The rules of athletics (at least knockout style) dictate that there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.
Expert commentary, I know.
But (and I realize not everyone reading this is a United States fan, and I love that about AWK, so keep visiting) if you can take yourself out of your rooting shoes (or jersey) for a second and take the game you watched on Sunday for what it was.
A brilliant advertisement for women’s soccer, which saw the best the game has to offer. An underdog that everyone could root for, coming off an unspeakable tragedy in their home country, playing an attractive style of soccer, and exuding pure class and sportsmanship at just about every turn.
Of course, the rub is that this great story of Japan comes at the expense of the U.S., who lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, leading both in normal time and extra time before losing in penalties. It’s hard to imagine losing in a more painful fashion, actually.
But, perhaps the biggest lesson I try to get across to both the players I coach and students I teach is the “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” lesson.
Can you be happy for someone else even if it comes at your expense? Can you put aside your pride to congratulate an opponent or adversary on a job well done?
This one will hurt for a while for the United States. There’s no telling where the national team program will be in four years, there’s a lot of work to be done to stay on top of an ever-changing and improving women’s soccer world.
But there’s something to be said for being a part of something great. Sunday’s final capped a beautiful tournament that drew attention to women’s soccer that it hasn’t seen in 12 years. And, I would argue, this was even better because people seemed to be tuning in more for the quality of the play than the novelty of it. Or if they tuned in for the novelty, they were stunned by the quality and refreshing way the women went about their craft: few horrible tackles, less gamesmanship, more reasons to smile on a daily basis.
It was capped by the “right” team winning, the one with the best story, the underdog everyone can attach themselves to.
It was just unfortunate it wasn’t the team in our country.
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. shouldn’t be proud that they played such a big part, they had the better chances, controlled play, and played their best game of the tournament. They did everything but win the title, and getting so close will sting.
As Abby Wambach did, though, just minutes after the match, it doesn’t mean you can’t tip your proverbial cap to the Japanese and walk away with your head held high.
After all, even though they lost, they were part of something special. It may not mean anything tomorrow on the plane ride home or next week or even next year.
Someday, though it should.
The final edition of the 10 things we learned at Germany 2011.
1) The United States looked like the best team in the world today *** (but see No. 2 and 3)
The U.S. came out with a game plan to press Japan as soon as they got out of their own third, and they executed it brilliantly in the first half. Every time the Japanese tried to play through them, one of the midfielders (Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Shannon Boxx, and Heather O’Reilly) was in their face. More importantly, the next outlet was cut off by the U.S. hard work, and Japan was simply lost for about the first 30 minutes of the match.
2) But you have to take your chances
Again, expert commentary, I know, but to put only one of their first 13 shots on goal was not going to get it done. You understand nerves and the huge occasion, but – as I’ve said before in the U.S.’s behalf in this tournament – they don’t give you points for that kind of stuff. Carli Lloyd was the biggest repeat offender, but she wasn’t alone.
Of course, sometimes you’re just unlucky. Abby Wambach’s 28th minute missile (with her left, no less) was inches from being a spectacular goal. Alex Morgan’s ball in the 49th minute at the near post seemed harder to stay out than go in, but somehow spun in the goalmouth and was cleared.
That’s the way the game goes sometimes.
3) The defense left a lot to be desired
Ironically, they didn’t have to do too much for much of the match, but both goals came on just panicked defending, and there were a couple of other moments that didn’t result in goals that made you cringe.
I’m sure Rachel Buehler feels as bad as anyone, but it was her clearance that caromed off a shocked Ali Krieger (and a couple of other defenders had chances to clear the ball as well) and led to the equalizer.
On the second goal, Homare Sawa lost Buehler, but it was a simple ball over the top that resulted in the corner in the firstplace.
Even Hope Solo looked extremely nervous at the end of the game.
4) You just expected the U.S. to win
To break it down, the only game the U.S. has lost in extra time or penalties in a major tournament was the 2000 Olympics in Sydney when Tiffeny Milbrett scored in stoppage time to tie the gold medal match against Norway, only to have Dagny Mellgren score in the 102nd minute to give Norway the gold, 3-2.
Here’s the rest of the list:
1996 Olympic semi – 2-1 ET win over Norway (Shannon MacMillan game-winner)
1999 WC final – PK win over China
2004 Olympic semi – 2-1 ET win over Germany (Heather O’Reilly 99′)
2004 Olympic final – 2-1 ET win over Brazil (Abby Wambach 112′)
2008 Olympic quarters – 2-1 win over Canada (Natasha Kai 101′)
2008 Olympic finals – 1-0 win over Brazil (Carli Lloyd 96′)
2011 WC quarters – PK win over Brazil
So it was a little surprising historically to see the U.S. lose in the fashion that they did.
5) Alex Morgan is going to be a star
Jenna has already pointed out that Morgan leads the searches that lead to her site. I’m guessing many of those aren’t for her soccer talents, unfortunately.
But she was the most dangerous person on the field Sunday, on either team, and the finish on the first goal was clinical. She will be a handful to deal with, and paired with Wambach will be an absolute handful for anyone to deal with.
We’ll see if Wambach hangs around for another World Cup, but until she retires, that’s a lethal duo.
6) It’s never over until……
There was really no reason to think that Japan was going to get back into the game after the Morgan’s goal. I was as guilty as anyone of prematurely awarding the U.S. the trophy and speculating on how much money Alex Morgan (and others) could make in endorsements, and then – pretty much out of the blue – Japan struck.
But that’s why we love this game, a 1-0 or 2-1 lead can be erased just like that.
7) Japan never really could get Aya Sameshima or Yukari Kinga into the game
A lot of what Japan did was predicated on outside backs Kinga and Sameshima getting forward, but Heather O’Reilly and Megan Rapnioe kept them in check for most of the game (until the very end), and made them defend much more often than Japan wanted them to, which obviously wasn’t in their game plan. Again, things went pretty much how the U.S. wanted them to for most of the game despite the result.
8) Give a lot of credit to Ayuma Kaihori and Saki Kumagai
If you watched the friendlies against Japan, you wouldn’t consider Kaihori or Kumagai to be a strength, you’d probably say go at them. But – although they weren’t perfect, Kumagai couldn’t handle Morgan on the first goal – they weren’t a liability, and both grew in confidence as the tournament went along.
It wasn’t always pretty, but for most of the game, the pair did their job, including 20-year-old Kumagai burying the winning penalty.
Kaihori is only 24 as well.
9) Hopefully, Homare Sawa will get some of the credit she deserves
If she wasn’t before, she deserves to be put up there with the list of the greatest women’s soccer players of all time, we know she won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at this tournament, but she’s been with the national team since 1993, playing in five World Cups with 81 goals in 171 caps (not to mention what she’s done in various leagues – including WUSA and WPS – over the last two decades).
Sawa deserves everything she gets.
10) So what now for the United States?
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot coming through right now, although Becky Sauerbrunn should be able to step right in for Christie Rampone if she retires. That’s probably the only change that will need to be made for next year’s Olympics in London.
Obviously, people like Tobin Heath hope to see more time, and they could use a creative midfielder, and maybe they’ll be a youngster we don’t know about that can break through and really make a difference, although I’m not sure there’s one in the pool right now.
The biggest question may be the coach, my gut is that Pia Sundhage stays with the United States through next summer’s Olympics, but with Sweden qualified already (somewhat unxpectedly), we’ll have to see what Pia does. Eventually, you get the feeling, she’s going back to coach Sweden.
Pure class from Abby Wambach
Wambach was absolutely gutted, this may have been her last shot at winning a World Cup, and yet she stood there and answered the tough questions on the field, without blaming, giving full credit to Japan.
A lot of people wouldn’t have done that with such class, and we noticed that, Abby, if it’s any consolation to you.
Ah, penalty kicks
You know my dislike for penalty kicks, although I don’t know any better way right now. It did seem that people that don’t watch soccer a lot can’t grasp the whole “penalty kicks deciding a game” thing. It is what it is, I guess.
I don’t really understand why the whole golden goal thing didn’t catch on, though. Exciting, lessens the chance for penalty kicks, seems like a no-brainer for me.
Of course, although the U.S. would have won Sunday’s game with a golden goal, they would have been eliminated in the quarterfinals by Brazil.
I’ll be honest, the whole St. Louis fiasco turned me off to WPS last season, but I did watch my first entire match of 2011 tonight (Western New York-Sky Blue). It wasn’t great, but I’m willing to try.
I’m thinking of heading to the Boston-WNY game next week. Will others follow (and stay with the league into 2012)?
I guess only time will tell.
(Finally, thanks to Jenna for giving me this outlet, and thanks to you for reading. It’s been a lot of fun, hopefully we can do it again sometime.)