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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sports Stories: Derek Blackman, a fan of Miroslav Klose

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

 

On why he roots for Klose:

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

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

A little known Klose family fact:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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