Month: April 2018

New on SocTakes: 2018 U.S. Open Cup regions are kinda weird

U.S. Open Cup regions

Photo credit: Jamie Smed

Recently on Twitter, my friend and former colleague Chad Irvine pinged me to ask if I might hop on my soapbox and write (complain) about the region designations for the 2018 U.S. Open Cup.

If you’re unfamiliar, the tournament in the early rounds splits the bracket into regional groupings. This helps keep travel distances down, promotes local and regional rivalries, and generally makes a lot of sense.

The Open Cup regions were announced as part of the second round pairings recently, and at first glance, everything seems pretty typical. The teams along the West Coast and in Arizona are grouped together, the Midwest down to Texas is grouped together and the teams along the Gulf Coast are grouped together. For the most part, it all makes sense.

But when you look a little closer, things start to get a little off.

The Indy Eleven are lumped in with the Southeast region, while both North Carolina teams are lumped in with the Northeast region. Let’s just check that out on a map.

Now, I might be looking at this all wrong, but it seems to me that Indianapolis is not exactly anywhere remotely near the Southeastern United States. In fact, Indy is hundreds of miles north of Charlotte.

That means FC Cincinnati could end up traveling all the way south to Cary, which Google Maps lists as 514 miles, instead of the far closer, much more sensible destination of Indianapolis — literally one fifth of the distance.

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And because this is my article and I’m complaining about things, I decided to go for broke. Let’s say the following scenario happens: The “The Miami FC” Miami FC B, the B team of the recent NASL competitor, the The “The Miami FC” Miami FC, wins its play-in whatever and its next few games, and the Indy Eleven win their first few games as well. In the bracket, they end up playing each other. I don’t currently know the scheduling rules well enough to say for certain if this is possible, but for the sake of this grievance, let’s assume it can. They end up playing each other, and the team elects to travel by bus.

That right there, the distance from their respective stadia, is a whopping 1,203 miles. Google Maps estimates 17 hours and 13 minutes if they take toll roads, and 18 hours and one minute if they don’t.

Now, doing the math here, we end up with a result that is a goddamn eternity on a bus. Yeah, they might could fly and probably might would, but that’s not the point. The point is that Indianapolis is not in the southeast of anything, except maybe like really far southeast Chicago. And even that’s a stretch.

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New on SocTakes: What’s going on with Energy FC?

Energy FC

Photo credit: Steven Christy

Since beating Tulsa 1-0 to open the season, the Energy have lost four games in a row. This is their longest losing streak since their inaugural season, back in 2014. They have scored a grand total of three goals all season, and have conceded 10.

That’s bad. Really, really bad.

So, why are they struggling? On paper, their lineup is pretty solid and they have some talented kids on loan from FC Dallas. They’re using the same 4-2-3-1 formation that worked effectively last year. Looking at the heat maps, touch charts and average position diagrams from their last three games from the 2017 regular season along with the first game of this year, everything seems pretty consistent. We can’t blame red cards either, as they haven’t received any. And only one red card has been issued to an opponent, near the end of the opening game against Tulsa.

But compare some of the statistics from those four good games to their four most recent, and we see some highly troubling patterns.

The Energy tend to bury their opponent in shots. For the four good games, they averaged a total of 18.25 shots, with 8.25 on target. That’s a shooting accuracy of 45.2 percent, meaning nearly half of their shots were on target and proper goal scoring chances. The four bad games? Just 7.75 shots per game, with 1.5 on target. In the most recent game against Timbers 2, Energy FC did not put a single shot on target.

But on the other hand, their distribution numbers look alright. Good passing accuracy, good passing accuracy in the opponents’ half and they’ve led possession in three of the four losses. The defensive numbers are also looking fine, if a bit skewed against them, but that’s to be expected for a team that’s playing from behind.

This is one of those curious things about soccer. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s coaching, maybe it’s a new lineup still getting used to each other.

But it’s not good.

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New on SocTakes: Why is there no Women’s Open Cup?

women's open cup

Photo credit: Jamie Smed

“Is John back on his rant soapbox again?”

Yes, yes he is.

“Well, what is it this time?”

It’s simple. There is still no Women’s Open Cup.

You see, the U.S. Open Cup is kind of the greatest thing in American sports. Every single year, teams from all over the country compete to win one of the oldest sports championships in our country. Teams ranging from the giants of MLS all the way down to our favorite #BullshitPubTeam, Harpo’s FC. Nowhere else in America will you find a World Cup veteran making millions of dollars a year playing against a group of guys who work together and play in the local league for fun on Sundays. And sometimes that group of guys beats the millionaire. It’s the best.

And that leads me right to my main point. Why is there no Women’s Open Cup?

We definitely have enough teams to make a full tournament pool. Just looking at NWSL, UWS and WPSL, there are 136 teams in the top two divisions of American women’s soccer. Even if we do something wherein each regional/conference champion of the UWS and WPSL compete alongside the nine NWSL teams, that’s still a 29-team tournament that would be loads of fun.

The closest thing we currently have is the (possibly defunct) USASA National Women’s Open, which I can’t find any current information on. The most recent results I have are from the 2016 edition, which featured all of four teams playing a total of six games. Not good enough.

I want to use the format of the men’s Open Cup, but for women’s teams. Is that too much to ask for? Seriously.

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New on SocTakes: Meet OKC 1889 FC

OKC 1889 FC

Image credit: OKC 1889 FC

Dustin Hooker is no stranger to the Oklahoma City soccer scene, nor to us here at Soc Takes. He sat down for an interview with Nipun Chopra last May to discuss his new team, then known as the Imps. They had been in discussion to join the NPSL, but will instead make their debut this May as part of the UPSL’s new Central Conference.

The vision began a few years ago when he organized a handful of summer games for the local guys who weren’t playing for any teams within the pyramid, but didn’t want to stop playing — players with experience at the collegiate and semi-pro level who still lived and worked in the community. This led him to start discussing opportunities to join a league and have something to play for.

He wound up turning this team, the Pulse, into the Energy FC U23 team in the PDL. However, after running the PDL team for a season, it just wasn’t the right fit for his vision. The PDL, he said, is really focused on player development and making a pathway to pro soccer. There’s certainly a local community element to it, but as a whole, his goals for soccer didn’t line up with what he experienced.

That was when we last spoke with him. Since then, the club has a new name and a new league, but the same goals as ever.

His mission for OKC 1889 is simple: Provide a serious, professionally run team by the community, for the community. He’s been working with many of these players for years now. The coaching staff are all familiar faces among the local youth soccer scene. The sponsors are familiar local businesses.

And when the UPSL got in touch, he found like-minded individuals with similar motivations. They joined the brand new Central Conference, playing in the North Division. Joining OKC 1889 FC are four teams based in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

With the team, the goal is to be relatable. As Hooker put it during our conversation on Monday, “if your friend told you ‘hey, my soccer team is playing a game tonight, and tickets are only five bucks,’ you’d go buy a ticket and watch your friend play.”

That goal drew 750 fans at their final game last year. But they aren’t stopping there. Hooker has big aspirations for the team. Maybe some day they could become one of the signature teams in the UPSL, he thinks. It’s a relatively young and rapidly growing league, and no one as of yet is standing out.

“You don’t need to be a professional team to do things professionally,” he said, and he’s already working hard to do just that. The team has an excellent facility in Norman, Okla., a partnership with the local Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center, and a proven head coach in Adam Kay. Kay also coaches for the Oklahoma Celtic youth club as well as for Mid-America Christian University, and holds USSF and UEFA B licenses. “One of the best unknown coaches in the country,” as Hooker put it.

Even before they had a league, these players and coaches made a name for themselves in their community both on and off the field. They’ve held their own against FC Dallas’s top academy teams, won five of seven games played last summer and built a growing fan base. Now that they have a league to call their own, things are looking pretty good.

OKC 1889 FC will begin its 2018 season with a pair of home and away friendlies against the Little Rock Rangers in May, and will kick off its inaugural UPSL campaign at home on May 19 against fellow newcomer Inocentes FC.

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New on SocTakes: State of American women’s soccer in 2018

state of American women

Photo credit: Victor Araiza

In 2018, the state of American women’s soccer is in an unusual position of stability. The NWSL has survived five seasons, and is entering its sixth in pretty good shape, United Women’s Soccer is growing at a healthy pace, and the WPSL has made a lot of changes to fix some of the biggest problems in recent years. You may have heard about some of that during the podcast we recorded with associate commissioner Matt Homonoff. Contrast this with the chaos we dealt with over the past five or so years, and you’ll see just how remarkable the lack of drama has been.

So, where are we now, and what does 2018 hold for the women’s game in the USA? Whether you’re new to the world of women’s soccer, or just looking to get up to speed with the latest, I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for here.

First things first, let’s talk NWSL. The National Women’s Soccer League, the top division of women’s soccer in America and Canada, is entering its sixth season. This is a new record for professional women’s leagues, as the two previous attempts at professional leagues both folded after their third seasons. The league currently comprises nine teams across the United States — I’ll go into them in more detail later. It’s also the best attended women’s league in the world, and home to a number of full international players.

Three significant things happened over the offseason. Most significantly, the salary rules have changed once again. The total salary cap, excluding American and Canadian international players, has risen to $350,000, with a minimum salary of $15,750 and a maximum of $44,000. It might not seem like much, but compared to just two years ago, when the minimum salary was only $7,200(!), it’s a dramatic improvement and continues the trend set a year ago. It’s not quite at the level where I would like it, but for the players, it’s definitely appreciated.

We also lost two of the 10 teams that contested the previous season. FC Kansas City, the two-time champions, have “folded” in a really unusual way. The team was purchased by a group based in Minneapolis in January 2017, but by the end of the season the team had completely fallen apart. Enter Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen. Rather than a relocation or buyout, a new team was created in the Utah Royals FC, and the existing player contracts were transferred from FCKC to the new team.

Boston Breakers

Photo credit: Victor Araiza

The Boston Breakers are another story entirely. The team had been in preparation for the 2018 season, including participating in the NWSL draft, signing players and all, when things abruptly came to a halt. After months of courting new ownership failed, the team folded two months before the season began. Players were distributed to the remaining nine teams in a dispersal draft, and the schedule was restructured to account for the loss of the team.

That then leaves us with the following 9 teams:

  • Chicago Red Stars
  • Houston Dash (owned by Houston Dynamo)
  • North Carolina Courage (owned by North Carolina FC)
  • Orlando Pride (owned by Orlando City SC)
  • Portland Thorns (owned by Portland Timbers)
  • Seattle Reign
  • Sky Blue FC
  • Utah Royals FC (owned by Real Salt Lake)
  • Washington Spirit

Last season was all about the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns, who finished first and second in the regular season and played in the 2017 NWSL Championship game won by Portland. While we can expect both teams to continue to perform well this year, don’t count anyone out. The Courage only won the shield by two points, and only nine points separated third place from seventh. It’s a very, very competitive league and ranks among the world’s best.

It’s also an absolute blast from start to finish. The season began on March 24 and will run through Sept. 9, with each team playing 24 games. The playoffs will begin on Sept. 14 and end with the championship game on Sept. 22. One game per week is broadcast on Lifetime, with the remainder streamed through go90.

Onto the next tier.

The “second tier” of women’s soccer isn’t officially designated by the federation, but is generally agreed to feature two leagues: United Women’s Soccer and the Women’s Premier Soccer League. Compare this to the “fourth tier” of the men’s pyramid, as both are affiliated through USASA.

United Women’s Soccer is the younger of the two, and the youngest league in the pyramid. It was formed in 2015 due to issues teams had with the WPSL and the folding of the USL W-League, and began its first season the following spring. The league currently comprises 22 teams, including a mixture of former W-League and WPSL sides, two MLS-affiliated clubs and one former NWSL team, the Western New York Flash.

The league is classified as pro-am, meaning that some teams have paid players and some do not. And for NCAA eligibility rules, any team with NCAA players is fully amateur. The 22 teams are distributed into three conferences with nine in the East, seven in the Central and six in the West. The season is set to begin on May 8 and end July 15, with each team playing 10 games. Playoffs will occur sometime in July and will be announced as we get closer. 2018 will be the third season for the league and they’re already doing pretty well.

WPSL

Image credit: WPSL

The other second division league is the Women’s Premier Soccer League. This league has been around since 1997 and currently features 108 teams. That makes it the largest single women’s soccer league in the world. It also once spawned a men’s league which has since become the National Premier Soccer League.

The WPSL’s teams are organized into four regions: East, South, West and Central, and are further divided into 17 divisions — four in each of the East, South and Central, and five in the West. Divisions have as few as four teams and as many as nine, meaning that the divisions don’t all play the same number of games. It’s a bit confusing, yes, but the important thing is that every team will play at least six games and the league has a truly national footprint.

They (quite justifiably) brag about their massive footprint which covers 33 states and 38 of the top 39 metro areas, with a club each in Puerto Rico and Canada. The league is also under new management, with the group that runs Oklahoma City FC taking ownership and control of the league last fall. They’ve emphasized stricter standards for every team and a focus on professionalism in the league, with an aim on fixing the issues that have plagued the league in the past (see: UWS, which was founded due to these frustrations). They’re also planning a league-wide streaming solution that will be rolled out at some point in the future.

Anyway, that’s the state of American women’s soccer in a nutshell.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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