Seattle Reign FC trip to Japan indicative of global ambition

Liviu Bird February 14, 2013 31

A Japanese promotional poster for Seattle Reign FC's "dream match" against L. League powerhouse INAC Kobe Leonessa. (Source: Reign FC Facebook page)

SEATTLE — While the United States often sits atop the FIFA World Rankings, American club teams often do not enter into the conversation of the world’s best. Seattle Reign FC, a first-year NWSL club, wants to change that, beginning with a trip to Okinawa, Fukuoka and Tokyo, Japan, next month.

“We’re definitely excited. It’s a really good opportunity for our team to play against one of the world’s best club teams,” general manager Amy Carnell said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Reign FC leaves Seattle on March 12 and returns nearly two weeks later, on March 25, playing matches against defending L. League champion INAC Kobe Leonessa, Fukuoka J. Anclas and a third opponent to be determined.

The trip is part of Seattle’s drive to be considered the world’s best club, a platform officials are not shy about endorsing. It could also serve as a launching point for a partnership between Reign FC and Japanese powerhouse INAC Kobe Leonessa.

INAC boasts 2011 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year Homare Sawa on its roster, as well as six other Japanese players who were on the nation’s 2012 Olympic team. American midfielders Rebecca Moros and Beverly Goebel-Yanez also play for the club, which finished the 2012 season with 17 wins, zero losses, one tie and a plus-57 goal difference.

Founded in 2001, INAC won the last two Nadeshiko League Division 1 championships.

“I think what we’re working toward is kind of a long-term partnership. Nothing is done; it’s just a great way to start,” Carnell said. “Maybe in the future, they would return the favor and come play us (in Seattle).”

Both clubs will hope their national team players return from the Algarve Cup able to participate. That tournament runs from March 6 to 13 in Portugal, with all teams guaranteed to play on the final day.

Besides INAC’s Japanese contingent, Reign FC has Hope Solo on the American squad and Welsh captain Jess Fishlock in Portugal. Canadians Kaylyn Kyle and Emily Zurrer will be at the Cyprus Cup, which ends a day later, and all teams are guaranteed to play that day as well.

Currently, no NWSL team has a working partnership with a club abroad, but another club in the league does have a history of foreign partnerships and success spreading its brand overseas.

Sky Blue FC paired with Swedish Damallsvenskan team LdB FC Malmö in 2011, resulting in one player loan, but WPS folded before the partnership could really take off.

“Conceptually, it’s an idea of sharing players and resources and even a coaching exchange. There’s plenty of areas where you can partner and affiliate,” Sky Blue head coach Jim Gabarra said. “Sky Blue is a brand that we’ve tried to spread globally a little bit for the last three or four years.”

The New Jersey club went on a preseason trip to Turkey in 2011, losing 1-0 to Malmö in the final of the Alanya International Women’s Tournament of Champions. A year later, Sky Blue went on a trip to Japan similar to Reign FC’s, which was supposed to be another preseason trip but changed slightly after WPS canceled its 2012 season.

Sky Blue’s travel roster combined would-be Sky Blue and Western New York Flash players. The makeshift squad lost two games against INAC, 2-1 and 3-0.

“It’s a good trip, and we were treated very professionally and really enjoyed it. It was great to play against one of the best club teams in the world,” Gabarra said. “We basically just pulled together a team out of thin air and had like two days of training and played them twice. We did pretty well. We had five of our players train with them, and two were offered contracts.”

Those two players, Moros and Goebel-Yanez, are entering the second year of their respective deals. Like Sky Blue, Seattle sees more than just good competition and team building in its trip to Japan.

“We are an ambitious club, and I want us to at least look at doing things that, for whatever reason, may have not been done before,” Reign FC owner Bill Predmore said.

That includes preseason tours, the likes of which are common among professional men’s teams but would cripple most women’s teams’ considerably smaller budgets. Neither Predmore nor Carnell gave exact cost figures, but they saw it as the least important aspect of the trip.

“The organizers of the tour have been helpful in keeping our cost in this as low as possible, so that’s certainly making it a more affordable trip for us. I think probably the bigger cost for us is just (that) it takes a lot of time to organize,” Predmore said. “Probably our biggest investment is one of time as opposed to money, or at least the more important investment is one of time than money.”

If that sounds like something a Los Angeles Galaxy investor might say, Predmore was quick to assuage any notion that he plans to buy the inaugural NWSL championship.

“I don’t think that we’re going to be able to buy success, and that is not our strategy — it’s not to outspend the other clubs to try and become successful,” he said. “I think we’re trying to be smart around where we spend money and make investments where we think it’s going to make the team a more competitive club.

“So perhaps it’s nuanced, but we’re not trying to get in an arms race here with other clubs to see who can outspend the other one. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the players, it’s going to come down to the coaching, and I don’t think that the money is going to be the primary factor in success or failure in this (season).”

However, sending the team on such a trip — 13 days long, in a country nearly 5,000 miles away from home and 17 hours ahead of the Pacific time zone — is still an expensive endeavor, regardless of how much the tour organizers help.

Price tag notwithstanding, Predmore expected the trip would not have any effect on in-season logistics.

“Our expectation from a financial perspective is this is going to be of zero impact on the other things that we’re doing for the NWSL season,” he said. “So this is an investment of mostly time — some money — but we view it as probably all upside with limited risk.”

The club is clearly well funded, and the atmosphere surrounding it would appear to confirm that, from hiring head coach Laura Harvey away from one of the world’s top teams in Arsenal Ladies to Reign FC’s swanky downtown Seattle digs, housed in Predmore’s offices for his POP digital agency.

Having a deep wallet will help Reign FC’s ambition to compete with the world’s top clubs such as INAC, Arsenal and Lyon. Conversations with everybody in the club make that goal readily apparent.

“Ultimately, what I would like (is) I want the club to be recognized as one of the best in the world, understanding that that is a very long road to get there,” Predmore said. “It’s not going to happen next year; it probably won’t happen the year after that. But that’s the path that we’re on, and I think to get there, we’re going to have to start playing the clubs that are right now recognized as the best in the world.

“The match against INAC is going to be very difficult for us for any number of reasons, but I think it’s a good first test for us, and (it will) really show us where that bar is at and where we need to be, how good we need to be to be considered one of the best in the world. So I think ultimately, it will be a very good experience for us, and to the extent we can do more things like that in the future, we’re certainly going to do so.”

Notes:

  • Reign FC Japan tour match schedule: March 16, 7:30 p.m. PT, in Okinawa vs. INAC Kobe Leonessa; March 19 PT, in Fukuoka vs. Fukuoka J. Anclas; March 23 PT, in Tokyo vs. opponent TBD.
  • Reign FC is working on a way for fans to watch its match against INAC. “There’s a possibility of a lot of different things, but nothing confirmed yet,” general manager Carnell said. “There’s a possibility that we could stream it, or there’s a possibility that we could get it taped and then it could be something that we get on demand where people can watch.”
  • Carnell said Reign FC’s third match in Japan will be open to the media but closed to the public.
  • A total of 24 players will make the trip. They will be drawn both from Seattle’s current roster and from a group of invitees, including several possible Discovery Player signings. NWSL clubs may claim up to four Discovery Players each, and the club that submits player’s name first has the first option of signing her.
  • Carnell said Reign FC’s open tryouts would be held before the trip to Japan. She expected the club to make an announcement this week. Participants will not be eligible for the tour because of visa deadlines, “but it doesn’t mean that they can’t still make the team,” she said.


  • randomhookup

    And they will have had how many practices as a team before going overseas?

    • Steglitz49

      None. Who cares? Let them go and enjoy themselves! Their Japanese hostesses will look after them and show them a good time. Hopefully they will come home and have learnt how to make sushi or knit the Japanese way, and have won a match or two. Their task is to teach the Japanese the art of body-paint, which (certain) American players have taken to heart. Yeehaw!!

      • randomhookup

        But seriously… the best way to prepare for their first season as a team is to have their 1st real practices in Japan? It seems to be a bit of a risk, especially without an established team.

        • TsovLoj

          But I could see its value as a team building experience for them to be stuck with only each other in a foreign country. Besides, it’ll rev up the fans

          • randomhookup

            It is a lot of ask of a new team, especially in an org that’s only been together a few weeks. Lots of little things to make work while being a long way away from your home base. MLB teams have had problems after starting their seasons in Japan and these are mature, established teams. I would feel better if they had at least a week of preseason practice with the whole team before they head off.

            I’m sure they will be fine, but there are some elements to be concerned about when taking a big trip without any real preseason.

          • Steglitz49

            Kobe Leonessa are one of the best teams in the world. They are willing to play a newly formed team. The trip will have at least two other matches. This is one wonderful opportunity for serious practice matches.

            The young ladies will enjoy themselves and learn a lot. Their Japanese colleagues will be great hostesses. More power to their elbows.

          • http://www.phasedma.com Anthony

            I have to agree with randomhookup on this one. Even the Flash shouldn’t be doing this with a nearly 100% new roster, and they have proven they know how to organize a team on many different levels from scratch. The risks are not worth the rewards.

            But who knows. This could make the Reign that much better, but that doesn’t make it sensible when you account for the mess it could create.

          • randomhookup

            Thanks for the backup. I can imagine all the issues that come with a bunch of players, coaches & staff who are just getting to know each other trying to start something new in a foreign location. I hope at least the non-NT players can start preseason early. Otherwise, trying to hold your first practices (which are very much tryouts) in Japan is asking a lot. I wish them the best, though.

            I would be think it would make more sense to at least have 1 week on the ground in Japan & then play some friendlies.

          • Steglitz49

            Please. You are making too much of this. These young ladies are not being shipped over the Volga in the freezing cold to defend Stalingrad.

            They are going to a country which by all accounts have taken lady soccer players to heart. Their hosts will be gracious. The matches will be against tough opposition, for sure, but all the NWSL teams are good. Hopefully there will be people in the stands, though one match will not be open to the public which seems odd. The mind boggles. What will they get up to?

          • http://twitter.com/originalslicey Jessica Bridges

            I’m also curious about that “not open to the public” match. Why on earth would that be? It would make sense for the first match since Seattle won’t have had practice time, but for the last match it seems quite odd. Are they playing for Prime Minister, or something?

          • http://twitter.com/hercircumstance hercircumstance

            The Japanese team likely wants to work on some stuff outside of the public eye. When we do closed door matches on the NT level you often see players who don’t normally play get some time. It can get ugly playing so many kids and they can do that without losing face. Coaches can make corrections. Unlike the men side women do this for reasons besides hostile crowds. It might be a money thing too. It costs less not to have to deal with some venue things.

          • Steglitz49

            Please do not tell anyone, but they are going to test playing in body-paint. It will stop shirt pulling and bring in the sad middle-aged men who have cash to spare.

          • Steglitz49

            “The risks are not worth the rewards”, you type. What risks? Because there is no relegation from the NWSL, coming 2nd or last is all the same: losing.

            The quality of all the NWSL teams is great. You need like teams to practice against. Here is an opportunity. Grab it.

            Football is the world sport and football is part of the entertainment industry. Who are the sponsors in Japan putting up (some of) the lolly?

          • http://www.phasedma.com Anthony

            That’s fair.

          • randomhookup

            Risks = frustration with the new organization, injuries because you rushed into games without a real training camp, getting embarrassed by your opponent, team distraction by being overseas, players not getting a fair evaluation because of the circumstances. Ultimately, not performing as well as you could because you put a major distraction at the start of your season.

            A week in country before playing games would be enough as a starting point. Building a team is a tenuous process & I think taking a brand new team overseas as part of a build up to a season isn’t the best idea. But obviously I know nothing about what the teams face in doing this.

            BTW, Americans don’t think in terms of relegation, so coming in 2nd isn’t a bad finish & it’s better than coming in last.

          • Steglitz49

            What is the overall goal of the NWSL? To make it possible for the USWNT to win the next World cup.

            What is the immediate goal? To create a financially viable pro-soccer league for ladies. This trip to Japan will help with the PR.

            – “BTW, Americans don’t think in terms of relegation, so coming in 2nd isn’t a bad finish & it’s better than coming in last.”

            Maybe it is time to think along new tracks and curves? The Americans treat this game differently from the rest of the world. This is not surprising, since many Americans seem to think they invented it 25 years ago. The rest of the soccer playing countries play a league and a domestic challenge cup. In Europe there is also the CL, which essentially is an inter-country play-off, based on the results of the previous season (ie old Europe’s soccer has copied US sports).

            Maybe it is just possible that the old-guard soccer-countries found the key to the golden door without being kicked in their eyes by a broody camel? Why is it so difficult for the USA to contemplate this version, at least for the ladies, where the USA is one of the top dogs? Obviously it can’t be tested immediately, but why not at least try it?

        • http://twitter.com/hercircumstance hercircumstance

          It’s just some preseason games. Other teams will be having them against whoever they can muster only domestically. They’ll still be practicing. Team bonding on the road can be good. Player reactions on twitter seem very positive.

          Besides, the league thought it would be great for them to be on an away stretch for all of April. So even the league thinks it is no big deal for a new team to be in a situation away from the home field that long. They’ll be used to being on the road together before then.

          • Steglitz49

            This is a capital idea. Our friend worries too much. A team cannot be relegated from the NWSL so coming 2nd or last amounts to the same thing: losing.

            The NWSL teams are of the highest caliber. Thus, finding adequate teams to practice against is not easy. Part of Japan is in a warm zone, so playing the matches there is OK, a bit like playing in Florida or Texas rather than the Yukon or Alaska.

            The Reign players will have a whale of a time. A life-time experience. Let them enjoy themselves.

          • randomhookup

            It can be great, but I think a new org should think twice about basically moving training camp overseas. If the league lets them get an early start that will help. I hope it goes swimmingly, but I wouldn’t want to be the one in charge.

  • TsovLoj

    >Carnell said Reign FC’s open tryouts would be held before the trip to Japan. She expected the club to make an announcement this week. Participants will not be eligible for the tour because of visa deadlines, “but it doesn’t mean that they can’t still make the team,” she said

    Don’t Americans not need a visa to go to Japan?

    • Steglitz49

      Maybe it is the applications for their Visa-cards that won’t get processed in time? Maybe the Reign are about to sign some talented players from somewhere or other that Japan need visas for?

      Does it matter? Let them go, play great football and come home energized! They tell me that the Japanese quilting tradition is very different from the American one. Soccer quilts, here we go; a new facet of human relationships.

    • randomhookup

      They aren’t going as tourists. They have to have the appropriate visa, same as any pro team that comes to the US.

  • http://twitter.com/hercircumstance hercircumstance

    It would be great if INAC could come to to Seattle an play a game too. Maybe play Portland as well since it is in the area and would make their trip more worthwhile. Maybe KC could swing it too. I thought when the USWNT went on that good will tour/ Kirin Cup last spring it would be great if it could happen in the reverse. This isn’t at that scale, but it would be nice in the future. If US sponsors should step up.

    I know everyone likes to pearl clutch about costs for some reason, but it looks like they have Japanese sponsors and the owner has enough business sense to know what is feasible or not. Japan has hosted American teams before and seem to get it right. Enough that a couple US players had such a good experience they decided to sign over there. So let’s enjoy a good thing for what it is. Seattle has been doing everything within their power right so far from their coach hire to marketing to signing some interesting free agents. This seems like another positive move.

    • Steglitz49

      As you type, as long as someone pays, no doubt Kobe would come and play in the Pacific north-west or anywhere else for that matter.

      This trip gives Japanese supporters of ladies’ football a chance to see and the Japanese players a chance to play against top players. Their sponsors are willing to subsidize it, at least partly.

      The Japanese people seem to have embraced and taken their lady footballers to heart. Judging by the sports-links on American mainstream media, America, in Rhett Buttler’s words, do not seem to give a fig.

      • http://www.phasedma.com Anthony

        Do you think that Japan’s embrasement of soccer is short term or long term? The United States is capable of short term support at the largest levels. The problem is getting that support to last long term at decent levels.

        • Steglitz49

          The Japanese lady footballers, who are the reigning World Champions, are paid very poorly. Allegedly they earn about 1/10th of the senior male players (who have achieved nothing of note) and 1/3rd of what the U-23 men earn. The ladies travel economy while the men fly business class.

          When they became World Champs it was the Kirin brewery who stepped in and paid the ladies bonuses (ca $10,000 per player) the Japanese FA not having any plans (maybe $250 was planned). Let Budweiser sponsor the NWSL?

          The top Japanese ladies play abroad and are encouraged to do so even when young. For example, Sawa and Miyama played professionally in USA, Kumagai was 20 when she joined Frankfurt and Ogimi 23 at Potsdam. Sasaki is taking a lot of the European based players to Algarve, while in USA it has been a disadvantage to have a yen for the foreign €uro or krona.

          Women’s soccer is an artificial sport in that it is heavily subsidized in all countries. In Japan it is private individuals and some companies who pump in money. Family Mart, who sponsors this little tournament, is a convenience grocery chain. Let Wall-Mart or Stop & Shop sponsor the NWSL. Maybe the NRA?

          If the NWSL can figure out how to run a ladies league and teams with a profit, then USA will make yet another huge contribution to women’s soccer. That is the task of marketers and salesteams. Ordinary people can help by bringing their friends to the matches. Women’s soccer would not have the status it has and be where it is today, had it not been because of the USA. Why the American people do not care about soccer given how many girls (and boys) play the sport is indeed the 64,000 dollar question.

  • TsovLoj

    Am I the only one who’s more intrigued by the Fukuoka match than the Kobe one? That’s going to be a much more even fight.

    • Steglitz49

      Please tell us about Fukuoka. We are ignorant.

      • TsovLoj

        Well, mostly I just mean that without Seattle’s allocated stars INAC’s going to stomp the Reign. Fukuoka’s a more low to mid table Japanese team and it might not be such a massacre.

        • Steglitz49

          Firstly, the Reign might well surprise us against Kobe. Fukuoka is quite a lot weaker I think so the Reign should trounce them. Either way, we will soon find out but first there is the Algarve, Cyprus and Manga cups to enjoy.

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