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Backline Chat: Welcome to a World Cup Year

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Charles Olney (@olneyce): Hello, and welcome to our first Slack Chat of 2019. I hope everyone had a good new year, and is excited for a big year. To kick things off, I thought we should start with some fun stuff before turning to some of the more depressing elements in recent news. So…it’s a World Cup year! What is everyone most excited for in 2019?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): I really am looking forward to watching the first time teams in the World Cup.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): I’m excited to see Scotland and I’m excited to see if France can keep playing quality football.

RJ Allen: Kim Little on the world’s stage? Yes, please.

Allison Cary: My sister is going to school in Scotland so it’s particularly exciting for this to be going on while she’s there.We’re hoping to catch a game in France.

Charles Olney: My honest answer is simply that I’m excited for the incredible opportunity to be in Europe this summer, which means I’ll be able to see a bunch of the World Cup in person. And I’m obviously excited for the chance to see the US make a deep run. But in terms of storylines, I think there’s just so much potential. Could France finally win a title? Could England or Australia take that next step? Could some of these new rising powers like Spain and Italy make the leap into the inner circle? Can some of the new teams put their mark on the tournament.

RJ Allen: I have a lot of questions about the World Cup but you’re right, there are some really amazing storylines.

Allison Cary: So much potential.

Charles Olney: I’d love to see the US win, but I have to admit that a new winner would probably make for a more interesting tournament.

RJ Allen: US, Norway, Germany, and Japan are the only winners. It would be nice to see another name added to the list.

Allison Cary: If France wins, per a previous slackchat, I’m obligated to move to France. I’m not opposed to that lol.

Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): I’m looking forward to the matches and if New Zealand can get out of the group. Plus how the NWSL will handle absences.

Charles Olney: If it were to be a first-time winner, who do people think is most likely? France is probably the obvious pick, especially given their recent victory over the US, but are people still high on some of the other big teams?

RJ Allen: I would have guessed Australia two weeks ago.

Allison Cary: I would say Australia but I’m not sure with the latest coaching drama.

RJ Allen: Now? I don’t know. France or maybe England? I’d love to see Canada get one for Sinc.

Allison Cary: England maybe? I’m not sure if they’re ready to go all the way.

RJ Allen: I really would like a team other than the US to win. I think it’s better for soccer world wide if other teams can take down the US now and again.

Allison Cary: I agree with RJ.

Charles Olney: I was looking over the betting odds this morning, and put up a tweet. I have to say that the odds look a little off to me, but I’m curious if others think so.

Implied probability of winning the World Cup, according to betting odds. Looks like there's a lot of value in the betting markets, TBH. — Charles Olney (@olneyce) January 24, 2019

RJ Allen: I do not think these betting books know Germany’s state of affairs right now.

Charles Olney: I still think the German team has a lot of potential, but yeah, I certainly don’t think recent evidence suggests they belong in a tier with the US and France.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I’m also not that confident in Japan.

RJ Allen: This is, to me at least, proof that while betting markets are not great now, they might drive some change. The house wants to keep their money. So they are going to need some better stats and better people predicting these things. They might drive that area.

Charles Olney: I think it’s interesting that Spain is right up there. I really enjoyed watching them against the US this week, but I felt like they were still a little under the radar. I wonder whether some of that is people transposing their judgments about the quality of the men’s team.

RJ Allen: Brazil being so high might be the same thing.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I think Spain could make a decent run, but I don’t see them going all the way. They looked better than expected against the US, but not quite there yet.

RJ Allen: Can we all agree if North Carolina was in the World Cup (at full roster) they would be on the top 5 in the list?

Charles Olney: Definitely. I was actually thinking about them and Lyon and how they’d fare if they attended the World Cup. And I think it’s a good sign for the game in general that we’re getting close to the point where the very highest level of soccer is at the club level rather than the international level. We’re not quite there yet, but the tipping point might be coming soon.

Charles Olney: Okay, so turning the attention toward the US in particular, I’m curious if anyone has any broader thoughts about the recent friendlies. Anything to worry about there, or just a normal way to kick off the year?

Luis Hernandez: No worries for the first two matches after months being off for me.

RJ Allen: I think a lot of the worry about the games are going to end up not being founded. They have been off for a few months, it’s their pre season, a lot of players aren’t playing or have been hurt. If they look like this in May I will worry. But right now, no.

Allison Cary: I’m not worried about the U.S. Maybe it’s just me, but I learned more about the U.S. opponents in these two friendlies than I did the U.S.

Luis Hernandez: I enjoyed how Spain moved the ball. Didn’t know they were skilled to do that for their team.

RJ Allen: I agree with Allison. I think we learned a lot about France.

RJ Allen: We had no real answer for Henry. And while Horan should be able to match her, this game she very much did not.

Charles Olney: One impression I got from talking with the French players and coaches at that game: it mattered to them. A lot. They really wanted to lay down a marker, and it showed in the performance. That’s a great sign for a team that’s often struggled a bit to handle the pressure. I think they’re ready this time.

RJ Allen: That to me is a big deal. France doesn’t seem to really fear the US, at least in that match.

Allison Cary: Yeah, which caught my eye. France seemed really ready to prove that they belonged in that top tier.

Charles Olney: The US may still end up beating them in the quarterfinals, and we may end up talking about yet another France team that underperformed. But right now, I feel as confident about France as I ever have.

Allison Cary: They weren’t intimidated. They played their game. If they do that in June… they’re dangerous.

RJ Allen: Also, can we talk about the packaging of the games themselves for a moment? They were not really featured games. They weren’t cash cows. They were in Europe. The game against Spain was in the middle of a day. That feels big for the US in general.

Charles Olney: Yeah, that’s a great point. The US has often treated friendlies more as opportunities to make money than anything else. And they arguably still have a few of those coming up later in the spring. But on the whole, this seems like a team that’s keeping their eyes on the prize. And that’s a good thing.


Charles Olney: So, that’s a lot of positives. But I do want to focus our attention on two other stories that have been dominating the news lately, which are less encouraging. One is the confusing and troubling story surrounding the coaching change at Australia. The other is the persistent moving disaster that is Sky Blue FC. Let’s start local and discuss the unfortunate team in New Jersey.

RJ, you had some reporting that just came out about events there. And we’ve had a couple other stories recently about the continuing problems. At this point I almost don’t know where to start.

RJ Allen: So I have had a lot of conversations in the last few months with people that are no longer with Sky Blue. About a week about I spoke to someone still much more connected.

As I think you and I have spoken about on the 123rd Minute, Reddy had largely escaped conversation. And this person made it clear that is a mistake.

Charles Olney: I almost feel like we spent so much time in 2018 talking about the problems at the management level that we all really wanted to construct a narrative where the coach and the players were innocent victims just trying to survive in a cruel world. But your reporting makes it seem like Reddy maybe should have come in for a lot more criticism at the time. It was certainly strange to see a team that honestly had a lot of talented players do SO wretchedly bad week in and week out. And it was peculiar how the coach never really seemed to come in for the kind of criticism we’d expect.

RJ Allen: The information I have really does paint a picture of someone who sucked in as much power as they were able, due in large part of the issues in management, and had a hard time using that for the benefit of the players.

Charles Olney: It does strike me as a situation where it would be incredibly hard to succeed. So it’s possible that in more favorable conditions, Reddy might have sailed along just fine. So I certainly hope that none of this ends up taking away attention from the major problems at the top. But it’s definitely important to look at all parts of the picture.

On that note, as we are talking here it’s been two weeks since the draft. There, Tony Novo promised significant news on progress would come ‘within 30 days.’ Is anyone holding out hope that we’ll actually see something meaningful there?

Allison Cary: Nope.

Charles Olney: And if not, do we think Sky Blue is going to actually make it to the end of the season with enough players to fill a starting XI every game?

RJ Allen: No.

Allison Cary: No.

RJ Allen: They might have enough players because as we all know people dream of playing pro. There are enough ex NCAA players in New Jersey to fill in an XI. Look at Sky Blue’s roster in the past. They have always counted on local players. More than most.

Charles Olney: I do still hold out a little bit of hope that the remaining players manage to band together and fight this out, like you’d see in a classic sports movie where the underdogs find a way to show everyone their spirit. And there IS still a decent amount of talent theoretically on that roster. But as each week goes on, I find it harder and harder to be positive.

RJ Allen: My question is though, what does that buy? If they win games, what does that buy other than some cover to keep the team going? It might make the players a bit happier but all it does it prolong the fate that is written on the walls.

Allison Cary: Yeah, perpetuating a bad system isn’t necessarily good. Unfortunately, Sky Blue struggling along could do more harm than good.

RJ Allen: And I admit I am a bit pessimistic about all of this. But still.

Charles Olney: At this point, I think the best case scenario is a modestly positive year, which will allow everyone to feel good about moving on during the next offseason when they’re pushed out of the league…or when someone who will make real changes comes in to buy them out. But I agree: doing just well enough to survive without making any real changes might be even worse than ‘raze the ground and then salt the earth after.’

Charles Olney: Alright, so another troubling story: Alen Stajcic, the coach of Australia, was let go under the cloud of a recent report describing ‘toxic’ conditions on the team. It’s a very strange story with quite a lot of it hidden from view. I’m curious if anyone has any clear thoughts about what it all means.

RJ Allen: I think the federation has handled this horribly. Even if he was released with 100% cause, the federation makes it look like a hit job in a way that makes them look worse.

Charles Olney: Can’t argue with that. It does seem like, based on the information they seem to have, firing him was the right call. But the manner in which it’s been done has been very rough.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I don’t feel like I have enough of the story to make a clear judgment. But it’s been weird.

Charles Olney: Which doesn’t really do any favors to anyone.

RJ Allen: Players seem caught off guard too. Which is never a great look.

Allison Cary: Yeah, their statements haven’t been a position reflection on the federation.

Charles Olney: Which makes me wonder about those players who contributed statements about the toxic environment. Are they just hanging back in silence, feeling like they were hung out to dry by this process? Are they feeling pressure to say positive things now, because that same toxic environment is lingering, as many of the players who liked Stajcic have said positive things?

It would be particularly cruel to make it even harder for players to be honest and clear about how they’ve been treated because the Federation doesn’t want to air their own dirty laundry.

RJ Allen: Without the details of what a “toxic environment” is, I’m not sure what to think. Does it mean not welcoming newer players or players without the pro polish to them? Does it mean abuse? Without details it’s left up to us to put name to it. Which is never good.

Allison Cary: Yeah, especially considering the England scandal is still fresh in a lot of people’s minds, it’s not hard to assume the worst.

Charles Olney: There have been some more details in some of the media reports that have come out after. Things like abusive comments, body shaming, harassment that’s unrelated to on-field performance. All of which does sound like a really negative culture. But none of those are official statements, so we still have to wonder. And yes, I totally agree with Allison that the context of the Mark Sampson affair absolutely can’t be forgotten.

RJ Allen: Seeing more senior players supporting Stajcic just makes it more difficult for everyone. Having Kerr and LDV and so on look like they are blind sided is going to make a lot of the fans question this all. Plus an assistant quit in protest.


Charles Olney: Alright, I think we’ll probably have more to say on this subject as we potentially get more information. But for now, why don’t we turn back to some more positives, and discuss the NWSL. We have the draft, and some trades to mull over. And I’m curious what y’all think about where teams stand going into 2019. Who has made progress? Anyone who looks like a good bet to break into the top 4? Anyone who made the playoffs last year that you think is in danger of dropping out?

Bearing in mind that this will be a strange year, where many of the top teams will be losing huge portions of their roster for half of the season or more. Is there anyone that will be relatively unharmed by the World Cup that looks poised to take advantage of that opportunity?

RJ Allen: North Carolina is going to win the league by > 9 points. NTers or no. That team will win on the underdog story all their “best” players are gone.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I agree.

RJ Allen: I think Chicago has a really good shot this year. Seattle with Groom will be fun too. And now that we’re in this part of the season I can’t wait for the Laura Harvey mega trade.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I like Utah.