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Flash fined, but questions remain in NWSL's small-field fiasco

ISI Photos-Roy Miller

Jeff Kassouf speaks exclusively with NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, who says something like the Rochester, N.Y., field fiasco "won't happen again."

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One week later, the fallout came for the use of a small field in the Western New York Flash’s match against Seattle Reign FC in Rochester, N.Y., last Saturday, an incident which drew unwanted international headlines for the National Women’s Soccer League.

Plenty of questions remain, however.

Western New York hasbeen fined a “significant amount” for the club’s role in the situation, the league announced Friday evening. The Flash and visiting Seattle Reign FC played on a field estimated to be 58 yards wide and 100 yards long, just within FIFA’s minimum standards of 50x100 but smaller than the National Women’s Soccer League’s minimum standards of 70 yards wide and 110 yards long. NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, under the impression from communications from the Flash that the playing surface would be 61 yards wide by 110 yards long, had granted an exemption – believed to be the first in league history – for the match to be played.

In an exclusive interview with FourFourTwo on Friday, Plush was profusely apologetic  for last week’s Frontier Field fiasco, choosing not to point fingers, but to take responsibility and learn from it moving forward.

“We didn’t execute appropriately,” he said. “Good intentions did not materialize. We’re going to own that and it won’t happen again.”

Plush said he was at the United States women’s national team’s match against South Africa, in Chicago, where the NWSL and U.S. Soccer offices are based, when he first received word of the field issues in Rochester. Among the issues were areas of the pitch which needed more sod or re-painting. The referees then deemed the field compliant and safe, and the match moved forward.

“Unequivocally it was safe,” he said. “It was compliant; it was far from perfect.”

How the situation got to that point remains the mystery. Western New York Flash team owner Joe Sahlen and his daughter, Alex, who is the team president, released a joint statement apologizing for “a lack of oversight” in preparing the field for competition and for “tarnishing [the league’s] reputation.”

Reached for comment Friday, Flash general manager Rich Randall said the club would have no further comment.

That leaves many questions unanswered, including which other venues in Rochester – and beyond – were explored as alternative places to play. Rochester is home to several universities with smaller soccer-specific stadiums. The USL’s Rochester Rhinos played at home the following day; the idea of a doubleheader was explored, Plush said, but he did not go into detail.

And also left unanswered is why it took so long to secure the alternative venue of Frontier Field. The Rochester Summerfest concert which occupied Rhinos Stadium on July 8 was announced on March 30. The Flash announced on June 24 that the match would be relocated to Frontier Field. Accounts from all parties, including Reign FC coach Laura Harvey’s statement on Twitter last week, suggest that the scheduling conflict was raised in May. Plush repeatedly declined to comment on the particulars of the timeline leading into the change of venue and why action wasn’t taken earlier, instead taking responsibility for the ultimate wrong, which was that the field was too small for a world-class, professional women’s soccer league.

“To me it’s about what we did on Saturday night, what the lessons learned are from that and how we move forward,” Plush said. “I’m most focused on making sure that we don’t put ourselves in that position again.”

Too caught up in history?

The appeal of Frontier Field, located a few blocks from Rhinos Stadium and home of the Rhinos before their stadium (previously Sahlen’s Stadium) opened in 2006, certainly factored into the Flash’s push to play there. Mia Hamm scored her 100th international goal there in 1998. The U.S. women drew the largest-ever crowd there on their 2004 Olympic gold-medal victory tour.

Randall spoke last week about how the match could “bring back a lot of the great memories people have from the mid-nineties.”

Western New York, whose average attendance of 3,481 fans is up from last year’s 2,860, is a team still trying to find traction within its market. Gone are the days of 10,000-plus crowds with Alex Morgan and Marta anchoring the franchise. The Flash and the league hoped playing at Frontier Field would excite fans.

“There was a lot of feeling that it was going to be a cool event,” Plush said. “Yes, nostalgia, and looking backwards at some of the Rhinos great history there; Mia all those things. A great location. There were thoughts that it would just be an event that people were excited about.”

“The motivation was trying to collaborate as a partnership,” Plush continued, speaking about the Flash, Reign and league agreeing to make the date work. “We’re all in this together trying really hard to do good things and move things forward and be proud of the product we put out there. We do that 99 percent of the time and we have to do 100% of the time. We learn from that.”

Plush said there will not be any field exemptions issued going forward, and that the league needs to be “laser-focused.”

He spoke of having “a responsibility to the players to never do this again.” Plush added that his investigation took so long as a matter of being diligent.

U.S. women’s national team and Seattle Reign FC star Megan Rapinoe – who was with the U.S. on Saturday and not in Rochester – publicly rejected Plush’s initial apology, which was issued in the hours following last Saturday’s match. U.S. and Seattle teammate Hope Solo, who was also in Chicago for the U.S.-South Africa match, wrote a blog post this week detailing several transgressions with the league.

Asked if he spoke with Rapinoe or Solo about those public comments, Plush said:

“Nothing to comment directly other than to say ‘thank  you for the feedback.’ We know that it wasn’t good enough. We have to make it better. Bottom line. The good news in this is that I have every confidence that we want the same thing. We have the opportunity to sit in the unique position, I very much view that we work for the players and the fans, which makes it that much harder because we let them down.”

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Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.