I’ll say this for American soccer: we’re never boring. Our men might punch below our weight (if you measure weight by GDP and number of kids and teens who play the game), our women might have struggled for the last two World Cups to replicate the magic of 1999, but we produce some memorable matches. In the past year and change, we have had Landon Donovan’s injury time winner against Algeria, the memorable Gold Cup Final, and now Abby Wambach scoring the latest possible equalizer. I can picture Uncle Sam shouting “are you not entertained?” We may not have a defined playing style, but we do have a terrific “we can do this, no matter the circumstances” attitude in late game situations. Our former colonial masters should take note.
1. Great lede by Grant Wahl:
This U.S. Women's World Cup campaign has a chance to get big now. It's one of the slowest weeks on the U.S. sports calendar, so there's not much competition, and any time you mix patriotism and miraculous comebacks and appealing athletes who play for the purity of the sport -- and the winning, of course, always the winning -- well, you've got something that could blow up.
I’d add in Hope Solo, a star goalkeeper who is attractive, has a great name, is terrific at what she does, and comes with a fascinating personal story. This team has the capacity to draw attention to their sport in the same way that the 1999 team did, although I ought to make the Debbie Downer point that any sort of effect on the struggling domestic professional league would be transitory. (It makes more sense for the best players in the world to play in Europe one women’s teams attached to established clubs. Add the branding of Arsenal or Olympique Lyonnais to women’s teams and then they have more of a chance to succeed than they do as the Western New York Flash.)
2. It’s hard to remember a day where Brazil were considered to be big game bottlers, but the women’s team is actually following in a tradition that the men’s team had between the epic performance in 1970 and the return to glory in 1994. Brazil’s exits from the World Cup in the 70s were acceptable – they lost to the brilliant Cruyff Netherlands in ‘74 and went out in suspicious circumstances without losing a game in ‘78 – but their failures in the next three World Cups were spectacular failures. In ‘82, Brazil brought one of the great attacking sides of all time to Spain and managed to get knocked out by Italy (in a match in which the Selecao only needed a draw) through a series of comical defensive lapses. In ‘86, Brazil missed a penalty kick that would have won the match against France and then went out in penalties. In ‘90, Brazil comprehensively outplayed Argentina, missed a raft of chances, and then lost when the entire back line panicked on the only occasion that Maradona ran at them. These failures formed Brazil’s reputation when I was becoming a footie fan. The men have banished the reputation with two more World Cups, but the women seem to have taken the mantle. Losing in penalties after a late equalizer from a cross is a nice synthesis of Brazil’s failures in the 80s.
3. Part of what I like about soccer is that it doesn’t have football’s fascist tendencies (and I say that as someone who considers football to be his favorite sport). There are a host of ways to make this point, but the easiest is that soccer fans honor creative goal celebrations, whereas football authorities think of new, more draconian ways to punish them. “Let’s fine players who use props. No, that’s not enough. We can’t have too much exuberance from these scary Black men. Let’s take away touchdowns for celebrations that are punctuated with something that might strike a given ref on a given day as excessive.” That said, soccer could use a governing body that makes the trains run on time. There is a very simple solution to the simulated injuries that mar the end of matches such as yesterday’s: if a player is down for more than 20 seconds, then the stretcher comes off and the player stays off the field for a minimum of five minutes. Soccer has an issue with incentives. Players have an incentive to fake injuries to waste time and break up play, so they do it. (My beloved Barca are no angels in this department.) Football players would do the same if they had the same incentives (and indeed, defensive players have faked injuries before to slow down no-huddle offenses). If FIFA were capable of anything other than sweeping gross acts of corruption under the rug, then it would alter the incentives of players to fake injuries. It is not, so it will not.