Thursday, November 01, 2007

Feminist Guilt, Or Where is Mia Hamm When You Need Her?

So Wednesday (a few weeks ago...I'm running a little behind) found us pulling out the all weather gear and heading to PGE Park to watch the US Women's national team play the Mexican women in an exhibition match. ('Us' being myself and Brian, Jon and Lori, and their former soccer teammate Resa). It had been pouring all week off and on and had continued that day including as we were driving up to the stadium. But somehow karma smiled on us and it was nice for the whole match. As we were walking back to the car it started raining again. Unbelievable.

The three game series against Mexico (played in St. Louis, Portland, and Albuquerque) was obviously conceived as a post-world cup victory tour. After the flame out and controversy that marred the tournament for the women, it was more like a reconnect with fans and start mending fences tour. In either case, the soccer-mad group of us were looking forward to seeing some quality soccer.

The popularity of women's sports is a touchy subject for this former female athlete. As someone who went through high school and college playing varsity sports I firmly believe in the importance and value of that opportunity. I believe that women's professional leagues are also important and good both as potential careers for the talented few and more as inspirations and examples for the normal many. (Especially with the obesity epidemic sweeping the country anything that helps get kids (and adults) up and moving is good.) I really want to be enthusiastic and supportive about watching women's leagues, but unfortunately (and embarrassingly) for many sports it just doesn't do it for me.

Soccer, however, has always been an exception (as has tennis). While the women's game is quite different (and slower) than the men's, I have found it in the past to be equally skilled and interesting to watch and in the heyday of the Hamm/Foudy/Milbrett/Lilly/Akers etc. years I really enjoyed watching the US team. Therefore I was really looking forward to this chance to see the next generation of US soccer stars. It would be an opportunity to say thanks and goodbye to Kristine Lilly and hello to Abby Wambach and her crew.

The evening started out well, with the aforementioned break in the rain really raising our spirits. (Especially since our good seats were just past the very edge of the roof and we would have gotten soaked.) Abby was chosen as captain and honored for reaching her 100th cap in the World Cup quarterfinals against England. And the gold uniforms, while not particularly modest, did look pretty flash.

Once the game started, however, the five of us were a little nonplussed. The conditions didn't really help. The temp was in the low 40's and the field was suffering from it having rained most of the day. However the level of soccer on display was not anywhere near where we expected it to be. As I've written about before, we've attended a half-dozen Portland Timbers games at PGE park and really enjoyed them. I wondered how much our experience with those games was impacting our perception. If we were used to the men's game, then it would stand to reason that the women's game would seem slower. However the speed wasn't really the issue. Instead it was the lack of flow between defense and offense, the lack of sustained possession or building of a play, and for many players even the lack of ball trapping skills that surprised us. And these are all things that I would expect the women's national team to do better than a USL (minor league) level men's team. Plus it was very much a boot and run to the tall/fast players sort of strategy.

Many of these critiques were made about the team by more knowledgeable soccer folks than me during the team's world cup run, even before the Hope Solo/Briana Scurry goalkeeper switch fiasco. Greg Ryan's coaching philosophy and belief that creative midfield play was not how the game is won these days was (in my opinion) deservedly criticized as was his reliance on his starting players and reluctance to use his deep bench. (Even in the game we watched, a meaningless exhibition, Abby was kept on the field for the whole game, despite being hobbled and in pain in the second half with an obvious injury).

A week after this US/Mexico match, it was announced that Ryan's contract would not be renewed at the end of the year. As a fan of soccer, women's sports, and our women's national team, I am happy at this news. I'm hoping we can again field a team that plays 'the beautiful game', much like the young team from Brazil did in China this year. Because I want to be proud of the team and the way it plays, I want to enjoy watching them, and I'd like young girls starting out in soccer to see our national team play and be inspired, like I once was.


Other notes from the evening:

-- The crowd noise was really different from the games we normally attend there. Instead of the chants and songs from the Timbers' Army (Portland has one of the most European-like supporters' group of any US team, USL, MLS, or US National team) and the occasional loud swear words, we instead had the ear-splitting shrieks from the pre-teen set.

-- PGE park seems to be really into "theme" concessions. We had barely sat down in our seats for this game against the Mexican women before the vendors were walking by and adding churros and tecate beer to their normal cotton candy, crackerjacks, bud light patter. (Though as we all sat there in rain ponchos and multiple flannel layers the "Get yer ice cold Tecate" cry didn't have quite the same allure it normally would.) And when we attended the Timbers match against Preston North End (a Championship League team from England - (Championship is one below the Premier League)), the concessions stands had added 'bangers and mash' to their normal nachos, hamburger, hot dog menu.

-- While there wasn't a huge Mexican fan contingent in the stadium, we did have a mini-one a few rows behind us. About eight kids had their face painted in team colors and were waving Mexican flags and chanting "meHEEco! clap clap clapclapclap. meHEEco! clap clap clapclapclap". It was cute and added a little bit of international flair to the evening.

-- The fans seemed a lot less knowledgeable than those who usually attend the Timbers games. I'm sure there were a lot of non-soccer parents who were there with their kids. But in any case the crowd didn't necessarily seem to respond to big moments on the field, and there were more people up and wandering around during play than I've ever seen at a game. Brian was about ready to go postal on some of the clueless folks just standing and talking in the aisles and blocking everyone's view while shots on goal were being taken.

All in all I'm glad we went, and I'm glad we supported the women's team, but for the near future I'll stick to my Timbers. They're a fun team that really improved over the last year and should be even better next year and we can watch them for minor-league prices.


Anonymous said...

Great insights and observations about that match. I was there too, and enjoyed it, but yeah, the women's team has played better.

The crappy turf at PGE Park has something to do with the play, I think. The team is used to playing on real grass. The concrete-like surface at PGE Park is tough on the knees and the ball bounces a lot more and higher than they're used to.

The Timbers are used to it, so are able to take advantage of it against other teams.

Lucas said...

I was not there, but from what I've heard from other Timbers fans who attended, they were strongly discouraged from starting chants and songs ("not tonight, fellas, this isn't a Timbers match" was what one security guard reportedly said to a familiar face when he tried starting a chant).

We (being some members of the Timbers Army) also go to Portland Pilots games on the bluff, where we can make as much joyful noise as we like (and have been told [by other fans, the student section, players' moms and the players themselves] that they love the atmosphere we help add).

USSF wants a very family friendly product (men's and women's), to the point that even their official fan group (Sam's Army) discourages anything approaching boisterousness (though to be fair I encountered plenty of rowdy US fans in Germany last year). Strange when a small Catholic university has a better game atmosphere than the national teams.

Apples and oranges, I guess. A few of us will be at the Pilots vs St Mary's game tonight. Might be a good way for you to get your footy fix while you wait for April to roll around...

Anonymous said...

I sure miss the hey day of Women's Soccer in our country. I have the same feelings towards post-MJ-Magic-Bird era in the NBA.