Super Bowl 50 – Who is Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera?

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

Head coach of an NFL football team is an enormously important and high profile job populated mostly by even more enormously self-important men who never miss an opportunity to raise their profile. As such, it’s actually surprising how little press the two Super Bowl coaches this year are receiving. Both Carolina head coach Ron Rivera and Denver head coach Gary Kubiak are the exceptions that prove the rule. Despite their teams making the Super Bowl, neither one is the center of attention. The plot of this game does not revolve around either of them. They aren’t groundbreaking “geniuses.” Nor is this a redemptive journey for either of them. That doesn’t mean that either of them is uninteresting or has a boring back story though, so without further ado, let’s explore who they are and how they got here.

What’s Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s story?

This is not coach Ron Rivera’s first trip to the Super Bowl. He played linebacker on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears team, often brought up as having had one the best defenses of all time. Rivera played linebacker for the Bears for nine years before retiring and moving first into the booth as a TV football analyst and then into the coaching fraternity. Until he was hired in 2011 as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, he had always been a defensive coach — either coaching the linebackers on the team or the entire defense.

The best way to illustrate Ron Rivera’s story as a coach in the NFL is to examine his nickname — Riverboat Ron. Riverboat Ron refers to the gambling done on riverboat.

quick historical diversion: This gambling has had two waves — during the 19th century, when riverboats were a primary form of transportation, professional gamblers used them as an easy way to find bored rich people with nothing to do, swiftly separate them from some of their money, and just as swiftly exit their presence. Once steamboats were superseded by other modes of travel, this habit died down. It was resurrected in the late 1980s when a clever Iowan figured out that a casino, located in a traveling riverboat, would not be under the same gambling prohibitions that a static, land-based casino would be. This trick turned into a trend, and so the second great era of riverboat gambling started. Now-a-days, many of the riverboat casinos are either “boats in moats” that never travel anywhere or even simply buildings built on stilts over water. end diversion — 

Rivera got his nickname during the 2013 season. He started the year on shaky ground, having gone an uninspiring 13-19 in his first two seasons. He was particularly under fire among fans and in the media for being overly conservative. His decisions to do things that were widely perceived as safe but misguided, mostly preferring to punt or kick field goals on fourth down instead of “going for it” were blamed for his team’s poor record in close games. This pattern continued for the first two games of the 2013 season. In the third game, it reversed. In the third game, Rivera made the “aggressive” choice and it helped his team win the next game. He cemented this change of tactics by making a similar choice in each of the next five games. That was enough of a sample to seem like he had changed, not just his tactics, but his personality as well. Riverboat Ron had earned his nickname.

According to Wikipedia, Rivera is not the biggest fan of his nickname. He prefers to think of what he does as “calculated risk taking” not gambling. Many football fans would disagree even with that. Just before the time Rivera made his “transformation,” football thought went through its own transition in how it thought about those decisions. Statisticians who descended toward football from other sports, like baseball which had an earlier statistical revolution, made it clear that almost all coaches had been doing their teams a disservice by being far too conservative. This gave rise to clever gags like the New York Times Fourth Down Bot which analyzes fourth down situations and comes up with the statistically correct answer. Seen through the eyes of macro football history, Rivera did not transform from a conservative to a radical coach, he simply adjusted to the new conservatism.

Whatever he has done as a coach has been greatly assisted by the remarkably talented players he has on offense and even more so on defense. These days, Rivera is looked at as a very good leader who delegates well to clever assistant coaches and creates a wonderful environment for his many talented and quirky players to thrive.

Deflategate: How Brady and the NFL have already won

Today or tomorrow, U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman will rule in the legal case between quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and the National Football League which wants to suspend him for four games for participating in or having knowledge of the illicit deflation of some of the footballs the Patriots played offense with during the AFC Championship game last spring or at least of not having cooperated fully in the NFL’s investigation of the incident. When Judge Berman rules, he will effectively write the ending of a saga that has lasted throughout the NFL’s offseason. There may be appeals after this, but because the new season starts in a week, they probably won’t last long or be hotly followed. Judge Berman can rule in any of three ways. He could uphold the NFL’s suspension of Brady, he could eliminate the suspension, or he could reduce the penalty to a shorter suspension or even just a fine.

In days past, this second paragraph would have been a bulleted list of the outcomes with a short explanation of what to say about each possible outcome. This is still a practical way to think about preparing for the Deflategate ruling, but not the most meaningful one. That’s because, with the ruling (finally) approaching, it seems clear that regardless of the legal outcome, the outcome in popular opinion has already settled inextricably into a simple mold: both sides have won.

Tom Brady and the Patriots have won the battle of public opinion. When the Deflategate controversy first broke, most people believed that Brady or the Patriots had doctored the footballs. This was partially because the NFL and some media outlets were telling the public that this was true but also just because it seemed like something the Patriots and Brady would do. Everyone knows the Patriots are shady! Believing that they would be shady in this particular way was a small leap for most non-Patriot fan football fans. Throughout the spring and summer, the Patriots waged a fairly impressive war for public opinion, starting with Bellichick’s mildly bizarre foray into the science of gasses and continuing as Brady appealed the NFL’s decision and then took the league to court. In court, Judge Berman has been publicly quite critical of the NFL’s handling of the situation. By now, most people either believe that the balls were never deflated, or that if they were, Brady had nothing to do with it, or at least that the NFL’s investigation and ruling on the matter has been so out of proportion to the crime as to render the crime itself insignificant. People on the other side of the issue are either biased fans of rival teams or moralizing, holier-than-thou teetotalers.

The NFL has lost in the court of public opinion, so how can they also have won? Back in February, I asked whether the entire Deflategate controversy was a clever piece of misdirection on the NFL’s part to keep the football world talking about balls instead of brain injuries. Perhaps Deflategate was something the NFL was using to keep football fans and media from writing about the far more disturbing and threatening twin issues of brain injury and domestic violence that should have dominated the football conversation in the fallow period leading up to the Super Bowl. I was wrong — we were going to keep talking about Deflategate all through the offseason, but maybe I was also right. The NFL is in a tight spot when it comes to brain injuries. After years (maybe decades) of denying their impact on players, the league now needs to find a way to address the causes and consequences of brain injury and concussion before it robs them of their workforce and consumer base in any meaningful way. The NFL has not yet come up with any realistic solutions to address the problem (maybe they should read my proposed solution!) The football world would have been focused completely on brain injuries, especially when as amazing a focal point as the retirement of 24 year-old linebacker Chris Borland appeared, but instead it talked about deflated balls and morality all summer. Regardless of how bad the NFL looks on those topics, they are not a threat to football in the way that brain injuries are. By keeping the Deflategate “scandal” going all summer, the NFL has won another season to solve the concussion crisis. That’s a victory for them too.

Judge Berman’s ruling will be announced soon and what it is will seem like a referendum on who “won” the Deflategate scandal. If the suspension is upheld, it will seem like the NFL won. If it is eliminated, it will seem like Brady and the Patriots won. If Brady’s penalty is reduced but not eliminated, it may seem like the two sides fought to a draw. This will be an illusion. Regardless of the Judge’s ruling, both sides have already won.

Women in sports: the plight and the fight

With the women’s World Cup firmly in the rear view mirror and Serena Williams cooling her heels for another couple weeks until the U.S. Open, women’s sports and women in sports have faded slightly out of the spotlight. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t awesome women doing fascinating, frustrating, and forceful things in sports. This week we bring you three stories about the challenges that women face advancing in the world of sports.

The Lingerie Football Trap

by Jordan Ritter Conn for Grantland

Have you ever heard of the Lingerie Football League? Recently renamed to the Legends Football League (you’re not fooling anyone, guys, but it is a step in the right direction), this is full-on tackle football played by women with far less protective padding and far, far, infinitely far less reward than their male counterparts. Women playing football is a feather in the cap of progress. But women playing for noting and wearing almost nothing? Is it a step back? A small step forward? Or a stalemate? 

The LFL’s core audience wants to see skin. The players want to play real football in real arenas, to feel the rush of high-stakes competition. The commissioner wants to make money. The LFL, for better or worse, is their middle ground.

The relationship between the LFL’s uniforms and the players who wear them is complex. “I mean, yes, we’re wearing basically a bathing suit,” says Melissa Margulies. “But you can’t argue [with] sex sells. That’s going to fill the seats.” Even among players deeply critical of the league, there is often little patience for this debate.

They joined the league knowing full well what it sells. They agreed to market both their bodies and their talent. But that choice is limited, bound by certain realities. “Sometimes, when you’re a female athlete, you have to suck it up,” says Nikki Johnson, another former player with the Las Vegas Sin. “You have to do whatever it takes to get people to your games.”

Jen Welter Is the NFL’s First Female Coach and Nobody Had a Sexist Reaction to That (Just Kidding)

by Jenna Mullins for E Online

It’s amazing that the hiring of a training camp coaching intern made news, but such is the popularity of the NFL and such has been the complete dominance of NFL coaching jobs by men. Despite the fanfare over the first female hiring, what happens next will be far more meaningful. Will there be other teams that dare to hire a female coach? Will Welter get a permanent position?

“Coaching is nothing more than teaching,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “One thing I have learned from players is, ‘How are you going to make me better? If you can make me better, I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, man, I’ll listen.’ I really believe she’ll have a great opportunity with this internship through training camp to open some doors for her.” Arians added that after speaking to the veteran Cardinals players, they were all “very cool” with Welter taking on the position.

You know who is not “very cool” with Dr. Welter? Humans who still think women are the inferior sex and shouldn’t dare set food out of the kitchen. Also known as people who apparently time-traveled from 1951. What bummed us out most about seeing these comments on Facebook and Twitter is that a lot of them came from women. We’re bumming hard over that, you guys.

Why England’s women’s soccer team won’t be playing at the 2016 Olympics

by Karla Adams for the Washington Post

Before you get your indignation machine started, this story has nothing to do with gender — at least, the reason the women’s team won’t be playing in the Olympics has nothing to do with gender. Still, you can’t help but wonder whether Great Britain would find a way to make this work if it meant missing or making an important men’s soccer tournament.

At the heart of the debate over whether Britain will field any soccer teams at the Olympics are questions about British identity, and which of Britons’ multiple identities gets priority.

The four constituent nations of the United Kingdom compete as individual teams in soccer tournaments such as the World Cup and the European Championship. But in the Olympics, the athletes must compete under the single banner of “Team GB.”

England lays claim to inventing the modern game of soccer, and on the men’s side, it is wildly popular, with England’s Premier League being one of the most popular in the world. The Olympics, which on the men’s side has an age restriction of younger than 23 (with the exception of three players), is arguably not as important for the men as other tournaments… But the sport is still developing for the women, and some fans say it’s disappointing that the women won’t get the sort of high-megawatt exposure that a platform such as the Olympics can offer.

What does "the play is to" 1st, 2nd, or 3rd base mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for “the play to be to” first, second, or third base in baseball?

Thanks,
Lora


Dear Lora,

One of the most important rules in baseball is the force play. I wrote a post explaining how it works a few days ago which would be a good post to read before this one. To summarize, a force play is when the defending team can get a runner out by the touching the base he is running to (usually with a foot) while holding the ball (usually in a hand). This ability is predicated on a rule that states that no two players may occupy a base at the same time. Whenever the batter hits the ball, she must run to first base. This forces anyone on first to run to second, which pushes a player on second to third, and so on. When someone says “the play is to” first, second, or third base, or even home plate, they are identifying the most forward force play available to be made. To run us through each of the most common force plays, I asked my friend Al Murray to help explain.

The play is to first base

Assume that there are no base runners. As always, the batter must try to reach first base. A ball hit in the infield or short outfield that isn’t caught in the air (hits the ground) must be picked up “fielded” and thrown to the first baseman. The first baseman does not have to tag the runner, simply stepping on the base while demonstrating command of the ball will record the runner as out. If the runner reaches the base first, or the ball is thrown away from the first baseman (throwing error), or the first baseman (even in female sports the position makes seem to be x-baseman) drops the ball (catching error) then the runner is safe.

The play is to second base

Assume that our runner gets to first base safely. We now have a runner on first who is obligated to run to second base if the next batter hits the ball. There is some complexity here that’s worth exploring in another post but, at least if the ball is hit onto the ground, there is no choice for the runner on first. Let’s assume a ground ball. The batter becomes a runner and has to go to first base. This pushes the runner on first to run for second. All other things being equal, the defensive team would prefer to start pitching to the next batter with a runner on first than a runner on second. So, even though there are force plays at first and second, the ideal play is to throw the ball to second base.

If there is enough time, the player that just tagged second base will try to throw to first base and force that batter turned runner out there as well. If successful this is called turning a double play. The runner thrown out at second has some opportunities and a tactical goal to prevent the second part of the double play and will try to impede the throw to first, sometimes by sliding into the baseman or by obstructing the line of throw. In the modern game, there are limits as to what the thrown out runner may do, due mostly to rules created for player safety. In the “golden age” games a hard, ‘spikes-high’ slide would sometimes dissuade the thrower from attempting the double play in favor of survival. Nothing quite like the prospect of a 180 pound person sliding into you at 15-20 MPH with 1/2” spikes set to slice open your body to make you reconsider trying to turn a double play.

The play is to third base

Assume that both runners reach successfully and that both 1st and 2nd base are occupied. Now the lead runner must try for 3rd, the runner on first must go to second, and the batter has to run to first. There is a force play on first, second, or third base for the defense, since every runner is obligated to move forward, but the best scenario (aside from a double or triple play) is to get the out at third base because that’s the player who will score first if things go wrong.

The play is to home plate

When there is a runner on every base, then ever runner is obligated to move forward when the batter hits the ball. This is called having the bases loaded. When the bases are loaded, the leading runner will score by running from third to home if the defense does not stop her. So, the ideal play for the defense is to throw the ball home and get the force play there. This is not always easy — home plate is usually the farthest from wherever a fielder corrals the ball — but it’s always the best move if it can be done successfully.

What’s the pattern or general rule?

Whether the play is to first, second, or third base or home plate, the strategy is the same. The defense wants tag the base  the lead runner forced off his base by a following runner is headed to. If they’re able to catch the ball and tag the base before the runner gets there, the defense will register an out and prevent the offense from advancing around the base path.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer and Al Murray

What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Dear Sports Fan,

Ok, so I downloaded the app FotMob and being a newbie to soccer (thanks to Fancred), I have a few questions. What are all the different leagues in the U.S.? I thought I would start out following those and the World Cup stuff when it comes around. Just trying to figure out what all is going on. Would take any suggestions on who else to follow. What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Thanks,
Tim Lollar


Dear Tim,

Congratulations on getting into soccer! Learning any new sport can be a fun and intellectually stimulating experience. As you learn the new sport, it subtly changes the way you think about sports you already understand well and even other aspects of your life. You may even find yourself having eureka moments about something at work or with a relationship and be able to trace it back to something you thought of while learning soccer. Long story short, learning about anything sparks learning about everything. If you haven’t already explored them, we offer a few easy email courses on soccer: Soccer 101, Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202: Culture.

It’s a particularly interesting time to become a new soccer fan. Thanks to this year’s women’s World Cup and last year’s men’s World Cup, both of which were conveniently located for U.S. soccer fans, there’s a tremendous amount of excitement about soccer. Unfortunately, it will be another three years until the next men’s World Cup and four until the next women’s. That’s a shame because, especially for the non-totally-hard-core soccer fan, the World Cup is the ultimate competition. Luckily, the alternatives are plentiful and exciting in their own right:

  • In the United States, the two main professional leagues to follow are Major League Soccer (MLS) for men and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for women. Both leagues are in the middle of their seasons, so now is a good time to become a fan. Choose the team closest to you and start rooting. One of the great things about professional soccer in the United States is that tickets are still quite accessible, even for normal people. NWSL tickets can be had at most stadiums for between $15 and $40 and MLS tickets go from $25 to $100. I wrote an entire post about how to follow the NWSL because, although all its games are available on YouTube for free, because only a handful of games are on TV, people often don’t know how to watch them. MLS games are carried weekly on ESPN and Fox Sports channels.
  • If you want to follow a professional league outside of the United States, your two best bets are Mexico’s Liga MX and the British Premier League. Virtually every game from both leagues is now available in some form in the United States. Liga MX is carried on Univision, Azteca, UniMas, and ESPN Deportes. The right to the British Premier League (the BPL but also sometimes called by its old abbreviation, the EPL) are owned by NBC and its child channel, NBC Sports Network. Unless you have a real connection to Mexico or England, choosing to follow either league as your primary league could be thought of as a slightly pretentious move. Don’t pay too much attention to that. Unlike with baseball, basketball, football, or ice hockey, the best professional league in the world is not in the United States, it’s widely thought of as being the BPL, so if you simply need to watch the best, that’s the league to follow regardless of the pretension.
  • Also unlike club teams in other sports, professional soccer teams play in many different competitions simultaneously, often against club teams from other leagues. These tournaments provide another exciting opportunity to watch extremely good soccer. The most prestigious of all inter-league tournaments is the european Champions League which pits the best teams from each of Europe’s many soccer leagues against one another. North America (plus Central America and the Caribbean) has its own version of this called the CONCACAF Champions League. Teams from every league in the United States play against each other in the U.S. Open Cup. As you can tell, there’s a wide array of competitions to track.
  • Even without the World Cup, there is a lot going on in international soccer if you want to focus on that. The U.S. men’s national team is playing in the Gold Cup right now. The Gold Cup is held every other year and is a World Cup-like tournament between only the teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Next year, the Summer Olympics will have their own soccer competition. Soccer at the Olympics are a funny proposition because they are almost as important as the World Cup to women’s soccer but they’ve never been seen as important in men’s soccer. Either as a result or as a cause, men’s olympic teams are restricted. All but three players on each team must be under 23 years old. The most important international men’s soccer tournament in 2016 will be the European Championships. The Euros, as they’re called, are a 24 team tournament that also closely resembles the World Cup, just with only teams from Europe. Some people argue that because of the depth of European soccer and the geographic requirements that the World Cup have to ensure representation from all over, the Euros are actually a more competitive tournament. They’re definitely fun to watch.

As you can tell, there’s always something to follow in the world of soccer! Apps like FotMob, which provide news and schedules for virtually every league and competition in the world are great resources to have. Twitter is another great resource for following soccer. I would start by following Grant Wahl, a leading U.S. soccer reporter who works for Sports Illustrated. He maintains lists of other people in the soccer world to follow for breaking news, as well as the men’s and women’s World Cup. Poke around in his lists and you’ll find some great soccer people.

Thanks and good luck,
Ezra Fischer

 

Showing emotion in tennis – a chicken or egg dilemma

If you watched the Wimbledon men’s semifinal today between Roger Federer and Andy Murray, you would have noticed a striking difference in behavior between the two men. Murray was emotional throughout the match, screaming, talking to himself, and banging his racket against the ground or his insteps. Federer barely uttered a word, except a few classic tennis “come ons!” His face registered neither fear nor excitement nor exertion. Federer showed no emotion, Murray showed lots. Murray lost.

Although Federer is an extreme example — he is one of the greatest winners in tennis history and he’s known for his monk-like disposition — the question of how outward displays of emotion effect a player’s chances in tennis is a real one. It’s particularly interesting to consider whether showing emotion is something that a player does when he or she is going to lose or whether it’s something that helps bring about the player’s demise. In other words, does the losing cause the emotional outburst or does the outburst cause the losing? It’s not just Federer. Some of the greatest winners in tennis are reticent. Rafael Nadal is the opposite of Federer when it comes to showing how hard he’s working during a tennis match, but they are similar in their ability to maintain emotional peace or an incredible facsimile of it. Nadal seems sure that he will be able to beat his opponent simply by working harder than them and he never seems to doubt that he can work harder. Take Novak Djokovic, the new reigning number one men’s player in the world. Early in his career, he was prone to losing matches that he seemed to be in control of. How did this happen? Something bad would happen and he’d lose his temper. He’d break rackets and curse at himself in Serbian. He’d hit himself in the head with his racket. Once he got his emotion under control, he started winning tournaments. Or, wait… was it the other way around?

My money is on the emotion being the egg and the winning being the chicken. Tennis is a uniquely psychological game. It’s intensely isolating for its players, who are not allowed to even talk to their coaches during major tournaments. It’s very intimate — when you’re at a tennis match live, even from the very last seat in the biggest tennis stadium (I know, I’ve sat there) you feel as though you can speak directly to the players. Showing yourself to be unflappable through all the ups and downs inherent in a tennis match has to unnerve your opponent. My guess is that players who learn to control their emotions and who develop great poker faces (maybe we should start calling them “Federer faces”) are able to win more than players with equal or similar skill levels.

Serena Williams, who will play in the 2015 Wimbledon finals with a chance to win her fourth straight major tournament in a row and her 21st major singles tournament overall, may be an exception to this rule. She is openly emotional on the court. She does show when she’s angry at herself and when she’s excited. It’s possible that she’s able to win despite giving up the advantage of unflappability because she and her opponents are women and they and our culture in general expect different behavior from women emotionally. It’s also possible that her skill level is so much higher than everyone else’s that she doesn’t need to sweat small advantages like this. A third possibility is that part of her tennis brilliance has come from taking a different path through the emotional forest. Maybe she unnerves people and strengthens herself by doing just the opposite of what works for everyone else.

Sports Forecast for Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sports is no fun if you don’t know what’s going on. Every week we publish a calendar with everything you need to know to plan your week. Here’s what’s going on today:

For email subscribers, click here to get the audio.

You can subscribe to all Dear Sports Fan podcasts by following this link. Music by Jesse Fischer.

How to watch the 2015 World Cup 3rd place game: Germany vs. England

To many American sports fans, just having a game between the two losers of the semifinal matches in a tournament feels un-American. Add to that, the fact that the game will be on July 4? You’ve got all the ingredients for a grumbly soccer denying fan base. Ignore the grumbles! As I’ve written before, Third Place games are often among the best of the tournament. There are lots of legitimate reasons to watch the Third Place game of the 2015 World Cup between Germany and England at 4 p.m., Saturday, July 4 on Fox.

What’s the plot?

Both teams in this game are sorely disappointed that they are not playing in tomorrow’s final. Germany was ranked 1st by FIFA coming into the tournament and had every reason to expect they would make the final. Although no one has come out and said it, I suspect that within the privacy of their locker room, they believe that if they hadn’t been tired and beaten up by their 120 minute battle against France in the quarterfinals, they could have beaten the United States in the semis. If you had asked England before the tournament if they would be happy to be playing for third place, they would probably have said they’d be thrilled. Before this year, England had never been past the quarterfinals in any World Cup. To win two games in the Knockout round, and be one step away from playing for the championship should be a triumph for England, but the way they lost the semis, makes them an even more disappointed team than the Germans. England was tied 1-1 with Japan and only seconds away from sending the game to overtime when a dangerous cross was mishandled by defender Laura Basset who sent the ball into her own net. It was one of the most devastating ways for any team to lose a game, much less a shot at the World Cup championship. As a neutral observer, it was only slightly ameliorated by the sense that England’s sole goal in the game had come from a penalty kick earned by a ridiculous dive in the box. England losing that game would have been karmic justice. Losing in that way was cruel and unusual.

Who are the characters?

Mark Sampson – England’s coach, Mark Sampson, is a man on the move. His rise from head coach of a non-affiliated women’s professional team in England to head coach of the national team can only be described as meteoric. He was not around for the 2012 game between these teams but you can bet he’s acutely aware of it and has been using it to motivate his team to victory today.

Laura Bassett – She became a household name in the worst way imaginable last game. In her first interview since the own-goal, Bassett said she would “prefer that no one knew [her] name.” It sounds tragic and it feels that way too but it’s worth noting that this is basically the way all defenders feel. Better to do your job and be invisible than mess up and become infamous. Bassett will be starting in this game, which shows real strength and courage.

Celia Sasic – A dual citizen of France and Germany, with Cameroonian heritage and married to a Czech soccer player, Sasic is every bit as international as the World Cup itself. She’s the leader of the German attack and the top goal scorer of the World Cup with six goals in six matches. Her only threat to leaving the tournament as its top scorer is teammate Anja Mittag.

Anja Mittag – Anja Mittag is the perfect complement for Sasic up front. More of a poacher than a playmaker, a finisher than a passer, Mittag benefits from getting a tiny bit less focus from defenders, which may be more than enough for her to catch her teammate Sasic.

Who’s going to win?

Germany has never lost to England, with 18 wins and two ties in 20 games. They are clearly the better team but they’re also more disappointed and less motivated. Germany came here to win the World Cup. How much passion will they have for winning third place? England came here to place well and they have. Plus, they’ll have ten players on the field willing to run themselves into the ground to support their teammate, Laura Basset, who’s just had the worst week an athlete can ever have. England wins, 3-2.

How to watch the World Cup Semifinals: USA vs. Germany

Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET, the United States women’s national soccer team will play against Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup. The game will be televised on Fox but I will not be watching. I’ll be at the game, wearing a U.S. jersey and screaming a lot. I am about as excited and nervous and full of dread as I can remember being the night before a sporting event. To prepare for the event, I’ve written a lot about the game. In this post, I preview the game’s plot and important characters. I also wrote about dreading our opponent and why I won’t be taking part in the “I believe that we will win” chant.

The Stakes

Despite being a semifinal, this game feels like the most important game of the tournament. Some of this is perception. Coaches (and the athletes they drill their messages into) are fond of saying that today’s game is always the most important game and it’s possible that fans have internalized that to some degree. Today’s game is the most important game just like last game was the most important game before it happened. There is some quantifiable truth to the feeling also. Germany is the top ranked team in the world and the United States is second. No matter who the winner of this game faces in the finals, they will not be ranked as highly as their opponent today. It certainly feels like the winner of this game is a lock to win the World Cup. According to Five Thirty Eight’s predictive model for the tournament, that’s more or less true. They predict that the winner of this game will win the tournament 73% of the time. 27% is not zero though and you can be sure that if the United States wins this game, the final on Sunday will suddenly feel like the most important game of the tournament. That’s sports, I guess.

The Plot

Until the quarterfinals, the plot of this game would have been simple. The German team had looked very much like a well-oiled, virtually unbeatable machine, while the United States team had sputtered and stuttered and played just barely well enough to get by. The plot would have been, from the American perspective, a story about the tragic inevitability of a team with so much promise but which was unable to find the tactics or the confidence or the je ne sais quoi to transform them into a championship team. We would have fully expected the United States to lose the first time they played a truly world class opponent like Germany. Thanks to the results of the quarterfinals, people now feel differently about this game. The question is, to what extent and how correct are we?

In their quarterfinal matchup, the German team was convincingly outplayed by the French. The French team attacked from the moment the game started and never took the pressure off throughout the whole 120 minutes the game eventually took. Pressed by the French, the German defense looked mortal and their offense, except for during 15 minutes of the second half, was not able to connect with each other to make the kind of decisive attacks we are used to seeing from them. The French team were more skilled and held up physically to the German side. Only penalty kick prowess/luck (penalty kicks are such a crap-shoot that it’s always hard to tell whether they are skill or luck, although in men’s soccer, some nations, including Germany, have been shown to be better over decades than others) allowed the Germans to beat the French, first one on an unfortunate unintentional hand-ball in the box during regulation time and then five straight makes in the shootout. The way the French dominated the Germans allows us to go back and revise how we think about this German team. Instead of an unstoppable juggernaut, we can round down the Germans to a very fast moving car.

The quarterfinals were a watershed moment in the way people perceive the American team as well. Their game against China was the first time we saw the United States look confident and aggressive. Soccer reporter extraordinaire, Grant Wahl, quoted midfielder Carli Lloyd as saying that the game was the “first time we collectively put a team on its back heels in this World Cup.” This could not be more true. We may never know the reason for the team’s transformation but we do have a couple good working theories.

One theory suggests simply that China was the weakest team the United States had faced so far in this tournament. This isn’t true by ranking, both Colombia and Nigeria are ranked far below China, but rankings don’t always tell the whole story. Proponents of this theory claim that China’s weaknesses (a tendency to ignore the flanks when they attack and a dearth of players with notable pace and physicality) played right into the United States’ strengths, allowing us to look so good. The corollary to the China-is-bad theory is that against Germany, the United States will go right back to looking and playing poorly. Boo! I do not like this theory.

Let’s move on to the second main theory: roster changes. Due to suspensions to Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, coach Jill Ellis was forced to change her lineup for the quarterfinals. She decided to shuffle things up even more than that and the second theory claims that this was the reason for the team’s strong performance. Holiday and Rapinoe are both playmaking offensive midfielders. They love to have the ball at their feet so they can jumpstart an attack with a perfectly targeted pass. You know who else likes to have the ball at their feet? Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, and Christen Press, the other three midfielders who had played during the Group Stage. That’s a lot of players in the midfield, all wanting the ball, and all focused on attacking. When any four of those five players are in the midfield together, the tactical dynamic seems to be out of whack. Everyone wants the ball, everyone wants to attack, but because there’s no obvious defensive anchor, everyone feels a little bit like they shouldn’t go forward. As a result, everyone (at least in the center of the midfield) hangs back a little where they generally get in each other’s way. Through the group stage, the midfield had looked uncomfortable and ineffective. Without Rapinoe and Holiday, Coach Ellis subbed in Morgan Brian and Kelley O’Hara. Although she too prefers playing offensively, Brian is more proficient at playing as a purely defensive or holding central midfielder. O’Hara is less of a playmaker and more of a physical dynamo. She gets up and down the field, putting pressure on her opponents, and looking to score, without actually needing a lion’s share of the ball to be effective. For the fourth midfielder, Ellis had a choice between Heath and Press. The fact that she went with Heath, a player who, although she likes to have the ball at her feet, actually prefers to play on the wing, as opposed to Press, who if she had her druthers would be in the center of the field, makes Ellis’ intent clear. Through her choice of midfielders, Ellis freed up Carli Lloyd to play in her preferred position, as an attacking central midfielder, and effectively unclogged that part of the field to allow her to operate with competition from her teammates. If Ellis had only made those changes, that might have been enough, but she made one other big change. She sat Abby Wambach and replaced her with Amy Rodriguez. Wambach, as you probably know, is the greatest international goalscorer of all time. However, she’s 35 years old now, and as much as her fans, myself included, hate to admit it, she’s slowing down. Despite her decline, Wambach is still an amazingly magnetic player. When she’s on the field, her teammates seem to look to feed her the ball at all costs. This hasn’t worked very much during this tournament. By removing her from the starting lineup, Ellis forced the other team to find other ways to score. By replacing her with Rodriguez, Ellis set the tone for a gameplan that included pressuring (sometimes called “pressing”) the other team whenever they had the ball, even on their own side of the field.

The dilemma of being Jill Ellis

More than any other single person, this game is all about United States coach, Jill Ellis. She’s got some tough decisions to make. After the success of her lineup changes in the quarterfinals, it would seem like a good idea to put a similar lineup with a similar strategy out there for this game. There are two problems with that idea.

The first is simply a question of will and guts. Ellis was forced to make linuep changes last game because two of her star players were suspended. Will she have the guts to sit those players in this game, when both are available to play? Sitting Rapinoe and Holiday was a necessity in the quarterfinals but it would be a controversy in the semifinals. Every time a coach does something unconventional, she draws more focus to her and risks more of her reputation on the outcome of the game. Sitting Abby Wambach for most of the quarterfinals worked out okay but it was a much more comfortable decision against a Chinese team that the United States should have beaten almost regardless of what our starting lineup was. Against Germany, in a game that will decide the fate of this team’s World Cup dreams, dreams that are very much focused on “getting Abby” a World Cup championship before she retires, the choice to sit Wambach will be a much less comfortable decision.

 

Complicating matters is the sneaking suspicion that what worked against the Chinese may not work against the Germans. Not that Ellis has anyone to blame but herself for this, but this United States team doesn’t really have a natural defensive midfielder and Morgan Brian, although she provided a wonderful facsimile of one against China, may not be physical enough to do it against a larger and stronger German team. Playing Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan up top and asking them to make the defense uncomfortable handling the ball worked against an inexperienced Chinese defense but may not against a veteran German group.

The soccer world awaits Jill Ellis. What will she do?

Who is going to win?

Germany. Germany is going to win. I feel it in my bones and it feels like I’m an arthritic 75 year-old and there’s the storm of a century coming. Despite now knowing that in reality, Germany doesn’t always beat the United States, they still feels like an insurmountable opponent. After traveling thousands of miles to see the United States men’s ice hockey team in the 2014 Olympics, only to watch them lose 1-0 to Canada, I fear the same thing will happen in this game. I fear that Germany will score an early goal and I, along with tens of thousands of other U.S. fans at the game and millions around the country will never get a chance to really cheer for our team. I know that much of this, maybe even all of it, is illogical. These are two relatively even teams and despite Germany being a slight favorite, there’s really no telling what will happen. It’s just as likely that the United States will score an early goal or that no one will score any goals at all. I know this, I just don’t feel it. Part of the way I root for teams is by internalizing my desire for them to win as a series of foreboding and pessimistic emotions. It’s just how I root — don’t listen to me — go U.S.A!