Meet the U.S. Women's Soccer Team: Becky Sauerbrunn

The 2015 soccer Women’s World Cup begins on Saturday, June 6 in Canada. The United States team is one of a handful of favorites to win the tournament and they’ve got a great story. Despite decades of excellent play, the team has not won a World Cup championship since 1999. That’s a whole generation of dreams denied and all the reason anyone should need to root for the team this year. To help prepare you to root for team and country, we’re going to run a short profile of every player on the 23-person roster. When female athletes take their turn in the spotlight, they often receive coverage that is slanted toward non-game aspects of their stories — marriage, children, sexual preference, perceived lack-of or bountiful sexiness, social media activity, etc. In the hope of balancing things out, just a tiny bit, these previews will strive to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.

Becky Sauerbrunn

Position: Defender

Number: 4

National team experience: 81 appearances, this will be her second World Cup, and she has 0 international goals.

What to expect from Becky Sauerbrunn: Becky Sauerbrunn is a prototypical central defender. She’s strong, physical, and totally reliable. If you’re a midfielder, you feel secure knowing that if you make a mistake, Sauerbrunn is right behind you to clean it up. If you’re a goalie, you know you can count on her to keep the front of your net clear. With newcomer Julie Johnston taking over the other central defensive position and doing so with a distinct attacking flair, Sauerbrunn has become the leader of the back line and an even more firmly defensive player. Barring a major injury, we should expect to see Sauerbrunn on the field for every minute of the World Cup. She’s the only player to start in every match the team has played so far this year and she barely ever comes off the field. She’s used to being a workhorse — during her two years in the now defunct WPS professional soccer league, she was the only player in the entire league to play every minute of every game. At her current professional team, the NWSL’s FC Kansas City, she is captain and reigning two-time defensive player of the year.

Video: Like I said, Becky Sauerbrunn is the person you want cleaning up your idiotic mistakes.

Non-gendered personal interest item: Every player who makes a national team remembers their first game with the team. It’s a goal that many of them have been fighting toward for most of their lives. For Becky Sauerbrunn, that sublime memory was cemented and complicated by suffering a broken nose. Can you imagine what that would feel like? Not just the broken nose, but to have made it to the pinnacle of your profession only to break your nose in your first day at work? Crazy.

Links: Read Joe Steigmeyer make the case that Sauerbrunn is the “most important” player on the U.S. Team in the Bleacher Report. Check out Sauerbrunn’s US Soccer page and follow her on Twitter.

Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics

Have you graduated from our Soccer 101 course? Have your diploma framed and on your wall? Great! Here’s your next challenge. Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics is a week-long email course that will bring you into the know in a number of ways. You’ll learn all about each of the positions soccer players can play — what each position’s responsibilities are and what characteristics are needed for each role. You’ll also become an expert on some of the most meaningful logistical details about soccer. Together, this information will fill in a lot of the gaps in the understanding needed to feel confident watching and talking soccer with the biggest of fans. Good luck!

  • How do substitutions work?
  • What are strikers?
  • What are midfielders?
  • What are defenders?
  • What are goalies?
  • What is stoppage time?
  • How do overtime and shootouts work?

Meet the U.S. Women's Soccer Team: Megan Rapinoe

The 2015 soccer Women’s World Cup begins on Saturday, June 6 in Canada. The United States team is one of a handful of favorites to win the tournament and they’ve got a great story. Despite decades of excellent play, the team has not won a World Cup championship since 1999. That’s a whole generation of dreams denied and all the reason anyone should need to root for the team this year. To help prepare you to root for team and country, we’re going to run a short profile of every player on the 23-person roster. When female athletes take their turn in the spotlight, they often receive coverage that is slanted toward non-game aspects of their stories — marriage, children, sexual preference, perceived lack-of or bountiful sexiness, social media activity, etc. In the hope of balancing things out, just a tiny bit, these previews will strive to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.

Megan Rapinoe

Position: Midfielder

Number: 15

National team experience: 102 appearances, this will be her second World Cup, and she has 29 international goals.

What to expect from Megan Rapinoe: Every player on the U.S. national team is a great soccer player. Every player in the World Cup is probably better than anyone you or I have ever played with. But there’s something different about the few players who are truly world class. World class players just look different from everyone else. They have at least one skill that virtually no one else can match. Megan Rapinoe is a world playmaker. She has exceptional vision. Vision literally means the ability to see the field, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Rapinoe has exceptional vision in one way or another, but it also means the ability to understand where every player on the field is and to anticipate where they are going to be. This is truly where Rapinoe excels. She seems to know exactly where to put the ball. Her other exceptional skill, quite handily paired with vision, is her technical ability to pass the ball to just the spot she wants. In the flow of play, Rapinoe’s approach to playing midfielder is acquire the ball, survey the field, move the ball to the player in the position most dangerous to the opposing team. Rapinoe takes the majority of the more technical set pieces, including corner kicks. Her skill on the ball allows her to be a formidable goal-scorer, especially on shots from a distance, but it’s not her primary focus. Rapinoe missed the team’s last warm-up game with a thigh injury. How much we see her on the field during this World Cup depends a lot on her health. The more she can play, the better it will be for the U.S. team’s chances.

Video: This goal, the latest scored in World Cup history, gives me chills every time I see it. Its sheer improbability has a lot to do with the skill involved in Rapinoe’s cross.

Non-gendered personal interest item: During the 2012 Olympics, Rapinoe became the first soccer player of any gender to score a goal directly from a corner kick. Oddly enough, this type of goal has been known as an “Olympic goal” since 1924 despite having never been accomplished in the Olympics until 2012.

Links: Read Sam Borden’s fine profile of Rapinoe from a few years back in the New York Times. Check out Rapinoe’s US Soccer page, her website, and follow her on Twitter.

Meet the U.S. Women's Soccer Team: Christie Rampone

The 2015 soccer Women’s World Cup begins on Saturday, June 6 in Canada. The United States team is one of a handful of favorites to win the tournament and they’ve got a great story. Despite decades of excellent play, the team has not won a World Cup championship since 1999. That’s a whole generation of dreams denied and all the reason anyone should need to root for the team this year. To help prepare you to root for team and country, we’re going to run a short profile of every player on the 23-person roster. When female athletes take their turn in the spotlight, they often receive coverage that is slanted toward non-game aspects of their stories — marriage, children, sexual preference, perceived lack-of or bountiful sexiness, social media activity, etc. In the hope of balancing things out, just a tiny bit, these previews will strive to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.

Christie Rampone

Position: Defender

Number: 3

National team experience: 305 appearances, this will be her fifth World Cup, and she has four international goals.

What to expect from Christie Rampone: After almost a decade and a half of being the heart and soul of the U.S. Women’s National Team, Rampone will finally be passing the torch and taking a firm seat on the bench. Even as recently as the start of this year, the smart money was on Rampone starting for the team at her normal central defensive position. Then a back injury in January forced her out of the lineup and gave Julie Johnston a shot. Johnston has played so well that it’s impossible to imagine Rampone fighting her way past her and into the starting lineup in this year’s World Cup. That doesn’t mean Rampone isn’t still important to the team. She is the sole remaining link to the 1999 World Cup Championship team and therefore the only person on the team with the experience of having won the Cup. I can’t write about the internal dynamics of the team, but from what I can tell from listening to interviews and reading about the team, it seems like Rampone’s leadership is much appreciated by the younger players. None of this is intended to suggest that Rampone is an honorary member of the team — she’s not. Now that her back injury has healed, she’s still fully capable of playing 90 minutes of hard-nosed, lightning quick defense. If there were an injury to a defender, fans should feel completely secure in seeing Rampone slotted back onto the defensive line.

Video: Four goals in 305 appearances for the U.S. team basically tells you all you need to know about Rampone’s style. She’s one of the fastest players out there and despite being only 5’6″, she’s a physical, no-nonsense defender.

Non-gendered personal interest item: Rampone has reached the point in her career when most of the personal interest stories written about her are about her age. Juliet Macur wrote the best article in that milieu for the New York Times. In it, she points out the technological novelty of Rampone having been originally invited to play on the national team by fax and uses Rampone as an example of the insidious shift in our culture away from raising children to be multi-sport athletes who play sports primarily for fun.

Links: Check out Rampone’s US Soccer page and follow her on Twitter.

What is going on with FIFA? Why is the U.S. arresting people?

Yesterday, the U.S. government arrested more than a dozen people involved with the organization of international soccer competitions. Many of them were in Switzerland for an annual meeting of their organization others were scattered around the world or already in U.S. custody. This is a big story and has been covered extensively by mainstream and alternative media alike. Even with all that coverage, you may still have some basic questions unanswered. If these are them, great! If not, feel free to comment below or email dearsportsfan@gmail.com.

What is FIFA?

FIFA is the primary organization that facilitates international soccer. Its name is a French abbreviation for Fédération Internationale de Football Association or the International Federation of Association Football in English. By maintaining relationships with regional organizations of a similar sort and directly with national soccer associations, FIFA facilitates all games between national soccer teams in both men’s and women’s soccer. This includes putting on the most important and financially viable international tournaments, the Men’s and Women’s World Cup. In many ways, FIFA resembles a country more than a company. It has a president and a congress, not a CEO and a board of directors, it has an anthem, and despite being a non-profit corporation, its 2013 revenue of $1.3 billion would place it 15th in a list of nations by gross domestic product, right between Mexico and Spain. Its current president, Sepp Blatter, has been in office since 1998.

What the heck is CONCACAF?

CONCACAF is one of six regional associations that FIFA maintains a relationship with. It is an absurdly constructed acronym for the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. Within that region, CONCACAF does many of the things that FIFA does globally, including the running of big, financially viable international tournaments. FIFA uses CONCACAF and the other five major regional soccer associations as divisions for World Cup Qualification. CONCACAF is officially a non-profit and registered in the Bahamas.

Okay, so what exactly are the people who got indicted accused of doing?

The three key charges are “wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering.” The key word there is racketeering, which is a term we normal associate with organized crime or the mafia. The association is a correct one in this case. Everything gets a lot easier if you think of FIFA as the Corleones, the Sopranos, or a giant, international conglomeration of Stringer Bells. The technical definition of racketeering is quite elegant. Racketeering is the act of collecting money to provide a solution to a problem that would not exist unless you were collecting money for it. A simple example is a protection scheme where a criminal named Bob offers to not break your leg for $50. It’s illegal because protecting your leg from being intentionally broken by Bob is not a problem you needed to solve until Bob started collecting money for not breaking your leg. In this case, the primary service that people within FIFA were collecting money for was for considering bids of countries to host soccer games or tournaments and of media companies or middleman companies called sports marketing companies to cover tournaments. Wire fraud can be widely interpreted as meaning “using a computer to do something else illegal.” So, if you’ve got racketeering and you’re not targeting someone in the stone age, you’ve got wire fraud. The definition of money laundering has expanded past the intentional exchange of illegally acquired money for legally acquired money to mean more generally using legitimate financial institutions like banks or credit cards for illegal acts. This makes money laundering another obvious add-on if you’ve got a racket.

Why is that illegal? Isn’t making money from people who want to host and cover their sporting events exactly what an international sports organization should be doing?

Well, yes, FIFA and CONCACAF exist to organize international soccer games and tournaments and there’s nothing wrong them charging for the right to host or carry those tournaments. The reason this qualifies as a racket is because FIFA officials were there for the purpose of voting on bids by countries and companies who wanted to be involved with soccer during events like the World Cup. No additional payment and certainly no personal payments should have been necessary. Bribing officials to consider your bid became a necessary solution only when those same officials invented a problem (if you don’t bribe me, I won’t vote for you.) A solution to a problem that the person providing the solution invented? That’s a racket!

Why does any of this stuff matters? Who cares?

Here’s the rub. As a soccer fan, none of this affects me. I don’t particularly care where tournaments are held or what media company gets to promote and cover them. I care about the soccer and the soccer players and the wonderful game. The fact that this story is showing up in sports pages and on sports blogs like this one is a distraction from the actual issues though. This isn’t a crime against sports, it’s a crime against people. When corrupt officials make the bid process for a World Cup into a bribery contest, only the most corrupt governments rise to the murky top. Corrupt countries are often despotic countries with very little regard for their own citizens or people in general. Hosting a World Cup is a giant, multi-year infrastructure project. The prime example of this has been and continues to be the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The Washington Post estimates that a total of 1,200 workers, many of them South Asian migrant workers who are essentially trapped on the job, have died in Qatar since FIFA gave that country the World Cup. To writer Christopher Ingraham’s credit, he points out that this figure includes the death of all construction workers in the country, but even if that inflates it by a factor of 10, it would still be two times higher than the next highest death toll from a major sporting event, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In case you think this is simply a bad country doing bad things which they would do even without FIFA’s encouragement, note that FIFA requires countries who want to host the World Cup to actually change their constitutions and laws during the tournament. In 2010, South Africa, (a country you think would know better), was forced to suspend the constitutional right to protest and constrain some laws regarding freedom of the press in order to host the World Cup.

Got it. Can we get back to deflated balls now?

Yes. Yes we can. Although, just in case you want more on FIFA, here are some great links:

What's the easiest way to learn soccer? Soccer 101

If aliens were to descend to the surface of the earth today and demand, not to see our leader, but to see our most popular sport, delegates of the human species would undoubtedly bring them to a soccer game. Soccer is the most popular sport on the World and it’s not even very close. As a beginner fan, the sport can seem hard to understand or even boring but it’s not that hard to break through the wall to begin to enjoy soccer. Once you do, you’ll join literally billions of other people in the thrills of playing, watching, and understanding soccer.

Whether the pull to learn comes from an upcoming World Cup, a soccer loving parent, child, colleague, partner, or friend, or even just a self-generated hankering, Soccer 101 course is for you! Sign up for our six-part email course, and within a week, you’ll be walking and talking soccer like a knowledgeable novice soccer fan.

Note to current subscribers — to sign up for this course, click on the Update Subscription Preferences link on the bottom of any Dear Sports Fan email.

Here’s what Soccer 101 will cover:

  • Why do people like soccer?
  • How do the basics of soccer work?
  • How does the World Cup work?
  • How do fouls in soccer work?
  • Why do soccer players dive so much?
  • Why do soccer teams spend so much time passing the ball backwards?

Meet the U.S. Women's Soccer Team: Julie Johnston

The 2015 soccer Women’s World Cup begins on Saturday, June 6 in Canada. The United States team is one of a handful of favorites to win the tournament and they’ve got a great story. Despite decades of excellent play, the team has not won a World Cup championship since 1999. That’s a whole generation of dreams denied and all the reason anyone should need to root for the team this year. To help prepare you to root for team and country, we’re going to run a short profile of every player on the 23-person roster. When female athletes take their turn in the spotlight, they often receive coverage that is slanted toward non-game aspects of their stories — marriage, children, sexual preference, perceived lack-of or bountiful sexiness, social media activity, etc. In the hope of balancing things out, just a tiny bit, these previews will strive to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.

Julie Johnston

Position: Defender

Number: 26

National team experience: 10 appearances, this will be her first World Cup, and she has 3 international goals.

What to expect from Julie Johnston: Going into a World Cup with an inexperienced central defender is something that would usually strike fear into even the most optimistic soccer fans. Julie Johnston is the exception to that rule. Despite being 23 and having only played ten games with the senior national team, Johnston has played so confidently and well this spring, that her presence on the field has the opposite affect. She’s a calming and confidence inspiring presence for teammates and fans. The United States often dominates games and so Johnston’s main job from her central defensive position is to organize, play passes up to the midfielders, and stay vigilant against any budding counter-attacks. When the team faces tougher competition, as it will during the World Cup, it will be interesting to see if Johnston will be able to remain as physically dominant and mentally prepared as she has so far in her career. If she does, there’s no reason to think she won’t play every minute of the World Cup for team USA. Talking about careers, three goals for a central defender is a reasonable career total for some who play the position, but Johnston has already reached that number in only ten games. Watch for her leaping, aerial runs to the near post on corner kicks and free kicks. That’s where she’s done all her scoring so far.

Video: One of three goals that Johnston has scored for the national team, all off Lauren Holiday set pieces.

Non-gendered personal interest item: Johnston led the U.S. Under-20 year-old national team to a championship in the 2012 U-20 World Cup. During that tournament, she played central defender, the same role she’ll play this year at the senior level, and captained the team. If Johnston helps the team capture what’s been an incredibly elusive World Cup victory, would anyone be surprised if four or eight years from now, Johnston was captain of the senior team and a fixture at the back?

Links: Read about Johnston in this Fox Sports article by Laura Vecsey. Check out her US Soccer page and follow her on Twitter.

Why do some numbers in soccer refer to positions? What do they mean?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do some numbers in soccer refer to positions? What do they mean?

Thanks,
Susan


Dear Susan,

Numbers are often used in soccer to refer to a player’s position. The use of a number system to refer to positions is not unusual in sports. In American football, the NFL regulates jersey numbers so that each position has a set of numbers only its players are eligible to wear. It’s typical in basketball to refer to a player’s position by number but at least there, there are only five positions to keep track of and a player’s jersey number virtually never matches his position as it sometimes does in soccer. The use of numbers in soccer is legitimately confusing for a few reasons. First, there are 11 players on the field for each team and remembering 11 positions by number is difficult. Second, there was once an assumption that a player would wear the number of the position he played but that’s no longer the case. Third, the meaning of the numbers has evolved over time in twisted ways so that they can no longer be said to be intuitive. Luckily, only a few positions are commonly referred to by number and they are quite easy to learn. We’ll run through the history first and then get to the modern meanings.

Having players wear numbers on the back of their jerseys is actually a relatively modern phenomenon. It began in the 1920s in England with the club team Chelsea. Instead of giving their players a choice, the team assigned numbers by position. Of the 11 players on the field, they started with the most defensive player, the goalie, and counted upwards from one to 11, going from right to left when players were on the same line. Unfortunately for modern soccer viewers, the teams of the 1920s played a very different formation from ones that are common today. Chelsea played with two defenders, three midfielders, and a whopping five forwards. Today, teams play in more defensive formations with four defenders and either three midfielders and three forwards or four midfielders and two forwards. As you might imagine, this has magnificently jumbled the numbering. The shift in formation is only one of the evolutionary forces that make soccer numbers difficult to follow. Soon after they began using numbers, Chelsea took a trip to South America, where according to Wikipedia, they were called “Los Numerados” or “the numbered.” The South American host teams picked up the concept of numbering their players from back to front but, since they played with different formations, they used almost entirely different number to position pairings.

For a while, this must have been so confusing to international viewers as to make the numbers virtually useless in decoding the game. Over time though, as formations have continued to evolve and soccer has become an even more globally blended game, with players from all over playing everywhere, the differing number systems have coalesced into something of a consensus. Simultaneously, players became more empowered in terms of choosing their jersey number. Although they were in the past, today’s players are no longer required to wear the number of their position. What we’re left with is the use of some numbers to refer to positions despite the fact that their meanings are almost totally divorced from jersey numbers. Here are a few of the most important numbers to know:

  • 9 — A nine is the central attacker on any team. Whether she uses speed to streak towards the goal and score or strength to receive long passes and hold on to the ball while his teammates move up the field, the nine is the focal point of the offense.
  • 10 — The ten is the best playmaker on the team. The offense flows through her on its way up the field. He is often the best known player, the most well respected player, the highest paid player, and the team captain as well.
  • 6 — A six is a holding or defensive midfielder. Like a nine, a player can be a six in different ways. A six may be a big, strong, tough player who acts as an additional defender, following the opposition’s best midfield player and tackling them hard. A six may also be a playmaker, like a ten, but farther back, helping the team transition from defense to offense.

Those are by far the most common positions you’ll hear called out by number. Here are a few others you could learn if you really want to impress people:

  • 8 — An eight is an all-purpose central midfielder. Without the offensive playmaking talents of a ten or the defensive mindset of a six, the eight does a little bit of everything. An eight is often one of the hardest working players on the field, since they have equal responsibility for offense and defense.
  • 7 and 11 — The seven or eleven are secondary scorers. If a team plays with three attackers, the seven refers to the forward on the right, the nine to the central forward, and the 11 to the attacker on the left. On teams that play with only two attackers, either the seven or the 11 may be an outside midfielder with an attacking mindset.
  • 3 — Time to give the defenders some. Defense is by far the most confusingly numbered area (remember the original Chelsea team only played with two of them) but the three is always used to refer to the strongest central defender. A great central defender is big, tough, and indefatigable.

In putting together these definitions, I leaned heavily on this article by Buzz Carrick in the Dallas Morning News. I highly recommend reading it.

Now that you know the meanings given to these numbers, go out and use them in a soccer context. You’ll get some knowing looks from the soccer fans in your life. And if anyone tries to drop a number we haven’t covered, like four or five, just ask them, “Do you mean a South American four or an European one?” That’ll stop them in their tracks!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer