What's new with the USWNT at the Summer Olympics in Rio?

The last we heard from the United States Women’s National Soccer team on a world stage, they were grinning ear to ear and getting showered with confetti after dominating Japan to win the 2015 World Cup. Only a year later, that team is gone, replaced by a new one that’s (believe it or not) younger, deeper, and stronger. The United States entered the 2015 World Cup as one of the three or four favorites along with Germany, France, and eventual runner’s up, Japan. Five Thirty Eight actually predicted that Germany was the slightly stronger team. The situation coming into the Olympics is different. The United States is perceived as being way ahead of its rivals — expected to win the gold medal. So, what happened? Is this simply a case of recency bias? Are we blinded by that last image of our triumphant heroes? What, exactly has changed? To answer these questions, let’s take a quick look at each unit on the soccer field – goaltenders, defenders, midfielders, and forwards.

Goaltenders

Hope Solo is still the best goalie in the world, and her backup, Alyssa Naeher has a reasonable claim at being second. Gone from the World Cup roster is Ashlyn Harris. This is no knock on Harris, but Olympic rosters are only 18 players as opposed to 23 for the World Cup, so there’s no reason to carry three goalies. The United States will have an advantage in goal versus every team they play in this tournament.

Defenders

The 2015 World Cup team was quietly led from behind by a near-unbreakable back four. Center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston anchored the unit while Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger womaned the wings. They were awesome! I wanted to make helvetica style t-shirts with just their last names on the front. Amazingly, just a year later, one member of this fearsome foursome has been supplanted in the starting lineup. Ali Krieger has been replaced by Kelly O’Hara. You may remember O’Hara from the World Cup semifinals against Germany. She came into the game as a sub (apparently Coach Jill Ellis described her own decision making process as, “we need a bitch, get O’Hara”) and scored a goal in the 84th minute to salt the game away. O’Hara is a more attack minded player than Krieger (she was on the World Cup roster as a midfielder) and her ascension to the starting lineup is partially a recognition that the United States is likely to be doing a lot more attacking in this tournament than actual defense. O’Hara is also five years younger than the 32 year old Krieger, and it’s just possible that she’s a step faster at this point. Krieger will be joined on the bench by the smooth defensive defender, Whitney Engen. Engen was on the World Cup roster as well but didn’t get into a game. Gone are elder stateswomen Lori Chalupny and Christie Rampone. The team will miss their presence but not their play.

Midfielders

The biggest on-field loss from the World Cup team has got to be the early retirement of Lauren Holiday. One of the most insightful (literally) playmakers in the world, there’s no one on this team who can see a play develop and pass the ball as well as Holiday. If there’s anything positive about Holiday’s retirement, it’s that it makes the still crowded midfield picture a tiny less cloudy than it would be otherwise. You can pencil World Cup monster Carli Lloyd into the starting lineup. After rehabbing a knee injury between tournaments, she’ll be back at full strength, doing what she does best — scoring enormous goals in enormous games. In case you don’t remember or weren’t following the team before 2015, Lloyd scored both goals in the 2012 gold medal match to beat Japan 2-1 and the only goal in the 2008 gold medal match to beat China 1-0. Lloyd is the epitome of clutch. She’ll be joined on the field by a defensive midfielder. Morgan Brian is the first choice for this position but has been having some nagging hamstring issues. If she can’t go, Allie Long will replace her. Long is new to the team and is well deserving of a spot. She’s a more traditional defensive midfielder than Brian. At 5’8″, she’s only an inch taller than Brian, but she plays a much more physical game. In the other two midfield spots, Tobin Heath and Lindsay Horan are the two most likely starters. Tobin Heath is a shoe-in for the most improved player since last year. Known for a long time as an insanely skilled player on the ball, Heath has grown measurably since the World Cup in other aspects of the game. I’d now rank her as one of the best and most well rounded players in the world. She’ll strike fear in her opponent’s hearts every time she touches the ball. Horan is new to the team. She’s a strange mixture of Holiday-lite passing ability with Wambach-lite destructive aerial attacking ability near the goal. Everyone’s favorite player, Meghan Rapinoe just barely made the team after frantically rehabbing a torn ACL for most of the time between the World Cup and Olympics. She’ll come off the bench as a substitute. Missing from last year’s team, in addition to Holiday, are the retired Shannon Boxx and Heather O’Reilly.

Forwards

Only the United States could lose the greatest striker of all time Abby Wambach… and get better. Wambach’s long time offensive partner Alex Morgan is in better form this year than she was last. She’s fully healthy and has seemingly found the scoring touch that she misplaced during the World Cup. She’s joined by two new dynamic weapons: Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh. Dunn was the last woman left off the World Cup team last year and she’s played like a woman possessed ever since. She led the National Women’s Soccer League in scoring and was named the NWSL’s most valuable player to boot. At 5’1″, she’s all speed and explosiveness. Mallory Pugh may be the most exciting addition to the team. Given what seemed like a “nice story” type of opportunity to play with the USWNT as an 18 year-old, she grabbed the opportunity by the throat and has not let go. At times, she’s looked simply like the best player on the field. As weird as it is to write this about a player so young, there aren’t really any holes in her game. She’s skilled, fast, has a great scoring touch, and looks entirely comfortable on the field with women much older and more experienced than her. Rounding out the strikers is Christen Press. Everyone, myself included, thought that Press was going to be the break out star of the 2015 World Cup. Instead, she got locked out of the starting lineup and barely played. Alas, I fear her fate could be the same in this tournament. It’s a shame, because Press is a player capable of transcendent moments, but she may not be able to get onto the field enough to show us any. Missing from the World Cup team, in addition to Wambach, is Sydney Leroux, who is pregnant, and Amy Rodriguez, who simply couldn’t make the team with the worthy additions of Pugh and Dunn.

Okay, I’m ready. How do I watch?

The United States plays their first game of the Olympics tonight, Wednesday, August 3, against New Zealand at 6 p.m. ET with coverage on NBC Sports Network. They play against France on Saturday, August 6, at 4 p.m. ET with coverage on NBC Sports Network and NBC Universo. The USWNT’s final group stage game will be Tuesday, August 9, at 6 p.m. ET against Colombia with coverage on NBC Sports Network and NBC Universo.

Summer Olympics: All About Soccer

All About Soccer

Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. The Olympics are one of the world’s most popular sporting events. So why is that soccer at the Olympics isn’t a bigger deal? It’s because soccer’s World Cup run by soccer’s own corrupt international organization, has established itself as THE biggest and best soccer tournament in the world. The Olympics are resigned to being the world’s second (or perhaps third or fourth) most important soccer tournament. Still, Olympic soccer has its own charm.

How Does Soccer Work?

At its heart, soccer is a very simple sport. Eleven players on a team try to kick a ball into the opposing team’s goal. The ball is round, nearly everything else is rectangular. The field is a big rectangle, about 120 yards long and 80 yards wide. It’s broken up into two rectangular halves. Around the goal are two more concentric rectangles. The little one is mostly meaningless, but the larger one, called the 18 yard box, defines the area in which one player, called the goalie or goaltender, can use their hands. Otherwise, all players must only touch the ball with their feet, head, or other non-arm body parts. Players are not allowed to trip each other or collide in an aggressive manner. The most impactful other rule is the offside rule. Although this rule is quite easy to understand, it is responsible for three quarters of all world conflicts. Games are 90 minutes long with thirty minutes of extra time if an elimination game is tied. If no team has scored more goals than the other after that, a shootout will decide the winner. One of the things that makes soccer so tough on its players is that substitutions are limited to three per game. Most of the people who start a soccer game have to finish it — often running more than six miles a game.

If you want to learn more about soccer, sign up for our Soccer 101 course. Or read any of our many other articles about soccer!

Why do People Like Watching Soccer?

There are as many reasons why people like watching soccer as there are people who watch soccer. And that’s a lot of reasons! More than other sports, soccer is closely tied to national identity and the relationship moves in both directions. Teams are shaped by their country and countries by their teams. The Italians play defensively, the Dutch beautifully, the Japanese with precision. Because soccer is low scoring, it creates enormous feelings that build up inside its fans and then explode when something — a goal, a missed call from a ref, an amazing save — happens. Soccer also has a good balance between individuality and team play. Single brilliant players can do a lot in soccer, and they are wonderful to follow, but they can’t win a game on their own.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The Olympics have a men’s soccer event and a women’s one.

How Dangerous is Soccer?

Soccer players get a lot of grief for being wimps who fall to the ground at the least provocation. While this is somewhat true (mostly on the men’s side but creeping into the women’s game as well) it draws attention away from what is actually a quite physical sport that demands toughness from its players. I already mentioned that most players have to play the full 90 minutes or more of a soccer game. During that time, there are aerial collisions, sliding tackles, and clipped ankles galore. The next time a soccer player has his or her head stapled shut on the sideline so they can get back into the play, try telling me that soccer players are wimps.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Soccer?

“Soccer is in a strange state when it comes to gender equality. The game is identical as played by men or women. No rule differences, no uniform differences. On the other hand, there’s infinitely more money involved in the men’s game. This leads to and stems from different levels of investment by country’s into their men’s and women’s teams. This is particularly strange in this country where the men’s team is mediocre and the women’s team is the reigning world champion and three time Olympic gold medal winner.

In the Olympics, there’s another strange gender wrinkle. The men’s Olympic soccer event has a soft age restriction. Men’s teams may only have three players older than 23. This makes the men’s event a distinctly second rate event. For women, who have no age restriction, the Olympics is the second biggest tournament in the world.”

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Soccer is from Wednesday, August 3 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about soccer on the official Rio Olympics site.

Why are the semis bigger than the finals in Olympic qualifying?

Dear Sports Fan,

Apparently the two semifinal games in the women’s soccer tournament to qualify for the Olympics are tonight and they’re a big deal. It seems like they’re a bigger deal even than the finals on Sunday. Why is that? Why are the semis bigger than the finals in Olympic qualifying?

Thanks,
Joy


Dear Joy,

You’re absolutely right – the two semifinals of the CONCACAF (North and Central American plus the Caribbean,) women’s Olympic soccer qualifying tournament tonight are a very big deal. When Canada plays Costa Rica at 5:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Live Extra and when the United States plays against Trinidad and Tobago at 8:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, each team will be playing for a spot in the Olympics. Win and they are in, lose and they’re out. This is because the CONCACAF region gets its top two teams into the Olympics.

Not every region gets the same number of teams into the Olympics, nor do they all use the same mechanism for choosing teams. For example, Europe, which gets three teams in, uses results from the most recent World Cup to determine which teams get in. Germany, which placed fourth, and France, which made it to the quarterfinals, automatically get in. (England, which came in third, cannot play in the Olympics because the Olympics recognize Great Britain as a competing entity, not the component nations, like FIFA does. Competing as a unified team would, apparently, risk FIFA revoking England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland’s right to compete separately, so they regrettably don’t compete. It’s a mess.) There were four other European teams that made the Group Stage of the World Cup, so those four play a tournament to see who qualifies for the Olympics.

With the stakes as high as they can get in the semifinal games, it’s worth wondering what is going to happen. The game between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago is unlikely to be close. Trinidad and Tobago is a tough team with speed but they’re unlikely to pose a problem for the world champions. The United States is at least as fast and physical as Trinidad and Tobago and many times more well-organized on the field. The bottom line for the U.S. when it plays most teams in the world, and certainly almost every Caribbean nation, is that they have an incredible resource advantage. The American team is able to train together for large parts of the year in very good (although not good enough and not equal to the men’s team) circumstances. They also all play competitive professional soccer in the NWSL. None of these things are true for the women of Trinidad and Tobago and it will show on the field. The second semifinal, between Canada and Costa Rica, should be more interesting. It’s the one I’m most excited to see. Costa Rica, led by coach Amelia Valverde, are the Central American or Caribbean team closest to erasing the resource gap that the U.S. and Canada have had over them for decades. Costa Rica fell to the United States 5-0 in their first match of the tournament but then took out their frustration on Puerto Rico, 9-0, and outplayed Mexico in a 2-1 game to qualify for the semifinals. Canada is still probably the better team, but anything can happen, and if it does, it will signal a massive shift in the soccer landscape.

Why the CONCACAF qualifying tournament has a final game is a mystery to me. As far as I can tell, it is completely meaningless. The two teams that win the semifinal games will have qualified for the Olympics and there’s nothing else at stake in this tournament. If, as is expected, the game matches the United States and Canada, it will at least probably be a good game. The U.S. and Canada have been rivals for so long that even their friendly matches are often contentious and competitive.

Enjoy the games,
Ezra Fischer

Creating a culture of respect: what soccer can learn from rugby

This past weekend, I watched the championship match of the Rugby World Cup, which New Zealand won, 34-17 over Australia. The whole experience was great. Rugby is an awesome sport, full of athletic brilliance and suspense. I also love getting a chance to experience the titillating confusion one gets from engaging with an unknown sport. One of the most striking parts of rugby was the level of respect between the players and the referee. Particularly as someone who has played and watched soccer my entire life, I was astounded at the culture of respect rugby has managed to create. Soccer and rugby are quite similar sports, but the relationship between player and ref is so broken, so fractious, so disrespectful in soccer, that I couldn’t believe how good it was in rugby. What accounts for the difference? Is there something integral to the sport that makes soccer so unhealthy and rugby so healthy? Is soccer doomed to stay that way?

Soccer refs are petty dictators. They’re all-powerful and within the context of the game, completely unaccountable to anyone for anything. Yes, they have two or three linespeople/assistant referees, but those people are there only to provide information to the ref, every decision is hers to make alone. Even something as integral to the game as how long it lasts is controlled completely by the ref. Refs have total authority and their decisions are extremely important. Because soccer is such a low-scoring game, a ref’s decision to grant or not grant a penalty kick is often the difference between winning and losing. Likewise, a decision to give a yellow or red card can be vitally important.

Rugby refs have as much power as soccer refs but they’re infinitely more accountable and their decisions are slightly less important. Rugby is a higher scoring sport, which reduces the importance of most penalty calls. Rugby also does away with soccer’s silly insistence on living in a world where only the ref has the official time. Rugby refs can stop the clock but they do not control when the game is over. Red and yellow cards work similarly in rugby as in soccer, but because there are 15 players on the field, losing one for ten minutes (a yellow card) or the rest of the game (a red or two yellows) is not quite as big of an impediment to winning as it is in soccer. These technical differences pale in comparison to the major difference – refs wear body cameras, microphones, and ear pieces. What they say is constantly broadcast to television audiences and they are in dialogue with a replay official who can assist on penalty calls or even alert the ref of something he did not see. Video from their perspective is available to people watching on TV.

Let’s examine what happens when there’s a close, important penalty call to make in each sport. In soccer, a ref must make the call based only on what she sees, perhaps with some basic assistance from a linesperson who waves his flag if he believes there’s a foul. Soccer refs believe there’s an imperative to make the call quickly and decisively, so that they maintain order and continue to inspire respect from the players. They don’t need to explain their call to anyone, definitely not the players. Rugby treats this situation almost completely oppositely. Rugby refs don’t need to make a call only by memory and with an instant decision. They can stop the game, consult with their assistant refs on the field, watch video of the play, and ask the opinion of a video replay official. Although soccer has not implemented video replay, many American sports have. You can split them into two groups: baseball and hockey have centralized video replay offices that make the decisions when a play is reviewed; in basketball and football, the on-field refs watch video on court side or side-line video monitors and then make the decisions themselves. Rugby blends these two approaches. There is an off-field replay official, but she is there in a consultative role. The ref makes the final decision, based on video he sees. The major difference is this — the entire process is transparent! Audio from the conversation between the two officials is broadcast live on television and instead of running over to peer at a small and private video monitor, the ref reviews video using the stadium’s jumbotron screen, which both teams and the entire stadium audience can follow along with. There are no secrets about the process. By the time the decision has been made, everyone knows how the referee came to that decision.

Look at these videos to see the difference these two processes make.

First, a red card given to Jermaine Jones, a New England Revolution soccer player, after the ref misses an obvious red card.

Jones is understandably furious – not just because the ref should have seen and penalized the hand ball, but also because he knows that soccer rules offer no chance for reviewing this vitally important call. With such little respect between ref and player, there’s no choice for the ref but to throw Jones out of the game.

Compare that to an important call during the Rugby World Cup championship game (alas, this is not available on YouTube, but click this link and head to the 1:40 mark.) Ref Nigel Owens is making a decision about whether to give a New Zealand player a yellow card, forcing him to miss 10 minutes and his team to play a man down. He reviews the call on the video screen in the stadium and confers with his replay assistant. Once he makes his decision, he explains it to the player. He says that the evidence was “not marginal” and that the offense committed is a yellow card offense. He even ends his sentence with a rising, “okay?” seeking affirmation from the player for the decision. Almost unbelievably (to a soccer fan) the player nods, says okay, and heads off to serve his ten minute penalty. The two team captains stand alongside the ref, witnessing and validating the entire interaction.

Quick note — Nigel Owens is widely thought of as the world’s best rugby ref. He’s also gay. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, which is another giant difference between rugby and soccer. He’s also hysterical. Here’s a video of him chiding a player who was trying to affect his calls by reminding him that “this isn’t soccer.” And another of him making fun of a player’s line-out throw (which is supposed to be straight) by referring to his own sexuality.

Fixing soccer’s referee player interactions would be a big enough victory to look for in and of itself, but soccer’s culture of distrust and disrespect has wider implications. One example, and an important one, is the treatment of head injuries. In both soccer and rugby, once a player is substituted out, he cannot return to the field. This makes dealing with a suspected head injury tricky. Removing the player for a proper assessment means either playing at a numerical disadvantage or substituting and losing that player for the rest of the game, even if she doesn’t have a brain injury. Rugby has solved this problem neatly by allowing temporary head-injury substitutions so that players can be assessed and then return to the field if they are cleared without their team’s having to play down. The argument against this solution in soccer is that players could pretend to have a head injury to gain their team an extra substitution. It’s true that rugby teams are allowed eight substitutions compared to soccer’s three, so the incentive to cheat to gain another sub is less in rugby than in soccer, but I think the bigger difference is cultural. Soccer’s culture of distrust, which stems from its player referee interactions bleed over and make it more difficult to transform the game to be safer for its players.

 

So, where does soccer’s culture of disrespect and distrust really come from? Are ref player interactions really the source of all of this? I doubt it. You need look no farther than its governing body, FIFA, and the rampant corruption which is only now being addressed by international law enforcement. If soccer refs are the symbol of soccer authority and the top soccer authorities are almost unanimously worthy of incarceration, why should we expect players to respect refs?

Why is tonight's USA vs. Mexico men's soccer game so big?

When the United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) plays against Mexico tonight, it will be one of the biggest non-World Cup games in memory. I’ll be watching, starting at 9:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1, and I encourage you to do the same. Of course, just saying it’s an important game shouldn’t be enough to get you interested, so I’m going to try to explain why it’s so big in this post.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is the biggest men’s soccer tournament in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. In it, teams from all over those regions compete every two years to determine which country is the best. It’s an important tournament for world rankings but even more so for continental bragging rights. In the 26 years (13 tournaments) since the Gold Cup began, Mexico or the United States has won the cup all but once. Mexico has won it seven times, the United States five times, and Canada surprised the world and won it in 2000. Must have been some kind of Y2K bug. In the two most recent tournaments, the United States won once (in 2013) and Mexico won once (this year). This is pertinent, because that split over the past two tournaments is why Mexico and the United States are playing tonight.

The Confederations Cup is another international soccer tournament. This one happens every four years. It’s a small tournament, only eight teams, and highly exclusive. The only way to get an invitation is to win one of FIFA’s regional championships, like the CONCACAF Gold Cup. There are six of these tournaments throughout the world. The other two teams invited are the current World Cup champions and the next country to host the World Cup. The tournament is offset from the World Cup by a year (the next World Cup is in 2018, the next Confederations Cup is in 2017) and is hosted by the host of that World Cup. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Playing in the Confederations Cup is important to countries like the United States and Mexico because it offers a rare chance to play in a World Cup-like atmosphere against the best teams in the world without quite the same unbearable pressure that the actual World Cup brings.

There have been two Gold Cups since the last Confederations Cup. The United States won one and Mexico won one. So, in order to determine which country should be invited to the Confederations Cup in Russia, the teams will play a single playoff game tonight. Win and book your tickets to Russia for the 2017 Confederations Cup. Lose and go home.

If those stakes weren’t enough on their own to make this a big game, there’s also a long-held and simmering once again rivalry between Mexico and the United States in men’s soccer. The general arc of the rivalry is this: Mexico was the undisputed power in CONCACAF forever, until around the mid 1990s when the United States started to challenge them a bit. Then, in the 2000s, the United States seemed to surpass Mexico, which was the cause of much gloating on the U.S. side and much angst on the Mexican side. Now things have settled in to a murky stalemate. Neither team is as good as they once were and both sides have a strange mixture of existential pessimism and swagger. Leading up to this game, the Mexican TV station Azteca ran a frankly hysterical advertisement with clips of Donald Trump, whose idiotic comments about Mexico are well known, interspersed with pictures of Mexican soccer players doing awesome stuff. This was pretty great — it stirred the rivalry up while also bringing soccer fans on both sides together, since even the most partisan U.S. fan should be able to see the humor and irony in the ad. Then, just a few days ago, Fox Sports 1, which is televising the match, ran their own ad featuring Trump. This pro-U.S. ad comes across as jingoistic and arrogant and has been widely criticized. It’s unlikely that Fox’s misfire will mean much to the players but it’s equally unlikely that they needed any more motivation to bring the simmering rivalry to a roiling boil tonight.

If you want to learn more about the USA vs. Mexico men’s soccer rivalry, I recommend these two oral histories from ESPN and MLS Soccer.

 

What's up with the 2015 NWSL championship game?

The 2015 NWSL championship game between the Seattle Reign and FC Kansas City is tonight, Thursday, October 1 at 9:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. Here’s everything you need to know about the game.

What’s the plot?

This is not just a single elimination championship game, it’s also a rematch. These two teams met last year in the 2014 NWSL Championship game, which FC Kansas City won 2-1. The Reign came back better than ever this year and have been at the top of the standings basically all year. During the 20 game regular season, the Reign only lost three games. They won 13 of the other 17, tying the other four. This record put them head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Of the other eight teams, not a single one was able to break double-digits and win even ten games. FC Kansas City came in third place this year, the lowest showing ever for this freakishly consistent team, but did have the second highest tally of wins with nine.

Both teams are built around strong defensive play. Both teams have excellent goalies and strong, cohesive defensive units. Of the eight defenders in the NWSL honored by being selected to the league’s Best XI or Second XI (imaginary starting lineups voted on by NWSL journalists, club officials, and players), a whopping six of them will be playing in this game, three from each team. It’s from the midfield up that the teams start to differ. The Reign’s offense is driven by an overwhelmingly talented group of individual stars in the midfield who have found a wonderful balance playing together. FC Kansas City is a more traditional offensive team built around a wonderful partnership between a playmaking midfielder and an opportunistic striker.

Neither team was challenged very much in their semifinal matches. Although the Washington Spirit were able to hold the Reign to a 0-0 tie for the first three quarters of their match, this was mostly thanks to an incredible effort on the part of their goalie. The Spirit never really threatened to score and eventually the Reign broke through their bunker. Once they scored once, they just started scoring, and it was 3-0 when the game ended. FC Kansas City also won their semifinal by that same score. They jumped on the Chicago Red Stars early, thanks to an unforgivable blunder by the Red Stars keeper. This changed the dynamic of the game and ended whatever chance the Red Stars might have had to play the game on their terms. Kansas City never let up and won in comfortable fashion.

The Seattle Reign are looking for revenge for last year’s championship loss to Kansas City and simultaneously expecting a coronation after being the best team in the league all season. FC Kansas City will be playing for their teammate, Lauren Holiday, who is retiring after today’s game. She wants to go out with a victory and her teammates want her too even more.

Who are the players we know from the U.S. women’s national team?

The Seattle Reign have two familiar faces:

  • Hope Solo, who prowls the Reign’s goal with exactly the same amount of authority as she does the USWNT’s.
  • Megan Rapinoe, who unlike many of her teammates, plays virtually the same role on her club team as she did on the national team. This is vital for the Reign because Rapinoe is at her best when she’s essentially a supremely talented freelancer on one side of the midfield. Forcing Rapinoe into a more central (literally and figuratively) role reduces her impact on the game, so it’s good for Seattle that they don’t need to do this.

FC Kansas City has four players from the USWNT:

  • Becky Sauerbrunn, the rock of the national team’s defense, is the same unflappable power for FC Kansas City. She won the NWSL’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the third time in a row this year. Since this is the third season of the NWSL’s existence, that means no one else has ever won it. They should just name the award after her and get it over with.
  • Amy Rodriguez was a complementary player on the national team but she’s a star for FC Kansas City. She is their Alex Morgan, their number nine, (even though she wears number eight on her jersey.) She’s the best bet to score for Kansas City in this game.
  • Lauren Holiday will be playing her last game of professional soccer today. It’s somewhat fitting that she goes out playing for her club team rather than the national team because, at least in recent years, only with her club team has she been able to play soccer the way she wants. Her best position is the one Carli Lloyd plays at the national team level – central attacking midfielder. Holiday is only a hair behind Lloyd at this position, but that hair was enough to push her into a less comfortable position during the World Cup. If you’ve only seen her play in recent national team games, you’ll be surprised at how dominant she can be.
  • Heather O’Reilly only played in one game during the 2015 World Cup but she should start this game for the Kansas City team. She’s a capable and veteran midfielder.

Who are some other players worth knowing about?

On the Seattle Reign:

  • Kim Little is considered the best player in the world not to make the World Cup. There’s a contingent of people who would claim she’s the best player in the world, period. The Scottish attacking midfielder will certainly be the most dangerous player on the field in this game. She can score from virtually any spot on the field and she’s not afraid to run by or around defenders as well.
  • Jess Fishlock is another player who suffers because Great Britain competes in soccer tournaments in its component nations. Since she is Welsh, that means she has an uphill battle to qualify for the World Cup or Olympics. Fishlock is a strong two-way midfielder whose play stands out on the field even though she is sometimes confused for Megan Rapinoe because of her hairstyle.
  • Merritt Mathias played in last year’s final for FC Kansas City. A striker on a midfield dominant team, she does the often thankless task of harrying opposing defenders and opening up space for her teammates with long, tiring runs.

On FC Kansas City

  • Nicole Barnhardt was Hope Solo’s backup goalie for many years before being overtaken by two younger goalkeepers in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup. At the age of 33, she truly has not lost a step. Her presence on the field virtually negates the advantage in goal that Seattle usually has.
  • Jen Buczkowski hopes to be the answer to Kim Little. Buczkowski is a shut-down defensive midfielder who will shadow Little all over the field. She’ll look to frustrate Little by denying her the ball and punish her with professional fouls when she gets it. Much of FC Kansas City’s hopes rest on how well Buczowski can perform this monumental task.

What happened last time?

FC Kansas City won thanks to goals resulting from two incredible combinations between midfielder Lauren Holiday and striker Amy Rodriguez.

Look at the angle Rodriguez chooses to run into space between defenders without going offside. Holiday does a great job getting her the ball but Rodriguez should get the lion’s share of credit for this goal.

The second goal involves the same two players but is a different story. Lauren Holiday breaks off just an insane series of brilliant dribbling moves to create this goal. Watch her slalom between defenders before dropping the ball for Rodriguez to easily slot into the net.

Seattle fought back, and did eventually score, but it was too little, too late to catch FC Kansas City.

What else can I learn about the game?

Read Liviu Bird’s championship preview for Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol and Lauren Barker’s similar but even more comprehensive article for SB Nation. Graham Hays has five key things to watch for in the game, which he shares with us on ESPNW. Equalizer Soccer brings us a blog post by goaltender Hope Solo in which she describes and thanks each of her Seattle Reign teammates. Finally, listen to Five Thirty Eight’s Hot Takedown podcast. They bring on soccer fan and expert Alison McCann to talk about the current state and future potential of the NWSL.

What’s going to happen this time?

First of all, it’s going to be a great game. Most NWSL matches frankly don’t reach the heights of a World Cup match, but this one will. These two teams are packed with talent and have played together for longer than most national teams get to. They are supremely determined to win. My guess is that this is a scoreless game going into the 75th minute of play. At that point, with the tension ratcheted up as far as it can go and player’s legs starting to get tired, it will come down to which team makes the first mistake and which team can capitalize on it. FC Kansas City and the Holiday to Rodriguez combination is great, but the Reign simply has more options; more ways to score and win. The Seattle Reign comes out on top, 1-0.

Sports Stories: Derek Blackman, a fan of Miroslav Klose

Miroslav Klose is a 37 year-old German soccer player of Polish descent. Derek Blackman was born in New Jersey but moved to North Carolina when he was four. He kept his early allegiances to the New York Jets and New York Yankees, added a love for the Chicago Bulls, and adopted UNC as his North Carolina college basketball team. He became a soccer fan recently, during the 2014 World Cup. Germany and specifically Klose jumped out at him. He became a fan, and the rest is history. We captured some of that history in this podcast. Enjoy!

 

On why he roots for Klose:

He took it upon himself to be a leader… He was always creating opportunities and always scoring goals.

To me, Klose will always be the GOAT (greatest of all time). Some poeple say, “Oh no, Lionel Messi is the GOAT, some people say Pele is the GOAT… but this is my generation and I never really paid much attention to Klose before i started watching the World Cup last year, but he always stands out because he’s the greatest.

A little known Klose family fact:

Miroslav has a brother, Timm, who is 6’4″ and also plays soccer professionally.

On Klose telling a ref he scored a goal illegally with his hand:

When he said he scored a goal with his hand and told the ref about it, he was being modest. He didn’t want to take credit for a goal he didn’t score. I’m just going to tell the ref… so they might view me in a different light.

The one thing Derek would like a non-sports fan to know about sports or sports fans:

That sports unites all. Even if you don’t like sports, you can sit with someone who watches sports and you can ask them a question as a non-sports fan… like, “hey, why did they throw that flag” or in soccer, “why did the ref pull the yellow card.” And if you explain something to them, they might be actually interested in it.

 

Did EA Sports' FIFA '16 rate the USWNT players fairly?

EA Sports’ newest installment of their soccer video game, FIFA 16, will be coming out on September 22, 15. When it does, it will feature women’s soccer players for the first time ever. This is an exciting development for fans of gender equality AND fans of the U.S. women’s soccer team. One of the most hotly anticipated aspects of the release of any new sports video game is the rating of players. Fans (and even players) obsess over player ratings. Is Player A too high? How could they possibly have made Player B only a 75 (all the ratings are out of 100)? For the first time ever, we get to obsess over the ratings of our favorite female soccer players as well as male. On Twitter today, I saw the first leak of the overall ratings of the players from the U.S. Women’s soccer team from Women’s Football Comp. Here they are, in order, with my comments. If you want to know more about any of the players, I’ve linked to the profiles of them that I wrote before the World Cup.

  1. Abby Wambach – 88: Okay, this is clearly an honorary legacy rating for the greatest international soccer goal scorer of all time. At 35, she’s no longer the best striker in the world, not even on her own national team. She came in off the bench in the last few World Cup games and that’s one of the reasons the team won the Cup. After all she’s done for the country and sport, I’m okay with this. Wambach forever!
  2. Megan Rapinoe – 87: This is an interesting rating and perhaps shows what strengths the FIFA game weighs more heavily than others. The U.S. vs. Germany semifinal notwithstanding, Rapinoe is normally a player who emphasizes technical skill over speed and strength. She’s can strike a set piece with the best of them and hit streaking attackers in stride with her accurate passing. The best non-Wambach player though? I’m not sure.
  3. Hope Solo – 87: Now we’re cooking with gas. Solo is still the best goalkeeper in the world. An intimidating presence in the net, Solo has earned every one of those 87 rating points.
  4. Carli Lloyd – 86: The hero of the World Cup for the USA, Lloyd’s strengths translate well to video gaming. She’s a physical beast, strong and durable, and if her long-range shooting rating is not 100, something is very, very wrong at EA Sports headquarters.
  5. Becky Sauerbrunn – 84: I could not be more happy with this rating. The back-four for the USA were my favorite part of the World Cup and, although she didn’t get as much acclaim as some of her defensive teammates, Sauerbrunn was the solid foundation that made it all happen. She’s totally dependable, which is exactly what you want out of a defender.
  6. Alex Morgan – 84: Yeah, well, okay, fine. I’m not a big fan of Morgan, either on the field or off, but she does have some very easily replicable skills. She’s very fast and extremely clever at making threatening runs through the defense. Her finishing touch leaves something to be desired, but at 84, I think that’s probably represented in her rating. She does everything else very well.
  7. Tobin Heath – 83: This overall rating is surely bolstered by the fact that Heath has the dribbling skills of an alien whose entire evolution has been devoted to soccer dribbling. She’s a freak.
  8. Christie Rampone – 83: Another honorary rating and another acceptable one based on her overall career arc. The only woman who was on the team that won the 1999 and 2015 World Cups deserves everything she gets. Just get her out of your lineup if you play as the United States in the game. Don’t break up the true back four for Rampone’s honorary strength.
  9. Sydney Leroux – 82: Leroux had trouble breaking into the U.S. lineup at the World Cup, but this rating rings true nonetheless. She’s virtually interchangeable with Alex Morgan, just ever so slightly worse. It’s why it’s hard for her to get playing time in real life and in video games.
  10. Lauren Holiday – 81: If I had my druthers, I’d push Holiday’s rating a little bit farther up, but her true strength, vision, is virtually impossible to capture in a video game.
  11. Julie Johnston – 81: If Johnston had been able to continue her scoring streak from the Algarve Cup into the World Cup, she’d be one of the top five players in the game. As is, this rating probably reflects that we should expect a little bit of regression to the mean in her play. She had a sublime streak of about fifteen games but there are cracks in her armor, which we saw against Germany and Japan.
  12. Heather O’Reilly – 81: I guess? For her have played only nine minutes in the World Cup and to be higher than several players who played key roles seems strange to me.
  13. Kelley O’Hara – 81: The proverbial spark plug off the bench for the U.S. in the World Cup, O’Hara looked every bit as good as her rating suggests. I might even push her up past Leroux and Heath, but at this point we’re quibbling over a few rating points.
  14. Ashlyn Harris – 80: Being stuck behind Hope Solo is no shame. The second best goalie on the U.S. team may also be the second best goalie in the world.
  15. Ali Krieger – 80: I’m surprised to see a core member of the U.S. defense so far down the list, especially one whose public profile is as high as Krieger’s.
  16. Whitney Engen – 79: Engen could have, might have, would have been the starting central defender if an injury had not given Johnston a chance to seize the day (and the position.) Engen is a solid player but given her lack of playing time in the World Cup, I’m surprised she was not at the bottom of the list.
  17. Morgan Brian – 74: Here’s where things start getting crazy. Brian was a key piece, some would argue THE KEY PIECE, that, once inserted into the lineup, made the U.S. team’s run to the World Cup championship possible. Even playing slightly out of position at defensive midfield, Brian was a rock. At 22, she’s also has one of the brightest future’s in the game, something that, in many game modes, players should actually get to experience. I hope that the programmers at least put that in. If you play more than a year or two into the future, Brian should be the top rated U.S. player seven times out of 10.
  18. Amy Rodriguez – 74: Oh, fine. I think Rodriguez gets a raw deal, but she’s used to it. There’s no way she’s ten rating points worse than Alex Morgan.
  19. Christen Press – 72: This is just stupid. Anyone who can do this to the French defense should be rated much higher. The awkwardness of her fit with Lloyd and Rapinoe in the midfield held her back from World Cup stardom and now it’s being reflected in this rating. That’s a shame!

Missing – A few players were not included in @jigsawwill’s Twitter posts. Here is my best guess at what their rating might be and why.

  • Alyssa Naeher – 80: As a Boston Breakers fan, I get to sit right behind Naeher and watch her work on a regular basis. She is an extraordinary keeper. I’m putting her even with Hope Solo’s other backup, Ashlyn Harris, who I haven’t seen play as much, but who I assume must be equally good.
  • Meghan Klingenberg – 82: Ahead of Julie Johnston and Ali Krieger? Yes — Klingenberg’s ridiculous speed bumps her above those players and will maker her a particular joy to play as in the video game. Speed kills in video games, just ask fans of Michael Vick and Bo Jackson.
  • Shannon Boxx – 72: At 38, Shannon Boxx’ time as a world class holding midfielder has come and gone. Unlike Rampone and Wambach, Boxx doesn’t have a high enough profile to get one of those charming honorary rating boosts.
  • Lori Chalupney – 74: Versatility is another quality that’s hard for video games to represent. Without Chalupney’s ability to play every position on the field (except, I assume, goalie) I’m not sure she would have been included on the team. Being a Swiss Army Knife is valuable, but not when quantifying the skills required to play each position.

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

 

How do suspensions in soccer work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain to me how Clint Dempsey was supposedly suspended from games but is starting tonight? I’m confused. How do suspensions in soccer work?

Thanks,
Brian Cadavid


Dear Brian,

As we now know, Clint Dempsey did play in last night’s Gold Cup match between the United States men’s national team and Honduras. It’s a good thing for the team that he did, too, because he scored the team’s two goals on their way to a 2-1 victory. It was a bit of a surprise though. Last night’s game was played less than a month after Dempsey was thrown out of a game he was playing for his club team, Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, after grabbing a referee’s notebook out of his hands and tearing it up.

This violation, as silly as it seems, by the letter of the rules, qualifies as assaulting the ref. A violation of this type is supposed to come with a minimum of a six game suspension. If Clint Dempsey had received a six or more game suspension for assaulting the referee, he would have been banned from taking part in any official soccer while serving the six game suspension. Since the Sounders only had three games between Dempsey’s infraction and last night’s USMNT game against Honduras, a six game ban would have excluded Dempsey from participating. SB Nation’s Sean Steffen wrote a post about this logic before the ruling had been handed down. When the ruling came, it was a major surprise: only three games. As Doug McIntyre wrote for ESPN, “It’s good to be a big-name star like Clint Dempsey in Major League Soccer.” Crisis averted – Dempsey would be able to play in the Gold Cup.

The way that this suspension worked is the exception, not the rule in global soccer. In the vast majority of leagues, and even in the MLS for non-assault based infractions, yellow cards, red cards, and suspensions that a player receives do not bleed over into other forms of competition. This is important because soccer players, way more than players in any other sport, play in different competitions simultaneously. In the course of a month, a player may play for a national team and for his or her club team in a league game and in one or more cup or tournament games. For example, Clint Dempsey was playing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup when he earned that red card. His team’s next game was a normal MLS league game. And then, as we know, he went and played for the national team. The same trichotomy exists, perhaps even more, for players who play in European club soccer. Each league and cup and tournament has its own rules about suspensions. Although they are all quite similar, thanks to the octopus-like international soccer organization, FIFA, when it comes to suspensions, they each have mostly separate jurisdictions. A yellow card picked up in the Champions League does not carry over into the British Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. A suspension a player gets during an international game for their country usually only pertains to international games.

The fact that if Clint Dempsey had been suspended for six games for his “assault” on a referee, his suspension would have applied not just to games played for the Seattle Sounders but also to games played by the U.S. men’s national team is the exception that proves the rule. Most suspensions in soccer only apply to the form of soccer being played when the player commits the act that gets him or her suspended.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer