Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.”



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.



NOPE, HOPE

U.S. Olympic Team goalkeeper Hope Solo will not be disciplined for a series of tweets in which she ripped NBC color commentator Brandi Chastain for criticizing the Americans’ defense during their 3-0 rout of Colombia in a second group-round match the day before in Glasgow.

Said coach Pia Sundhage after a meeting with Solo and team captains, “We had a conversation:  If you look at the women’s national team, what do you want (people) to see?  What do you want them to hear?  And that’s where we do have a choice–as players, coaches, staff, the way we respond to certain things.”

Solo’s tweets:

o  “Lay off commentating about defending and gking until you get more educated @brandichastain the game has changed from a decade ago. #fb”

o  “Its 2 bad we can’t have commentators who better represents the team&knows more about the game @brandichastain #fb”

o  “I feel bad 4 our fans that have 2 push mute, especially bc @arlowhite is fantastic.  @brandichastain should be helping 2 grow the sport #fb”

o  “Its important 2 our fans 2 enjoy the spirit of the olympics.Its not possible when sum1 on air is saying that a player is the worst defender!”

(Note:  Arlo White is NBC’s play-by-play man.)

The response by Chastain, best known for her winning penalty kick for the U.S. at the 1999 Women’s World Cup final:  “I’m here to do my job, which is to be an honest and objective analyst at the Olympics.”  [July 29]

Comment:  We’ve been down this road before.

Solo has popped off numerous times during her 12-year, 118-match international career, most infamously after she was benched in favor of back-up Briana Scurry for the USA’s 2007 Women’s World Cup semifinal, a game won by Brazil, 4-0.  That lineup blunder by coach Greg Ryan cost him his job, but for essentially throwing Scurry under the bus, Solo was voted off the squad, temporarily, by her teammates.  She also twice touched off other controversies via Twitter, the most recent in 2010 when, while playing for WPS’ Atlanta Beat, she questioned the integrity of match officials, drawing a one-game suspension and $2,500 fine.

Of course Solo is entitled to her opinions.  And many view Solo sticking up for herself and the players in front of her in Glasgow as demonstrating the same outspoken leadership traits as those exhibited by such notable male ‘keepers as Gianluigi Buffon, Peter Schmeichel and Toni Schumacher.  (Ironically, Chastain, in a newspaper interview before the Colombia match, praised Solo for her swagger.)

But Solo would do well to realize that she’s part of something very special in American sports.  What initially made the U.S. National/Olympic Women’s Team a sensation, winning hearts and minds among fans and non-fans alike was its good humor, good sportsmanship, and positive, one-for-all, all-for-one attitude.  Winning certainly didn’t hurt, but away from the field, if there were problems, apparently they stayed behind the scenes while they got solved.

This is Solo being the aptly named Solo.  The product of a broken home whose relationship with her occasionally homeless father, a Vietnam War vet, has been well documented (the latest, in a Newsweek cover story)–evidently she will continue to be the only U.S. player to take the field with a large chip on her shoulder.  But in the last couple of days she has helped make the U.S. women’s team–that oasis in a sports world drowning in greed, ego, poor sportsmanship and, yes, reckless tweets–a little less special.



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.



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.