WPSL Season Opens: A few words with Ajax America Coach Brian Boswell

The Women’s Premier Soccer League’s Pacific Conference opens this weekend including games in La Canada and at Nansen Field on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, one of the hidden gems of the South Bay and home to 2009 WPSL National Finalist Ajax America.

Ajax America Coach Brian Boswell, a two-time WPSL coach of the year and native of England who is an occasional contributor to this blog, spoke as his team begins their pursuit of a fifth consecutive Pacific Conference title at 2 p.m. Sunday against San Diego WFC at Nansen Field. (Admission by the way is usually free; a hat is generally passed around during the game to help the team offset expenses)

i-a8ecc32c512bbfa19cce58265988232b-brian.jpgQuestion: What’s the after effect locally of the folding of the LA Sol of Women’s Professional Soccer after just one year at Home Depot Center.
Answer: There’s still a definite sense of disappointment. For one year, it was great to see young girls with (the names of Brazilian star) Marta and (USWNT star Shannon) Boxx on the back of soccer shirts and now, it’s back to Beckham. It was a letdown for the families that supported the Sol but unfortunately, there were too few to keep it going another season.

(The team) just lost too much money to tempt in another owner. Will it resurrect? If they set the sights lower and play in a smaller, less-expensive stadium with a better atmosphere. A place like (Titan Stadium at) Cal State Fullerton would be ideal.

Also, do not sign a player of Marta’s stature and wages and then maybe, they could tempt an owner in. According to the WPS hierarchy, they have a couple of interested parties, so who knows?

The Southern California area deserves a women’s team, since so many girls are playing the game. I hope the WPS is working hard to tempt some more West Coast teams in as well. This would create better rivalries and would cut the travel costs a bunch. Unfortunately, there are too many things to do in this area other than go watch a soccer game.

Q: With your affiliate relationship now over with the Sol, what kind of recruiting, coaching and tactical approach are you taking with the team this summer?
A: Our approach is the same as usual. We have a great core and have added some very good players. Week to week, it was nice to have the Sol players, but not knowing who was going to be available to us always made it a bit of a challenge and a balancing act. Last year’s Sol players did a great job for us but through the course of a season, I prefer to have the same group of players playing for each other. It’s more of a team.

Coaching and tactics change a little each year as players come and go and our strengths change. Basically I ask the players to have fun, play hard and leave the rest to me. I understand that playing for Ajax is not the most important thing in their lives. It’s about the fun, the camaraderie and the stuff that happens off-the-field. All my players have lives to lead, careers to be made and at this point, soccer is a relief from the daily grind.

Q: How is the team looking for this summer’s campaign?
A: We are looking good and I’m very happy with our squad right now. We always try to keep a small squad, and my ideal roster is 20 players, while 15 at games is perfect. With that, everyone gets playing time and there are no disappointments. The players are here to play, not watch.

We have picked up some very good players for this year’s team. Our goalkeeper from a few years ago is back after three years in Italy – Anna Picarrelli of the Italian National Team. UCLA’s Jenna Belcher and Kylie Wright and Jess Menzhuber from St. Mary’s have joined us from West Coast F.C. Florida State’s All-American Leah Gallegos is on board while former USWNT member Keri Sanchez – who was with the Sol last year – is staying with us. Sarah McIsaac from UConn is signed as well.

Q: You’ve been with the WPSL since the first matches were played in the league more than ten years ago. What do you think of the league’s evolution into a 50-plus team national women’s soccer league.
A: The league through [WPSL Commissioner] Jerry Zanelli has definitely gained national recognition. Locally, our competition is very good but it always has been in the West. With the North and South Division format, there’s much less traveling now, which makes it much easier for us to continue. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the WPSL: good teams, good people and now that we are expanding, more good teams and more good people.

Q: What has been the secret to the success of Ajax success over the years?
A: It’s about finding the right mix of players – talented players who not only can play together but enjoy each other. It’s so important in the women’s game that the players get on well. It’s the biggest difference in men’s and women’s soccer. In the men’s game, it doesn’t matter if you are liked as long as you can do the job. They only need to like you as a player. The women need to like you not only as a player, but as a person. And it’s the same with the coaching – the women need to like you as a person and not just respect you as a coach.

Q: What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a soccer coach, both on and off the field?
A: The biggest lesson is that there are many things in life more important than soccer – both to the players and myself. I’ve learned to give it my best and make it the best experience I can for the players. I’ve learned to respect the players for who they are, the effort they put in and the work they have done over the years to achieve the level that they are at. I’ve learned that no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t always work, but as long as we put our best into it then we can walk away proud. I’ve learned not to dwell on wins or losses.

I’ve learned the team is more important than the individual, the game more important than the team and both for myself and the players, that family is far more important than the game.

Q: How long do you see yourself coaching?
A: I enjoy it and fortunately, my wife supports it. The last few years I have thought more about stepping aside, but the problem is Ajax has no owner, no money and the coaching staff works for free. Put together, that’s not a good sell to get someone in to take over. If all my players left at once, I could do (leave, too) but as the odd one leaves, new ones join and become apart of the group that I really enjoy and respect. From there, it’s on to another season.

Q: Finally, what are your thoughts on England’s chances in the World Cup? Your adversary in last season’s WPSL National Final – current WPS Philadelphia head coach Paul Riley – picked Fernando Torres and Spain to take it all.
A: My heart says England and they have a chance, but I think Paul is right: Spain are the favored Europeans. However, you can not count out Brazil and Argentina, especially the latter with Messi’s incredible display against Arsenal (in the UEFA Champions League). It will be interesting to see how the teams adapt in South Africa. I think it will favor the Europeans, but more so the Latin teams. I don’t think an African team will do it. They have great individual talent but poor organization.

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Tuesday’s Column: The Damned United

Read the column here.

Check out the trailer.

BTW, one of the worst parts of any soccer movie is invariably the soccer scenes played by actors. That’s not the case with The Damned United. Why? Because the soccer scenes are mercifully brief. Here’s producer Andy Harries explaining why:

“Part of the tricks is not feature football too much. We’ve chosen judicious moments and we’re playing a lot of it off reaction shots off Clough and Taylor so you’re watching football, you’re seeing football, but you’re not emotionally involved in the game. You’re emotionally involved in their watching it – and through their reactions you know what’s happening on the pitch.”

I had the pleasure of speaking recently with actor Michael Sheen about the film and his role as Brian Clough. Below is our Q&A almost verbatim. I just wished we were talking at a pub rather than on the phone.

Cloughiei-8b7d074d703754ee1c940cbaefcc696c-sheen0002.jpgPhotos by Laurie Sparham, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Question: Do you find yourself having to do a lot of explaining over here about the significance of Leeds United and Brian Clough?
Answer: Yeah, I knew that nobody was ever going to hear of Brian Clough over here so that wasn’t much of a surprise. I don’t think you need to know much about Brian Clough or football itself to enjoy the film. I was kind of heartened in Britain by how many people said, “I’ve got no interest in football, (I) didn’t know anything about Brian Clough, but I still really loved the film.” I think, obviously, there’s a whole (further) level of enjoyment if you are into football and you do know Brian Clough that you get from it.

Q: Are you a football fan?
A: Yeah, I was a huge football fan. That’s all I wanted to do when I was a kid. When I was 12 I was offered an apprenticeship at Arsenal. But it would have meant our whole family relocating to London – I’m from a small town in Wales – so my dad said, well if he’s still interested when he’s 16 he can decide for himself. So that was that. By the time I was that age it was too late. You’ve got to go when you’re young and by then I was into other stuff – I was into acting – so it wasn’t a path I went down. But part of the attraction of doing the film was to be able to sort of live out that life.

Q: So is Arsenal your team? Because considering they did the (league and cup) double in 1971 you must bloody well hate Leeds.
A: No, Arsenal is not my team. In fact when I was young my team was the Liverpool team that I walk out next to in the Charity Shield match in the film. It was (Kevin) Keegan, (John) Toshack, Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes’ team. I lived in Liverpool for three years between age five and eight so they were my team at that point. And then my dad was a rugby man, he wasn’t a soccer man. So when we moved from Liverpool when I was eight back to Wales again I thought you could only support teams if you lived in the area. So I thought I had to stop supporting Liverpool then and nobody ever explained to me that wasn’t the case, so I sort of ending up growing up without a team really.

Q: Nigel Clough, Brian’s son, is now manager at Derby County. Did you go spend time with Nigel or what kind of research did you do for the role?
A: Nigel became manager of Derby not long before the film came out after we finished filming. The research I did, there’s a lot of footage of Brian, there’s a lot of books written about him, there’s a lot of stuff you can get your hands on, so I did all that. I knew I was going to be doing the film about two, two and a half years before we started shooting and then I did a solid three or four months (of research) before we started doing the film so I just watched everything I could watch, I just read everything I could read and ended up knowing more about his life than I know about my own really. And reading the book the film is based on – it’s an adaptation of (the novel) “The Damned United” by David Peace. So it was really just trying to immerse myself in Brian’s life and his world.


Q: You pointed out that the character of Clough in the movie is based upon a novel that itself was an extremely liberal novelization of events and not everything that occurred in the film actually occurred in real life.
A: That’s right. David Peace, who wrote it, called it a fictionalization of Brian Clough’s time at Leeds.

Q: In your career you seem to have specialized in this sort of fictionalization – I saw “Frost/Nixon” last night and then you also did a turn as Tony Blair in “The Queen.” So here you are playing famous people and yet you get to take liberties with who they are as a person and their character. Is that part of the appeal of taking these roles?
A: I don’t know if I’m taking liberties. The scripts to all these (movies) are written by the same man – they’re written by a man called Peter Morgan – so it’s not like I go out seeking these characters. It’s just that they’re all written by the same man and they’re the best scripts that come my way. I enjoy the process. I really enjoy researching and finding out about these people’s lives because they’re all fascinating characters. I like the discipline of sort of having to work within an existing framework of someone’s life, but at the same time having to find a way to connect with them to sort of make that imaginative connection. I try to find a way to make it accessible to an audience so people can empathize with it and sympathize with it and go on a journey with this character. I find it’s an exciting mixture of the work that you need to do on fictional characters, but with the added dimension that a lot of people are going to be very familiar with this character. They’re great roles and great stories and he’s a great writer so it’s coincidence. … It’s not like I set out to only play roles that are based on real people.

Q: The character of Brian Clough in the novel is more of a brooding, introspective loner kind of character and in the movie you play him as a in your face maverick who delights in actually daring people to like him. How did that difference come about?
A: The book takes place inside Brian’s head where you hear his every thought and you get a real sense of this claustrophobic sense of being in this one man’s mind. It’s a very dark, obsessive, alcoholic world that’s depicted in the novel. That would mean we’d have to do the film all in voice over, which y’know wouldn’t have worked. So inevitably once it’s not inside someone’s head and you see him from the outside then a lot of that stuff is covered up. I’m sure everyone would agree that if everyone heard everything that was going on inside our heads all the time it would be a very different view of ourselves that people would have. So inevitably there’s a certain amount of covering up of that and disguising it. I think the Clough I play in the film is a man who covers up his vulnerabilities and his insecurities and his anxieties with all kinds of things. One of them is his humor and wit and sometimes his arrogance and self-confidence and outrageousness and all those kinds of things. So I think in the film … we wanted it to be more celebratory of this man, a more rounded portrayal of him and to show different facets of his character that everyone was aware of.

The Clough quagmirei-96efe79f9165438d1d9233da72061d94-quagmire0002.jpg

Q: Football movies in general have a patchy reputation. There’s been some pretty awful ones. Do you have a favorite soccer movie?
A: (Laughs). There’s not many to draw on really. My favorite sports movie would probably be “Raging Bull” because ostensibly it’s about a boxer, but it’s (really) about a man and his relationships and that’s sort of what our film is a bit like. For pure fun I love “Escape To Victory.” Just to see Sylvester Stallone as a goalkeeper is always good fun in the same scenes as Mike Summerbee, the Manchester City player – that’s always a good partnership on film. Seeing the 1970s Ipswich (Town) and Manchester City teams mixing with Michael Caine and Pele is great. There’s things like “This Sporting Life” that Richard Harris did about Rugby League, which I think is a terrific film as well. There’s precious few to choose from in terms of soccer films, I think.

Q: What’s the strongest part of this movie?
A: The strongest thing is the character it’s about. He’s such a compelling character I hope we do him justice. He’s such a fascinating, complex character. If you’re going to make a film about someone it’s a pretty good starting point you’ve got someone like Brian Clough to make it about.

Q: Do you think Brian Clough would have liked your portrayal of him – after he had removed his fingers from your neck?
A: Yeah, exactly. I think he’d want to know why if “Lord of the Rings” can have a trilogy of films made about a book why can’t he?

Q: What kind of reception did this movie get in England?
A: Everybody in Britain knows who Brian Clough is football fan or not, I think. I’ve never felt so much pressure in the build up to this film. Everyone was saying ‘oh, I’m really looking forward to that film, I love Cloughie.’ Everyone had something to say about Brian Clough. The reception was very positive – amazing, really to be honest – from within the football world, but also across the board. There’s so much affection for Brian Clough. Back in the day when he was managing he used to really divide people and people used to love to hate him, but it’s all turned into affection I think because he symbolizes a period of time when in Britain, certainly in football, but also in the country (in general) that’s sort of gone now. Sport has changed so much, football has certainly changed so much and Clough represents a time that was very different. No one like him could come along now. His achievements can’t be emulated because you would never get a team (like Derby County) coming from the bottom of the second division to the top of the Premiership (and) winning the European Cup. It just couldn’t happen. You wouldn’t get a top-flight manager managing a team like that. Something has definitely gone. That age is over with so I think there’s a lot of affection for him and for that period of time.


Q: One can argue this film isn’t about soccer, but about the relationship between Peter Taylor and Cloughie.
A: These were two men who loved each other. They had a hugely intimate relationship with each other. It was like a marriage really with all its complexity and love and intimacy and resentment. What happened eventually after they did get back together again – they had all the achievements at Nottingham Forest – but then they fell out again and didn’t speak to each other right up to Peter Taylor’s death. And Clough, when he was interviewed or talked about Taylor after that, would be choking back the tears literally because he loved him so much and yet their relationship ended. So it’s a hugely powerful relationship that these two men had with each other. The structure of the story really is about a relationship, about a love story. We’re not in any way suggesting there’s anything homoerotic about it, but it’s certainly a story about a very loving relationship, a very complicated love story between these two men. It was definitely something we wanted to explore, what that relationship was between them and the fact they do come back together at the end was very important. It was the climax of the film.

Q: And that’s probably an apt place to end this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I hope you get nominated for something or other.
A: I hope I just keep getting work.

Here’s a clip from the movie showing Cloughie’s first day as Leeds United manager

At the request of readers, here’s where the film opens on Friday:

Laemmle’s Town Ctr 5
17200 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, CA 91316

Laemmle’s Playhouse 7
673 East Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91101

The Landmark
10850 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Finally, there’s lots of Leeds United/Brian Clough related stuff on YouTube. Those of you planning to see the movie might want to skip the video below; it’s the original Don Revie-Brian Clough TV debate after he was fired as Leeds manager:

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A Few Words With Zinedine Zidane

There are some times when you can’t help reverting from journalist to fan.

Meeting and talking to Pele at the opening of Home Depot Center in 2003 courtesy of AEG was one of them; interviewing Zinidene Zidane Saturday in El Segundo via a French language interpreter thanks to adidas was another.

Here’s our (brief) interview.

Question: Is it conceivable you could come out of retirement and play for Major League Soccer?
Answer: As of today I would say no. It’s true I’ve had offers since I retired from my career three years ago. And I can assure you I’ve been tempted by the offers. I took the decision not to return. And maybe in 10 years I might regret it.

Q: What did you think of the U.S. upset of Spain at the Confederations Cup?
A: The U.S. played very well. Spain was maybe a little off. It proves the soccer in the United States is coming to another level.

Q: Do you think there is prejudice against American players in Europe?
A: Yes, I do. I would say here in the United States the game isn’t exactly up to par – that it’s still a little behind. But things can change in the future. I think there are talented players in the United States. (And here I think the translation completely broke down, but to paraphrase I believe he said “that will change when U.S. National Team players also play for the best European clubs and that was the case when France won the World Cup in 1998). We had all the best players; they were all belonging to the best European teams.

Q: What American player has most impressed you?
A: He’s the one who represents soccer in the U.S. – (Landon) Donovan. In fact, he played abroad in Germany, no? I knew him a little bit when he was playing over there.

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U.S. Soccer to Announce New Sundhage Contract Monday

U.S. Women’s National Team Coach Pia Sundhage has signed a new four-year contract with U.S. Soccer that will be announced Monday, 100 Percent Soccer has learned.

The new deal will take the Swedish coach through the 2011 World Cup in Germany and was widely expected. Sundhage was given a short-term contract after the firing of Greg Ryan with the mission of winning an Olympic gold medal.

Mission accomplished.

It’s been almost exactly a year since Sundhage took charge of the team at a camp at Home Depot Center, so I did a little Q & A with the coach in the wake of the China game Saturday in Carson in a year that saw the U.S. win a record number of games.

Question: Reflect on your year in charge. How was it?
Answer: It’s been fantastic. It’s almost a dream come true. … Coaching the best players in the world – it has been better than I could have thought about and dream about. … They have embraced the change because I wanted to change both a little bit of the playing style, but I guess also my leadership is a little bit different because I do not come from this country and I think U.S. Soccer was brave to hire me in an Olympic year. Its been fantastic even though Kristine Lilly got pregnant, Abby (Wambach) broke her leg and we lost the first game against Norway. But we found a way to have fun, we found a way to win and we really worked as a team. I think that is key.

Q: So what will change in the next four years?
A: We won the gold medal because of great defense and a great atmosphere in the team. I think we should go into Germany in 2011 and try to win another gold medal, but I hope people will talk about the way we attack. So now we have two years to adjust the attacking style because honestly I think Brazil played better attacking soccer than we did (at the Olympics). I like the way Japan is playing attacking soccer as well. They knock it around and they are comfortable with the ball. So we need to learn from the Asian team when it comes to technique and to read the game a little bit better and that is in the attack.

I watched the U-20 World Cup, hopefully we’ll change the team a little bit. I’m impressed with the way they’ve changed their game – I’ve only been here 10 months so I can see many things happening with these players. I can promise you it will not be exactly the same players. We will try to change different players coming in and try to change the chemistry a little bit, the atmosphere a little bit and expectations and I think that’s important going forward. Because, we want to win the gold medal in a different way.

Q: What was the key to success this year?
A: First of all, they were looking for a change, so that was a good start. Whatever I did, something they hadn’t done before, they embraced that. Secondly, they work as a team. They respect the roles, they had different kinds of roles. If you look at the back four I expect them to keep possession, be comfortable, so we change the expectations and little by little going into the Olympics mentally we were strong. We knew that we have a lot of fun and we can do it.

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