Courage crowned champs

Shield win­ners claim cham­pi­onship ti­tle

World Soccer - - Contents - Glenn Moore

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

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