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HOPE SOLO: YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT, YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY WRONG

The U.S. women, hoping to become the first team to win an Olympic gold medal a year after capturing a World Cup crown, were upset in the quarterfinals by Sweden in Brasilia on penalty kicks, 4-3, following a 1-1 draw.

The Americans had medaled in every Olympic tournament since women’s soccer was introduced to the Games in 1996, but with the loss they were sent home without even seeing Rio de Janeiro, host city of the XXVIII Olympiad and site of soccer’s semifinals and finals.

After the match, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo created a storm by calling the triumphant Swedes “cowards.”  Her remarks:

“I thought that we played a courageous game.  I thought we had many opportunities on goal.  I think we showed a lot of heart.  We came back from a goal down.  I’m very proud of this team.  But I also think we played a bunch of cowards.  The best team did not win today.  I strongly believe that.  I think you saw American heart.  You saw us give everything we had today.”

Asked what she meant by “cowards,” Solo responded, “Sweden dropped off.  They didn’t want to open play.  They didn’t want to pass the ball.  They didn’t want to play great soccer.  It was a combative game, a physical game.  Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their game plan was.  They dropped into a 50.  They didn’t try and press.  They didn’t want to open the game.  And they tried to counter with long balls.  We had that style of play when Pia (Sundhage, now the Sweden coach) was our coach.  I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament.  I think it was very cowardly.  But they won.  They’re moving on, and we’re going home.” [August 11]

Comment:  Hope Solo has been a polarizing figure her entire international career.  Many thought she should have been dropped from the U.S. squad following a 2014 family dust-up that led to two charges of domestic violence against Solo that have yet to be resolved.  Or after a 2012 domestic violence incident involving her ex-football player husband in which Solo was injured.  Solo also drew chants of “Zika” from the crowd at the USA’s Olympic opener after tweeting before the Olympics photos of a bed covered with bug repellant containers and another of her wearing mosquito netting.  (A P.R. faux pas in a country that earlier in her career considered Solo soccer’s reigning beauty queen.)  But now she’s gone from being a loose cannon to a disgrace.

That said, she’s absolutely correct in her assessment of what was a humbling defeat for the U.S.  The Americans did out-play Sweden, and Sweden did play a negative game, putting nine players behind the ball to neutralize world-class attackers Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan while hoping against hope (no pun intended) that it could produce a counterattack goal, which it did on the hour through Stina Blackstenius to open the scoring.  After the U.S. equalized through Morgan with 13 minutes left, Sweden played overtime aiming to hold on and get to PKs.

But if that’s cowardly, then Italy (the men) has been cowardly for about a century.  The Italians have prized defense, it’s in their DNA.  They are compact, cynically sophisticated and punishing on the tackle.  On the other end they have made an art form of the counterattack.  And all it’s gotten them is four World Cup championships.  It makes Solo’s rip job simply bizarre, because no player with more than 200 caps and 100 shutouts can possibly be that naive.  Or maybe it was just Hope being Hope yet again.

The U.S. went to Brazil ranked No. 1 in the world; Sweden was ranked sixth and obviously the underdog going into this match.  Sundhage, as the former U.S. coach, knows some of the American players better than they know themselves.  Her tactics were correct and they worked.

Sundhage, who had her own issues with Solo back when she was U.S. boss, also got in the last word regarding “cowards.”  “I don’t give a crap,” she snapped.  “I’m going to Rio, she’s going home.”

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AMERICA: GIVE THE REST OF THE WORLD A BREAK

The defending champion United States stormed into the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic women’s soccer tournament, crushing Trinidad & Tobago, 5-0, in Houston in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifiers.

Canada defeated Costa Rica, 3-1, in its semifinal earlier in the day to secure the region’s other berth in Rio and set up a tournament championship match with the U.S. on February 21.

Forward Alex Morgan posted a hat trick against the Socca Princesses, eight days after she scored two goals–the first one in the 12th second–in the Americans’ group-opening 5-0 rout of Costa Rica in Frisco, Tex.  Three days after the Costa Rica win, reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd scored off a rebound of her own penalty kick in the 86th minute to allow the U.S. to squeeze past a bunkered-in Mexico, 1-0, and earn a spot in the semifinals.  The Americans then won the group by pounding Puerto Rico, 10-0, on a night when young forward Crystal Dunn tied a U.S. women’s record with five goals.

The U.S., 17-0-1 all-time in Olympic qualifying, is seeking its fourth consecutive CONCACAF title against Canada, a team that is 3-46-6 all-time against it southern neighbor.  [February 19]

Comment:  Consider this the first time an American has suggested that the rest of the soccer-playing world deserves a break on the playing field at the expense of the United States.

That is, now that women’s soccer is a firmly established Olympic sport, it should be changed to a competition for players 22 and younger, with three over-age players per team.  Just like the men.

Men’s soccer has had a roller coaster history in the Olympics.  Its start was pretty ragged:  scores from the very first modern Olympiad, Athens in 1896, have been lost, and the 1904 St. Louis Olympic tournament was a five-match affair involving club teams from Canada and the U.S.  By Paris ’24, however, the event had grown into something of a world football championship, and after Uruguay dazzled in winning consecutive gold medals, FIFA was compelled to create its World Cup in 1930 so both amateurs and professionals could compete.

With the end of World War II came a long, dark period in which communist bloc countries, with their state-supported “amateur” athletes, dominated Olympic soccer.  Hungary, for one, claimed three golds.  It wasn’t until the 1984 Los Angeles Games that the International Olympic Committee allowed limited professionalism in soccer, and finally the other shoe dropped when the ’92 Barcelona tournament was transformed into an under-23 competition for players regardless of whether they are amateurs or professionals.

The IOC had resisted such a move because it feared a loss of interest in its cash cow event if it made it an age-specific competition.  Such an event couldn’t possibly draw 1.4 million spectators, like it did at Los Angeles ’84.  But there’s nothing in sports like the Olympics.  And the three-overage player allowance gave Olympic spectators the chance to see old hands like Rivaldo, Ryan Giggs, Diego Simeone, Ronaldinho and Ivan Zamorano.  It’s worked.  Fans appear to have accepted an under-23 world championship–as long as it’s wrapped in the Olympic flag.

Now, the women–with the considerable pressure that FIFA could apply–would do well to follow suit.  The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was played in 1991 in China; the first women’s Olympic tournament at Atlanta ’96.  Since then we’ve had two competing women’s world soccer championships played on consecutive years followed by two off years, one a stand-alone event involving 24 nations and one half that big that’s buried among some two dozen other Olympic sporting events.  Throw in the Algarve Cup, a prestigious 12-nation invitational tournament played every spring in Portugal, and the number of women’s “world soccer championships” is too many.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada demonstrated that there is a pipeline of nations challenging the established powers.  Last year it was Colombia, Switzerland and Costa Rica, and in years past it was France and England and Canada.  The women’s Olympic tournament, as a U-23 affair, could expedite that trend by giving the next wave of young standouts a major stage with something precious–an Olympic medal–as an incentive.

So, is this a major concession on the part of an American who’s seen his women’s national team win four of the first five Olympic golds (and lose a fifth to Norway because of a non-handball call in overtime on the deciding goal) to go along with three FIFA World Cup titles?  No.  The U.S., due to recent retirements, injuries and pregnancies, blew its way through CONCACAF to an Olympic berth this week with a 20-member team that averaged 24 years of age.  The U.S. would be quite prepared for a world championship for under-23s.

A similar concession by an American regarding men’s soccer?  Check back in, oh, say, 2116.



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.



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.



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.



OH NO, NOT ANOTHER SEMINAL MOMENT

The U.S. made its way into the FIFA Women’s World Cup semifinals in dramatic fashion, tying Brazil in the dying moments of injury time, 2-2, then prevailing on penalty kicks, 5-3, in Dusseldorf.   FIFA confirmed that it was only the fourth time in World Cup history–the first on the women’s side–that a team came back to win after falling behind in extra time.  The spectacle was not lost on Americans:  ESPN’s rating of 2.6 was the best for a Women’s World Cup match since 1999.

Comment:  Said U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd, “It’s overwhelming.  It’s amazing.  The support and buzz back home is really awesome, and I think it’s helping women’s soccer.  This could be a huge turning point for the growth of soccer back home, and that’s what we’re trying to do and trying to accomplish.”

Oh, let’s hope not.

Please, no more turning points.

Critics of soccer here cite the 1994 World Cup, the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the coming of David Beckham, see that the United States was not turned on its ear by soccer and declare the sport a repeated failure.  What they miss is the fact that soccer is conquering America in drip-drip-drip fashion.  There will be no seminal moment.  It’s ironic that high school football coaches of long ago called soccer “commie ball,” because what soccer has become is the Viet Cong of sports.  The critics will continue their carpet bombing tactics for now, but tomorrow–whenever tomorrow is–they will declare victory and go home while soccer settles comfortably into the American landscape.