For the second year in a row, the two best teams in women’s professional soccer — the Portland Thorns and the Carolina Courage — will meet for the NWSL championship (Saturday, Sept. 22 at 4:30 EST/1:30 PST on Lifetime). For the Courage, a win would cap a season filled with history breaking moments with one more: no team that’s won the NWSL Shield has ever gone on to win the league championship. For the Portland Thorns, a victory — in front of their hometown fans, no less — would make them the second back-to-back title winners and the only three time champion in league history.
To offer soccer fans a preview of Saturday’s championship, I reached out to three members of the NWSL Media — three queer women who can breakdown the intricacies of the beautiful game far better than I can. We talked about what you can expect when Portland and Carolina take the pitch, looked back on the highs and lows of the NWSL season and looked ahead to World Cup Qualifying for the US Women’s National Team. If you love soccer, these are the women whose work you should be following and I’m excited to welcome their voices to Autostraddle.
Autostraddle: What do you think are the keys to the match for Portland and Carolina? Who do you expect to see strong performances from?
McCauley: If Tuesday’s semifinal is any indication, Portland defenders Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett will need to be at their best. North Carolina’s Jess McDonald showed off her speed just five minutes into the semi, torching Chicago’s Julie Ertz for the opening goal. Neither Menges or Sonnett is as fast as McDonald or her strike partner Lynn Williams, so their positioning will have to be perfect. On the other side, North Carolina needs a big performance from Denise O’Sullivan in midfield in the absence of their MVP candidate, McCall Zerboni.
Bush: Winning second balls and high pressure. Both teams will punish you if allowed any freedom on the ball, so the midfields in particular will need to harry their opponents to force quick decisions and increase the possibility of turnovers. North Carolina is also the best in the league at moving the ball down the pitch in only two or three passes.
The obvious players to watch on Portland are Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan, who have been unplayable at their best and have come up big in key moments time and again, including in their semifinal when they went down a goal. I’d also like to point out Caitlin Foord, whose work isn’t reflected on the stat sheet but does well to harass defenders and pull them out of shape with her movement in the box.
For North Carolina, keep an eye on Sam Mewis, whose ability to cut out an entire backline with a single vertical pass is unparalleled in this league. Also watch Abby Erceg, whom I think was the best defender out there this year. Her positioning is rarely wrong, and her ability to read the game two passes ahead helps her to cut out attacks before they start to threaten the keeper.
The Experts Chat
Autostraddle: Due to the impact of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, the Courage and the Chicago Red Stars had to play their semifinal game on Tuesday in Portland. They have just three days to recover and prepare to face the Thorns. How do you think that impacts North Carolina?
Yang: It’s not the worst recovery time in the world; three days is about what you’d get in the group stage of a tournament, but I do think it could be a difference maker if the game is close. When it comes down to little percentages, who has an extra five minutes in their legs can make all the difference, and North Carolina is already down McCall Zerboni. The latest injury report also has Kristen Hamilton questionable with a left quad strain, so that may affect their ability to make offensive subs.
McCauley: I think it will make a difference, just because of how up-and-down the Courage-Red Stars game was. North Carolina might be fine if they can score early and slow down the tempo, but if they’re having to do a lot of running the entire game, it’ll probably catch up with them late in the second half.
Bush: Over 90 minutes, I don’t see it being a major difference maker. The Courage are the most athletic and fittest team in this league, and after so many mid-week games this season, teams are used to playing on three days’ rest. That said, if the game goes to extra time (which I feel is likely), then the Thorns have an edge.
Autostraddle: At least from my vantage point at home, the loudest cries from the Portland crowd during Tuesday’s semifinal didn’t come when Jess McDonald and Sam Mewis scored their goals but, instead, came every single time Jaelene Hinkle touched the ball. The boos just cascaded down from the stands and it seemed to really impact the Carolina left back’s game: Hinkle would touch the ball, the boos would start and she’d rush to get rid of it (a lot of times to the Courage’s detriment). It wasn’t the first time this happened, of course — the Courage played in Portland soon after Hinkle admitted on The 700 Club that she declined a call up to the National Team because she didn’t want to wear the Pride month jersey and the boos reigned down on her then — but the boos will be louder and stakes will be much higher on Saturday.
As a journalist covering this sport and also a member of the LGBT community, how have you navigated covering this controversy? How would you grade the Courage’s response to the situation, especially as in terms of creating a supportive environment for LGBT players and fans? And can we all agree that US Soccer — who didn’t call Hinkle up for a year, then called her up again, thus alienating LGBT fans, only to cut her in the end — completely screwed the pooch?
Bush: I’ll be honest and say that at first I avoided covering the Hinkle story. As I have family members who share her views on sexuality, it hit a bit too close to home for me to feel comfortable diving too deeply into it. However, when we heard she was going to be called up by the USWNT after her interview, I felt like I couldn’t stay silent any longer and covered the repercussions of her call-up for The Equalizer. While I believe strongly in journalistic objectivity, it became clear to me that at its core, this is a personal issue. It’s not just soccer — in fact, it has very little to do with soccer. Jaelene Hinkle represents millions of people, and as someone who is fortunate enough to have a platform, however small, I felt obligated to speak up for the millions she doesn’t represent.
The Courage have been as vocal as any sports team about their support for the LGBT community. They participated in a Pride week, culminating in their Pride night game, complete with merchandise. Courage players also participate in the Playing for Pride Initiative, which the franchise promotes. If they had any response to Hinkle’s interview, it was conducted internally, which I think is the right move.
We can definitely agree that US Soccer handled it terribly. To call her up the moment Pride month was over revealed their so-called support of the LGBT community (the selling of the rainbow jerseys) as nothing more than a cash grab. And then to cut her two days in, after courting all that controversy? Pointless.
Yang: In covering Hinkle, I’ve really tried to put it in the plainest, starkest terms why queer NWSL and USWNT fans felt so hurt and alienated. I mean I really tried to draw a very straight line from action A to result B, and still a lot of people didn’t get it, which was kind of disheartening.
I think the Courage’s response has not been great. I can appreciate, from a PR perspective, they’re in a bit of a bind but for [Head Coach] Paul Riley, Courage Forward Jess McDonald and team owner Steve Malik to refer to Hinkle’s actions as just her personal issue that doesn’t harm anyone is really, really hurtful. I think they would have been better advised to go the no comment route, if they weren’t going to publicly acknowledge the harm that was done to queer fans.
I talked to queer Courage fans for DirtySouthSoccer.com and the ones I spoke to said basically they can draw the line between supporting their team and individually supporting one player on that team. They said it made a difference to them that other players on the Courage have made very public statements — like Sam Mewis working with Athlete Ally and the Playing for Pride Initiative — about supporting the LGBT community, although not as a way to directly refute Hinkle’s actions. One fan told me she had to let the good outweigh the bad.
I don’t want to discount anyone’s feelings in this though; if for some people there’s just no reconciling this for them, or no weighing out of good and bad, I think taking into account the context of the long history of harm done to the queer community and how many of us can’t afford the benefit of a doubt if we want to protect ourselves or just survive day to day, that is completely fair.
US Soccer did not handle this optimally either. They cannot continue to call her in or put her on provisional rosters and at the same time market specifically to LGBT fans. Call her in if you want, but you absolutely cannot then at the same time expect fans to accept things like Pride jerseys or rainbow scarves in good faith.
McCauley: I haven’t decided how I feel about any of this, honesty. I’m not going to lie, I don’t have a strong take. I think US Soccer and the Courage’s actions in the aftermath suggest that they are afraid of a religious discrimination lawsuit, so they’re trying their best to make sure they don’t expose themselves to one. Doing that, creating a good atmosphere for LGBT fans, and being transparent all at the same time is basically impossible. It’s a really messy situation and I don’t envy any of the people who are trying to navigate it. But I do think that if you’re a fan who paid for a ticket, you can boo whoever you damn well please.
Autostraddle: Looking back on this NWSL season, what have been the standout moments for you? What’s been the biggest surprise for you? Biggest disappointment?
McCauley: The back-to-back rivalry games between the Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign stand out to me. I think that the intensity of both the play on the field and the crowd both hit a level that NWSL hadn’t seen before, and I hope it carries over into the final and next season. The biggest surprise for me has been the biggest disappointment too: just how bad the Washington Spirit were. There was a lot of buzz around the team with Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle and Rebecca Quinn joining up and creating the most exciting young team in the league. Instead, they were the most boring team in the league’s history, setting a record for the longest time between goals. Ultimately, now-former head coach Jim Gabarra has to take the blame for that, and hopefully the Spirit can turn things around with a good hire this off-season.
Yang: Some of the goalkeeping in this league has been outstanding between Lydia Williams and Adrianna Franch, just a joy to watch even if it is extremely stressful. Possibly the biggest standout moment for me personally was Sky Blue FC finally winning a game, in their very last game of the season, in front of a home crowd. It honestly did seem like a touch of bad luck that they went winless for so long; there were a couple of games that really seemed like they would be winners that ended up as losses or heartbreaking ties. I thought Orlando was a bit of a disappointment, as was Alex Morgan’s production for them, although she needed way more support out of Orlando’s midfield if she was going to put up playoff-caliber numbers for them. I was also disappointed in Andi Sullivan’s rookie season; I don’t think she ever really returned to her old form after recovering from her ACL tear in 2017, combined with her not matching the speed of play or elevating her decision making at the pro level. The Spirit as a whole were pretty underwhelming after they got bitten by a combination of injuries and maybe some lackluster coaching.
Bush: One standout moment for me is Sky Blue’s first win in their last game of the season. They celebrated like they’d just won the entire league. Never mind the dismal season, off the field issues, and a shaky club future, for one moment they were on top of the world. Absolutely no one wished to see a team go winless for an entire season, and for once we were given the made-for-TV movie ending, with the goal scored by none other than one of the most big-game players around, Carli Lloyd.
I’m leaving this season with two big disappointments. One, in a general sense, is how much this year highlighted the extremes of the league and the least parity — the NWSL’s traditional calling card — it’s ever seen. On one end, you have one of the best teams professional women’s soccer has ever seen with only one loss on the season: the North Carolina Courage. While the middle of the table was certainly a battleground where playoff spots changed weekly, at the bottom you have Washington and Sky Blue, two of the worst teams we’ve ever seen in American women’s soccer. As fun as it was to watch North Carolina run rampant, it was equally grueling to watch Sky Blue and the Spirit struggle and to see it physically wear their players down week after week.
My other disappointment is the Orlando Pride. This is a team who finished next to last in their inaugural season and roared back to make the playoffs in their second. To see them wind up in seventh place with arguably the best roster (on paper) that they’ve ever had is baffling. What’s worse than where they ended is how they got there. For about the last six weeks of the season, their body language and play on the pitch looked like a team that had already given up. As soon as they conceded a goal, their shoulders would drop, and you knew a second goal against was coming.Autostraddle: One of the big stories of the season for me — one that, frankly, didn’t get enough attention — was the continued neglect of the longest operating US women’s professional soccer club, Sky Blue FC.
This summer, exposés from Equalizer Soccer, Once a Metro and Deadspin detailed some of the horrific conditions Sky Blue players were having to endure including living in substandard housing, training in woefully insufficient facilities and being forced to travel in ways your high school’s JV team might find inadequate. To borrow from the aforementioned Deadspin article, “the team plays and works in unsafe, unsanitary, unprofessional conditions — and club owners, league officials and the U.S. Soccer Federation are overlooking or excusing what has become an inexcusable situation.”
Aside from just hearing your thoughts on the situation in New Jersey, I’m curious on how optimistic you are about things changing there? What do you think need to happen — Sky Blue’s supporter group, Cloud 9, has called for the resignation of general manager, Tony Novo — to bring real change to the franchise? What role do you think players ought to play?
McCauley: I won’t be optimistic about things changing at Sky Blue FC until things change at NWSL HQ. Obviously the club’s ownership and Tony Novo should be self-directed to provide adequate accommodations for players, but the bigger problem is that no one in the league office is holding them to higher standards. NWSL hasn’t had a commissioner for over a year, and it shows. As for what role the players ought to play, that’s entirely up for them. I admire players who are willing to speak up and demand better treatment, but it’s unfair to criticize the ones that stay quiet for fear of getting blackballed. There are more pro-quality women’s footballers in America than there are available NWSL jobs, I would be scared to rock the boat too.
Yang: As long as Tony Novo remains with the club, I’m not very optimistic. My perception is there’s not enough pressure from the league and the ownership group either. Novo answered questions from the media after Sky Blue’s last game and after listening to the audio from that session, Novo admitted there need to be improvements to things like facilities, but at the same time dismissed a lot of the complaints as exaggerated and coming from former players or people who had been dismissed from the organization.
I mean you look at their response to the lack of showers at the training field, which was to bring in an RV that had one shower. Novo said in that after-game scrum that since the articles came out the team had managed reimbursements for players. Why did it take so long to reimburse people for expenses, which I presume includes things like gas for transit to and from practice and relocation? Novo said the league sends out a player manual that tells players what they can do and then said, “Maybe we need to do a better job of walking them through the manual so that they know what they can do,” which sounds an awful lot to me like him passing the buck to the players for not asking to be reimbursed correctly. Things like that just don’t make me optimistic about the state of Sky Blue, but I obviously hope that they continue to operate next season and that the players are treated like professionals and feel safe and healthy in their work environment.
Bush: Frankly, I’m not very optimistic at all that things are going to change all that much in New Jersey. This situation didn’t occur overnight. It happened because of repeated neglect over the years, and as long as that same leadership is in place, I believe the only changes will be cosmetic – just enough so they can point to an RV and say, “Look, I’m doing something about it.” If real change is going to happen, it has to start at the very top.
The players are in a precarious position. While I believe they need to use their platforms to speak up (and I was very glad to see Lloyd do so at the end of the season), roster spots in this league get harder to come by every year. If they push too hard, they could push themselves right out of a job if the club folds.
Autostraddle: We’re still about 250 days away from the start of the 2019 Women’s World Cup but we’re right around the corner from the start of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship which kicks off on October 4 in Cary, NC. The USWNT will start their quest to repeat as World Cup champions there, in a group that also features Mexico, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.
Based on what you seen, in friendlies and in the NWSL, are you feeling optimistic about the chances for US Women’s National Team going into World Cup qualifying? Is there anything you’re worried about?
McCauley: I’m very confident about the USWNT finishing in a top-three position in qualifying, but less confident about them looking convincing. Jill Ellis said that experimentation mode was over a year ago, but she still seems to be tinkering, unable to find the right lineup. She’s unlikely to ever find one that looks great with the way she’s setting up the players, but that’s a problem with a scope beyond a Q&A, I think. I’m not concerned at all about qualifying or the player pool, but I’m very concerned about the way this team is trying to play. Right now, we’re praying for a Morgan Brian Situation from 2015, where Ellis accidentally stumbles into the right idea.
Yang: World Cup qualifying should not be a problem. I’m not saying there won’t be effort, and Mexico and Canada can always spring a surprise or two on you. But Concacaf gets three slots for the World Cup, and if the United States can’t win one of those three slots, then we have big, big problems given the level of women’s soccer development in the rest of our region.
I’m only really worried about injuries, and a little bit about the defense now that we know Tierna Davidson is out for a couple of months with an ankle fracture from playing for Stanford. Abby Dahklemper and Becky Sauerbrunn are still a first-choice center back pairing, but without Davidson it reduces our positional depth a little bit, which could mean pulling Ertz back from midfield, unless Jill Ellis wants to bring Emily Sonnett in from right back. Now I feel a creeping horror we’re going to see Crystal Dunn, center back. I’m kidding with that. Mostly.
Bush: To be quite honest, I’m not worried about qualifying for the World Cup. While 2010 proved that anything can happen, the US is a better team now. Not to mention, the US and Canada are simply on an entirely separate tier than the rest of the teams, with Mexico the closest threat. In the pair of friendlies earlier this year, the US defeated Mexico by a combined score of 10-3. This is not going to be a US Men’s Team scenario.
What am I worried about are weaknesses that will be exposed during qualifying that better teams can exploit during the World Cup. The US has struggled to keep clean sheets even against inferior teams. When you can blowout a 20th-ranked squad, that’s not a big deal, but when it comes down to the narrow margins we see against the likes of England, Germany and Australia? That’s a concern.
The NWSL championship airs this Saturday, Sept. 22 at 4:30 EST/1:30 PST on Lifetime.