Tag Archives: Paul Riley

NWSL Week in Review: Five Things (Week 1)

I guess the fact that the NWSL has returned for a second season is something to celebrate with the recent history of women’s professional soccer leagues in North America. Of course, your mind knows that the backing of USSF (as well as Canada) made that possibility virtually zero, but your still mending heart is a tad bit gunshy these days.

The tendency in all sports is always to put more emphasis on on opening game than we should. It’s been seven months since we’ve seen a game, and our minds like to project a single performance over the rest of the summer. So it’s not time for teams like Boston and Washington to panic, or for Seattle and Western New York to start making plans for the NWSL final quite yet. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and say that the Reign have a much better chance than they did at this time last season.

Without further ado, five things we learned from the opening weekend of the NWSL campaign:

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WPSL Elite: The Show Must Go On; At Least It Should

The Chicago Red Stars enjoyed a big crowd against Western New York on July 14, but had to forfeit a game just five days later when they couldn't make it to New England.

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – My first year coaching high school soccer, we were matched up with a clearly inferior team that was, unfortunately for them, inferior to just about everyone they played that season. They would soon be moved to a league where they could be more competitive, but on this day, the rookie coach (a.k.a. me) spent most of the second half figuring out how to manage the final scoreline.

I emptied the bench, switched positions, but still the score made it to nine, a total that is embarrassing to look back on, honestly. A few minutes before the end, a girl who had never scored before found herself alone on goal, and almost sheepishly poked the ball in. There was no applause, just silence. 10-0 was the final.

I met with the Athletic Director the next day and tried to plead my case: it was an accident, I was unprepared, I didn’t expect it to get that bad. He – being one of the finest people I’ve worked for and a former coach at many levels – cut me off. “It doesn’t really matter how it happened, it happened, and it makes us look bad. When they look in the newspaper, people are going to see the score. That’s it. Don’t let it happen again, please.”

Which brings us to the Chicago Red Stars and last Thursday’s game with New England.

Most of you reading this know by now that Chicago was forced to forfeit that game when they couldn’t make it to Massachusetts in time due to delayed and cancelled flights.

The intent here is not to kill the Red Stars (New England’s Ciara McCormack took a few shots at them in her blog already), who agreed to play in WPSL Elite this season despite the geographic trouble of playing in an east coast league. I met Arnim Whisler (whose responses you see in McCormack’s blog) two weeks ago in Chicago, and I can say with complete confidence that women’s soccer in this country needs people like Whisler and the market of Chicago. The Red Stars have been great for WPSL Elite, and should be great in whatever the league morphs into next season.

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WPSL Elite: Ghosts Of WPS Past Still Haunt Paul Riley

Paul Riley runs his New York Fury team through warm-ups on Long Island last Thursday. The transition to WPSL Elite hasn't been as smooth as he would have liked this season.

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – The ASA in the name ASA Chesapeake Charge stands for Arundel Soccer Association, as in Arundel County, Maryland, home of Annapolis and site of The Battle of the Severn in 1655, an English Civil War battle fought here in America.

Sorry, I’m still a history teacher at heart.

The ASA is an extremely well run youth soccer organization in Maryland that in 2010 decided that – in order to give some of their older players a place to go while in college – they should join the WPSL. In just their second year, Albert Oni led them to the Eastern Conference finals (and in the process was named Coach of the Year).

With WPS disintegrating last winter, the WPSL was fairly desperate to fill its newly formed Elite league, which had former WPS squads Boston, Chicago, and Western New York, a Paul Riley team, and not much else. To their credit, knowing full well that they were giving up the chance at winning any kind of title, Arundel Soccer Association threw its hat into the ring, and the Chesapeake Charge were in the same league as the aforementioned Mr. Riley.

Which leads us to last Thursday night at Hofstra when the Charge hopped in their bus and drove the six hours to Hofstra to take on Riley and the New York Fury.  For the second time this season, a travel snafu meant a Fury home game was starting late, although this was only 20 minutes compared to the 90 against Philadelphia.

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WPSL Elite Review: Strikers Wanted, But League Shows It Strengths, Too

The rain before the New York-WNY match left quite the scenery in pregame warm-ups last Sunday night.

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – In the end, it was just a scoreless standoff between two of the best teams the 2012 version of WPSL Elite has to offer, but if there was a game that summed up the fluid scene that is women’s soccer at the highest level in America, it might have been Sunday’s draw between New York and Western New York.

You had some great technical soccer, a world-class Flash midfield of Angela Salem, Lori Lindsey, and McCall Zerboni controlling the game (and driving opposing coach Paul Riley nuts in the process). You had big, strong central defenders, like Riley’s pairing of Kia McNeill and Nikki Krzysik, who let very little through them. The teams played very hard, were able to knock the ball around, and it wasn’t hard to tell that it was a high-level match.

But it lacked a cutting edge, a goal scorer, someone that could make things happen in the final third.

“We need a striker badly,” Riley said. “I told you guys before we started the season, we don’t have enough up front to win this league, so unless we get a striker between now and July 1 -Amy Rodriguez-esque or Tasha Kai-esque – I don’t think we’ve got a chance to win the championship, to be honest with you. We’re just not cut-throat enough up front.

“I’ve got nine (strikers) on the hook right now from everywhere in the world. And I’m talking on loan, trying to work out something. Anything.”

And, of course, that last crack led to a perhaps unfair Marta reference.

“I can offer her a couple hundred bucks. She can have free apple pie at my house any time,” Riley said.

Aaran Lines – who had Marta, Christine Sinclair, and Alex Morgan at his disposal last season – was more diplomatic, and was probably the happier coach with the draw, as his team outshot New York 7-1 in the second half and nearly won the game twice in the dying minutes.

“Not quite the same (as last year), but this is a group that I’ve put together,” Lines said. “It’s a very, very talented group, as you can see tonight we had some good experience with Lori (Lindsey) in there and (Klingenberg), it was nice to get them on the field and give them a game, but obviously a little bit different than last year, a little bit inexperienced.”

And there’s another rub, Klingenberg and Lindsey showed their quality in this match, but as alternates for the U.S. Olympic team, they left for Sweden on Tuesday, and who knows when or if they’ll return to play again for the Flash?

“Honestly, it’s been a weird year,” Klingenberg said. “The WPS folded, and that was unfortunate. We really want a women’s league to be around. But then when we heard the WPSL Elite was going to be kind of picking that up, it was great because they were going to work with us with the national team duties. Getting out here with the girls and playing with them is incredible, a great environment to come back to after national team training.

Klingenberg worked extremely hard  as she always does – for 90 minutes, and you could tell she was more interested in talking about her Flash teammates then her U.S. teammates, at least on this night.

“We’re glad to be here,” Klingenberg said. “I want to be a part of the team, and we got a good week of training in. I thought that we played well, had some good attacks, hit the crossbar. We were solid in the back, but unfortunately it just wasn’t our day to put the ball in the goal. We have to be a bit better at finishing our chances.”

I guess it’s at this point that we should bring up the line of the great Norman Dale from Hoosiers, “I would hope that you would cheer for who we are, not for who we are not.”

There are things the league has to work out: getting teams to games on time, getting the right uniforms for games (both teams had red on which led to a delay in this game), promoting itself a little better, figuring out what balls to use (Molten is apparently the official ball of WPSL, but New York and Boston were both using Puma in games I went to).

But these are minor things that will hopefully be taken care of. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, it’s certainly better than nothing at all, and I’m really not trying to be overly negative about what the situation is. Everyone is upset we don’t have the best players in the world here this year, and this is certainly a transition year, but there’s some good things happening. By next year with no major international tournaments to worry about, who knows?

It seems nearly official that the playoff format will be the top four making the postseason, and the semifinals and finals being the weekend of July 27-29 in Rochester. That should mean a really good weekend of Boston, Chicago, New York, and Western New York, although it might take some of the luster out of the rest of the regular season.

“We have a good defense,” Riley said. “I’m pretty comfortable that the defense will get us into the playoffs, but getting into the playoffs is not where we want to be, we want to win the championship.”

Of course, as the standings sit now, New England is in fourth, the Flash are only in fifth, both teams having played four games. Although WNY’s schedule has been much, much tougher, the Mutiny could throw the door wide open if they can get a result in Rochester this weekend.

“We’re hosting, we’d better be there (in the playoffs). Otherwise, there might be someone else coaching the Flash next year,” Lines said.

ELSEWHERE:

THURSDAY

NEW YORK 3:0 PHILADELPHIA

This will be known as the “bus game”, which saw the Fever end up somehow going through Times Square to get to Hofstra from the greater Philly area. The game started 90 minutes late, which is obviously embarrassing for all involved. But as I talked to about before, not much you can do about it now, is there? Live and learn. It actually took the Fury a long time to break the Fever down, which was a bad omen for Sunday.

“Thursday is a day I’d like to forget,” Fever coach Stuart Gore said. “When you’re sitting there and it takes us four hours to get to New England, how does it take us six and a half hours to get to New York? Those are the wrinkles that need to be ironed out. We were never told we couldn’t take a commercial vehicle on the Belt Parkway, things like that. But I don’t mind being the guinea pig if it will help someone else out. Hopefully, the league will get stronger and stronger and get more and more professional over time.”

FRIDAY

INDIANA 0:4 BOSTON

It was funny to watch the battling Tweets from the two clubs in this game, as Indiana tried desperately to find positive things out of this one. To be fair, all of Indiana’s first five games have come against one of the “big”clubs, and no “big” club has even dropped a point yet against a “small” club, so there are some games ahead where Shek Borkowski’s group can think they should be competitive.

SATURDAY

NEW ENGLAND 2:1 PHILADELPHIA

The Mutiny escaped with three points in this one, but safe to say they didn’t look great doing it under new coach Chris LeGates, who took over for Tony Horta after Horta took a leave of absence. But three points is three points, and as I said, the Mutiny is three points clear of Western New York heading into this weekend’s showdown in Rochester, one in which they should have Kristie Mewis to go along with the impressive Morgan Andrews (more on her later in the week) in the midfield. And we’ve already mentioned that the Flash has had trouble scoring, so who knows?

SUNDAY

CHICAGO 1:0 BOSTON

Must admit, I was quite surprised by this result, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I was most surprised that the Breakers were blanked, but the Red Stars certainly have the players to compete for a title and used a Michele Weissenhofer first-half goal to take over the top of the table. The game was very even throughout, which means that all four of the top teams are very close to each other, it would appear.

 

 

The teams line up before the opening WPSL Elite contest.

WPSL Elite Opens: It’s Not WPS, But It’s Something

The teams line up before the opening WPSL Elite contest.

EAST LONGMEADOW, Mass. – Even for someone who was but a passive WPS observer for most of its history, I couldn’t help but be a bit nostalgic as I pulled into East Longmeadow High Saturday afternoon for the opener of the new WPSL Elite between the host New England Mutiny and the New York Fury.

ELHS is a fine high school facility, and much easier for me to get to than Harvard Stadium – former home of the Boston Breakers and an hour or so to the northeast – but my mind flashed back to the buzz surrounding WPS last summer, when Alex Morgan sent kids scurrying for her autograph just by walking out to tape a Fox Soccer Channel promo. When 15,000 people showed up in Rochester and nearly 10,000 in Atlanta to watch professional women’s soccer.

Of course, you know the rest. If you don’t, it’s all here on this site for you somewhere, complete with the sordid details.

But as the hard-working Mutiny staff got things together for the opener, it was quite obvious that 10,000 people were not walking through that gate. And with only three portable toilets available, that was probably a good thing on that front.

Surely as Paul Riley walked out onto the field and took a look around, somewhere in his mind, those thoughts must have been there. As two-time defending WPS Coach of the Year with Philadelphia, Riley has to be considered one of the top women’s coaches in the nation. The league was coming off a World Cup bump last summer, Riley’s star was rising, it looked for a fleeting moment like WPS would thrive, and surely Riley’s reputation would right along with it.

Even when WPS collapsed, Riley still held out hope for some kind of return in 2013, which was surely part of the reason why when he returned to Long Island with the Fury he initially stayed out of WPSL Elite. But as it became (becomes?) increasingly obvious that WPS might be gone for good (and an opening left by Aztec MA made it convenient), Riley and the New York Fury were in the WPSL Elite for its inaugural run in 2012.

It can be a dangerous hobby to focus on the past. What’s done is done, and a few (or a good deal more than a few) mistakes shouldn’t deter us from looking toward the present and the future.

“I said to the players in the locker room, ‘After seven months of what has happened, you’ve got to want to play.’ To put the uniform with your name on the back means a lot,” Riley said. “I’ve been a social director and a psychological director the past several months trying to give them the best advice I could, whether it be abroad, whether it be here, for another team in their neck of the woods. That includes not just our players, layers from Sky Blue, players from Atlanta, just because we’ve got connections. I’ve been trying to help everyone as best we can. We’ve obviously got quite a few players from WPS.

“It’s nice to be back on the field, it’s nice to be coaching again, to put a suit back on and feel like you’re back at church again on a Sunday night. I enjoy the games , that’s what we all live for is the games. Hopefully, this will be the start of getting back into a WPS-like league, making it full-time for the players. We’re doing our best to make it full-time.”

(You can see my complete postgame interview with Riley here.)

Full-time or not, Riley has put together a squad (not even including his Supergroup that will play in some exhibition games this summer) that looks like a favorite in WPSL Elite. After a brief bright start from the host Mutiny, the Fury had four goals by halftime, three by Merritt Mathias. But a look around the Fury lineup saw basically what would be a WPS team, perhaps minus the stars.

Yes, there were no national team players and Vero Boquete is in Sweden, but Brittany Taylor at right back was too strong for anyone the Mutiny had to offer. Riley gave full credit to veteran Kim Yokers for dominating as a holding midfielder in a 4-4-2, and rightfully so. Tina and Gina DiMartino ran the wings, while Meghan Lenczyk played an attacking role in support of what would be two WPS rookies in Jasmyne Spencer out of Maryland and Mathias.

(Tobin Heath is on on the New York roster, but it’s not clear if she’ll be able to play at all with the national team schedule. Heath was on the roster as No. 19, and late in the game, Riley put a No. 19 in the game, who was announced by the PA announcer as “Tobin Hearth”. But it obviously wasn’t her.)

The Mutiny, while pretty clearly outclassed in this game, did show signs that they could be competitive in the new-look WPSL Elite, mostly because of who they didn’t have. Kristen Mewis, Toni Pressley, Vicki DiMartino (who missed the chance to play against her sisters), and Morgan Andrews are all with various age level national teams. The team also looked much more comfortable when defender Kate McCarthy was inserted late in the first half. Coach Tony Horta decided not to start McCarthy because she had arrived to the team after finishing finals at Boston College just a couple of days before kickoff. A game against Chesapeake this Saturday (with Andrews) should give us a better gauge of where they’re headed.

Mathias is an interesting story in her own right. She was as highly touted as they come as a youngster out of Alabama, playing in the youth national teams, and committing to North Carolina very early (sophomore year). But after two inconsistent years under the microscope in Chapel Hill, Mathias decided she would rather be at Texas A&M, where she was a two-time All-Big 12 selection and was one of the best college strikers in the nation. However, since U-17, she hasn’t made an appearance in the national team, and went undrafted in WPS.

Riley, though, saw potential, and when WPS collapsed, and with the national team players (as well as stars like Boquette and Marta) basically out of commission in the States for 2012, it was an opening for players like Mathias. And Saturday was certainly a good start to making a big impact.

“With the league (WPS) folding, the dreams and ambitions of all these players were kind of crushed,” Mathias said. “It was hard to rebound from that, but everyone has come full circle. It’s heartbreaking that the league’s not around, but we’re doing the best we can. It’s still awesome to be able to play at good facilities and against these kind of players.

“Right now, it’s about playing and enjoying it.  I think it’s sad that the girls from college don’t have what they had two years ago. It’s a huge bummer, but this is a great opportunity. So long goal ahead, get to the World Cup and Olympics, that would be awesome. But for right now, enjoying playing and playing as long as I can. It’s what I love to do.”

There was a delay, a pregnant pause even, before that last sentence, almost like she had to apologize for it.

I thought of the curious – or really not so curious – case of Boston College goalkeeper Jillian Mastroianni, who grew up near me and rose to be one of the best in the nation at her position. She was drafted by Sky Blue in January, and with a couple of WPSL Elite teams in Massachusetts needing help in goal, it was assumed she would play for the team of her choosing.

Instead, with a degree from Boston College in her pocket, Mastroianni chose to “retire” and go out into the real world. For 99 percent of America, they nodded their heads at Mastroianni’s choice and said to themselves, “Good for her.” But those invested in women’s soccer probably just sighed and shook their heads, not in a judging manner, but in a sad one.

Surely, Ciara McCormack is one of those headshakers. ­Since graduating from college in 2001, McCormack has gone from Boston to Vancouver to Denmark back to Vancouver to Ottawa to Norway back to Vancouver again all while representing Ireland (qualifying through her father) internationally in the last decade. She started at center back for the Mutiny in the opener last Saturday.

Along with Tiffany Weimer and Manya Makoski (two former WPS players who are playing in Denmark and Finland, respectively), she runs GirlsCANFootball, also just a few miles from my abode in Connecticut (Weimer and Makoski are both local products from our sometimes great state), which has helped her keep playing.

“It’s been a cool way of marriaging the opportunity to continue playing and then also mentoring younger players through coaching them, that’s sort of allows us to continue our dream and ability to play at this level,” McCormack said.

McCormack has also written for various publications and on her blog (check out this moving tribute to her “Mum” on her 60th birthday recently), sometimes controversially, as she has called out the Canadian soccer federation, WPS stars, and anyone else that draws her ire.

If I have sympathy for people like McCormack, it’s because there is a kind of kinship there. God knows how many times along my life’s journey, people (including family) have wondered why I do what I do, why I spend so much time coaching and writing about soccer (and other sports) when I almost certainly could have a more lucrative profession. But when I asked Ciara – who went to Yale (with one graduate season at UConn) – about it, she summed it up much me eloquently than I ever could.

“I’ve had border guards at the airport ask me what’s my connection with the U.S., and I say, ‘coach and play soccer’, and then they start laughing when I tell them where I went to school,” she said. “I get it from my parents. I mean, again for me, I think the most important thing is knowing what your passion is, and obviously going to a school like Yale was a great opportunity educationally, and exposed me to a lot of fantastic things, but soccer has always been where my passion is. Whether or not that fits the mold of what an Ivy League graduate is supposed to be doing at 32, I’m not sure, but I have no regrets. I obviously still love the game enough to be out here, so here I am.”

And here we are. The WPSL Elite will not be the caliber of WPS this season, there likely won’t be any games that 10,000 paid customers show up for. But in the next couple of months, we’ll try to bring you as many stories as we can from the league as best we can while holding down real jobs and other commitments just as many of the players and coaches we’ll be reporting on do.

It’s what we love to do.

The uniforms of Kate McCarthy (#21) and Rebecca Mays (#10) await their owners prior to the New England Mutiny's opening game.