Charles Olney (@olneyce): Welcome to our Backline Soccer slack chat for the week. It’s been a long cold winter, but the NWSL is finally on its way back, and we are excited to get back into the swing of things.
We’re going to start things off with the preseason. We’ve had some roster trimming already, but most teams still have a lot to do before they’re down to fighting weight. What have you seen so far that looks interesting? Any teams that look poised for big things?
RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): Houston’s new head coach James Clarkson releasing players he knew he wouldn’t want early to give them a chance to go to another team instead of keeping them for practice is something that stood out to me. It’s a small thing but it shows a shift.
Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): I’m surprised by the recent addition of Caitlin Farrell in Orlando. I didn’t expect her here, and a talent like her should make the competition for starting striker when the national team players are in France something to watch.
Charles Olney: Yeah, the Houston thing seemed like a nice move. Let people know where they actually stand; don’t just keep them around for the sake of keeping them around. As you say, it’s a small thing but it’s at least a signal that Clarkson might be on the right track.
Luis Hernandez: I was a little bummed to see Nickolette Driesse gone in NC. I had hoped she would find a way to stick with an NWSL team. Hopefully, she finds a team overseas.
Charles Olney: In theory, I like what they’re trying to do up at Washington. They still don’t really have any defenders, but at least from these opening games, it seems like there might be some more coherence to how they set up.
From reports, Sullivan has been working as a deep-lying playmaker with Huster doing the tackling in front of her. That has a lot of potential, and might be important for getting Sullivan back on track.
Allison Cary (@findingallison): I like the sound of that.
RJ Allen: It’s really hard with so little of the information to see in person. Some times preseason games are live tweeted but until we see some real soccer being played it’s hard for me to judge much of it.
Charles Olney: Luis, for Orlando, what are your thoughts about their midfield (or lack thereof)? On the most recent roster, they have a total of three (3) midfielders who aren’t college draftees or non-roster invitees. I know they’ve gotten by without much of a midfield for a couple years now, but…are they really going to keep this up?
Luis Hernandez: I think the Pride are deeper at midfield than how it’s listed on the roster. Camila is listed as a forward for example. I also really liked what I saw when Abby Elinsky was on the pitch for the team. I think there are two things to consider, 1) Dani Weatherholt is the veteran on the team who needs to step up, 2) Coach Marc Skinner’s message that he’s focused on developing the players he has to work with.
Charles Olney: It will certainly be interesting to see how they set up. Skinner has a good track record, and I’ll be curious to see what he does with the team.
Luis Hernandez: He mentions his time in Birmingham City where he had a starting goalkeeper who was 17 and he believes will eventually get time with the Lionesses in the future.
Charles Olney: I was a big Sermanni fan, and thought he managed to make an unbalanced roster work pretty well in 2017, but it didn’t seem like he had any great answers last year. And Elinsky is a nice point for Orlando. I wrote a piece about replacement level players, and Elinsky is a great example of someone who probably isn’t (at the moment) good enough to start regularly, but who can still add a lot of value by plugging gaps. And if you’ve got someone willing to work, there’s always potential to grow.
Luis Hernandez: The Pride will definitely have a new playing style which I’m curious how well it will work out.
Kat Farris (@farrisphotos): Labbe is back in NWSL with North Carolina.
Allison Cary: Yeah, happy to see Labbe back. And curious to see what role she plays in North Carolina.
Charles Olney: Any other thoughts about rosters? There hasn’t been much movement this offseason, but Washington has picked up some Australians. Dagny is back in Portland. Houston signed Sophie Schmidt recently. Anything that jumps to mind as potentially significant?
RJ Allen: I am very interested to see if Sky Blue has a defense this year with the move they made with Washington.
Luis Hernandez: The only announced preseason match with the Courage will be more measuring stick than anything else.
Charles Olney: Yeah, Sky Blue has to be one of the biggest question marks.
RJ Allen: I do not believe 538 is near the mark on how many points Sky Blue will have but I think they end up with more than in 2018.
Charles Olney: Looking at the roster, they’re actually not that bad in theory. But how will the group play together? How much are players willing to invest? Can they find a way to band together to solve problems when they pop up?
Allison Cary: Looking at the roster, they didn’t look that bad last year.
Charles Olney: Exactly.
RJ Allen: Allison is correct.
Charles Olney: I could easily see them hanging right there with the pack all season. They won’t lose almost anyone to the World Cup. And if the team spirit is high, they could scrounge plenty of points here and there. But if things start out bad, it’s easy to see everyone just hanging their heads and waiting for the axe to fall.
Allison Cary: Especially if things don’t change with the off-the-field situation. Or at least, don’t change enough.
Kat Farris: I had to reread that. I was having flashbacks of 2018 Pride
Luis Hernandez: I think the early part of the schedule favors Sky Blue and they could get a favorable result. I’m not going to bet the farm on a win just yet.
RJ Allen: I am a little surprise we’re not seeing more movement. Trades aren’t the most common thing in the NWSL but they happen more than they have this off season.
Allison Cary: Yeah, it’s been really quiet.
Charles Olney: Do you think it has something to do with it being a World Cup year? Maybe everyone is more focused on bolstering their ranks and not as worried about topline moves?
Luis Hernandez: Okay, RJ has a point, but I would say that traditional sellers like Orlando have started to switch things up and are holding assets more. Maybe GMs in the league are preparing for beyond 2019 with *whispers* expansion…
Kat Farris: Are national allocations official yet?
RJ Allen: Yes. They have been out for a few weeks.
Charles Olney: Speaking of which, what do people think about the allocations?
RJ Allen: Overall I wonder why the number is so low. They are able to have 4 or 5 more players allocated than they have. Which in a World Cup year you’d think you’d want those few players who might make the roster to already be on the payroll.
Luis Hernandez: There are limited allocations, I don’t know how many are called out in the CBA, but maybe the federation needs to be selective.
RJ Allen: They have a range they can pick from and from what I read they went with the minimum.
Luis Hernandez: I wonder how the lawsuit will eventually impact the CBA or future CBA negotiations
Charles Olney: And of those selected, it’s certainly hard to explain why Allie Long, for example, is still allocated and Davidson is not…assuming that you’re looking purely at value to the national team. But it’s pretty clear they’re looking at things beyond that. The question is whether that’s okay.
Luis Hernandez: I think Davidson needs to prove more to Ellis that she deserves it. Jane Campbell for example got allocated early without showing much
RJ Allen: It is odd that Morgan Brian is and Davidson isn’t, Long being another. But maybe Ellis is less sold on Davidson to the World Cup than we all think?
Kat Farris: It always amazes me how much of soccer revolves around not soccer
Luis Hernandez: I think it’s more contractual. That’s all I can think of which would explain it.
Kat Farris: Maybe they’re waiting to see a few more games from Tierna since coming back from injury?
Charles Olney: It seems pretty obvious to me that allocations are treated like a sinecure, where you have to really justify ‘taking one away,’ while a young player like Davidson can be effectively required to leave college early and then still not be granted an allocation.
Luis Hernandez: I really think the answer may be more simple than we realize. Like A-Rod being allocated for as long as she was.
RJ Allen: A-Rod had to be because she was on maternity leave. She couldn’t have it taken away during that window.
Luis Hernandez: Right. Maybe this is also a contractual allocation. Like maybe in the CBA there’s a provision for team veterans to have an extra allocation year before getting dropped
Charles Olney: It’s also weird that allocation decisions happen in December but aren’t announced until the spring and then don’t really ‘take effect’ until the start of the season in April. All of which is to say: the allocation system is terrible.
But, of course, the allocation system will be around a while longer, since it was bargained in the recent CBA. Which takes us nicely to our next topic…
What is going on with the US National Team and US Soccer?
RJ Allen: The difficulties the USWNT and USSF are having really do highlight the issues with the two very different systems the MNT and WNT work under.
The problem is neither party can control the reasons the two systems are so different. Which makes cases like this that much harder.
Luis Hernandez: RJ hit the nail right on the head.
Charles Olney: I think that’s an important point. It’s pretty clear to me that the system is not working well, and that US Soccer has some obligation to do more than they are currently doing. But it’s also clear that there’s not really a simple solution. Given the different dynamics, any treatment is necessarily going to look very different across the two teams.
RJ Allen: But why things like meal pay and flights are different is just USSF being cheap on the women’s side. On top of being plain stupid when it comes to marketing and things like kits.
Luis Hernandez: If player compensation was exactly the same between the men and women, there would be serious impacts in the league.
Allison Cary: Yeah, there are some things that are related to the different contracts/systems and some things that I think that USSF just thinks they can get away with.
Charles Olney: Exactly. US Soccer does actually have some decent arguments in a few places. But it’s incredibly hard to take their side overall when they’re so obviously failing to meet minimal standards in the places where it would be really easy to do so.
Luis Hernandez: I like that USSF now uses charter planes to move the USWNT like they do for the men. I dislike that USSF doesn’t think a women’s open cup is worth having. I had to get that in.
Charles Olney: RJ, can you develop that point about the kits a little more? It’s blown up a bit on twitter in the last 24 hours, but is worth digging into since it’s such a good demonstration.
RJ Allen: US Soccer’s issue is they are just flat out bad at some things. Right now if you go to their website you can’t buy a women’s kit. And men’s kits are not able to have three stars.
They are leaving a ton of money on the table by holding the kits back until May for the women and not allowing men’s cut kits to have three stars at all.
Charles Olney: I bought one of the three star kits a couple years ago when they were available. But if I remember correctly it took them almost a year after the 2015 tournament to actually make them. And now they’re unavailable again.
Allison Cary: I was just talking to a male friend earlier this week who wants to buy a three-star kit and is just waiting for them to come out.
RJ Allen: I do not understand the argument I’ve seen made that it will “confuse” people to see a men’s cut jersey with three stars. Of all the arguments to pick, that is the dumbest.
Luis Hernandez: I’m more than happy to correct anyone that would confuse a men’s three star kit if they thought that was for the men’s team
Allison Cary: I didn’t even know that argument existed and that is the worst.
Luis Hernandez: Not to give the federation any breaks, but is that also on Nike?
RJ Allen: Nike has not had this issue with other countries though, Luis.
Charles Olney: My understanding is that Nike is the one making the choices about what to make available. But my understanding is also that huge organizations like US Soccer has the ability to discuss marketing strategy with Nike. Basically, if they genuinely cared about getting their product out, it would be out.
Luis Hernandez: The kit supplier should know better when it’s the like of Nike. I’m assuming they want to make money selling WNT gear.
RJ Allen: They are assuming there is no market or a market not worth investing in. And then saying “see there is nothing here” to not have to do more work in growing that market. For an org that loves money, both Nike and USSF, I do not understand the choices in kits or marketing.
Allison Cary: Sexism over money? It’s like the sexism is so embedded that, as RJ said, they’re convinced they won’t sell without any proof that’s true. Like you could be making money but your sexism is preventing you from being logical.
Charles Olney: Which really brings us around the core of the problem with all of these arguments about equality, market demand, revenue, and so forth. When you have institutions that are uninterested or unwilling in putting in the work to grow, develop, and sell a product, that product is obviously going to struggle more than if you have an enthusiastic actor trying to get everyone involved. With so many of these conversations, we’re talking about years, decades, of neglect. Which makes it impossible to assess what ‘really’ should be going on.
We saw 60,000 turn up for a women’s soccer match in Spain this weekend. We’ve seen huge numbers in Mexico. We’ve seen some of the big European countries selling out their pre-World Cup matches. Those are all great signs. But they’re also a reminder that there is potentially a LOT of demand, but demand which doesn’t have clear avenues for expression a lot of the time.
Allison Cary: I know a lot of people who are soccer fans. They watch men’s soccer because it is accessible, and they would support women’s soccer, but they feel it is such a struggle to get access.
Luis Hernandez: But are we underestimating the popularity of soccer in other parts of the world. I find a lot of people across the board that still have a hangup on watch/supporting a sport because it’s played by women
Allison Cary: I’m by no means trying to say those people don’t exist, I just think that we shouldn’t assume everyone is like that. When I was in England, there were plenty of old, white men who watched the Chelsea women’s games. And I spoke to more who said they would watch the matches if they were on TV or go to games if they were played at the same stadium as the men.
Luis Hernandez: There should be more fans of sports that watch/support the game regardless of the gender of the players.
Allison Cary: I also met people who automatically dismissed women’s soccer simply because it was played by women, so I’m not trying to say everyone would watch it if it were available, but it would matter.
Kat Farris: You can’t sell a product only the dedicated few know exists and expect to increase your market/grow the game
Charles Olney: I think that it’s absolutely true that there are a lot of soccer fans who aren’t realistically available for women’s soccer marketing. They have expectations and aren’t interested in changing them. But it’s also true that the worldwide soccer audience is unbelievably large, and you don’t need to persuade everyone. Just getting the people on the margins, who might be willing to take a look, could go a long way.
And of course social expectations do change, even for people who seem dyed-in-the-wool. I say this as someone with family in Atlanta who cared 0.00% about soccer until a couple years ago and NEVER would have thought it was possible that they’d follow the sport.
Luis Hernandez: I was going to say something on a lack of a league TV deal, but I didn’t want to go off the rails.
Charles Olney: A topic for another week, for sure.
Alright, let’s take a little time to get back to things on the pitch before we close up for the week.
Since we last chatted, the US completed the SheBelieves Cup. It didn’t go well. But it also wasn’t a disaster. How is everyone feeling about the team at this point?
RJ Allen: I do not for the life of me understand why Sam Mewis is not starting every game.
Charles Olney: I’ve been a mild skeptic in the “Mewis would fix everything” debates. But even so, I completely agree. I don’t think she’d fix everything, but she sure would help.
RJ Allen: I think Dunn is a great player but she has been made into a pure attacker and her defending during a World Cup scares me. Ellis has to find another outside back and hope O’Hara stays healthy.
Allison Cary: I completely agree on the Dunn point.
Luis Hernandez: I’m not a believer in Rose being a starter when we have the roster at full strength. I would rather see Mewis, Ertz and Horan.
RJ Allen: I do wonder overall why the USWNT pool of outside backs is as weak as I think we’ve ever seen it.
Charles Olney: It is weird. I feel like two years ago we were marveling at all the young exciting fullbacks who were coming up. And they’ve pretty much all flamed out.
RJ Allen: Honestly if Kristie Mewis hadn’t gotten hurt, I wouldn’t have minded her getting a look.
Charles Olney: I suppose it’s also worth noting that we’d arguably be having a different conversation if Hinkle had decided that she was okay wearing a pride jersey.
Luis Hernandez: Accurate.
Allison Cary: Yep.
RJ Allen: Hinkle showed herself not to be someone the team could depend on. That is the biggest USWNT sin.
Luis Hernandez: I don’t feel good that Short didn’t get playing time.
Charles Olney: With Short, I have to imagine there’s something about how she’s doing in training. Because it’s such an obvious HUGE problem right now, and based on her form of a year or so ago, it seems obvious that she should be getting some time. But she did miss a lot of time last year, and I’m not sure she ever really got back to her peak for Chicago. So maybe she just has genuinely lost a step and it’s been obvious in training?
RJ Allen: I do still wish the US would call up the eligible outside backs on each team and just give them a go. Honestly just try everyone and see who sticks. Becca Moros just for the gifs.
Luis Hernandez: I think club play is going to favor more for those bubble roster players and perhaps we’ll see someone surprise us and make the jump to the national team.
Charles Olney: [Whispers]: Sofia Huerta?
RJ Allen: Charles. Don’t be mean. Houston doesn’t even play her as an outside back.
Charles Olney: I mean, she still can’t really defend, but…what evidence do we have that Ellis cares about that? Is all I’m saying.
RJ Allen: Honestly have HAO play outside back. At least she would be good for team chemistry.
Charles Olney: I detect no lies there.
RJ Allen: One last thing I want to throw out there is the fact that the US Soccer Hall of Fame vote is going to happen soon. And there are some USWNT players up for possible selection.
Eligible Players: David Beckham | Gregg Berhalter | Carlos Bocanegra | Shannon Boxx | Edson Buddle | Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke | Lori Chalupny | Lauren Cheney Holiday | Steve Cherundolo | Brian Ching | Kenny Cooper | Jeff Cunningham | Todd Dunivant | Kevin Hartman | Frankie Hejduk | Thierry Henry | Stuart Holden | Eddie Johnson | Chris Klein | Karina LeBlanc | Amy LePeilbet | Eddie Lewis | Lori Lindsey | Stephanie Lopez Cox | Pablo Mastroeni | Clint Mathis | Heather Mitts | Jaime Moreno | Ben Olsen | Pat Onstad | Heath Pearce | Troy Perkins | Steve Ralston | Cat Reddick Whitehill | Donovan Ricketts | Leigh Ann Robinson Brown | Tony Sanneh | Homare Sawa | Kate Sobrero Markgraf | Bakary Soumare | Taylor Twellman | Aly Wagner | Abby Wambach | Josh Wolff
Luis Hernandez: Excellent point RJ.
RJ Allen: Look, Boxx, Chalupny, Holiday, Sawa, Markgraf and Wambach should get in, in a landslide. But they likely won’t other than Wambach.
Luis Hernandez: I wouldn’t be repping Orlando right, if I also didn’t mention Tiffany Roberts who now coaches at UCF. She’s on the ballot in the Veteran category
Charles Olney: The US Soccer Hall of Fame is a weird institution, covering the men (a not very successful group of players compared to the rest of the world), the women (the best group of players in the world), and foreign players who have had a big impact here. It’s just kind of hard to even comprehend how you can jam all those together in a coherent way.
Allison Cary: Very true.
Charles Olney: Like, Amy LePeilbet was one probably top 20 at her position in the whole world, right? But she’s like 12th on this list for women who deserve induction. Compare to someone like Carlos Bocanegra, who was one of the KEY players for the US men over a full decade, and one of our most successful players in a top European league. But…at his best, he was a useful player for a mediocre Fulham team.
I also saw someone pointing out that when/if Markgraf gets inducted, the entire starting XI for the 99ers will be inducted. Which seems bizarre. How can the whole team be in the Hall of Fame? Except, of course they’re all in. They’re all ridiculously good!
RJ Allen: It is not enough to have been great during your years of international and domestic play if you’re on the women’s side. The women have five current forwards that would make the hall of fame for nearly every other country in the world. It’s not enough to have simply defined your position internationally during your time on the national team, you have to be the best to have ever played it.
Either the standard for the men seeking induction needs to be raised to meet the level of Hamm and Overbeck and the rest of the supremely talented women who have made it into the Hall or the standard for the women needs to come back down to earth.
Charles Olney: To be honest, I don’t really see it getting worked out. I think it will just continue to stumble along like a drunken sailor, getting enough of the big decisions right for people to continue talking about it, but not enough right to be a fully credible institution.
And with that, we will close things out for today. Thanks for reading everyone. And as always, let us know if you have any topics you’d like to hear us discuss in future weeks!