Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


WE WON, THE SPORT WON

The United States overwhelmed defending champion Japan with four goals in the first 16 minutes to cruise to an impressive 5-2 victory in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final before a pro-American crowd of 53,341 at Vancouver’s BC Place and become the first nation to capture three women’s world titles.

The Americans, winners of the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 in China and again on home soil in 1999, had lost to the Japanese on penalty kicks in the last final four years ago in Germany, but a first-half hat trick by attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd buried the Nadeshiko.

Lloyd, the Golden Ball winner as the tournament’s MVP, gave the U.S. a shock 2-0 lead with goals in the third and fifth minutes.  Both came on grounded crosses from the right, the first a corner kick by Megan Rapinoe and the second a free kick by Lauren Holiday that was flicked on by defender Julie Johnston.  In the 14th minute, Holiday allowed her side some breathing room with a volleyed goal after defender Azusa Iwashimizu’s poor header couldn’t stop a U.S. counterattack.  But Lloyd’s third goal, two minutes later, applied the dagger.

Spotting Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori far off her line, Lloyd launched a 54-yard bomb from just inside the Japan half.  The backpedaling Kaihori got a hand on the ball, but it banked in off her right post for a 4-0 lead.  It was the fastest World Cup hat trick–men or women–in history.  The only other player to score three goals in a World Cup final was England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.

Japan pulled one back in the 27th minute when striker Yuki Ogimi scored on a brilliant turn that left Johnston sprawled at the top of the penalty area.  And the Japanese gave the Americans cause for concern seven minutes into the second half when Johnston headed a long diagonal free kick from the left by midfielder Aya Miyama into her own net.

Midfielder Tobin Heath, however, restored the three-goal lead two minutes later from four yards out on a pass across the Japan goalmouth by Morgan Brian off a corner kick by Holiday.

Lloyd, whose six goals tied her with Germany’s Celia Sasic for most in the tournament, was awarded the Golden Ball.  She joined Carin Jennings (1991) as the only Americans to win a World Cup MVP award.  Hope Solo, whose off-the-field misadventures were well-chronicled in the weeks leading up to Canada ’15, won the Golden Glove award as best goalkeeper, her second straight.  Supported by the young but air-tight back line of Ali Krieger, Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg, Solo allowed only three goals and posted five shutouts.  The triumph, meanwhile, came as something of redemption for coach Jill Ellis, whose moves drew heavy criticism until she moved 22-year-old Brian to holding midfielder mid-tournament, thus freeing Lloyd to join the attack, and the USA’s service and finishing went from disappointing to–in the final–overwhelming.  [July 5]

Comment I:  So the United States becomes the first women’s national team to plant a third star above the crest on their jerseys.   Among the men, whose first World Cup was played in 1930, only Brazil, with five, and Germany and Italy, with four apiece, have more.  The real winner in Canada, however, was American soccer.

Americans, it is said, will watch an international tiddlywinks championship if they think an American will win.  And the U.S. team marched into this World Cup with a winning legacy, recognizable standout players, and a wholesome, likable aura.

But Ellis’ women transcended all that.  Nearly 27 million U.S. viewers watched the final (25.4 on Fox, 1.27 on Spanish-language Telemundo), making it the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history.  Better than the 18.2 million who saw the U.S. men held to a tie by Portugal on ESPN at last summer’s men’s World Cup.  Better than the 17.9 million who saw the U.S. beat China on PKs in the 1999 women’s World Cup.  Better by 41 percent than the U.S.-Japan final four years ago (13.5 million).  As for the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, those guys attracted 26.5 million American viewers.

That’s a lot of Americans tuned in to a soccer match, and many were soccer fans to begin with.  But many were not.  And what they saw was a tremendous advertisement for the sport.  The good guys–er, women–won.  But what they demonstrated in the final against Japan was the very best of the sport.  Fitness.  Athleticism.  Skill.  Invention.  Fearlessness.  Teamwork combined with improvisation.

Most important, they demonstrated little of the gamesmanship that plagues the men’s game.  Fortunately, there was no overriding need for a U.S. or Japanese player to dive in the penalty area during the final–nothing turns an American off to soccer like a dive, or “simulation,” or, as they call it in basketball, a flop.  And if there had been a dive, it would’ve been somewhat jarring after 29 days of relatively clean play.

So it’s now on to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.  And if we’re treated to a U.S.-Mexico finale, as the organizers are hoping for, we’ll get a reminder of business-as-usual soccer, with rolling bodies and chippy fouls and all kinds of nonsense.  Fortunately, many of the innocent Americans who enjoyed U.S.-Japan will never tune in to such a match–for now–and remain blissfully ignorant of the game’s ugly macho side.

Comment II:  Despite appearing on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine pre-tournament, that month in Canada was a relatively quiet one for 35-year-old U.S. striker Abby Wambach, who came into the tournament with a world-record 182 career goals, including 13 in three previous World Cups.  She played only 297 total minutes over seven matches (three starts), including the last 11 minutes of the final, when Lloyd handed her the captain’s armband, which Wambach has worn so long and so well.  She scored one goal, against Nigeria in the first round, and missed a penalty kick against Colombia in the second round when she curiously chose to use her less-favored left foot.

However, she came up with the quote of the tournament, albeit six months earlier in an interview with Time magazine.  It illustrated what drove her during her limited time on the field and, no doubt, drove her teammates, especially the ones who were part of the 2011 team:

“‘All the hardships, the sacrifice, the blood, the sweat, the broken bones, the broken relationships will make more sense if we can bring home the trophy,” said Wambach.  And if the U.S. falls short?  “I’m sure I’ll be fine.  But I’ll be pissed off the rest of my life.”

Smile, Abby.



THE VERY QUIET ANNUAL WOMEN’S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

The U.S. National Women’s Team awoke in the second half to score three goals and cruise past Switzerland, 3-0, in an Algarve Cup match at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and take over first place in Group “B” with a 2-0-0 record.   Alex Morgan opened the scoring in the 54th minute, Amy Rodriguez doubled the lead with a brilliant finish off a goalmouth scramble in the 72nd and Abby Wambach, aided by a poor Swiss back pass, sealed the victory nine minutes from time.

The Americans will play Iceland three days later in Lagos their its final group match.  The two best group winners will meet in the first-place game; Brazil leads Group “A” (1-0-1) and France tops Group “C” (2-0-0).  [March 6]

Comment:  This 22nd Algarve Cup underscores how far women’s soccer has come . . . and how far it has to go in comparison to the men’s game.

Held in the tourist-friendly southernmost region of Portugal, it’s the biggest annual tournament in women’s soccer.  Nine of this year’s 12 national teams have qualified for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.  With the exception of host Portugal (No. 42), every team is in the top 20 in FIFA’s latest Women’s World Rankings.  How tough is the competition?  The U.S. won two Women’s World Cups before it won the first of its nine Algarve Cups.  And Fox Sports is televising it live.

Yet despite the prestige and world-class quality of this event, attendance puts the Algarve Cup on a par with a decent NCAA Division I women’s match.  The U.S.-Switzerland game at Vila Real de Santo Antonio’s Estadio Municipal drew a crowd generously listed as 500; the USA’s 2-1 win over Norway at the same site two days earlier also attracted “500.”  Not all five of the Algarve Cup venues have bothered to report turnstile counts, but through the first two rounds of group play the biggest turnout was 769 for Sweden’s 4-2 upset of top-ranked Germany.  Denmark appears to be a particularly hard sell:  133 patrons watched the Danes lose to Japan, 2-1, at Stadium Bela Vista in Parchal, and another 45 returned to see them get thumped by France, 4-1.  How seriously are the Portuguese organizers taking all this?  The U.S.-Iceland match cannot be televised due to inadequate lighting at Municipal Stadium in Lagos.

This is not unusual.  The local Portuguese have a history of being completely indifferent to this showcase of women’s international soccer.  Most matches have been played before crowds in the dozens–a stark reminder that outstanding women’s soccer doesn’t always draw.  A women’s Olympic soccer gold-medal match?  Sure.  And the 2015 Women’s World Cup final on July 5 in Vancouver will fill the 55,000-seat BC Place.  As for last year’s Algarve Cup final at Estadio Algarve in Faro, 600 bothered to show up for Germany’s 3-0 rout of defending world champion Japan.

Imagine, then, a men’s Algarve Cup, an annual tournament involving the world’s 12 best national teams–virtually a combination of the European Championship and Copa America.  To the critics of the expansion of the men’s World Cup over the years, this would be a Hyper-World Cup with none of the long-shots and no-hopers from Africa, Asia and CONCACAF (apologies to the U.S. and Mexico) that those critics dismiss as mere fodder.  Play it in Portugal, where the national team is currently ranked seventh worldwide, and you’ve got No. 1 Germany, No. 2 Argentina, No. 3 Colombia, No. 4 Belgium, No. 5 Holland, No. 6 Brazil, No. 8 France, No. 9 Uruguay, No. 10 Spain, No. 11 Switzerland and No. 12 Italy.  Not bad.  And chances are it would out-draw the Algarve Cup.

 

 



ABBY WAMBACH: THIRD-BEST HERE, THE BEST EVERYWHERE ELSE?

Lauren Holiday was voted 2014 U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year, becoming the first player to win the USSF’s athlete and young athlete of the year awards.

The holding midfielder received 43 percent of the vote, followed by Carli Lloyd (25 percent) and Abby Wambach (18 percent).

Holiday has 110 caps, including 16 earned this year, when she scored two goals and set up three others.  She also starred for FC Kansas City, scoring eight goals with seven assists.  In the National Women’s Soccer League championship match, she assisted on both goals in a 2-1 victory over the Seattle Reign, winning MVP honors.

Taking part in the balloting for the athlete of the year award were players who earned a cap with the U.S. National Women’s Team in 2014, women’s and youth women’s national team coaches, National Women’s Soccer League head coaches and select former players, administrators and media members.  Goalkeeper Tim Howard was named U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year a week earlier.  [December 6]

Comment:  Wambach has been named one of three finalists for the 2014 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award, along with Brazil’s Marta (the winner from 2006 through 2010) and Nadine Kessler of Germany.  A finalist for the fourth time and winner in 2012, the imposing striker led the U.S. in scoring with 14 goals to increase her world-record tally to 177.  Despite a string of injuries during the NWSL season, Wambach scored six goals and contributed four assists in 10 games for her club, the Western New York Flash.

The winner of this award, along with the men’s honor (Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona and Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich are finalists), men’s and women’s coach of the year, and goal of the year, will be presented in Zurich on January 12.  The voters included national team captains and coaches and media members.

Best of luck to Wambach. We must live in a wonderful land of female soccer talent when the woman considered the third-best female player in America can also be considered among the three best female players on the planet.



ABBY THE GREAT — BUT HOW GREAT?

Abby Wambach became the most prolific goal-scorer–male or female–in international soccer history when she scored four goals against South Korea in a friendly at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, as the U.S. rolled to a 5-0 victory.

All of Wambach’s goals were scored in the first half.  Her third, which came in the 29th minute, gave her 159 for her career and put her past former U.S. teammate Mia Hamm.

The 33-year old scored the record-setter with a trademark diving header off a corner kick by midfielder Megan Rapinoe.  A bench-clearing celebration followed as the crowd of 18,961 roared.  She exited the match to another long ovation 13 minutes into the second half.

Wambach also passed Hamm in another category:  The two had been tied at 38 career multi-goal games.

Wambach got even with Hamm with goals in the 10th and 19th minutes, both set up by Lauren Cheney.  She capped her historic evening in first-half added-on time on a selfless pass by Alex Morgan.

At the moment, Wambach stands alone at 160 career international goals, followed by Hamm at 158.  Among the men, Ali Daei of Iran (1993-2006) is on top with 109 goals in 149 appearances.  Among European/South American males, Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (1945-56) remains No. 1 with 84 in 85 matches, nearly a goal-per-game average.  [June 20]

Comment:  So who’s better, Abby Wambach or Mia Hamm, who retired in 2004 after 275 international appearances?

Hamm, of course, was an attacking midfielder, not a pure striker with the 5-foot-11 Wambach’s aerial ability in the penalty area.  Hamm probably passed up several more goals, as her  career assist total–144–suggests.  (Wambach has 62; second on the U.S. list is the retired Kristine Lilly, 105).  And while Wambach’s sheer drive, power and talent with her back to the goal are tremendous, Hamm could do it all in the attacking half, embarrassing a generation of would-be defenders in the process.  In another country, Holland, among men, this would be a comparison between strike master Marco Van Basten and one of the most complete players of all time, Johan Cruyff.  (For the record, Van Basten scored 37 goals in 73 games for the Dutch, Cruyff, 33 goals in 48 before his premature international retirement.)

And from a cultural standpoint, Hamm, thanks to her considerable skills, her two World Cup winner’s medals, her two Olympic gold medals, her two FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year awards and the marketing geniuses at Nike and Gatorade, remains the best-known American female soccer player in the U.S.–despite Wambach having won a FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year award of her own last year.   Heck, among this country’s millions of non-soccer fans, Hamm may be the best-known soccer player, period, with all due respect to David Beckham and Pele.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s a wash.  When Hamm made her U.S. debut in 1987, she was 15, and the women’s game was only beginning to be taken seriously in the U.S., Scandinavia, pockets of western Europe and the Far East–while it was frowned upon in macho Latin America, Africa and most of Asia.  The first FIFA Women’s World Cup, won by the U.S., was four years away.  The first women’s Olympic tournament, won by the U.S. at the Atlanta Games, was another five years away.  It all seems like ages ago, and with the women’s game evolving at breakneck speed, the threats to U.S. hegemony aren’t just China, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Japan of Hamm’s day but Brazil, France, England, Canada, Australia and North Korea, while early powers like Italy and Denmark and Nigeria and New Zealand have faded into the second tier.   Wambach’s is a different world, one a whole lot more crowded–crowded with better teams with better defenders.



WOMEN’S PRO SOCCER LEAGUE NO. 3: SMARTER IS BETTER

A new eight-team women’s pro soccer league will kick off next spring, two years after the demise of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11) and a decade after the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) folded.

The league will have teams in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, western New York and Washington DC.

It reportedly has a handshake agreement with one national sponsor; television coverage is a question mark.  [November 21]

Comment:  After Women’s Professional Soccer went under last January, the reaction in this space was, please don’t come back with another women’s pro soccer league unless there’s a new, inventive approach behind the effort.  Otherwise, the notion of a high-profile women’s pro circuit might be killed off for the foreseeable future.  (To see the original admonishment, go to May 28.)

Thankfully, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the powers that be have chosen not to exercise that classic example of insanity, in which the patient, happily doing the same thing over and over, expects a different result.

In this incarnation, the league will get considerable support from the U.S., Mexican and Canadian soccer federations, whose national team players will benefit from the week-in, week-out competition the league will provide from March-April to September-October.  In a women’s sports sense, the outside help recalls the launch of the WNBA, which would not have been possible without all of its original teams being owned by NBA franchises.

While the clubs in this currently unnamed league will be privately owned, the U.S. Soccer Federation will not only pay the salaries of up to 24 of the league’s American players but fund the league’s front office as well.   The Mexican and Canadian soccer federations, with an eye toward the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, will pay the salaries of some of their players who play in the league.  As a result, each club will be off the hook for the salaries of up to seven of its most valuable players.

Most of the players will be semipros, and gone will be high-priced talent from beyond North America, like Brazil’s Marta and Japan’s Homare Sawa, but  U.S. mainstays like Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe won’t be faced with the prospect of plying their trade in leagues overseas.

As USSF President Sunil Gulati put it, “What we need is a sustainable model:  less hype, better performance.  The hype will come if we have the performance.”

Major League Soccer wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without turning sports management on its ear with the single-entity concept.  Give League Jane Doe credit for trying to turn it on its other ear.



A RARE CALL … FOR A REASON

FIFA has announced that it will look into statements made by Canadian team members the previous day following their dramatic 4-3 overtime loss to the United States in the women’s Olympic semifinal at Manchester’s Old Trafford.

The U.S. scored the winner on a looping header by forward Alex Morgan three minutes into added on time, making the Americans a perfect five-for-five in women’s gold-medal game appearances.  What raised the ire of the Canadians in particular was a sequence that began in the 79th minute with Canada clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Norwegian referee Christine Pedersen whistled Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball in her penalty area beyond the allowable six seconds.  On the ensuing indirect free kick from inside the top of the Canadian penalty area, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd sent a shot into the Canadian wall that was ruled to have been handled by defender Marie-Eve Nault.  American striker Abby Wambach converted the resulting penalty kick to send the match to overtime.

Among the Canadian quotes:

From captain and forward Christine Sinclair, whose brilliant hat trick went for naught:  “We feel like it was taken from us.  It’s a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started.”

From coach John Herdman, who also took issue with a non-call on a possible U.S. handball in the box:  “The ref will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replays.  She’s got to live with that.  We’ll move on from this–I wonder if she’ll be able to.”

And from Sinclair’s strike mate, Melissa Tancredi:  “[Pedersen] could have done a better job–a way better job.  This is the semifinals.  We’re supposed to be professionals and they should act like one too.  I feel robbed.  That’s all I can say.  I said to her, ‘I hope you can sleep tonight and put on your American jersey because that’s who you played for today.'”   [August 7]

Comment:   The six-second call on goalkeeper McLeod has been called everything from “unusual” to “bizarre.”  But it was justified.

McLeod took her time in playing the ball after gaining possession several times during the game.  It was so obvious that at the end of halftime a linesman told her to speed things up, but McLeod didn’t take it “like a real warning,” in her words, because it didn’t come from Pedersen.

Bad mistake.  McLeod was at it again in the 58th and 61st minutes, prompting Wambach to start loudly counting out the seconds as soon as the Canada ‘keeper picked up a ball.  By the 79th minute, with McLeod holding the ball for as long as 10 seconds, Wambach had cowed Pedersen into a decision.

“I got to 10 seconds right next to the referee,” said Wambach, “and at 10 seconds, she blew the whistle.”

It was indeed a rare call.  So much so that after the whistle, NBC play-by-play man Arlo White mistakenly thought that McLeod had been caught taking more than four steps with the ball–the 1985 restriction on goalkeepers to prevent time-wasting that was replaced in 1998 by the six-second rule (he quickly corrected himself.)   But there’s a reason why it’s rare at the highest levels of soccer.

The six-second rule is the only part of the Laws of the Game that doesn’t leave time-wasting–and the indirect free kick that goes with it–to the discretion of the referee.  Six seconds is six seconds.  It’s a rule that’s been fudged by ‘keepers for the past 14 years, along with the rule that’s supposed to keep ‘keepers glued to their goal line during a penalty kick.  But any goalkeeper who repeatedly flirts with nine and 10 and 11 and 12 seconds in a first division or international match is asking for it.  And any ‘keeper who calls attention to herself by doing it repeatedly while trying to protect a slim 1-0 first-half lead in an Olympic medal-qualification match is downright dumb.



WOMEN’S PRO SOCCER: IF IT CAN’T BE DONE RIGHT, DON’T DO IT

Women’s Professional Soccer, home to such top U.S. internationals as Abby Wambach and Hope Solo and Brazilian star Marta, folded, four months after the league cancelled its 2012 season in hopes of returning in 2013.

League officials cited an ongoing battle with the owner of the Boca Raton-based club magicJack as the primary reason for the decision, but WPS also had been plagued by a lack of capital and low attendance (3,535 average in 2011).  The league limped through its last season with six teams, all of them on the East Coast.

The demise of WPS leaves the U.S. with two second-division women’s circuits, the USL’s W-League, which has 30 teams, and the 67-team Women’s Premier Soccer League, which broke away from the W-League in 1997.  [May 18]

Comment:  To those who think they can succeed where the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-2003, R.I.P.) and WPS failed, please don’t step forward unless and until you have the right formula and the financial muscle to weather years of struggle, a la Major League Soccer.  (Note:  Financial muscle means more than the $100 million the WUSA lost during its brief lifetime.)

These vain attempts only sully the sport of women’s soccer in the eyes of the general public and undermine what is one of American sports’ few ongoing feel-good stories, the U.S. National Women’s Team.



IS FC BARCELONA THE BEST CLUB EVER?

Argentine forward Lionel Messi, all of 24, became the first player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times in a row as the world’s top players and coaches were honored at the 2011 FIFA Awards Gala at the Kongresshaus in Zurich.

Messi received the FIFA Ballon d’Or, beating out FC Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez of Spain and Portugal and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo in voting that involved national team coaches and captains and selected media members.  A two-time runner-up, he joins Ronaldo (1996, 1997, 2002) and Zinedine Zidane (1998, 2000, 2003) as the award’s only three-time winner.

Other honorees:

          o  Homare Sawa of Japan, Women’s Player of the Year.  Marta of Brazil, the winner the previous five years, finished second and the USA’s Abby Wambach third.

          o  Pep Guardiola of FC Barcelona, Men’s Coach of the Year, ahead of Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson.

          o  Norio Sasaki of Japan, Women’s Coach of the Year.  Pia Sundhage of the U.S. and Bruno Bini of France finished second and third.

          o  The FIFA/FIFPro Best XI:  Iker Casillas; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso; Messi, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney.

          o  Best goal award went to Brazil and Santos forward Neymar, and the Japan Football Association received FIFA’s Fair Play award for its response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck its country in March.  [January 9]

Comment:  The night may have belonged to Messi, but Guardiola deserves the brightest spotlight.

The Coach of the Year award is as close to a Club of the Year trophy as FIFA can hand out, and Guardiola has played a leading role in creating a club for the ages.

A couple of years into Guardiola’s four-year tenure at the Barcelona wheel, his team had already drawn comparisons with Ferenc Puskas’ Honved of the early 1950s, Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid of the late ’50s, Pele’s Santos of the early ’60s, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax of the early ’70s, Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich of the mid-’70s, Liverpool of the early ’80s, AC Milan of the late ’80s, and Manchester United of the late ’90s.

On a practical level, Barcelona won five trophies in 2011 and 13 of 16 possible honors since the Catalan powerhouse began to roll three years ago.  It is the current FIFA Club World Cup holder, having dismantled Santos, 4-0, in last month’s final, and the UEFA Champions League winner.   Its youth academy and scouting system are the model for ambitious clubs worldwide.  Its talent serves as the backbone of the Spanish National Team, the reigning world champion.

But on an artistic level, Barcelona is tiqui-taca, that oh-so-pleasing style that features 11 players, each of them comfortable on the ball, nine of the other field players running to provide the ball holder with myriad options, and nothing so ugly as a 40-yard thump into the box that would be described by the British as “speculative.” 

Guardiola may have had the horses–Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Cese Fabregas, David Villa, Pique, Carles Puyol, et al.–but he has held to the Barcelona way and gotten everyone on the same page.  And to the observer, what they do game by game  is so much more appealing than what they’ve done.



BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Abby Wambach, whose clutch goals got the U.S. into the final of last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, was voted 2011 Female Athlete of the Year by selected members of The Associated Press.  Wambach received 65 of 214 votes cast; teammate Hope Solo was second with 38, while Connecticut basketball player Maya Moore was third with 35.  The AP’s male winner was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers.

Wambach’s finest moment came during the semifinals, when her dramatic headed goal late in overtime helped lift the U.S. to victory over longtime rival Brazil.  She is one of three finalists for the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year trophy, which will be presented January 9 at the FIFA Awards Gala in Zurich.  [December 20]

Comment:  Another step forward, domestically.

Wambach, at nearly six feet tall an imposing striker,  is the first soccer player of either gender to be singled out in the 80-year history of the AP award (the 1999 U.S. national team won the honor for capturing that year’s Women’s World Cup).   Too bad the AP was too focused on golf and tennis all the way into the new millenium and missed the exploits of Michelle Akers, the heroine of the USA’s 1991 world championship, and Mia Hamm, who probably had peaked when she was voted the 2001 and 2002 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, the first two years of that honor’s history.

Someday, a soccer player will win the AP Male Athlete of the Year award.  The honor isn’t exclusive to Americans, so that means that over eight decades Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo were never recognized, while Wayne Gretzky, Ben Johnson, Ingemar Johansson and immortals like Gunder Haag and Herb Elliott were.



SECOND GUESSING THAT SECOND GOAL

A dogged Japan stunned the favored U.S. in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final before a sellout crowd of 48,817 in Frankfurt, coming back twice to get even at 2-2 before winning a penalty-kick tiebreaker, 3-1.  Aya Miyama and Golden Boot winner Homare Sawa cancelled out strikes by Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, and Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two saves in the shootout. 

The triumph lifted a Japanese nation still recovering from a devastating earthquake in March.  Sawa’s goal came just three minutes from the end of extra time and prevented the U.S. from capturing a record-third women’s world championship.  [July 17]

Comment:  A free-flowing sport such as soccer presents countless what-might-have-been moments:  the through-ball hit too hard, the off-target shot deflected in off a defender’s ankle, the caution that should have been a sending off, ad nauseum.  U.S.-Japan presented a truckload, particularly the USA’s two shots off the woodwork and at least two other precious chances in the first half.

Those goals denied will get much of the attention as American fans sift through the embers, but the spotlight deserves to be trained on the 80th minute and the goal by Miyama that leveled the score at 1-1 and ultimately sent the game into overtime. 

A cross from the left set up a clash in the middle of the goalie box between substitute forward Karina Maruyama and Rachel Buehler, and the U.S. center back, on the ground, seemed to have diffused the situation by poking the ball on to the right.  Right back Ali Krieger, however, inadvertently sent the ball back into the middle, where Miyama pounced on it and beat goalkeeper Hope Solo from five yards.

There were no Japanese players anywhere near the right side of the U.S. penalty area.  If Krieger had simply dummied the ball and left it to trickle toward the touchline, Krieger herself might have caught up with it or the ball would have been retrieved by speedy midfielder Heather O’Reilly, who was tracking back.

A second guess, perhaps, in a sport too full of potential turning points for second guesses.  But as a famous American sportscaster not covering soccer said on the air recently, “Not a second guess, just a thought . . . .”