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Backline Chat: The World Cup Is Here!

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Charles Olney (@olneyce): Hello, and welcome to our pre-World Cup Backline chat. Given time zones, this is probably the last of these I’ll be able to do for a while, but I’m excited to get some conversation in before the big event kicks off.

But, before we jump into the international talk, let’s cover the NWSL, since that gives us some actual results to work with. So, to open things up: everyone who had the Washington Spirit in first place at the World Cup break, raise your hand.

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): No one saw this coming. At all.

Charles Olney: I will admit that I have missed both of their recent victories, so I’m not in a good position to comment, but it sure seems like it hasn’t been a fluke. They really are playing very well.

Creating a lot of discomfort for those of us who are still angry about the lack of response to the abuse allegations from the offseason, which RJ discussed very compellingly in a recent piece.

RJ Allen: The league has to do something when it comes to Burke or that will become the media narrative around this team. Honestly part of the reason they haven’t is they are so under staffed. Which is just horrible.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): Yeah. But I agree that any success they have will be overshadowed by this until the NWSL and the Washington Spirit take some substantial action.

Charles Olney: I would love to be able to focus on the players, who deserve a lot of credit. And I’d love to be able to have a normal conversation about what Burke has brought as a coach (whatever it is, it seems to be working), but it’s hard to dig into either with all that floating over.

RJ Allen: It’s very ‘other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?’

Charles Olney: That said, does anyone have any insight into how they’ve turned things around? Is this just them waking up from a dream and forgetting all about 2018, and this is where they ‘should’ always have been given all the young talent they stockpiled?

RJ Allen: I think having so many young, hungry players who are willing to seemingly run through walls for each other really helps. They remind me a bit of the old Western New York Flash team in 2016.

Charles Olney: It certainly seems to help that Andi Sullivan is finally back playing really well. But there’s also a cohesion to the whole team that goes beyond any one player. I’ll absolutely be curious to see if they can sustain it. The WNY comparison is a great one. That team was also maybe a year ahead of schedule, but they didn’t care about timelines.

RJ Allen: Ashley Hatch looks really solid this year as well. And her having a big year is key.

Allison Cary: Yeah, Hatch has been a standout. And of course having Bledsoe in goal is a big help too.

Charles Olney: Elsewhere in the league, I feel like I’m getting some whiplash. Chicago looked like they were going to dominate the break, now they’re in crisis. Utah was flying high and now is stumbling badly. Houston and Seattle keep throwing away points…or maybe finding points. North Carolina look mortal. Is this just what we should expect for the whole break?

Allison Cary: It’s all chaos. Welcome to the NWSL.

RJ Allen: You know who are good soccer players? Christen Press and Sam Kerr. You know are away from their club teams right now? Christen Press and Sam Kerr. Oversimplification, yes. But when you pull so many starters out it is just brutal.

Allison Cary: But then isn’t it brutal for their opponents too?

RJ Allen: Some teams have lost bigger pieces and some teams have stepped up. We see it every World Cup and Olympic year. Some teams have deeper benches.

Charles Olney: At the moment, Portland feels like the exception. On paper, Chicago looked far stronger this weekend, but Portland just blew them away in the opening half hour and then held on nicely for the win. Was that just finally being back home in a great atmosphere? Are they set for a reversion to the mean, too? Or do they have something special?

RJ Allen: I think playing in Portland after such a long time not being able to was a huge boost, yes. But Purce and Charley were really fantastic that match.

Charles Olney: My gut says that with lower overall quality, there is just more room for wacky results and we shouldn’t read too much into anything. But maybe one team (Portland perhaps) just reels off five or six wins and opens up a huge lead.

RJ Allen: Right now chaos reigns.

Charles Olney: It certainly has been exciting seeing some of these marginal players get a chance and REALLY take advantage of it.

RJ Allen: Bethany Balcer, Rookie of the Year.

Allison Cary: Amen.

Charles Olney: DiBiasi, though! And Sam Staab!

Allison Cary: Yeah, DiBiasi was also a standout to me.

RJ Allen: They will be nominated, for sure.

Charles Olney: After a very down year for rookies in 2018, it’s been great seeing new faces doing so well this year.

Alright, what about the other side of the table. We’ve got seven teams within six points of each other at the top, and then two teams that have COMBINED for three points through fifteen games. Is there any hope at all?

Allison Cary: Nope.

RJ Allen: Nope.

Charles Olney: We’re missing Luis, our resident Orlando optimist, but I’m pretty sure he would say…”nope”

Allison Cary: Orlando hasn’t shown any signs of life. Sky Blue has had better flashes, but…

RJ Allen: I don’t know what you do with Orlando. They were bad ever when they had their full team.

Allison Cary: Yeah. I think there’s some deeper stuff going on there.

Charles Olney: One conclusion that could be drawn is that Tom Sermanni actually did a lot to hold them together as much as he did. Alternatively, he let things get so out of hand that they were unfixable even after they got someone new?

RJ Allen: I understand that you have to give Marc Skinner time but the team is just not playing well under him. Orlando once bet the farm on Morgan and there is a very real chance she nopes out when LAFC comes in and they will have nothing.

Charles Olney: But it’s weird how quickly Orlando went from having a solid roster that people insisted on calling a top-tier roster to having a mediocre roster that people think is pure garbage. Because, it’s not great, but it’s also not THAT bad.

RJ Allen: The roster is playing THAT bad though. The players themselves are mostly NWSL level.

Charles Olney: But they really did over-leverage themselves based on Morgan and Marta, and that’s really coming back to bite them now. There’s no denying that.

Allison Cary: There are a decent amount of international and national team players on that team. But no one was performing even before everyone left for the WC.

RJ Allen: And they aren’t getting butts in seats either. Which is why I think they did it partly in the first place.

Charles Olney: In conclusion: I hope they turn it around somehow. but ‘turn it around’ is relative. I just want them and Sky Blue to start pulling closer to the pack.


Charles Olney: Okay, let’s turn our attention to the World Cup, which is starting this week. It’s a huge event, obviously, and there’s a million pieces to unpack. But what are your top level thoughts about the tournament as a whole?

RJ Allen: I really hope it’s fun. The women’s game just needs a really fun world event where some wild shit happens and a lot of great goals are scored.

Allison Cary: Agreed.

Charles Olney: I think that this tournament has a chance to be a genuine turning point in a way that we’ve never quite seen. But I’m not going to demand that it be a revolution in order to call it a success. As you say, it will definitely be fun, and that will be enough even if that’s ‘all’ we get.

Allison Cary: It definitely feels special. It feels like the tournament we’re gonna look back on and say “that was it.”

RJ Allen: It feels like it may be 1999 but for more than just the US.

Allison Cary: That would be magical. I want all the new teams to do as well as possible, especially teams like Jamaica and Chile and Argentina. It will mean so much to even be able to go back with goals, even more if they can get a win or two.

Charles Olney: I got a chance to talk with Kieran Thievam for the podcast this week, and that’s the comparison he made. 1999 was a big deal here, but not really anywhere else. But this could be that tournament for five or six teams.

RJ Allen: I think having it in France helps. It’s close together with other countries who can reasonably just decide to show up. I understand not always having it in Europe but logistically it is really nice.

Charles Olney: Definitely. I was looking at the Dutch group schedule, for example, and they’ve got two games in the northeast of France. That’s just a 3-4 hour train ride from the Netherlands. I bet there is a LOT of orange in the crowd for those. And there’s potential there for a lot of teams. The English traveling contingent is going to be big. And if this is a breakthrough tournament for, say, Italy and Spain, there’s a LOT of folks nearby who might decide on a whim to make a trip.

RJ Allen: I love the idea of the Aussies hosting it in 2023 but it would be a travel struggle moving place to place and just getting there. Being able to just decide to go to a game the day of, tickets not withstanding, is amazing.

Charles Olney: One slightly negative thing is that there doesn’t seem to have been much marketing in France itself, which means there will probably be a major difference between games. Some with 50,000, others with 5000. That feels like a missed opportunity.

RJ Allen: It does. You would think they would want the money that having games with 50,000 people bring in if nothing else. But hey sexism is real.

Charles Olney: Alright, dialing in a little bit on the games themselves, who are we pulling for, outside of the obvious?

RJ Allen: I would like Scotland to win some games and get to the knocks outs. Please and thank you.

Charles Olney: I’m definitely on Team Jamaica, and if RJ doesn’t mind the company, I’ll join her on the Scotland bandwagon

Allison Cary: Yep, those were the two teams I was gonna mention.

RJ Allen: I would like Sarah Bouhaddi to do well and have a good World Cup.

Allison Cary: Please.

RJ Allen: I am invested in her journey.

Allison Cary: Me too, not necessarily by choice.

RJ Allen: I do not know why I enjoy her so much. She is everything that I dislike usually about goalkeepers but we stan who we stan. And yes, Charles, please join me on the Scotland bandwagon.

Allison Cary: I, too, am on the Scotland bandwagon. My sister goes to school there. That’s my connection.

Charles Olney: I’m also really excited to see Thailand. They’re maybe the most isolated of all the teams, with virtually no one that plays outside of Thailand. And they had a pretty easy road to get here. So they might get blown away. But the few times I’ve seen them, they’re one of those teams that manages to frustrate the opposition without completely backing into a shell. I really hope they find a result or two.

RJ Allen: If Scotland beats England I may have to move to Scotland like Allison is going to move to France if they win.

Allison Cary: Europe here we come!

RJ Allen: I am really excited to see Canada too. I want them to have one more least real shot at a title for Sinclair.

Allison Cary: I would love to see Thailand do well. I think it could mean a lot not just to them, but to that region.

Charles Olney: Some of the other bigger teams that I’d really like to see do well: France – because it would be incredible for the home nation to finally overcome their problems with the big games, Spain – because they’re ready to join the ranks of the very top nations in the world, and Australia – because Sam Kerr.

I mean, I love a lot of things about Australia, and would be thrilled to see them do well in any case. But after watching Marta spend a career as the best in the world with no trophies to show for it, I don’t want Kerr to go through the same.

Same logic applies for Canada and Sinclair.

RJ Allen: France vs Australia would be a fun match. Not for Allison, but still.

Allison Cary: I’m really hoping this is France’s year. But… I’ve cheered for teams that choke my whole life and it’s a hard thing to break out of. I’m starting to believe they could really win this thing and that’s just setting me up for complete and utter disappointment.

Charles Olney: One thing I’ve noticed is that most of the teams I’m pulling for are very likely to face the US: Thailand, Spain, and France. So I guess that sets me up for happiness no matter what happens?

Allison Cary: That’s soccer.

Charles Olney: Yep. The reality is that ALL these teams are interesting and fun, and there really aren’t any bad choices. But let’s try to quantify that: which team would you LEAST like to see win?

Allison Cary: Norway winning would be… complicated. But there are a lot of players I like on that team, so it might be worth it.

Charles Olney: That was my answer, too.

Charles Olney: They’ve also already won one, even if it was quite a while ago, in a very different game. But yeah, I’d be hard-pressed to be sad about that group of players winning it.

RJ Allen: Germany. I am petty.

Charles Olney: I am absolutely here for RJ’s pettiness re: Germany. But I would love to see them win. That team is wonderful.

Allison Cary: I have mixed feelings about England. I shouldn’t, it will be massive for that country if they do well. But the way they handled Mark Sampson and the Eni Aluko thing— and I mean the players, not the FA— rubbed me the wrong way.

RJ Allen: The problem is you can say that about almost any federation. Every federation, the smaller ones more than most, have huge issues. So I try not to count that against the players/coach if it’s changed.

Allison Cary: Well, but like I said I’m not talking about the FA side. I’m talking about individual comments from players.

RJ Allen: But I don’t deny I get why you feel like that.


Charles Olney: Okay, so it’s foolish to make predictions, but we’re all fools, so let’s make some predictions. I think we’re all on record already with some of these, but we can knock them out quickly.

First: who wins the tournament?

RJ Allen: France

Allison Cary: Do I say France? I don’t know what to say.

Charles Olney: You have to pick! It’s France for me, too.

Allison Cary: Damn it. I guess I’m committing. This definitely means they’ll choke.

RJ Allen: Or as Kim McCauley said, whoever wins the US vs France game.

Allison Cary