Courage crowned champs
Shield winners claim championship title
North Carolina Courage shook off the “curse” that has afflicted the winners of the National Women’s Soccer League Shield to double up with the Championship title following victory over defending champions Portland Thorns.
Courage did not just become the first regular-season winners to successfully negotiate the play-off series. They did so with a 3-0 win on their opponents’ own ground, Providence Park, which had been chosen to host the championship game well in advance.
Jess McDonald, traded by Portland three years ago, was named MVP after scoring twice in the Final after Brazil’s Debinha opened the scoring for Paul Riley’s team, who were beaten by Thorns in last season’s finale.
Portland staged all three play-off matches as the impact of Hurricane Florence forced Courage to give up their home semi-final. Thorns beat Seattle Reign 1-0 on the Sunday, Courage then defeated Chicago Red Stars 2-0 on the Tuesday.
Despite three days less preparation time – and a largely hostile crowd of 21,144 – Courage maintained their record-breaking season to finish the campaign with 19 wins, one defeat and a goal difference of 58-17.
North Carolina’s success concluded another year of mixed messages. On the credit side, NWSL survived another year. With six seasons completed, this third attempt to establish a professional women’s league in the US has now lasted as long as the previous two combined. Average regular-season gates reached a record high of 6,024 as newcomers Utah Royals established themselves as the league’s second-best supported club, behind Thorns, sustaining attendances around the 10,000-mark even without reaching the play-offs.
However, both Houston Dash and Orlando Pride, who parted company with coaches Vera Pauw and Tom Sermanni respectively at the end of the campaign, recorded their lowest averages.
The biggest cloud hovers over Sky Blue, a fixture in the US women’s football landscape since 2009 when they won the Championship in the inaugural season of Women’s Professional Soccer. That is as good as it has got for the New Jersey-based franchise. In eight subsequent WPS and NWSL seasons Sky Blue have failed to better their first season average attendance of 3,651. Only once have they made the play-offs and this season they did not win a game until the last weekend of the season.
By then word was out that the players had, for some time, been enduring substandard facilities. There have been problems with accommodation, with players often having to move several times in a season between host families. Their home ground lacks basic amenities, while training has been held at four different venues. Expenses have been paid late, if at all, and away games have featured red-eye flights, cramped minibuses and inappropriate meal stops.
An investigation by US sports news website Deadspin quoted a former assistant coach saying of one players’ house “you would not let your dogs sleep in it”, adding players “had to cardboard up the windows [and] had plastic bags for windows; it was the most disgusting place you’ve ever seen in your life”.
Former US keeper Hope Solo said: “Our team never showered post-game at Sky Blue, which is neither hygienic nor healthy. At times, our coach would not even allow us to train because the grass fields were not lined or not safe.”
After scoring the only goal in the final game against Orlando two-time FIFA World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd said some of the problems were “pretty shocking”. Sky Blue subsequently made “emergency improvements”, which turned out to be a motorhome with a small shower and portable toilets.
While Solo said Sky Blue was “always the worst” she added it was not the only inadequate venue. Solo told Deadspin co-author Erica L Ayala: “My own team in Seattle didn’t have a very sanitary locker room.”
That NWSL has been without a commissioner since March 2017 has not helped scrutiny of facilities, but the league’s basic problem is a lack of revenue and investment.
This is not yet a sport which makes money for owners. Tax returns reveal New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, who co-owns Sky Blue with retail multimillionaire Steven Tamares, has lost
“Our team never showered post-game at Sky Blue, which is neither hygienic nor healthy” Former USA goalkeeper Hope Solo
$5million on the franchise. Meanwhile, talk of expansion – to Los Angeles, Atlanta or Vancouver – has gone quiet.
Long term, NWSL has a problem if the sport in North America treads water, for in Europe it is growing apace.
For someone like Lloyd, returning to Sky Blue for the first time since 2010 after playing for Manchester City, where facilities are top class, it’s a culture shock.
Having come home Lloyd, 36, intends to stay but younger players will now be tempted across the Atlantic.
At present the lure of the US national team keeps the best players Stateside but once the 2020 Olympics are over there could be an exodus with no major USWNT competition to keep players committed until the 2023 World Cup.
Champions...North Carolina Courage
Final venue ...Providence Park in Portland
return...Carli lloyd is back with Sky blue