Friday, June 10, 2016

Racial Diversity in American Women's Soccer

Beyond the sport, I have come to love soccer for what the culture of the game conveys about the disparate lands that have adopted it.  For me, soccer is the ultimate conversation starter in any corner of the globe and I find myself genuinely interested in the different perspectives that become apparent during such dialogues.

Over time, that love has been augmented by the recognition that soccer tells us useful things about what it means to be American.  One of our current candidates for President likes to underscore his huge nativist crowds who are peculiarly enthusiastic about the masonry of barricades.  That is one image of America.  An alternative image is presented by the current Copa America Centenario – as in the 83,000 (really huge) that took in a terrifically fun match between El Tri and the Reggae Boys last night in Pasadena.

The United States’ steadily increasing presence in the world soccer landscape has been accompanied by hand wringing as to the domestic state of the sport.  Why aren’t the men better?  Why is the domestic league still the subject of ridicule?  Is college soccer a bad thing?  Why can’t we build viable second and third tier professional leagues for men’s soccer?  Why can’t we maintain a viable first division professional league for women’s soccer?

Les Carpenter’s recent article for The Guardian reminded folks of another continuing concern – the impact of the “pay-to-play” youth system on the composition of our nation’s soccer players.  Carpenter’s piece discussed welcome advances in outreach to broader communities, but largely carried forward many of the same anecdotal complaints and criticisms that have been repeatedly raised over the last two decades.  To the extent that there is any discussion of empirical support for these criticisms, Carpenter references Greg Kaplan and Roger Bennett’s analysis of elite professional athletes by socio-economic data tied to their hometown zip codes.

Because the conventional wisdom trope (that pay-to-play inhibits the development of soccer in the country by making it the arena of the wealthy) rings false for me in terms of what I have seen as a fan over the last decade, I wonder how much objective evidence there is for the argument that the existing youth structure has limited the diversity of the sport.

One easy metric to evaluate is the composition of student-athletes participating in college soccer.  The “whiteness” of the U.S. women’s national team is one of the focal points for concerns regarding diversity in American soccer.  Is women’s college soccer similarly narrowly confined to well-off white kids?

The NCAA makes available Sports Sponsorship, Participations,and Demographics data that now include information over a sixteen year period. 

A review of the data shows significant improvements in the diversity of women’s soccer; diversity improvements that have coincided with significant growth in the sport.  In 1999-2000, there were 6,464 women participating in Division I women’s college soccer.  In 2014-2015, that number had grown to 8,963 – almost a 40% uptick in population.  During that timeframe, the white women’s share of total players fell from 83.8% to 72.6%.  African-American (black) players increased their participation from 2.9% of the total in 1999-2000 to 6.4% in 2014-2015, while Hispanic (Latino) players jumped from 2.9% to 6.5%.  Those demographics do not yet fairly reflect the composition of the United States, but the long term trend is certainly heading in the right direction.

A separate published report by the NCAA on participation rates observes that during the 1981-1982 season, there were a total of 520 women playing Division I college soccer nationwide.  In 2014-2015, there were 575 African-American women and 584 Hispanic women playing Division I college soccer. 

These demographic trends are also apparent in Division II and III women’s soccer, providing even further indication that American soccer’s diversity “problem” is being addressed.  In the 1999-2000 season, there were 3,879 women participating in Division II college soccer; by the 2014-2015 season that figure had almost doubled to 7,229.  Where 87.5% of the women playing Division II soccer in 1999-2000 were white, in 2014-2015, 74.7% were.  African-American participation increased from 2.3% to 3.4% over that timeframe, while Hispanic participation more than doubled from 4.0% to 8.6%.  In the 1981-1982 season, a total of only 227 women were playing Division II soccer.  There were 244 African-American and 625 Hispanic women playing Division II soccer in 2014-2015.

Similarly, during the 1999-2000 season, there were 7,766 women participating in Division III college soccer; by the 2014-2015 season there were 10,803 women involved in the sport.  Where 88.2% of the women playing Division III soccer in 1999-2000 were white, in 2014-2015, that figure fell to 83.1%.  African-American participation increased from 1.9% to 3.1% over that timeframe, while Hispanic participation more than doubled from 1.7% to 5.5%.
Diversity in American soccer – particularly women’s soccer – remains a valid concern.  At the same time, however, there have been significant shifts in the demographics of participation.  These shifts, in turn, require that the narrative surrounding our stories about diversity in the sport be adjusted.  Rather than ask whether to pay-to-play development system only works for white kids, it would be more useful to understand why significantly more racial minorities have been able to participate in, at a minimum, college soccer.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

It Was Good

In the long, long time ago, when Borders bookstores were part of the urban landscape, I ran across Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.  Bought it immediately.  Read it immediately.  If you were anywhere close to me in the fall of 2010, you heard about it.  A lot.

It is a brilliant book.  A fantastic read.  Truly, as the author intended, a love letter to the Philippines. 
More than anything else, what struck me about the book was how unlikely it seemed that I would accidentally run across something so exquisitely written in a chain bookstore.  Although the recipient of plenty of favorable reviews, I had not seen them.  My pinoy family did not know about it.  It was just sitting there, at the Borders, and I was fortunate to have run across it and to have my love of sports validated from a totally unexpected place.

I like Bill Simmons.  When Rafe Batholomew showed up on a byline at Grantland, Grantland became my jam. 

In 2012, at a Barnes and Noble – still a thing – This Love Is Not for Cowards:  Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez was on one of the shelves.  Bought it immediately.  Read it immediately.  If you anywhere close to me in the fall of 2012, you heard about it.  A lot.

It is a brilliant book.  A fantastic read. Truly, as the author intended, a love letter to Ciudad Juarez.

This time, however, it was not a total surprise.  Grantland had published an excerpt of Robert Andrew Powell’s book in March 2012 and I had been keeping an eye out for the book after reading the excerpt.

Independent of Grantland, I, like a whole lot of other people, devoured Chuck Klosterman’s books.  Charles Pierce’s Idiot America is one of the better pisstakes on the contradictions of America’s political and religious culture.  That they contributed to Grantland seemed unfair.

Over time, I became enamored with virtually all of the contributors to the online publication.  I hadn’t read something so closely and regularly since The New Republic in the late 1990s.  Over the last couple of years, the quality – and quantity – of Grantland’s content led to a daily ritual of printing out whatever articles the site had published that day that seemed interesting so that I could read them on the Metro ride home.  For the last year, there was so much good and interesting stuff there that I couldn’t get through all the articles by the time the green line pulled into Greenbelt station.
Lots of people are sad that Grantland was shuttered by ESPN on Friday.  I count myself among them.  But I prefer to focus on how amazing it is that Grantland existed in the first place. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Developing "Dogs and Turds"

The University of Maryland's football season opens next week.  There's all kind of reasons to be uncomfortable with the opener. 

First, Division I football subdivision players are exploited for the financial benefit of coaches, administrators, and businesses built of the sport.  The sport itself, as currently constituted, depends on this exploitation.

Second, the sport is incredibly violent and puts exploited amateur athletes at risk of severe, debilitating long-term injuries.

Third, games between FBS and FCS teams shouldn't happen.  FCS student athletes are sacrificed for operating funds for their school's athletic department.  The discrepancy in the size and speed between the teams on the field means that every big hit -- particularly on special teams -- has spectators holding their breath to see how badly a kid is hurt.

On the flip side, I was a poor kid that moved out of poverty by virtue of a college education.  I have an almost religious faith in the power of undergraduate education to transform the lives of this country's underclass.  College football makes a college education possible for thousands of young men every year.

The money generated by college football means that we have built structures to affirmatively seek out members of the underclass and offer a path out.  Sure, it would be better if there were scores of people looking for those kids that demonstrated unique talents in science, math, art . . . anything educational.  But that's not happening and that this recruiting and investment, in fact, happens with sport has an impact that can't be ignored.

Maryland's football team provides the illusion -- to me -- that there is a better way.  A stronger focus on earning a degree (and then earning a graduate degree) and excelling in studies under Coach Edsall brings the benefit to the student athletes to the forefront.

So, why am I heartened to see another football coach -- heralded for his commitment to the classroom and the improved academic performance of his student athletes -- in the B1G lose his job?  Because a college education isn't worth it if it is premised on the dehumanization of the student.  Abuse from coaches of unpaid students cannot be tolerated.  The system is, by its nature, abusive and exploitative.  Open physical and verbal abuse from coaches cannot be an acceptable form of interaction between those making a living off the game and those that are doing it to pay for their studies. 

While I am grateful to see Tim Beckman relieved of his authority, it makes little dent in the overall messed up nature of college football. 

Consider the assistant director of player development on the University of Pittsburgh's football team, Tim Salem.  In the Chicago Tribune's July piece on the paper's interviews with University of Illinois current and former players, Timmie allows himself to be quoted as calling those complaining about Coach Beckman as "dogs and turds."  This is both inartful and idiotic, but not as insanely dumb as the lengthier quote attributed to Salem published by the Tribune: 

"Every team in America's got those guys," he said. "Every team can have one kid who's not very good. He's not very tough; he was recruited to play the wrong level of sport."
"He's not very tough."  This underscores the basic, uncomfortable truth about college football -- the exploitation of the system means that a significant portion of those that get compensated (coaches) are idiots that revel in the exploitation.  The system is demeaning because the people within it, those that benefit the most, dehumanize and abuse those supposedly under their care.

Why would the University of Pittsburgh afford someone with this attitude a position through which he would have influence or control over the development of their student-athletes?  Because nothing about a dipshit questioning the fortitude of kids that put their health and welfare on the line for the principal benefit of others seems to be all that out of place in the culture of the sport.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Future Is Now

When Charlton Athletic took the pitch today at The Valley to open the season, only two of the squad's starting eleven were born before 1990.  Their opponents, Queen's Park Rangers (just relegated from the Premier League), were the mirror image, with only starters Matthew Phillips and Massimo Luongo born in the roaring 90s.  Indeed, QPR started Clint Hill, a man who began his professional career for Tranmere Rovers the same year (1997) that Charlton debutant Karlan Ahearne-Grant was born.  Charlton's old men were Alou Diarra (born 1981) and Ahmed Kashi (born 1988).

By rights, QPR, featuring CAFC academy alum Paul Konchesky, should have used its superior experience and talent to bully the young SE7 men off the pitch and begin their march back to the posh stratosphere of the top tier.

But that's not what happened.  The kids -- including four from the academy -- held a stalemate through the first half.  And when Tony Watt (born 1993) replaced Ahearne-Grant to begin the second frame, it did not take him long to put Charlton on top before Morgan Fox (also born 1993) placed the match out of reach.

A win is a win.  Except not really.  This is a win on CAFC terms that sets a foundation for the hard slog ahead and expectations of genuine ambition.  It is a win demonstrating that this version of Charlton is interesting.  What are the ceilings on these kids?  Are they going to wither under pressure or is the club producing diamonds to place in the storefront for the luxury set?

El-Hadji Ba (also born 1993) was replaced by Zarkaya Bergdich (born 1989).  Johan Berg Gudmundsson (born 1990) was replaced by Cristian Ceballos (born 1992).  Left on the bench at the end of the game with Johnnie Jackson were Harry Lennon (born 1994), Regan Charles-Cook (born 1997), and Dimitar Mitov (born 1997).

And they won.

I've been stewing about D.C. United all season.  Yes, they are winning.  But they're not terribly interesting.  Nor endearing.

The club's website reports that 19 players have seen at least 350 minutes of field time this season.  Of those, eight were born after 1990.  Perry Kitchen (born 1992) had logged the second most minutes on the team, with Nick DeLeon, Bill Hamid, and Taylor Kemp (all born 1990) coming in at fifth, sixth, and seventh.  The youngest of those 19 is Miguel Aguilar (born 1993) who has received 516 minutes of field time.

A win is a win.  DCU has twelve of them this year.  We remain season ticket holders, yet have not seen many of them.  It's a sunk cost but the additional expenditures involved for a night out to see Davy Arnaud, Sean Franklin, Fabian Espindola, and Chris Rolfe aren't worth incurring.  I've got nothing against most of them -- I could do without faithful Kurt Morsink-impression that Arnaud has perfected -- they just don't move the needle.  D.C. United are who everyone thinks they are -- the wind-up toy of the MLS.

It's an entirely different calculus if the team is also giving a runout to Mikey Seaton (born 1996), Jalen Robinson (born 1994), and Collin Martin (born 1994).  Instead, Seaton's been run-off, with a swift kick in the ass in the form of bizarre, cowardly attacks on his maturity to help him on his way out west.

An aside:  Jamaican international Michael Seaton, the teenager who went to Sweden to get playing time, is immature?  If the context is the MLS retirement resort that BRO has built, sure he's immature.

DCU is winning.  But it's not.  Not really.  The club currently has the lowest average attendance in the MLS.  I don't think it's because of the stadium; my kids love going to RFK, as do our friends.  And I don't think it's because people in the region don't support soccer.

Charlton Athletic has won.  Sure, it's one game.  But it's more than just one game.  It's a season.  And I'm tuned in. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

U!S!A! U!S!A!

This afternoon, the United States fell to Panama on penalty kicks finishing the 2015 edition of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in fourth place.

The Klinsmann era of U.S. Soccer is being a judged a failure, with the commentariat throwing around names as alternatives for gaffer.

It's important, apparently, to get results.  All the time.  Not in meaningless friendlies against European powerhouses that these opponents don't take seriously.  In important tournaments.  Like the Gold Cup.

Fourth place is unacceptable.  Just like not winning every game of the semifinal group stage for World Cup qualifying will be unacceptable.

These things matter.

I guess.

In his last Gold Cup in 2011, Bob Bradley reversed course from his approach in the 2009 and 2007 editions, opting to go with a smaller, more experienced, group of players.  In the three group stage matches, Bradley started only 13 different players.  Only five of the thirteen were under 28 years of age:  Michael Bradley; Tim Ream; Eric Lichaj; Jozy Altidore; and Juan Agudelo.  Compare that to 2009, when sixteen of twenty-two players that earned starts during the group stage were younger than twenty-eight:  Freddy Adu; Robbie Rogers; Sam Cronin; Charlie Davies; Stuart Holden; Brad Evans; Santino Quaranta; Kenny Cooper; Chad Marshall; Heath Pearce; Luis Robles; Colin Clark; Michael Parkhurst; Clarence Goodson; Kyle Beckerman; and Logan Pause.  In both tournaments, the U.S. lost the Final in depressing fashion to Mexico.  But second place is second place, not fourth.

In 2007, fifteen of the twenty-two players that got starts during the group stage were under 28 (Michael Bradley; Jonathan Spector; Benny Feilhaber; Jonathan Bornstein; Justin Mapp; Frank Simek; Eddie Johnson; Michael Parkhurst; Clint Dempsey; Ricardo Clark; DaMarcus Beasley; Oguchi Onyewu; Landon Donovan; Taylor Twellman; and Jay DeMerit).  Coach Bradley won that Cup.  His first and only. 

In the Klinsmann era, Jurgen has also won one Cup, in 2013.  And two years ago, only ten of the nineteen that started Group Stage matches were under 28:   Stuart Holden; Michael Orozco; Edgar Castillo; Alejandro Bedoya; Tony Beltran; Jose Torres; Sean Johnson; Brek Shea; Joe Corona; and Mikkel Diskerud.

This year, Klinsmann started twenty-one different players in the three group stage matches.  Thirteen of those were under 28:  DeAndre Yedlin; John Brooks; Ventura Alvarado; Gyasi Zardes; Greg Garza; Aron Johannsson; Mikkel Diskerud; Alfredo Morales; Timothy Chandler; Jozy Altidore; Omar Gonzalez; Fabian Johnson; and Tim Ream.

A couple of things interest me about this banal listing of names. 

First, not many of the young guns selected by Coach Bradley panned out and became fixtures of the U.S. men's national team.  That's not terribly surprising, just a fact of trying to find and develop talent, and something that will likely also be true of Klinsmann's selections.  At the same time, it is the point of the Gold Cup tournament -- an opportunity to blood players and test mettle in actual tournament conditions against competent opposition.  That Jurgen used this year's tournament to get first hand looks on young players seems like a good thing, even if they did not perform to expectations.

Second, the pool that Klinsmann is pulling from is a lot bigger and more varied than where Bradley fished.  This also would seem to be a good thing, claims that the U.S. talent pool is peculiarly thin right now notwithstanding. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Planning out our Saturday, I ran across Jeff Barker's article in the Baltimore Sun in reference to concerns about attendance at women's college basketball games.  It's pretty dark.  Attendance for first round games was better in 2000 than last year!  Lots of negative framing, like:

Last season's average attendance of 4,887 for the tournament games in College Park may sound meager, but it surpassed the national average of 4,134 for the same sessions.
(I mean, 5,000 people going to watch a live college sporting event doesn't sound meager, but ok...)

My daughters had said they wanted to go to Maryland's tournament opener and Barker's piece clinched it for me -- if support for women's basketball was evaporating, we weren't also going to turn our back.  I forwarded it to friends and family also considering going to the game.

It took us a little while to get in.  Took us a little longer to find open seats for the general admission all-sessions strips we bought.  Which, in retrospect, makes sense since attendance for the game was 7,948 people.

Waiting in line for twenty minutes to get a hot dog led me to think about the premise of the article a little bit.  Interest in women's college basketball has plateaued?  That doesn't seem consistent with what we've seen.  But we've got a limited perspective and the sea of empty seats in Hoffman Estates for the Big Ten Conference tournament was disturbing.

Why was women's college basketball more popular in 2000 than in 2015?  The game is a lot better now, both in terms of quality and in terms of comparative talent between teams.  New Mexico State -- as the 16 seed -- was well-coached and posed a legitimate threat to a very good Maryland team.

Was women's college basketball more popular in 2000 than in 2015?

In 2000, 6.36 million people attended Division I women's college basketball games.  Last season, 8.14 million people attended Division I women's college basketball games.  Which means that in 2014, 1.78 million more people went to a women's college basketball game than in 2000 -- an increase of 28%.  Which is kind of a lot.

The per game attendance average is only slightly higher than it was in 2000, but there were also 28 more Division I teams and 892 more games played in 2014.

The increase has been gradual and fairly consistent year-by-year, although there has not been much of a jump over the last five years.  Still, attendance in 2014 was the second highest its been in history.

Surprisingly, Maryland hasn't been contributing to recent growth in women's basketball attendance.  Attendance has been substantially below 2007-2008 peaks, years when Maryland, on its own, accounted for 2% of all attendance in the sport.  Now, with the decline in attendance at the school and increase in overall attendance, Maryland comprises about 1% of total attendance and hovers between 80 and 100 thousand people:

Has interest in the women's college game declined?  Absolutely not.  Is there a need to be concerned?  Probably not.  The fundamentals of the game are sound.  New schools, like South Carolina, mirror Maryland with explosive growth in interest and attendance.  In fact, South Carolina outdrew Maryland in 2014 (in the chart below, 2007 and 2008 aren't listed because South Carolina's attendance wasn't high enough to be reported in the NCAA data source used):

And traditional powerhouses in attendance, like Notre Dame, have also seen interest increase over the last several years: