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

Dear Sports Fan,

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

Thanks,
Joy


Dear Joy,

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the games,
Ezra Fischer

Happy New Year 2016 from Dear Sports Fan

Happy New Year!!

2015 was a wonderful year in sports and a great year for Dear Sports Fan! Thank you for being a part of this experiment with me. I feel lucky to have been able to share so much of what I was thinking about with you during the past year. Here are some of the highlights of the year. Read to the bottom for a special treat for 2016.

In February, right before the Super Bowl, I published a series of heartfelt and deeply researched articles on the topic of brain injuries in football… and also what the top ten dirtiest sounding football phrases actually mean. In March, the madness of the NCAA basketball tournaments inspired me to share four business lessons one can learn from the sport and also four ways to fill out a tournament bracket if that’s more your speed.

In May and June, I came down with a bad case of World Cup fever and wrote dozens of articles about the 2015 World Cup. My non-gendered profiles of each of the women on the U.S. Women’s National Team were popular, which I was proud of, even if some of the most common search terms for them was “is [insert player name, most frequently Megan Klingenberg] married?” I fleshed out Dear Sports Fan’s coverage of soccer in general and shaped the articles into three email courses which are still available today: Soccer 101, Soccer 201 – Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202 – Culture. A personal high point was my trip to Montreal to watch the USA vs. Germany semifinal match.

After I moved to the Boston area in the spring, I decided to take Dear Sports Fan into the real world by starting a Meetup group. We’ve had a great time at our viewing parties, watching sports in an environment friendly to questions and welcoming to people who approach sports from all angles.

Throughout the year, I kept an eye out for moments when sports and the larger culture intersect. This has taken serious forms, like when shared my disgust with the drafting of Jameis Winston, and silly forms, like before the Kentucky Derby when I mined the world of musical theater for horse racing and betting tips, As always, the heart of the website has been a desire to make it easier for sports fans and non-fans to co-exist. With the NFL playoffs coming, it’s worth revisiting my thoughts on how a household can survive the football season without going crazy.

As one year comes to a close, another is just beginning. As a token of my appreciation for all the support I received during 2015, here is a New Year’s guide to the top 16 sporting events of 2016!

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.

How to keep the World Cup spirit going: watch the NWSL

The 2015 World Cup has been an amazing success for soccer and women’s sports throughout the world. If you’re reading this post, than you are probably sad that the tournament is coming to a close. Trust me, everyone who is involved with women’s sports and women’s soccer in particular is as well. The problem with relying on events like the World Cup and the Olympics to expand the reach of women’s soccer is that they only come around once every four years. The rest of the time, women’s sports get very little coverage from the media and very little attention from the vast majority of sports fans. This has a negative impact on the ability for female athletes to improve. It’s hard to find full-time professional jobs as athletes. There simply aren’t that many professional teams out there and those that exist pay far less than men’s professional teams, often not enough to live on. It’s a vicious cycle common to women who play sports at the vast majority of levels in the vast majority of the world: women’s sports are perceived to be not as good as men’s, therefore they don’t receive as much support, therefore they don’t provide as many opportunities for women to train, play, and improve, therefore the play isn’t as good as in men’s sports, which leads to them being perceived as worse, which leads to them not getting support… and so on into infinity. We can stop this cycle and we should!

As I wrote the other day, for women’s sports to thrive, strong professional leagues are a must. So, step one – support the professional leagues that do exist for women! Let’s start with the National Women’s Soccer League. The NWSL is a nine-team professional soccer league in its third year of existence with teams spread across the United States. The level of play is extremely high — every team has at least a couple World Cup players and as many as eight. The games that I’ve been to – Boston Breakers home games – have been great fun. Attendance is good, even in bad weather, and the atmosphere is great. Lots of cheering, lots of popcorn, lots of enjoyment. If you’ve enjoyed hosting or going to watching parties at home, you can keep it going with NWSL games. Every game is available live and for free on NWSL’s Youtube channel. Thanks to the success of the World Cup, three regular season games and all three playoff games will even be on terrestrial cable.

Here is everything you need to know about the nine NWSL teams including where they play, when their next home game is, how much their tickets cost, and which of your favorite World Cup players are on each team.

Boston Breakers

The Boston Breakers play their home games at Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium in Boston, Massachusetts. Tickets are available for $15 to $25 with all kinds of package deals available. Their next home game is Thursday, July 9 at 7 p.m. against the Chicago Red Stars. You can view their whole schedule here. The Breakers had four players in the World Cup this year: USA backup goalie Alyssa Naeher, Australian attacker, Kyah Simon, Brazilian defender Rafaela Travalao,  and Mexican defender Bianca Sierra.

Chicago Red Stars

The Chicago Red Stars are in first place in the NWSL Their home field is the Village of Lisle-Benedictine University Sports Complex in Lisle, Indiana, a suburb of Chicago. Tickets run from $10 to $75. Their next home game is Saturday, July 18 at 7 p.m. against the Boston Breakers. You can view their whole schedule here. The Red Stars are tied for first in the number of players they sent to the World Cup with eight: Americans, Julie Johnston, Christen Press, Lori Chalupney, and Shannon Boxx, Canadians, Melissa Tancredi, Adriana Leon, and Karina LeBlanc, and Abby Erceg, the one NWSL player from New Zealand’s national team.

FC Kansas City

FC Kansas city are the defending champions of the NWSL. The team plays at the Swope Soccer Village Championship Field within Swope Park, Kansas City’s largest public park. Their next home game will be on Wednesday, July 15, at 7 p.m. against the Houston Dash. Here’s the rest of their schedule. FC Kansas City is one of the best deals in the league, or anywhere else, with single game tickets ranging from just $11 to $25! The team has a talented and athletic bunch of World Cup players including Americans Becky Sauerbrunn, Amy Rodriguez, Heather O’Reilly, and Lauren Holiday, as well as Australian international, Katrina Gorry.

Houston Dash

The Houston Dash share their home field with the Houston Major League (men’s) Soccer team, the Houston Dynamo. They both play in Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium. Ticket prices range from $15 to $42. Their next home game is Sunday, July 12, against the Chicago Red Stars. View their entire season schedule here. The Dash were represented in the World Cup by six players, three on the Canadian World Cup team and three on Team USA. The three Americans were all big parts of the team’s run: Meghan Klingenberg, Morgan Brian, and Carli Lloyd. The three Canadians were: Erin McLeod, Lauren Sesselmann, and Allysha Chapman.

Portland Thorns

The Portland Thorns won the NWSL’s inaugural championship in 2013. Why call a team “The Thorns?” Portland is known as “the Rose City,” so it’s actually a pretty clever name. They play their home games in Providence Park, the same convenient downtown location as the men’s MLS team, the Portland Timbers. The team’s next home game will be Wednesday, July 22, at 10 p.m. ET against their rivals, the Seattle Reign. Tickets go from $13 to $35. You can find a printable version of the Thorns’ schedule here. The Thorns were the other NWSL team with the giant tally of eight World Cup players: German goalie, Nadine Angerer, Jodie Taylor, the sole English national team player in the NWSL, Australian Steph Catley, Canadians  Kayln Kyle, Rhian Wilkinson, and living legend Christine Sinclair, as well as Americans Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath.

Seattle Reign

Of course, when you talk about clever names for sports teams, there’s literally nothing out there more clever than this team’s name, the Seattle Reign. Oh, sure, Seattle people may tell you that it rains more elsewhere but really, learn how to take a joke people! The Reign play in Memorial Stadium, conveniently tucked into Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne neighborhood. The team’s next home game is on Saturday, July 11, at 7 p.m. against the Western New York Flash. Tickets range from $19 to an incredible $400 experience that gets you a “pitchside table” with four seats! Their well-designed home page shows everything you’d need to become a fan including a full schedule and roster. The Reign only had two players in the World Cup, but they’re big ones! USA goalie Hope Solo and midfielder Megan Rapinoe both call Seattle home.

Sky Blue FC

Although many professional sports teams play in New Jersey (ahem NFL’s Giants and Jets and MLS’ Red Bulls,) only a select few are strong enough to claim Jersey as their home. One of those is NWSL’s Sky Blue FC. The team plays its games in Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field in Piscataway, New Jersey. There’s probably plenty of parking and, unless things have changed since I went to school there, it should be pretty easy to sneak into a free campus bus that goes there. Tickets are pricey (but only if you compare them to other NWSL teams), ranging from $19 to $60. The team next plays at home on Saturday, July 11, at 7 p.m. against the Portland Thorns. You can view the team’s whole schedule here. World Cup players on Sky Blue FC’s roster include one of the USA goal-scorers against Germany, Kelley O’Hara, as well as the team’s elder stateswoman, Christie Rampone, two Australians, Caitlin Foord and Samantha Kerr, Jonelle Filigno from Canada, and Mexico’s Monica Ocampo.

Washington Spirit

Tied for second place currently are the Washington Spirit. The team plays northwest of the capital city at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyd, Maryland. Tickets to the games range from $25 to $70. Their next home game is against the Seattle Reign at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 18. Right now, they’re running a promotion on their website – sign up to throw your hat in the ring for two free seats to that game. Their whole schedule can be found here. The Spirit have the most international group of World Cup players in the league: two Mexican players, Veronica Perez and Arianna Romero, two Nigerian players, Francisca Ordega and Josephine Chukwunonye, Haley Raso from Australia, Diana Matheson from Canada, and Americans, Ali Krieger and goalie Ashlyn Harris.

Western New York Flash

The Western New York Flash play just outside of Rochester, New York, in Sahlen’s Stadium. The Sahlens are the first family of the Western New York Flash. Father, Joe Sahlen, is team owner, daughter, Alex Sahlen once doubled as a player and team president but is now just the president, and her husband, Aaron Lines, is the coach! Their next home game is Sunday, July 19, at 3 p.m. against Sky Blue FC. You can see their whole schedule here. Tickets range from $10 to $60. The Flash had a small but mighty contingent at the World Cup: Nigerian, Halimatu Ayinde, Cameroon’s one NWSL player, Ajara Nchout, and Americans Whitney Engen and Sydney Leroux.

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

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

What’s the plot?

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

Who are the characters?

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

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

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

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

Who’s going to win?

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

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.

How to watch the World Cup semifinals: Japan vs. England

Despite all emotion to the contrary, the World Cup is not over after last night’s semifinal victory by the United States team. In this post, we’ll preview the other semifinal: Japan vs. England, Wednesday, July 1, 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

What’s the plot?

There’s a saying in boxing that “styles make fights.” What this means is that the very best matchups are between fighters or teams with contrasting styles. That’s exactly what we have in this semifinal matchup between England and Japan. This is a classic soccer matchup of a pragmatic team, England, against an artful team, Japan. Often pragmatic is a word used to describe a team that defends a lot and tries to win every game 1-0 on a penalty kick. That’s not the boring case with England. They really play to win, they’re just much more direct than Japan is. Japan likes to dance on the ball and flick it back and forth from player to player, dazzling and thoroughly confusing their opponents before striking. Japan is amazing to watch and will be the favorites in this game. England likes to go straight for the win. In their last game, against Canada, they scored two goals in the first twenty minutes and then played tough defense for the rest of the game.

Both teams are playing for a place in the final game against the United States but the two countries are coming at it from a very different place. This is already the farthest the England team has ever gone in a World Cup. They’re in uncharted territory. Japan, meanwhile, is the defending champion. They’ve been here before, literally for many of the players, and they know how good it feels to go all the way. Alone among world soccer powers, they have the confidence of having beaten the U.S. in a World Cup final. They’re not intimidated by the prospect of meeting us again in the finals, they want it.

Who are the characters?

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

Karen Carney – Nicknamed “the Wizard” Carney is key to England’s attack. She also has a back injury. This is not a good combination but so far, so good for Carney and England. She was held out of their first Group stage game and used cautiously ever since. My guess is that the kid gloves come off in this game. If Carney needs to play 90 or even 120 minutes, she’ll find a way.

Fran Kirby – As a former defender, I rarely root for forwards, but Kirby is an exception. Aside from the tear-jerking story of her mother who died of an aneurism while with Kirby at a soccer event when Kirby was 14, Kirby’s simply a joy to watch play. She’s relentlessly fast, pursues the ball like a demon, and is very skilled without ever looking overly fancy. She never made it into the quarterfinal game against Canada, so she’ll be extra fresh if she plays in this one.

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.

Homare Sawa – Homare Sawa used to be Aya Miyami, although her legend is still so big that it’s probably more accurate to say that Aya Miyami is the new Homare Sawa. Sawa is the same type of player as Miyami which partially explains coach Norio Sasaki’s seemingly strange choice to drop her from the team during the lead up to the World Cup — he wanted to make clear the transition from Sawa to Miyami in the midfield. Sawa was added back to the team right before the tournament and has been successful so far playing beside Miyama or coming in off the bench.

Norio Sasaki – Winning a World Cup as a coach, like Norio Sasaki did in 2011, gives you quite a bit of cachet. Doing it in the aftermath of the triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor disaster, makes you a celebrity for life. Sasaki is definitely that. Despite comparing himself to Steven Spielberg and his curious Sawa machinations, Sasaki still seems to have his finger on the pulse of his team.

Who’s going to win?

I’m going to go against the grain here and pick England to win. Japan is the better team but England simply seems to be living a charmed existence in this tournament.