The Story in the Storm
Sometimes, it’s just the right confluence of factors that creates a story. There has to be three elements to bring it into existence. The obvious first element is the thing. By the thing, I mean the event, the subject, the action, the center of the issue. Without the thing, you would have nothing to focus on. Speaking of focus, that’s element two: the person bringing light to the story. Without that person, the story becomes the tree in the forest that no one heard fall. Finally, there’s the audience. Without the audience, the person has no one to show the story to. Someone has to care or you’re just farting in the wind.
On Friday, August 10th, the UPSL Playoffs began in Boulder, Colorado. Teams from all over the country, division and conference champions, headed there to begin the final push for the Championship. The clubs involved this year: Mass United FC, Milwaukee Bavarian SC, Inocentes FC, Florida Soccer Soldiers, Sporting AZ FC, Boise FC, FC Boulder, and Santa Ana Winds. These clubs came from every corner of the American map to meet in the mountains of Colorado for what was sure to be an epic battle to the end. The quarterfinals would be played that Friday evening and excitement was high on lower tier soccer Twitter.
The matches were stacked that evening, with Mass United FC/Milwaukee Bavarian SC and Sporting AZ FC/Boise Cutthroats FC starting at 5pMT. The other two matchups of the evening would take place at 8pMT (after the first two matches had concluded). As a start-up website, we all agreed that being active on Twitter during the first night of the playoffs was good business sense. Three of our writers, Aarik Long, Phil Baki, and Steven Ramirez, volunteered for different parts of the evening and Ryan Stallings and myself would run the site Twitter, adding bits of commentary from our personal handles.
The story, as described in the first paragraph, would be the Sporting AZ FC/Boise Cutthroats FC match. Not that the other match wasn’t interesting, don’t get me twisted. Remember, something has to happen to draw the eye, to pull in the reader, to spark the audience into existence. And so, with all the introductory information out of the way, allow me to give you a tour of the hurricane.
The match feed went live and at 5:04pmMT Aarik tweeted that the match had begun. The first half was a back and forth affair. Both teams testing each other, neither successfully. Phil and Aarik traded match updates from their accounts, giving the rundown of the action. Halftime came and with it the story.
The first sign of trouble from our reporting was Phil at 6:03pMT: “Dude, there’s a discussion about an ineligible player being fielded by Boise. Oh damn…” Three minutes later, again from Phil, “The match is seemingly being called by UPSL officials: Boise fielded an ineligible player and Sporting Arizona are going to advance by virtue of a forfeit.” The conditions had been created for a story, but the final push happened two minutes later: “There are some animated conversations happening off-camera right now. This is wild...and they just cut the feed off.”
There are few things more jarring, when following a match remotely, than a feed simply being cut. We checked the league Twitter, but they hadn't posted anything since the match had gone live. I messaged both Aarik and Phil trying to find out information. Phil had reached out to a contact on one of the clubs and gave me this update: "So Boise sent on a sub after like 33 mins and the guys in the booth joked that they didn’t have a #19 on the roster. Well it turned out he wasn’t on the official roster and shouldn’t have played. A bunch of discussion hit off and one guy called Yan [league commissioner Yan Skwara] and was adamant he was going to DQ Boise. An hour later, we still have 0 idea. It’s a shitshow."
Aarik had also updated his twitter, giving us a dire take on the issue.
Now before you judge us on our reaction, be aware that there was zero information on a national level. Even at the match there was confusion as to what actually happened. From our perspective, a big story had broken at the National UPSL Playoffs. There was going to be a forfeit of what was, at the time, a tied match between two very talented clubs. This was THE STORY.
An hour and a half later, the league twitter announced that "after a long delay the second half between Sporting AZ FC and Boise FC has resumed." Aarik had a slightly less constrained response, typing like a grandfather on facebook in all CAPS, "I TAKE THAT BACK!! WE ARE BACK UNDERWAY IN COLORADO!!!" After the long delay, the entire tenor of the match had changed. All the momentum had shifted to Sporting AZ FC and in the 49th minute they broke through. They followed that first one with a winner and the match ended 2-1. But what had happened during half time?
As the match wrapped, I reached out to a league source for information about the delay. His response was flavored with the sort of restraint that you might expect from a person that was invested in how the match was reported. He first cautioned me that 1. he had just arrived on site 2. he was gathering information 3. everything was "purely heresay from reliable sources." Then he gave me what he knew at that moment: "The initial delay was because Boise FC was thought to have played an ineligible player in the first half. Sporting AZ wanted to protest and the game was halted by inexperienced UPSL on-site staff until player was cleared and the game was resumed. The long delay caused confusion and more delay as a result."
Now, at some level, the match was settled, Sporting AZ had won regardless of any protest, so the questions left to answer were focused on the procedure. I reached out to both clubs for response, one said they would wait for the league to publicly respond, the other didn't respond. And with that, everyone went to bed with a "wait and see" for the morning.
The next morning, there was a message from the league in my inbox. Some of the original messaging had been incorrect. "Sporting AZ never filed, or even threatened to file, a protest. Sporting owner Tim Marchisotto worked diligently to help rectify the situation in site." This was certainly in contrast to the original information we had received and we were encouraged to "retract our first reporting." Sadly twitter doesn't work that way, so instead we posted the new information and stated that the original information was incorrect. The league continued to clarify "The issue was created by the facilities manager, who feared an insurance issue stemming from a "potentially" non-registered, non-insured player. Also turns out player is registered and totally legit."
Sporting AZ released a statement that same morning via twitter:
Aarik reported on twitter on the statement from Boise Cutthroats FC - "Joint statement from @OfficialBoiseFC Owner Hector Palacios and Head Coach Jeromy Tarkin: "We are extremely dissappointed with how the entire situation was handled. As mentioned in a previous statement from the UPSL we did NOT play an ineligible player. At the break, we felt we had all of the momentum and had this not happened the result may have been different. With that being said, we recognize that Sporting AZ is an excellent team and commend them on playing as well as they did after the delay. We move on with our heads held high and have put this behind us. We have another game to get prepared for."
With all sides accounted for, this hurricane of a story seems to have been nothing more than a misunderstanding between the club, the match officials, the league, and the rest of the world. There is a conspiracy theorist streak in me that wants to say this is a cover up, but in this case it seems to be as simple as the league and clubs seem to be stating. The fact remains, however, that this confusion clearly influenced a great match. Boise Cutthroats leadership certainly thinks so. And while they were classy and professional in their response, what was done cannot be undone. Sporting AZ FC may have won, regardless of the hour and half delay, anyway, but who can know for sure. This match was a bruise, maybe not to the level of a black eye, on what was a fantastic national playoffs. And that's the story.
After finishing this article and preparing it for publication, Boise Cutthroats issued another statement on the matter. The purpose of the statement, to "provide our fans and supporters an explanation of what happened and encourage the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) to issue a formal apology to both clubs for the severe mishandling in determining the eligibility of a Boise Cutthroats FC player during halftime." According to Boise, the whole disqualification arose because a league official only took the first page off a clipboard, leaving behind the second [insert facepalm emoji]. The issue was further magnified, again according to the club, by the league official ignoring the coach and being disrespectful to those raising issue with the decision. This behavior was apparently acknowledged by League Commissioner Yan Skwara the next morning. In this statement, Boise went on to point out that Sporting AZ FC had been treated differently by the official in charge of the match. The purpose of that claim, however, was not to protest the match result, but to demand fair treatment.
Boise wrapped up their statement demanding the UPSL go further in acknowledging their mistakes, claiming "they haven’t recognized that they as leadership could have handled this whole situation better. They have simply pointed their fingers at their own people while creating concern with our local supporters." So this whole story comes back to a single page left on a clipboard, an official who refused to listen to reason, and a league who may or may not have apologized effectively to an aggrieved club.