Thursday, May 28, 2015

The future of women's soccer

In an exclusive interview, U.S. national team forward Heather O'Reilly talks about the financial state of Women's Professional Soccer, the state of the U.S. women's national team, and how to get fans of men's soccer to follow the women's game.

The future of women's soccer

Heather O´Reilly and the U.S. women´s national team are starting to prepare for next summer´s Women´s World Cup. (Armando Franca/AP)
Heather O'Reilly and the U.S. women's national team are starting to prepare for next summer's Women's World Cup. (Armando Franca/AP)

CONFLUENCE, Pa. - Greetings from one of the more unsual datelines I've ever attached to a blog post. I am en route to Chicago for the weekend, and I'm traveling to the Windy City by train instead of flying. I have nothing against planes, but I decided to mix a little bit of a vacation in with this trip.

(Yes, there really is a town in this state called Confluence. And yes, as some of you already know, I have a bit of a history when it comes to writing about trains.)

Anyway, enough with the travelogue. Since the injury report section in the Union's pregame notes is empty, I figured I'd change the subject a bit and spend a bit of time focusing on women's soccer. We'll have plenty of time to discuss the Union's game at the Fire on Saturday night, when I'll be blogging live from Toyota Park.

The health of women's soccer looks a bit shaky at the moment. Despite the Philadelphia Independence's relative success in its inaugural season, Women's Professional Soccer lost a franchise for the second time this year when St. Louis Athletica went bust.

It's never good when a team goes under, but even more so when it's in the middle of the season. WPS was able to adjust its schedule fairly easily - the Independence's new fixture list is here - but the PR hit that the league took will sting for a while.

Of course, the U.S. national team remains among the world's elite. But its matches generate only a fraction of the buzz that they used to. Last month's 4-0 rout of fellow power Germany in Cleveland, which cemented the U.S.' status as the No. 1 team right now, was witnessed by only 10,000 fans. The game was televised, but it was up against playoff hockey and basketball.

Can things be turned around before the financial situation becomes even more dire? There's a Women's World Cup next year, to be played in Germany, and that will generate some publicity. But if I asked you point blank whether you could name any players on the U.S. national team, could you do it?

Maybe you'd come up with Heather Mitts, and a few of you might mention Amy Rodriguez because she plays for the Independence. Others might come up with Abby Wambach, the towering striker who plays her club soccer in Washington.

I would guess, though, that you wouldn't have come up with Heather O'Reilly right away. If that's the case, then you might want to remember her name over the coming months. The 25-year-old forward from New Brunswick, N.J., is the focal point of the U.S.' attack. With the U.S. determined to regain the World Cup next summer, O'Reilly is hitting her prime at just the right moment.

A few days ago, I interviewed O'Reilly about the present and future of women's soccer, and what role she thinks she'll play in it. O'Reilly is currently playing for Sky Blue FC in WPS, and she'll be in town this weekend as Sky Blue visits the Independence on Sunday at 6 p.m.

In addition to her work on the field, O'Reilly is working on an interesting community service project off the field. She has joined up with CooperVision to award 10 grants of $2,500 each to individuals who work in the youth soccer community. That's a pretty serious amount of money. If you want more information, you can get it here.

Here's the transcript of our chat. I think you'll find what she has to say pretty interesting.

What was your reaction to St. Louis Athletica going under? Are you worried about the stability of Women's Professional Soccer at all?

Well, obviously it's a disappointment to lose a great team like that. They had a lot of positives going for them with their program. But I'm not worried about the stability of WPS. I think we still have seven very strong organizations.

That's the same number of clubs as last season, and last season was a great success. So I'm not worried about it. I think the foundation of the other clubs is good, and that's why the model of WPS, an individual franchise model, was the right choice.

Yes, it will affect the league overall, but it won't affect the strength of the seven other clubs. So it's a disappointment, and we'll see how the re-shuffling goes. But I think this league is strong and will move on.

Have you talked with Sky Blue FC's ownership or upper management at all about the situation?

Sky Blue's general manager [Gerry Marrone] and owner [Thomas Hofstetter] have been very transparent, and very positive with us about at least the things that they knew were going on. They wanted to be pretty up-front with us, which we appreciated, and they reinforced that our club is in fine shape and that people are in it to support the franchise.

As long as we keep doing our job, which is putting a great product on the field and being the positve role models that we are, getting out in the community and getting people to learn about the team and our league, and what a great thing it is, then we'll be okay. We can't worry about things we can't control.

All we can worry about is what we can control as players. So that's what they said to us, and I think we all appreciated their honesty.


Do you think the United States' win over Germany cements the U.S.' place as the top national team in the world right now?

I think so. I think we are proving that we're a tough team to beat, winning the Algarve Cup [in Portugal this past March]. So yes, all these friendly matches are important, especially since we're not together so much anymore as the national team. But we're always keeping in mind that it's nothing like the World Cup next summer.

So we just want to keep building on it - layering in more sophistication in our team, sophistication in our attack. Getting in some new ideas and creativity so that hopefully next summer we'll be able to get that 4-0 result.


What stage is the national team at in terms of its preparations for the World Cup?

We had a team meeting and they mentioned it was 390 days until the World Cup. So we're in countdown mode. When you're within a year of a big event, that's when it starts to come together. We've never, as a program, looked past qualifiers - that's one thing I was really impressed with when I came onto the national team as a young player.

Nobody even talked about the World Cup until we had done the job in qualifiers. Hopefully we'll find out our schedule soon - I've heard it's supposed to be in Cancun, so that could be fun. I think it will be in late October. And then it will be full steam ahead with preparations for the World Cup.

So I think it's still kind of a far ways out, but when you count the number of weeks we have together as a national team, it's probably only about three months of training time. Pia [Sundhage, the national team's head coach] has been ready for this World Cup ever since the last Olympics, so she's preparing for it every single day.


Speaking of Pia, what do you thin of her as a coach?

I love playing for her. I think that the first thing she brings out in people is a positive attitude. She's very positive. Her presence and passion for the game are infectious. She wants us to play the game the way that she sees it, and that's definitely a little more possession-oriented than we are used to.

So we're still kind of stretching ourselves in that way, to really keep the ball on the ground and wait for those perfect moments to attack. I think as a team, we get a little anxious to go forward and attack, and she's still encouraging us to be patient and wait for the better opportunities.

We've gotten some great results blending what we've always been good at with what she's getting us to work at, so hopefully in a year we'll be at the peak of it all.


I would think, though, that such a style of play would work to your strengths as a creative player.

I am somebody that loves to get in behind the back line and get crosses in and get in line [to receive them] if I can, and sometimes I have to be encouraged to pick my times so that it's not predictable. If a defender knows that I'm going to get a cross in every time, it becomes predicatable.

So for me it's about reading what the defender gives me instead of trying to go, go, go, every time. I think that's adding to my maturity as a player.


You have played with and against Abby Wambach a lot. For lack of a better way to ask this, do you think that it's finally getting to the point that referees have accepted that she's bigger than everyone else, and not every instance of contact is a foul on her?


[Laughs]. I understand what you're saying. I think players play her very hard because she's such a threat, but they're trying to play both sides of it. I think she has a challenge cut out for her because refs are really paying attention now. They've been criticized for calling things her way a lot.

The men's World Cup is coming up, and there's a lot of interest in that and in the men's national team right now. What's the best way to translate that interest to the women's game - to get those fans of men's soccer to become fans of women's soccer as well?

I think it will naturally occur if soccer can just seep into the culture of our sporting mind in America. I think that if soccer overall improves, I think naturally exposure for the women's game will be greater.

People watch the World Cup every four years and they think it's incredible. They do see the game as the 'Beautfiul Game,' and they appreciate it. But it's the longevity of it staying in the culture. So hopefully after this World Cup, it will stick in another group of people's minds and hearts, and they'll be exposed to our World Cup next summer. And hopefully it will just keep perpetuating.

Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong country because I love soccer so much, and there just aren't too many people who feel that way in America. Hopefully the World Cup will keep creating fans of the game in general.

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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League, the U.S. men's and women's national teams, and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

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