Soccer

Spirit look to build on World Cup momentum with full roster

Spirit look to build on World Cup momentum with full roster

After a whirlwind month of June amid the fervor of the World Cup, the Washington Spirit have reloaded with every World Cup player ready to play against Sky Blue in New Jersey on Wednesday.

Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh, Chloe Logarzo, Amy Harrison, Elise Kellond-Knight and Cheyna Matthews are hoping their successes big and small will carry over from their World Cup experiences to make the NWSL have a larger impact in the coming years.

“Hopefully people come and watch it, take their first glimpse and realize that it’s not all mayonnaise in this league it’s a pretty good product,” head coach Richie Burke said. 

Part of that starts with more media coverage, including the new deal the NWSL signed with ESPN to carry games on their network. The league had a deal with Yahoo! Sports and NBC Sports Washington announced a broadcast deal with Monumental Sports Network and the team in January ahead of the World Cup.

"In the NWSL it’s been frustrating because you have those same players that you saw in the World Cup, they’re all here, not all of them, but a large majority are here. So it’s kind of like why are people not engaging with it?" said captain Andi Sullivan said.

For the Spirit, the ESPN deal was validation that the sport was growing.

“I think it’s been frustrating that sometimes, you turn on ESPN and there’s like corn hole or cricket," Pugh noted. "Everyone is saying how great and competitive this league is and I think people just need to see that and now that we have the option and they actually can do that it’s absolutely amazing.”

“I’m actually shocked that there hasn’t been a broadcast deal [with ESPN],” Australian national Chloe Logarzo said. “It should’ve happened a really long time ago.”

ESPN will carry the Sprit's game against the Houston Dash on Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. and it will air on ESPN2. NBC Sports Washington will carry the Spirit's remaining home games through Sept. 28 when they take on Reign FC.

That media coverage also includes print and online mediums showing up to games after the first-week post World Cup spike that every NWSL team experienced.

“Part of what will continue to grow this is to have more media coverage forever,” Chief Marketing Officer Gretchen Hamm said.

“It can’t just be a once every four years kind of thing or once every two years kind of thing," Logarzo noted. "It just needs to keep rolling.”

In addition to the media deal, most of the international players hope that the exposure helps force their federations and FIFA to invest more, and hopefully help them reach equal pay.

“The first step is taking the first step,” said Jamaican national Cheyna Matthews. Matthews hopes the Reggae Girlz first appearance in the World Cup, coupled with the success of other CONCACAF teams, will “put pressure on the JFF (Jamaican Football Federation) not only to talk about the things they want to do for us but make those things happen.” 

“The argument and the discussion [for equal pay] started before World Cup,” said recent acquisition Elise Kellond-Knight. “I’m a part of our player's union back in Australia, the PFA (Professional Footballers Australia), and we actually put a legal case together." 

The union called on FIFA to expand the player payment pool from $30 million to $57 million. "There’s actually some grounds here to what’s going on that the percentage increase for the females wasn’t anywhere near what the males have received for their World Cup," Kellond-Knight said.

Spirit ownership have noted that disparity and owner Steve Baldwin helped bring in sponsorship deals, including one with local insurance giant GEICO.

“He (Baldwin) feels that they are underpaid, under-recognized, under-appreciated and he’s doing everything within his power to change that,” Burke said. “I’ve been involved in football for a long time and lot of different levels and never known an ownership group or executive branch to be so committed to a team.” 

 “All the people who are working for us now are saying ‘this is the bare minimum now and we’re gonna push this so far,”” Sullivan said.

Eventually, the hope is that this iteration of a professional women's soccer league will last.

"I think that the engagement will stay and I think having all these international players with such great play such great character such great stories, I think that that is what will resonate with the community,” Sullivan said.

After meeting another Rose Lavelle, the Spirit's Lavelle hopes that people will cheer on the younger Lavelle in the NWSL in years to come.

“Hopefully little Rose Lavelle will come up and everyone will forget about old Rose Lavelle,” Lavelle noted.

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We Miss The Premier League, too: How a Chelsea fan found her team

We Miss The Premier League, too: How a Chelsea fan found her team

Weekend mornings haven’t been the same since the English Premier League paused its season. The hope is the EPL is back on NBC sometime soon. Until then, NBC Sports Washington is devoting a week of stories to each of the Big 6 clubs in England: Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. Because we miss the Premier League, too. 

Our first week continues with a look at the Premier League supporters’ clubs that thrive all around D.C. and the metro area, including Chelsea’s Beltway Blues, who gather together most Saturday mornings from August through May to cheer their team. 

It started for Allison Kasic during a six-month study abroad semester in London 16 years ago. 

A junior at Bucknell University in 2004, a big sports fan who grew up playing and watching soccer, Kasic was searching for a connection to her new home. She found it right there in her west London neighborhood at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea FC's grand old stadium where they’ve played soccer in some form since 1905.  

“When I showed up, high on my priority list was asking ‘Alright what are the local teams?’ I just loved watching live sports,” Kasic said. “The club kind of chose me in that respect. And I’ve stuck with it since then.”

Kasic, who grew up in Colorado but moved to the D.C. area after college, has done more than that. She is chapter chair of the Beltway Blues supporters’ club, which meets most weekends at Ireland’s Four Courts in Arlington, and is the national chair of Chelsea in America, a coalition of five regional Chelsea supporters' groups made up of 35 local chapters throughout the United States. 

Sports provides an emotional connection we’re all missing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Four Courts, open again for takeout orders since May 8 but unable to host watch parties for now, averages 40-to-50 Chelsea fans on any given Saturday or Sunday – much more for big matches, fewer maybe for the 7:30 a.m. EST start times. They all have a story. Kasic was hooked when she skipped a night class during her semester abroad and went to a pub with a friend who just happened to be an Arsenal fan. 

That was the year of The Invincibles when Thierry Henry and the Gunners won the Premier League title and won or drew every single Premier League game. No losses on the record. Arsenal had beaten the Blues three times already that season and also played to a draw in the first leg of a Champions League quarterfinal at Stamford Bridge. It just didn’t look like Chelsea was capable of beating their London rival. 

Until that wonderful April night back at Highbury, Arsenal's famed old home ground, when Chelsea rallied from a 1-0 deficit at halftime to win it in the 88th minute on a Wayne Bridge goal. The Invincibles might have raised their Premier League trophy at the end of that season. But they wouldn’t be crowned champions of Europe. The Blues saw to that and then the next season won their first Premier League title in 50 years. 

Kasic, a self-described John Terry fan, the legendary Chelsea defender, stuck with it when she came home to the States, but it wasn’t easy. Premier League games weren’t readily available like they are now on NBC and its platforms. She found herself looking up scores on the internet the year Chelsea won that long-awaited title in the 2004-05 season.

The crowd that gathers at The Four Courts could be as few as 10 people for an early start against a lower club or as many as 300 for big Premier League or Champions League games. The night Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012 you couldn't get in the door even if you showed up an hour before the match.

The crowd is mixed, primarily Americans, but with a few ex-pats from the U.K. who used to be season-ticket holders at Stamford Bridge or ex-soccer players who played the sport in high school or college. Group member Lynn Feldmann had a youth soccer coach who actually played for Chelsea in the 1960s, according to Kasic. Go to any of these game watches and you’ll see how randomly people came to their love for the club.    

Kasic herself tries to go back to London every other year to visit the city and catch a game at Stamford Bridge. Those early Chelsea days she was still a new fan enthralled by the atmosphere at the stadium, but probably didn’t appreciate it as much living in London at the time. It was a return trip that sealed her connection to the team. 

“What was much more emotional for me was the first time I went back to a match in London after I moved back to America,” Kasic said. “It sounds so sappy, but when The Liquidator started, which is one of the songs they always play before kickoff, I started to cry. I was like what am I doing, I’m crying over a song at a sports stadium? But the whole atmosphere is really overwhelming in a good way when you care that much about it.” 

But for now next year’s trip to Stamford Bridge is on hold. There’s too much uncertainty in the world to plan that far into the future. Kasic is just hoping life returns to some sort of normalcy soon and maybe the Premier League will be back this summer for its final nine games. Chelsea, with a young team, sits a surprising fourth in the standings and has a great shot at making the Champions League next season. 

But if this goes on much longer, Kasic laughs, she might even start to miss the Arsenal fans who have their own game watches at The Four Courts. OK. Let’s not get crazy. A rival is still a rival. But devotion to a team is something we all share. Hopefully, that bond is renewed soon.    

“I miss the people at least as much as the actual sport – probably more,” Kasic said. “Even if I’m traveling for work and go to a different city and catch a match with the local supporters’ club somewhere else. It’s a unique segment of American sports fans that we’re purposely waking up early in the morning to watch a sport played in another country. You have common interest with these folks and I’m used to seeing them every week. And for the last couple of weeks our pub hasn’t even been open [inside]. You miss the staff, too. It’s just a big part of our community.”

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Christian Pulisic gets an 'incomplete' in first English Premier League season with Chelsea

Christian Pulisic gets an 'incomplete' in first English Premier League season with Chelsea

Weekend mornings haven’t been the same since the English Premier League paused its season. The hope is the EPL is back on NBC sometime soon. Until then, NBC Sports Washington is devoting a week of stories to each of the Big 6 clubs in England: Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. Because we miss the Premier League, too. 

Our first week begins with a look at surprising Chelsea and Christian Pulisic, the young American trying to find his place on one of the world’s biggest clubs. 

Christian Pulisic is back in London now waiting like the rest of us.

In his first season in England, Pulisic flashed some of the promise that at age 21 makes him the future of American soccer. But he is trying to do something no United States soccer player has ever done – succeed at one of the English Premier League’s biggest clubs. 

An adductor injury knocked Pulisic from the lineup in January. He appeared in 16 games with 12 starts before getting hurt. He also scored five goals – three of them in a remarkable game against Burnley – and had two assists. Time back home with his family in Hershey, Pa. allowed Pulisic time to heal, he told NBC’s Rebecca Lowe in an Inside the Mind interview last Thursday. But he’s back in the U.K. now waiting for word that training can begin again. 

“I’d say I’m fully recovered, ready to go as soon as we get back,” Pulisic said. “I’m really looking forward to that. I was back with the team in training just before this whole thing started.”

That was a frustrating pause to his season before the bigger pause in March thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Chelsea was a surprise before the 2019-20 season was halted. That sounds silly given the Blues won league titles in 2015 and 2017 and have finished outside the top five just twice in the past 16 seasons. 

But there was a fragility to Chelsea, which has been hampered by financial penalties, lost its top player (Eden Hazard) and is on a youth movement that includes Pulisic, whom it acquired from German side Borussia Dortmund last summer. 

The Blues placed 10th as recently as 2015-16, recovered to win the Premier League the next season and were fifth last year before suffering some summer defections. No one knew what to expect. But in his first year as head coach, Chelsea legend Frank Lampard had his team in fourth place with nine games to go. 

There are still nine games to go and no sign yet when the EPL will return as games have in Germany already. Pulisic has a renewed sense of patience. He tried to push through the adductor injury when it originally happened in December and ended up making things worse. 

“I wanted to continue to play at that level,” Pulisic told Lowe. “I was feeling confident, feeling great before the injury. That’s why it was really tough going through that. But it’s part of anyone’s career.”

Other Americans have starred in the Premier League. Goalies Tim Howard (Everton) and Brad Friedel (Leicester City) and Casey Keller (Leicester City, Tottenham) had long careers. Field players Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride spent years of their career at Fulham. 

But no one – not even Landon Donavan, who starred at a similarly young age but lost interest in playing in Europe and spent the majority of his career back home in MLS – has attempted what Pulisic is doing. His natural hat trick at Burnley in late October just a month after his 21st birthday made him the youngest to ever do that for the club. It’s been around since 1905. No Chelsea player had done it at all since Didier Drogba in 2010. 

“I’ll never forget coming home after that and sitting down and looking back on what just happened,” Pulisic said. “I was so proud and being able to talk to my family back home. Just scoring and helping the team win and having a great game, there’s no better feeling.”

Chelsea technically remains alive in the Champions’ League, too – though down 3-0 after a home loss to Bayern Munich in the round of 16 just before the virus halted play across Europe and with a road game to come. 

But whether Pulisic gets a chance to force his way back into the lineup this year or must wait until the summer, at best, remains to be seen. There’s no easy way to grade his rookie campaign in England.   

“The word will be ‘inconclusive,’” NBC soccer analyst Robbie Mustoe said last month on an edition of the Two Robbies podcast with fellow analyst Robbie Earle. “We have an inclusive report right now. He scored five goals – three of those is in one game. There’s been flashes of his brilliance that has wowed people at Chelsea. I would argue that we didn’t see it enough.”

Hard to dispute. Even Pulisic would agree. He is also entering a critical part of his career. The United States is desperate to qualify for the 2022 World Cup after a disastrous loss last cycle left Pulisic in tears on a field in Trinidad and kept the Americans out. The U.S. Soccer Federation can’t afford another setback and Pulisic is at the center of those efforts. 

Meanwhile, he also has to show he can play at a club with Chelsea’s ambitions. All due respect to American greats before him, especially Dempsey and McBride. But Fulham’s stadium, Craven Cottage, on the banks of the River Thames, is a 1.5-mile walk to Chelsea’s home ground at Stamford Bridge and it might as well be 1,000. Their goals are not the same. 

Fulham had some nice years in the Premier League with Dempsey, especially, helping them to three top-10 finishes. But it has since slipped a level down to the English Championship League. Pulisic’s aim is so much higher. American soccer hopes for him are so much higher.  

“This is Chelsea,” Mustoe said. “This isn’t a mid-table team that can be OK with a technical player doing things now and again. This has to be all the time. We’ve seen it at times, but we’ve got to see more. More personality. And that will come with time and will come with confidence. But it’s been frustrating for him.”

Chelsea also means competition. Pulisic is 21. But he is surrounded by young talent. English midfielder Mason Mount is also 21 and has started 25 games this season. Scottish midfielder Billy Gilmour, just 18, was called up to the big club in February. English forward Callum Hudson-Odoi is 19 and appeared in 17 games. Tammy Abraham looks like Chelsea’s striker of the future with 13 goals at age 22. The team has already signed Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech, 26, for next season. Playing time must be earned. 

“The Premier League was everything I hoped it’d be and more. The amount of games and everything that goes on, it’s a lot to take in, especially first year,” Pulisic said. “Getting used to it and used to the schedule. There’s pressures there, but I’m enjoying the ride so much. One of the most competitive leagues in the world, if not the best. I’ve learned so much this first year. I’m looking forward to getting back to it.” 

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