Commentary

Alohagate, U.S. Soccer's black eye and just what is its mission?

U.S. Soccer's Victory Tour, intended to celebrate the 2015 Women's World Cup championship, blew up in its face when Sunday's game against Trinidad & Tobago at Honolulu's Aloha Stadium was canceled. Millions of Americans will remember soccer in 2015 for the U.S. women's thrilling run to the world title in Canada, but for thousands of Hawaiians waiting for the first international match on the islands, soccer in 2015 will be remembered for Alohagate.

They woke up on Sunday morning to discover that U.S. Soccer had overnight pulled the plug on the game. Ticket refunds would be issued, but fans who had traveled from other islands to Oahu for the game were stuck. "They've been saving for this and all of the parents agreed this was their Christmas present," Big Island fan Jesse Kerr said of the group of seven fans who were out thousands of dollars in air fare and hotel expenses. A local Soccer Locker store ordered $6,000 in official jerseys for fans to wear to the match. Some supporters wanted refunds. "We're going to get stuck with probably half of that," said store owner Bob Picerno.

The U.S. women refused to play on Aloha Stadium's artificial turf. The same turf that was acceptable sight unseen when U.S. Soccer contracted with the Aloha Stadium and that was deemed playable when it was inspected on Thursday was abandoned after a 30-minute training session on Saturday, “unfit, unsafe and unplayable,” U.S. Soccer counsel Lisa Levine said in a letter being reviewed by the Hawaii Attorney's General office.

"There were sharp rocks ingrained all over the field," the players explained in a post at the Players' Tribune. "They were everywhere. The artificial turf was actually pulling up out of the ground, and the turf itself was both low-grade and aging. This was a playing surface that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in years."

“Absolutely a black eye for this organization" is the way U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati described the debacle to the New York Times' Sam Borden.

U.S. Soccer has previously organized other victory tours for the women -- winners of three World Cup titles and three Olympic gold medals in only a quarter century of international women's soccer -- but nothing as ambitious as the 2015 Victory Tour -- 10 games in 10 cities over five months -- and it messed up badly in Honolulu, failing to send someone to properly access field conditions before it signed a stadium contract.

What was the purpose of the Victory Tour? In their post at the Players' Tribune, USWNT players opened: "The Victory Tour was set up to celebrate winning a tournament -- but it was also set up to celebrate being the best in the world. And when we say 'being the best in the world,' we don’t mean our team. We mean our fans." A celebration of a team and its fans, yes, but also a farewell for its retiring stars, Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny.

One could question the sporting purpose of the Victory Tour -- Haiti sent a team of teenagers, T&T is a national team in disarray -- but at least Coach Jill Ellis could start the U.S. buildup to the 2016 Olympic title defense by introducing players like Crystal Dunn back into the team and other younger players like collegians Emily Sonnett and Rose Lavelle into the group.

But the Victory Tour was also a money maker, a big money maker for the U.S. Soccer and the players. In addition to their salaries and bonuses, the Chicago Tribune reported that the players share $1.20 per ticket sold on the tour. Attendance for the first six games totaled 191,304 fans, so that's almost $230,000 for the players. Advance ticket sales for Sunday's game were reported to be about half of the average for the first six games, but U.S. Soccer was going to come out of the deal in fine shape. The stadium contract called for U.S. Soccer to keep all ticket revenues and pay no rent. The Aloha Stadium authority could keep parking and concessions.

Alohagate again raised the question of why U.S. Soccer uses stadiums with artificial turf -- since the tour opener in Pittsburgh, every game has been played on turf -- but also why until Saturday did the players, so vocal in their criticism of the artificial turf at the Women's World Cup in Canada, not raise a bigger stink about artificial turf on home soil during the current tour.

But the Victory Tour also raises the question of what is the mission of U.S. Soccer. Is it to develop winning national teams? To promote soccer? To manage events? To make money? If U.S. Soccer is in the event business, it failed its players and fans in Honolulu.

“We had a series of mistakes involving this game,” Gulati told the New York Times. “We screwed up. It won’t happen again.”

It better not. U.S. Soccer has three women's games scheduled in December and more women's matches before and after next year's Olympics.

U.S. Soccer is getting into the event business in a big way with the organization of the 2016 Copa Centenario. Its condition for remaining as host federation, following the FIFA arrests of last May, was that scandal-ridden Concacaf and Conmebol get out of the way and let it run the show. That means putting on more than 30 games over three weeks at 10 NFL-sized stadiums, four with artificial turf that will have to be covered over.

The bosses at Concacaf and Conmebol conceived the Copa Centenario as a way to line their pockets to the tune of $35 million in bribes. For U.S. Soccer, the tournament was viewed as a showcase of its ability to host a major event ahead of the bidding for the 2026 World Cup host rights.

After Alohagate, the Copa Centenario will be a chance to erase the black eye U.S. Soccer has.
13 comments about "Alohagate, U.S. Soccer's black eye and just what is its mission?".
  1. Allan Lindh, December 8, 2015 at 11:06 p.m.

    Doesn't even mention that Megan Rapinoe blew out a knee in a short training session on the field. Turf fields are no place to play the beautiful game. Old chewed up astro-turf fields are much worse. US Soccer will grow up when they refuse to have any National Team games, senior, junior, men or women on crappy hard plastic fields. And now it turns out that those ugly little black pellets are chewed up rubber tires, and may be carcinogenic. Gulati isn't up to the job.

  2. Kevin Johnson replied, December 9, 2015 at 4:38 a.m.

    Megan Rapine tore her ACL on a GRASS practice field at the University of Hawaii the day before this team practice at Aloha Stadium. The UH team, as well as thousands of junior players, have practiced and had clinics on the UH field without incident, so Megan's was not indicative of either the Aloha Stadium turf surface or the UH grass field.

  3. ThaRef ., December 8, 2015 at 11:12 p.m.

    Point of clarification - I BELIEVE based on other reports that Rapinoe's injury came at another field at U-Hawaii - actually grass.

    I agree that artificial turf is a farce at the World Cup level - and so should never have been used in Canada. Not practical to prohibit ALL internationals on turf including these friendlies. But quality control is a reasonable expectation and Aloha should never have been used.

    I hope Mr. Chan's phone was ringing off the hook today from Field Turf and their competitors.

  4. Wooden Ships, December 8, 2015 at 11:40 p.m.

    Disagree with not practical ThaRef. Just stop using them and presto it goes back to grass. Even some of my NFL acquaintances hate the stuff. Our consumer driven culture has bought this technology hook, line and stinker.

  5. R2 Dad, December 9, 2015 at 12:16 a.m.

    Turf technology has made vast improvements since it came out, and turf is required for youth soccer because there is no rest/rotation required like a grass field, no gopher holes and very little maintenance. Yes there are mostly little black rubber pellets used as fill for the majority of applications, but the new fields have more environmentally sensitive materials like coconut fibers that give a better playing surface as well. For competitive adult matches grass is the only way to go, but only when you can rest the sod between matches. Most youth leagues are characterized by intense usage for 15 weeks in a row, too intensive for the rest sod requires.

  6. Wooden Ships replied, December 9, 2015 at 8:41 a.m.

    R2 Dad, the assertion that turf is the only alternative for youth due to volume of useage has lead to the carpeting of our metropolitan areas. There are still many soccer playing parks/areas where grass is still king. Yes, on occasion the fields get tired and those pesky varmints appear. Those inconveniences make for mentally tougher and more physically resilient players.
    During my college coaching days, the scouting of players was much more revealing/effective when evaluating on grass fields with their natural flaws then seeing games on pristine (tongue in cheek) turf. With properly graded grass fields they hold up well. It would also be nice to mix in hard surface futsal, in the same parks, to offset usage and guarantee better skill development. As a humorous, perhaps not, side note its only a matter if time that we will learn that cocunut fibers are similar to asbestos fibers or that the cocunuts will fall victim to disease and seriously effect supply. The days of shaving legs and using baby oil to prevent skin abrasions needs to be a thing of the past. With the best turf going, did you see the consequences on the body after Canada's Cup. The USSF should give a time when all fields need to be converted back to grass. Believe me, the clubs can afford it.

  7. Kevin Johnson, December 9, 2015 at 4:47 a.m.

    I have long supported the USWNT in their efforts to gain equal playing surface quality as the men, namely grass fields (although many of the "grass" fields my daughters play on here in Hawaii are arguably not grass, but weed-covered baked clay). But this Hawaii debacle is not a simple issue of the playing surface being unplayable. I attended a game several years ago with the LA Galaxy and David Beckham at Aloha Stadium, and he, and the rest of the team, played beautifully without injury or incident. This current case is a long-standing conflict between USWNT and US Soccer Federation and FIFA, but it was played out and came to a disastrous head in Hawaii, a most unworthy victim, as a place that has never had a visit from a National Team and is more isolated than any other venus in the US. Why here? Why now? It was a huge expense to bring the teams (Trinidad and Tobago came too, and they are probably not amused) and a monumental disappointment to thousands of fans in Hawaii. US Soccer has a lot of patching up to do with its players and its fans.

  8. Lonaka K, December 9, 2015 at 7:40 a.m.

    Allan you should have your facts about Rapinoe, before making a statement that the "turf" cause her injury. Glad to see Gulati taking responsibility. However, it sure appears that US Soccer is more in the business of making money than to develop quality soccer players.

  9. Joey Tremone, December 9, 2015 at 8:58 a.m.

    Turf vs Grass is an over-simplification that skirts the thornier, more subjective issue of turf quality and maintenance. There are grass fields that are certainly dangerous and unplayable (the Dallas Burn's Alain Sutter got a career-ending injury caused by a sub-standard grass training field), and there are artificial turf fields that are perfectly safe.

    Aloha Stadium has had a bad reputation for some time, but it is notable that as Kevin Johnson pointed out, that David Beckham, who skipped many an artificial turf game in his MLS career, played on it.

  10. Wolfgang Woischke, December 9, 2015 at 11:04 a.m.

    I think the Men's National Team would have played......"for the love of the game"

  11. joe gschwind, December 9, 2015 at 11:57 a.m.

    If the Superbowl was coming to town, I'm sure they were planning on putting down new turf for them and decided to just let the old worn surface go, and stopped maintaining it because it would be gone anyway before Superbowl. Trying to save some Money is my guess! Didn't work though!!!

  12. beautiful game, December 9, 2015 at 12:42 p.m.

    This victory tour is nonsense. It's only for the money-makers, and the quality of the opposition is not worth the price of admission, travel, and hassle.

  13. Glenn Maddock, December 9, 2015 at 6:02 p.m.

    US Soccer knew the condition of the field when they booked the match. They have inspectors check it out before they sign the contract. Just like the turf fields the are playing on at Alamodome and Superdome. Anyone who follows college football know the condition of that field. It should not have been a surprise to players or anyone. Do your homework.

    Another issue is turf field for soccer at all. We have 4 MLS teams that play on turf. Most high school soccer players are learning the game playing on turf fields. Even though its bad for soccer, most communities want multipurpose stadiums with turf fields.

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