Well, we’re all on hold; on hold in our lives sheltering in place hoping against hope that the IPA splashed on the lintel will mean that COVID-19 will pass by our door, on hold waiting for our jobs and lives and, yes, sport, will return to some sort of normal.
Since we couldn’t meet in this strange out-of-time-time the Riveting! gang got together over the internet for a virtual roundtable to talk about this and that and the other; our sport, our team, our league, and some of the bigger issues that have been affecting them all.
Unfortunately our friend Shannan Sorenson couldn’t make it, but here’s Patrick, Richard, and I with our Riveting! roundtable: Soccer in the Time of Cholera…
Obviously, at this point the biggest question is “will there even BE a 2020 NWSL season?” What do you think, and if “yes”…how do you think it could happen? If “no”, will the problem be epidemiological, or financial, or some combination of both?
Richard: I do think there will be some type of women’s pro footy played in 2020. The league has a TV contract and the networks are starved for content. The clubs face fixed costs for their rosters. If they can pick up some money to offset, they probably will and should. Also, keeping up some momentum for the sport has value. Fans are also starved for content. The issue, of course, is how to do it safely.
John: Yeah, well, that’s kinda THE single biggest issue, period. Do you think it’s possible to have a season and not have either a medical or public relations disaster or both?
Richard: Not at this point, the risks are still too high. The German Bundesliga was set to restart only to have one of the teams have a positive test and go into quarantine…
John: Wait, stop! Sorry to butt in, but the Bundesliga is playing – I watched Eintracht Frankfurt suck ass against Borussia Monchengladbach this past Saturday morning! Weird experience…silent except for the players’ shouting, a sea of empty seats, subs sitting acres apart in the lower bowl, Frankfurt looked like utter crap and were clearly not match ready…but they played!
Richard: (with the infinitely patient air of a man explaining particle physics to a cat) Germany is far ahead of the USA in their public health efforts. They have about a quarter of the US population – about 80 million to about 325 million – but they have (as of last weekend) less than 12% of the infections we have – about 170,000 compared to 1.5 million and an order of magnitude less death – about 8,000 compared to 80,000 here. We are nowhere near as close to being able to play soccer without infection as Germany is.
John: (staring at Richard like a cat trying to comprehend particle physics) Ummm…okay. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. That does kinda make the point. So Germany – not a good example. But let’s say we could do better..?
Richard: If we could, yes, but…but timing is everything. If we can get the numbers down by June – which is unlikely – then there might be a chance of some sort of regular season. If, however, we get to August and there is still no safe way to play – even in empty stadiums? Then I suspect the chance of anything close to a “normal” season will be lost entirely.
Patrick: (staring at them both like he’s trying to understand why someone would try and explain particle physics to a cat) I agree.
John: With who?
Patrick: (sagely) Yes.
John: I’m the Eeyore here, so of course I don’t think we’re going to have a season. Just like Richard points out, we don’t have enough testing, we don’t have a viable way to keep all these people healthy and playing, people keep coming down with this stuff – there’s been several in Germany, several in England – and given that the asymptomatic-but-contagious phase is so long, that means that all the players, officials, training and coaching staff that have been physically close to them are at risk. I think the clubs and the league need and want to play – the financial interests push towards playing – but the epidemiological interests will push the other way.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the league DOES find a way to make some sort of truncated season happen in mid- to late-summer. Even if you don’t think it’s likely, can you describe what it might look like? What will be “the same”, what will be the biggest differences?
Richard: The shortest realistic season would be 16 matches (home-away with each team). With some compression this could be played in six weeks. Thus, if games can be safely played in the home stadiums with or without fans present, the latest the “season” could start would be October, with the playoffs held in a warm-weather venue in December. October is a long way off yet – this could happen.
Another approach would be playing a tournament-style season in neutral venues. Perhaps a university campus in the west and another in the east could host the teams. The teams would be tested, and then stay in quarantine for the length of the tourney. If the teams played three matches a week, after four weeks, they’d have played half a “season”. The winner of each region would be a semifinalist.
A second such tourney, a couple months later, would result in a second pair of semifinalists. After that, perhaps it would be safe enough to have the playoffs and championship matches in the high seeds’ home stadium with fans.
Patrick: I’m going to say that it’s not going to happen. They’ve been talking about a short tournament with no audience, which I guess would let people see some soccer this year, but it’s not like that counts as a season. Maybe they’re going to make up a name for it and award a trophy or something, but there just isn’t as much money behind it, as you all are painfully aware of. I would really like to watch some soccer but I just don’t see it.
John: Yeah, just like Patrick mentions for the NWSL, MLS is talking about having some sort of tournament-style “season” in Florida…around the Orlando area, I think…in June. And my immediate thought was “Orlando? In June? Why? Because fucking Qatar is booked?”
Patrick: Because She Who Shall Not Be Named just had her baby, and she’s ready to head back to EPCOT and get thrown out again.
John: Ugh. What a nightmare. Heat. Humidity. Pestilence. I don’t think the teams, or the families of the teams, would go for it unless the league really twisted arms financially – as in “play, or you’re fired” twisted.
I guess I could see some sort of October to November “east regionals” in Georgia, say, with Chicago, Orlando, The Damned Courage, Washington, and Sky Blue playing eight matches, and a west regional with Tacoma, Portland, Utah, and Houston playing in six matches in Vegas. Then the two top teams in each regional play a semifinal-final series in Austin in December.
And the more I think about that the more messed up it seems. I just don’t see how they make it work.
And that brings up the question of the future – let’s say we come to April 2021 and we STILL don’t have a vaccine. Do you go to a Thorns match? Do you think there CAN be a match with people in the stands, in that case?
Richard: If there is no vaccine and if the virus is still raging, then I would probably not go to matches. But that seems unlikely, especially the second part. It is certainly possible to have attended matches – there are folks in red ballcaps who say they’d go today. But it’s not responsible, and the liability risks alone would probably keep the gates closed.
Patrick: I think if it happens it’ll be a short tournament, like I mentioned above. It will be all in one central location so no one will have to travel and they can use one venue for everything. Me personally? I don’t know the answer to that. Even if there is a vaccine, will the virus mutate into new strains, like the flu? I’ve been pretty barricaded since this started and that probably won’t change until I feel comfortable. The first event I go to will definitely not be a crowded stadium though, I can tell you that. Not without a hazmat suit, at least.
John: No, and no. For me, it’s just that simple.
One of the biggest stories in women’s soccer outside the NWSL was the summary judgement against the USWNT’s equal pay lawsuit. Any thoughts on that? Might it impact a potential NWSL season, too?
Richard: You can read the entire judgment here. I already did, so to save you some time: Federal Judge R. Gary Klausner struck down two main parts of the USWNT’s complaint, leaving a third to go to trial next month. Any appeals have to wait until after the June trial.
First, he ruled that the USWNT’s total compensation (salary plus benefits) is actually greater than the USMNT’s. The women’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which they negotiated, gives them guaranteed incomes, insurance benefits and housing allowances which the men don’t get. Adding it all up, excluding NWSL pay, the women make slightly more and at less risk. The USWNT had argued that has they been on the USMNT’s CBA, they would have made more money, but the judge ruled that argument irrelevant because the USWNT has to prove discrimination based on the actual CBA they have, not some hypothetical other one.
Patrick: Without getting too deep into politics, I’m not surprised a federal judge appointed by Dubya would make this ruling. He looked at the highest earning period the women have probably ever had vs the men at their nadir and decided that was equal. I mean, it’s almost like he was looking for an excuse to rule against equality. But that would be shocking, wouldn’t it?
Richard: That has been part of the discussion about this opinion, and, yes, there’s a lot of apples-and-oranges in there. But the problem with it being quite so straightforward is the CBA issue. The judge – whether sincerely or because it gave him a hook to hang it on – leaned heavily on that.
Second, the judge ruled that the working conditions complaint (re: playing on lousy turf, flying commercial economy class) was not valid because USSF showed that there were legitimate non-gender-related reasons for the difference.
And finally, the judge let stand and proceed the USWNT complaint about travel and support services. The USWNT showed that they had inferior hotel accommodations, buses, meal per diems, trainers, locker rooms, etc. every time they played. The judge agreed that this complaint is legit.
In my reading, the first finding (which is the meat of the case) is a tough blow for the USWNT and one they will have a hard time fighting because of the CBA component. The judge’s ruling on the second matter appears to be much shakier. For example, he ruled that USSF said they had the women play on turf because laying down grass would cost more than the expected income from the matches in question – yet this never happened to the USMNT once in the same time period. The USWNT still has a complaint here, in my opinion the judge’s ruling is too narrow (yes, USSF had non-gender “reasons” but he ignored the fact that these “reasons” were consistently applied in a gender-specific fashion) and…
Patrick: (interrupting) Fuck that judge.
Richard: (continuing) …because the third part was left intact, the USWNT cannot appeal the first two. The trial must proceed on part three, and only after that can the entire case be appealed. This means delay, especially with the virus-slowed courts. The case could still be chugging along this time next year.
US Soccer did NOT gloat about their victory at all. USSF president, Cindy Parlow Cone, simply said that she hopes they can reach a settlement quickly and move on. Given that the USWNT case took a heavy blow, settlement looks like the best and most likely outcome. It is easy enough to see a deal like: (1) USWNT will live with their CBA and try for more pay next time; and (2) USSF will not make them play on turf again; and (3) USSF will true-up the hotels, per diems, etc.
I don’t see this ruling having any effect on NWSL.
John: I don’t have anything to add to your discussion, Richard, but I think this might impact the NWSL because of the question of what constitutes “work” for the USWNT came up as an issue. The Nats insisted that their NWSL jobs are separate from their play for the national team. The way I read it the judge didn’t really buy that argument. I think that might make the allocated players think hard about the role of their NWSL teams in their livelihood.
Richard: Actually, the judge did sorta buy the argument. The final CBA-based number he used for comparison explicitly did NOT include NWSL salaries. Or at least that is what the ruling says. The actual numbers were not provided.
Patrick: I think the biggest effect is going to be on the US internationals and prospective internationals deciding to play here. The NWSL has always been linked to playing for the USWNT, but if the USSF is going to make it hard for the players to ignore what they see as unequal treatment…I wouldn’t be surprised to see players decamping to Europe, and I wouldn’t blame them, either. It’s what I would do.
The transfer market seems to be picking back up. Supposedly Chelsea is pursuing Pernille Harder, Utah is supposed to have signed Bouhaddi and Maroszan…any thoughts on this? This might mean that the mystery internationals that Gavin and Merritt are supposedly pursuing (or at least, were before the lockdown) are still in play. If so…any ideas on who that might be? If you were Gavin-for-a-day, who would you LIKE it to be?
Patrick: This is kind of a “Y’all” discussion. I honestly haven’t even thought about this, like, at all since the league shut down. I’ve been to busy sitting on my butt playing Minecraft and ignoring the outside world.
Richard: I have no idea who we are pursuing. Obviously it would be nice to have a quality striker but we’ve traded so many Bairdbux that we can’t have enough left to pay a player like that. I conclude that we are pursuing less flashy positions, like #6 or left back. But I don’t begin to know the Euro teams well enough to pick names.
John: I’m gonna guess we’re looking for one or two players; one, if you’re right about the Bairdbux, Richard, and I think you are. I think our big needs are right wing and left back. I think Parsons will try either Smith or Weaver at the #9 and hope Seiler is healthy (and she should be, by mid- to late summer) at the #6 and cross his fingers that Kling has another year left in her.
So my money is he’s gonna look for a right winger. Now…WHO that is? I dunno. Not Diani; she’s back with PSG. I can’t think of a familiar “big name” that is both reasonably priced and at least theoretically available, so I’m gonna throw out a name just for the hell of it: Ajara Nchout Njoya.
Cameroonian winger, speedy, clever, tough as nails, tore up the pitch at the last World Cup – got the brace in their win over New Zealand. I really like what I’m seeing there, and she’s playing for Vålerenga Fotball Damer in the Norwegian Topserien, so she can’t be crazy spendy.
I’m just saying – think about it.
Patrick: That’s why y’all get paid the big bucks (those are Monopoly money bucks in case anyone’s wondering). I’m just the babe in the woods who listens to the smart people talk.
We also have a lot of new faces here in Portland. Any thoughts on those new players – who might start, who might be on the bench, who might slot in where?
Richard: Pure speculation. Does Smith start up front? We have no way to know. Parsons probably doesn’t know.
Patrick: Same question, same answer.
John: Well, we know where Sauerbrunn goes. And I’ve already put in my guess that either Smith or Weaver starts up top – Smith is my bet – and Weaver…well, I’ll talk about that in a bit. Nally is defensive depth, assuming she signs, and Westphal, eh, who really gives a shit? Sorry, but she’s sort of Marianas-Trench-deep-depth at this point unless Parsons can do an reverse-Onumonu-in-Tacoma on her and bring her career back from the dead, and I’m not sure he’s got enough Vlatko in him for that.
One persistent question seems to be “Where does Raquel Rodriguez go?” I’ve heard people talk about her as a #6. Does that seem a good fit for her? If not…where might she fit better?
Richard: I don’t know if #6 is a good spot for Rocky, but it would be good for Horan to move forward. Another option is Sinclair at #6. Rocky could our striker if Smith isn’t…
John: Really? Striker? Wow! That seems a big ask for someone who has scored eight goals in 76 games.
Richard: …or be paired with Smith as a strike partner. And, remember, that was 8 goals in 76 games…for Sky Blue. Context matters!
John: Mmmmmkay. You’re gonna have to buy me a lollipop if you’re gonna sell me that. Not buying Rocky the Flying Striker. But, yeah, Sky Blue. That does make some difference.
Patrick: (to self) Donny, you’re out of your element.
And it’s not just Rodriguez. Smith and Weaver are unknowns, too. Where do you see them doing best for the team?
John: So the book on Smith is that she can play either center forward or winger. She played out wide at Stanford, but I’m with Henderson on her being better in the middle, especially when and if we go to a three-back. And I think that it’s going to be either Smith at the #9…or Sinclair. I think Sinc – we’ll talk about her more in a bit – has to move out of the withdrawn forward/#10 spot. She’s just lost too much pace to stay there.
Weaver…I’m not nearly as high on. I think in January she benefited from an extreme case of “recency bias”; she’d just exploded in the College Cup after being no more than good for the bulk of her college career. She’s a solid second-option attacker. I think she will come off the bench when Smith tires rather than a #1 option. She’s still quality…just not as much quality as she’s being sold to us by people who were wowed by her Cup run.
Richard: Really no ideas here – they haven’t even practiced with the team, let alone played a pro minute.
Patrick: You have no frame of reference, here Donny. You’re like a child who wanders in…
And there are questions about some of the returning players. Sinc? Any changes you see for her? What about Horan? She followed her MVP season with a dreadful 2019…just a glitch? Anything that you can think that might help her get untracked?
John: Based on our passing on a bunch of good young wide defenders like Amanda Visco back in January I have to think that Parsons believes he’s going to get another decent season out of Kling. I hope to hell he’s right.
Richard: I hope that Sinclair (and Heath and Klingenberg) can find another season in themselves. But I would not blame them if they don’t – the calendar has no respect for lost opportunities.
John: Heath seems fine, at least for another season. As I mentioned earlier, I think Sinclair is going to have to move either up or back. Her wheels are pretty much gone at this point, so she needs a place where she can put fewer miles on her legs.
Patrick: At this rate it looks like Sinc will continue to play until her legs fall off. I would really like her to remain with the club in some sort of capacity, even if only as an ambassador or something, but as much as I love her, I think her days as an effective player are about past her.
John: Horan’s collapse last season worries me. We’ve seen this with Menges; after her terrific 2016 and 2017 seasons her work has slid over the past two years as injuries have dragged her down. I’m not sure what the deal was with Horan last season. Did she have some nagging little knocks? Was it really getting benched at the World Cup, or what? But we haven’t seen a lot of Great Horan lately. And we need more greatness to beat The Damned.
Richard: I’m not too worried about Horan. She is young and tough.
John: From your lips to the soccer gods’ ears.
It seems almost ungracious to ask this, but…it’s been three seasons now since the second championship. Each successive season since then the Thorns have slipped a bit; first runners-up in 2018, then ousted in the semifinal last season. Is there a point where Mark Parsons might be a little concerned about his job? If the Thorns finish out of the top four (either in whatever passes for 2020 or whenever the league reopens)? Or do you see Parsons as secure here until he wants a change?
Patrick: As long as he can keep Merritt and Gavin happy, he can probably stay for a while yet. He’s very popular among the fans and as far as I know hasn’t had any big shouting matches with the bosses. The seats are full (or at least were), beer and cider are selling. I don’t see them rocking the boat unless they have to.
Richard: The issue with changing coaches is always who takes their place. We’ve seen other NWSL franchises looking under the floorboards for people with zero pro experience. The available talent pool is not that large, even if you include men’s and national team coaches. So, my answer is no – it’s Parsons’ job as long as he wants it.
John: I feel the same way about this that I did with Riley. Unless and until there’s an obviously better option – or unless and until it’s really obvious that Parsons has lost the team – I don’t see the point in just canning him because things aren’t working out and the FO or the fans want silverware. I think he gets the time to figure things out after the ugly end to last season.
That said…I’m not happy with where the team’s been going. We had a clear and obvious problem with our attack last season and couldn’t solve it. Riley and Vlatko have had our number, and we haven’t solved them. Our defensive numbers have been slipping ever since 2017, and we haven’t solved that. All of those need to turn around in the next couple of seasons.
Richard: Well, that’s pretty harsh. He’s had to deal with the monster that is Carolina over that time. What’s more, unlike some coaches, Parsons does not sit there and deny what any fan with eyes can see. Where mistakes are made, he notices and tries to correct. Usually, his in-game management is spot on. I credit him with self-awareness, a small ego, and a big brain. All desirable attributes individually and even moreso when they’re combined in one coach.
John: Wellll…I’m not so convinced on Parsons’ in-game skills. I went into detail about this in the “Final Grades” piece, but I think he’s been consistently outcoached by Riley and Vlatko, and Laura Harvey seems to match up well against him, too. His substitution patterns often seem odd. Not bad, not good, just…odd. But at this point I don’t think there’s any reason to be looking. Another couple of years of middling results, though? Especially if the team finishes below the red line in those seasons?
And back to the possible “lost season”…do you think this will affect expansion? Or…worse, any clubs you think might fold because of the loss of revenue this year?
Richard: If the 2020 season is not played, or is played without fans, the clubs obviously take a financial hit. All the players and staff are still being paid. The player salary cap is $650,000 but none of the clubs have a signed a full roster yet. However, for the players who are signed, the clubs are still on the hook for housing, insurance, and coaching staff, and they likely have some sort of mortgage on their stadiums if they own them.
John: Or may have a long-term lease agreement they have to pay on.
Richard: But the independent clubs presumably have force majeure clauses in their stadium contracts that take them off the hook. OL Reign may be a little deeper into their facilities and face some losses there.
John: Okay, that’s liabilities. What about income?
Richard: Hard to be sure, but do the shirt sponsors still pay if they get no exposure? Stadium naming sponsors? Presumably they pay something, leaving the clubs with small income streams.
John: That can’t be much, though. No broadcast revenue, so no help there. Obviously no ticket sales. Maybe a little merch. Even with the cap and assuming that the players will take some sort of haircut…that’s got to be grim.
Patrick: That’s the scariest thing– the league was just finally looking like it was really beginning to do well. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a team or two fold–the implications of this go far far beyond soccer, and the funding for teams that aren’t profitable will be drying up faster than spilt water in a hot desert. I’m definitely Eeyore here (sorry John, I’ll have to borrow the donkey suit for a little bit).
Richard: Well, clubs are going to lose money, so the question then becomes: how much would one club lose? Maybe $1-$1.5 million? If this is the case, then the existing franchises should be around in 2021. Losing that sort of money is not an existential threat to the owners. The weakest ownership groups are Chicago and DC, but neither has shown any sign of giving up. And Sky Blue was breaking through finally – I would hope we get to see how that story unwinds. (Also, it might be politically bad for the governor to bail while encouraging New Jersey businesses to stand firm.)
John: Okay, that’s the existing clubs. What about the prospective expansion sides, Louisville and Sacramento?
Richard: The Louisville club is owned by a single family-run venture capital firm, Neace Ventures. The firm invests in tech and real estate. The former should be prospering, the latter less so. This means they are somewhat diversified. It does not look like they would have financial reasons to not stick to their plan of opening in 2021.
Sacramento is owned by a conglomerate of wealthy local folks, all of whom are well off but not billionaires. Some of them will be losing more of their fortunes than others but the diversity of ownership should help the club survive. The stadium project is temporarily shut down due to California’s ban on non-essential construction. But the club said a few weeks ago that they are still on schedule and if the ban is lifted for the summer construction season, they expect to finish on time.
This statement, while not specific to NWSL, makes me think the ownership group is still confident in their future.
John: Okay, so even as an Eeyore I think you make a pretty good case for the hopeful outlook for whatever comes next – a truncated 2020 season or a new season in 2021. My canary was Sky Blue; I think they’re likely to be the closest to the edge, and your prognosis seems a lot more positive as well as based on more than just a “I have a bad feeling about this” which is the entire basis of mine. So you think we’re in a good place to look forward to some NWSL from the clubs we have, if not this fall, next spring?
Richard: Yes. The bottom line: there is no evidence that any existing club will not survive to 2021 or that the expansion clubs will not follow through and join us next year.
Patrick: Hmmm. I’m not nearly as optimistic, but I hope you’re right.
Okay, I think we’ve pretty much covered what we wanted to talk about and it’s time to go binge-watch Belgravia or something. But before we go, final thoughts, everyone.
Richard: Although I’m nowhere near as pessimistic as you two, I do remember when the Boston Breakers went from healthy-as-an-ox to deader-than-a-doorknob in three weeks. So who knows? All we can say is that we don’t yet hear Ghanian pallbearer music.
John: I’m still hopeful, and, yet, already disappointed. Not so much about the league but as about the Thorns. I was really excited about what the coach and the Front Office were doing with the squad, and now I still think it’s very likely we will have to wait until next April to see what happens with that, and that extra year might mean the difference for the grandmas like Sinc and Heath and Kling. I want to be wrong…but I just think this might be a Lost Season, and that sucks. I want red smoke, damn you, virus!
Patrick: I just hope we can all get through this safely. And between now and then I need to have a talk with Bob the Podcat to see if she knows anything about particle physics.
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