Monday, July 18, 2011

2011 Women's World Cup: Reflecting on the USWNT run

I write this from the train, on the return journey that marks the conclusion of my experience with the 2011 Women’s World Cup. There are sleeping Japanese fans scattered throughout the cars – I imagine they went directly from celebrations to the station. 

The USWNT players are flying home. We’ll be in our own beds tonight, back to normal.

It’s been an emotional ride.

It is hard to argue with the fact that the women’s game is more generous than the men’s. Remember last year’s final in South Africa? It was an awful, cynical display. Spain won not a football match but a bar fight. The world gathered in unison to watch that? All I felt at the end of that game was a faint disgust with myself for having spent so much time covering the tournament.

The USWNT and Japan, in contrast, gave us a game. I come away from that match – from the whole tournament – wanting more.

Sure, there is room for criticism of both team’s performances. But the domain of that criticism is pure football: Strategy, technique. Who doesn’t love to talk about these things?

Fans in the stands were furious with Japan’s tendency to delay the game – they were slow with their goal kicks in particular, and were often content to pass the ball around the back. Quite a few of us found it alarming for what it implied: they were waiting for us to tire ourselves out.

Yes, the USWNT needs a more clinical finish, especially under the kind of pressure applied by the Japanese National Team last night. Wambach in particular seemed to play much of the game in the middle of an accordion, opening and closing around her. She got space in the midfield, but the more she closed in on the goal, the tighter the Japanese grip. 

It was thrilling to see how Wambach responded to this. She cut and ran, she charged and bullied, she took players on, and she shot. It was an erie reproduction of Necib’s performance against the US, though frankly Wambach played with much more gusto, aggression and creativity and didn’t flag though I can only imagine she had wrung every bit of energy out of herself by the game’s end.

But as was the case with Necib and Bompastor (who is probably Wambach's closest international analog in terms of bad-ass prowess), the more energy the US strikers poured into the game, the more this energy sent shots too high, too far. 

Sometimes, the harder you try the harder it gets. 

But to focus on this would be to miss the two wonderful goals the USWNT did score. Morgan and Wambach, both, by doing exactly what they do best – powering in front of the back line and beating the goalie one-on-one (Morgan), and by throwing herself to meet the ball in the air (Wambach) with a clinical finish no one can dispute, never mind touch.  

Rapinoe was as exciting to watch as Wambach: She reads the game brilliantly. Again and again, “Pinoe” (pronounced like the wine) pulled the ball away from Japan and turned the run of play around. She is quite literally a game-changer.

The first of Japan’s goals was a gift from the US defense. An exceptional moment, as through most of the game, the back line really worked. Buehler, in particular, was tough as nails.  

I don’t want to think about that first goal from Japan – it was a lowlight for the USWNT, and Miyama showed great control by capitalizing on it. (The US had these chances, too, but did not profit from them.)

Those goals are the opposite of set-pieces. They are struck by players who have no right to imagine that ball would be in front of them. They take composure, and the ability to think very quickly and act as if by reflex. Japan watches for these kinds of openings, these cracks in the wall and slips right through them. 

Japan’s second goal from Sawa was class. It was the kind of goal that makes one sigh with the elegance and strength of it. She wings into the danger zone as if called down by the gods to sort things out. This is what sent us into penalties.

The rest is history. Again, it was not the USWNT’s finest moment. We had all come to expect better.
And here is where I felt the arc of the tournament narrative most. 

This was the World Cup championship match, and it was a great game. We had everything but refereeing scandals (we even saw a red card issued in the closing minutes of play). We had great goals and opportunistic goals. Terrific saves from both goalkeepers, and shots that by all rights should have gone in (Wambach, in particular, was robbed of a goal by an unlucky bounce off the crossbar.) 

The US played a ferocious game against Brazil, and unlike some fans, I really liked the game they played against France. They played the best team in the tournament and lost to them – but they weren’t walloped, they weren’t dominated. Far from it. For long stretches, the players played the best game they’ve played all year. It really looked like they could win it all.

But throughout the year, we watched the USWNT squeak through. Losing to an increasingly strong Mexican side, they forced themselves into a playoff with Italy (not exactly a women’s football powerhouse). Then they scared us in the first leg of that exchange with an underwhelming match rescued by an impossibly late goal from Alex Morgan who scored in injury time. They won at home in a solid game, played before a small crowd. They lost a friendly to England.

They struggled, and at times it seemed like few cared. Sometimes I wondered if the USSF was relieved – as if the strength of the USWNT were not as a source of pride, but an embarrassment.

The match that would decide if the no. 1 ranked team in the world would go to Germany was not even broadcast on television. ESPN webcast the game, but only to its subscribers. Fans were worried about the team, and about the USWNT program more broadly. 

The women’s national team program has seemed moribund – plagued by the same problems that hold the men back: US athletes grow up playing a very regimented game, one that can stifle creativity. They only play against people their own age, and so don’t develop the improvisational guile that one hones in situations when outmatched. And so on. 

We spent a lot of time lowering our expectations.

Why does Alex Morgan always come on so late? Why doesn’t Pia mix up her starting 11? Why is LePeilbet playing out of position? The physical game isn’t enough! Defense isn’t enough when that defense isn’t perfect! Just about the only person we never complained about was Hope Solo. Even Wambach took flack.  

Alexi Lalas loves the USWNT (photo from his twitter feed)
Add to this the USSF’s horrific publicity campaign for the team – forever holding on to 1999, anxious about the “attractiveness” of the team (the WWC player video portraits used at the start of matches show all the players with their hair down, ‘blown out’ into gentle waves), unsure of how to redress the team’s visibility problem (e.g. 2007’s Nike slogan for the USWNT: ‘the best team you’ve never heard of’), totally ignorant regarding the team’s fan base. The USSF commissioned a kit designed to be “feminine but not cutesy” (their words) - and produced nothing whatsoever that a male fan might wear to identify himself as a fan of the women’s team. 

The USSF and Nike put far more energy into the men’s team’s Gold Cup campaign than into the women’s World Cup appearances. Far more.

These administrative problems sting. They are insulting to fans, to the athletes and to the communities who have damned well heard of the team. We find in the USSF’s desire to feminize the team’s image the kind of thinking which, taken to an extreme, leads to environments from which gender non-conformity itself is banned, as is the case with the Nigerian squad. 

For what is that “feminine but not cutesy” design mandate if not some sort of apology for Wambach’s power and her broad shouldered, confident swagger? You can imagine the boardroom conversations. The sighs of relief that express not gratitude for Solo and Morgan’s talent, but rather for their physiques and long flowing locks. (Which is insulting to them.)

US fans are over it. We really and truly are.

And if the USSF thinks that the team’s image needs feminization more than it needs, say, grassroots outreach – well, it makes me anxious for the sport’s future. 

Last night, I was reminded of how effectively a great match can blow that bullshit out of the water.  The love for the game (in all its elegance and cruelty) was on full display. 

And I was part of a crowd celebrating that: 48,000 people all focused on the actions of twenty-two women. No distractions. Just game, and the pulse of all the people who love it. 

Scarcely anyone left the stadium before the players – we couldn't stand to be parted from either team. It was mesmerizing.


  1. Great postings today JD, both here and in the NYT. I appreciate your passion for the game - your summary of the USSF approach to the women's game is right on the money. I can't stop imagining the USSF top brass eating a bit of crow right now.

    One issue I haven't heard much anywhere; the relationship of the US sport media to the game is relatively new and still developing. There are still a lot of sportscasters that don't fully grasp the game and therefore cannot report on it. Even the former players have trouble calling the game. We don't have that soccer culture in the states yet and that hurts both the women and the men.

    The women's game is as entertaining as the men's game and in some ways is more appealing. The fact that this WC final was a great game regardless of the gender is lost on many because the grassroots outreach you speak of has not taken hold. Not yet anyway. FIFA could clearly do more in that area especially in parts of the world where girls don't play at all.

    Maybe the women's WC was so good because FIFA has yet to fully dig its claws into the women's game...

    Here's something I can't get out of my head from this evening. A local TV station dedicated about a minute to the whole game and it's impact. The first 15 seconds was a jaded opinion stating if this was the men's team they would have been labeled chokers and women are treated differently (reinforcing my earlier point about our media's interest), but the rest was about some city girls who were out in the parks and the streets today playing soccer, talking about the game and the players. An instant smile spread across my face. Maybe another piece of the grassroots effort?

  2. Man, I think I might have to write something explaining why "choking" is not used as often in soccer as it is in, say basketball.

    It's not entirely wrong to stage that conversation, but soccer writers hesitate more because so many of us hate having a penalty decide a two hour match.

    And missing a WC penalty is way more common that people think. Think: Trezeguet - did the whole world talk about his missed penalty in the 2006 World Cup? No. We talked a little about it. But even though it was technically the action that decided the game's outcome, it was not quite the thing that decided the game as a whole.

    Non-soccer people have trouble understanding this - quite rightly, because it's contradictory.


  3. It really was a fantastic match, and I loved how we played especially in the first half. Rapinoe was phenomenal. Without her retrieving and delivering the ball from endline to endline that game wouldn't have even gone to penalties.

    And this is what is so frustrating. This team has fans. But every time the team does something "big" (World Cup, Olympics), the media and the USSF act like they came out of nowhere, like we're all completely confused who these girls are and what this means. It's baffling.

  4. Hi Jennifer
    I have appreciated your blog for some time, and how cool that you got to go to Germany to see the Women's World Cup final!
    I'm a huge fan of Homare Sawa, and have been watching her since she played for the Atlanta Beat in WUSA. It's instructive to look at her career in the US, because I think it tells us something about the dearth of good coaches/coaching in the US for men and women. Although they had both Sawa and the legendary Chinese striker Sun Wen, Atlanta under Tom Stone basically played kick and run (they were still sometimes fun to watch because they also had Charmaine Hooper and Cindy Parlow!!). But, I was always disappointed not to be able to see Sawa and Sun Wen play their games. Under Jim Gabarra in Washington, Sawa essentially became almost a stopper rather than a box-to-box playmaker. Total waste of her talents. It seems like the reason that the US team doesn't have a player like Homare Sawa (or, for that matter, the elegant Ingvild Stensland of Norway) is because the game is still dominated by the UNC style of play, which encourages fitness and speed, and is not interested with varying the pace of the game within a match. I know Sundhage is trying to change that (and when did she bring in Hege Riise, because surely that is another move in the right direction), but it's hard to make that change from the top, as you point out.
    On an unrelated note: hated the US uniforms -- you are right, they look like nurse's uniforms.
    On a cheerier unrelated note: I saw a photo somewhere of a young woman fan with a sign: "Marry Me Hope I'm Solo!"
    Keep up the good work,

  5. Lisa & Homekettle - so great to hear from fans! Wasn't Rapinoe amazing?! She has serious skills - all the talk about physical play diminished the work she was doing. IMHO. Lisa - thanks for the long view on Sawa's career in the US. That's really interesting. Always thrilled to have people write in and record their thoughts about players like this.

  6. In true American "homer" fashion, ESPN Classic, which had been scheduled to replay the final on Monday, abruptly cancelled that broadcast and in its stead, guess what? replayed the 1999 final, complete with cutesy interviews with Brandi, Mia, et al. It WAS a fabulous game, surpassing every WC final of both genders, and if that was not an "Instant Classic," then the term has no meaning, unless an American victory is a prerequisite. Yes, the result was painful for US fans but for the hard core football fan like me, the game itself was sublime poetry; drama, frustration, elation, mistakes, brilliant plays, PKs, what else could you want (other than the obvious?) I really do want to see that game again but shameless home rooters like ESPN can't be bothered.

  7. I just recently found this blog. Well done, Jennifer. What a pleasure! BTW, was it you who wrote the great piece about homeless futbol in LA and that embarrassment known as the LAPD's footie side?

    What a fantastic World Cup! On the telly, the cameras picked up the joyfully surprised expressions on the referees' faces as they waited in the tunnel with the teams while the Frankfurt stadium was in thunderous, tumultuous anticipation/applause mode. It was electric. And Ian Darke was UP FOR IT. The bloke was ready to EXPLODE on behalf of the USWNT, but was ultimately denied.

    What that must've been like to BE THERE...

    After a seeing a few games, and then even in view of Brasil's cynical antics, I felt shame for FIFA and the Men's game on the whole. THIS was so much closer to the essence of football and its uncontrollable range of emotional permutations, with jaw-dropping, quality skill and an impressive variety of tactics.

    These women were giving everything they could summon. I just found it so deeply moving, so positive. I was humbled, but joyfully so.

    I was really impressed by the French passing game and their organization. The USWNT was designed to go about it another way, and I must say I was disappointed, though I accepted it ... until the teamsheet for the final was displayed. Alex Morgan would view the kickoff from the bench and the rest is public record.

    I loved Lisa D's account of the mismanagement of Homare Sawa's gifts while in the WUSA. And back then, I was hopeful that the USWNT would embrace a more modern approach with the exciting debut of Aly Wagner. But in so many ways, we're still in the Bush era.

    As you so well document, the financial and bureaucratic side of this phenomenon is reluctant, ambivalent and barely even trying to catch up with what is happening around the world in women's football, let alone here in the US. And yeah, I'd wear a Nadeshiko shirt, or any of the others, but the piping blouse? Never.

    I look forward to your next book Jennifer. I'll stay tuned.


  8. I was surprised and glad to see someone bring up the recruiting of non-college talent. Rather the lack of recruiting. I asked Julie Foudy that question at a symposium on women's soccer in San Jose. She dodged. The idea that a viable professional league based on olympic development players that go to Stanford or other Div. 1 schools is not going to last. Was Marta recruited out of a college? I would like to know about the make up of other world class teams in terms of how many are from college teams. I know its one of the only ways to continue playing now. But, this has to change.

  9. Larry,

    I play regularly with women whose style and skill is Marta-like. Women who will take on a wall of defenders, threat their way past them or use the space they've created by being such a danger on the ball. They are not in college. No sense of how to break through - some must, surely, into the other semi-semi-pro w's leagues?

    Anyway, I think it is hard for people who've known nothing but the current ODP/USSF structure have a hard time understanding even what that means. There is a deep and growing class segregation in this country, and this sport is just one more place where one sees that spin out in all sorts of depressing ways.

    I do think people want that change - but it's one thing to want it, another to open yourself up to the labor of participating in that change.

    Thank you for your comment!

  10. I am curious why the USWNT is not being subjected to the same level and type of criticism in the media as the USMNT was after their Round of 16 exit last year. Ideally, equality of the sexes in sports reporting makes
    such scrutiny a mandatory part of the equalization process. Yet, aside from the occasional comment in the media suggesting the women choked late leads twice, nary a word of non-praise is being heard.

    Don't get me wrong; I cheered for "Our Gals" and empathized with their heartbreak like everyone else in this country, but let's not kid ourselves. The list of Soccer Sins committed by the players on the pitch and the coach on the sidelines merits serious mention. Only by dispassionate analysis can we ensure these mistakes not happen again.

    To my mind, the clanging of shots off posts are what I call Minor Transgressions and hardly deserve putting under the microscope. Goal scoring is as difficult a task in sport as there is, and sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't.

    No, what is egregious about the loss is the inability to "kill" the game with the two leads they had in RT and ET. Typical time wasting tactics used universally to close out games was totally lacking by the Americans, such as passing back to the keeper, holding the ball in the corner, kicking the ball off opponents for cheap throw-ins and corner kicks, or playing triangle passes amongst the backs. Instead, long aimless balls were jettisoned downfield in the vain hope of another Morgan breakaway with almost no time being consumed, or lazy passes were picked off by the desperate Japanese (such as resulted in the first goal.)

    On that occasion, the boneheaded play of the game, which has either been ignored by everyone or mischaracterized as an unfortunate rebound, was committed by Ali Krieger. Instead of letting Buehler's flailing clearance continue towards the sidelines or kicking it in that direction (admittedly difficult to do because of the rapidity of the play), Krieger meekly and intentionally kicked the ball back to the center, where Buehler was still on the ground and where a charging Miyama gratefully deposited the gift into the US net.

    Defensive Football 101's first rule is "Never clear a ball low and into the center in the penalty area" and Krieger, experienced defender that she is, certainly knew that. She saw Buehler on the ground, she saw her trying to kick the ball towards her, and yet instead of trapping the ball or blasting it upwards and away from the goal, she panicked and made a feeble return pass to, who, her helpless colleague?? How else can you describe this except with the "C" word? A monumental lack of cool tied a game we had in our back pocket.

    Sundhage cannot escape her share of the blame also. She continued to waste Morgan's obvious talents on the bench (though Cheney should be criticized for not pulling herself out the game earlier after she hurt her ankle) and Rapinoe's benching seemed to remove a dynamic element just when we needed it most (though Megan had her fair share of aimless passes also.)

    In the PK phase, why do you put a nervous Tobin in as the 3rd kicker instead of Wambach? Psychologically, you want your best kickers early to put the heat on the opponents. Granted, after the first two misses, the decision was probably no longer in doubt, but still, Sundhage has to play the odds with experienced goal scorers, which Tobin is not.

    OK, I've ranted enough about the mistakes the USWNT made, mistakes which, on another day and against a less inspired team, they probably would have gotten away with. But not that day. The Namoshiko "Blues Sistahs" were on (in my best Dan Akroyd voice) "A Mission from Gaad."

    Hardy Campbell

  11. @HC Until media outlets give their reporting to people w/ a serious investment in the women's game, you'll just have to read that sort of analysis on blogs, and in the comments sections. Where we provide that analysis for each other, for free.



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