Backline Chat: Goodbye Go90, Hello Mexico, and the Tournament of Nations


Charles Olney (@olneyce): Hi everyone, and welcome to the Backline Soccer chat. Today we’re going to spend some time talking about international soccer, particularly the Tournament of Nations. But first, can we all pour one out for go90, which is officially shuffling off the stage today? Will anyone be lamenting its departure?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): Do we know how the NWSL is handling who will be calling games? Because I can’t remember hearing about that.

Charles Olney: We can hope that they haven’t found anyone and we’ll just get crowd noise.

Becky Schoenecker(@Beckster20): That’s a pretty great take.

RJ Allen: Jon Lipsitz would do it really cheap, NWSL.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): I haven’t had to use the app in the last year, since I’ve been in the UK. But I can’t say I’ve seen anyone who is sad to see it go.

Charles Olney: I actually hope that they return to local broadcasters. I’ve been a pretty big critic of that approach in the past, but the more that I’ve soured on the current system, the more I’ve wondered if I was too harsh on the old approach. It would be nice to get some more perspective on the differences.

RJ Allen: I am a fan of local baseball broadcasters and that’s a lot of the feeling I got from the best of the local broadcasters from the NWSL in years past. So I’d be happy with that return.

Becky Schoenecker: Having announcers who are actually at the games is a huge positive if they’re able to swing it.

Allison Cary: It works well in other sports. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for the NWSL.

RJ Allen: Some crews were not good. But there were some that were really fun. #BringBackAnnSchatz

Luis Hernandez: I guess I’ll take the opposite side here. I remember the broadcast team the Pride used year one. It wasn’t great. They sometimes didn’t know the player names or mispronounced them worse than the go90 team

Charles Olney: All that said, my guess is that they’ll retain the services of the same broadcasters we’ve been getting, since the actual production company is a separate institution, which was only sending the feed to go90.

RJ Allen: Way to be a downer, Charles.

Charles Olney: But in typical NWSL fashion, they probably won’t tell us anything one way or the other until 2 minutes before the games return.

RJ Allen: Likely you’re right though. But maybe next year we can either get the games on ESPN+ or another way where it’s more consistent.

Luis Hernandez: I like some of the broadcasters now. I just wish I had more of a tie with them as they called the game.

RJ Allen: Also on site would help. So much.

Luis Hernandez: Instead it’s like “who are you and why do I care about you calling the game?” I mean knowing Dan or Jen being the person who called games means something to me because I care/respect their opinions during the match.

Charles Olney: Alright, while we’re on the subject of the NWSL, I’ve got two other things I want to get some quick thoughts about. First: Sky Blue and Chicago had to cancel their game this weekend. Thoughts on that? Is this another example of the Mickey Mouse operation that Sky Blue is running, or just an unfortunate thing that will happen when you’re running a league on a small budget?

RJ Allen: I think it is showing that a lot of teams do not think long term ahead. Teams flay out less than 24 hours before a match in some cases which isn’t ideal for the players bodies. And when something goes wrong there isn’t enough time to sort it out either.

Luis Hernandez: It’s hard to be critical of an operation when the cause is weather, but part of me still kind of thinks that it was due to a Sky Blue screw up that just happened to be connected to the weather.

RJ Allen: Yes, was it bad luck. Sure. But bad luck keeps happening to them too.

Allison Cary: Yeah, it seems like it could have been avoided with better planning.

Luis Hernandez:Orlando learned about travel in the league the first year and now they give themselves two days in Portland and Seattle. What is Sky Blue’s excuse?

RJ Allen: The flights are cheaper. They take whatever flight is cheapest.

Luis Hernandez:The most recent West Coast swing saw the team stay out on the road instead of flying back to Florida. I assumed other teams did the same thing. Or did Sky Blue not have a west coast swing?

RJ Allen: They may have but this was a one off in terms of travel.

Charles Olney: Second NWSL-adjacent question: North Carolina just won the ICC, after winning matches against PSG and Lyon. How big a deal is this? I’ll start by noting that I literally did not know what ICC actually stood for, and just had to look it up. It’s the International Champions Cup. Not the International Criminal Court.

RJ Allen: I think it’s a 6/10. Yes, Lyon hasn’t played as a unit since May but their starts have played for NT since and it’s not like they are inexperienced players.

I really think it matters no matter if it is their preseason or not.

Allison Cary: I think beating Lyon is a statement. People often say Lyon is the best club in the world (myself included). Beating the best club in the world when you have players on NT duty? That’s impressive.

Luis Hernandez: I think it’s a huge deal that won’t get treated as such because those other teams are in preseason while the Courage are in midseason shape

If the script had been flipped I know the narrative would have been “Of course N.C. losses to OL, what did you expect?”

RJ Allen: I would also like to point out it wasn’t like every Courage player was in mid season form as a starter. Neil Morris has a great chart in one of his pieces that showed that a lot of the players hadn’t played or played much this year.

Charles Olney: I’d probably put it at a 5/10. It’s a preseason game, and it’s hard to overstate how unimportant results are in preseason games. But it’s still a cool result. And perhaps more important, I think it demonstrates just how seriously the North Carolina team buys into their message. To play that intensely, and to achieve that result, with a half-strength team shows just how committed they really are.

As we’ve discussed before, I would LOVE to see a full strength NC and Lyon facing off. This wasn’t that, but it was still cool.

Luis Hernandez: If anything I credit Paul Riley and this makes him a lock to me as coach of the year

RJ Allen: I would also like to point out it would be hard for these teams to both be at full power and play each other with how their seasons go. Possible, maybe but it would be at a very random or difficult time. It’s partly why I have issues with a club world cup.

Charles Olney: In the long term, I think a club world cup would be interesting and potentially could be taken more seriously than it ever could on the men’s side. The problem for the men is that all the best teams in the world play in Europe, so it’s a redundant event. But on the women’s side, there are GREAT teams that would otherwise never play. But I agree the logistics are tough.

Luis Hernandez: I’d rather see an Open Cup in the US before a club World Cup. Club World Cup is just a few steps below to me on priorities

RJ Allen: Oh lord. Pro teams should not play amateur teams.

Charles Olney: That’s an interesting topic, which we should cover soon here. But for now, let’s turn to the main topic at the moment: international soccer. In particular, the Tournament of Nations. I saw some folks saying that the US and Australia match this weekend was a potential preview of next year’s World Cup final. Do people agree that these are maybe the top two teams in the world right now?

RJ Allen: I think it could very well be a knock out game. But unless FIFA starts seeding teams better the Aussies and the US could play in the opening round for all we know.

Allison Cary: I think Australia and the US are two of the best teams in the world right now. But I agree with RJ’s point about seeding.

RJ Allen: I do think the Aussies are much higher than their 8th place FIFA ranking though. They have a lot of great players who work well together. And they were missing their starting outside back in this match.

Charles Olney: Personally, I don’t think it would be fair to set the US and Australia on a separate tier from some of the other competitors. But I wouldn’t argue if you wanted to call them 1A and 1B, with teams like England, France, etc. falling just a hair below them.

Allison Cary: For the record, I’m not saying they’re *the* best. But like RJ said, I think the Aussies are higher than 8th. I put them in a pretty elite class.

Charles Olney: For Australia, I think it was impressive how well the played in a game where Sam Kerr was very quiet. It can be tempting to think of them as primarily a vehicle for Kerr, but they absolutely aren’t. It’s a solid team from top to bottom.

RJ Allen: I was at the games in CT. There was a much, much different feeling watching the game between the US and Australia than there was for Japan and Brazil. The pace, what the players were doing, the way they were connecting and defending each other. All of it was just on another level for US v AUS.

Charles Olney: That’s a great point, RJ. And it provides some evidence that the Tournament of Nations matters, even if it’s fundamentally an imaginary, constructed event. By pitting these teams against each other twice in 12 months, it created an opportunity for a real rivalry.

Luis Hernandez: The main takeaway I get from ToN is that the USWNT has lost its mystique and intimidation factor. Other teams don’t fear the US anymore

RJ Allen: I don’t think that’s a bad thing though.

Luis Hernandez: I don’t think it is either. It should drive to make the team and players better.

Charles Olney: Regarding intimidation, when did the US really have that, though? Certainly not in the Olympics. Last World Cup? Didn’t feel like it. Before that? I’d maybe say that these games have been more about Australia showing that they’re ready to take on anyone.

RJ Allen: Maybe 2012?

I do think there is a pretty healthy respect between the teams in terms of knowing they have to go all out. You saw players working all 90+ minutes in a way the US rarely has to. The US doesn’t have to play 90 against many teams and the Aussies have quickly become one they do. And that is great to see.

Charles Olney: Agreed.

Luis Hernandez: I agree with RJ on this one too.

Charles Olney: Any other thoughts people have about the ToN? How is the US playing? Standouts or stars?

RJ Allen: Zerboni changed the way the US played when she came on. From the way Sauerbrunn lined up behind her to the way the midfield pushed up. I could see the change the second she came on in how players played.

Luis Hernandez: I thought Davidson bounced back nicely from her SheBelieves performance

Allison Cary: I’m really disappointed that Jill Ellis is only starting Naeher. I’d particularly love to see Franch get some playing time.

Luis Hernandez: And I’m here for Dunn on the back line.

RJ Allen: I am not. She got beat, a lot. In a lot of spots the camera might not have picked up. Seeing it was rough.

Luis Hernandez: With the level of talent of the team, I want all our good players on the pitch as we can, if it makes sense. I don’t think Press has had much of a ToN

Charles Olney: My lukewarm big picture take is that the US setup is basically working as intended, and while I don’t think it’s the best possible usage of the available talent, it’s a fairly user-proof, which is a nice feature. So while I’m not thrilled with their approach, I also am finding it a lot harder to get truly worked up about tactics and things. The US hasn’t lost in a year, playing all of the world’s best teams, and that’s not a total coincidence.

In particular, I’m ready to mostly stop complaining about the lack of buildup through the middle. That’s just not how this team is going to play, and while I wish they would do something different, it’s probably time to stop tilting at that windmill.

Luis Hernandez: It’s hard to screw up a 4-3-3

RJ Allen: I do think people get way, way, way too worked up about the “US being in a downfall and OMG everything is horrible”. They are playing well enough to beat pretty much every team in the top 10 or at least draw.

This is not the 2015 team and I’d really like to see people accept that.

Allison Cary: I think there is a section of US fans that want them to always be dominant, and that doesn’t really work well with the evolving nature of the sport. We want other countries to invest more and other teams to be better. Teams like Australia challenging the US is a good thing for women’s soccer. But it might mean the US not winning every game they play (although as RJ pointed out, they’re still winning most games).

Charles Olney: Okay, any final thoughts on individuals players, positive or negative?

RJ Allen: I think the US has to move on from the “Becky Sauerbrunn will always save us” mentality because frankly she can’t anymore. She is still very much an 8.5/10 player. But she isn’t 9.5/10 anymore.

Charles Olney: I think that’s fair. She remains a fantastic player, and the US is much worse-off when she can’t play. But she isn’t unbeatable. It’s strange that after so long with the defense being the team’s main strength, it’s become a significant weakness in 2018.

RJ Allen: Not having O’Hara hurt them more than I expected. As Sauerbrunn said in the video they did together, O’Hara’s energy can change a match.

Charles Olney: Alright, final topic: the rest of CONCACAF. Last night Mexico and Costa Rica played, in a likely matchup of two teams that will be vying for an automatic WC bid in a few months. Did people get a chance to watch it? Thoughts on either team?

RJ Allen: I’m glad teams in the same range are playing each other. I think it is a much better test for them than either playing the US and getting beaten 5-0.

Charles Olney: I’ve been impressed with the progress of the Mexican team. As you say, they can’t really hang with the US, but I thought they played well in those April friendlies. And it looks like the trajectory is continuing to move in a positive direction. I wonder if the success of Liga MX Femenil might have a role to play in that?

Luis Hernandez: I didn’t watch it but I followed it on Twitter.

RJ Allen: I hope they open Liga MX Femenil up to anyone able to play for Mexico next season.

Charles Olney: I’m particularly excited because one half of the group stage for WC qualifying will be happening down in my neck of the woods. They haven’t officially announced locations apart from the US and Canada, but I’m hoping that Mexico ends up in that pod. I’d love to get a chance to see them live a few more times. (edited)

RJ Allen: It would make sense for them to put Mexico in that group.

Luis Hernandez: I thought it was great for Mexico. As I tweeted the other day, I think the Mexican federation had to do something since it wasn’t getting a ROI for NWSL

Luis Hernandez: I could see the change the second she came on in how players played. Creating Liga MX Femenil is a result of it and it’s improved he Mexican squad by leaps and bounds.

RJ Allen: I rather Mexico improve their league than send players into the NWSL and not. I think having Liga MX Femenil and the NWSL both in North America is better for soccer overall. And maybe one day open it up to players outside of Mexico.

Luis Hernandez: I don’t think Mexico has peaked yet either

RJ Allen: Mexico is 25 right now. I think by 2023 they could get near 15 or 14 if they keep investing.

Allison Cary: It’s definitely getting football fans in Mexico excited. At least female football fans.

Luis Hernandez: I think it’s just fans overall. This is what happens when both the men and women sides can use the same team crest

Luis Hernandez: Which I think would be a huge marketing win if teams in NWSL could do that

RJ Allen: I do not like that idea at all, whatsoever. They are not Orlando City Women. They are the Orlando Pride. They are not the Portland Timbers Women. They are the Portland Thorns. And so on. (edited)

Luis Hernandez: Doesn’t seem to hurt attendance in Mexico

Charles Olney: As with many things, I can see the arguments on both sides. I think in an environment where soccer teams already have huge, dedicated audiences, tapping in can be very helpful. The US doesn’t really have that, and charting out an independent identity seems to make a lot more sense. But I also completely get the concern about being designated as a secondary team making it hard to get out from the under that shadow.

Luis Hernandez: And you get clearly identifiable rivals. If you had Seattle Sounders women vs Portland Timbers women I think the crowd would be even bigger

RJ Allen: No. Fuck no. Hell no. All day, every day, no.

Allison Cary: I can’t get past the idea that Charles mentioned. The women will always be seen as secondary if they don’t have their own identity.

Luis Hernandez: You’re against LA Galaxy Orange County Women’s?

RJ Allen: I am out if the league starts doing that. I’ll go cover cornhole or something on ESPN.

Luis Hernandez: I’m just saying it’s a crest thing (representing the club) regardless of gender of the team

RJ Allen: Why on earth shouldn’t a different team have their own crest? Are fans not smart enough to understand they are under the same umbrella?

Luis Hernandez: In English football, I support the Blackburn Rovers. So I have a built-in interest in Rovers women’s side

RJ Allen: And if they were the Blackburn Bluejays how would that change the interest?

Luis Hernandez: Same club, different teams

RJ Allen: I don’t understand why they can’t have their own name and crest but under the same umbrella and that is the same.

Luis Hernandez: It would be easier for me to follow a women’s side at the top flight so I can track it better. I just have a natural interest for Blackburn.

RJ Allen: If your problem is people can’t remember the names of the women’s clubs then I can’t help you.

Luis Hernandez: That’s not it. It’s about the crest.

RJ Allen: They are not second-class citizens. They do not need to default to the men’s crest.

Luis Hernandez: But you’re missing my point, it isn’t a men’s crest to me at all. Just a club crest. I am not putting gender on a team symbol. Does that make sense?

Charles Olney: I think I’m on Team RJ here, but I think it’s to some extent a product of different naming conventions. In the US nicknames are part of the name, full stop. In Europe, they’re often informal or virtually nonexistent.

Allison Cary: In the UK, if I’m talking about Chelsea Women, they are absolutely seen as secondary. And up until recently they were still “Chelsea Ladies.” That might be able to change if clubs took the initiative, but so far they haven’t. And they have much bigger brand power than MLS. I don’t see how it would benefit a US women’s team to have a unified crest with a men’s side, all I can see is the NWSL becoming even more of an afterthought than it already is.

Luis Hernandez: I get what you are saying Allison and I don’t think you’re wrong at all. But I also see it work in Mexico and as far as I know France so maybe it can happen.

Allison Cary: I don’t think it really works well in France. I went to the Lyon-PSG match in Lyon in the city’s main stadium and attendance was pretty awful. And that was supposed to be one of their biggest games of the year.

RJ Allen: Just because something works in one market, doesn’t mean it works everywhere. See Portland.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator
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