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July 29, 2011 at 12:01 PM

A stop and chat with Sounders Women GM Jon Billings

Sounders_Women_logo_med.jpgThe Sounders Women host the W-League Final Four this weekend, with the semifinals kicking off tonight at Starfire — Atlanta vs. Vancouver at 4 p.m., Seattle vs. Ottawa at 7 p.m. Here’s the preview story I wrote for today’s paper.

For the story I had a chance to talk to Sounders Women GM Jon Billings and I wanted to publish the rest of the conversation here:

* * *

(I’m sure you all have anticipated for the W-League Final Four for a while, what’s it like now that it’s here?) “It’s crazy. You realize all the little things aren’t going to get done unless you get them done. But it’s been good. The last few months have been all about the marketing side. In the last couple weeks it’s changed and it’s all about the operation. Now you step back and say, ‘I hope the marketing stuff was good enough.’ It’s hard to know what it’s going to be like until we see the stands full. We’re excited.”

(How do you manage the challenges of hosting and also preparing for a potential championship run?) “The way we’ve done it, and hopefully this is the right way, is we’ve kept everyone involved as much as possible, but we’ve also separated the team and the coaching staff from some of the operation. Ignorance is bliss for the players and all that. They just have to focus on what they’ve got to do. On the same token we’ve talked to the team about all the resources we’re putting into this and with that understanding that there is a bit of pressure. We’re looking for top-level performances to match. Hopefully we also come out of it with financial gain. A big part of this is getting some notoriety that will last down the line. Winning that semifinal and getting into the championship would be a massive step for that as well. And obviously when you’re in a championship, anything can happen. There are probably multiple goals within it, but we joke about it, how we could run a terrible operation but if we win the game then everyone’s happy.”

(Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the Sounders Women have ever advanced to the championship game…) “Yeah, not from my understanding either. We’ve been to the Final Four a number of times, but never won the championship. It’s tough because the Final Four is four teams from all over the U.S. This year for instance the Central Conference champion (Ottawa) is undefeated, but if the Central Conference is weak this year, it’s hard to assess their team. You get to the Final Four and it’s like starting over again.”

(Do you know anything about Ottawa, your semifinal opponent?) “Like I said, it’s difficult because you don’t play against the other conferences in the regular season. They’ve gotten awards and the best record and they’re a good organization so you know they’re bringing in good players. Traditionally the East and West are the two best conferences, but it’s not always the case.”

(How has the season gone? You finished in the middle of the pack in the West. Has it been underachieving in your opinion? Has knowing you’re hosting the Final Four been a distraction?) “I don’t know if it’s been a distraction, but it has allowed us to take a slightly different approach to the season. In a normal situation, because it’s such a quick season — you’re basically looking at two to three months of just games — you kind of just get set up to win as many as you can right from the start and who knows what happens. With us, knowing we were going to be in the Final Four from the beginning, it gave us a chance to instead look more at developing for the end of the year. I think we’ve done that more or less. Six games unbeaten would indicate we’re playing our best soccer right now. Whether it’s been a distraction for the players is hard to tell, but coaching-wise we’ve been able to focus on developing the team the right way and get everyone on the same page. Now we’re starting to reach that point.”

(How do you get to host? Is there a bidding process?) “There is a bidding process, but in past years the hosting team hasn’t always qualified automatically. Based on last year and poor attendance at the Final Four, they decided that the host team hosts and also (plays). In the bid process, there are some things that are mandatory when you host: hotels, travel and those types of things. Then in addition to that it’s basically how quality of an event can you put together? Our venue at Starfire is great. It creates a professional atmosphere. It’s small enough but also big enough, and that’s a big part of it. Obviously Seattle is big into soccer in general and our nation knows there’s a buzz around here. We’ve always had good attendance compared to the rest of the league. It kind of all adds up.”

(You mentioned the bigger picture goals of the weekend beyond just this championship. Is making the leap to WPS a goal for this organization?) “Definitely a possibility. We’re actually considering everything and this weekend can really create some momentum and turn some heads. I can’t tell you how often I talk to someone in the business world or even just a fan and say something about the Sounders Women, and they turn their head and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know we had the Sounders Women. That’s great!’ I think the support would be there if everyone knew about it. This is a great opportunity to let everyone know about it, at least as much as possible. On the same token, you can garner some attention from the business world and potential investors. It’s definitely a goal of ours. I don’t know if our future is WPS, based on how that league is, but certainly taking the team to a higher level — whether it be within this league or adjusting it to a more professional thing or expanding on the organization so we can reach more people — that’s definitely a goal. If we do this right, it can turn and take this to a higher level.”

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