The Atlanta Beat were one of two expansion franchises (along with the Philadelphia Independence) to join the short-lived Women’s Professional Soccer for its second season of action in 2010. The club was a brand revival of Atlanta’s previous women’s pro team, the 2001-2003 Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association. But aside from purchasing the trademark to the defunct club, the “new” Beat possessed no other formal connections to the prior franchise. The ownership, players, stadium and front office staff were all entirely new.
Team owner Fitz Johnson was a charismatic U.S. Army veteran, attorney and former defense contractor. Johnson’s family business was sold to Lockheed Martin in April 2008 for an undisclosed but sizable sum. Like the majority of WPS franchise owners, Johnson had soccer-playing daughters. The club played two seasons before folding along with the rest of WPS in January 2012.
That’s former Dartmouth All-American Kristin Luckenbill on the cover of the match day program for the Breakers. Luckenbill was a player whose career was severely derailed by the collapse of the previous women’s pro league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, in 2003. The WUSA’s Carolina Courage drafted Luckenbill in 2001 and she quickly earned the starting position, helping the Courage to a Founders Cup title and winning WUSA Goalkeeper-of-the-Year honors in 2002. When the WUSA closed its doors in September 2003, Luckenbill was 24 years old and on the verge of making the U.S. National Team for the first time (she would win Olympic Gold as a reserve for the U.S. at Athens in 2004).
The rest of the 2000’s was a lost decade for women’s players of Luckenbill’s generation. With no pro league in North America, Luckenbill played occasionally for semi-pro clubs in Vermont and Indiana. By the time Women’s Professional Soccer debuted in April 2009, Luckenbill was a month away from turning 30 years old. She won the Boston Breakers starting job in training camp, but struggled with inconsistency throughout the first half of the season while the Breakers as a team underperformed lofty pre-season expectations.
On this evening Luckenbill was outdueled by the current U.S. National Team star goalkeeper, Hope Solo of St. Louis Athletica. Boston outshot St. Louis 17-7 and controlled the run of play, but English international Eniola Aluko scored the game’s only goal, beating Luckenbill in the 43rd minute off an assist fromKendall Fletcher. Final: St. Louis 1 – Boston 0.
The following month Luckenbill lost her starting job to rookie Ali Lipsher of Duke and the veteran was not re-signed by Boston for the 2010 season. Luckenbill appeared in a handful of games for Sky Blue FC in WPS in 2010 before announcing her retirement later that year.
The Philadelphia Independence soccer team enjoyed a brief two-season run in Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011), a league that briefly could claim status as the top women’s soccer league in the world before financial problems sunk the league after three seasons of play.
The Independence and WPS’ other 2010 expansion club, the Atlanta Beat, faced a challenging competitive landscape where the entire U.S National Team and dozens of the top international players were already to committed to multi-year contracts with existing WPS clubs. An expansion draft permitted the Beat and the Independence to pick through other team’s leftovers, but there was only one impact player available: U.S. National Team midfielder Lori Lindsey, inexplicably left unprotected by the Washington Freedom. Philly was fortunate to snap Lindsey up with the #1 selection. (Click here to view the 2010 WPS Expansion Draft rules for league executives). Atlanta never overcame the expansion disadvantage and fielded a distant last place club. Philadelphia GM Terry Foley and Head Coach Paul Riley, in contrast, wheeled and dealed extensively, finding terrific value in overlooked and under-utilized players and shrewd international signings throughout the winter of 2009 into 2010.
From the Boston Breakers, Foley acquired two U.S. National Team stalwarts in Heather Mitts and Amy Rodriguez. Mitts was a former member of the WUSA’s Philadelphia Charge and a well-known figure in Philadelphia, owing to her skill, beauty and gossip page relationship with Pat Burrell of the Phillies and, later, her engagement to quarterback A.J. Feeley of the Eagles. For all her marketing potential, Mitts seemed a poor fit with Head Coach Paul Riley and saw her playing time diminish late in the 2010 season.
The opposite was true for Rodriguez, the league’s #1 overall pick in the 2009 WPS Draft out of the University of Southern California who floundered in Boston under former National Team Coach Tony DiCicco. A-Rod scored only one goal in Boston and started fewer than half the team’s matches. But her club career would flourish under Riley in Philadelphia. In 2010, the speedy forward finished third in WPS in goals with 12 and was named a finalist for the league’s Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year Award.
The Independence also scored internationally with Swedish playmaker Caroline Seger, Canadian National Team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, English forward Lianne Sandersonand bruising Icelandic defender Holmfridur Magnusdottir. The Independence cultivated an intensely physical style of play under Paul Riley and the team was notably strong on defense.
The Independence debuted in Philadelphia on April 11, 2010 playing fellow expansionists the Atlanta Beat to a 0-0 draw at Farrell Stadium on the campus of West Chester University. The crowd of 6,028 was a highlight, but subsequent games drew small gatherings even by WPS standards. The Independence finished with the worst attendance in the seven-team league with 2,938 per game in 2010.
On the field, though, the Independence excelled, finishing 3rd in the regular season table with a 10-10-4 record. The Independence saved their best play for the postseason. In the first round, Amy Rodriguez’s overtime goal in the 120th minute lifted Philly past the Washington Freedom before 2,378 in West Chester, PA. Then it was off to Boston for the WPS Super Semi-Final, where the Independence fought back from an early 1-0 deficit to triumph 2-1 in overtime. The game winner came on a header from Danesha Adams, a controversial goal that many Boston fans maintain to this day was a handball (see video below).
The semi-final victory over the Breakers vaulted the Independence into the WPS Cup final against FC Gold Pride, one of the most dominant women’s club sides ever assembled. The final, played on Gold Pride’s home ground in Hayward, California would be Philadelphia’s third win-or-go-home playoff match in eight days, whereas Gold Pride enjoyed a two-week layoff to prepare for the match. The Independence’s fatigue after two overtime matches in a week showed, and Gold Pride made quick work of the Philadelphians 4-0 in the Final.
For the Independence second season, the club moved to Leslie Quick Stadium at Widener University in Chester. The club re-tooled on the field as well. Gone were Heather Mitts and Karina LeBlanc. New arrivals included emerging U.S. National Team midfield star Megan Rapinoe, former USWNT super sub Natasha Kai and Spanish striker Veronica Boquete.
Early season attendance plummeted throughout the league in 2011, due in part to an austerity program championed by Independence owner David Halstead, among others, which eviscerated the league’s national office and saw local administration and marketing cut to a shoe string. Philadelphia’s own financial challenges were revealed when Halstead sold Megan Rapinoe to Dan Borislow’s controversial MagicJack club for a record-setting transfer fee of $100,000 in June 2011. By this point, Borislow and Western New York Flash owner Joe Sahlen were the only WPS owners spending more than the bare minimums required to finish out the season.
The owners got a reprieve of sorts when the U.S. National Team went on an inspiring run through to the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final, drawing huge TV ratings along the way. With most of the USWNT stars still playing in WPS, large crowds turned out in league cities to see Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach upon their return from the World Cup.
The Independence were even better in 2011. The club’s 11-4-3 record was second only to the expansion Western New York Flash (13-2-3), who were basically the previous year’s champions, FC Gold Pride, re-constituted on the East Coast. Paul Riley won WPS Coach-of-the-Year honors for the second year in a row and newcomer Veronica Boquete won WPS’ Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year award, despite appearing in only 11 matches.
The Independence hosted MagicJack in the WPS Super Semi-Final on August 20, 2011. The game was played at the beautiful new 18,500-seat PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer. It was the first home match the Independence ever played on a proper soccer pitch. (Both Farrell Stadium and Quick Stadium were turf fields with stitched-in American football markings). Ironically this coming out party at Philadelphia’s best soccer facility would also be the final home game the club ever played. A modest crowd of 5,410 turned out for the match, despite the presence of Abby Wambach and other newly famous U.S. World Cup stars on the MagicJack team. The Independence disposed of MagicJack 2-0 on goals by Natasha Kai and Amy Rodriguez to advance to their second WPS Cup Final in as many seasons.
One of the largest crowds in WPS history – 10,361 fans – turned out at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York for the Final on August 27, 2011. Unlike the year before, the Independence were rested and ready to bring their best game against the Western New York Flash. The Flash had many of the top players from FC Gold Pride, the club that beat Philly to win the Cup a year earlier and then quickly went out of business. In the 64th minute, Christine Sinclair put the Flash up 1-0 on a cross from Candace Chapman. Both players were FC Gold Pride refugees. Three minutes away from a loss in the 87th minute, Amy Rodriguez blasted home the equalizer to send the game into overtime knotted at 1-1. Neither team scored during the 30-minute extra session. The championship would be decided on penalty kicks.
One interesting note on the PK’s. Riley left the notoriously inconsistent Rodriguez off his list of five shooters, despite the fact that she was the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Riley’s line-up was Lianne Sanderson, Danesha Adams, Leigh Ann Robinson, Boquete and Spanish international Laura Del Rio. The first four shooters scored for Philly. The first five scored for Western New York. Del Rio had the chance to send the PK’s into a second round, but Flash goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris made tremendous save to end Philly’s season and deliver the WPS Cup to Western New York.
This proved to be the final game WPS ever played. After a tumultuous offseason of legal battles with MagicJack owner Dan Borislow and an embarrassing public audit by U.S. Soccer to determine whether WPS still met the minimum standards to be sanctioned as a 1st division league, WPS folded up shop on January 30, 2012. Several franchises dropped into a lower-level semi-pro league – the WPSL Elite – to continue playing, but Halstead opted to shut down his Philadelphia club.
==Philadelphia Independence Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
The league got some nice pub for its early-adopter Twitter strategy. But by the time the second season of WPS kicked off in April 2010, it still wasn’t clear what the payoff was going to be. The social strategy was not complemented by an effective marketing mix nationally or at the franchise level. WPS started to become all Twitter, all the time. And despite the eye-popping numbers for @womensprosoccer, the individual WPS franchises and their star players toiled in digital obscurity. All nine clubs had fewer than 5,000 Twitter followers at the start of the 2010 season. The league’s stars had comparable numbers back then – Hope Solo of St. Louis Athletica was near the top with about 4,500 followers. (During the 2011 Women’s World Cup, the USWNT players separated from the pack. WPS club followings stayed stuck in the low four figures while stars like Solo and Alex Morgan surged into the hundreds of thousands).
Most of the Twitter content was also deathly dull and self-serving. Teams begged on Twitter for Facebook Likes…so that they could turn around and ask their Facebook fans to follow them on Twitter. Funny, inspiring and compelling player tweets were lost in an ocean of cautious cliches about team performance or summaries of take out orders from Panera Bread.
Sometime around the spring of 2010 I tweeted to my @BreakersGM followers that I was looking forward to the next breakthrough – the day that WPS fined or suspended a player for a controversial tweet. Privately, I had two likely suspects in mind. One was the former USWNT midfielder Natasha Kai who appended vaguely profane, self-consciously outrageous hashtags (#BOOM BAM MADA FAKA, #SEXINACUP) to the most mundane of daily activities, such as going to Starbucks or picking up her laundry. The other – edgier and more authentic – was Solo, whose competitive process seemed to require the presence of off-the-field adversaries. Real ones when available, manufactured ones when necessary.
It was an emergency addition to the WPS schedule, added in late May after St. Louis Athletica owner Jeff Cooper defaulted on his payroll and abruptly folded his club in mid-season. The Breakers were scheduled to play Athletica at home on Saturday, June 5th the week after the team shut down. A strong (by WPS standards) pre-sale of around 5,000 tickets went up in smoke and the match was cancelled.
The only available date to plug the hole in the schedule was on a Wednesday night in August against the Beat. The marketing budget was gone. The game didn’t appear on any of our team’s printed marketing collateral, produced months before the season. The Wednesday night date was such a loser, we instructed our sales staff to ignore the game altogether and focus all of their efforts on our remaining weekend dates. We would have drawn better playing on the moon on New Year’s Eve.
It was the smallest crowd in the history of the Breakers – about 1,500 fans. I announced over 3,200 as an act of impotent vengeance at Jeff Cooper for costing us a 5,000+ paid gate for the cancelled Athletica match. Among those few who did show up were 20 or so core members of the Breakers supporters group, the Riptide.
Supporters culture really doesn’t exist for women’s soccer at the club level. It’s a group sales driven business, with most fans attending only one game a year and no opportunity to follow all of a team’s games on TV. Unlike the USWNT fan base, the core audience of WPS (and WUSA before it) was defined by its casualness, with too little passion and too little knowledge of the game and its players to foster much genuine fanaticism. Turning that argument on its head – there’s a strong case that the sport’s investors have shown too little staying power to allow deep bonds and fanaticism to take root.
Small independent groups in a few WPS cities tried to change this. LaClede’s Army in St. Louis, Local 134 in Chicago and the Riptide in Boston created dues-paying memberships, established their own websites, and turned WPS matches into day-long parties, starting with tailgating and ending with organized chanting, signing, drumming and opponent-baiting during the matches.
The Riptide were one of the biggest and loudest of these groups. Most were veterans of the Midnight Riders, the largest supporters group of the New England Revolution in MLS. Like all supporters groups worth their salt, they were independent of the front office, but I met with them once or twice a year to see what they needed. We gave them their own standing section, where they could stand and sing for the whole match without having casual fans ask them to sit down.
For their part, they pledged – without me really even asking – to tone down some of the more profane aspects of MLS supporters culture, in recognition of the fact that much of the Breakers audience was families and young girls. Specifically, they promised that “YSA” would have no place at Breakers games. YSA is supporters short hand for the You Suck, Asshole chant that accompanies opposing goal kicks at some MLS stadia and has become the symbol of an ongoing identity debate within the men’s league.
For all their spirit, the Riptide were small in number – maybe 50 fans in the 8,000 seats we used for Breakers matches. So at the start of the 2009 season, I hired a Brazilian band director named Marcus Santos and his percussion group Afro Brazil to stand behind the Riptide and augment their sound. I wasn’t sure how they’d get along – Afro Brazil could raise a ruckus and easily drown out the Riptide if they pleased. But during the very first match, despite some language barriers between the Riptide and some of Marcus’ drummers, they learned to coordinate Afro Brazil’s beat with the Riptide’s chants.
From that first night they were locked in. The chemistry between the Riptide and Afro Brazil was immediate and powerful. Fans (and broadcasters) perceived them as one unified supporters group and I was careful to always be coy about that fact that we paid Afro Brazil to be there. It felt like a joyous, multi-cultural party of professional musicians and soccer fans that organically broke out in Section 15 every night and it created this cool effect that made every Harvard Stadium crowd feel much bigger than it was.
One night in 2009 I was standing on the field with Mark Kastrud, President of the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse, who also played at Harvard Stadium. He could eyeball-count a crowd as good as anyone. The Riptide/Afro Brazil were roaring along in full rhythmic fury across the stadium.
“There must be 10,000 people here tonight,” Mark said.
The real number was about half that.
There were less than a thousand people in Harvard Stadium when the Beat game kicked off that Wednesday night in August. And it felt like even less because Afro Brazil couldn’t make the date on short notice. Perhaps two dozen Riptide members showed up, standing very much alone in the front two rows of Section 15. The Revolution played a Mexican team in the semi-finals of the SuperLiga tournament at Gillette Stadium that night, and many of our regulars went to that match instead, since they were also Midnight Riders. Harvard Stadium was a morgue that night – dead, empty, lifeless. To use a cliche you could hear a pin drop, let alone a racial epithet screamed.
You can hear the subdued crowd noise on this scouting video, shot from the press box. At the 0:34 second mark, you get a brief glimpse of a lonely group of about 15 chanting fans standing along behind a banner behind the corner flag. These are the Riptide supporters at issue in the story, and you will also see the Redbones hospitality tent referenced below.
But if me and my front office team wrote the game off, the Breakers did anything but. Our English striker Kelly Smith scored on Solo forty seconds into the match to put Boston up 1-0. She added a second goal in the 62nd minute and the Breakers pressured Solo all night, while Breakers keeper Alyssa Naeher held the Beat scoreless.
During the first half, I sat a few rows behind the Riptide with Alyssa Naeher’s dad. At halftime, the teams changed sides. Mr. Naeher followed Alyssa to the other side of the field and I descended down to the hospitality tent behind the goal in front of the Riptide and Section 15. There were a couple of guests who stood out in the tent that night. 2-3 guys who were friends of Hope Solo and were somehow connected to the equipment management or athletic training staff for U.S. Soccer. They were hard to miss, or rather one guy was. I really don’t know if I can do him justice. He had this rural meth cook aesthetic going on that was so contrived and over the top that a few of my staff members surmised he came straight to the game from a costume party. If you were looking for a dude to sell you bad weed in the parking lot of the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds before a Night Ranger concert in 1985, you would make a beeline for this guy’s El Camino.
Anyway, I can’t remember if he and his crew crashed the VIP tent or if we offered them a courtesy upgrade knowing they were guests of a player, but it didn’t matter. We had plenty of Redbones barbecue to go around in light of the tiny crowd and I was happy to see them knocking back $8.00 Budweisers at the cash bar to fatten the evening’s meager concessions take.
Late in the match, with the game sewn up 2-0 for the Breakers, I wandered down to the other end of the field and struck up a conversation with Fitz Johnson, the owner of the Beat. The whistle blew while we were talking and the players began their warm down. After a few minutes, players from both teams started trickling off the field towards autograph alley. Solo walked over, said a few pleasantries to Johnson and gave him a quick hug. He told her “good game” or “keep your head up” or something along those lines, and she casually walked off the field toward the Beat locker room.
My post-game ritual was to lock myself in Harvard’s hockey rink box office with our banker, a police detail, a case of cold beer and the night’s game receipts. As the other Breakers staff members closed out their areas, they would come by for a cold one, to pick at whatever leftover BBQ was to be had from the VIP tent, and to decompress. On a good night, the money count might take two hours. Tonight it took 20 minutes. The number on the bank deposit slip made me nauseous. Pass the beer please.
Half an hour after the game, there were still a handful of Breakers players signing autographs outside. The staff started to trickle in. A PR assistant twiddled with her iPhone and said:
“Wow. Hope Solo is blowing up on Twitter right now.”
“No kidding? What’s she saying?” I asked. This is what she was saying:
“To all the Boston fans and especially the young children that I didn’t sign autographs for I’m sorry. I will not stand for … An organization who can so blatantly disrespect the athletes that come to play. Perhaps the WPS or Boston themselves … Can finally take a stance to the profanity, racism and crude remarks that are made by their so called ‘fan club’ … To the true fans, I hope to catch you at the next game. Thanks for your support and love for the game.
Whoa. The “R” word. The nuclear option. Was this the same person I saw amble off the field less than a half hour ago?
“That’s crazy. I just saw her. Walked right up to Fitz Johnson, gave him a hug and didn’t say a word.”
At first I was perplexed. I’d been near the Riptide all night. First sitting in their section for the first half, then down in the VIP tent right in front of them. I radioed John Cunningham, the Breakers Operations Director and a respected ops guy used by FIFA for tournament work around the globe. During games John sat at the fourth official’s table, right next to the visitors bench. The Beat bench was about 15-20 yards from the Riptide section and on this night, both the bench and the fourth official’s table were within easy earshot of the only 20 people singing and chanting in the nearly empty stadium
John just started laughing in disbelief. “Are you serious? I didn’t hear anything besides the usual Riptide stuff. You know, telling her she sucked and chanting “Brianna would have made those saves” at her.
I asked Leslie Osborne, the Breakers Captain, to ask around the locker room. The Breakers dominated play that night and spent most of the evening in the attacking half. Whatever Hope heard or experienced during the second half may well have been heard or experienced by some of the 7-8 Breakers who spent most of that half lining up shots at her. Leslie was stupefied.
“Just ask,” I said.
Nothing, Leslie reported 20 minutes later, other than a few “Hope being Hope” comments from the peanut gallery.
By the time I got home after midnight, I was moving from puzzled to pissed. Because it began to dawn on me that determining the “truth” of this situation was neither possible nor material to what was now happening. Hope Solo Racism. There were two ways those words could play out and neither was about any kind of objective truth. Both were simply exercises in public relations followed to their natural and inevitable conclusions.
The first scenario was that Solo would wake up the next morning with a cooler head and admit through a team spokesman that she used a poor choice of words to express her frustration with the match. And we would basically say “No problem, these things happen.” I sent an email to my buddy Shawn, the GM of the Beat, requesting a formal retraction and copied Fitz Johnson. I also forwarded the email to the league office, requesting a fine and suspension to Solo for material damage to the Breakers reputation and business if the retraction was not forthcoming. I wasn’t optimistic.
The second scenario was bad. In this scenario, Hope doubled down in the morning and stuck to her story. At that point, the Beat organization would have no choice but to back their star. That’s the code. And the Breakers would have no choice but to issue some sort of carefully worded statement about abhorring racism in all its forms, thus implicitly admitting something must have happened. Our only option would be to say we were very concerned and would take steps to make sure this – whatever this was – would never happen again.
As the saying goes, you can’t prove a negative. Tom Cruise will always be gay, Barrack Obama will always be Kenyan and Mitt Romney will always be a tax cheat. Denying you Tweeted a photo of your penis always means you Tweeted a photo of your penis.
Hope doubled down. I got an email from Shawn the next day with Hope’s specific allegations. They were quite detailed. (One of my great WPS regrets is that my computer crashed three days before I left the Breakers in September 2011 and I lost this archival material). Hope claimed the epithets were aimed primarily at the Beat’s Japanese player Mami Yamaguchi, who subbed out 16 minutes into the second half, which was the half when Solo defended the goal in front of the Riptide. There were a few rather specific and nasty lines attributed to voices from Section 15, including people screaming that Yamaguchi should move back to Japan and go to work in a rice factory.
In addition, there were some racially insensitive remarks allegedly directed at Kia McNeill, a top flight Atlanta defender with local ties as a Boston College grad.
There were also few things that were undoubtedly true and that I heard myself, such as bullet points about our fans yelling “You Suck” at Hope. That struck me as an oddly wimpy complaint for a player who has played in highly charged stadium atmospheres in world class venues all over the globe (let alone the atmosphere in college soccer), but I can’t fault her for being thorough, I suppose. The strangest accusation was that Hope was pelted with coins from the stands, which would have been easy to detect both during the game and in the post-game clean up of the field. There was simply nothing to support the projectile claim.
She also had some affidavits from two “fans” supporting her claims. Her fans, to be specific. Night Ranger guy and his buddies. There were also a couple of far more carefully worded comments from – if I recall correctly – Kia McNeill and reserve GK Brett Maron stating that they may have heard some insensitive language coming from the stands. Yamaguchi herself was curiously absent.
Oh well. The point wasn’t whether it was all true anymore anyway. The point was Hope was wedded to her story and there was little left but to conduct an investigation and then collaborate with the Beat on the messaging.
The league office more or less told me: Welcome to our world. Figure this out with Shawn. We don’t have a role here right now, and they were right. He said. She said.
The Riptide, meanwhile, were in agony. Because here is one thing you have to understand about club supporters. They HATE you when you come into their house wearing the colors of another club. But they LOVE you when you wear the colors of your country and, to a person, the Riptide membership were USWNT superfans who revered Hope Solo as the National Team goalkeeper.
The Riptide were also rude, crude, immature, loud, obnoxious, not as funny as they thought a lot of the time, whiny when calls didn’t go their way, occasionally poor winners and often poor losers. In other words, they were what fans are allowed and encouraged to be in just about every male sport.
One other thing about the Riptide which they never got any credit for in all this nonsense. They have considerable ability and track record to be self-policing. As promised to me in 2009, You Suck Asshole never reared its head at a Breakers game and the leaders of the Riptide, on at least one occasion, shushed a newbie who tried to get it going. Together with Afro Brazil, the supporters of Section 15 were pretty small in number. But as a group they were multi-racial and multi-lingual. They featured a considerable number of passionate female fans, along with males. There were openly gay members. There was an Asian man in the group. The notion that this specific group would allow fans within their small ranks to spew hate speech at Asian player (or any other nationality) throughout a match was simply beyond belief.
At this point Hope Solo leaves our story. She lit the match and walked away from the ensuing conflagration, never clarifying her Tweets or mentioning it again for two years until her memoir came out this week.
So what’s happens next is that Shawn and I get on the phone. Now that I have Hope’s list of allegations, I promise to undertake an internal investigation, attempting – imperfectly – to leave aside my own proximity and personal recollections to the best of my ability. It took a couple of days. I interviewed the Riptide fans in attendance, police detail officers assigned to the match and the 3rd party food service workers in the hospitality tent and Section 15 areas, who worked for outside concessions companies. I called on various season ticket holders in the adjacent sections and game day volunteers at the field and seating levels.
I can’t say I found nothing. As mentioned above, some of Hope’s tamer claims (people saying she sucked) were true – like every night at a Breakers game. In interviewing the police details, I learned of an incident in the hospitality tent after I left the area late in the match. A couple of young men – “appearing intoxicated” – moved over to the wall in front of Section 15 and began acosting the Riptide. The detail officer in the tent felt it was getting a bit chippy and moved them out of the area. These were Hope’s pals – the Night Ranger rides again.
The most compelling revelation involved Kia McNeill. McNeill is the lone intersection where the two sides of this story come together, but through very different lenses. McNeill, as I mentioned, went to Boston College. She had a great reputation in WPS as a hard-nosed defender and had the yellow and red card accumulations to prove it. She is also black and she also had family at the game that night, apparently only a section or two over from the Riptide.
At some point, presumably in the second half when Solo was on the Riptide end, McNeill committed a hard foul. Several Riptide fans yelled out, calling McNeill a “thug” and a “convict”. A couple of Riptide members matter-of-factly recalled this to me and then rattled off various statistics and anecdotes about McNeill’s red & yellow card history – hence the “convict” tag – that only a truly obsessive, sports talk radio junkie kind of fan would know about. And WPS really didn’t have that kind of fans….except for these guys.
I’d heard a report that McNeill’s family heard comments to this effect at the game and were unhappy about it. Whether it was because they perceived it as despicable racial stereotyping – black person = convict – or just that it was negative trash talk directed at their daughter, I don’t know. I asked Jackie, a soft-spoken 24-year old graduate student at Brown University and the President of the Riptide, if it occurred to her that fans calling McNeill a “thug” might appear to be racially insensitive.
“I suppose I could see that now, if you didn’t know us,” she replied. “But we also call Holmfridur Magnusdottir of the Philadelphia Independence a thug.”
Magnusdottir is from Iceland.
I can see where McNeill’s teammates would be concerned for her, because the typical atmosphere of a WPS match was so laid back due to the lack of game knowledge of the average fan. On the other hand, I don’t think any NFL fan calling Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison – an African-American and one of the league’s most physical and heavily penalized players – a thug would cause equal concern and consternation. It’s a tricky thing. Personally, I think it was an insensitive thing to say. At the same time, I think the Riptide fans are casualties of a very antiquated notion of how a women’s sports fan is expected and allowed to behave.
In the end, Shawn and I collaborated on a joint statement that went up on the WPS website. In it, I acknowledged that insensitive comments appear to have been issued from the stands (re: McNeill, in my mind, not Yamaguchi) and pledging that we would bring on additional security to monitor fan behavior. The Riptide howled and fumed that we had betrayed them. Understandable. I felt bad for them.
I asked Shawn for a quote from Hope stating that she regretted using Twitter to raise the issue publicly before addressing her concerns through proper channels. Shawn told me that was a non-starter – Hope wouldn’t say a word. This was everyone else’s mess to clean up now. Instead the Beat organization itself would say that it was regrettable that Twitter was used as the means of communication for such a serious matter.
I sighed. “Shawn, I hope you understand that we feel like the party that has been attacked here, and yet we are the ones extending much further towards you than you are towards us in solving this thing.”
“I get that,” he said and that was fine with me. He was my friend and was in a lousy situation too.
The statement was intended to be the carefully negotiated final word, but neither of us stuck to it. We couldn’t help playing to our constituencies, tiny as they may have been. A single mercurial superstar in Shawn’s case and a couple of dozen season ticket holders in mine.
A couple of days later Shawn gave interviews to a Georgia newspaper and to the blogger Jeff Kassouf stating that racial epithets had been directed at Yamaguchi (something I categorically rejected) and “giving props” to Solo for standing up for her teammates. I punched back with a new statement basically saying Hope was full of it, while staying within the rhetorical straitjacket of accepting responsibility so as not to be accused of denial.
Shawn and I hugged it out (metaphorically) the next day, which was made easier by the realization that nobody cared anymore.
Solo signed the next season with Dan Borislow and MagicJack, the only guy still throwing around big bucks contracts in WPS’ third and final season. The Breakers immigration attorney gave me a recommendation to a court reporting service he liked and I planned to hire a stenographer to sit in Section 15 and prepare a transcript of all cheers, chants and songs for Hope’s return engagement. But she never played in Boston again due to National Team duties and a subsequent injury.
Kelly Smith’s memoir Footballer: My Story is out today from Bantam Press and available in hardcover and Kindle format on Amazon. The book promises a look at the storied career of England’s greatest female footballer, as well as some of the personal battles Smith has fought through over the years.
The program at left is from a sparsely attended (3,128) Wednesday evening match against FC Gold Pride (San Jose, CA) at Harvard Stadium on June 17, 2009. Smith entered the match in the 63rd minute as a substitute, assisting on the equalizer by Jennifer Nobis in the 77th minute to pull out a 1-1 draw for Boston. Smith was a two-time All-Star for us in Boston in 2009 and 2010.
As General Manager of the Breakers during the club’s final two seasons, I didn’t get to know Kelly well. I respected the way she carried herself and her intense competitiveness but we rarely spoke. As tenacious and vocal as she is on the pitch, she is reserved and shy off the field and, for my part, I rarely socialized with our players since my job often involved being the bearer of bad news.
One of the least pleasant aspects of my job was an acrimonious six-month negotiation with Kelly’s agent Steve Kutner to substantially reduce her salary prior to the 2011 season. The Breakers (and much of the league) were in the midst of draconian across the board budget cuts. Kelly was among the top 2-3 highest paid players in WPS every season and remained in that elite group in 2011, but that also made her contract a target in an austerity process where we had already sliced out a lot of muscle (including our entire front office staff, save for one).
For her part, Kelly was coming off her strongest season in Boston, after scoring 11 goals in 2010 and leading the Breakers to the within one game of the WPS Cup championship match. She couldn’t have done more to justify her contract on the field, but in this particular sport at this particular time, that wasn’t enough. We never spoke about it – there’s really nothing you can say to justify or sugarcoat taking away what you’ve promised to someone when they’ve done everything you’ve asked.
One funny story comes to mind about Kelly’s Jekyll & Hyde personas on and off the field. (And I’ll admit now that I wasn’t there. This was relayed by our ops manager at the time). The Breakers went to Florida for pre-season camp in 2011 and played a scrimmage against MagicJack, the infamous club owned by MagicJack honcho Dan Borislow. MJ had a neutered head coach named Mike Lyons at that time. Borislow, by all accounts, really managed the club, dictating formations and personnel decisions. Lyons spent the moments before the match crouched on the ground hurriedly taping his players ankles, since the MJ organization regarded the athletic training profession with the same level of disdain that Scientologists reserve for psychiatry. During the match Borislow prowled the sidelines shouting out instructions to his players.
Smith played a rough game, leading the Breakers in fouls committed in each year of WPS, save for 2011 when she missed half of the season for the World Cup. Midway through the scrimmage, she collided with a MagicJack player, sending her opponent to the turf like a rag doll. Borislow, vocal all day in the quiet environs of a crowd-less scrimmage , got up on the sideline and made some aggressive noise about the foul. Annoyed, our English superstar turned to WPS’ newest investor/savior and concisely explained the boundaries between bankrolling a team and being part of one:
“SHUT THE F*!# UP!”
With that, Kelly turned her attention back to the game. Impossible to imagine off the field, totally in character on it, even during a scrimmage.