There are certain players whose mere presence on the pitch invokes the imperial march. In every sport, at every level, these players exist; we know them and we love to hate them. Whether it be their press room persona, their on-pitch behavior or a prize winning combination of the two, their actions and words have singled them out for contention.
When it comes to the NWSL, there are three names that seem to float to the front of most people’s minds: Shea Groom, McCall Zerboni, and Jessica Fishlock.
Allie Long and Merritt Mathias also deserve mention, although the former has been less labeled since her transition to holding midfielder and latter only gained this title this season. Arguably some of the better talent in the league, these women remind fans who think the women’s game is a chance to support a sweeter, gentler thing, that they’d be wrong. In an emerging sport where unity and league support are stressed, it seems rather at odds.
Jessica Fishlock was easily the most universally listed name, perhaps as her words tend to echo her actions, re-enforcing the belief that her actions are deliberate rather than a matter of over exuberance or a lack of training.
There have been several incidents with her going “studs up” into other players. She’s also known to gently bait rival fans (read: Portland fans) on Twitter with Cascadia derby related posts, generally of images where she’s grounding a player.
She also less than enamored herself with Spirit fans when she went studs up into their keeper last season and then openly admitted that she’d done it because she knew that she would get out of the way. It was to prove a point: the announcer had accidentally referred to Solo, the Reign’s keeper, and then USWNT number one, as number two. To make things worse, the Spirit’s then keeper was the US’ number two at the time.
Fishlock is undoubtedly the best player her native Wales has seen, with the skill to pull these sort of stunts without harming her fellow opponents. She admits to it. She’s also a generally passionate player, not afraid to express anger when she misses her target or argue a call with a referee when she doesn’t think she gets what she deserves. Fishlock a player you love to have and hate to play against.
Shea Groom is a particularly interesting case as she manages to maintain this title whilst suffering so frequently at the hands of the others. It is quite possible that she, much like Diego Costa, knows how to tread the line, aggravating both rival fans and opponents to the point of reactionary behavior to the benefit of her team.
She was the one who suffered the infamous and inexcusable Zerboni stomp last season, which resulted in a red card that could have ended in Zerboni sitting out the rest of the season. It was also arguably the first time a club’s fans actively took a stand against one of their own players. Besides Zerboni, Merritt Mathias grabbed her by the hair and quite literally ground her face into the dirt- an action which which should have resulted in a red and an instant expulsion had the referee been doing their job properly.
McCall Zerboni was a fairly quiet name until last season, where a single incident forever tarred her name in the mind of many.
After fouling Shea Groom, she looked down, and seemingly deliberately stepped on her, claiming she was trying to walk over her. Even her team’s fans (then playing for the Thorns) ended up calling for her to be sent off. This in a city that’s not known for showing pity toward opponents. This action also landed her on most fans ‘name and shame’ lists. Her possible involvement in Fishlock’s broken leg at the start of the season only deepened her hole.
Interestingly enough, none of these women top any tables when it comes to fouls or cards. Julie King tops the caution list, Fishlock comes in third, and the other two don’t even rank top ten. Whilst Groom is second in terms of fouls committed, when taking into account the minutes she’s played, she’s averaged a foul ever 53.5 minutes. Frequency wise that’s sixth or seventh for players who’ve played at least half the season.
Zerboni doesn’t rank for frequency or quantity and only taking the latter into account, Fishlock is still twelfth. Nadia Nadim tops the table in terms of foul quantity, her teammate Hayley Raso taking the crown for foul frequency with a foul just about ever 42 minutes. Now obviously, fouls are only half of any story, as referees (particularly NWSL ones) are as flawed as the rest of us, and there’s a fair number of foul worthy offenses which are rather harmless in the general scheme of things. It still begs the question as to exactly how much persona plays into the making of a villain.
Having NWSL specific “villains” is undoubtedly a good thing.
It means people are paying attention to the league, to the individuals enough for it to impact outside of club rivalries; all two or three of them which actually exist at this point in time. Sport lore is built on the backs of such individuals, just as much as the plucky underdogs and the greatest of all times. Cheering for something is always a priority for fans, but giving them something or somebody to cheer against, also helps cement their identity. Without the villain, there is no hero.
*Prost Publishing has a new book out on the 2016 NWSL Season, forward written by BBC Footballer of the Year Kim Little. Get your copy here.