Women’s United Soccer Association

Morgan scores, Thorns win, but Portland’s crowd steals the show

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Thorns FC came good on their home debut, dominating Cascadia neighbors Seattle Reign FC during a 2-1 win Saturday afternoon. Goals from Marian Dougherty and Alex Morgan gave the home team their first NWSL victory, but amid the post-match reflections the same, transcending theme kept emerging: The atmosphere made the match.

An NWSL record 16,479 people came out to what’s normally the Portland Timbers’ home field, and while record attendance in a two-week old league deserves a skeptical context, broader descriptions prove even more laudatory of the Portland’s support.

Saturday’s crowd out-drew any match from the three years of Women’s Professional Soccer, the professional league that preceded the NWSL. You have to go back to the Women’s United Soccer Association to find a women’s professional match that drew more people, and while a handful of crowds in WUSA bested the Thorns’ support, it’s been 10 years since that league played its final game.

“This was awesome,” was Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone’s reaction after her first professional victory. A veteran of 158 caps during her time with the U.S. Women’s National Team, Parlow Cone has perspective on big games, experience that came in handy while trying to describe Sunday’s environment.

“I was walking around the field with Rachel Buehler and we looked at each other and she’s like, ‘This is like the World Cup.’ That’s what it felt like … It was an unbelievable atmosphere.”

Packed into seats normally occupied by the Timbers’ Army, the Rose City Riveters were able to replicate most of the environment that makes JELD-WEN Field one of the more notable destinations in MLS. The crowd was noticeably different – a bit smaller, and more skewed toward a family demographic that’s stronger in the women’s game – but outdrawing the combined attendance for the league’s four opening weekend matches, Portland still created a landmark event.

“Over the past few weeks we’ve heard about the number of tickets being sold, but I don’t think any of us expected that,” Thorns captain Christine Sinclair said after the match. “It was just incredible.”

The numbers alone were impressive, but for the few international stars on the field – U.S. internationals Alex Morgan and Rachel Buehler, in particular – they’re numbers they’d see multiple times each year playing for their national team. What made Sunday different was the type (and depth) of supporter culture that’s been hard to come by in the women’s game.

“It was a great Portland vibe,” was how Morgan described it. “We weren’t sure what to expect, but right from when we went out (for) warmups until game time, you hear the fans loud. I think every team that comes to Portland will not want to play us because they will be intimidated by the atmosphere.”

Sinclair echoed the sentiment. If the Rose City Riveters can replicate Sunday’s performance, Thorns FC will have a distinct home field advantage.

“This is going to be the only city that gets this type of crowd,” Sinclair explained. “When you haven’t been here before, it can be intimidating. Hopefully you can punish teams in the first half before they get used to it.”

On Sunday, Thorns FC took their first lead of the season, a late first half goal that did the punishing Sinclair described. With momentum coming out of halftime, Portland put the game away with an early second half goal.

If that becomes a formula for success, the value of Portland’s crowd will transcend these opening day headlines. It will become something that matters on the field.

Seattle Reign’s gone and made a pretty impressive coaching hire

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Congratulations to Seattle Reign F.C.

One of the new teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (set to begin play in Spring 2013) named their first head coach today, a decidedly creative and outside-the-box choice.

That “box” would have had owner Bill Predmore and general manager Amy Carnell troll connections to the defunct Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, fishing through their contact books and leaning on old friends to find the best options with domestic experience. Or perhaps they could have looked to the NCAA ranks, as Portland Thorns F.C. did, and identify a promising prospect. If they could find a Cindy Parlow Cone, more power to them, but U.S. National Team legends aren’t exactly dotting the coaching landscape right now. (Exception?)

Instead, Seattle looked abroad, looked at teams that have had success in other places, and ID’d 32-year-old Laura Harvey, head coach of English superpower Arsenal for the past two-plus seasons. In that time she won a couple of Women’s Super League titles and, perhaps most impressively, got the team over a bit of a Champions League hump early last month, knocking German power Turbine Potsdam out at the Round of 16.

No doubt, Harvey had incredibly talented teams. Kelley Smith is the women’s game’s answer to Juan Roman Riquelme. Alex Scott is Ashley Cole. Kate Chapman, Steph Houghton, Rachel Yankey are all established England internationals, and impressive youngsters Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs, Jennifer Beattie and Gilly Flaherty meant Harvey had better than a mere complementary cast. The team was freakin’ loaded. There’s little doubt Arsenal should go through Women’s Super League seasons undefeated (as they did in 2012), even if that doesn’t make it any less of an accomplishment.

It could, however, engender doubts about Harvey’s qualifications, but given the NWSL has never played a game, there are doubts about every coach’s ability to adapt to the new league. Just as we see structural issues affect management in MLS, NWSL is set to offer a series of distinct challenges. For example, Harvey probably won’t be able to lure the Smiths and Scotts back to North America. There’s no money for them.

At the same time, those early November Turbine Potsdam results are incredibly impressive. Six goals (four on the road) against a German team in Champions League speaks to some coaching quality, be it tactical, in preparation, or in motivation. And considering Arsenal had been badly eliminated from the previous Champions League by FFC Frankfurt (4-1 in the semifinals), the result showed progress, even if Turbine weren’t as strong as they’d been in past seasons.

Progress is a good thing to see in a coaching candidate. So are results. So is the ability to manage talent, but perhaps most importantly, so is competing at the highest levels. UEFA’s Women’s Champions League is the highest level in the women’s club game, and for the Reign to look to England and that competition to fill their coaching vacancy showed some serious imagination.

Great start, Seattle.

Eight-team women’s soccer league set to begin play in Spring 2013

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It doesn’t have a name yet. That detail is still being worked out, as are most of the details of the new eight-team women’s soccer league that will be run by U.S. Soccer. The important thing: The league’s going to happen.

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati made that clear in Wednesday’s announcement, saying teams in Boston, New Jersey, Western New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle and Portland — teams selected based on a number of factors (independent assessment of accountants, grass roots considerations, geography) — will begin play in March or April of 2013. The 22-game season will run until September or October. Teams will play each other at least three times.

As of yet, there’s no national television deal. No national sponsors have been announced, but there’s a handshake deal place with one company. Stadiums, team names, salary structures, player allocation – these details will be revealed in the couple of weeks.

But here’s what we do know:

  • U.S. Soccer will fund and run the league office.
  • They will also finance the inclusion of up to 24 U.S. Women’s National Team members. Some players may elect to pass on the league, but U.S. Soccer is committed to supplying up to three players per team.
  • The Canadian and Mexican federations are also subsidizing talent. Canada will pay for up to 16 players (conceivably, two per team) while Mexico will provide a minimum of 12.
  • Player and team preferences will be considered when allocating players.

We also know some of the federations’ key motivations: Sustainability and development.

Costs for the individual teams will be kept low by U.S., Canadian, and Mexican soccer subsidizing the teams’ most expensive talents. Game day facilities will be selected with cost in mind (no more Toyota Park or Home Depot Center). Teams were selected to both create a national footprint and manage travel (coast-to-coast teams, but in clusters). The lower costs will mitigate the amount of private sector investment needed to keep it afloat.

But the federation representatives made no bones about it: Giving their players a place to develop ahead of Canada 2015 was a key motivation. It’s why federations — not a private entity — are backing the latest attempt at a women’s league. The new league will give CONCACAF’s three biggest nations a place to foster talent ahead of the next World Cup.

With so many details yet to be finalized, it’s difficult to make too many assessments about the league. The thing doesn’t even have a name yet. Still, it’s hard to see today’s news as anything but an extremely positive development. Women’s soccer league or no women’s soccer league? It’s a pretty easy choice, one that’s easy to support.

That the league is focused on sustainability at its onset means fan support is more likely to be rewarded. That support was left floundering after three-year windows slammed shut on the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer.

Who knows whether the new league will ever see year four, but at least there is a new league — a league that seems to know what it’s up against.

More on the new U.S. Women’s National Team head coach

Tom Sermanni
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Most fans are unfamiliar with Tom Sermanni, but given the nature of the women’s soccer world, all of U.S. Soccer’s potential hires were relative unknowns. Without a professional league on these shores, we don’t get the constant exposure that makes names for famous names on the men’s side. Who are the José Mourinho, Alex Ferguson, or even Dominic Kinnear of the women’s game? For most, the answer is “who knows?”

So don’t let Sermanni’s lack of name recognition deter you. Go onto your social networking site of choice, search around, and you’ll see a healthy amount of respect underscoring discussion of today’s appointment. Sermanni’s reported affability makes it hard for anybody to be too flummoxed by today’s decision.

Don’t underestimate the importance of personality. The U.S. women are a very unique group. That so many strong personalities are able to coexist is indicative of a potentially fragile balance (include obligatory 2007 reference here). Even if it’s not, this is a veteran team with a proven record of success. Having a personality that can promote continuity is a major plus.

Sermanni’s professional soccer life started as a midfielder in Scotland in 1973. He’d eventually have spells in England with Blackpool before ending his career in New Zealand. Soon after, his coaching career began.

Most of Sermanni’s experience has been in Oceania and Asia, initially coaching men in the North South Wales state league. In 1994, he got his first major coaching job when he began his first stint with Australia’s women’s national team. During his three-year spell with the Maltidas, Sermanni qualified Australia for their first World Cup, though the team lost all three games at China 1995 and failed to qualify for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

In 1997, Sermanni jumped back into the men’s game with Sanfrecce Hiroshima of the J-League before moving back to Australia in 1999 to manage the Canberra Cosmos of the now-defunct National Soccer League. He’d stay with the Cosmos until 2001, when he moved back into the women’s game.

That’s when Sermanni ventured to the United States to be part of the Women’s United Soccer Association, serving as an assistant coach with the San Jose CyberRays from 2001 to 2002. In 2003, Sermanni got the head coaching gig with the New York Power, leading the team to a fifth-place finish (after the team came in eighth the year before).

When WUSA folded in 2003, Sermanni briefly coached in Malaysia before starting his second spell with the Matildas in 2004. Australia had qualified for two World Cups in his absence but had yet to win a match in tournament. Now the team was about to make the jump from Oceania to the Asian confederation, where Japan, China, and Korea DPR would all provide significant challenges.

Australia was immediately competitive. Thanks in part to hosting the 2006 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, the Matildas took second place in their first Asian continental competition. Though they lost to China on penalty kicks in the final, they made their first impact on the continent with their semifinal victory over Japan. Four years later, Sermanni led the Matlidas to their first Asian title, defeating Korea DPR in 2010’s final.

Along the way, Australia started making progress in World Cups. When they showed up in 2007, Australia’s all-time record at finals was two draws, seven losses in nine games. The Maltidas only lost once in China, their 3-2 quarterfinal defeat to Brazil. Four years later, Sermanni’s team replicated the feat, making the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Sweden at Germany 2011.

That progress was about more than Sermanni’s senior level coaching. He was responsible for Australia’s entire women’s development effort, effectively serving as steward for all the talent coming into his senior team. When he returned to the head coach’s job, he sought to inject a more technical style into a team, a requirement in an Asian confederation known for that quality. The result was not only an extremely young team for Germany (average age: 21.7 years) but one that had begun shifting its approach.

It’s a the same type of shift the United States will have to undergo over the next three years. Sermanni instituted the change while Australia was stepping up in competition, yet he improved the team’s results. If the U.S. is going to start being a better possession team, Sermanni may be able to influence that change without sacrificing results.

As for how he’ll set up, there are some tendencies we see in Sermanni’s formations. He plays with four in defense, usually with two-woman midfields. For the most part, he’s played two forwards, one playing in support of the other. The numeric descriptions of the formations may change based on matchups, but those concepts – concepts we often see in the U.S. Women’s National Team – form the backbone.

His history may not be adorned with the type of major titles and lauded successes that could be linked to a job of this profile, and his name certainly doesn’t resonate, but that doesn’t matter. In a women’s coaching landscape devoid of Guardiolas and Capellos, Sermanni brings valuable experience to a team that’s going to have to change before Canada 2015. With a personality that’s unlikely to rock boats behind the scenes, he also represents a chance to maintain the team’s off-field balance.