This week, Puerto Rico have released Women's National Team Coach Shek Borkowski and have no games scheduled through the end of the year. We also look at other news around CONCACAF, including the U-17 regional finals moving from Nicaragua to Florida, Jamaica playing in Colombia ahead of the Gold Cup Qualifying next month and Mexico's Women's League (the Liga MX Femenil) beginning its second season this month.
On a weekly basis, this author focuses on the positive aspects of the growth of the women's game, particularly in countries that have been slower to embrace the game. This year, we have seen such good signs as the NWSL starting its sixth consecutive season in 2018 and, while there have been a few changes in franchise cities, the league overall is stable and able to plan on a long-term basis, while providing a professional career path to Americans and players from abroad. In Africa, we have recently seen a couple of Ethiopian national team players and a Kenyan youth international who are trialing at Swedish clubs and how Gambia's Football Federation paid bonuses to their players after their women's team successfully advanced in a tough African Women's Cup of Nations first round qualifying tie with Burkina Faso, winning in a penalty shootout after a 3-3 aggregate score after two legs. Gambia later fell to perennial continental power Nigeria in the next round in June, losing 1-0 at home before crashing 6-0 on the road.
Women players have received better financial arrangements in Denmark, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and the United States of late, pointing the way for other countries to reduce the gap between what they pay and reimburse their men's players compared with their women's national teamers. There will be the conclusion of UEFA, CONCACAF and Oceania World Cup Qualifying to look forward to in the coming months but now we have to offset these positives with more troubling news out of the Caribbean. After Trinidad and Tobago's failure to pay high profile former Italian and Canadian head coach Carolina Morace and her staff last year, leading to their departure from the island (Morace has recently been names as the coach of the new AC Milan side which will start play this fall) we now have the disturbing news that Puerto Rico has terminated the contract of well-respected Polish-American women's national teams' head coach and technical director Shek Borkowski in May, seven months early before his contract was up for renewal in December, and has not fulfilled the financial arrangements due him. The Federation's move seems to have essentially shut down the women's program for the year, undoing the good work that Borkowski had done in a little over a year's time while in Puerto Rico.
Borkowski launched FC Indiana in Goshen, Indiana in 2004 and won 2 WPSL finals and appeared in one W-League final with a fully professional side during the six year era between the folding of the WUSA in 2003 and the launch of Women's Professional Soccer in 2009. He and FC Indiana were a voice in the wilderness for professional women's soccer at that point, attracting national team players from CONCACAF countries Canada, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and the U.S., as well as from all around the world including Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa and Spain (many of whom either were or later became full internationals). He then coached Zvezda-2005 in Perm, Russia before a five year stint in Haiti as national team coach and technical director, which he left in March of 2017 to join Puerto Rico. Haiti's historic appearance in this summer's U-20 World Cup in France—the first ever Caribbean nation to qualify at that level—is a key part of Borkowski's legacy. In a little over a year, Borkowski has had a huge impact on Puerto Rican Women's Football.
In the recently completed CONCACAF U-17 World Cup Qualifying campaign, his team finished sixth out of eight teams, the best finish ever for Puerto Rico at that level of competition, including their men's team. The U-20's finished second in the first round of the CFU qualifiers to the Dominican Republic, losing 1-0 after defeating Bonaire 11-0 and Antigua and Barbuda 6-0. The U-20 side was quite young and sixteen players are still eligible for the next U-20 cycle in 2 years' time. At the senior level, Puerto Rico fell this summer in a five team Caribbean Football Union World Cup qualifying group that included Cuba, hosts Dominican Republic, Aruba and Anguilla. Puerto Rico went undefeated with two wins and two ties and a goals for/against record of 17-2. The team tied host Dominican Republic 0-0 (DR was rated higher slightly in the FIFA women's national team rankings in June at 98 versus Puerto Rico's 99) and when Cuba (ranked 85th) defeated DR 5-1, Puerto Rico then had to beat Cuba to advance; despite PR having a 2-0 lead, Cuba fought back for a 2-2 tie. Borkowski's winning percentage of 67% for all three of his national teams is an outstanding figure but Puerto Rico Federation officials still cancelled his contract and owe Borkowski money (seems to be a prevalent theme in the Caribbean)—and, according to some players, have put the national women's team program in mothballs for the rest of the year. Grant it, the country is still rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which slammed the island last summer, but there are differing views as to Maria's impact on the Federation's handling of the women's program. Ahead of the World Cup Qualifiers in May, Borkowski had an offer to take the national team to play in Argentina (who have a play-in two game series versus CONCACAF's fourth place side in the upcoming Gold Cup later this fall for one last WWC berth). The Philippines and Chile had offered to visit the island last year as well but the Federation didn't approve the games. He had to make due with practice games against local sides (and U.S. club sides for the U-17 when the CONCACAF tournament was concluded in Florida after civil strife in Nicaragua).
Tribal Football.com interviewed one national team player for about 20 minutes over the phone; she asked to remain anonymous so as not to receive any possible backlash for her comments. The player, who has been a member of the national teams program for years, said: "I played for Shek since April of last year, when he came down to Puerto Rico and played in a youth team and the superior team (full national team). It's very horrible that he is released and he has been the best thing that has happened to the Puerto Rican Women's side for the Federation. His goals with us were long-term as it is supposed to be but the Federation has money interests and they don't understand his perspective of soccer or any perspective of soccerwise at all. We were all very sad from the players' side and parents' and all the women's community here because Shek did a very good job and the team did a higher level the year he was with the Federation."
When asked if Hurricane Maria can be used as a mitigating factor for the Federations' reduction of spending for the women's team, the Puerto Rican national team player said: "Hurricane Maria has nothing to do how the Federation works. The Federation has been like this forever; they don't care for progress and even less on the women's side. You can't say 'because of the Hurricane, then things are not working in the Federation.' Things have never worked in the federation….The federation doesn't care about progress—it is about politics—if we don't qualify, as long as they get the money in their pockets [it is fine]. Right now they dismiss Shek and they don't have any women's coach and they don't care because they don't have to pay him, so it's better for them and then one month or two before the next competition, then they will hire someone and dismiss him as well if we don't qualify. It is a cycle that has been going on. I hope it changes." She also explained that the team has had no friendlies the past two years, causing them to be not be ranked in the FIFA national women's team periodic rankings due to a lack of competitive matches. The team rose to 99th place in the FIFA rankings (the 11th best ranking in CONCACAF and seventh best among CFU countries) with their recent undefeated run in the CFU qualifiers but will probably be non-ranked again with no friendlies scheduled for the time being.
Puerto Rican Federation officials have a dissenting view on the effects of Maria on the women's program over the past year. TribalFootball.com talked to Anita Rabell, the President of the Women's Football Commission of Puerto Rico, for over an hour. Rabell is hugely invested in the growth of the game in her homeland and is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the global women's game. She discussed the Federation's ability to operate after Hurricane Maria struck the nation last September: "Hurricane Maria hit and caused lots of troubles; we were without power, water, everything was difficult, even finding gasoline for the vehicles. One of the players lost her house." The U-17 CFU qualifiers were the next month and Rabell said that it was: "Challenging for the federation; the airport was closed, just relief planes were coming in.
We took a ferry to the Dominican Republic so we could train and then went on to Haiti for the qualifiers [and qualified] for the last stage in Nicaragua. That was great."
When asked about the recent coaching change for the Federation, she said: "We had really high hopes of going through and doing really well [for the CFU Gold Cup Qualifiers in May]. It was a bit disappointing; we didn't lose a match but didn't go through. We felt we could have gone much further….We no longer have Shek Borkowski [as women's national team director] and are in the process of defining the new coaching staff. We do have coaching staff working with U-15 girls for the CONCACAF championships [during the] first two weeks in August at IMG in Florida. The U.S. Virgin Island's national team will stop here and play a couple of friendlies on their way to Florida." She said that the nation is creating six regional area teams at the U-13 and U-15 women's level and will add the same for the U-17's next year."
Rabell said that with Shek as women's national team director that: "There were some things they were talking about and things not going in the direction that the national teams' commisision wanted it to go. There was no ill will on either part. We've had great coaches and he is one of them. With Puerto Rico being so small, our resources are not as big as powerhouse countries, before we had a coach for all men's and women's team. Shek was the first coach only for the women and then we had a men's coach as well. Both were let go [recently] and the Federation is in the process of selecting a men's and women's coach" She said that the football officials liked having separate coaches for men's and women's teams because: "It is the same game, still football, but powerhouses in men's football are different from women's and when competitions happen, they could overlap; it happened before. You have to divide your pool staff and the technical director needs to choose which one to go to and usually it is the men's. We are going in the right direction to have full staff for men and full staff for women. Both areas are getting full attention to continue to progress and do better internationally, to keep moving up and to qualify for a World Cup, to dream big and plan for it." She said that the women's committee has been meeting about a new coach and should have one in a few weeks.
Rabell also said that Puerto Rico, besides having a number of players attend NCAA schools in the States, has had one player in the Frauen Bundesliga—Jackie Cruz who played at USV Jena as well as with two second division clubs and played at San Jose State and Ca State-East Bay—three in Colombia, one in Japan and recent interest from AC Milan's new team for 2018-19—which has hired former Trinidad, Canadian and Italian national team head coach Carolina Morace to lead the new side—in two Puerto Rican players for trials. So, from the Women's Commission viewpoint, things are happening to build the women's game, certainly at the age group levels which will help to eventually impact the full national team squad.
Borkowski is still dedicated to the growth to the game in Puerto Rico and is currently serving as head coach of the Puerto Rico Sol in the local 8 team league. Borkowski sees the arrival of the new team as a sign that things are changing for women's soccer in the region and told TribalFootball.com: "The arrival of Puerto Rico Sol is a positive benchmark for the women's game in the Caribbean….Short term, our objectives are simple, to help develop the game in Puerto Rico and in the region. A girl who wants to train and play in a professionalized environment now has the possibility to play for the club. A possibility is offered to passions that before risked being stifled."
Based in the city of Mayaguez, on the western coast about three hours' drive time from San Juan, Puerto Rico Sol will play at the 13,000 capacity Mayaguez Stadium, which hosted soccer and track during the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games, as well as the smaller Fajardo Stadium (3,800 capacity). This first year franchise is serious about developing the game among girls and young woman. They have launched a Sister School Program to work with area Primary and Secondary Schools: "to support teachers with their confidence & skills in delivering girls futbol at their school." First team players, including Puerto Rican national team star Karina Socarras—who played in the Spanish league—will work with the young players: "to improve their futbol skills, make new friends and build on existing friendships through futbol, and have fun – always!" The team will also present workshops and resources for coaches.
Puerto Rico Sol two homes for 2018-19; Mayaguez Stadium (top) and Fajardo Stadium. Photos are courtesy of Puerto Rico Sol.
With Shek Borkowski and his long-time assistant Chris Castro (a native of Ecuador) in charge, the Sol are leveraging their international contacts and anticipate having a powerful team for their first season in the amateur league. In addition to Socarras, who played with Malaga CF in Spain in 2017-18 and scored 10 goals in 21 games after time in Colombia with Cucuta Deportiva, the Sol has striker Trinidad and Tobago international Zoe Swift, who played last season for West Ham, and Guatemalan international defender Jennifer Munoz, as well as Puerto Rican nationals who have played collegiately or semi-professionally Stateside. Their current roster includes:
Courtney Burnette (ex-Midwestern State University in Texas)
Kelley Johnson (ex-FC Indiana)
Jennifer Munoz (Guatemala National Team and ex-Marin Methodist College in Tennessee and FC Indiana in 2017)
Jen La Ponte (ex-Santa Clara University and NWSL for 5 teams between 2013-15, U.S. youth national team player and now Puerto Rico's national team)
Mirianee Zaragoza (ex-University of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico national team)
Cristina Torres (Puerto Rican international)
Leilany Rivera (16-year-old Puerto Rico U-17 international)
Maria Jose Cancio
Katie Ponce (ex-Towson University who played for the Boston Breaker Reserves for two years and spent a year volunteering with Soccer Without Borders in Uganda. Soccer Without Borders uses soccer as part of a larger effort to help young people around the world with language education, nutritional counseling and cross-cultural understanding)
Nicole Rodriguez (Played at the University of Notre Dame from 201-2013 after a year at the University of Connecticut)
Micaela Castain (ex-Washington State University, coached at the University of Montana and now coaches for a private soccer academy in the Seattle area)
Karen Torres (ex-University of Southern Mississippi)
Karina Socarras (ex-Malaga of Spain)
Ashley Johnson 28 (ex-University of Southern Mississippi)
Zoe Swift (U.S. born and Trinidad and Tobago youth international, ex-University of Kentucky and West Ham United)
Selimar Pagan (ex-Bayamon FC in Puerto Rico)
Borkowski discussed the objectives for the Sol: "What we offer for female players is great ambition and the best facilities in the Caribbean. The big objective is to increase the popularity of the sport in Puerto Rico, which lags behind Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. In those countries it's really popular among girls to play soccer and I have the impression that maybe it's not the same yet here."
Borkowski currently has his team in pre-season training. The league season runs from September to May. His hope is to qualify for a new Caribbean Women's Champions League competition, which has not yet been confirmed but is targeted for later this year in Mexico. Borkowski and the Sol's ultimate aim is to be able to be competitive against Liga MX Femenil and NWSL clubs.
Good on the Sol for realizing what their nation had in Borkowski and Castro while essentially stepping in to play a developmental role for the women's game in Puerto Rico. One hopes that, while developing their national team structures at the younger age group levels and within regions of the country, that they also keep their national team in play through the rest of the year.
Countries that put their national team programs on hiatus after failing to make major regional or FIFA finals, primarily to save money, are never successful; this strategy would push Puerto Rico further behind other Caribbean nations in the FIFA rankings. One needs only to look at the seminal example of this when Greece imported almost half of their 2004 Olympic Games team from the States, utilizing diaspora. Despite the pleas of even some of the imports, Greece shut down the women's program after the Olympics and to this day, is typically among the bottom teams in European Championship or World Cup Qualifying. Puerto Rico needs to hire a new coach as quickly as possible and let her/him implement a long-term strategy to grow the game, beyond the metric of advancing to the next tournament's final rounds.
We hope that the Sol does well but it is hard to not feel that another nation, with extensive long-term plans to develop their national team or having achieved a berth in France 2019, will realize the strong international contacts, coaching acumen and vision that Borkowski and Castro have always brought to their women's teams. With the Women's World Cup next year in France, it is not out of the question that he ends up with another international job. Puerto Rico Federation officials one day—one has to hope—will realize what they had with Borkowski and his staff and where, with adequate time, they could have taken the women's program. You only need to look at how successful Haiti has been recently to understand that his methods work.
CONCACAF Central American Women's World Cup/Gold Cup Qualifiers Moved from Nicaragua to Florida
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) has announced that the IMG Academy will host the 2018 CONCAAF Central America Women's Qualifiers for full national teams, which will take place from August 27 to 31, 2018. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama will play in a round-robin format, with the two top finishers advancing to the 2018 CONCACAF Women's Championship (Gold Cup) in October. This is the second competition that CONCACAF has moved out of Nicaragua to the IMG campus in Florida in recent months due to social unrest and security concerns; in April they had to move the U-17 regional FIFA World Cup qualifiers to IMG after riots over social security reforms by the government broke out during the group stage, completing it last month. This regional event was originally sent to begin in June 6. The CONCACAF Women's Championship is scheduled to be played October 4-17, 2018 in Cary, NC, Edinburg, Texas, and Frisco, Texas.
Jamaica Women's National Team heads to Colombia for CFU Finals Preparation Matches.
The Jamaica Women's National Team—The Reggae Girlz—called up a squad made up of local players and also those playing abroad for a training camp starting on July 12. Five days later they left for Barranquilla, Colombia to participate in the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games. Jamaica's Women's National Team Assistant coach Andrew Price said "This will be useful preparation for the CONCACAF Caribbean Women's Qualifying finals (which Jamaica will host in Kingston from August 25-September 2, entertaining Antigua & Barbuda, Bermuda, Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago with three teams moving on to the CONCACAF Gold Cup—the regional finals which will send 3 teams directly to France and one to a play in versus CONMEBOL third place side Argentina in October) as it will allow the team [to] build camaraderie…This will be a good test for us as we play two good South American opponents, a that is similar to the Central American way, and Costa Rica, who we have played on many levels, and therefore we are quite familiar and know what they are capable of.
At the CAC Games, Jamaica was drawn into Group A alongside host Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. Group B consists of Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Haiti, and Nicaragua. The top two teams from each group will move on to a semi-final knock-out phase with the winners vying for the gold medal on July 30. Jamaica plays Venezuelan on July 19, Costa Rica on July 21 and Colombia two days later.
In their first match on July 19, Jamaica took an early lead from Khadija Shaw's (University of Tennessee) 12th minute goal but fell to two second half strikes, including the winner from Florida State and youth international star Deyna Castellanos. In the other match, Costa Rica defeated the host nation Colombia 1-0 on a goal by 18-year-old midfielder Gloriana Villalobos, who also plays at Florida State University.
Second Season of the Mexican Liga MX Femenil kicks off this month
Liga MX Femenil Kicked off its second season on July 13 with two games. There are some changes this season. Two teams have been added for the second season. Puebla held off in season 1 because of financial reasons, while Lobos BUAP had just been promoted to the men's Division 1 league and wanted to consolidate. Interestingly, both new teams are from the colonial city of Puebla, about an hour south of Mexico City and the home of Volkswagen of Mexico production facilities. They were also both drawn into Group 1. The season will again be split into the Apertura (Opening) and Clausura (Closing) Championships. Last season, Tigres UANL tied city rival Monterrey 2-2 in both legs (April 27 and May 4) of the Clausura Title games (4-4 on aggregate) at the end of the first season of the Liga MX Femenil; Tigres then won the crown in the penalty shootout (4-2) with the second leg attracting 51,211 in Monterrey, the highest ever crowd to view a women's club match anywhere in the world. The first leg of the Finals between Tigres and Monterrey attracted a crowd of 38,230.
In the Apertura (Opening Championships last winter) Guadalajara defeated Pachuca on aggregate 3-2. Pachuca last summer won the Copa MX Femenil in May 2017—the official launch of the league—among 12 of the sixteen teams, defeating Tijuana 9-1 in the final.
The league will expand the playoffs at the end of each half of the 2018-19 season from four teams to eight, with the top four teams of each group. The primarily U-23 league was increased to an U-24 league, with each side able to sign up to four players who exceed 24 years of age. Also, unlike last year, all four senior players will be eligible to play in one game, although only two will be allowed on the field at the same time.
Clausura Champions Tigres started the new campaign well with a 4-2 home victory over Queretaro, with Maria Fernanda Elizondo scoring the first two goals of the game. Alejandra Zoe Tapia scored her own brace in the second half to reduce Tigres lead to 3-2 but Mexico U-17 national team forward Alison Hecnary Gonzalez scored a late goal to make the final score 4-2. Newcomers Puebla blasted Veracruz 4-0 at home while their derby partners Lobo BUAP fell by the same score at Toluca, with Mexican youth international Karen Bercerril scoring a second half brace.
Group 1 teams are:
Group 2 teams includes:
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey