Saturday, 17 August 2013

Western New York Flash 3-0 Washington Spirit.

The second match on my USA Soccer tour took me to Rochester in New York state to watch the playoff challenging Western New York Flash take on Washington Spirit, on paper it looked like a home banker and unfortunately for the neutrals and Washington that’s exactly how it turned out

New York have two of the best players in recent years from the United States squad. In Carli Lloyd they have the player who scored twice in the Olympic final in London 2012, but the jewel in the crown is striker Abby Wambach who recently broke the all time women’s international goal scoring record. To date she has bagged 160 goals for the United States national team. The Flash also have Spanish striker Adriana on the books, who gave England plenty of problems when the two sides recently met at Euro 2013.
The Western New York flash share the Salem stadium, which is also home to USL Pro side the Rochester Rhinos who play in the 3rd tier of US soccer. However the stadium is a far cry from being an average third tier stadium in the US.

As you approach the Salem stadium you can’t help but be impressed. The capacity is around the 15,000 mark and in my view (and that of many other sports writers in the US) could easily host MLS football. It certainly compares favorably to the MLS stadiums in Philadelphia and Columbus. To gain entrance to the stadium from the car parks you take a short walk down "Wambach Way" which is adorned with posters of Abby to the gates. The stadium may be decked out in Rhinos colours (green and yellow) but there are plenty of WNYF badges as well, and it really does feel like a proper football ground. As we got into the ground early I decided to have a good look around and I have to say I was very, very impressed with what I saw. 

The stadium is all seated with one stand having two tiers, of which the higher one was closed for tonight’s game. The ground is a bowl design with the only open end being the scoreboard end. The score board itself was very big and showed some great scenes in the build up with a few of the New York players saying the word 4 which I am told refers to the number of championships the club has won. I have learnt that the size of the scoreboard in US Sports is a kind of status symbol; the bigger the board the bigger (and richer) the club. The immediate vibe I got from this stadium is that this is a very well run club that has serious aims of challenging for championships, all in all it felt as if I had jumped up a couple of leagues in terms of stadium and club aims from Saturdays’ game in Washington. 

I always like to get into stadiums early so I can have a good walk around and see what’s going on, and at Western New York there is plenty going on. As you enter through the gate, turn left (you will be at the scoreboard end) and that’s where all the action is. The first thing that I noticed is that the pre game music is provided by a live band and not some dodgy tunes knocked out over the PA system. This is the first time I have ever seen something like this and I personally think it’s a great idea. Like in Washington there are plenty of activities for kids to do. At one end a throwing competition had been set up where you had to throw a golf ball through a hole, and behind one of the other stands a kind of penalty shoot out game was in progress where you had to kick the ball through various holes in the goal. Flash merchandise was up for grabs if you won at either of these games and although I didn’t embarrass myself by having a go (and undoubtedly failing) they were a big hit with the kids and some parents as well. As always with America there was a wide range of food stalls with everything from Papa John’s pizza to fresh BBQ being served up. To my delight there was also a nice beer stall near to where the band was playing, and better still you could take you beer to your seat to watch the game; which on a sunny evening like this was just perfect. For people reading this not used to UK football we are still in the dark ages here and you are not allowed to drink alcohol in sight of the game. 

The match ticket said to tonight’s game was between the Western New York Flash and the Washington Spirit. However as the game unfolded it became more like the Western New York Flash v Ashlyn Harris the Washington keeper. The Flash, backed by their supporters group the Flash Mob, were on the front foot right from the off as they went in search of another three points to help their playoff charge. They had already missed a hat full of chances but in the 35th minute they took the lead. 

Harris pulled of a fantastic save from Sam Kerr but the Washington defence failed to pick up the loose ball which was collected by Kerr and crossed over to Adriana who headed home from close range. It was a tough goal for Harris, who had made a fantastic save, but had been badly let down by her team mates’ failure to react and then to mark up the on-rushing Flash players. Despite plenty of chances it remained 1-0 going into the halftime break. American sports are big on stats and for a writer such as myself this is very helpful. Shots on target are counted and displayed on the scoreboard for all to see. The Flash had had 19 shots on goal in the first half, The Spirit... 0 

The game was effectively over in the 59th minute. After setting up the first goal it was Kerr’s turn to get on the score sheet; when she received a well-placed feed from Katherine Reynolds to make the score 2-0. Reynold’s waist-high cross took a bounce six yards away from the goal where Kerr was able strike it past Harris for her fifth goal of the season.
After this the game went a bit dull. The visitors did show a bit more fight but it was hard to ever see them really getting back into the game. The scoring was complete on 68 minutes when Carli Lloyd, after missing plenty of chances all game, finally got one on target. After Ingrid Wells saw her shot blocked by a Spirit defender, Lloyd collected the loose ball and rammed it home. Again there were plenty of Washington defenders in the box but nobody within 5 foot of Lloyd. It took Washington until the 83rd minute to get their first shot on goal, but by that time the Flash had already got 28 on the board. I may not know a huge amount about all the clubs and the league but I know a side in form when I see it and on this showing it will take a very good side to stop Western New York Flash from winning a 4th championship. 

After the game "Autograph alley" was again set up and was again very popular. Another different thing that happened that I have never seen before in football/soccer was that the post game interviews happened on the pitch, and were broadcast to everybody in the stadium. The same thing happened at half time as well when the players were leaving the field one of them stayed behind to say a few words to the announcer before dashing off to the dressing room.
Since I returned from the States many fellow writers and people in the women’s game have asked me what the main differences are between our two fledgling leagues. In one way it’s pretty hard and unfair to compare the two. Tickets are more expensive in the NWSL; the New York game was $25 which is about £16.50, where as FAWSL games are around the £5 mark. When you couple this with the fact that attendances are much larger in the NWSL; there was over 3,000 for the New York game where as the top of the table clash in the FAWSL between Bristol and Liverpool only drew 1,200, you can quickly assume that the American clubs have more money to spend attracting fans than the English clubs do. The national team players in the NWSL are paid by their national associations in the same way they are over here, so it leaves more cash for the clubs to pay the other players better and so attract better players from around the world. Something we are still struggling to do in England. 

However some of the things that the clubs in America do don’t cost a huge amount of cash to set up and do seem to be very popular. Clubs over here really do a great job of marketing themselves on Twitter and Facebook, however they with the exception of Bristol, they fail to offer the fans much in the way of pre and post game activities on game day itself. The only time clubs do this is when the FAWSL road show is in town, but that tends only to happen when the game is on TV. I would like to see more clubs in England take a leaf out of the NWSL’s book and set up things like penalty shootout competitions before the games for kids to have a go at etc.
The FAWSL does have the edge in other areas though. The fact that most games are afternoon kick offs does help the league and the fact you get several games kicking off at the same time is a plus in my view. The match day programs are better in England and this is an area that I think the clubs in the NWSL are missing out on and maybe an area they will look to improve as the game and league grows.  How they market it will be interesting, I get the impression that at the moment they are still very much aiming it at the "Soccer mom" and young girls market. This is ok for now, but at some point they are going to have to try and get in older fans on board and try to get the game to appeal to males for it to really grow. Plenty of men attend national team games so I am told, but the NWSL is proving to be a hard sell to men who don’t have daughters. I get the feeling also that they are very heavily reliant on the US national players to carry the league and it sometimes felt that the fans were more interested in seeing the national team players than they were in seeing the actual team. It’s a hard thing to put in writing, but in a way I think some people at the games are more fans of the national team players than either club playing. I have no idea if the fans mindset over this will or can change; it’s a really tough one. 

Just to finish on I would like to say how welcoming and friendly everybody at the two games were to me, and thank them all for answering my questions on all things football. It was a total pleasure and I now have a far more balanced view of the game in the States; much of which I liked with only the odd downside here and there, but hey that’s life.
Have a nice day!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Washington Spirit 2-5 Boston Breakers

Nowhere in the world is Women's football as strong or more keenly followed than in the United States of America. The game is big news in colleges and high schools all over the country, with scholarships at the top universities still a huge draw for players all over the globe. The US National team; holders of the Olympic title, have consistently been at the top of the world rankings and only lost out on another World Cup win back in 2011, when they lost on penalties to Japan. Given how strong the national team is and how popular the game is at grassroots and college level, it is perhaps strange that the US has struggled to run and develop a full time professional league. The NWSL is the third attempt after the WPS disappeared in 2012. The NWSL was quickly thrown together featuring eight clubs with backing from the national associations of the United States, Canada, and Mexico with the national players split between the clubs. As the season enters its final third Sports International went stateside to take in a couple of games and see how the new league is fairing in its inaugural season, how the clubs are run off the pitch, and how well the league has been received by the fans in America.

First up was the bottom side in the league the Washington Spirit versus the playoff chasing Boston Breakers at Washington's Soccerplex stadium. The season has been a real battle for the home side. Following a dreadful 4-0 defeat at Western New York Flash, Mike Jordan was relieved of his coaching duties and was replaced by former Chelsea ladies assistant manager Mark Parsons. The change in coach however hasn't really affected the results, as going into this match the club had only taken one point from Parson’s 5 matches in charge (going into the Boston game) and that point came in his first game in a 2-2 draw at home to FC Kansas City. Since then they have lost 4 games on the spin. Despite all this however, the manager organized a small Q&A session the day before with a group of fans and I was lucky enough to be invited along. It is easy to organize things like this when a team is doing well but it’s much harder when things aren’t going your way. Parsons begin by thanking the fans for their support this season and stressed just how important the fans support had been since he took the job. He mentioned that things hadn't quite clicked for the team this season, and pointed out the club’s goal that was wrongly disallowed in the last minute away at Chicago that would have gained them a valuable point. 

After the manager had finished his talk he invited questions from the crowd who were a little shy at first with their questions, but once they got going they relaxed. Coach Parsons finished up by praising the squad’s mental strength in adversity saying that this is the mentally the strongest group he has worked with in his coaching career. Although the questions were more fun based instead of the hard hitting type, the event was a great success and the players were more than happy to mingle with fans, sign autographs, and pose for photos. The openness of the players, staff, and club media representative was a pleasure to see and set the tone for what I was to witness over the course of my trip watching women's football over the two games. 

The stadiums used in the NWSL are quite different to the ones we are used to in the FAWSL. Crowds are much bigger than we get in the UK. The Spirit for example regularly get over 2,000 fans and have had over 4,000 on a couple of occasions this season. Like many stadiums in America, the SoccerPlex is uncovered with seating areas along both sides with nothing behind each goal. The ground is set in a natural bowl which really gives the stadium character. Before the game some of the more vocal fans of the Spirit (The Spirit squadron) had set up that great American pre game pastime; a tailgate. Unfortunately due to the weather being rather poor, it was a bit of a damp squib but the effort was there.
Tickets are available on line but you can also purchase tickets on game day from the ticket booth near the entrance. Match day programs aren't really part of the American game day experience, but you do get a free colour team sheet upon entry which has the two squads on one side, and news about the club and upcoming match on the back. Upon entry to the stadium the first thing that hit me was the sheer amount of stuff there was to do pre-game. There were plenty of stalls set up selling different types of food, and not all of it junk food. There was a stall selling smoothies and another one with various fruits for sale. Behind one end the club has set up a fenced off beer garden where many fans watch the game beer in hand in a very relaxed atmosphere. Beer is served up till the 75th minute and you need photo ID to get into the area.

One interesting feature of the stadium for me was the V.I.P area. In Europe V.I.P areas tend to be indoor seated high up in the stand but here it was very different. The V.I.P area consisted of benches that are a couple of metres back from the sidelines on pitch level; fairly close to the pitch indeed, after the players and officials, they are the closest people to the action. The benches were pretty full and seemed very popular with the people that sat there.
As is the norm at American sports events, the national anthem is played before the game and everybody gets up and sings along. The game started fantastically well for the hosts as Canadian international Diana Matheson gave the Spirit the lead in the second minute of the game. It was the side’s first goal from open play since May and it sent the fans in the Spirit Squadron section into hysteria. Unfortunately the lead didn't last too long as the Breakers equalised after four minutes. Washington conceded a corner and at the same time defender Candace Chapman went down with an injury and had to leave the field. Unfortunately for the hosts they switched off from the resulting corner after the break in play. The Spirit keeper Ashley Harris came a long way to try and get the ball, but didn't get it, thus allowing the ball to get headed back across the goal and into an empty net.
After the goal Boston took the initiative; helped by the fact that Washington had to make changes to their defence after one of their defenders went off after the injury. The Breakers were getting get joy down the flanks with Sydney Leroux and Heather O'Reilly being real stars for the visitors. They took the lead a couple of minutes before halftime thanks to Lianne Sanderson, and from then on they never really looked back. 

The Breakers pretty much killed the game off just a couple of minutes after halftime, when Harris in the Washington goal made a real mess of a low weak shot from Rhian Wilkinson; letting the ball squirm under and trickle into the goal. On 56 minutes it got even worse for the hosts as they conceded a soft penalty which was dispatched by the impressive Heather O’Reilly. Washington didn't let their heads drop and managed to grab a second goal thanks to a well placed header from Conny Pohlers who is currently on loan from UEFA Champions league winners Wolfsburgh. Given the remarkable season that Wolfsburgh have had in Germany, it must be hard for her playing in such a struggling side. By this time I had moved round to the banking behind the goal. From here you could see one of the disadvantages to this layout of stadium; with it being open it’s hard for the fans to make an atmosphere. You could see the supporters group cheering the goal but you couldn't really hear them or the chants that followed.  

There was still time for another goal and it was Boston that got it in the 78th minute courtesy of a shot from Cat Whitehill. It was a cool finish but Washington will be disappointed with the way that they failed to clear the ball from the corner that lead to the goal.
Full time Washington Spirit 2-5 Boston Breakers.
Att 2,607
After the game the players acknowledged the fans and following that, players of both sides were more than happy to sign autographs. Well I should say some of them did, and quite a few scurried off. It was great to see the players that did stay out however more than happy to pose for pictures and chat with fans after the game. As I said earlier it’s easy to do stuff like this when you are winning, but much harder when you have lost your 5th game on the spin and conceded 5 goals at home so I really do tip my hat to the Washington Players for coming out. Even though they were soundly beaten the fans stuck with them all game and were quick to look and point out the positives of the performance. With there being no relegation in the league (like pretty much all American sports) The fans seem more patient with their team and are willing to give them time to develop, which is another difference to the game in Europe when fans would be calling for the manager’s head.
Chatting to a few fans they also told me that this was an improved performance from what the side has produced over the past few weeks. Would the improvement continue? Next up was a very tough looking trip to the in form Western New York Flash, and that was to be the second match for the Sports International NWSL Tour.
Canadian international Diana Matheson and some guy from England.