This week we look at some news from Australia ahead of the Westfield W-League's ninth season, which starts in early November, and an update on the NWSL, for which the news has been dominated by Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the pre-game national anthem last week.
W-League 2016-17 Season Preparation
The ninth season of the Westfield W-League begins on November 5th with 14 rounds of games, concluding with the Grand Final championship match set for February 12, 2017. There have been some interesting developments at the league and team level during the off-season.
The league announced that they will have 19 double headers with their men's A-League partners (with the exception of Canberra United as the Capital City has never had an A-League franchise). Westfield W-League head Greg O'Rourke felt that the double headers are significant and a sign of the growing and significant presence of the women's game in the country: “Having 19 double headers puts the Westfield W-League on the main stage with the Hyundai A-League and gives football fans even more opportunity to get out and experience the best Australian domestic football has to offer. Women's football is an important component of FFA's [Football Federation Australia] Whole of Football Plan and strategy over the next 20 years and females represent over 20 per cent of registered participants." The double headers are a good sign for the W-League and should drive continued exposure of the vibrant women's national league to football fans around the country.
Two W-League coaching changes include former Welsh international Jeff Hopkins taking over at Melbourne Victory from Dave Edmonson, who took the side to the W-League title in 2013/14. Edmonson then went to Bristol Academy and guided them to a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal spot in 2014/15. Edmonson returned to Melbourne Victory for last season but recently married and his wife works in the U.K.; he is now in charge of London Bees in WSL 2, who are currently in seventh place in the ten team league with a 4-4-6 record for 16 points. Edmondson guided New Zealand's women's side to the U-17 World Cup in 2010. Hopkins has an impressive coaching pedigree himself as a men's assistant coach at Brisbane Roar for some years, but before that he was the Roar's women's coach during their first four seasons, winning two titles and appearing in the Grand Final each season. Hopkins had over 400 appearances for Fulham, Crystal Palace and Reading [combined] in the 1980's and 90's and was capped 16 times by Wales between 1983 and 1990. The Victory, who finished ninth of ten sides in 2015-16 after making the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, have made a positive step with the hiring of Hopkins; he is a great choice as a coach and is respected by players and the media alike.
The Western Sydney Wanderers has selected Richard Byrne as their new coach for the 2016/17 season. A former assistant coach in Australia's National Youth League level and with the Pararoos--Australia's Paralympic football team—Byrne was most recently in charge of the New South Wales Girls State Team at the National Championships. With experience in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Byrne has worked with players and teams from grassroots football all the way up to the professional level. He replaces Richard Boardman. The Wanderers, a revelation on the men's side with a unique and vibrant fan culture, won an Asian Champions League Cup title in 2014 and also had 6th place finish at the FIFA World Club Cup that season. The Women's side has finished no higher than 6th in their four previous W-League seasons. Adelaide United's Women's side will be fully run by the city's A-League franchise after five seasons run by the Football Federation South Australia (FFSA). Adelaide United Chairman Greg Griffin explained: “Adelaide United is extremely grateful for the efforts of FFSA in keeping the Lady Reds a functioning and highly competitive outfit in a period when we were simply not ready to run both Men's and Women's senior teams." In Australia, some of the W-League clubs have a marketing relationship with the A-League team in their city (while also adopting the A-League's club name) with funding coming from Provincial associations and government grants, while others are fully funded and managed by the men's side. The new management of the Reds should help the women's team grow, though one always worries about management cutting back financing on the women's side and not the men's side during difficult times. In Adelaide, the W-League club has never made the playoffs but has always strived to bring in some top players, including former international goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri and imports from Europe and America. This should be an interesting season for the club from the city of churches, as they just missed a playoff spot last season after a strong start. They finished tied for 5th on 13 points, their highest point total (tied with 2013-14).
The 2015-16 Westfield W-League end of season award winners included Larissa Crummer from Melbourne City, who won the NAB Young Player of the Year Award and the Golden Boot with 11 goals. Other finalists were: Angela Beard (Brisbane Roar FC), Amy Harrison and Princess Ibini (both Sydney FC). Crummer's Melbourne City teammate Kim Little of Scotland (who plays with Seattle Reign during the NWSL season) was the Players' Player of the Year as their expansion team won the Premiership and League Title in an undefeated season. Long-time Matilda Ashleigh Sykes from Canberra United won the Julie Dolan Medal as Player of the Year.
NWSL Update - Megan Rapinoe Receives National Attention for her National Anthem Protest
On Sunday September 4, Megan Rapinoe received national attention for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem during the Reign's road game against Chicago Red Stars (2-2). She was not in the starting lineup but when she kneeled on the sideline during the national anthem, it became a frequent vision in the media. She followed the action of NFL star quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, who had sat during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner" but then kneeled in other preseason games, to protest the treatment of Black Americans by police in recent months. Rapinoe explained her actions: “It was a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he's standing for right now. I think it's actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn't. We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country. Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It's important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don't need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that's really powerful."
The Reign tried to take a middle ground between those who felt that Rapinoe's action was an insult to Americans--particularly those in the military who risk their lives every day to protect the freedom and rights which the flag represents--and those who feel her actions are justified under constitutional rights to free speech.
On Wednesday September 7, the Washington Spirit's owner Bill Lynch, a military veteran, took a different approach and played the national anthem before the teams took the field—negating Rapinoe's planned protest--and explained the move in a press release: “In light of Seattle Reign and U.S. Women's National Team member Megan Rapinoe's public declaration that she intended to “take a knee" during the United States' National Anthem tonight, we decided to play the anthem in our stadium ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent.
As a veteran owned team, the national anthem holds an exceptionally special meaning for this organization. Our owner Bill Lynch has lost personal friends during overseas conflicts and has other close friends who have also lost loved ones. Playing the national anthem prior to sports events became standard during World War II and was a way to express the team's and fan's patriotism and show support for the U.S. Military. The tradition of honoring our military and our patriotism before our games is very important to us. We strongly feel that there are better ways to begin a conversation about a cause than tarnishing a tradition that is so important to so many.
To willingly allow anyone to hijack this tradition that means so much to millions of Americans and so many of our own fans for any cause would effectively be just as disrespectful as doing it ourselves. Professional athletes have incredible numbers of followers, to which we believe they have the ability to articulate a conversation with objectives and plans and begin a serious conversation directly, or through traditional media appearances, without insulting our military and our fans."
Rapinoe tweeted her response after the Reign's 2-1 defeat: “It's [email protected]#%ing unbelievable. Saddened by it. It was incredibly distasteful, four days before one of the worst tragedies in our country, to say I tried to hijack this event." She later referred to Lynch as “homophobic" in an interview. Lynch replied the next day: “She probably got lost in the moment and blurted something out. I certainly don't agree with the statement, by any stretch."
Clearly this issue is not going away anytime soon and Rapinoe has said that she will continue her protest at the next Reign home game—ironically on September 11, an important day of memorial for the terrorist attack on the U.S. in 2001. Rapinoe was called into the National Team for the friendlies against Thailand on September 15 in Columbus and the Netherlands on September 18 in Atlanta. At that time, her protest becomes a National Team issue. Though she probably won't start as she still is coming back from an ACL injury, expect U.S. soccer to take a similar approach to the Reign of the U.S. Soccer- owned league. It will be interesting to see if Rapinoe's protest becomes another polarizing issue during Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between the Federation and the National Team Players Association this fall, in a general category of player behavior—including specified penalties for such behaviors as Hope Solo's repetitive tirades and other destructive behaviors.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribalfootball. His latest book is Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey