We had a nice little discussion going here last week about the announcement that the Independence will play their playoff game next month at PPL Park instead of at Widener.
Independence coach Paul Riley and owner David Halstead were at the Union game on Friday, along with the team's World Cup stars that were honored before kickoff. During halftime, I chatted for a few minutes with Riley and Halstead about what finally getting to PPL Park means for the club.
The Independence host Atlanta at Widener University tonight. The game is nearly sold out, but if you decide to go at the last minute, you can get $10 off the ticket price by showing a game ticket from Friday's Union game. If you don't go, the game will be broadcast nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.
What's it going to be like for you and the Independence to finally play at PPL Park?
I don't think you can ever be professional without a proper venue. He [David Halstead] knows it, and that's why I've brought him here tonight - to say listen, for everybody to see us as a professional team, we have to play at PPL Park. We just have to.
Obviously, I realize that the economics don't work when you are drawing 3,500 to 4,000 a game. So this could mean the difference between drawing 3,500 and maybe 8,000 to 10,000. Then I think we'll come in [more often].
On all of the WPS playoff fixture dates, the Union aren't playing. So I would think that would give you a chance to really get some people in here.
I think so too. The Sons of Ben have been fantastic with us, they've told us they are going to come out in big numbers. Whether they will do that - the tickets will be announced Sunday night if we get the job done. I just hope people come out, because if not, Dave will say - and rightfully so - that we'll stay at Widener.
But we need to be here. Chicago played at a similar stadium [the Fire's Toyota Park, in Bridgeview], and lost a lot of money, and fell out of the league. I don't want to do that. I'd rather to be around, and the economic sense - if it means just playoff games here [at PPL Park], then that's how we build.
I think the players deserve to play here. I say to them all the time, if you've got the final here, and you've got Marta and Christine Sinclair, all the top players in the world on our field, then this is where they should play.
Not a field with a hundred lines on it.
Your team has done so well without its World Cup stars. I talked to Natasha Kai at the Union's last home game about how you had designed this team with the World Cup in mind, knowing who you were going to lose. Talk about that.
I think that we were one of the only teams that did it. Sky Blue were maybe another team that did so. It didn't work out as well for them. I basically put the team together figuring that they would not be here, and whatever time they were here would be a bonus for us. I think it worked out really well for us - we picked up 16 out of 18 points during the break.
On June 11, I looked at the date and said, "Oh my God, we're 12 points behind the leader, we're in second-to-last place. We're three points off the bottom." And I said, "Before anybody [at the World Cup] plays another game, we could be top of the league."
And it worked out that we ended up being top of the league. The World Cup for us was a great break - all the other teams wanted a break, but we kept going.
I think players like Veronica Boquete have really come to the forefront since the World Cup players have been away. Natasha Kai has become what Natasha Kai should have become. Sinead Farrelly has grown since the World Cup stars went away. Tina DiMartino has had a great season. So all of a sudden, we almost became the underdogs, the upstarts.
We'vs got a lot of players who maybe didn't do so well for their clubs last year, and have done really well for us. We're a really close-knit team. I think when you have players coming and going, it's difficult - as MagicJack SC have shown by their results. For us, we've got a team that has stayed here, and they believe in what we're doing. It's almost been harder for the U.S. players to come back into it.
I was going to ask about that. Now that your World Cup players have returned, how do you bring them back into the squad.
I haven't made it easy for them. I've told them straight up, you've got a job on your hands now. Because Val Henderson is 7-1-1 in goal, and Nicole Barnhart was 1-2-2. I said to A-Rod, Natasha Kai has been scoring goals in the league, so you've got to score goals or you won't play. And Lori Lindsey, you're playing with I think the best midfielder in the league. So you've got your job cut out to get even 25 minutes.
What's been their response to that?
They've been amazing. The one thing about them, all three of them, is they're great people. They're the type of people to me who, even if they aren't playing, they aren't a distraction. They'll get on with it and they'll motivate themselves. They've been great in practice. I think we needed a little bit of a lift, because we were kind of tired.
We've played a lot of games, unlike everybody else. And now, if we can get through Sunday, we've got a break for a week until Saturday. Everyone else has got to play Wednesdays and Saturdays. So I think we've put ourselves in a really good spot. Whether we get first or second place, I'm not sure which one we'll get, but we've got to keep plugging along.
How can WPS capitalize on, to be blunt, the 13.5 million people who watched the World Cup final on ESPN?
Well I'll tell you, it's been a huge difference for us. We've got a sellout for Sunday night, our first sellout ever. All of a sudden we've got press calling us every day, we've got TV cameras at practice every day. There's been a huge difference the last two weeks compared to what it was.
I think the fan base will build for women's soccer. People recognize the girls now, whereas maybe a month ago they wouldn't have recognized the girls. We don't have a lot of U.S. players, we don't have a lot of big names, so maybe it would be a bigger thing for some other teams than it would be for us.
But the game has to grow from this. We have to bring in three or four teams now, grow the league to 10 teams for next year, and give ourselves a chance to succeed. I think that year three was the year that we always needed to get through, and I think we're going to get through it.
I don't think anyone's going anywhere. I think we're going to add three from California, and maybe four [total out west]. And if we can add Chicago back, and New York back, then we are set at 10 teams.
If we are set at 10 teams then I think we can do what MLS did. They struggled early, they lost Miami and Tampa. But they built themselves back up, and they built stadiums like this. I'm hoping that we can get to a place where we can bring 10,000 in here. Because once you get to 10,000, you can get to 12,000. You get to 12,000 and you can get to 14,000.
Because the atmosphere is what brings people back. Let's be fair: the quality of soccer that we're watching right now is not great. But I'm having a ball, because of the noise and everything else. I'm a huge soccer fan, but it's all about this.
I think WPS' marketing has been all wrong. They've gone after kids - you've got to get away from kids, man. The people in this stadium are people like me, who've got a bit of money to spend on a night out with their friends, who want to have a drink and stuff. That's who's coming to these games now.
Twenty years ago, or 15 years ago, MLS was filled full of kids. You don't see that anymore.
You talked about getting through year three. Is there enough money left, is there enough time left, to get to year four?
There's no question that year four is going. I just sat and talked to Dave, and he absolutely assured me that year four is going. They'll hopefully get to 10 teams - that's their goal, to get to 10 teams by October. I know we're in, I know Atlanta's in, I know Sky Blue is in.
Is Dan Borislow, the controversial owner of MagicJack SC, in?
He wants to be in. You'll have to ask David the question of whether they'll let him in. But I know he wants to be in. He's kind of turned the corner with people, and said, "Hey, I like this now. This is good."
I think he has realized that this is a good product, and I think he's realized that down there he's got all the national team players now. He probably can't believe the amount of press he's getting, and the numbers of people who have turned up to watch his games.
All of a sudden, he's like, "Holy cow, this might work here." I think he'll be back, but whether they want him back is another question.
You talked about the atmosphere here at PPL Park. In the last three or four years, Major League Soccer has marketed the fan experience more than they ever have. I think it's safe to say that the WUSA didn't do that, and that at times WPS hasn't done that. How do you change those minds?
I totally agree. I'm not a marketing expert, but like I said before, we have to get away from just going after kids and youth clubs. They're doing so much, the kids, they come to one game and that's it. We need to get season ticket holders. We need to get people between the ages of 28 and 55, I'd say, who want to come and watch good soccer.
Because after watching the first half here, the quality of soccer in our league is just as good.
Talk about what it's going to mean for the Independence to be here at PPL Park for your playoff game.
It will be great. I think that we've always considered PPL to be an ultimate goal for us, to mature and be part of this environment, and what Philly has here. I think that some good things have happened with the Philadelphia Independence on and off the field this year, and so it's all going to culminate where it should - here, at a playoff game, or even at a championship game.
I know that WPS and the WUSA before it marketed to youth clubs and families a lot. How do you get the core soccer fans to turn out, do you think?
Well, that's what we need to do, and that's what we're spending time thinking about and trying to improve. We've got to move beyond just the suburban soccer clubs. We've got to get to the soccer purists, and the males, and just a wider audience and demographic, beyond what we have now.
I don't know that I have an answer. I think it's a hundred little things, rather than one big thing. I think a lot of our WPS marketing has been toward the soccer clubs and toward the female youth market. I think that some of our efforts and energy can still be grassroots, but it's got to be focused on different demographics.
Will the league be here next year, and what do you think it is going to take financially for that to happen?
I think that WPS will be here next year. We had a lot of changes and evolutions from year one to year two, and we did from year two to year three, and I think we will from year three to year four. I think that the foks that are in it, the owners, we're committed to make this work.
I think the product is great, and that's always been our goal to have the best female soccer product in the world. I think we have that, and I think the World Cup showed that, because WPS players were dominant in the World Cup.
I think we're achieving that goal, and I think that as long as we can continue to achieve that, it's our responsibility to build the infrastructure and the model to make it work. So there will be a lot of changes. We've got to balance out that revenue and expense portion. There will be as many changes going into next year as you saw going into the second year of the league.