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NWSL Review: The Year Two Exit Interview

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Come in, NWSL. Thanks for stopping by. I know you’re on your way out-of-town for the offseason. Are you just going home, or are you playing overseas until March? Regardless, I hope you have great offseason. You just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

As you know, we do these exit interviews at the end of each season, but please, don’t think of this as a performance evaluation. I mean, it’s definitely is a performance evaluation — I’m legally obligated to say that — but I want you to think of it as a dialog. You’re evaluating me as much as we’re evaluating you! And yes, from a certain point of view, that’s also a total lie, but I want to make sure you’re comfortable.

Can I get you anything? A glass of water? Maybe another national television deal? Just asking because this might take a while. You’ve had a big year, and just looking at this list, wow there’s a lot of over.

So let’s get to it. As you know, two years isn’t very much time to establish a new professional league, so this process isn’t about comparing you to what we’d like to you be five, 10, 25 years from now. It’s about progress. All we want to see year-over-year is improvement, be that on the field, off, or in terms of your long-term potential. Right now, it’s all about career development.

So let’s talk about the skills we’d like to you develop:

source: AP
FC Kansas City players lift their championship trophy after beating the Seattle Reign FC in the NWSL championship soccer match Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Tukwila, Wash. Kansas City won 2-1. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

On the field

I have to hand it you, NWSL. In terms of on-field product, this was a great year. You were already ahead of the game last year when you were already better than Women’s Professional Soccer. But this year, you took it up another notch.

Let’s talk about your two big differences. The first, you got almost all of the U.S. Women’s National Team talents to come back home. Megan Rapinoe got out of her contract with Lyon. Christen Press moved to Chicago . Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenburg eventually arrived in Houston. Add in Tobin Heath’s cameo in Portland, players like Amber Brooks, Sarah Hagen, and Yael Averbuch playing their parts, and the national team’s impact on the NWSL has almost hit its max. In terms of what that brings to the league, it’s obviously a plus.

I’ll be honest you, though. We’ve had some discussions among ourselves about whether this is in the best interest of the national team. Some players — say, Sydney Leroux, or Crystal Dunn — could probably benefit from playing in a different environment for a while. At least, a few of us have brought it up. Going forward, there’s a danger you, as a league, are just reinforcing what these players strengths without addressing their weaknesses. You might want to consider loaning more players to Europe each fall.

Ultimately, however, we decided it’s not the league’s job to make sure players are making the best choices. Your job is to improve the league, and while your partnership with U.S. Soccer is exerting some pressure on players to say home, they could still say “No”.  It’s not like the money’s better over here. That they’re not has helped improve the product.

But even more influential — and, quite frankly, we’re really excited about this — was getting somebody like Kim Little to come over. An international player (Scotland) of that caliber? One that comes in, wins MVP? That’s a huge boost to the product.

Nahomi Kawasumi (Japan)? Veronica Boquete (Spain)? Well done. Between those players, Western New York’s slew of exciting Spaniards, as well as players like Jodie Taylor in Washington (England), Nadine Angerer (Germany) and Steph Catley in Portland (Australia), the league’s injected a huge amount of talent. And it shows on the field.

Honestly, NWSL, I was in Seattle for the title game on Sunday, and I was blown away. That’s a product that rivals what you see in UEFA Champions League. We couldn’t have asked for a better national television showcase. Just … bravo.

Last year, at this time, we couldn’t have anticipated this kind of improvement. You’ve gone above and beyond, but now, you’ve also set a high bar. As much as you exceeded expectations, we’re going to expect this kind of talent going forward.

Grade: A

source: Getty Images
Laura Harvey here with Arsenal Ladies, led the Seattle to the league’s best regular season record, with Reign FC’s two losses in 24 games setting a new standard for success. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

On the sidelines

Last year, as you know, we pointed out a number of situations where we thought you could improve, and to your credit, a lot of them got addressed. Washington’s coaching situation was much better this season, and the results showed on the field (the team went from last place to the playoffs). Randy Waldrum won praise from his colleagues for his first year with expansion Houston. Paul Riley, a two-time Coach of the Year in WPS, returned to the sidelines in Portland. There were lot of places were the quality of coaching took a step forward.

More importantly, and this is something we weren’t anticipating last year, the competition among coaches is starting to get fierce. Laura Harvey’s really set a bar in Seattle. Vlatko Andonovski was Coach of the Year last year, but even he adjusted this year in Kansas City. Established names like Riley and Aaran Lines in Rochester are really being tested. They’re going to have to come stronger next season. That’s a good thing.

You can see in the trouble Riley and this year that your standard is higher. He was clearly the best coach in WPS, but in his first year in Portland, he came up short.

He’ll adjust. Lines will adjust. And the league will be much better for it. You’ve done a great job of pushing the envelope on the sidelines as well as one the field.

Grade: B+

source:
The Rose City Riveters have brought MLS-level fandom to Portland’s North End for the last two years. In 2014, the Thorns averaged a league-leading 13,352 fans per game. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

In the stands, off the field

We knew this was going to be your biggest challenge, and honestly, there are still some situations that worry us. Sky Blue seems like a long-term challenge. Does that team have a place in a league that’s successful two, four, eight years from now? They’ve got significant hurdles.

Boston also has issues, both on the field and off, while Western New York took a hit at the turnstiles this season. Both of those clubs have established track records, but as the league moves forward, will they be able to move with it? Western New York has the resources to adjust. Does Boston?

Those are the worries. Other places, we see the progress. Chicago drew better than last year, as did Seattle. Like Kansas City, the Reign elected to get closer to the heart of their city to try to be more assessable. Hopefully, that pays off in the long run.

Portland, of course, is your standard, but it’s not realistic to expect other teams to draw that many fans. They’re a terrible barometer. We’re here to measure progress, not success. In that light, more teams are making progress, perhaps more than we saw in either WPS or the Women’s United Soccer Association. It’s not difficult to imagine most of these teams surviving beyond this World Cup/Olympics cycle.

Grade: B-

source:
The NWSL makes almost every game available via its YouTube channel, allowing hardcore fans to take in as much as their time allows.

In fans’ homes

Offering all the games for free on YouTube continues to work. And the fact that almost every club’s broadcasts improved this year? That certainly helped. Right now, giving people access to as much of your soccer as possible is paramount. In that regard, mission accomplished.

Obviously, the quality of the broadcasts can improve. For the most part, you’ve solved the technical issues this season, but that’s not enough. At some point, the broadcast quality has to match the level of play, and right now, it’s just not there. Your teams need to continue to find better talent to present their games, preferably ones that follow the whole league (not just the home team).

Houston did a great job this season. Between Sebastian Salazar and Jen Cooper, the Dash had a perfect combination of polish, knowledge, and ambition with its broadcast talent. You could tell Salazar, not necessarily known as a women’s soccer guy, treated the games as an opportunity. And Cooper rivaled Seattle’s Lesle Gallimore as the league’s most knowledgable color commentator. One year in, Houston’s broadcasts are the standard.

I know not every team has the resources to create that product, but that should be the goal. All the money your teams are saving on U.S. national team talent? They should be putting more of it into the broadcast.

Each game is a new opportunity to sell new fans on the league. Every team needs to approach their product with that urgency.

Grade: C

source: AP
Players who’ve used the NWSL as a platform to improve have yet to impact U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’s squad. (AP)

Supplying the national team

Let’s not be coy about why you’re here. U.S. Soccer wants you to maintain its national team stars, if not outright develop them. Without that dimension, this league doesn’t exist.

However, we recognize it’s a two-way street. You’re certainly doing your part. When I was going through your rosters before this meeting, looking at all the players who could play for the national team, I was thrilled. With every team, I could pick out one or two names that deserve more consideration at the international level.

But, as you know, that’s not happening. I know people point to Portland’s Allie Long as an example of somebody who worked her way into the team through the league, but she was on the team’s radar before the Thorns ever kicked off. It’s not your fault, but U.S. Soccer seems unwilling to look at anybody you’re developing.

What’s important to me, and I think other fans, is that you’re giving them the option. If players like Keelin Winters and Brittany Taylor can’t get a look? At least they’re making your product better on the field.

Combine that with the improvement we’ve seen from national team regulars like Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn — going from good players to among the best in the world at their positions — and I know you’re making an impact. Hopefully, going forward, that impact will grow.

Grade: Incomplete

source: AP
Seattle Reign FC’s Keelin Winters, left, goalie Hope Solo, second from right, and Megan Rapinoe, right, argue with official Margaret Domka late in the second half of the NWSL championship soccer match against FC Kansas City, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Tukwila, Wash. Kansas City won 2-1. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Into the future

You’re helping U.S. Soccer now, but come 2016, you may need to stand on your own. At least, you have to be prepared for a day the federation stops cutting checks, and after the 2016 Olympics, the federation may elect to make a decision about your funding. If there’s a point where it makes sense to pull out, that’s it.

So looking across the project, trying to see how many of your teams could stand on their own in two years, I’m not sure what to think. Portland can, of course, and you’ve created the same MLS link with Houston. If there’s a league in 2017, they’re probably going to be in it, and while it’s always concerning when a women’s team is set up to play second fiddle, the league would look stronger with a few more second fiddles in the short-term.

Western New York isn’t going anywhere, while Seattle has a path to success. You’d like to think the same about Kansas City, who continue to make progress, while Washington has been a historically successful “WoSo” market. Add in Chicago, a team with dedicated ownership and management that’s chipping away at problems, and you’ve got a number of potential success stories.

Here’s the problem: I want to count to eight. I want to go over this list of teams and be able to say with confidence that, come 2017, eight teams can stand on their own. I’m not saying make money – that’s unrealistic. I’m saying they have a viable foundation, one that allows them to persist at the top-level indefinitely.

So to end this interview, I’ll ask you a question: Can you honestly count to eight? I didn’t think so, but that’s okay. When we meet again in 2016, do you think you’ll be able to then?

Well, you better get working. A lot of people are expecting this league to be around. You can’t let them down.

Grade: ?

WATCH: Giovinco’s goal drought is over after a pair of stunning free kicks

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against Colorado Rapids during the first half of the MLS soccer game in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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Oh, how we have missed you, Sebastian Giovinco, scorer of amazingly beautiful, video game-like goals.

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If you can believe it, Toronto FC’s tiny superstar entered Saturday’s clash with D.C. United without a goal in any of his last eight league games. Six minutes before halftime, the drought was over after not one, but two “only Giovinco could do that” free kicks (videos below).

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of the MLS weekend ]

It was by far the longest such streak of Giovinco’s (brief) time in MLS, and at least he had the decency to make it worth our wait.

Scholes: Pogba “nowhere near worth” rumored Man United transfer fee

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United looks on during Paul Scholes' Testimonial Match between Manchester United and New York Cosmos at Old Trafford on August 5, 2011 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
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If a player is only worth what a club is willing to pay them, then aren’t they also worth a price at the top of the pay scale, as long as a club is willing to pay it?

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Manchester United legend Paul Scholes doesn’t think so, at least not in the case of Paul Pogba, the highly-sought Juventus (and former Man United, which he left for free) midfielder. Rumored to be the subject of $113-million bid by the Red Devils, Pogba’s footballing future remains a question, though an answer will have to be realized in the coming days and/or weeks, as the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off 21 days from today.

That’s a price that, according to Scholes, should be reserved for “someone who is going to score 50 goals a season like Ronaldo or Messi” — quotes from the Guardian:

“He was a very talented young player, I played with him and I knew how good he was. He played for the first team maybe once or twice, but from my understanding he was asking for too much money [when he left in 2012].

“For his age, he was asking for far too much money, for a player who hasn’t played first-team football. OK, he has gone on to great things. I think certainly there has been a lot of improvement. He needed to improve if he is going to be a player worth £86m.”

While United may have to pay closer to [$131 million], Scholes added: “I just don’t think he is worth [$86 million]. For that sort of money, you want someone who is going to score 50 goals a season like Ronaldo or Messi. Pogba is nowhere worth that kind of money yet.

[ PRESEASON: PL clubs in action with opening day three weeks ago ]

On Scholes’ assertion that Pogba was asking “for far too much money”: United have finished 7th, 4th and 5th in the last three PL seasons, while in that same time Pogba has gone on to become on of the top five players in the world; meanwhile, none of the world’s 20 best (or is it 50?) players currently play for United. It would have been a risk to pay a 19-year-old with three first-team appearances like a seasoned veteran, to be sure, but so much of succeeding at the top level of the sport is down to hitting pay dirt on exactly that kind of calculated risk. If everyone plays it by the book, no one’s ever going to get ahead.

On Scholes’ obviously fear he may no longer be United’s greatest “Paul”: It’s OK, Scholesy, it’ll be terribly difficult to top in 10 years what you achieved in 18.

MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 1-2 LA Galaxy (video)

CARSON, CA - MARCH 06:  Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates after scoring on a penalty kick in the second half of their MLS match against D.C. United at StubHub Center on March 6, 2016 in Carson, California. The Galaxy defeated United 4-1.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy are firing on all cylinders these days, having extended their winning streak to four games (six games unbeaten) with a 2-1 victory over the defending MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers at Providence Park on Saturday. The win sees Bruce Arena’s side move to within two and five points of the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield-leading Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, respectively (the two sides face one another later on Saturday), while the Timbers miss out on their chance to jump two places, up to fourth, in the West. Back to Saturday’s game, Robbie Keane bagged the 80th goal of his time in MLS (to go with 44 assists, bringing the Irishman’s impressive statline up to 124 goals and assists combined in 118 appearances), but it was Gyasi Zardes who scored the winner, just four minutes after Keane’s opener, in the 11th minute. As I’ve opined the last two weeks, the Galaxy are peaking at the right time of year, and the rest of the league should be terrified.

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

7′ — Keane taps home at the far post — Keane won’t score many goals easier than this one. Giovani dos Santos teed him up, and fortunately for Keane, Nat Borchers dropped his controller as GdS hit his cross.

11′ — Zardes heads home after another defensive breakdown — Zardes has real striker’s instincts. Let’s let him put those to good use, like he did in making the late run to the back post for the Galaxy’s second goal.

41′ — Valentin rolls one past Rowe for 2-1 — The finish from Valentin is nice, but how about Darlington Nagbe with the skill and the vision inside the penalty area to created the space, time and chance?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Robbie Keane

Goalscorers: Keane (7′), Zardes (11′), Valentin (41′)

Preseason roundup: 10 Premier League clubs in action Saturday

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 23:  Wes Morgan captain of Leicester City holds the International Champions Cup during the Pre Seanon Friendly match between Cetlic and Leicester City at Celtic Park Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s preseason friendlies involving Premier League clubs…

Celtic 1-1 Leicester City

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Leicester City winger (and 2015-16 PFA Player of the Year) Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring with a sensational, curling goal guided inside the far post by his magical left foot (WATCH HERE). The Foxes conceded an equalizer just before the hour mark (Eoghan O’Connell), but Claudio Ranieri‘s side still has a number of key players to welcome back into the starting lineup ahead of the opening day for the 2016-17 Premier League season, which is just three weeks from today.

PEC Zwolle 0-4 Southampton

Southampton continued their preseason preparations, under the direction of new manager Claude Puel, with a 4-0 victory over Eredivisie side Zwolle. Nathan Redmond, who arrived from Norwich City in the summer, scored twice on the day (second goal below), while Charlie Austin and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg bagged a goal each.

Portsmouth 3-3 Bournemouth

Bournemouth managed a 3-3 draw with fellow South Coast side Portsmouth, with Lewis Grabban, Jordan Ibe (fresh off signing from Liverpool) and Dan Gosling scoring for the Premier League side.

Barnsley 0-3 Everton

Ross Barkley scored twice and Kevin Mirallas netted the other goal, as Everton, under new boss Ronald Koeman, brushed aside Championship side Barnsley

Elsewhere in preseason action

Bradford City 1-4 Burnley
Rotheram 1-2 Sunderland
Preston North End 1-1 Stoke City
Scunthorpe United 0-2 Hull City
Watford 0-0 Anzhi Makhachkala
PSV Eindhoven vs. West Bromwich Albion — canceled