Meet the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team

International sports are said to be one window into a country’s character. It’s a lovely idea, but there’s a giant, obvious problem with it — which national team are we talking about? Sometimes, during some eras, in some countries, you might have a style of competition that’s universal across all sports, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, a national basketball team will play differently from a national ice hockey team, and the men’s version of a team will play differently from the women’s. The question becomes, which team and narrative do you want to choose. If the way a national team plays says something about your country, what do you want it to say? If you like the idea of the United States as the world’s sole superpower, root for the men’s or women’s national basketball teams. If you like the picture of the United States as it was in the early 20th century, its potential as a world power still untapped, root for the men’s soccer team. If you want a representation of the United States that is powerful but still struggling to its peak, root for the U.S. men’s ice hockey team. Plus, that way, you get to (sports) hate Canada.

Heading into the 2015 World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team represents the best combination of accuracy and positivity of all United States national teams. This team was a dominant power in the 1990s (check) but has not had a big victory on the world stage since 1999 (check). It is still thought of as the world’s most powerful team (check) but the second and third and fourth strongest countries are breathing on its neck, not materially behind (check). You can root for this team without feeling sheepish because they are so much better than their competition and without feeling hopeless because they have no chance. After sixteen years without a World Cup victory, it’s not selfish to feel like the team deserves a victory and it’s not paranoid to be afraid that they won’t get it. This team is basically perfect to root for.

To help prepare you to root for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, we published short profiles 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 strove to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.


The goaltender or goalie is the only player on the field who can use her hands, a goalie’s task is to organize the defense and prevent the other team from scoring however she can. It’s a position for the reckless, the non-conformists, the obsessive, and the very brave. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Hope Solo – Widely considered the best goalie in the world. She’ll be looking to cement that title with a World Cup title.

Ashlyn Harris – The team’s second choice in goal. When Solo was suspended this past winter, Harris played and played well.

Alyssa Naeher – Break glass if needed. Naeher would start at goal for most of the countries in the world. For the U.S., she’s third in the order.


Defenders are strong, physical, and extraordinarily reliable. An attacker who makes 17 mistakes and has one success is a hero, a defender who has 17 successes and makes one mistake is the opposite of a hero. Some defenders help out on offense by making runs up the field or by acting as targets for corner kicks and other set pieces. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Megan Klingenberg – An offensive minded left fullback, Klingenberg may be the fastest woman on the team. Watch for her to create offensive chances by moving up the field and playing crosses into the penalty box.

Becky Sauerbrunn –  A true defender’s defender, Sauerbrunn is used to being an ironwoman. Don’t expect her to leave the field during the World Cup.

Julie Johnston – Johnston broke into the starting lineup this winter with a series of strong defensive and offensive performances. She scored three goals in three successive games, all on runs to the near post on set pieces.

Ali Krieger – Krieger career has seemed cursed by a series of major injuries, most recently a concussion. If she can stay healthy, she’ll provide veteran play from her right defensive position.

Kelley O’Hara – O’Hara can play every position on the field and play it well. We could see her as a defensive or midfield sub.

Christie Rampone – The last active U.S. National Team player who played in the 1999 World Cup. Until an injury this winter gave Julie Johnston the opportunity to take over, Rampone was expected to start. She’s still capable of playing quality time if needed. If not, she’ll provide valuable leadership from the bench.

Whitney Engen – A likely mainstay of future teams, Engen is unlikely to play in this World Cup.

Lori Chalupny – Comes off the bench as an outside defender. If Klingenberg or Krieger falter, Chalupny will be the first choice to replace them.


Midfielders run and run and run and then run some more. Asked to play a role in every phase of the game, midfielders are like the connective tissue of a soccer team. It’s also the most varied position. Some midfielders focus on offense, some on defense, some on scoring, and some on passing. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Lauren Holiday – A playmaking midfielder who has been asked to play a holding or defensive midfield role on this team. Look for her to jumpstart the offense anyway with inventive long passes.

Megan Rapinoe – Rapinoe is one of the most technically gifted players in the world. She has amazing vision, precision passing ability, and a penchant for coming through when the team needs her the most.

Carli Lloyd – Lloyd is the hardest working woman in soccer. She’ll run for 90 minutes and more. She’s physically dominant. Lloyd looks to score from outside and possesses the rocket-powered feet to do it.

Christen Press – A gifted striker forced back into the midfield by the USA’s unprecedented logjam at forward. Press thrives at midfield, making long attacking runs from her deeper position.

Shannon Boxx – Boxx was Lloyd before Lloyd was. Now, she’s a veteran who can be counted on to  provide a reasonable facsimile of her old self for short periods.

Morgan Brian – The youngest player on the team, and the only college player, Brian would be the driving force on most teams. For this team, she’s probably going to be the first midfielder off the bench, able to replace any midfielder well.

Tobin Heath – Heath is one of the most talented and creative dribblers in the world. When she gets into the game, watch for her to run at opposing defenders. They’ll need two or three defenders to stop her.

Heather O’Reilly – O’Reilly has a knack for goal scoring. If she sees action in the World Cup, she’ll have a nose for goal.


Forwards or strikers care about only one thing in the world, scoring. Even with that singular goal, forwards have a few different ways of going about it. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Amy Rodriguez – The forgotten forward, Rodriguez is an all-around proficient striker who can score in every way possible. At 28, she’s perfectly placed to step in if the older Wambach or younger Leroux, Morgan, or Press falter.

Sydney Leroux – Leroux scares the heck out of opposing defenses with her speed and limitless will. Make one wrong move on defense and she’s behind you with the ball in scoring position.

Alex Morgan – This was supposed to have been Morgan’s World Cup but a series of ankle and knee injuries put that in question. If she’s healthy, she should be a prime weapon.

Abby Wambach – Wambach is the GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. But she’s never won a World Cup, and at 35, this will be her last chance. When she’s got it going, she’s still the best striker in the world. The question will be, how much does she have left?

What is a goalie or goaltender in soccer?

Goalie or goaltender is a distinctive position in every sport that has it. Ice hockey goalies stay on the ice for the entire game while their teammates substitute in and out almost constantly. Lacrosse goalies have enormous sticks. Water polo goalies are the only players who can legally touch the bottom of the pool. None of these distinctions come close to a goalie’s distinctiveness in soccer. Goaltenders in soccer are the only players who can use their hands. Although this privilege is limited to when a goalie is within her own penalty box, it’s sets them apart so much that they’re required to wear distinctively colored shirts to make it easier for refs to tell them apart.

You might think the enormous advantage of being able to use one’s hands would make goalie the easiest position to play. Not true! The extra privileges of the goalie in most sports are a recognition of how difficult their job is and nowhere is this more true than in soccer. The first thing a soccer goalie has to come to terms with is the size of her task… literally! A soccer goal is 24 feet wide and eight feet tall. That’s an enormous area for a single person to cover. It’s too much, even for the most athletic goalie to be able to leap from the center of the goal, all the way to the side to stop a shot. So, the smart soccer goalie uses angles and anticipation. If an attack is coming from the right, they move towards it; out and to the right. From the shooter’s perspective, this has the effect of effectively making the goalie a larger obstacle which is harder to shoot around. If this doesn’t make intuitive sense, think about having to hit a barn with a tomato but needing to avoid the barn door. It’s pretty easy but it would be a lot harder if someone detached the door and stood it up right in front of you. You’d have to throw the tomato over the door or around the door. Same size door, different size challenge.

The issue with playing the angles is that if a goalie guesses wrong or if an attacker is able to pass to a teammate on the other side of the field, the goalie will most likely be too far out of position to recover in time to make a save. Some goalies play deeper in their net and trust their athleticism and reaction time. Goalies need to have incredibly good judgement and fast, decisive, decision-making skills. One wrong move could be one too many. The margin of error for goalies in soccer, because it is such a low scoring sport, is tiny and the consequences for error are enormous. Take poor Robert Green, for instance. In 2010 he was one of the best 40 people in the entire world at his profession yet all he will be remembered for (literally, it’s going to be the first line of his obituary one day) will be this momentary lapse against the United States in the World Cup.

Beyond simply getting in the way of the ball when it’s shot at the goal, goaltenders have a number of other responsibilities. If you watch soccer on television, you’ll often see shots of goalies screaming at their teammates. They’re not cursing them out or at least, they’re not  just cursing them out. Goalies are responsible for organizing their teammates on defense. Any single defender may have to turn his back to one side of the field or the other, or may be too far forward and miss what’s going on behind them. From their position closest to the goal, only goaltenders can see everything that’s going on. It’s their job to communicate.

The challenges and pressure that goalies face seems to attract or create two types of people: those who compensate through obsessive behavior and those who compensate through aberrant behavior. Almost all goalies are one of the two types, some are both. This is true across all sports. Hockeygrrl lists some of the more well-known obsessive behavior in her post about hockey goalies, including Patrick Roy’s refusal to let anything, even ice shavings into his net, Henrik Lundqvist’s ritual of tapping the wall the same number of periods he’s played so far in the game, and my new favorite, Jocelyn Thibault’s tradition of pouring “water over his head precisely six-and-a-half minutes before a game began.” For the more far-out their behavior on the other side of the spectrum, see Colombian soccer goalie Rene Higuita, who was literally nicknamed “the lunatic” and hockey goalie Ilya Bryzgalov who once responded to a question about the offensive threats on an opposing team by saying that he was “only afraid of [a] bear.”

What is a defender or fullback in soccer?

Are you big? A little slow? Do you have the desire to play soccer but not the dribbling skills? Able to kick the ball hard but not aim it that well? There’s a good chance that you play defense on your soccer team. Of course, world class defenders or fullbacks are neither slow nor bad at dribbling or shooting. Instead of playing defense because of their deficit in the skills department, the defenders you see playing soccer on television play defense because of what they have more of than anyone else: size, strength, and determination. Defenders use their size to out-jump opposing forwards when a ball is played in the air. They use their strength to muscle the opposition off the ball when they have possession of it. Like offensive linemen in football, defenders have the least margin for error and the most dramatic consequences for failing. (Some would argue the goalie has less but its understood that the goalie’s task is virtually impossible, whereas defenders are always supposed to succeed.) As such, the players who are attracted to playing defense and who succeed there are strong-willed and determined. No matter what it takes, their job is to stop the opposition from scoring and they’ll find a way to do it. Defenders may not run as much as midfielders during a normal game or sprint as quickly or as often as strikers, but they have to do it for a full 90 minutes. It’s very rare, except in cases of injury, for a team to spend one of its three substitutions on a defender. Some defenders find a way to get into the act on offense as well. Normally, this chance comes on set pieces, particularly corner kicks, when the ball is going to be in the air and a defender’s size is an advantage.

Central Defenders

The most common formation involves four defenders. Of these, two are considered central defenders, two outside defenders. Of the big, strong, determined defenders, central defenders are bigger, and stronger, and more determined than the rest. As central defenders, their responsibility lies in the area right in front of their goal — the most dangerous area for an opponent to have the ball. A great central defender will keep the ball from ever getting to that area by positioning herself to intercept any passes into that area. If a player tries to dribble the ball into that area, they should expect to be met by a firm and well placed pair of cleats. In modern soccer, the four defenders are usually deployed in a horizontal line across the field, so the two central defenders have overlapping but similar responsibilities. In older formations, they were often stacked vertically, one as a first line of defense, called the stopper, and one as a last resort, called a sweeper. Among the sweeper’s responsibility was to coordinate the other defenders and any other teammates necessary. Nowadays, that responsibility will be given to one or the other central defender. It’s not uncommon for that player also to be the captain of the team.

One strange vestigial aspect of soccer tactics is the habit of British soccer people to call a central defender, a “center half” or a “center half-back.” This is confusing because Americans use the term “half-back” synonymously with midfielder, so it not only doesn’t make sense to call a central defender a “center half” but it actively subverts something you think you know about positions. The reason for this is that in the very, very old days of British soccer, teams often played with only two defenders. As it became more necessary to have four full-time defenders, the two existing defenders shifted farther out, to the sides of the field and two central midfielders, called center half-backs, slid back to play defense. Though their role changed, these players held on to their positional name.

Outside Defenders

Outside defenders are a more varied bunch than central defenders. Whereas central defenders almost need to be tall, because the primary responsibility of an outside or wing defender is to prevent a player from crossing the ball into the penalty box, outside defenders can be a little shorter. While their central counterparts almost always stay back, even when their team has the ball, an outside defender may transition quickly to offense, sprinting up the side of the field. An outside defender’s closest teammate is often the midfielder in front of her, with whom she can play intricate give-and-goes to move the ball up the field. Since attacking is more prestigious than defending, even in a sport as low-scoring as soccer, the best known outside defenders in the world are offensive players. In the past twenty five years, Brazilian wing-backs have made a name for themselves internationally and on club teams throughout the world as talented offensive outside defenders. Based on the opponent and the composition their own team, a coach may choose to play with two offensive-minded outside defenders, two defensive-minded outside defenders, or even mix and match. Of course, none of these forays up the field excuse a defender from his defensive responsibilities. Even when caught way out of position, an outside defender has to have the speed and stamina to get back on defense before they are missed.

What is a midfielder in soccer?

Midfielders are the work horses of the soccer world. They cover the most ground of any players and are simultaneously the most varied and versatile. There are lost of ways to play midfield and lots of types of people who play it but there are some things they all have in common. Midfielders must be able to run for 90 minutes. They must be responsible and have good judgement because no matter how promising an opportunity to attack looks, it is their responsibility to get back on defense when the opposing team counter attacks. Midfielders are fanatic about possession — both keeping it when their team has the ball and getting it back when the ball is lost to the opposition. Midfielders have the best sense of where they are on the field. This may sound simple, but no other position requires a player to roam the untethered area in the center of the field as much as a midfielder, and knowing, without effort, where you are, is harder than it seems. Playing in the middle of the field also demands great creativity. Every choice a midfielder makes is an unbounded one — they can run or pass back, forward, left, or right. The soccer world is an oyster to a midfielder but it’s a punishing oyster, to be sure.

Soccer people sometimes use numbers to refer to positions. Of the following types of midfielders, the central attacking midfielders are called 10s and the central defensive midfielders are called 6s.

Central attacking midfielder

If you were starting a dream soccer team, you would want your best player to be a central attacking midfielder. Playing just behind the strikers, this position provides the greatest opportunity for creative brilliance. As opposed to a striker, a central attacking midfielder is not beholden to anyone for anything. If they want the ball, they can drop farther back and get it easily from a defender. If the strikers on their team are not scoring, a central attacking midfielder should be able to pick up the slack themselves. They are wonderful dribblers, productive scorers, and the best passers in the world. Playing this position may not seem like the most physically demanding position — they don’t bear the defensive responsibilities of other midfielders — but don’t let that fool you, it’s still tough. Great central attacking midfielders take more physical abuse than any other players on the field. Defenders mark them carefully and would often rather hack them down with an early trip than let them pick up a head of steam.

Central defensive or holding midfielders

The central defensive midfielder or holding midfielder is often the toughest player on the team. Asked to take part in a team’s offense while also tracking back and tackling the opponent’s attacking midfielder — often the other team’s best player — a defensive midfielder has her hands full. Defensive midfielders are sure tacklers and tireless workers who pursue the ball fanatically. Defensive midfield is such a taxing job that only the very best are able to do everything it requires equally well. Most people in this position either specialize in the defensive aspects of the position and play a lot like a defender or lean more towards offensive soccer. A good offensive player put in this position will still “hold back” as the position requires but love to jump start the offense with highly technical long passes. From their deep position, holding midfielders can see the entire field and have a great opportunity to anticipate movement and provide service to an attacking player right where she needs it.

Left or right midfielders

Midfielders who play on the side of the field are hard working players who don’t often get the appreciation that their central midfielder teammates do. As opposed to central midfielders, who have one or two players in front and behind them (a defensive midfielder plays in front of a defender and behind a central attacking midfielder and a striker — an attacking midfielder plays behind a striker and in front of a defender and an attacking midfielder) a left or right midfielder is often one of only two people up and down their part of the field. Unless they are directly supporting a winger on offense, an outside midfielder is the most forward player on their side of the field. This doesn’t take away any of their defensive responsibility. Getting caught too far forward can mean leaving the defender on that side of the field outnumbered two or three to one — a hopeless position. The saving grace for an outside midfielder is the salvation of the sideline. Since their responsibility is primarily up and down that line, they learn to think about soccer from the sideline in, knowing nothing bad can happen beyond them to the outside.

What is a striker or forward in soccer?

Imagine you’re a striker. Your sole purpose in soccer and perhaps in life is to score goals. You are single-mindedly devoted to goal-scoring in the lowest scoring popular sport in the world. When you score, you are the hero of all heroes. If you don’t, you are the greatest failure in the history of the world… for that week, at least. Strikers should be fast, fast enough to run by defenders. They need to be strong, strong enough to fend of defenders who are often bigger than them. Forwards also need excellent ball skills, deceptive enough to fake defenders out and sure enough to hold onto the ball despite being surrounded by three, four, or five opposing players. It’s no surprise that strikers are typically the most temperamental players on the soccer field. Since they’re most often in a position to earn their team a penalty kick by being fouled, they’re usually the most frequent divers or “foul simulators” in the game. Strikers are dependent on their teammates to pass them the ball, a job which is actually called “providing service.” Like Wide Receivers in American Football, this doesn’t encourage them to be nice, humble, cuddly people, but instead it encourages flamboyant, self-aggrandizing, lunatics. Above everything else, the best strikers in the world have amazing instincts. They seem to know where a ball is going to bounce and how to kick it through and around the sea of legs to score a goal. They have a seemingly supernatural ability to accelerate and sprint by a defender just when he’s least expecting it.

Soccer people sometimes use numbers to refer to positions. Strikers may be referred to as number nines if they play in the center of the field and 11s if they play on one side or the other.

Center Forward

The center forward is the prototypical attacking player, so they are usually referred to simply as strikers. Strikers have a lot of flexibility about where they play, so you may see one on either side of the field, but their natural hunting ground is the center of the field. A great striker should be the fastest sprinter on the field. During most of the game, a striker will meander around the back line of the opposing team, probing for weaknesses. At opportune moments, she will sprint between defenders, trying to time things just right, so that she is a step ahead of the defender when she receives the pass but not offsides. Once the striker has the ball and sees a clear path to the goal, his instincts take over and every nerve and muscle in his body is devoted to scoring. Rifle a shot past the goalie or dribble around him and what awaits is the glorious feeling of seeing the ball hit the back of the net. Strikers should also be proficient at heading the ball into the net.

Target forward

Scoring in virtually impossible in soccer. Just moving the ball up the field while maintaining possession is difficult. Teams that deploy a target forward try to establish an attacking position by sending her up the field and then attempting long passes. A target forward will establish a position, turn her back to the goal she’s trying to score on, and then make herself available to receive a pass. The target forward uses his (usually big and strong) body to shield the ball from people on the other field, protecting it for long enough for his teammates to run up the field and join him. In this role, a target forward’s job is still to create goals, but she’s not necessarily the one who will score the majority of them. A good target forward is adept at flicking nifty passes to their teammates who are running towards goal.


In formations with two or more strikers, there’s often one player who plays less centrally than the other. This player is referred to as a winger because he or she spends more time closer to the side or the wing of the field than the center. Wingers are usually smaller and faster than their central attacking counterparts. They are less frequently used as the target for a long pass up the field or a cross swinging into the center, so their ability to out-jump and out-muscle defenders is not as important. Instead, wingers are crafty, quick, and manipulative. They are the masters of the dark arts of attacking soccer: how to time a run just right to beat an offsides trap, how to win a set piece by playing the ball off a defender’s leg and out of bounds, or by how to trick a referee into calling a foul.

What's a goalie? Why are they so crazy?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do people say goalies are crazy? What’s a goalie anyway?


Dear Jean,

When I was in middle school, I discovered ice hockey. I remember lying on my bed and watching games on a little square television at my Dad’s house. Even back then, I felt compelled to jot down interesting things I heard, as if I was preparing to write a blog, despite this being years before blogs existed and decades before I started Dear Sports Fan. I still have some of the quotes I wrote down. One of them was about goalies:

Some people say 90% of goaltending is mental. I say 90% of goaltenders are mental!

I’m not positive who said that but it’s a safe bet that it was John Davidson, a former NHL goalie who was then the color commentator for the New York Rangers. He and partner Sam Rosen were definitely the most common hockey voices in my early memories of the sport. Goaltenders or goalies are frequently described as being a little bit crazy. It’s unclear whether the position attracts players who are a little bit… different or whether the position takes normal people and twists them. My guess is that it’s a little bit of both. In order to appreciate the colorful nature of goalies, it’s important to understand what the position entails.

The position of goaltender exists in many sports: soccer, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, team handball, and water polo. In each sport, the goalie is the most specialized position. She exists solely to do whatever she can to prevent the other team from scoring. Usually the goalie is granted special privileges in order to help them in their task. The most dramatic of those is in soccer where the goalie is the only player who can use his hands. In ice hockey, the goalie gets to wear thick leg pads, a large chest protector, a catching glove on one hand and a blocker and wide stick in the other. An ice hockey goalie also has special rules which apply only to her, including protection against being hit. Lacrosse goalies are allowed to have sticks with much larger heads than other players to make it easier to block shots with them. Water polo goalies are allowed to touch the ball with two hands and even touch the bottom of the pool.

You might think all those extra privileges make goalie the easiest position to play. Not true! The extra privileges of the goalie in most sports are a recognition of how difficult their job is. The margin of error for goalies in lower scoring sports (which is most goalies because, not coincidentally, there’s a strong correlation between having a goalie and having a low-scoring sport) is tiny and the consequences for error are enormous. Take poor Robert Green, for instance. In 2010 he was one of the best 40 people in the entire world at his profession yet all he will be remembered for (literally, it’s going to be the first line of his obituary one day) will be this momentary lapse against the United States in the World Cup. Hockey goalies who save 90% of the shots they face are probably not going to last long in the NHL where the best goalies save over 92.5% of the shots they face. Compare that to a non-goalie who scores on 20% of the shots he takes and is celebrated as an extraordinary goal-scorer. Even in a relatively high scoring sport like team handball, where, according to the New York Times, a goalie “can allow as many as 30 goals and still be thought to have had a good game” being a goalie comes with its down-side. Goalies are so frequently injured by shots that the international federation in charge of the sport is considering changing its rules to reduce injuries.

The challenges and pressure that goalies face seems to attract or create two types of people: those who compensate through obsessive behavior and those who compensate through aberrant behavior. Almost all goalies are one of the two types, some are both. Hockeygrrl lists some of the more well-known obsessive behavior in her post about hockey goalies, including Patrick Roy’s refusal to let anything, even ice shavings into his net, Henrik Lundqvist’s ritual of tapping the wall the same number of periods he’s played so far in the game, and my new favorite, Jocelyn Thibault’s tradition of pouring “water over his head precisely six-and-a-half minutes before a game began.” For the more far-out their behavior on the other side of the spectrum, see Colombian soccer goalie Rene Higuita, who was literally nicknamed “the lunatic” and hockey goalie Ilya Bryzgalov who once responded to a question about the offensive threats on an opposing team by saying that he was “only afraid of [a] bear.”

No matter how you cut it, goalies are some of the most important and most colorful people in sports.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Announcing Football 201: All About Positions

The Super Bowl is coming up quickly but there’s still enough time to impress your friends or family at their Super Bowl party! In Football 101 we went over why people like football, what down and distance are, how football scoring works, the inside scoop on fantasy football and football betting, how to decipher TV scoreboard graphics, and a great way to start having fun while watching football. Today, we’re announcing the release of our newest course, Football 201. This one is all about the mysteries of football positions. You’ll learn all about each of various positions in football: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, defensive back, and kicker. Our content covers the basics of how to identify each position when you watch football, what responsibilities players in each position are expected to fulfill, and what characters are usually attracted to playing or rooting for each position. At the end of the course you will get a fully unaccredited diploma of graduation, which you can hang on your wall with pride. If you enjoy the course, (and I hope you do!), I’d be thrilled to have you as a regular subscriber to our daily or weekly digests and for Football 301, coming soon! If you haven’t taken Football 101 yet and would like to, click here, or sign up in the form below.

Get started now

Ezra Fischer

What is a kicker in football?

Kickers are the resident aliens of a football team — and when I say alien, I don’t mean an immigrant in the process of becoming a naturalized citizen, I mean a green, bug-eyed Martian living amongst us Earthlings. Kickers play a very important role on every football team but that doesn’t mean they fit in.

Football teams have a lot of players on them. NFL teams can carry 53 players for a game and college teams can have 85 players! Only 11 players can be on the field at one time, so the large rosters leave room to have a lot of specialists. Offensive players don’t play on defense. Defensive players only play on offense every once in a while. There are players who specialize in playing in certain situations, like when a team is on defense and knows it’s opponent is going to throw the ball. Then there are the most specialized of all players, the kickers. Kickers are a group apart. They don’t engage in any of the activities that are seen as truly core to football. They don’t hit or get hit, they don’t throw, they don’t catch, they don’t block. They don’t usually look like football players. They’re not bulked-up behemoths, they don’t wear scary looking shields on their face-masks. More frequently than other positions, they don’t share a common background with other football players. They didn’t grow up playing Pee Wee Football, being the best athlete in their schools. They grew up playing soccer or rugby and then switched over later in life. Sometimes they didn’t even grow up in the United States.

What kickers do is kick the football. You might say they put the “foot” in “football” but then you’d be ignoring all the incredible footwork that offensive linemen do in unison to block defenders, that quarterbacks to do slide away from threats in the pocket, that running backs do to juke people out of their shoes, and that cornerbacks do running backwards at full speed. You’d certainly be forgetting about the amazing balletic footwork of wide receivers to make a catch while falling out of bounds. There are two types of kickers on a football team. Here’s who they are and what they do.

What is a kicker in football?

I know what you’re probably thinking. How can we have a subset of an article called “What is a kicker in football?” called “What is a kicker in football?” I agree, it’s strange. but here’s the thing: one of the two kicking positions on a football team is called “kicker.” The kicker is the one who kicks field goals and extra points. A field goal is the one long-distance way to score points in football. At any point in the game, a team can decide to attempt a field goal. When this happens, the kicker runs on the field, accompanied by his key accomplices, the long-snapper and a holder. The long-snapper snaps the football seven yards back where the holder catches it, places it on the ground vertically, and then the kicker kicks it. If the kick goes through the goal-posts and above the upright (football goal posts are shaped like a U sitting on top of an I. A successful field goal has to fly within the U part of the goal.) If the field goal is good, the team gets three points. An extra point is just a specialized field goal that happens after a touchdown. It’s from very close to the goal-line and it’s worth one point. Good kickers almost never miss extra points. As for field goals, a good NFL kicker should always make a field goal from less than 40 yards. 40 to 50 yard field goals are difficult but are usually made. Over 50 yards is a real crap-shoot.

Three points is a significant number and many, many games are decided by a field goal. The difference between a good kicker and a great kicker may be how calmly he can perform under pressure. Close games often end with a long-distance field goal attempt. Kickers who make these are heroes… until the next time, at least.

What is a punter in football?

The punter doesn’t get the glory (or the blame) that a kicker gets but the position is at least as important. Football is said to be a game of field position. This means that if a team can control where it and its opponent starts each possession with the ball and manipulate it so that their opponent has to consistently travel farther than them to score a touchdown, they have a good shot at winning. The punter is the key player in this stratagem. When a team is going to give the ball up to the other team, instead of giving the ball to them wherever it starts the play, they can punt the ball down the field and give it to their opponent there. I recently wrote a whole post about how punts work in football and why are punts exciting? I love the punt, so I recommend reading those posts.

What is a kickoff specialist?

The only other time a football gets kicked during the game (on purpose, at least,) is at the start of each half and following any score, when one team kicks the ball to the other. Even with 53 people on a team, most NFL teams don’t employ a separate kicker just to kick kickoffs. It’s a relative luxury that in 2014 only the Buffalo Bills gave themselves. On most teams, the kicker kicks the kickoffs but there are a few punters who do it too.

What different kinds of pitchers are there in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What different kinds of pitchers are there in baseball? It seems like a very specialized position. I keep hearing people label pitchers in all sorts of different ways, “junk pitchers, submariners, middle relievers,” but I don’t know what all the terms mean. Can you help?



Dear Jan,

There are a lot of different ways to describe a pitcher. “Junk pitcher, submariner, and middle reliever” are not only three different descriptions but they each describe a different class of description. “Junk pitcher” refers to the kinds of pitches a pitcher throws, “submariner” describes a pitcher’s throwing motion, and “middle reliever” describes when, during a game, a pitcher plays. One of the cool things about baseball is that none of this is rule based. All pitchers are the same according to baseball rules. It’s convention that defines how pitchers are classified. Let’s run through each category and look at the common descriptions and meanings together.

Pitchers classified by the pitches they throw

  • Junk pitchers – Junk pitchers specialize in throwing slower (relatively slower — they might still throw up to 85 miles per hour) pitches that fool a batter by curving down or sliding sideways as they approach the base.
  • Knuckleballers – A knuckleballer is an extreme version of a junk pitcher. These pitchers basically only throw one type of pitch — the knuckleball — which flies in such a tortured way that it’s often hard for the catcher to even catch it, much less a batter hit it. Because the pitch is thrown so slowly, these pitchers can have very long careers.
  • Power pitchers – Also called fireballers or flamethrowers, these guys throw extremely hard. Nowadays, a good power pitcher can throw in the upper 90s or even 100 miles per hour. Their pitches may not move as much in the air but it’s extremely hard for batters to “catch up to them” before they’re in the catchers mitt.

Pitchers classified by throwing motion

  • Sidewinders – Sidewinders throw the ball with a motion a little like a normal frisbee throw. Their arms stay around shoulder or chest level throughout their delivery. These pitchers are rare in American baseball but oddly common in Japanese baseball.
  • Submariners – Submariners are a rare breed of pitcher that throws the ball with a motion that brings their hand almost down to the ground before releasing the ball. It’s a crazy looking thing but it’s often very effective, partially because throwing the ball this way makes it move in unusual ways as it approaches the plate.
  • Normal pitchers – The vast majority of pitchers in Major League Baseball throw with the same overhand motion that most of us were taught to throw with as kids. They just do it with so much velocity that, if you watch them in slow motion, it looks like they’re going to rip their arms off their body from the strength of their throwing motion.

Pitchers classified by when they pitch

  • Starters – Starters are expected to pitch for the first six innings of the game. They will often throw close to a hundred pitches before wearing down enough to be taken out of the game. Starters pitch only once every five days. That’s how harsh this job is on their bodies.
  • Middle Relievers – Middle relievers take over for a starting pitcher who needs to be substituted before the eight inning. They’re the least valued members of the pitching staff but also often the most versatile.
  • Closers – These pitchers come in to “close out” a game in the ninth inning when their team is ahead. They are specialists and most throw relatively few types of pitches. Often they are fireballers but once in a while, a very effective junk pitcher can excel in this role.
  • Setup men – Set-up men are a relatively new innovation. They’re specialists who come in just for the eight inning to “set-up” the closer. Think of them as the second best closer on the team. The Kansas City Royals have made a splash in the 2014 season by using two set-up men, one for the seventh inning and one for the eight. They may have just created the position of the set-up set-up man.

Pitchers classified by how they try to get batters out

  • Ground ball pitchers – Ground ball pitchers aim to get batters to hit their pitches but to do it only under circumstances that the pitcher controls. Through placement, speed, and spin, the pitcher serves up only pitches that he thinks will result in an easily fielded ground ball.
  • Fly ball pitchers – A fly ball pitcher, like a ground ball pitcher, pitches “to contact.” They don’t try to avoid having the batter hit the ball, they just manipulate the situation so that when a batter does get a hit, it flies harmlessly up in the air.
  • Strike out pitchers – Strike out pitchers don’t want anything to do with the batter hitting the ball. They would much rather strike the batter out through deception or brute force or a mixture of the two than have them hit the ball into play.

These aren’t the only ways to describe a pitcher (he’s a bum/ace) but they are some of the most common ones. See if you can use one or more of these descriptions the next time you watch a baseball game.

Happy watching,
Ezra Fischer

What are outfielders in baseball or softball?

Center Fielder

Dear Sports Fan,

What are outfielders in baseball or softball? How many of them are there and what is the difference between the outfield positions?


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Dear Jack,

Outfielders are the players who play farthest from home plate. If you imagine a baseball field seen from above, there’s the diamond that the four bases make, which is covered with a dirt and then the area beyond it, which is grass. The outfielders are those players who play literally out in the field. There are three outfielders in competitive baseball and softball: left field, right field, and center field. In “beer-league” or recreational softball, there is sometimes a fourth outfielder added into the mix. The primary responsibility of outfielders is to track the ball when it is hit, do the complicated calculation of where it is going to land, figure out in a split second whether or not they will be able to catch it, and then sprint to the best spot to catch it or, if that’s impossible, to grab it and throw it to the correct teammate in the infield. Playing in the outfield requires speed, good judgement, and a strong arm. Although it only happens once every dozen games or so, outfielders also have to be ready physically and psychologically to climb or smash themselves into the outfield wall while going at full speed to catch the ball. Although the outfield positions are much closer to each other than the infield positions are, there are some differences in what is required at each position.

Center Field

Center fielders are the unofficial captains of the outfield. They cover the most ground and field the most balls. They are also responsible for coordination if there’s any indecision about who is going to field a ball. In case the player trying to catch the ball misses it, outfielders back each other up on every hit. For center fielders, this means they are either fielding or backing up their neighbor on every single ball hit to the outfield. That’s a lot of running! Center fielders need to have endurance as well as speed.

Left field

Left fielders field the second most balls in the outfield. This is especially true in youth, recreational, or college ball because most hitters are righties and most righties naturally hit the ball in the direction of their swing — towards left field. The left fielder is able to have the weakest arm of all the outfielders. This is because, if a ball is hit to left field, there’s no real chance of getting the ball to first base before the runner gets there. In this case, the left fielder is usually able to throw the ball to the second baseman — or the third baseman who runs over to a spot between the outfielder and second base — in time to stop the runner from getting to second. If there’s already a runner on base and the ball goes to left field, the necessary throw to prevent things from getting out of hand is the shortest one possible — to third base. This great, old-school, typed Outfield Fundamentals by Mike Evans points out that a right-handed player will find left field easier.

Right Field

Right fielders field the fewest balls, but when they do, they have to make the hardest throws to prevent runners from advancing from first to second base or second to third. The throw from right field to third base is particularly far, difficult, and important. The reason why right fielders field fewer balls than the other positions is because batters tend to find it easier to “pull” the ball across their bodies as opposed to angling it to the “opposite field.” Only left-handed batters can pull the ball to right field. The practical result of this is that right fielders tend to be the weakest fielders in the outfield. In recreational softball or baseball, right field is frequently a place you can stash someone who really doesn’t know how to even catch the ball because so few balls will be hit to them. In major league baseball, where pretty much everyone knows how to catch, the difference between fielders is smaller but right field is still the place where you’ll find players who deserve their spots on the team because they are great hitters but who aren’t great fielders.

Outfielders cover an extraordinary amount of space in an impressive way. Baseball fields don’t have to have standard dimensions and in fact, they vary quite a bit. According to Business Insider, the average ball park is 2.49 acres. The largest field is home to the Colorado Rockies and is .18 acres bigger than average. The smallest is Fenway Park in Boston which is .15 acres smaller than average. That might not seem like a big range, but consider that the outfielders in Boston play their home games in a park 14,375 square feet smaller than the outfielders in Colorado. These differences, can play a part in how a team constructs their lineup. The Red Sox may be able to do with better offensive players who are weaker defensively in the outfield while the Rockies first priority has to be defensive range.

Hope this has helped you understand what outfielders in baseball and softball are,
Ezra Fischer