Sunday, 10 January 2010

Atlanta Beat, or Umeåtlanta Beatrottsklub?

After enduring what is (I hope) the last weekend of postponed matches here in England, it is getting harder to find things about Bath City to write about. Fortunately the news coming from my home town, Atlanta, Georgia, is getting downright exciting. The Atlanta Beat have been announcing signings on an almost daily basis. Everything is pointing to the new team having a very impressive roster come Spring. Rather than discuss all of them, though, I'm going to take a closer look at three of the most impressive signings: Ramona Bachmann, Mami Yamaguchi, and Johanna Rasmussen.

If you've really been paying attention to my previous posts about the Beat, you will remember that these three players had been until recently contracted to the Swedish powerhouse Umeå Idrottsklubb (or Umeå IK for short). As well as being the first word I have ever typed using the letter 'å,' Umeå IK is also one of the most successful clubs in the history of women's football. Despite the Swedish league (the Damallsvenskan) being the strongest in Europe, Umeå IK have taken the title in seven of the last ten years. Over the same period they have made five appearances in UEFA Champions League finals, winning two. To put it in perspective, no European men's team has achieved comparable figures (although Manchester United and Barcelona have come close).

The fact that Umeå IK have been such a dominant force in women's football for so long makes the Beat's successful raid on three of their best players hard to figure out. I will admit, when I first saw the players the Beat had selected in the WPS International Draft I thought it looked wildly unrealistic. I thought it looked fairly arrogant as well. Why would three world-class players from an established football giant want to sign up to an unproven WPS expansion team? If it went wrong then Atlanta had a good chance of coming away from their international draft empty-handed - something they could hardly afford to do.

With hindsight it is apparent that the Beat's front office have been very astute (and perhaps a bit ruthless) with their draft picks. Although Umeå IK have been beating all comers for most of the last decade, things have not been going so well lately. The Brazilian superstar Marta left at the end of 2008 to play in the inaugural season of the WPS for the Los Angeles Sol. That was not good, but Marta's departure was overshadowed by enormous financial problems that almost killed off the club entirely.

Umeå IK's general manager, Britta Åkerlund, recently revealed how badly the situation had deteriorated in a recent press release:
'A few months into this job I realized that the club had lived beyond his means for a long time. Just in time for Christmas [2008], we had to choose who would receive pay and who should be without... The focus of my work since then has been much about economics, or rather the lack of finances...In September [2009] the economic troubles culminated when the whole club's existence was at stake.'
The last date is key, because right as Åkerlund was trying to keep her club afloat, Beat GM Shawn McGee and head coach Gareth O'Sullivan were finalising their International Draft strategy. Umeå IK were vulnerable, a fact that evidently escaped the attention of fellow expansion club the Piladelphia Independence.

Before you go feeling sorry for Umeå IK (and painting the Beat as international soccer bullies) it is important to consider a few facts: (1) Umeå IK were suffering from problems of their own making. Åkerlund admits, 'the club had lived beyond his means for a long time.' (2) Umeå IK is not a club that rose to the top of the football world by developing local players. None of the three players that have left the club to join the Beat are Swedish. (3) Umeå IK had also made themselves even more vulnerable by utilising short-term deals. When listing the long series of problems to beset her club in 2009, Åkerlund says, 'the one-year contracts also played a trick on us.' Add it all together and it seems pretty obvious that a mass player exodus was on the cards. McGee and O'Sullivan were just smart enough to figure this out before anyone else did.

All of this is a boon for the Beat, but it can't be forgotten that the result is that three players are now coming to join a new team in a new country. Danish international Johanna Rasmussen is a veteran player, and at 27 should be mentally strong enough to make the transition. Mami Yamaguchi, a Tokyo native, has a huge advantage as she had a stellar college playing career in America at Florida State. It is the teenage phenom Ramona Bachmann that will perhaps have the hardest time making the switch.

Although rated as one of the best players in the world, Bachmann only turned 19 last month. She has been playing in a foreign country for several years, but Georgia will undoubtedly be a bigger adjustment than Sweden was (no one eats grits in either Sweden or Switzerland). The Umeå IK website gives a touching account of her decision process. It appears in Swedish, but here is a translation:
Ever since it became known that the Atlanta Beat could "draft" her, Ramona said she wanted to play with the best players. She wants to be where she thinks she'll get the best chance of making progress towards her goal of becoming the world's best female footballer. At Umeå IK we have really done everything we could to persuade Ramona to stay with us. We have stressed that she would need some additional years to develop in a safe environment before she takes such a big step: not only changing her club, but also going to a new continent and culture.

It's been a long process for Ramona comin
g to this decision, and she has herself talked of her many tears and great distress. Up to the end of this season the United States was her preferred option, but then for a brief period favoured staying with Umeå IK. It was a personal visit to Atlanta with her dad, however, that finally persuaded Ramona that the U.S. would be the best option for her continued development.
Bachmann's desire to be the best in the world is a constant refrain in her media coverage. Part of what must have persuaded her to put pen to paper with the Beat was the club's slogan, 'the best in the world.' With every new signing this looks less and less like marketing hype. Don't believe me? In four days the WPS will hold its main draft and the Beat still hold the number one pick. Expect another marquee player to be joining the squad soon.

When I first read the announcement that Atlanta had been awarded a new franchise in the WPS I decided to follow it out of curiosity as much as anything else. I have always enjoyed sporting novelties, especially if they happen in my home town. Women's football had never really been on my radar screen. The more I learn about the Beat, though, the more I think that something special may be about to happen in Atlanta. So far there are only promises of good things to come, but as far as promises go these are very beguiling.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the background info. Expansion teams don't usually do very well their first season (MLS's Seattle team being a very rare exception), but Atlanta seems to be getting off on the right foot.