This week we present an interview with Jenna McCormick, a professional soccer and Australian Rules football player and a role model for youth players who want to play multiple sports at the senior level. We also look at efforts to increase the number of indigenous youth players who play soccer in Australia, which is a lower percentage of professional men's and women's players compared to Aussie Rules and Rugby League players. We also review a very interesting and surprising CONCACAF Gold Cup, which wrapped up last month.
Two Sport Star Jenna McCormick Balances Soccer and Aussie Rules
Jenna McCormick (24) is a native of South Australia who has played in over 60 W-League matches in six previous seasons with Adelaide United (4 seasons) and Canberra United (2 seasons); she has signed this season to play with the Brisbane Roar (where she started as a central defender in the first game of the season on October 27 against the Perth Glory, which ended 1-1), which last season won the Premiership (regular season) title. She also played two seasons in Scandinavia, winning a league title in Iceland with Stjarnan and then playing the next season with Medkila of Norway. McCormick is not just a professional athlete in soccer however; she also plays in the Australian Football League Women's and won a Grand Final title with the Adelaide Crows in 2017. She is set to play again with the Australian Rules Footy Crows in 2019 in the third year of the national league, which was begun by leveraging some of the existing 18 top division men's clubs. The original eight clubs will expand to 10 this year and plans are to add 4 more teams in 2020, to capture the strong interest in the league as well as the growing number of female players of the game (see below). Tribal Football.com interviewed McCormick about her move to the Roar and her unique two professional sport career.
McCormick talked about moving to the Brisbane Roar for the 2018/19 W-League season: "It is very exciting in and around this environment—it is a very professional environment. I've known Mel [Andreatta—one of only two women's coaches in the league this season and in her third season heading up the Roar] from a couple of years ago when I use to live in Brisbane and we have a good relationship. There was an opportunity for me to come up here. She and the club are very supportive of my other commitment as well to the AFLW back home in Adelaide; to have both clubs working together and supporting both of my passions is a great thing for me…coming up here is a good move for me and has worked out well."
With the W-League (October–February for 12 league games and playoffs) and AFLW seasons (February-March for 7 league games and playoffs) running consecutively, she discussed her transition between the two different football codes: "It's pretty natural because I grew up with both sports. For me it's a seamless transition." She joked that: "Obviously in soccer I'm not going to go up and catch a ball and I don't get them confused. The area I have to focus on when switching codes is tactically and learning what the teams' want to do—more the thinking side rather than the skills."
McCormick talked about how playing both sports impacts opportunities of playing abroad in soccer and she said that the two Australian football seasons have not hindered her, primarily because both are summer sports in the Southern Hemisphere (Northern Winter and Spring) She explained: "For instance: in Iceland their April-September season is offseason for the AFL and the W-League so it is flexible to do what I want to do. I did stay in Adelaide to play locally [this past season] and it was nice to stay home but I'm not taking it off the carpet [to play overseas again]." Aussie Rules is primarily a domestic sport, with a small presence in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, but not at such a high level for women.
McCormick is a role model for young athletes in Australia in both sports and regularly coaches youth players in Aussie Rules and soccer. She explained how she is able to manage both sporting careers: "For me I was passionate for both and had a love for both and have not been able to give either of them up. I know there will be a time when I will have to choose one but for now, I'm 24 and I'm still juggling both of them. It is different if you are at the national or Olympic level which requires 100% focus. For me I have never been in the Matildas' set up—the international scene—that would require a little more time effort and concentration. For me playing in the two national leagues, it is manageable and certainly something that I want to keep doing because I do love both sports and get enjoyment out of both of them. As long as I can, I will keep doing it—I love them equally." For youth players who want to pursue a similar dual sport career, she advised: "It is about what you love and managing your time efficiently and being able to fit it all and you have to make sacrifices to do what I am doing."
Jenna McCormick lifts the inaugural AFL Women's Championship Trophy with Adelaide Crows in 2017 (Photo courtesy of Jenna McCormick).
McCormick could be on the advent of a new wave of multi-sport women in Australia as both football codes have seen strong growth in recent years. She felt that the two codes were: "Both doing very well and have good setups for youth." Depending on the methodology used to project to national participation figures, Aussie Rules reported over 450,000 female players in 2017, with over 1,500 teams, who represent a very strong 30% of all footy players. The AFLW is helping to propel this phenomenal growth while simultaneously taking advantage of it. The sport saw a 10% overall participation rate in footy in the country, which is important as cricket, soccer and rugby all are attracting more young females to their sports. At the youth level, soccer has about a 2 to 1 advantage in female participation figures, with both sports well ahead of rugby union and rugby league, while cricket is approximately in the 300,000 range of players. Women's sports are healthy and growing in Australia with more options available, Jenna McCormick has shown a path to young people of how to combine two sports at the professional level.
Football Makes Paths with the Indigenous Community in Australia
Westfield Matildas Head Coach Alen Stajcic became Australia's first national football coach earlier this year to take a look at remote territories' Indigenous talent when he visited the tiny town of Borroloola, Northern Territories (population 871 in the 2016 census) in July.
He ran a two-day coaching clinic for more than fifty Aboriginal children who train every week in the John Moriarty Football (JMF) program. Named after Borroloola-born John Moriarty, the first Aboriginal footballer selected for Australia, JMF is in its seventh year of continuous operation in remote Australia. JMF brings together 6-16 year old children through sport, promoting good health and well-being in some of the country's most socially challenged regions.
These young players are supported to thrive and reach for their potential at local, national and international levels of the game. JMF is a skills mastery program, adapted from the Football Federation Australia (FFA) national curriculum. School attendance and better nutrition are cornerstones of the program. In a first for football, JMF's FFA-licensed coach-mentors live in the community to develop local Aboriginal coaches.
With daily support from the Sydney head office, the program is creating exceptional young footballers. Their natural talent, flair and outstanding athleticism is seen by many in the game as an 'X factor' for Australian football. AFL (Australian Rules) and NRL (National Rugby League) have long backed the value of Indigenous talent with sustained representation of around 15% and 12% respectively. Football is playing catch up with a little over 1% of the Hyundai A-League or Westfield W-League players coming from the ranks of First Australians. [Lydia Williams and Kyah Simon are current Matildas' that are Indigenous players.] Stajcic felt that his indigenous Matildas' were: "Fantastic ambassadors for Football, our country and their culture; I am sure that they, with the help of the JMF, will encourage, embrace and promote even more young Indigenous children to enjoy our wonderful code."
2018 CONCACAF Gold Cup Summary
The CONCACAF 2018 Gold Cup, which doubles as the Women's World Cup Qualifiers for the North American, Central American and Caribbean Confederation, finished last month with the United States going undefeated in 5 matches, with 26 goals scored and none against, from Group A wins over Mexico (6-0), Panama (5-0) and Trinidad and Tobago (7-0), and then defeats of Jamaica (6-0) in the semifinals and Canada (2-0) in the Final. Both the Americans and Canadians have made the World Cup next summer directly by winning their semifinals. Canada lost only in their last match after wins in Group B over Jamaica (2-0), Cuba (12-0) and Costa Rica (3-1), before defeating Panama (7-0) in the semifinals. There was a clear difference in class between the Americans and the Canadians, with 2015 WWC winner Alex Morgan leading the tournament in goals with seven, just edging second place Adrianna Leon of Canada who had six, with her teammate Christine Sinclair third with four. Leon has largely been used as a substitute by Canada this year after struggling to find a starting role in the NWSL; she played in only 6 games this season in Seattle after transferring from Sky Blue FC earlier in the season (where she played in only 2 games). Leon has switched teams constantly looking for an ideal fit (she has played for 5 teams in 6 seasons in the NWSL, including two stints with the now defunct Boston Breakers) and even spent a season in Switzerland with FC Zurich in 2016/17, after finding herself in a reserve role on the Western New York Flash and left with Head Coach Paul Riley' blessing just before the Flash shocked the league by winning the title in 2016. This World Cup could be an opportunity for Leon to shine and find a permanent starting spot, more likely in Europe. Canada in general seemed off a bit from the high octane team that we have been used to seeing in recent years (finishing third in the 2016 Rio Olympics) and at times slipped back to a physical style of play—particularly in the opening game win over Jamaica (2-0) and the final against their neighbors to the south. Their style of play was reminiscent of a decade ago when Norwegian head coach Even Pellerud led the side from late 1999 through the 2008 Olympic Games (when the term "ball control" was hardly ever used when describing their games); Canada became a force on the international stage by implementing his direct style of play and playing relentless defense). It seems that, since previous head coach John Herdman left to coach Canada's men's side, Canada is a tad uncertain under Danish coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller. There is still plenty of time before next summer to bounce back but at this point, based on their CONCACAF performances and other games this summer, Canada would be fortunate to repeat their Quarterfinals appearance of four years ago, when they hosted the 2015 Women's World Cup tournament.
The big surprises of the tournament were that Costa Rica (2015 WWC Finalists) and Mexico (who qualified in 1999, 2011 and 2015) fell at the Group stage, finishing behind Jamaica and Panama respectively. Jamaica held off Costa Rica 1-0 in the second group game on October 8 on a goal by Khadija Shaw (University of Tennessee), which essentially condemned Costa Rica to an early trip home, as they were always long shots to pull points off of Canada; they ultimately fell to the Maple Leafs 3-1 in their last game. Costa Rica was rattled early in the tournament when they lost Maria Bermudez (Valencia of Spain) early in the first half of their 8-0 win over Cuba. Bermudez broke her arm after falling awkwardly trying to reach a cross on an uncontested ball with no one around her. She was replaced by Daniela Solera (Atletico Huila of Colombia) while Yuliana Salas (Moravia of Costa Rica) was brought into the side as backup. Shirley Cruz (Jiangsu Suning of China), Priscilla Chinchilla (Codea of Costa Rica) and Maria Barrantes (Saprissa of Costa Rica) all scored braces against the island nation Gold Cup debutants. Daphne Herrera (Stade de Reim of France) and Fabiola Sanchez (Ramat Hasharon of Israel) scored once each. Jamaica was worthy of their win over Costa Rica, with 16-year-old forward Jody Brown of Montverde Academy outside of Orlando (who played for the Orlando Kicks in the UWS this pas summer) an absolute revelation with her speed and calmness throughout the tournament.
In the third set of group games on October 10, Panama scored two second half goals against Mexico after their stellar 17-year-old goalkeeper Yenith Bailey (San Francisco club in Panama) saved a first half penalty kick from Charlyn Corral (Levante of Spain). Panama survived a first half Mexican attacking onslaught and then scored early after the break and late for a famous victory.
After both newcomers to the semifinals fell heavily to the North Americans, the match of the tournament was the third place qualifier—with the winner directly advancing to France next summer—featuring Jamaica and Panama, and it lived up to the importance of the occasion. Jamaica, much more dynamic in attack, against Panama's skill with the ball, initially took the lead through Khadija Shaw in the 14th minute, with Panama tying it through Natalia Mills' (Atletico Nacional of Panama) 75th minute goal. Jody Brown then scored her fourth goal of the tournament during the first extra time period before Panama tied it again with 5 minutes left in the second 15 minute session from Lineth Cedeno (Tauro FC of Panana). In goal, Jamaica's starter Sydney Schneider of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington gave way to Nicole McClure (28) of Sundsvall in Sweden's second division, just before the shootout phase. McClure, a native of New York City who played at the University of South Florida, saved two of Panama's four attempts to help Jamaica advance to the Women's World Cup by a 4-2 penalty kick margin. She said after the match: "When I was running on the field I was really calm even though it was a tense moment. I think (the coaches) put me in because when we practiced penalties a couple of days before the match with Panama I did better than Sydney." Jamaica thus clinched the last CONCACAF direct berth—the first time ever for a Caribbean nation. Jamaica's men's side made their only World Cup in 1998 in France and their women's team will appear in their first global tournament, again in France. It is a proud moment for all who work in women's football in the Caribbean, following Haiti's qualification and strong performances in France at the U-20 this summer (again they were the first Caribbean side to make the U-20 world event.
Panama has one more chance to make it to France as they play off against Argentina on November 8 and 13, with the first leg hosted by Argentina. Panama will be motivated to repeat the feat of their men's side, which made the 2018 men's World Cup in Russia for the first time. Based on watching both teams this year, Panama has the edge and would be the fourth debutants, after Chile, Scotland, Jamaica so far; in Bailey, they have a tremendous star who seems unflappable and has puma-like reflexes. We should see her playing outside of Panama soon, either in a U.S. college or professionally—this side only had one player abroad, in neighboring Colombia. With their Gold Cup performances, this will change soon.
For Costa Rica, they have done so well in building the women's game at the youth level, including hosting a FIFA U-17 WWC in 2014 and exporting talent, primarily to Spain. One hopes they come back strong in 2020 Olympic Qualifying and for 2023 World Cup qualifying.
For Mexico, they need to continue faith in their Liga MXFemenil and keep growing the youth levels and amateur leagues at home to attract more young females to the sport that has struggled for acceptance in a machismo culture for years.
For Trinidad and Tobago, we discussed a few weeks ago the Women Soca Warriors continuing problems with support and funding from their federation (https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-i...). If FIFA had a ranking system for national federations on planning and competence, T&T would be bottom most years but 2017 and 2018 have been particularly disastrous—at an epic level. After just missing the WWC in 2015 via the Intercontinental Playoffs (again after money woes in qualifying when even Haiti's team gave them money to help with training expenses ahead of the tournament, and the bizarre appointment of Randy Waldrum, who we saw jetting between his other job with the Houston Dash and Port of Spain during the critical final legs against Ecuador), they have now crashed in dramatic fashion. It is a shame that some high caliber internationals like Arin King in defense and Kenya Cordner in attack look certain to miss out on playing on an international platform, cheated by a federation that can't properly plan for the development of a women's program. A coach with strong ties to the country of his birth said "It's a shame and an embarrassment. T&T's operations are a textbook example of how to do everything wrong."
Cuba lost their 3 games and had a 0-29 goals for and against record, but it was a learning experience for them. They have been doing better of late in youth and national team regional competitions and are definitely in the top tier of Caribbean Football Union sides, along with Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago (maybe). This writer visited the country a few years ago and soccer still trails in popularity to baseball. NGO's are one of the key players in women's football development. The country needs more funding to provide camps and international games for their women's teams. Funds right now are tight but credit Cuba for making improvements and qualifying for the Gold Cup finals for the first time.
Overall, the Gold Cup was a very interesting tournament. Having watched very game, the final question is, 'Where were the fans?' Cary, North Carolina (home of the North Carolina Courage) was acceptable for Group A, which included the Americans but Group B was held in out of the way Edinburg, Texas at H-E-B Park, where the Rio Grand Valley FC Toros of the USL second division men's league plays. On the border near McAllen, Texas, Edinburg has a nice stadium but not when it is empty (it is 40 minutes' drive away from the small regional airport), which it largely was for Group B matches with possible crowd drawing Mexico and the Americans drawn in the North Carolina venue. It just didn't make any sense from a hosting perspective. Dallas (Frisco, Texas) held the semis and finals and again attendance was scarce, particularly on the final day of the tournament with heavy rain. The Jamaica vs. Panama blinder for third place and the last guaranteed CONCACAF World Cup spot again was played before what appeared to be a few dozen people. I suppose it could be worse—the reporter covered the semifinals of the same tournament in late 2006 that were held in Los Angeles (Carson, CA) the day before Thanksgiving Day; on a day when the freeways were clogged for hours with people trying to get home for the major American holiday. It's too bad that attendance overall was weak as the tournament presented some outstanding stars, high caliber games and huge surprises along the way.
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.