What should I watch at the Olympics on Fri, Aug 12?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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.

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.

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.

The lesson of the 2015 World Cup champion USWNT

It’s hard to believe in retrospect but after their first three World Cup games, the U.S. women’s national soccer team was in a state of crisis. After their first game, a 3-1 win against Australia, a staff writer for the Australian Football Federation concluded that the USA “just aren’t that good.” After the U.S. team’s next game, a 0-0 draw against Sweden, some of their fans were beginning to wonder if that staff writer had been correct. After the team’s third game, a lackluster 1-0 win over Nigeria in what was supposed to be the easiest game of the group stage, the rumors, doubts, and criticism began to flow freely. Despite being undefeated through the group stage and advancing to the single elimination knockout stage as a group winner, the American team did not look or feel like it could win the World Cup.

The problem, according to a consensus of critics, was that the team’s talented players were being misused by coach Jill Ellis. She was playing the wrong combination of players in the wrong formations with the wrong tactics. Although soccer is a very fluid game, players (other than the goalie) can generally be said to be playing in one of three positions, defense, midfield, or striker. Formations are referred to in soccer short-hand by a series of numbers referring to the number of players in each position, starting with defense and moving through midfield to striker. The U.S. had been playing a 4-4-2, which is a traditional formation made popular by Brazilian men’s national teams and Milan’s club team in the 1990s. When it’s at its best, the four midfielders each have distinct roles. Two play on either side of the field, supporting the outside defenders when the other team has the ball and joining the attack when their team has it. In the center of the field, one of the remaining two midfielders plays a primarily defensive role, almost as a fifth defender, while the other focuses on being an offensive playmaker. Of the U.S. team’s four starting midfielders throughout the first three games, three of them prefer to focus on being the offensive playmaker. As is said about cooks in a kitchen, that’s too many. As is said about having two starting quarterbacks in football, if you have that many playmaking midfielders, you really have none, because none of them can be effective.

The United States entered the elimination stage of the World Cup without any major changes to their lineup and were able to beat Colombia 2-0 without ever looking truly commanding. During the Colombia game, two of those three playmaking midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament (a yellow card is like a misdemeanor offense in soccer) and were suspended for the team’s next game, a quarterfinal matchup against China. This crisis, the loss of two of the team’s most talented players, provided an opportunity for coach Ellis. Forced to replace Rapinoe and Holiday with lesser known players, Ellis made sure that each of her four midfielders had distinct roles, well suited to their games. Enter 22 year-old Morgan Brian who played that defense-first midfield role which freed Rutgers University’s own Carli Lloyd to push up into her preferred offensive midfield role. The team responded with their best game of the tournament, beating China only 1-0 but looking dominant throughout.

Coach Ellis had clearly found something that worked but the question remained, would she have the nerve to bench Holiday and Rapinoe, two of her most well-known and talented players, in the team’s next game now that they were no longer suspended? And if she did, would that even be a wise decision against the powerful German side? Surely, going back to the team’s setup from the first four games was not the answer, but what was? Building off the success of the lineup against China, Ellis found a third solution. She reinserted Holiday and Rapinoe but changed the team’s shape. Instead of playing a 4-4-2 as she had throughout the tournament, she switched to a 4-5-1. This created distinct roles for Holiday and Rapinoe without interrupting the newfound and effective dynamic between Brian and Lloyd. The U.S. beat Germany 2-0 in Montreal in front of 51,000 screaming fans. In the tournament’s final game, Ellis repeated this setup and was rewarded with an almost unheard of four goals in 16 minutes and a long-awaited World Cup Championship.

The lesson of this parable is that talent is nothing without correct deployment. Okay, perhaps not nothing, the U.S. was still able to advance to the quarterfinals before finding a better way to play, but they likely would not have met their ultimate goal without being redeployed. Putting players into distinct roles which they understood and which fit well with each other was the key to propelling the team to a World Cup championship. The biggest benefactor and most obvious exemplum of this is Carli Lloyd. Winner of the tournament’s version of an MVP trophy, the Golden Ball, Lloyd scored six goals and had two assists, all after the formation change. Before then? Nothing. Whether you’re a player or a coach, a musician or a conductor, an employee or a manager, the message is clear: find a way to put yourself and the people you direct into well-defined roles that play to strengths. Success will follow.

How to watch the 2015 World Cup final: USA vs. Japan

How should you watch the 2015 World Cup final between the USA and Japan? With enthusiasm and pride! With friends and family. In your living room, in a bar, in a public park or town square. Television coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on Fox with the opening kickoff happening at 7 p.m. promptly.

What’s the plot?

Four years ago, Japan shocked the world by beating the United States in the 2011 World Cup championship game. Despite Japan’s sentimental appeal, playing for a country facing the aftermath of the triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown disasters, no one expected them to be able to beat the United States. The United States was stacked with talented players and had proven itself in two giant knockout round wins over Brazil and France. The American team was the wolf and Japan was expected to be the sheep. Alas for the United States, no one asked the classic red carpet question, “What are you wearing?” As it turned out, the answer was “sheep’s clothing” and Japan showed itself to be the bigger, badder wolf, answering both U.S. goals with tallies of their own and triumphing in the resulting penalty shootout.

Four years later, the same two teams meet, and what’s at stake is legacy. Japan already has one title over the powerful American team. If they win today, they will ink their names into the history books as the ultimate World Cup performers — and the ultimate kryptonite to the United States. If the U.S. team wins, they’ll erase the memories of the 2011 team, a team that at the time was remembered more for its dramatic last second victory over Brazil than for its loss to Japan, but who, as time has gone by has been remembered more and more for its inability to bring home the cup. A U.S. win would end a generation of coming up short. For veteran players like, Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Heather O’Reilly, and of course, Abby Wambach, this is their last chance to leave the game with a World Cup championship on their resumes, and even though they have not played as large roles on this team as in past World Cups, it’s their legacies that are on the line today.

The United States had the hardest path through the Group Stage of any of the top-level teams. They opened the World Cup with a 3-1 win over Australia, a scoreline that disguises how close Australia was to scoring the upset. Next the U.S. team played a listless 0-0 draw against Sweden. At this point, doubts and criticism began to swirl around the team. A lackluster 1-0 victory over Nigeria, supposedly the weakest team in the group, did not help things. So, despite winning their group, the U.S. team was not looking all that strong. They then beat a feisty Colombia team in the Round of Sixteen, while still looking less dominant than people expected. It wasn’t until the next game, against China, that the team truly started looking like the overwhelming team we knew it could be. Tactical changes forced by suspensions to two midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, seemed to be the reason. This left coach Jill Ellis with quite the conundrum going into the team’s semifinal against a very scary German team who was favored to win the entire tournament: go back to the tactics of the first several games or choose to bench the now no-longer suspended Rapinoe and Holiday? She chose option C – change formations entirely and play those players but in different roles. It worked and remarkably, the U.S. dominated the Germans and advanced to the championship game today!

If anything, Japan has had an even more impressive run to the finals than the United States. They’ve won every single game they’ve played. Admittedly, their Group Stage matches were against inferior teams – Switzerland, Cameroon, and Ecuador, nor have they played against anyone as good as Germany, the United States, or France in the Knockout round. In their first elimination game, they beat a talented Netherlands team that’s probably four years away from being a true World Cup challenger. They moved on to face Australia, who almost found a way to upset Japan despite losing the possession battle soundly. In the semifinals, Japan beat England on that horrible 92nd minute own goal. If there were any justice in soccer, England and Japan would have played another 30 minutes of soccer and potentially a shootout to decide who moved on to the championship game. Who knows what would have happened? Throughout all of their games, Japan has possessed the ball more than their opponents but despite moments of brilliance, they’ve mostly done just enough to win, not looked dominant.

Who are the characters?

Jill Ellis – Questioned throughout most of the tournament, Ellis shut up her detractors by pressing all the right tactical buttons during the United States’ semifinal match against Germany. With success has come respect for how she’s managed the many big personalities on the team as well as the strategic choices. All that will be for naught if her team loses today.

Carli Lloyd – Through the first four games of the tournament, it wasn’t clear “whose” team this was. Now it’s pretty clear — it’s Carli Lloyd’s team. With one more captivating performance, it will be her ferocious midfield play and intensity that people remember when they think of the 2015 World Cup side.

Abby Wambach – “Win one for Abby” has been a rallying cry for the team throughout its World Cup run. She’s the greatest international goal-scorer of all time but she’s never won a World Cup. To all appearances, she’s gracefully accepted a reduced role over the last several games. She’s okay coming off the bench as a super sub. She just wants a World Cup championship.

Morgan Brian – The youngest player on the team, Brian has proven to be one of the most indispensable. An attacking player by nature, Brian has been asked to play as a defensive midfielder and has done it wonderfully. This has been enormous for the U.S. team because it came to the tournament with five or six natural attacking midfielders and only one defensive midfielder, the 38 year-old Shannon Boxx, who has barely played over the past year.

Julie Johnston – Johnston had the most dramatic night of anyone during the U.S. semifinal win over Germany. She committed the foul that gave Germany a penalty kick and its best chance to take control of the match. She was up and down the field, on offense, and defense, exhausting herself and taking a physical pounding. She seems to be made of steel but how much can she really have recovered from Tuesday’s game? She’ll need to be at full strength tonight.

Meet the rest of the United States team with our player profiles here

Aya Miyami – The current captain of the Japanese team, Aya Miyami, is a wizard in the midfield. She seems to have eyes in the back of her head and is able to pass to open players, seemingly by sonar or telepathy. She’ll take most of the team’s free kicks and other set pieces. She’ll have to be perfect tonight for Japan to have a chance.

Homare Sawa – Sawa is Japan’s answer to Abby Wambach. Once a star, now she’s a legend who plays in a secondary role and often comes in off the bench. In the battle of legends, it’s most likely that neither player will be the deciding factor in the game, but how fascinating would it be if Sawa came through with something amazing?

Norio Sasaki – With all of the focus on Jill Ellis and the decisions facing her, it’s easy to forget that there’s a coach on the other side — and a proud World Cup winning coach too. What tricks will Sasaki have up his sleeve when the teams enter the arena tonight?

Who’s going to win?

The United States has won games in many different ways this World Cup, but they’ve never had game where they were simply dominant from the starting kickoff to the last whistle. This is partially because they were in the “group of death” with three other very strong teams to start the tournament: Australia (the only team to score against the United States), Sweden (the only team to get a draw against the United States), and Nigeria. However, it’s also true that the United States team has been improving steadily from the moment it started its tournament to last Tuesday’s triumphant victory over Germany. In this final game of the tournament, I expect the U.S. team to be running on all cylinders. I expect them to be too powerful, too savvy, and too skilled for the Japanese team. I wrote before the semifinals that the winner of the USA vs. Germany game would be the enormous favorite in the championship game. Although I’m currently experiencing pre-game nervousness and although I’m superstitiously hesitant to jinx the team, I’m going to stick to my guns and predict a win for the United States. More than just a win, I expect a coronation. The U.S. will score early and maintain control of the game throughout.

Retro Diary: 2015 World Cup Semifinals USA vs. Germany

This past Tuesday, I had the rare pleasure of being at a wonderful and historic sporting event live! I was part of the 51,000 person crowd in Montreal’s Olympic Arena to witness the United States women’s national soccer team beat Germany 2-0 in the semifinals of the 2015 World Cup. It was a sublime experience and I wrote about it from a spectator’s perspective the following day. One of the things that struck me was how different it was to watch the game in person from watching it on TV. Some things were more intense, others more distant. When I got home from Montreal, I decided to watch the game as it was seen by the 8.4 million people who watched it on television. In the spirit of Bill Simmons I took notes as I watched to create a “retro diary” of the game. I hope you enjoy! 

0:00 – Whoa! This is weird. It takes me a minute to reposition my viewpoint from where I was on Tuesday (about 20 rows up in one corner of the stadium) to where the television camera is (floating in midair around the halfway point.)

1:30 — The Germans came out well at the start of this game. They’re pressuring the U.S. defense and causing some turnovers right away.

2:30 — More than two minutes in and the United States still hasn’t had the ball in the attacking half. I remember feeling very, very nervous about that in person.

3:00 — The first of many times that German striker Celia Sasic gets the ball and is shut down immediately by 3 to 4 U.S. players coming from every direction.

4:30 — U.S. defender Julie Johnston’s dramatic night begins when she falls on the ball and it knocks the wind right out of her.

6:30 — Johnston almost scores on one of her classic near post runs on a corner. I totally forgot about this – great save by the German goalie, Nadine Angerer.

9:00 — Megan Rapinoe makes a nice move in the box but scuffs her shot. Was this Rapinoe’s only offensive chance? She created havoc in the midfield though, so that’s okay.

12:10 — Boos heard from the crowd after a clear foul from Carli Lloyd. Amazing how partisan being there in person makes you — I remember being a part of that wrongful booing. and feeling really righteous about it.

13:50 — Tobin Heath springs Alex Morgan with a ridiculous through ball and Morgan wastes it by slapping the ball right at the goalie’s feet. How good could the U.S. be if Morgan had scoring touch at all?

15:00 – Announcer says “this is a game of mentality against mentality and the U.S. is winning that battle right now.” I have no idea what that means but it sounds good.

22:45 — Johnston slow to get up again after a foul.

28:15 — The head to head clash between Alexandra Popp and Morgan Brian was much more dramatic on TV. Amazing the difference closeups and replays make compared to something happening once way on the other side of the field. The German team all runs to the sideline to talk and drink water. The U.S. team sticks near their fallen teammate. In person, we could see the coaches on the sidelines screaming at their players and motioning them to move away. Meanwhile, on television, the German injury looks far worse — very bloody. Also in person, as SOON as the players went down, all the American subs started warming up. I’m not sure what the rules are, but generally there were players warming up much more frequently than I thought there would be. During most of the half, someone from the U.S. team was alway warming up although only in batches of three. Announcers say that “thankfully” players are no longer making the decision to go back into the game after head injuries — but if they’re not, who is? No concussion protocol I know of only takes a few min or can be done in a noisy, in-stadium atmosphere.

32:00 — After a five minute delay, the players are up and the game restarts.

33:00 — Rapinoe steals another ball in the midfield and forces a yellow card. Great example of her embracing a less offensive role.

35:00 — The start of a great sequence for the U.S. A Meghan Klingenberg shot deflects for a corner. A nice move by Johnston in the box (how versatile is she?) leads to another corner. Then a scramble in front of the goal leads to ANOTHER corner. The crowd is standing and cheering. I remember feeling like we’d surely get a goal on one of these corners. Then all of a sudden, a clearance by Sasic, a bad pass by Ali Krieger, and Becky Sauerbrunn has to take a professional foul and gets a yellow card. Germany broke the momentum.

43:00 — Morgan misses another chance by barely a foot. Takes a sweet pass from Sauerbrunn, dances by a German defender… and kicks the ball way past the far post. Gah!

45:00 — Only four minutes of stoppage time despite a five minute stoppage for the Brian/Popp head clash. This is one of the reasons why soccer players dive and roll around and do all sorts of other stuff to waste time. Referees don’t actually stop their watches all the time when that’s happening. Or if they do, they don’t add the time back later.

46:00 – Popp fouls Rapinoe. Live, I remember thinking this should have been the second yellow on Leonie Maier and howling my indignation. Nope, the offender was a different blonde German player! Shows you what I know.

47:00 — Now Maier fouls Rapinoe. Oh wait, maybe THIS was the foul I was upset about. Right, wrong? Whatever. No second yellows. But by the end of the half, the crowd thought the ref was screwing us — which is maybe why we didn’t pick up on the fact that she saved us in the second half.

Halftime — Former soccer player, Ariane Hingst on the major clashing of heads in the first half: “Popp with the bloody head. Morgan, she looked like as if she was concussed. And really, well done by the players they stood up and continued to play. The comment of studio host Rob Stone? “Well done by the officials to make sure everyone was okay to move on.” This dichotomy tells you everything you need to know about how players view head injuries differently from media members/normal people.

46:00 — The U.S. wins a seventh corner. That’s a lot and way more than the Germans, who did well not to let in a goal off one of these corner. This one was a close call after Lloyd headed it just a few feet wide. Despite her upcoming heroics, was this the first time Lloyd did something noticeable? I think so — she was less present in the first half.

50:00 — Heath just straight up gives away a corner. No idea what she was trying to do there but we in the crowd, like the announcers on TV, were not happy with her.

51:00 – Commentator Cat Whitehill says she’s never seen a German team play so poorly. Would have been nice to hear that in the crowd. Although I knew we were dominating play, I was still scared constantly.

54:30 — Heath makes another amazing pass to spring Krieger up the field. I appreciate the game Heath had much more on second viewing. She did a lot of clever things to help the U.S. get forward.

56:50 – A zoomed in camera catches Popp heading the ball and grimacing. Imagine heading the ball with a brand new head wound. OUCH!! Definitely harder to see things like that in person.

58:00 – THE MOMENT. It came on suddenly. At first, the German pass looked like an innocuous half-clearance attempt but a giant bounce and a suddenly surging Popp put Johnston in a bad situation. In defense of the ref, I understand why she wouldn’t give a red card.  If the red card had been given it would have been because Johsnton had clearly taken away a German scoring attempt. From the start of the play, it didn’t seem like there was about to be a goal scoring opportunity. It was a totally nothing play. Sasic lines up to take the shot. Goalie Hope Solo starts playing head games. Sasic has her hands on hips. Wild cheering and clapping from the crowd. TV announcers say they are “surprised” Solo didn’t get a yellow card. Sasic misses. Wow! The announcers do a great job of staying out of the way to help the drama of the moment. There are shots of the pro-American crowd going wild and wry German fans. The game moves on so quickly with chants of USA, USA clearly audible. The whole sequence only took two minutes but it felt like a lifetime in the stands. Must have felt like ten lifetimes for Johnston who, according to the announcers, was crying on the field. Also according to the announcers, this was the first time the Germans had missed a penalty kick in WC history. WHAT? SERIOUSLY? THAT’S AN INTERESTING TIDBIT!

62:15 — German, Anja Mittag has the next good scoring chance after the missed penalty. Any history of the game (even mine) that suggests the American victory was foretold as soon as the penalty kick was missed is wrong and seriously revisionist.

64:00 — Putting a defender up as part of the attack on corners puts such pressure on that player to get back if the corner turns into a counter-attack. Even more stress on Johnston who has to sprint back after a Lauren Holiday corner goes bad.

65:00 — Krieger wins a corner – I was really impressed with her skill close in with the ball throughout this game.

66:00 — Another great long ball on the ground from the U.S. defense straight through the midfield to Alex Morgan. I wonder if that was an intentional tactic installed by the coaching staff before the game. It seems like a surprising number of passes, including both the passes that led to goals were from the defense all the way up to the foremost attacker. This time it was from Klingenberg to Morgan. Morgan misses again on a difficult angle shot.

66:35 –The play that eventually leads to the U.S. getting a penalty kick starts with Carli Lloyd winning a hardcore 50/50 ball in midfield. She made a clean play to knock the ball to Klingenberg while at the same time injuring the German player she was going up against. Clearly the Germans were not ready for the power of New Jersey. Perhaps no one truly is. Klingenberg settles the ball and passes, again through the midfield straight to Morgan. It’s a nothing play from then on — Morgan runs at the German defense, makes a single move, and gets fouled. If you rewind and watch this play several times, you’ll be struck by how clearly it seems to be foreshadowed. Watch Annike Krahn’s footwork as she prepares to meet Alex Morgan’s rush. It’s terrible! It almost feels as though she’s going to stumble and fall before she can even make an attempt to get the ball from Morgan. Injury, fatigue, or fear? Something was up with her.

68:30 — Lloyd is a rock. Celebrates with a giant F-Bomb.

74:00Kelley O’Hara comes in and there’s a lot of communication between her and other players. Relaying instructions about how things are supposed to change with her on the field.

75:25 — Brian intercepts a pass in the center of the midfield. It’s going to be interesting to see how her role develops. At 22, she’s adjusting her role to facilitate other players preferences but given how well played, even in a non-natural role, soon she’ll begin to force other players to accommodate her.

77:00 — Germany looks tired. Who knows how much the 120 minute quarterfinal game against France took out of them. The draw was unfair not just to the French but to the Germans too.

78:10 — Totally gratuitous shot of Solo drinking water and squirting herself with it. The announcers do a good job not commenting.

79:00Abby Wambach enters the game for Rapinoe and the announcers have same concern with the substitution that I did in the stands. Does it change the team’s shape? It was hard to imagine that Wambach would play midfield which she basically did until after the next goal.

81:00 – Maier skies what may have been Germany’s last legitimate chance to score. How much of this was tired legs? How much was knowing that you had to take a near perfect shot to beat the intimidating Solo?

83:00 — The final scoring sequence starts with Wambach running down a ball played a little too far to the flag. She corrals it, plays it back to Klingenberg who plinks it into the box. Lloyd takes the pass, beats her defender, and seemingly for the first time all game (thanks Morgan) throws the ball across the face of the goal instead of trying to score from a tight angle. O’Hara, with the freshest legs on the field, was not going to be denied that ball. In the replay you can almost see the determination in her stride as she powers past the German defender and cleats the ball into the net.

87:30 — The Germans are dead women walking and they know it.

92:30 — The moment of confusion I wrote about when the Leroux sub made me think the game was over may have mostly just been in the crowd. One German player does drop to the ground but most on both sides look like they know the game isn’t over.

Game over — The camera lingers on a handshake line between the two teams and particularly Popp with fresh blood dripping down the side of her face. It’s easy to forget that many of these players have played together in the NWSL or other soccer leagues. They have lots of respect for one another.

Reflections on USA vs. Germany from Montreal

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of being at the semifinals of the women’s World Cup in Montreal. A friend, Amshula, and I were part of the giant, pro-America, 51,000 person crowd in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium that witnessed a great soccer game between Germany and the United States, the first and second ranked teams in the world. Here are my reflections on the game.

Fourteen year-old girls are the best fans in the world. They launched the Beatles and dozens of derivative groups to world stardom. On Tuesday night, they were a big part of why the United States women’s national soccer team beat Germany 2-0 to advance to the 2015 women’s World Cup Finals. One of the big advantages that women’s soccer has over men’s is that they have, at least for now, a near monopoly on the 10 to 17 year-old female demographic. These are virtually perfect fans. They come out in droves, they bring their friends and families, they can scream like banshees, and because so many of them have played soccer for so much of their lives, they are highly intelligent fans. The crowd in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium wasn’t exclusively made up of tween girls but it was led by them.

As a man in my thirties, I was a part of a small minority for whom their was one enormous benefit. Almost uniquely in the history of live sporting events, there were virtually no lines for beer and the men’s bathroom. Unfortunately, hot dogs are age and gender agnostic, so it was impossible to acquire one.

Another unique aspect of the game (at least for me) was that my cellphone didn’t work. There was no wifi in Olympic stadium and I hadn’t bothered adding an international data plan to my cell service before the trip (What? Canada is a different country?) So, I couldn’t check Twitter, Fancred, and Facebook before and during the game. I wasn’t getting alternating irate and exuberant text messages from my friends and family. This left me feeling a little bit disconnected but it also gave me space to focus in on the game and just the game. I was totally present in the moment.

The only time I really missed my phone was before the start of the game when I was anxiously wanting to know who would be in the starting lineup for the U.S. team and I couldn’t tap my Twitter sources to find out. As I wrote in my preview to the game, Jill Ellis, the U.S. coach, had a real lineup dilemma on her hands. I had basically convinced myself that if she went back to the personnel of the team’s first four games, we would lose to Germany, but it seemed inconceivable that she would have the chutzpah to bench Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe whose suspensions in the previous game gave birth to a more successful lineup. Ellis, I thought, was stuck between a rock and a hard place. When the lineups were announced by a PA announcer in the stadium and those two players were called out as being starters, my heart dropped. Before it hit bottom, as I continued to listen, I realized that I had also heard the names of three other midfielders: Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, and the indomitable Carli Lloyd. My heart started to rise again. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Coach Ellis had found a third option: play five midfielders and only one striker. I didn’t know if it would work, but at least I didn’t feel sure it wouldn’t. Watching at home, or with a cell phone, I would have had this tactical choice teased by people in the know before the lineups were announced and instant-analyzed right after. In the stadium, I had to figure it out on my own.

The first half was a nerve-jangling 45 minutes of amazing soccer. The two teams seemed almost perfectly matched with Germany perhaps carrying a slight edge in terms of possession but the United States creating the better scoring attempts. We probably should have scored. Alex Morgan, the sole striker, had a few chances that someone with better scoring touch would have put in. At halftime, I felt honored to be there, witnessing such a great game in person but I couldn’t shake the creeping feeling that this was exactly the type of game that Germany wins. They get outplayed but hang around, keeping the game close until something, usually a penalty kick, puts them over the top. If it happened to poor, valiant France in the quarterfinals, it could happen to us.

My worst fears seemed to be moments away from being realized when Germany won a penalty kick near the 60 minute mark after a Julie Johnston foul. Olympic Stadium is an enormous place. It holds over 60,000 people and it looks like it once seated more. The current layout is a horse-shoe in three tiers, with the open side closed off by a wall with a scoreboard and jumbotron. Near where the wall begins, you can see what looks to be the original, stone bench seating that may once have circled the entire field. The result of this renovation, is that one side of the field is relatively quiet, with fans only on the sides of the field, while the other is a cacophonous riot with fans screaming from all directions. The United States began by defending the quiet side of the field which means they were defending the loud side in the second half when the penalty kick was called. This small logistical fact may have saved the game.

When the ref motioned towards the penalty spot, signaling for a penalty kick, the crowd jumped to its feet and started screaming. It screamed while a series of U.S. players, first captain Carli Lloyd and then veteran midfielder Megan Rapinoe approached the ref to argue the call, or maybe to exchange stock tips, who knows. It kept screaming while Celia Sasic placed the ball onto the turf to her liking and prepared to take the biggest penalty kick of her life. For some reason, goalie Hope Solo took her sweet time getting ready to defend the kick. She walked around. She drank some water. She squirted water on the ground. Then she set up five feet off the goal line. The ref motioned her back. She stepped back a foot. The ref motioned her back again. We might never know why Solo did that. Maybe she was nervous. More likely, she understood the drama of the moment and the effect that 50,000 screaming American fans could have on a German player preparing to take a penalty kick that felt like it would decide her country’s fate. If Solo was playing to the crowd, we knew our role. We screamed. And Sasic missed. Wide left. We’ll never know what would have happened if she had made that kick. Maybe the U.S. team would have had enough to come back and score their two goals anyway, but I doubt it, just like I doubt that she would ever have missed if the kick had been on the other side of the field; the quiet side.

The missed Germany penalty kick seemed to give new life to the U.S. team and from then on, things started happening fast. The teams exchanged possession and offensive forays into opposing territory. Then, Alex Morgan, making her ten thousandth run behind the German defense, was fouled in the box. Penalty kick, U.S. There’s no way we could miss this. Not after Sasic missed hers – not with Carli Lloyd at the spot. No way. No!! She didn’t miss! GOOOAAAL!! Pandemonium in the stands. Not the drunken pandemonium of an adult male dominated crowd but pandemonium nonetheless. Despite everything, all of my foreboding feelings about the game, Germany’s skill and penchant for stealing games, the U.S. was up 1-0 with 20 minutes to go. Holding on to a one goal lead for 20 minutes after a five-plus game shutout streak shouldn’t be too hard, right? It felt hard.

Germany, to their credit, threw everything it had at the U.S. defense but nothing worked. One could say it wasn’t their night. Or you could say that the U.S. back four: Meghan Klingenberg, Julie JohnstonBecky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger are superheroes who absolutely, incontrovertibly deserve their own Hollywood epic. Then, just when the crowd was beginning to look at the clock and will it to move faster, super-sub Kelley O’Hara, who had an immediate physical impact on the game when she checked in, knocked in a pass resulting from a ridiculously skilled Carli Lloyd run in the box. 2-0 USA. More pandemonium, this time with a sense of victory and finality.

The rest of the time flew by, with the team playing defense, the crowd screaming, and the German team desperately trying to claw their way back into the game. Abby Wambach, who drew a standing ovation along with chants of “Abby, Abby” just by warming up, came into the game in the surprise role of a midfielder to provide some extra physicality. (Note: I see now that her sub was actually made before the O’Hara goal.) The crowd’s adulation was a fitting tribute to Wambach’s long and insanely decorated service to the country’s national team but it was smart for Ellis to use her in a reserve role. Wambach’s speed was never her forte but now, at thirty five, and with the game moving faster and faster, it’s a flaw that could have proven fatal earlier in the game.

There was a strange moment in stoppage time when the ref blew her whistle to allow a final U.S. sub to come onto the field. The crowd and at least the German team thought she was signalling the end of the game. The crowd roared. The German players fell to the ground in exhaustion and defeat, only to have to rise again and play out the last minute or two of the game. What a strange thing to have to do – to experience the end and then be forced to go on, all the while knowing that, down two goals with mere moments left, defeat is inevitable.

When the end finally came, the player I was watching was center back Julie Johnston. When the whistle blew, she instantly physically transformed from a young woman in the prime of her powers to a tired, elderly lady. She stumbled, she stooped, she limped like every muscle, every bone, every joint in her body hurt. She was totally drained. When Megan Rapinoe sprinted up from behind to envelop her in a tackle/hug/sandwich with goalie Hope Solo, I was actually concerned for Johnston’s well-being. What an amazing reminder of just how much effort these women put into each game.

In what may be an interesting coda, it was only after Amshula and I escaped the stadium through a subway full of gleeful American fans and glum German ones, after we found ourselves some tacos to inhale, after we got back to the wifi-friendly confines of our hotel, and after I read about the game in articles by people who had access to television coverage and instant replays that I learned that the Romanian ref, Teodora Albon, had apparently helped the U.S. cause with a couple of very important bad calls. From within the partisan crowd, I didn’t think Julie Johnston deserved a red card for her foul in the box. Frankly, we didn’t even think it was a foul! Nor could we see that the foul on Alex Morgan was just outside the box and therefore not really deserving of a penalty kick. All we knew was that we hated the ref when she called fouls against the United States and loved her when she called fouls for us. Live sports in person — there’s nothing like it.

Panorama of Semis

Why Germany? A U.S. women's soccer fan's lament

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

 Why Germany?

Why does it have to be Germany? Seriously — why? I have an abject fear of Germany as a soccer power. It seems like every time the U.S. team, men’s or women’s, gets in position to do something wonderful at a World Cup, the Germans come through and ruin it for us. Over the past twenty years, I’ve developed as thorough a sports-hatred for Germany as I have for anyone short of the Philadelphia Flyers. I can quickly, without looking too much up, rattle off my litany of complaints:

  • 1990 — the first World Cup the men’s team had qualified for in more than 44 years. My introduction to international soccer as a fan. Sure, the U.S. didn’t play Germany but the German team won. Strike one.
  • 1998 — after the thrilling soccer awakening of hosting the 1994 men’s World Cup and getting to see three games in person (including an amazing quarterfinal upset of Germany by Bulgaria!!) the United States team gets stuck in a group with Germany. Germany slams the U.S. team 2-0 in the first game of the tournament and the U.S. never recovers. Three straight losses and home.
  • 2002 — the men’s team once again escapes the group stage and, after a miraculous 2-0 win over Mexico, advances to the quarterfinals… only to run into Germany. 2-0. Germany moves on, the U.S. goes home again.
  • 2003 — Although I have vague memories of the U.S. women’s team throughout the 1990s, their World Cup victory in 1999 seared them into my (and everyone else’s) consciousness. So, it was no surprise that we all paid more attention to the the next (this) women’s World Cup. I’m in college, so I have nothing better to do than geek out and watch all the games. After an easy run through the Group stage and Quarterfinals, the U.S. team smacks up against Germany in the semifinals. They get smacked, 3-0. The Germans go on to win the tournament, their first.
  • 2014 — the men’s team is stuck in a group with Germany again. Despite that, they could have, should have, would have won the group except for a last second goal by Portugal’s Ronaldo which forced the U.S. to need a win going into the last Group Stage game… against Germany. No dice. The Germans sucked the air out of the ball and won, 1-0, setting the U.S. up for a tough and eventually futile effort against Belgium in the Round of 16.

Looking back on this, it seems like the double-whammy of 2002 and 2003 must have been the moment when my fear and dislike for German soccer teams was cemented once and for all. It probably doesn’t hurt that half of my partner’s family lives in the Netherlands, what with their long, storied, and tragic history of losing to the Germans in World Cups. Neither the United States men’s team or a Dutch team of any gender is playing tomorrow, so their history’s don’t matter outside of my own brain. To confirm or dispel my fears about tomorrow, I did a little research about just the United States women’s team and how well they’ve done against the Germans.

It’s actually a much rosier picture than my tortured mind imagined. In 29 games between the two teams, the United States has won 18, lost four, and tied seven. In World Cups, things are a little more even but still slanted towards the United States. The two teams have played three times in World Cups, in the 1991 semifinals, which the United States won 5-2, in the 1999 quarterfinals, which the United States won 3-2, and in the 2003 semifinals, which Germany won 3-0. Since that loss in 2003, the United States has won six, tied five, and lost zero games against Germany.

It may be irrational, because all sports games are played in the present, but this new way of looking at the past makes me feel better. I’m more confident that, even if we do lose, it won’t be because of some age-old trend of the Germans always beating the U.S. soccer teams and ruining my year.

"I believe that we will win" is inappropriate for the USWNT

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

Impostor syndrome is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” Although anyone can suffer from impostor syndrome, in our culture, it’s particularly something that women feel. It’s something that thoughtful organizations should be on the watch for so that they don’t inadvertently reinforce it by giving more opportunities to people (predominantly male) untroubled by self-doubt. Impostor syndrome is a pernicious little brain-worm that stops people from achieving everything they can achieve by convincing them they’re not worthy of attempting anything great.

One of the wonderful things about watching international women’s soccer is the sense you get that these women have escaped impostor syndrome. Here are women whose strength and self-confidence is obvious just from looking at them. The fact that they’re able to step onto the field in such a pressure packed environment and perform at a world class level must be evidence that they, unlike so many other women, have taken ownership of their abilities and accomplishments. Women’s soccer is wonderful to watch as sport but it’s also wonderful to watch for its aspirational message to women (and people) everywhere. “You don’t have to cut yourself down. You don’t have to apologize. Look at what is possible when you stop doing those things.”

That’s why it particularly irks me when I hear fans of the U.S. women’s national team chanting, “I believe that we will win.” This cheer comes from fans of the men’s team who popularized it during the 2014 men’s World Cup. The 2014 men’s World Cup captivated the United States like soccer has rarely done before. Bars and town squares were packed with cheering, patriotic fans. People wearing jerseys and scarves nodded to each other on busy city streets and in subways and busses. At the heart of that positive energy was the U.S. men’s national soccer team. The U.S. men’s team is known for its never-say-die attitude, its heroic goaltending, and its tilting at windmills. The U.S. men’s team is a real underdog in world soccer. It’s never won a World Cup and it doesn’t seem likely to anytime in the near future. Although its coach got some flack during the lead up for the 2014 tournament for saying his team had no chance to win, he wasn’t wrong. That’s why the team’s clarion cry, “I believe that we will win,” fit the team so well. Rooting for the United States in men’s soccer is an act of faith despite inevitable disappointment. Men’s soccer super powers would never shout something like this. German fans, Brazilian fans, Italian fans, would be more confident and more straightforward, like: “We’re going to win!” “You have no chance!” “Our team is the best!” “Why even bother!”

The United States women’s soccer team is to women’s soccer what Brazil, Germany, or Italy is to men’s soccer. We’re tied with Germany for the most World Cup championships, with two each. In six World Cups, we’ve never placed outside the top four, and by qualifying for the semifinals in 2015, that record is guaranteed to stretch to seven. The United States team is ranked second in the world by FIFA. It has athleticism and skill that few countries can match. It is, in short, a giant overdog in international women’s soccer. The women’s team deserves a more confident cheer — and a more demanding one as well. How about, “I expect that we will win?”

There is something charming about the “I believe that we will win” chant when applied to the men’s team. In the men’s game, the United States doesn’t have a lot of accomplishments to internalize. We aren’t obviously competent. The fact that fans still “believe” that the team “will win” despite all evidence to the contrary is one of the things that makes them such great fans. However apt it is for the men, the cheer doesn’t fit at all with the women’s team who do have accomplishments and skill that goes far beyond competence. If the genders were reversed, it wouldn’t matter as much, but applying the tentative, self-doubting men’s cheer to the women’s team inadvertently reinforces the idea that women should be apologizing for their strengths. Chanting “I believe that we will win” about the U.S. women’s national team reduces the impact the team can have on women who suffer from impostor syndrome. That’s not something to cheer about.