hung over. Players deny it. They didn’t deny being out at dinner with a player from the other team until midnight when they had a 6 a.m. wake-up call, or that one of those players became ill.
  • A player told a member of the coaching staff but not Clarkson that an injury was bothering her, but she decided to dress because she figured she wouldn’t play. Clarkson, figuring she was fit, put her in the game. She went in and then asked to come out. Clarkson got mad about this, and reports differ on whether he dropped an f-bomb. This is all somehow Clarkson’s fault. (A player who witnessed the incident also said Clarkson later admitted he could’ve handled the situation differently.)

Another note about the last one. On page 71, the report says, “Accounts differ about what happened next.” A player says she doesn’t recall the specific words. On page 104, things are suddenly more certain: “Clarkson denied making this comment, but witnesses corroborated that Clarkson was visibly upset and frustrated at the player, and that the player was upset.”

There’s another passage that paints Clarkson as being a tad racist even though the evidence within that paragraph offers an alternate explanation. Dash player Sarah Gorden, who is Black, said her boyfriend was followed closely by stadium security and told he’d be arrested if he got too close to the team, while white players had freedom to talk with their families. (That’s pretty bad, and we have to hope the team addressed it.) Clarkson asked players to write apologies to stadium security. But upon further investigation, it turns out Clarkson sought those apologies not because Gorden criticized security but because the team had violated COVID-19 protocols. 

“But some players and club staff described that Clarkson seemed to defend stadium security, and players and club staff expressed disappointment at Clarkson’s and the club’s failure to attempt to understand the Black players’ perspective. On the other hand, some thought Clarkson handled the situation well and reported that he later expressed his support and apologized if he had appeared insensitive.” 

So are the players who reported Clarkson’s support … lying? And the others aren’t? Or, as seems most likely and supported by the evidence, players and staff were disappointed at first but talked through it to clear up any misunderstanding and got assurance of his support?

This incident is lumped together under “Offensive and Insensitive Behavior Related to Race and Ethnicity,” along with accusations that former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke used the N-word, asked if he should sing the “Black version” or “white version” of Happy Birthday, and compared the team’s poor play to the Holocaust, for which his defense was that he didn’t know there were Jewish players on the team.

Overall, the Joint Investigative Team found that Clarkson committed emotional misconduct.

That’s despite this line: “A majority of players expressed the view that Clarkson’s treatment of players did not rise to the level of abuse or misconduct.”

That’s despite, as the report notes, Clarkson asking for a mental health program to support his players.

That’s despite, as the report notes, Clarkson agreeing that the head coach and general manager should not be the same person.

If you want to fire Clarkson, fire him. Coaches sometimes aren’t that right fit. That’s fine.

But now Clarkson’s name sits alongside that of accused sexual predators and people who don’t seem to care that they use actual racial epithets. His chances of getting another job at this level are surely diminished.

Little wonder he’s fighting back.

It would’ve been far fairer to Clarkson to have fired him months ago. Instead, he was left to twist in the wind for months, only to have his name smeared by trumped-up claims of abuse.

SafeSport and reporting

At the end of a long report detailing how the NWSL and US Soccer failed to investigate NWSL abuse issues, the investigators come up with several recommendations that the NWSL and US Soccer should continue to investigate NWSL abuse issues. 

The investigators urge the league to follow through on its 2022 Anti-Harassment Policy to make sure each club has two people, one of which is neither the Board of Governors representative nor the head coach, whose job is to receive reports of potential violations. 

Those people are then responsible for reporting these issues to the NWSL. 

Ever work in an office in which someone’s sole job is to sit in a swivel chair and relay things from a lower rung of the org chart to a higher rung? 

That part is kind of funny. The next part isn’t. 

The investigators charge the NWSL with sufficiently staffing its HR and Legal departments to investigate “all complaints of misconduct.”

This is, at best, a bad idea. At worst, it’s illegal.

The US Center for SafeSport, established by federal law (what, you haven’t memorized the Ted Stevens Act yet?), has a SafeSport Code that lists the allegations for which the Center has exclusive jurisdiction (all sexual misconduct, criminal charges of child abuse, various failures to report, etc.) or discretionary jurisdiction (non-sexual child abuse, emotional and physical misconduct, criminal charges not involving sexual misconduct or child abuse, other failures to abide by the Code). 

From that Code: “When the relevant organization has reason to believe that the allegations presented fall within the Center’s exclusive jurisdiction, the organization—while able to impose measures—may not investigate or resolve those allegations.”

Continuing: “When the allegations presented fall within the Center’s discretionary jurisdiction, the organization may investigate and resolve the matter, unless and until such time as the Center expressly exercises jurisdiction over the particular allegations.”

Back to the NWSL/NWSLPA report: There’s a claim that “SafeSport only has jurisdiction over reports concerning NWSL coaches or staff who hold U.S. Soccer coaching licenses.” I wonder if that would hold up under scrutiny. 

And in that same paragraph: “Many players who spoke with the Joint Investigative Team were not aware that they could report concerns about misconduct to SafeSport. Some within the NWSL held the misconception that SafeSport deals with misconduct against youth athletes and does not investigate misconduct against professional athletes.”

That sounds like a misconception that should be changed. And it may be difficult to do so when we have a report commissioned by the NWSL and NWSLPA that urges the NWSL and its clubs to take the lead.

The Center has had a wobbly start. But it’s just that — a start. The Center is supposed to be like the US Anti-Doping Agency, taking leagues and NGBs out of the business of policing themselves when it comes to drugs. Between the NWSL cases and the horrors of USA Gymnastics, we’ve surely seen enough to know that we need something similar in the realm of abuse as well.

And at the very least, any allegations like the ones against Paul Riley should go to SafeSport. Not someone on the small staff of a professional women’s soccer club.

Finally, let’s consider a recent test case in which the Joint Investigative Team of this NWSL/NWSLPA report investigated something new:  

From the report: “In October 2022, the Joint Investigative Team received a report that then-Thorns Head Coach Rhian Wilkinson had disclosed to the Thorns’s HR director potentially inappropriate interactions with a player with whom she had formed a friendship. The Joint Investigative Team promptly conducted a thorough investigation and, based on the evidence, found that Wilkinson did not engage in wrongdoing or violate the Anti-Harassment Policy. On November 4, 2022, these findings were conveyed to the NWSL, NWSLPA, Thorns, Wilkinson, and the player involved. Out of respect for player privacy, this Report does not provide a detailed account of the evidence or findings in this and other instances where the Joint Investigative Team determined no misconduct occurred.” 

A few pages later: “The NWSL’s Non-Fraternization Policy, adopted in 2018, states: “No person in management or a supervisory position with a Team or the League shall have a romantic or dating relationship with a League or team employee whom he or she directly supervises or whose terms or conditions of employment he or she may influence.” The Joint Investigative Team found multiple instances of romantic relationships between players and staff members in violation of this policy.” 

In her resignation letter, Wilkinson said she and the player had expressed their feelings to each other but stopped it there and went to HR. But other players on the team took issue with the Joint Investigative Team’s work and expressed some misgivings about the whole chain of command:

That letter isn’t mentioned in the report, even though it’s dated November 20, and the report references at least one event from as recently as December 1. Maybe the league didn’t hand it over to the Team?

All of the people involved here are human. NWSL players are human. Lawyers are human. Investigators are human. Coaches are human. We all make mistakes. 

What we need is a system that minimizes those mistakes and operates with a clear-headed passion to find the truth while treating everyone — accusers, accused, and those around them — as humans.

Jeff Plush

For my fellow curlers, here’s a quick summary of our former CEO’s appearances in various investigations:

The Yates Report, with which Plush did not cooperate, shows that Plush did a bit to hinder Paul Riley’s future employment within the NWSL after allegations of sexual misconduct were reported. See previous post.

The NWSL/NWSLPA report shows that Plush did a bit more than was reported in the Yates Report, and it says the league failed to act despite Plush’s warnings. However, the NWSL/NWSLPA report relies mostly on one source — Plush, who did cooperate with this one.

Still, the report raises one red flag, and it seems well-substantiated: “Plush told the Joint Investigative Team that the Flash had been considering Riley since October 2015, and Plush warned Lines in October 2015 that the Flash should not hire Riley but should follow up with the Thorns as to why Riley was “no longer coaching there.” Plush wrote that he was “very careful in describing the situation” with Riley because he had been informed by counsel to U.S. Soccer that he could not share the Thorns’s investigative report or its details. However, this position appears inconsistent with the email from the Thorns’s counsel transmitting the Riley report to the League, which Plush received and which did not place any restrictions on the League.”

But the main verdict on Plush is rendered on page 111, and it’s complicated. Plush says he was limited in what he could say about Riley on advice of counsel. The investigators say that’s inconsistent with email from the Thorns counsel and the fact that Plush shared some information with Sky Blue, the New Jersey team that backed away from pursuing Riley. Was it “inconsistent,” or did the advice from counsel come into play after the Thorns email and the Sky Blue conversation?

The bottom line may be how you interpret this final line in his entry on page 111: “By allowing Riley to continue coaching in the NWSL, the League conveyed its continuing implicit approval of him, despite the information Plush received and the concerns that he expressed to others.” 

Some people with whom I’ve talked are interpreting “the League” as “Plush.” I don’t think that’s the case, in part because of the “despite” clause and in part because so many other people wielded at least as much power as Plush did. And Riley continued to coach long after Plush was gone. 

On the whole, Plush comes across as someone who is too happy to take bad legal advice. That comes up again in the two investigations USA Curling released today. Feel free to ignore the first one, which is only two pages and is essentially a record of the investigator’s inability to get a word with anyone from US Soccer or the NWSL except for one anonymous comment: “Jeff did absolutely nothing wrong in how it was handled.”

The second investigation isn’t much better. It has four interviews — Plush, USA Curling CFO and former USSF/NWSL CFO Eric Gleason, an NWSL team owner, and someone who was a US Soccer official in 2015. 

Plush confirms that he didn’t cooperate with the Yates Report on the advice of counsel, and he now recognizes that maybe he should’ve done it anyway. That raises the question of why the Yates Report doesn’t mention him at least saying he had been advised not to cooperate, and it raises the question of why he went along with the NWSL/NWSLPA investigation.

The rest of the USAC investigation casts Plush as a mostly powerless figure, beholden to lawyers and USSF officials, who did what little he could to stop Riley from being hired at an NWSL team. I covered women’s soccer during that time (and many years before and after), and I know there’s a lot of truth in this depiction. But at best, Plush is following various lawyers over a cliff. A good leader should know better.

Other than that, the investigation is flimsy. The only interviews are with Plush and people sympathetic to him. 

To recap what’s happened since then: Plush resigned, as did the board chair and two other board members.

And the new management isn’t pleased with these investigations:

“It was important to engage a third-party to do this work, but the quality of these reports does not rise to the level that the Board and the curling community deserved,” noted USA Curling Board Chair Bret Jackson. “As a result, we will conduct an audit of our internal process, and learn how we can be better in the future.”

So what does this mean for USA Curling moving forward? 

In social media, a few people want to see the rest of the board resign as well. I’ll disagree for two reasons: 

First, the decision to keep Plush (before he resigned) doesn’t appear to be unanimous. Three days after the board announced he was sticking around, the Athletes Advisory Council issued a carefully worded statement that left the door open for further consideration. Plush resigned 12 days later, closely followed by the board chair and independent directors. It’s fair to say they didn’t just find a burning bush that told them to change their ways. Someone gave them a push behind the scenes.

Second, it’s easy to see how board members could have been misled into thinking Plush did nothing wrong. When an investigator hands over interviews with top soccer people defending him, it’s all too tempting to take that as face value. Failing to see beyond the investigator’s report is a mistake, not an act of malice. And in a sense, the investigator and the interviewees were right. He did “nothing wrong.” It’s just that, after a certain point in the timeline, he did nothing at all. It takes a bit more digging to realize his inaction was based on an unwillingness to stand up to people giving him bad advice. 

So the top officials at USA Curling are gone. The new board chair and interim CEO have thrown open the discussion to see how USAC could do things better.

A National Governing Body (NGB) is vital to the success of any Olympic sport. In my next post, I’ll explain why that’s the case and why I’ll continue to be a USAC member even though I’m hardly national championship material.

NWSL Draft: The spectacle and the reality

The first NWSL Draft was held in a private room in the Indianapolis Convention Center, with U.S. Soccer staff ferrying info to a neighboring room where a handful of reporters had gathered.

The next two NWSL Drafts had many more people, all crammed into a small couple of rooms in Philadelphia.

This year, it looks like this:


Which is great. It’ll be a terrific experience for fans. Reporters won’t be dizzy from claustrophobia and heat exhaustion by the third round.

But like the MLS Draft, held yesterday in the same room, there’s a bit of cold water to splash on the proceedings: A lot of these players simply aren’t ready.

I’m not bringing that up to spoil anyone’s big day. A bunch of people with sublime talent and awe-inspiring work ethics are going to get great opportunities today. I’m bringing it up because, in the spirit of the other NSCAA sessions I’m attending, I’m looking at the overall structure of the sport.

If you haven’t listened to the most recent Keeper Notes podcast, race over to your podcasting engine of choice and do so now. Jen Cooper chats with Hal Kaiser and Jen Gordon to go over each team’s needs and the prospects who can fill them.

But it’s clear from the conversation that few teams will walk away from this draft with their immediate needs filled. Kaiser names only three players who stand out — sure-fire No. 1 pick Emily Sonnett (D, Virginia), NCAA Tournament force Raquel Rodriguez (M, Penn State) and Cari Roccaro (D, Notre Dame). And now Roccaro is hurt.

You can say it’s a thin draft class. But in terms of immediate impact, they’ve all been thin classes.

So it’s little wonder that two of the most successful coaches in the NWSL, Seattle’s Laura Harvey and Portland/Washington’s Mark Parsons, haven’t been building through the draft. They realize this is a league that’s quite cruel to 22-year-olds. (And notice that a lot of NWSL teams have now hired coaches from England and Scotland!)

Parsons saw the problem first hand when he took over a young Washington Spirit team. They had young attacking talent to spare — Tiffany McCarty and Caroline Miller had outstanding college resumes, and Stephanie Ochs and Colleen Williams joined McCarty on the U.S. Under-23 team before debuting with the Spirit. Each player had plenty of upside — the book is still open for McCarty and Ochs, long-term. Miller and Williams unfortunately had catastrophic injuries.

But a team simply can’t rely on inexperienced players to do more than fill a hole here and there. Some of the exceptional rookies of the past — Crystal Dunn, Morgan Brian — already had national team experience. Sonnett and Rodriguez bring that experience this time around, and they should be ready to play from Day 1 in the NWSL. North Carolina’s Katie Bowen, who has played for New Zealand, also might be ready to step in right away.

So this year, the priority for NWSL teams beyond the top few picks is to look for players they can bring along over the next couple of years.

The next priority is to step up the development curve so more players are ready.

Parsons was candid late in that first season with the Spirit, lamenting the fundamentals that some of his younger players hadn’t learned. The compressed college season hurts players. Coaches, especially on the men’s side, are pushing for a year-round NCAA schedule so they can play more games with more rest, not relying on waves of substitutions to get exhausted players off the field.

Another factor: Summer play has withered. The decline and demise of the W-League hurts. WPSL play is spotty — some teams can play a quality game, some can’t. The new United Women’s Soccer is trying to fill the void.

Cracking an NWSL lineup as a rookie will never be easy — nor should it be. It’s a credit to the league that the rosters are so strong, filled with experienced players.

But as the league expands (we hope) down the road, development is an issue that needs to be addressed. So when the players drafted today are experienced and ready to lead their teams, they’ll have better and better players coming in to join them.

Alex Morgan and the Bedbugs That Ate the NWSL

As with many other Internet shoutfests, it all started with an innocuous tweet:

Can’t blame Sinclair for venting there. Bedbugs are every traveler’s nightmare. The big hype about bedbug resurgence came about a couple of years ago, and I’m still putting my bags up on hard surfaces to minimize the risk of anything hitching a ride back to my place. (I draw the line at the “pry the headboard off the wall, put your bags in the bathtub and wrap anything that you own in several layers of Saran Wrap” survivalism that was en vogue for a while.)

So we have one incident in which a hotel — one with a fairly notable brand name — had bedbugs. This won’t escalate into any sort of —

Uh oh.

Morgan’s since-deleted tweet says “There’s no other way to address continuing problems.”

If you go around and ask NWSL people, you’ll get the response, “What continuing problems? This was a one-time thing. It’s been handled.”

And bedbugs are, frankly, luck of the draw.

For the record, I was wrong about MLS. Alexi Lalas has clarified.

Morgan also mentioned mold, which should actually raise larger long-term concerns about this hotel because (A) it can make you sick and (B) given proper maintenance, it simply should not appear.

None of these nuances, of course, made it into the Twitter response.

But some on Twitter at least shifted blame from the NWSL:

And there were these clever ones:

And there’s this angle:

The mainstream media, on the other hand, pretty much took the ball and ran:

(From that story: “The bed bug fiasco is just one example of the inequalities between male and female professional soccer players. As a simple point of comparison, the all-male New York City Football Club announced its partnership with the four-star Grand Hyatt back in March. No bed bugs have been found there…yet.” Yeah, that’s a fair comparison.)

Well that’s fair and balanced.

Let’s be real clear ourselves here — no one is saying anyone should take a vow of silence over a bedbug encounter. And no one is saying we don’t wish women’s soccer players had it better. If it were up to me, women’s soccer players would live in Dan Borislow’s condos but have a professional training staff at all times. Best of both worlds.

But let’s also acknowledge this — professional women’s soccer is fragile. If you think living conditions and wages for the Ella Masars and Chantel Joneses of the world are grim, consider what Lori Lindsey, Sarah Huffman and Becky Sauerbrunn did when they played amateur ball. We can’t change this just by yelling at people.

You can certainly blame the media. They’ve added the “s” to “bedbug-ridden hotel” without making the slightest effort to clarify what Morgan was talking about with “continuing problems.”

And no one even asked the NWSL. It took me all of 12 minutes to get this response:

“During a recent road trip, a Portland Thorns FC player reported finding bed bugs in her hotel room at the team hotel in Kansas City. The hotel apologized, quickly provided a new room, and insisted the problem had been corrected. Upon learning of the situation, the League immediately spoke with both clubs, and FC Kansas City had already addressed the issue. For the remainder of the season, rooms have already been secured at another hotel. Player safety and comfort is important to all teams of the NWSL, and we are always seeking ways to improve our club and League operations. We regret this situation and apologize to the player involved.”

In any case, the damage has been done. The NWSL is now the league with the bedbugs. And if you care about conditions for players, you might also wonder if this was the best way to go about business for a league that still needs sponsors and a real TV deal to turn the corner.

Little wonder Morgan deleted the tweet. She knows the power of her words with her 2 million Twitter followers. If she didn’t before, she surely knows now. Because as much as we question the national team players’ dedication to the NWSL, they don’t want it to disappear. Right?

So maybe the next time something good happens in the NWSL, she might consider mentioning it?

Big heart makes women’s soccer special

Yes, women’s soccer can be frustrating. Two U.S. leagues have disappeared in the past 12 years, and the third is redefining “low profile.” Fans (and sometimes players) argue on social media about the strangest stuff. (This 18-month-old Alex Morgan dis was favorited tonight.) The U.S. national team sometimes looks like it was selected five years ago — the tactics sometimes look as if they were drawn up 15 years ago.

Let’s forget all that for a minute and back up.


One bias I’ve always had is for the players who fought their way through the Dark Ages of the mid-2000s. Kevin Parker wrote about the ones who passed through Washington, and Jen Cooper covered it in her Mixxed Zone podcast about “the 99ers and the 90 percent.” The “90 percent” refers to the players who aren’t national team stars but make a pro league competitive, providing challenges that the national team players need to stay sharp. And without them, you don’t have local teams that give fans a chance to see these players in person more than once every couple of years.

Some players don’t have a sense of that shared struggle. Some do. Tonight at the SoccerPlex, they did.

Start with the autographs. I don’t really “get” autographs, to be honest, and I’ve seen a few fans who are a little too demanding, insulting players who aren’t the big stars. But you have to be impressed when players sign for as many fans as possible, trying to make that connection. Tonight, Carli Lloyd from the visiting Dash signed a lot. So did Meghan Klingenberg. So did Spirit stars like Ashlyn Harris and, I think, Ali Krieger.

Lloyd even signed one of the cockroach banners the Spirit Squadron held up in reference to … something I missed on Twitter. I didn’t quite get it, but Lloyd did.

Then there’s this:

Typo in Jen’s tweet — she has ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lloyd did indeed make time to go over to see her. So did Krieger.

But this fan got much more. As Spirit players left the field one by one, they went over to her. She wound up with as many eight players at a time all chatting with her. She may not have full control over her body any more, but she had a huge smile.

The Spirit players got her up out of her chair for a picture. Then Crystal Dunn, all five-foot-nothing of her, carefully placed her back in the chair before everyone started smiling and laughing again. If laughter’s the best medicine, then this woman is going to pull a Stephen Hawking and live with ALS for decades to come.

In case you forgot, Dunn also did this tonight …

And she scored twice more in the 3-1 win, including a header off a corner kick. Again, she is not tall.

Back to the postgame — I’m in awe of athletes and other celebrities who meet ailing people. Imagine what it’s like to be presented with a person who has been told he or she might live much longer. Now you’re responsible for creating a magical moment. No pressure.

When you see the way these players interact with fans, you see how special they are in ways beyond their skills. It’s almost unfair that these people who have been blessed with talent and determination also have the social graces and kind hearts to make others feel special as well.

And you can see it in how they interact with each other. Houston defender Niki Cross played her final game tonight, and in deference to the time she spent with the Spirit, she was honored with a pregame bouquet courtesy of Ashlyn Harris, who has been close with Cross since they were teammates in the early days of WPS. Fans chanted her name when she came onto the field as a second-half sub.

So women’s soccer is in that sweet spot right now — popular enough to have sought-after stars but still maintaining a sense that we’re all in this together.

You may not guess it from Twitter, but I’m an optimist. I think women’s soccer can maintain this spirit even as the sport matures and the mainstream media picks up the tactical and technical debates the hard-core fans and bloggers are doing now.

The players can handle it. They want to be pros. They deserve to be pros. They deserve the attention not just of the autograph hounds or the pundits who turn up out of the woodwork every four years, but the everyday sports fan.

So I left the SoccerPlex feeling pretty good about the sport. Both teams played dynamic, attacking soccer. They didn’t take advantage of the referee’s lack of attention. It was a great show with a wonderful display of heart.

Tomorrow, we’ll get back to the criticism and debate. It’s all meant to be constructive. We all care. We all see something special in this sport, and tonight reminded us why.


Two NWSL reserve teams in WPSL Final Four, we think

Never easy, but here’s what I’ve figured out so far from the WPSL site schedule:

Home teams listed first, where applicable.

West Region
Champions of Northwest (Issaquah), Pac North (Spurs), Pac South (SoCal); plus Pac South runner-up (San Diego) 

Playoffs (July 18)
SoCal FC 5-0 Tottenham Hotspur Eastbay Ladies
Issaquah Soccer Club 3-1 San Diego SeaLions

Final (July 19)
SoCal FC vs. Issaquah Soccer Club

East Region
Champions of Northeast (Boston), Power 5 (New England), Mid Atlantic (Yankee); plus Mid Atlantic runner-up (Hershey) … news report said Seacoast United Phantoms would be in.

Playoffs (July 18)
New England Mutiny 2-0 Yankee Lady FC
Boston Breakers Reserves 6-1 Hershey Soccer Club

Final (July 19)
Boston Breakers Reserves 2-0 New England Mutiny

Midwest Region
Champions of Midwest-Central (Chicago), Midwest-Great Lakes (Motor City) and Can Am (Empire); news report said Fire and Ice also would play

Playoff (July 17)
Chicago Red Stars Reserves 5-1 Empire City FC

Final (July 19)
Motor City FC 0-2 Chicago Red Stars Reserves


News report said we would see this:

1. Sunshine Conference playoffs July 11-12

2. Semifinals and final July 18-19, starting with
Sunshine vs. Southeast
Big Sky vs. South Atlantic

Sunshine played games listed as regular-season games July 11:
Tampa Bay Hellenic 4-1 Florida Sol FC
Florida Krush 0-2 Pinellas County United SC

Southeast played games listed as playoffs July 10:
FC Nashville Wolves 4-0 Alabama FC
Knoxville Lady Force 3-1 Chattanooga FC

This Big Sky vs. Southeast game is listed as a playoff, not final (July 18)
Knoxville Lady Force 0-2 Oklahoma City FC

According to WPSL Twitter, Oklahoma City FC qualified for national championship. They’re hosting.

South Atlantic champion ASA Charge played instead in the USASA National Championship with South Atlantic runner-up Fredericksburg FC, Power 5 runner-up New York Athletic Club, and something called Olympic Club. Winner seems to be Olympic Club. 

So it appears we’ll have two NWSL reserve teams in the Final Four (meanwhile, the Washington Spirit Reserves are in the W-League Final Four), plus Oklahoma City FC and the West winner.

NWSL: A worthwhile investment, not a charity

Women’s soccer players are giving up a lot to play professionally. That was the point of my recent post at SoccerWire and Jeff Kassouf’s piece on players retiring in their 20s.

Deciding to play or retire isn’t easy, as Colleen Williams eloquently describes in her piece about stepping away after a couple of knee injuries. Some people are still chasing a spot on the national team. Some just want to keep playing as long as they can.

The thin silver lining here is that players’ opportunities are improving. Imagine how these pieces would’ve been written in 2007, when players who weren’t in the national team pool were either out of the sport entirely or playing for free in the W-League or WPSL.

What you’ll often hear in response to these laments is that professional soccer is neither a charity nor a cause. And that’s true.

But let’s phrase the argument for backing the NWSL a little differently, borrowing from youth soccer …

The goal of youth soccer is twofold — grow the sport’s talent pool and its fanbase. The latter is often overlooked, though far more youth soccer players will grow up to be fans rather than elite players.

That’s also the goal of women’s pro soccer. And that’s why it’s worthy of investment — by U.S. Soccer, by sponsors, by anyone who cares about the game.

We’re all lamenting the fossilized talent pool for the U.S. national team. Tom Sermanni’s efforts to expand that pool were in vain, but if the NWSL continues to grow, players will have opportunities to play their way in at some point.

And NWSL games give more fans a chance to see players in action — both national team stars and local heroes.

So it’s not a charity. It’s something with value worth supporting as fans and backers of the game.

Women’s soccer at the NSCAA Convention (parts of it)

My current focus on youth soccer forced me to miss a lot of the women’s soccer events at the NSCAA Convention. During the NWSL Draft, I was in a pair of interesting presentations. I was in a TOPSoccer presentation during the women’s soccer breakfast. (That said, the sausage, egg and cheese-filled pretzel I picked up at Reading Terminal Market that morning was a delicious, filling dose of protein.)

I did catch a couple of things here and there — the NWSL coaches’ panel (surprisingly lightly attended), a couple of sessions that touched on men’s and women’s soccer, and the “Live Your Goals” press conference.

The latter was notable mostly for the predictable (and justifiable) media reaction: “Yes, it’s nice that you’re visiting every country that qualified for the WWC, but what about the turf?”

FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, Tatjana Haenni, smiled pleasantly and joked that she would’ve disappointed if no one had brought up the question. Grass in 2015 isn’t going to happen, but the good news is that they’re open to changing out worn-out turf, and the bidders for 2019 (France, South Korea) are proposing grass fields.

Aside from that, the best exchange from the press conferences was when an SBNation reporter (didn’t catch the name) asked if the World Cup would be diluted as it grew from 16 to 24 teams. Haenni’s answer was impressive. Sure, we might see a difference in quality between the teams, but “the positives are so much stronger.” The teams that qualify get more resources to grow. And in the men’s World Cup in Brazil, there were one or two results that were pretty shocking. (The press corps duly laughed a little.)

During the NWSL draft, I was over at a session on German player development. Sounds dry, but consider how successful Germany has been, both in taking women’s soccer seriously for a couple of decades and reconstructing its men’s development in the 2000s.

German U17 girls coach Anouschka Bernhard recalled that women were banned from German playing fields in the 1970s. They’ve taken off since then, and she says girls have benefited from the retooling on the boys side as well.

A lot of German girls, in fact, continue to play with “boys” teams (more accurately, they’d be coed teams) into their early teens. The mixed approach surely has some pros and cons, but at least we can’t say German girls are getting inferior coaching if they’re right alongside the boys.

The big takeaway from 2011, Bernhard says, is learning to deal with pressure. The German team lost on the “mental side,” she said. She didn’t specify what they’re doing to improve, but would anyone bet against those improvements paying off?

From elsewhere at the convention: What I’m hearing is a backlash against the serious ramping-up of “serious” play, all the way down to the tweens and even below. See my post from Thursday, and yes, it applies to men and women. Coaches are beginning to regret making young people give up their childhoods in pursuit of dubious goals.

Tom Sermanni and women’s soccer evolution

The U.S. women’s national soccer team changes like the continents — very slowly, with sudden earthquakes.

We had one of those earthquakes last night, when coach Tom Sermanni was fired just a couple of hours after leading the USA to an uninspired 2-0 win over a China team that is a pale shadow of its glory days.

The overriding narrative so far, fed by a lot of anonymous comments, is “player revolt.” But what does that mean?

Let’s back up to the days of the beloved Pia Sundhage. After the 2007 World Cup debacle left wounds that haven’t healed to this day, Sundhage was supposed to refocus the team in a new tactical direction. No longer would the team bang the ball to Abby Wambach and hope for the best.

But any tactical changes Pia made were secondary to her expert management of the team. This team has some big personalities, and no matter what side you want to take on the 2007 saga, you can’t deny the friction that existed.

Pia came in strumming a guitar and smiling. But she could also be stern with players, who would sometimes respond by “proving her wrong” when she doubted them. She was willing to be the big bad boss, then hold up her hand and say she was wrong about someone — all the while smiling that the player had come back with such determination. Brilliant.

And yet, Pia was careful not to rock the boat. The player pool was stagnant. From 2010 to 2012, Sundhage put 34 players on the field for the U.S. women, including farewell performances for Kristine Lilly and Kate Markgraf. The U.S. men have used 36 players in three games this year — and it’s a World Cup year.

Someone might connect the dots and say veteran players were unhappy that Sermanni was taking away their playing time. It’s probably not that simple.

The one thing I can tell you from anonymous chatter is nothing shocking: The Algarve Cup disappointment (two straight losses and a seventh-place finish) didn’t sit well with everyone. Why the dismissal came after the China game and not the Algarve Cup is anyone’s guess. But no matter what straws the conspiracy theorists may grasp, it’s probably not some giant explosive incident the day of the China game. Much more plausible (though admittedly also speculative) — the China game was simply the time everyone gathered together again.

One anonymous leak is interesting, not so much for what it says but how and why it was made …

Why even bother to leak something so flimsy and vague? That’s hardly Watergate or even magicJack. Or widespread player dissatisfaction with Jurgen Klinsmann.  (Note that Sermanni is gone but Klinsmann has since been signed to a four-year extension. Speaks volumes about the balance of power between players and coaches on each team, doesn’t it?)

Besides, what vision would anyone have for this year’s Algarve? Take the experienced players who aren’t hurt or pregnant, take a few less experienced players, then experiment a little? What else would you do?

And it’s not something we can really investigate to the fullest. We can’t really know if Sermanni had a vision or direction without being in team meetings to see how well he articulated such things.

Kate Markgraf has a viable hypothesis:

In any case, the leak does add fuel to the notion that players drove this change. It doesn’t tell us whether they had a point.

What we do know is that Sermanni had a difficult job. Bringing in new players and new ideas is difficult on a successful team, particularly one that is marketed as the women’s soccer version of the Harlem Globetrotters. See an impressive win, get a few autographs, spend a bunch of money, go home.

That cash cow is awfully difficult to kill. Hard-core fans and journalists would rather see a wide-open player pool and evaluate everyone in sight. But the old guard is the driving force for the casual fans’ money that subsidizes women’s soccer development efforts and the NWSL.

So we can’t deny that the old guard has tremendous power. What we don’t know is whether that power has been abused.

We’ll all line up this afternoon to fire questions at Sunil Gulati. But I doubt we’ll get the answers on what roles players played in Sermanni’s dismissal or why.

And it’s academic, anyway. The next question: Who has the management skills to prepare the team for its necessary evolution while also getting the results and the fan fervor that oils the big machine? For whatever reason, Sermanni failed to convince the team’s power brokers that he was that man.

U.S. fans can only hope that the power brokers grasp this question, including the “necessary evolution” part of it. And that if they’re disappointed in something right now, they’re also looking beyond the coach. Perhaps to the mirror.

Gender and soccer: Running smarter, not harder?

Researchers at Sunderland University, undoubtedly seeking a distraction from the local Premier League team’s dreary season, compared male and female soccer players in the Champions League. The conclusions:

1. Women complete fewer passes than men and give the ball away more easily.

2. Men run more at “high intensity,” though they don’t end up covering much more ground.

3. Women, particularly on the flanks, drop off in their running in the second half.

She Kicks editor Jen O’Neill didn’t dismiss the study but raised a couple of qualifiers:

The women’s game is constantly improving and the last few finals and latter knockout stages have included some fantastic matches but there are massive differences in fitness levels and playing status from team to team, even within the Women’s Champions League (only a handful of teams across Europe could be said to be ‘professional’ and this can sometimes lead to very lopsided results and hence less competitive second half contests), never mind comparing it to a men’s competition where every side contains players who are paid to play full time. It goes without saying that full time players will be able to sustain high intensity physical performance for a more prolonged period. Comparative studies between the men’s and women’s game are always riddled with such nuances and flaws because even with the best intentions they are rarely comparing like against like.

I wonder if tactics also play a part. Are men more likely to pick and choose their spot to run fast while women keep it in top gear for longer periods of time? And how different would this study be if we were comparing NWSL to MLS rather than European clubs?

NWSL media guidelines: Is the door open?

Let’s say you’re running a fledgling women’s soccer league. Do you let reporters run around all over the place or keep them at arm’s length?

Organizations on their way up are often eager about opening up as much as possible. When I covered mixed martial arts for USA TODAY in the late 2000s, the UFC made it really easy for me to chat with Dana White and anyone else they could gather at almost any time. Now that the UFC has grown, Dana can’t spend a free hour chatting with some dude from USA TODAY about the music they play when fighters walk to the cage.

And that’s typical. Call a league that isn’t swamped with media requests, and you’re more likely to get through than you are if you say, “Hey, NFL? I write a blog. Can I talk with the commissioner today?”

Generally, I’ve found that women’s soccer is more of a closed community than men’s soccer. Read Steve Sirk’s book Massive, about the Columbus Crew, and you’ll find he had much more open chats with the players than I did in Enduring Spirit. Part of that is the locker room — door’s open in MLS, closed in the NWSL. Part of it was Columbus player Frankie Hejduk, as outgoing an athlete as you’ll ever find. And part of it, from my experience, is that women’s soccer players are more protective of the inner workings of their team than men’s soccer players.

Note the weasel words in that paragraph. First, “generally.” Sure, women’s soccer has its exceptions. And then there’s “from my experience.” I couldn’t tell you if the Portland Thorns are more forthcoming than the Timbers. If anyone has different experiences, please share.

The Spirit organization worked well with me for the book, but we did set some boundaries along the way. I only went to one team meeting — the one with the entertaining game of charades. And after preseason, the team and I agreed that I would usually come out to midweek practices, not the Friday practices in which they went over the tactics for the next game. At those practices, I made an effort to keep a respectful distance, though they appreciated my efforts in chasing down loose balls that had rolled down the many hills at the Soccerplex.

All of these access decisions were easy to work out among reasonable people with good communication. If you just drove up to the Soccerplex and started watching the team practice without telling anyone, you were going to get someone walking up and asking who you are and what you’re doing there. (The family that was just taking a snack break before going to lacrosse camp on a neighboring field was OK; the guy who was intently watching from a distance drew a few more questions.)

And to be honest, I didn’t see a lot of reporters coming out to practices, and I’m sure the Spirit didn’t turn a busload of people away every day. Still, the league quite rightly saw a need for standardized media guidelines, published on its site.

Last week, those guidelines read in part:

Media Access to Practices: Clubs are encouraged to make all practices open to media. If a practice is closed, clubs must grant a 15-minute media access period at the start or end of practice, as well as making the coach and players available for interviews following the conclusion of practice. Clubs are strongly encouraged to ensure that ballwork is at least part of the 15-minutes access period. If practices are open to the media, as defined above, they must be open to all media; if practices are closed to the media, they must be closed to all media.

Seems reasonable, and it’s consistent with what I’ve seen in other leagues. (That said, we’ve always joked about what teams are doing in practice that they don’t want others to see. “Oh, wow — are they doing a possession drill? They must want to possess the ball!”)

That section now reads as follows:

Media Access to Training Sessions: Teams are highly encouraged to make every training session open or at least partially open (i.e., if a session is declared “closed,” teams are required to have a 15 minute period for b-roll and photos at the start and time for media interviews following the session).

The change isn’t related to any agitation in the preseason. The latter phrasing is in the 2014 operations manual, the league says. The site was updated this week to match what was said in the operations manual.

So is that enough to meet the limited but occasionally intense media demand?

From a practical point of view, journalists need to give NWSL teams a bit of leeway. The teams don’t have huge staffs to shepherd reporters and photographers around at practice. And players often need to know in advance if they’re doing interviews after practice — they have jobs, classes and other logistical realities of playing for something less than a six-figure salary.

But it’s discouraging to hear, as I have from several colleagues, that a couple of teams have put up a virtual curtain on the preseason.