Revisiting ‘Enduring Spirit’

Enduring Spirit failed.

Not just because not many people read it and I lost money on it. I had another book, Single-Digit Soccer, that didn’t sell a lot, but I didn’t incur any real expenses — the cover photo was my kid’s untied shoe with the laces draped over a ball — and I had reasonable expectations. I also have reasonable expectations for my new mini-book, How the Hell Did I End Up Cageside?, which is just a fun look at how I ended up watching people kick, punch and choke each other.

For Enduring Spirit, I paid twice for the cover photo — once for the ebook, once for print. I also paid out of pocket for editing, and I racked up a lot of travel expenses. At least all of that was deductible.

But that’s not the main reason I call it a failure. Nor is the fact that, in the process of writing the book, I made a few enemies. More on that in a bit.

No, Enduring Spirit failed because I didn’t do what I set out to do.

The minimum salary in the first season of the NWSL was $6,000. (Granted, that’s infinity percent of my net proceeds on the book.) I figured I could get players to talk about the challenges of living on what was basically a stipend while they played professional soccer. For whatever reason, I never got much of a handle on that.

The players never seemed to mind my presence, but neither were they eager to share the tribulations they were willing to endure to chase their dreams. I was surprised at times how little interest they had in the fact that someone was writing a book about them. If I’d written about a men’s team, I think a lot of players would’ve been eager to chat me up, get a sense of what I was writing and give me good material for the book. (The only person who did that while I was writing this was Mark Parsons.)

So it didn’t deliver what I was hoping for, and it apparently didn’t deliver what many fans were hoping for. Readers raised complaints about a lack of insight / investigative skewering right away, to the point that I felt compelled to do a blog post in response. Some just wanted a bit more behind-the-scenes insight. Some wanted the pages to run red with the blood of owner Bill Lynch, general manager Chris Hummer and original coach Mike Jorden. The team only won three games, two of them near the end of the season after Jorden was replaced. But players weren’t confiding in me about some horrible secret I couldn’t see, and I doubt there’s anything scandalous beyond simply not doing that well.

In re-reading the book today, I realized one reason I might not have had more to tell. I was there for a practice just before the season opener, and players were a bit more candid during the session than in the midweek training. Lori Lindsey exploded at one point. Ashlyn Harris took issue with the height of the wall they were setting for free kicks — Diana Matheson (not tall) was giggling a little.

For the rest of the season, though, the Spirit laid down one rule: I was not to come to the final practice before a game. Who knows what else I missed?

The Spirit certainly whiffed a bit on free agents and discovery players. Aside from Chapman and eventually Toni Pressley, a good player upon whom the Spirit placed too many expectations, they had too many players who were young, local and overwhelmed. Aside from that, though, I didn’t have any dirt that people were seeking.

The front office’s personnel mistakes were compounded by some bad luck. Candace Chapman was a great defender who couldn’t get healthy, and she had plenty of company among the walking injured. The draft picks seemed pretty good with the available info at the time — if you’d told women’s soccer talent scouts that no one out of the trio of Tiffany McCarty, Caroline Miller and Stephanie Ochs would develop into a potent NWSL attacker, they would’ve scoffed.

But players loved the SoccerPlex, especially the majestic carpet of grass on which they played their games. I didn’t hear complaints about living arrangements. Putting Diana Matheson, Robyn Gayle and eventually Conny Pohlers in a retirement home was certainly unusual, but even a year later, Matheson seemed to have enjoyed it.

I did have one controversy to report, and unfortunately for a lot of fans, it wasn’t about the supposed evil overlords. It was the movement to have Ali Krieger’s father, Ken, to come out and “help” coach the team while Jorden was there. (Must be said, though, that Jorden missed some time with a back injury, so another coach wouldn’t have been a terrible idea — especially given German Peri’s frequent absences for reasons I still don’t understand.) As far as local coaches go, Ken Krieger had as good a resume as anyone — certainly a ton more experience than Parsons, who wound up taking over the team at an age when some people are still living in their parents’ basement but turned out to be such a good coach that the big-spending Thorns lured him away.

Which leads to one thing I hadn’t anticipated: The fan base was changing.

Sure, some fans have stuck around since Hamm, Foudy, Chastain and company introduced a lot of the country not just to women’s soccer but to soccer in general. But there’s also a new generation with different expectations. They’re more demanding. They’re not inclined to heed the counsel of people who experienced the Dark Ages. They’re more cynical. Whatever you write about Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger — good, bad or completely neutral — is going to make you a few best friends and a few sworn enemies.

Social media also has dramatically changed things. Amanda Vandervort’s effort to get WPS players on Twitter (Kati Jo Spisak!) has been superseded by players sharing much more of their lives on Instagram — and a lot of fans turning into voyeurs.

You can’t say these fans are worse than previous generations. They’re more devoted. That’s why the boom of 2019 looks stronger than the boom of 1999. Their passion may lead to a lack of perspective and some over-the-top vitriol, but that passion is going to make NWSL pretty strong whenever we can all venture out of our houses again. They’re not really looking for the amusing or mildly colorful anecdotes that I gathered over the course of the Spirit’s season.

And I think that’s fair. Some of the criticism was ridiculous. (“Fan fiction”? Really? What part of this was fiction?) But I really didn’t get much below the surface, scandalous or otherwise, and it’s frankly not my best writing. The game reports that I posted on my blog throughout the season were more entertaining and easier to read.

On Twitter and on my blog, I was accused of being too much of a Spirit apologist at times, and that’s understandable. Seeing a team train can skew someone’s perception of how good it is, and yes, some of the free agents and discovery players were expected to be much better than they were. But I still maintain that if any of the young attackers had panned out and Alina Garciamendez had some to Washington instead of Germany, the season would’ve been considerably better.

And yes — there was always at least one bad call per game involving Tori Huster. Ask anyone else who covered the team that year.

I’m more aggravated that more recent work of mine has been dismissed by large segments of the fan base and even fellow reporters — not just the bevy of younger reporters (some of them quite good) who’ve come from non-traditional backgrounds but also some people in the “mainstream” media. I’ve spent eons digging into financial documents, augmented with a couple of decades of experience and conversations with knowledgeable people, and I can tell you there are some dangers in the women’s team’s (and men’s team’s) pay demands. Someone has to stick up for future generations — it’s ironic that it’s the resident old guy in a women’s soccer community.

But I digress …

So is anything in Enduring Spirit worth reading? I think so …

  • Heather Cooke’s story, from The Real World to the Philippines
  • The aforementioned training session before the opening game
  • Chantel Jones on playing professionally in Iceland
  • Teresa “Lupita” Worbis adjusting to the U.S. at her first practice (and scoring both in practice and a game in front of her parents)
  • Players who turned up on trial
  • Mike Jorden’s insightful use of the word “lollygagging”
  • Several glimpses of the training methods of well-regarded goalkeeper coach Lloyd Yaxley (who, I just discovered, is now also coaching a high school team)
  • The mysterious Ingrid Wells waiver and pickup, which I still don’t understand to this day
  • The water balloon fight (some people found it frivolous, but I thought it was a good way to unwind after training)
  • Several takes on a couple of personnel changes
  • One of my favorite quotes, from Yaxley after being kept awake by some basketball players at the team hotel: “Why would anyone invent a sport so noisy?”
  • A look at the ridiculous postgame routine teams had to go through at Sky Blue

The other thing I noticed on re-reading: I had forgotten how long it took the team to turn around after the coaching change. Everyone loved Parsons from the get-go, and injuries didn’t help, but some of those games were as one-sided as you’ll see in an American professional league. The next year, when Parsons was able to make some personnel changes, the Spirit got a lot better.

And I found one reason why the book seems worse than it is. The last week or so just drags. I understand why I emphasized it so much — the team was finally winning, and it was my last chance to gather material — but that could’ve used some editing.

I’ve slashed the price to $2.99. Judge for yourself while you’re stuck at home.

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