Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Arrested development

Mark Zeigler argues, a little obliquely, that a Wambach-focused team might have stunted the development of the U.S. Women's National Team. I'll take it a step further.
Mark's argument has some solid validity, I think.
Yet I'd also say that viewpoint works under a different spin. By the very nature of a pro sports career, there's a certain Toys 'R Us (I don't wanna grow up) dynamic going on.
It's pretty obvious that in general, all pro athletes enjoy something of a Peter Pan existence. Soccer is a game, after all. They started playing as children and now they get paid to continue to do so. How many of us get paid to do something we did as kids? (Well, ok, as a kid I was writing a lot of overwrought poetry, but no, I've never been paid for that).
As long as soccer stars can still perform at a top level, though, they remain in a team structure that's in some ways similar to their development days. Coaches will always call their men's team players "boys", no matter if the squad has a plethora of over-30 veterans with gray hair and four kids apiece. "The boys did great today." "The boys stunk up the stadium today."
Coaches will often be daddy figures to their charges, with enormous authority to decide the fate of those involved with a club.
The fish bowl of a pro team structure sometimes makes it difficult for players to mature into self-sufficient adults. Instead of learning from struggling with new concepts, they're asked to focus on what they're already good at, and they are often pampered and watched over in many different ways. Fans, teammates and owners will forgive a lot of a player who can put the ball in the back of the net, so sometimes the incentive to be a decent person is actually lacking. A mean streak will often be glossed over as "toughness" and many see vanity as the accepted element of a star.
With women, a slightly different tweak on that dynamic exists. Though I can't specifically recall Pia Sundhage using the the term "girls" (she uses "players" a lot), I have heard former coaches do so, as well as a lot of the other national team level coaches. I also heard a more about "protecting" players (exhibit A: No weights are ever released for the USWNT players, apparently to avoid hurt feelings of self-consciousness).
One of the things that I believe really cramped the individual development of the U.S. women was the lack of pro play elsewhere. No one on the team played abroad. Only the college players have known anything but the USWNT structure lately. Turning the national team into a residency camp extended the sorority mentality far beyond what was healthy. The players hardly ever got a break from each other. People fell into roles and pecking orders were established without a chance to really change them. The dynamic suprise players (like Shannon Boxx emerging from WUSA play) didn't come along any longer.
The "queen bee" of the team was pretty clearly Wambach.
I guess my point is that any career has pitfalls. The trick in soccer is to try to maintain the childish love and enjoyment of the game while taking care to mature in other regards, behaving professionally and appreciating the sport. It's a balance, of course.


betch said...

Nice comments. I always wondered in the back of my mind if having the new league and de-emphasizing the USWNT residency program will help a lot of this seemingly unnecessary drama.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

a.c., you're absolutely right about the WNT members' lack of playing experience overseas. Apparently, not even the WUSA helped them grow up (perhaps the WPS won't, either?).

I think the best thing that's happened to the WNT is the hiring of a foreign coach. Sundhage is part of an entirely different soccer culture, and that's what the WNT needs. Dorrance, DiCicco and Heinrichs won games and championships but, apparently, they perpetuated this narcisstic culture that eloquently expresses itself in adolescent groupthink.

Eos said...

But don't the WUSA years (2001-03) represent the exception and not the rule?

Indeed, the women's national team still seems to be defined by the circumstances of its founding in the 1980s, that of twenty women against the world. (The world being variously defined as an indifferent populace, an ignorant media, an idiotic federation, and, occasionally, the opponents on the field.)

And even though the team captured the attention of the public and the media in 1996 and 1999, and was able to get the better of the federation as well, the original institutional ethos remained.

That ethos remained unchanged for several reasons, the most obvious being the team's extraordinary stability of personnel. When a half-dozen players (at least) stay with the team for at least fifteen years (and another dozen or so manage even half that), change (whether for good or for ill) simply won't happen.

More generally: is it really fair to liken the WNT to a sorority, with all of the frivolous connotations that word entails? Whatever else this team might be, it's always been serious: serious about the game, serious about putting the team before the individual, serious about being role models. (Perhaps too serious -- but that's probably another discussion.)

The apter metaphor might be some sort of monastic order, periodically emerging from its convent to do battle with (and occasionally convert) the heathen. Perhaps heavily armed Poor Clares? Amazons with shinguards?

Given such a unique and powerful institutional ethos, it's not surprising that none of the alternatives -- going abroad, making the existing domestic leagues a priority -- have been able to compete.

(It didn't help matters that WUSA II was always right around the corner -- why compete seriously in the W-League if a "real" league would be returning to the scene?)

It's possible that WPS might be able to change this dynamic: WUSA didn't last long enough to do more than (a) develop Boxx and Wambach and (b) relieve the Germans of their inferiority complex. Given time, and given a greater degree of elite player turnover, WPS might be able to shift the US women toward the more typical (and hopefully less fraught) model of player development.

One final question: given the peculiarity of the women's international calendar, where the one-two punch of the World Cup (2011) and the Olympics (2012) will end up dominating two years out of every four -- and making a mess of those years' seasons -- will it be possible for WPS to maintain any sort of momentum?

Joel in Burbank said...

On the other hand, non-sorority member Hope Solo did play in Europe for a few years, in Sweden and France.

betch said...

eos: I really like your comments. I may not agree with all of them...

But to address your last point, it's understandable to worry that the World Cup & Olympics might damage the new league, MLS has been dealing with similar issues for years and is, I think, thriving. I think the big question is whether the US leagues (both women and men) should change their seasons to correspond with the rest of the world and ultimately place these tournaments in the off-season.

ghostwriter said...

I agree with Joe that Pia has been a clensing, fresh breeze through USWNT program, for sure.

The more variety of experience, generally the greater variety of style, acceptance of differences, and willingness to change. The other thing the residency program and it's consistency has done is make the US very predictable, in both stlye of play and of player.

Good points here made by all. No one answer, but I can wish this particular "opportunity" for growth and development would have presented itself (if it was going to) a bit further removed from the need to prove it in high level competition.

Good luck to all the "girls" (to steal a little license from your comments, AC).

Coach said...


Good analysis - great discussion!

My "girls" are in Singapore right now, my "other girls", that would be your girls, should be landing in China right about now?

Play Hard, U.S.A. and Canada "Girls"!

PLAY HARD - but clean!

GOOD LUCK to both teams!

I honestly cannot wait for the upcoming all-nighters!

Coach said...

GREAT pics on the WNT Blog!

The WNT has indeed arrived in China - a few hours ago!

A.C. said...

I guess I made the sorority reference because I was thinking of the players being a little stuck at the college-age frame of reference, plus the established "sisterhood" code that so many of the USWNT players referenced.
In a pro league, there's not always that high degree of identification like there is with one's alma mater (or national team). After all, players don't often get to choose where they play, and the can be traded at any point, so rosters turn over and people have to get along with new people, perhaps even fierce former rivals. In a college team, the seniors are expected to show the freshmen the way to behave, while on a pro team, it tends to be more egalitarian, once the rookies survive their first year.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

betch, I think the "sorority" designation has more to do with general immaturity, groupthink and a sense of entitlement than a lack of being serious or lack of purpose.

Frankly, I don't think the idea of a "sense of entitlement" has been explored enough by anybody. While I defend Hope Solo from the bullying of her "teammates," I do recognize the possibility that Solo felt entitled to start (though her stats are hard to argue with). The bullying by her teammates reflected their sense of being entitled to perform w/o any distractions, even from an emotionally vulnerable teammate. The whole idea of gold uniforms screams entitlement.

As I've said before, there's a fine line between competitiveness and narcissism. I made that criticism concerning Scurry's earlier comments. Frankly, I think the entire WNT (especially Wambach) has been crossing that line for a long time, now.

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