Even in the United States, whose Women’s National Team are rightly hailed as heroes, women’s soccer has had an uphill battle establishing professional and competitive credibility in the press and the wider sporting public. The NWSL did the women’s game no favors this weekend.
On Saturday, Western New York Flash were scheduled to host Seattle Reign in league play. The Flash, currently in second place in the NWSL, usually play at Rhinos Stadium in Rochester, New York. But last weekend, Rochester was hosting its annual SummerFest festival, featuring a headlining concert by all-girl hip hop group TLC. (You know, the ones with the song about chasing waterfalls.) That concert was booked for Rhinos Stadium, and since WNYF rent rather than own, they had to find a different venue for their home game against Seattle.
They ended up going with Frontier Field, home of the Rochester Red Wings, the city’s minor league baseball team. Playing soccer at baseball stadiums isn’t exactly ideal, but plenty of teams, from the old Chicago Sting to New York City FC to various European teams playing summer preseason friendlies, have figured out how to make it work.
The Flash did not make it work.
The pitch they marked out in the outfield at Frontier measured 100 yards long and 58 yards wide. That’s… really small.
For reference, FIFA mandates that pitches must be at least 100 yards long and 50 yards wide, meaning the pitch was just barely in compliance with international regulations. Most professional pitches hew to a larger standard with tighter deviations; the pitch at Old Trafford is typically measured out to 115 yards by 74 yards, and grounds at the top level of European football generally don't drift very far from that measurement.
More to the point, NWSL regulations call for a minimum width of 70 yards. Apparently, an exception was made for this particular game.
The Flash ended up winning 3-2, thanks in large part to a brace from New Zealand international Abby Erceg. Both of her goals came from long throw-ins— made easier, it must be said, by the smaller playing area.
But the result was largely beside the point.
Seattle manager Laura Harvey released a statement after the game detailing the timeline of events as she saw them and strongly implying that Western New York and NWSL officials weren't being entirely forthcoming in the decision-making process and ultimately reaching a decision that broke the league's own rules.
During and after the game, the controversy engulfed reporters and players, including some prominent names in the USWNT squad.
NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush released a statement late on Saturday apologizing for the decision to go forward with the game.
For some, however, an apology isn't good enough.
If you search “Jeff Plush” on Twitter you'll find a lot of people calling for him to step down.
At the risk of piling on, it's hard not to side with the players on this one. While the field of play did conform to FIFA regulations— barely— the optics on this are terrible. Women's soccer shouldn't have to fight for credibility in this country, especially after everything the USWNT has achieved on and off the pitch. Yet between US Soccer's anti-labor stance in the fight for equal pay and ridiculous own goals like this, the sexist constituency in our sport has yet more ammunition for their regressive arguments that women's soccer is an amateurish sideshow and not as important as the men's game. In the NWSL's push to cement WoSo's legitimacy, the league imposed an unnecessary setback.
Whatever happens with Plush and the league, there's a sense that there's more fallout to come from this.