The World's Game In The Heart of the Sun Belt

On the Beat, scouting for experienced players

The Women’s Professional Soccer college draft isn’t until January, so Atlanta Beat coach Gareth O’Sullivan and his rivals were busy looking over W-League prospects this weekend at that league’s scouting combine in Tampa.

The women’s amateur league that includes the Atlanta Silverbacks had 35 of its players drafted into the WPS a year ago. While those numbers won’t be the same, O’Sullivan said he was looking ideally for two or three players to help stock his expansion club:

The W-League has girls in it that have got a couple years experience, that have been able to, maybe, mature a little bit, get that experience. And I think that’s important. When you weigh up a collegiate player against a girl that has a couple years W-League experience, you’re usually, probably, gonna go with the girl from the W-League.

Kimmie Germain would love to be one of those girls. The daughter of former Atlanta Chiefs player Kip Germain recorded a video for the USL site as she talked about trying to impress the scouts. Her mother played for the U.S. national team in the mid-1980s, so her soccer pedigree is rather strong: “I think they are looking for something special.”

September 28, 2009   No Comments

Will Beat’s Swiss sensation yield to WPS overtures?

Ramona Bachmann is regarded as one of the top youth female players in the world, and the Atlanta Beat didn’t hesitate to take the 18-year-old forward in the Women’s Professsional Soccer League’s international draft this week.

But will she be in an Atlanta uniform for the team’s inaugural season in 2010?

Bachmann, who turns 19 on Christmas Day, was voted the Swiss player of the year after scoring 19 goals in 30 matches for Umeå IK, the Swedish champions. That’s the same club that Marta, the Brazilian world player of the year, left earlier this year for the Los Angeles Sol of WPS, where she was the league MVP.

Will Bachmann follow Marta from Sweden to WPS? (ramonabachmann.ch)

Will Bachmann follow Marta from Sweden to WPS? (ramonabachmann.ch)

Bachmann has turned down a previous offer to come to the United States, but age might have been a consideration.

The players taken Tuesday by both the Beat and the Philadelphia Independence will have to go through the usual FIFA process to transfer, if they so choose, but they are under no obligation to negotiate.

The Beat also selected two of Bachmann’s Umeå club mates, forward Johanna Rasmussen of Denmark and midfielder Mami Yamaguchi of Japan. Brazilian midfielder Maurine Dorneles Gonçalves and Swedish midfielder Therese Sjögran were the other selections by Atlanta general manager Shawn McGee and head coach Gareth O’Sullivan.

But Bachmann especially bears watching, and she knows she does. She has her own Web site, with photos and video clips, including this one (unfortunately, it’s not embeddable) in which she demonstrates some amazing ball skills and terrific athleticism and talks about her game. I’m no talent scout, but this kid looks like she can be one of the best in the world at any age with a little more seasoning.

Who's that guy with Ramona Bachmann? (ramonabachmann.ch)

Who's that fellow with Ramona Bachmann? (ramonabachmann.ch)

And if she does show up in these parts, by all means, Atlanta Beat, promote her like crazy! She’s already doing it rather well for herself, but I see some very good crossover appeal here. Bachmann shouldn’t be just for little girls to emulate.

With 10 players on the roster (here are the players chosen in the expansion draft last week) O’Sullivan continues to scour talent to fill out the squad. The W-League is holding a talent combine in Tampa.

Not long ago O’Sullivan outlined some of his thoughts on starting a team from scratch, and doing it in the Atlanta market:

“Atlanta is a hotbed for the sport of soccer and I believe that with my experience in both collegiate and international soccer, along with the great coaching staff we have put together, we can craft a team that will not only be competitive on the field, but also will be exciting to watch.”

September 24, 2009   No Comments

Beat gets defensive in WPS expansion draft

One of the players chosen by the Atlanta Beat Tuesday in the Women’s Professional Soccer expansion draft is very familiar to local soccer fans.

Sharolta Nonen was among the first six players to fill the Atlanta roster, and one of three defensive players.

Here’s the full list of players chosen both by the Beat and the Philadelphia Independence.

Nonen, who played for the original Beat during its three seasons in the Women’s United Soccer Association, comes back to Atlanta via the Los Angeles Sol, which dominated the WPS regular season but lost in the title game. The former Canadian international played in just two games.

Beat GM Shawn McGee and coach Richard O’Sullivan also took the Sol’s Katie Larkin, a combo defender and midfielder. The first selection in the draft was FC Gold Pride defender Leigh Ann Robinson. Forward Amanda Cinalli of the St. Louis Athletica was picked next, followed by Nonen and defender Sara Larsson, also of St. Louis. The final pick was Sky Blue FC Noelle Keselica.

Both teams will be involved in next week’s international entry draft.

I’m not quite sure why, but not only did WPS not provide live draft updates, but it waited to reveal all the results until two hours after the process was completed.

When the unveiling occurred, at the typically slow Web traffic time of 5 p.m. ET, the site stalled and crashed more than once for me. There may be a very good explanation for doing a draft this way, but it escapes me. For a league needing all the good publicity it can get, having a live draft — albeit an expansion one with very few big names on the board — might have been preferable to what just took place.

That’s not all the WPS has chosen to hold close to the vest. Not even the full list of available players is being disclosed:

“Considering that the seven charter WPS teams were each required to leave at least six of their players unprotected in this draft, there were surprisingly few players taken by the two expansion teams. The Philadelphia Independence snatched up seven players and the Atlanta Beat only burgled six before both teams turned up their noses at the remaining offerings, effectively ending the draft early. For a league purporting to showcase the finest female soccer talent in the world, this was not a sterling endorsement from its newest members.

But it’s hard to judge their behavior without being privy to the list of unprotected players, which the league has chosen to keep shrouded in secrecy. Maybe there were only slim pickings on the list or perhaps both teams are waiting until September 30th, when WPS players who were only given one-year contracts last season will become free agents.”

The bigger challenge, of course, is for the Beat and the WPS to make women’s pro soccer stick this time around. They’re facing a daunting business environment made more difficult by the recession.

Staying in business is job one for WPS. Yet there are women’s sports activists who believe that overtly feminist causes need to be incorporated in how the league, and its teams, market themselves.

Over at Pitch Invasion, I cannot emphasize enough how vigorously I deplore this ideological twaddle.

September 15, 2009   1 Comment

Atlanta Beat holds No. 1 pick in WPS draft

The expansion teams coming on board the Women’s Professional Soccer league for 2010 are gearing up for the two drafts that will fill their rosters next month.

The Atlanta Beat and the Philadelphia Independence will participate in a special expansion draft on Sept. 15, with Philly holding the No. 1 spot in the international draft that takes place a week later.

The Beat will choose first out of all the nine teams in the WPS college draft in January. In that phase, the expansion teams will have two first-round selections apiece.

Tonight the other finalist in the WPS championship game will be determined as the St. Louis Athletica plays host to New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC in a “super semifinal.” It’s one of the oddities of the WPS playoff format that awarded regular season champions Los Angeles Sol the host’s role in the finals on Saturday. Sky Blue knocked off the Washington Freedom in the first round.

As the WPS takes stock of its first season — launched in the midst of a nasty recession — commissioner Tonya Antonucci acknowledged the lack of sponsorship money led to larger-than-expected losses that totaled around $2 million for some teams:

“What it means is it will take longer to get to break even. Should the economic conditions of this year continue and if these losses were to continue for three years, then we’d have a serious issue on our hands, just like many businesses. Let’s talk in three years.”

Doesn’t this sound familiar? After three years the Women’s United Soccer Association was history. Here’s to hoping that history won’t repeat itself. It looks like the Coast Guard — yes, the U.S. Coast Guard — has come to the rescue. At least to some degree. Will others follow?

August 19, 2009   1 Comment

Will the new Atlanta Beat be sold like the old?

I don’t want to sound like I’m writing off the prospects of the new Atlanta Beat — as well as the Women’s Professional Soccer league — before the team gets off the ground. And not just because of the current economic predicament.

But new Beat owner Fitz Johnson is making some rather generous attendance projections when his team plays its inaugural season next spring, most likely at Kennesaw State’s new soccer facility.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 a game in a location that’s not very central to a heavily car-centered metro Atlanta area? With a fan base of young families with children that’s typically overscheduled with youth leagues, swimming lessons, vacations and other summer activities?

League-wide WPS has not averaged even that lowest figure as its first season heads into the playoffs this weekend. Its business model certainly is scaled down financially from the Women’s United Soccer Association, with team budgets around $500k each. That sounds like a reasonable amount of money, given the fixed costs of stadium rentals and cross-country travel.

I understand how difficult it is to garner media attention, corporate sponsors and partnerships and other business deals if the stated attendance estimates are any lower than what’s being said now. But the original Atlanta Beat did well to get those numbers even with some of the most vigorous marketing and promotional work in the WUSA.

Johnson speaks fondly of how he enjoyed taking his young, soccer-playing daughters to Beat games, which were models of the family-friendly marketing efforts the league felt were vital to its chances. But getting the attention of adults who aren’t van-driving parents — we’re talking about young males here — may require the kind of bad-girl presence that St. Louis goalkeeper Hope Solo provides in heavy doses. Her Athletica team has made the post-season, and anything’s bound to happen with her in the nets. Says WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci:

“The WUSA sort of had a focus on preteen, ponytailed girls who aspired to play soccer someday, and so their messaging was around ‘cause marketing’: ‘This league is something girls deserve to have, and as a fan you ought to support this.’ We’re presenting an environment that’s not about babysitting kids but is an opportunity to watch the best and be entertained by the best.”

Solo’s got no use for the girly-girly stuff:

“For some reason, people want to think that we’re girls next door, who all get along and go shopping at the mall together. Treat us like professional athletes.”

I’m all for marketing the games played by adults to adults, and I think women’s soccer needs more bad girls like Solo. That was one of my chief complaints against WUSA’s marketing strategy. It was a shame that it was geared mostly to kids, given the individuals I enjoyed covering in Atlanta during those years.

The original Beat team had personality players like Charmaine Hooper, Briana Scurry and Nikki Serlenga that many grown-ups admired, and a personality coach and a great quote in Tom Stone. The players liked to bust his chops, and he was happy to bite back. But that dynamic existed mostly behind the scenes.

Still, Stone said plenty for public consumption, and loved being a lightning rod in a league where most of his counterparts went out of their way to be unprovocative.

During the Beat’s first season in 2001, the team played at Bobby Dodd Stadium, which prompted then-Georgia Tech football coach George O’Leary to grouse that the turf would be “torn up” by the time gridiron season arrived. Stone quipped, “I’ll ask my 120-pound players to take it easy on the field.”

The day the WUSA folded in 2003, I told him I had heard reports that young girls around metro Atlanta were crying upon hearing the news. Said Stone: “If more of those girls’ parents had brought them to our games, they wouldn’t be crying today.”

If the new Beat has characters like that, they should be able to market to adults and kids alike.

But I just don’t know if the kind of edge that Solo brings will work down here in Steel Magnolia country.

August 14, 2009   No Comments

A tempered second act for women’s pro soccer

The New York Times takes an expansive look at the first season of Women’s Professional Soccer, mentioning Atlanta coming aboard (along with Philadelphia) next season.

Interesting comments from a Boston Breakers executive in charge of business development on how the league is trying to go beyond what was emphasized during the Women’s United Soccer Association, and an approach that is familiar in women’s pro and college team sports in general:

“We need to get out of the ghetto of being a role model for girls. You can’t make dads feel like they’re visiting Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

Clearly the fan base for women’s soccer will always be families with young children, but the sport, and the league, is being marketed to a broader base of fans at the same time. The key is making it feel like a sporting event for all fans, and not just a kiddie jamboree for some. Says Doug Logan, the first commissioner of Major League Soccer, in the same story:

“Success at the gate has to have a tribal following and not just a van of soccer-playing kids who come to one game a year. If your business model depends on youth soccer, it won’t be enough.”

Tens years (to the week) after the phenomenal event that was the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the growing pains of women’s soccer have entered a new stage.

WUSA and U.S. national team veterans are wizened from their experiences, including former Beat goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who along with former Atlanta teammate Homare Sawa is playing for the Washington Freedom of WPS:

“The fact that we’re out here, playing soccer, is what’s important. To go from nothing to something is amazing. You rarely get a second chance in life, and we’re getting one now.

“We need to make the most of it.”

July 8, 2009   No Comments