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.
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.