Reflections on USA vs. Germany from Montreal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panorama of Semis

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

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

 Why Germany?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to watch the World Cup quarterfinals: England vs. Canada

Every once in a while, something almost random offers up a result so perfect that it’s hard to believe it just happened that way. The quarterfinal match-ups in the 2015 women’s World Cup are that kind of event. The four games between eight teams will be played over two days. Within those four games exists every possible type of plot: regional, historical, and cultural rivalries. In this post, we’ll preview England vs. Canada, Saturday, June 27, 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

What’s the plot?

The last of the four quarterfinal matchups, this one puts the cherry on the amazingly coincidental but seemingly purposeful way the remaining countries got paired up. Politically speaking, this is everything you could want out of a matchup. It’s a game between colony and colonizer, two English speaking countries with a half cordial, half competitive relationship. Canada is the host country, so they’re under the most pressure to win this game and guarantee that their country will get to see them play two more times — ideally for them, once in the semifinals and once in the finals, but even if they lose the semis, they would play in the third place game. England is left to play spoiler. The situation was perfectly flipped in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (Quick note: due to the vagaries of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, England competes in the Olympics as part of the larger Great Britain team. In the World Cup, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the component parts of Great Britain, all compete separately.) In those Olympics, the pressure was on Great Britain when the two teams met, also in the quarterfinals, and Canada was playing the role of spoiler. Spoil they did. Canada beat Great Britain 2-0 and eliminated them from the tournament.

England will be looking to return the favor to Canada today. They’ll have a good shot at it. Although Canada is undefeated and England has lost a game, England has still looked like the better side. Their one loss was to France in the group stage, which does not look so bad considering France’s heroic performance in their loss to Germany yesterday. Canada, on the other hand, tied New Zealand and the Netherlands and barely edged Switzerland and China. Canada has not scored more than one goal per game during the entire tournament and they’ve got to be feeling nervous today. England is coming off a great come-from-behind victory over Norway and will be riding a wave of good feelings as they approach this game.

Who are the characters?

Christine Sinclair – A legend of women’s soccer, third only to Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm in career goals scored. Like Wambach, she’s hunting for her first World Cup title and (also like Wambach) although she’s not what she once was as a player, she’s still capable of unleashing hell on an opposing defense for short periods of time.

Ashley Lawrence – At just 20 years old, Lawrence seems to be the future of Canadian soccer and if her performance in this World Cup so far is any indication, the future is bright. Lawrence has started each game in a midfield position, where her speed and tenacity have paid off. She scored the goal in Canada’s third Group Stage game that sent them through to the Knockout Round.

John Herdman – Canada’s coach is a 39 year-old from English who will be facing his native country in today’s game. This is a position he’s probably quite comfortable with, having coached the New Zealand women’s national team for five years before accepting his current role with Canada.

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.

— Bonus note — one thing I found interesting was that both featured England players have openly talked about their struggles with depression and feeling as though they haven’t wanted to play soccer at times in their careers. This is probably true for more athletes than we’d imagine and it’s refreshing to see it spoken about so matter-of-factly.

Who’s going to win?

England has never made it past this stage of the World Cup. Today will be the day they finally do it. Why? Even in as low-scoring a sport as soccer, you’ve got to score to win (thanks Yogi Berra) and Canada has struggled mightily to score. Three goals in four games just isn’t enough. With six goals against arguably tougher competition, England looks like the better bet to advance. Sorry Canada!

How to watch the World Cup quarterfinals: Japan vs. Australia

Every once in a while, something almost random offers up a result so perfect that it’s hard to believe it just happened that way. The quarterfinal match-ups in the 2015 women’s World Cup are that kind of event. The four games between eight teams will be played over two days. Within those four games exists every possible type of plot: regional, historical, and cultural rivalries. In this post, we’ll preview Japan vs. Australia, Saturday, June 27, 4 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

What’s the plot?

The battle of the Pacific! Two island nations, one big with vast stretches of unoccupied land, one small and packed with people. With these two teams meeting up in the quarterfinals, the Pacific nations are guaranteed one place in the tournament’s final four.

Japan is the distinct overdog in this game. They’re the defending World Champions, having beaten the United States in the World Cup finals four years ago. They were extremely impressive in their last game, knocking off a promising Dutch team with a dazzling show of technical ability. The goal that Mizuho Sakaguchi scored to go up 2-0 in that game was perhaps the best combination of coordinated team play and a deadly finish that this tournament has had so far.

Japan seems to be peaking at the right time, and in the weaker side of the bracket, with only England or Canada looming, if Japan can get through Australia, they’re a safe bet to reach their second straight World Cup finals.

Getting through Australia is no easy task. Australia scored the upset of the tournament (at least in the Knockout Round — Colombia over France in the Group Stage remains more shocking) when they eliminated Brazil with a 1-0 victory. Kyah Simon scored the goal by knocked in a rebound on a play she initiated in midfield with a canny tackle.

Simon, who also scored both goals in a 2011 World Cup game that propelled Australia into the quarterfinals of that tournament, and the whole Australian team seem to have a flair for the dramatic. In a tournament that’s quickly shedding teams, Australia, ranked 10th in the world by FIFA, is the closest thing we have left to an underdog.

Who are the characters?

Kyah Simon – In addition to her dramatic scoring exploits, Simon is a culturally groundbreaking athlete. She became the first woman with indigenous Australian blood to score for Australia’s national team.

Lisa De Vanna – De Vanna is a firecracker of a striker. She’s brash, fiery, and never happier than when she’s running herself and any defenders nearby into the ground. Earlier in her career, she specialized in coming into games as a substitute and making an immediate impact. These days, she’s the captain, starting every match and playing all 90 minutes in every game but 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?

This game is an interesting battle of speed, strength, and spunk against technical skill and coordination. The longer Australia can keep this game scoreless, the better of a chance they’ll have. If they defend long enough and hard enough, maybe a single strike of brilliance from one of their strikers will be enough. More likely though will be Japan dancing around the Australian defense until they find a soft spot to surgically score through. Japan will probably win.

For women's sports to thrive, look beyond the World Cup

So far, the women’s 2015 World Cup has been a great success. Sure, it’s had its sore spots: the cringe-inducing spectacle of people playing soccer on artificial turf that literally melts their cleats and burns their feet; the lackluster performance of the United States team so far; the mostly empty stadiums for some Round of 16 games; but overall, it’s been a great time for soccer and women’s sports in general. The games have been fast, exciting, and as a whole, quite competitive. There have been viewing parties all over the country, from bars and living rooms to town squares and outside city halls. Even President Obama got into the act, showing support for the U.S. team.

One way that you can tell that women’s sports has hit the jackpot of popular support with this World Cup is by noting how quickly and vociferously opponents of equality in sport get shouted down in the media. Early this week, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit provided an example when he tweeted his belief that women’s sports in general are not worth watching. As you might expect, Benoit was roundly condemned for his tweet. He was mocked by former Saturday Night Live actors Amy Poehler and Seth Myers (who themselves were good-naturedly mocked by Fox Sports 1’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole). His contention that women’s sports are not worth watching was debunked by innumerable columnists around the country, my favorite of which was Will Leitch in Sports on Earth who argued that anyone who thinks women’s sports are boring, are in fact, boring themselves:

People like Benoit toss out these justifications for not watching women’s sports out of some sort of faux sports purity, like he’s really just out to watch the pinnacle of athletic achievement every night, like anything less than the “best” and the “fastest” and the “strongest” is somehow a waste of one’s time. But this isn’t why we watch sports at all; we watch because every game we watch, we have a chance to see something we’ve never seen before. Dismissing that out of hand isn’t a way of demanding the highest quality performance every game (as if that’s something that could be done anyway); it’s a way of confirming your preexisting biases. It also devalues the actual athleticism on display, and the amount of work it required of everyone to get there.

Although the reaction against Benoit’s comment suggests that he was voicing a fringe, minority opinion, he was not. His attitude towards women’s sports is quite mainstream. Benoit simply made the mistake of speaking out against women’s sports during the World Cup, one of women’s sports two or three most popular events at a time when it’s never been more popular. If you think anything he said was new, you should watch this bitingly ironic video the Norwegian national team made before the World Cup began:

Negative attitudes like the ones the Norwegian team mocked in their video are all too common in the sports world and are relatively safe to voice during the 45 months out of every 48 when a World Cup or Olympics is not going on. This is bad for elite female athletes, it’s bad for people who love watching sports, it’s bad for girls who aspire to be athletes and their parents. I actually can’t think of anyone it is good for. It’s bad for everyone. Unfortunately, as popular as events like the World Cup and Olympics are, they can’t solve the problem because they only come around once every four years. To solve the gender inequalities in sports, a more consistent, permanent force is needed.

Tanya Wheeless, a former executive of the professional basketball teams, the Phoenix Mercury and Suns, wrote recently about the challenge of sustaining interest in women’s sports beyond the World Cup in Time magazine. She suggests that the critical variable in equalizing the opportunities and rewards provided by sports to women is investment:

What if the likes of Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade spent as much promoting female athletes as they did men? What if women’s leagues had the same marketing budget as men’s leagues? What if the National Women’s Soccer League got as much airtime in the U.S. as the English Premier League?

Naysayers will say all of that would happen if the interest were there. I say, increase promotion and the interest will follow. It’s the difference between having a market and creating one.

Wheeless could not be more right. The future of women’s sports must be bolstered by strong professional leagues. Professional leagues provide opportunities for athletes to get the training and experience they need to become world class. Without strong professional leagues, athletes are left making gut-wrenching decisions, like that of Noora Raty, perhaps the best women’s hockey goalie in the world, who retired at 24 for financial reasons, or Monica Quinteros, the 26 year-old Ecuadorian soccer player who left her job as a gym teacher to play in this year’s World Cup. You think they might have stuck with their sports if they could have made a living doing so? Yeah, so do I.

We don’t need to leave it to “Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade.” We can do something about this ourselves. We can contribute to equality and the success of women’s sports by becoming a fan of an existing women’s professional team. That’s exactly what I aim to do with the local professional women’s soccer team, the Boston Breakers. I’ve been to one game so far this year and it was a lot of fun. Held in a Harvard University complex convenient to most of the greater Boston area, Breakers games provide high-quality soccer in a thoroughly enjoyable atmosphere. I’m going again this Sunday when the Breakers take on the Western New York Flash at 5 p.m. Tickets are available and affordable. Join me!

There’s really no excuse to continue watching only male sports. There are successful women’s basketball and soccer leagues: the WNBA and NWSL, and later this year, a brand new professional women’s ice hockey league, the NWHL will begin. The WNBA is carried on television by the ESPN family of channels and you can buy streaming access to all the games for only $15. The NWSL goes a step further and puts all of its games on Youtube for free! If you’re reading this post now, you can watch those games. So join me, over the next year and more, in supporting women’s sports by putting our eyes and our wallets were our mouths are!

How to watch the World Cup quarterfinals: USA vs. China

Every once in a while, something almost random offers up a result so perfect that it’s hard to believe it just happened that way. The quarterfinal match-ups in the 2015 women’s World Cup are that kind of event. The four games between eight teams will be played over two days. Within those four games exists every possible type of plot: regional, historical, and cultural rivalries. In this post, we’ll preview China vs. the United States, Friday, June 26, 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

What’s the plot?

Geopolitically, this is big. Although the conflict between China and the United States has not reached Cold War levels, it’s not hard to see it being characterized in future history classes as a similar period, when trade and investment, research and development, and even sport were used as a replacements for war.

From a soccer perspective, the United States and China should not really be on the same level. The United States is ranked second by FIFA and China, 16th. That could be somewhat deceptive though. The Chinese team has been in a slump over the past decade or so and is only beginning to get good again now. Since rankings are invariably based on an accumulation of past results, it’s possible that the Chinese team today is better than its ranking would suggest. If they are, the U.S. team could be in a spot of trouble. They go into this game weakened by the loss of two of their key midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday to suspension because of accumulated yellow cards. Those two players represent a lot of the creativity and playmaking ability on the roster. The U.S. must find a way to overcome this.

Regardless of ranking, this game has important and subtly foreboding historical echoes for the United States team. Every player on the team but one (Christie Rampone, who played on the team) remembers watching the U.S. women’s national team beat China in 1999 to win the World Cup. They’ve spent their entire careers dreaming of a similar moment and facing questions about why they haven’t been able to create it. Beating China in this World Cup would be a cleansing experience. Losing to them, an unmitigated disaster.

Who are the characters?

Christen Press and Morgan Brian – As the two players most likely to replace Rapinoe and Holiday in the starting lineup, the spotlight will be firmly on Press and Brian. Press has been in and out of the lineup during this tournament as a striker and a midfielder. Brian has been one of the first midfielders off the bench. It remains to be seen exactly where they’ll fit into the midfield when paired with Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath. There isn’t a natural defensive midfielder among them, but my guess is that Press and Heath will play on the outside with Lloyd slightly ahead of Brian in the center. If this is the case, it actually makes this an enormous game for Lloyd. She’ll get to play a game in her natural position of attacking central midfielder. If she plays well enough, perhaps she can convince coach Jill Ellis to keep her there for the rest of the tournament.

Abby Wambach – It’s been a rough tournament so far for Wambach. She’s only scored one goal in four games. She missed a penalty kick last game. She’s been embroiled in all sorts of controversies in the media, from blaming the turf for some of her poor play to accusing the ref of having an anti-American agenda, to the ongoing question of whether she’s still good enough, at 35 to be starting for this team. At this point, she’s almost in a no-win situation. The only thing she can do to win will be winning the World Cup… and that’s not totally up to her.

Jill Ellis – If there’s one person who’s been more on the hot-seat than Wambach, it’s coach Jill Ellis. She’s been criticized for changing the U.S. tactics too much and for not changing them enough. She’s been criticized for not having enough power compared to that which the veteran players seem to wield, and then criticized for not doing enough to help the team win. She’s blamed for not bringing any true defensive midfielders and then for muting some of her offensive midfielders’ brilliance by asking them to play defensive roles.

China – The Chinese team is largely anonymous, at least to American audiences. They’re young, without a single player over 26 years old. Their coach, Hao Wei, is a former professional and international player. He’s the fifth head coach of the Chinese team since 2007 and hopes to bring stability to what has been a chaotic national team picture. I caught one of the team’s early games in this tournament and thought they played very strong, organized, defensive-minded soccer.

Who’s going to win?

The United States. Despite creeping doubts to the contrary running up and down my spine all morning, it would be a real shock if the U.S. lost this game. I could see it going into overtime tied, but I just can’t imagine China being able to successfully park the bus the entire game.

How to watch the World Cup quarterfinals: France vs. Germany

Every once in a while, something almost random offers up a result so perfect that it’s hard to believe it just happened that way. The quarterfinal match-ups in the 2015 women’s World Cup are that kind of event. The four games between eight teams will be played over two days. Within those four games exists every possible type of plot: regional, historical, and cultural rivalries. In this post we’ll preview Germany vs. France, Friday, June 26, 4 p.m. ET on Fox.

What’s the plot?

It’s barely necessary to write anything about this game. The history of antagonism between these countries runs so deep that “French-German enmity” has its own Wikipedia page. The literal bad blood between the French and German people was noted by none other than Julius Caesar a book he wrote over 2,000 years ago. We all know about World War I and World War Two but we may not know that earlier these two countries fought on opposite sides of the Thirty Years War and the Seven Years’ War. If there had been a Two Week War, I’m sure they would have been on opposite sides of that too. Thankfully, for everyone involved, the two countries have found a way to peacefully coexist over the past 70 years.

In soccer, as in politics, Germany has always had the upper hand. In men’s soccer, the two countries have met four times in the World Cup and Germany has won the three more meaningful games – the 1982 semis, 1986 semis, and last year’s quarterfinals. France only won in the 1958 third place game. The French women’s team has lost to the Germans every time they’ve met on a significant stage: in the 2005 and 2009 European Championships and the 2011 World Cup. Both teams have played excellently in the World Cup so far with one small hiccup. For the French, that blip was a 2-0 loss against Colombia. Other than that game, they’ve been perfect — winning every game and not allowing their opponents to score even a single goal. The Germans are undefeated but they tied an otherwise uninspired Norway 1-1 during the Group Stage, and allowed Sweden to score a goal in their Round of 16 match.

Who are the characters?

Louisa Necib – France’s main playmaker, Necib is capable of rare moments of tactical brilliance. She’s been unusually silent so far this tournament though, with no goals and no assists.

Eugenie Le Sommer – Sommer is a classic number nine or striker. She even wears number nine on her jersey! She’ll be tirelessly running at Germany’s defense, probing for weaknesses to sneak through. If she can’t find any, she’ll just look to smash through anyway. She’s had a good tournament so far, with three goals, two assists, and an impressive nine fouls.

Laura Georges – Standing tall in the center of the French defense is captain, Laura Georges. She’s going to have her capable hands full defending against the German attack. Even more than her attacking counterparts, French hopes rest on her 5’8″ shoulders.

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 has been on a scoring streak with five goals in four games including two in the Round of 16 game against Sweden.

Anja Mittag – Also with five goals, (although I have to say that these goal totals are juiced a little by Germany’s 10-0 rout of the Ivory Coast, during which Sasic and Mittag both scored three goals), Anja Mittag is the perfect complement for Sasic up front. More of a poacher than a playmaker, a finisher than a passer, Mittag will get a tiny bit less focus from the French defense, which may be more than enough for her to continue her scoring ways.

Silvia Neid – One of the three greatest women’s soccer players in German history, Neid has announced she will be retiring from coaching next year. By that time, she hopes to be a two-time World Cup winning coach, adding this year’s championship to the one she coached Germany to in 2007.

Who’s going to win?

There’s no telling how this game will work out. Will Germany continue its multi-millennial domination? Or will France finally break through? The only thing that’s guaranteed is that this will be one of, if not the best game of the tournament. Germany is the top ranked team in the world and France is close behind them in third place. If you’re a fan of the U.S. team, you should probably be pulling for France here. They would be a formidable opponent in the semifinals but Germany seems like an insurmountable one.

Is there really not enough parity in women's soccer?

One of the common criticisms of women’s soccer, once you get by all of the more virulently idiotic bigoted nonsense, is that women’s soccer tournaments, like the World Cup, aren’t as exciting as men’s tournaments because there isn’t enough parity. This criticism contends that the strong teams are too strong and too few and the rest of the teams are too weak. As a result, the World Cup or Olympics are long periods of boring cake-walks of the great teams over the poor with only a few games of evenly matched soccer in the semifinals and finals. It’s unclear whether people who subscribe to this line of thought believe that an ideal tournament would be made up of completely even teams or if they believe in some ideal distribution of skill.

No matter, what I was curious about and what I wanted to see was how the frequently criticized women’s World Cup would compare to the men’s edition of the tournament. To do that, I took data from the Group Stage of this year’s women’s World Cup and the 1982 men’s World Cup held in Spain. Why 1982? Aside from it being my birth year, like this year’s women’s tournament, 1982 was the first time the men’s field expanded from 16 teams to 24. Like in Canada this year, the expansion in 1982 opened the World Cup to a number of countries who had never made the field before.

New countries:

  • 1982 men’s World Cup – Algeria, Cameroon, Honduras, Kuwait and New Zealand
  • 2015 women’s World Cup – Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand

This difference can be attributed to the much longer history of men’s World Cups before expanding to 24. The men’s World Cup began in 1930 and was held 11 times while it grew from 13 to 24. The women’s World Cup was first held in 1991 with a field of 12 and took only six tournaments to expand to 24 teams.

In order to determine parity, I took the scores of the Group stage games and analyzed them. If women’s soccer is truly evolving in a less competitive (and therefore exciting) way, we’d expect there to be more blow-outs and fewer closely fought matches. We’d expect to see more games like Germany’s 10-0 beat-down of Thailand in 2015 than we would Hungary’s 10-1 beat-down of El Salvador in 1982. The first way I broke out the games was by goal differential — 0 if the two teams tied, 1 if the winning team scored one goal more than the losing team, regardless if that was a 1-0 win, a 2-1 win, or a 11-10 win (there are none of those in soccer.)

1982 men’s World Cup goal differential

  • 0 – 12 games – 33%
  • 1 – 11 games – 31%
  • 2 – 4 games – 11%
  • 3 – 6 games – 17%
  • >3 – 3 games – 8%

2015 women’s World Cup goal differential

  • 0 – 10 games – 28%
  • 1 – 15 games – 42%
  • 2 – 3 games – 8%
  • 3 – 0 games – 0%
  • >3 – 8 games – 22%

How you read these numbers depends entirely on how you perceive two goal and three goal games. If you think a 2-0 game or a 3-0 game is a blow-out and not exciting, then you’d conclude that the women’s game is more exciting in 2015 than the men’s game was in 1982. A full 70% of all the group games in 2015 were decided by less than two goals, while only 64% were that close in 1982. If, however, you think that anything less than a four goal difference is representative of a pretty even matchup, you’d conclude that there are almost three times more blow-outs in the women’s 2015 World Cup than in the men’s 1982 World Cup. As with almost anything, you can interpret the data how you want. I would argue that a three goal differential is enormous in soccer and unlikely to occur between teams of close to even strength. As such, my conclusion is that, while there are a few more severely lopsided games in 2015 women’s competition than there were in men’s competition in 1982, there are also more very close games in 2015 than in 1982.

Another way to look at the same data is to focus not on goal differential but on the most common soccer scores: 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, and 2-0. When I looked at the data that way, I discovered that exactly the same percent of the games in both tournaments fell within that range – 66%. There was some variety within those scores but not enough to seem meaningful in any way.

Overall, the 2015 Group Stage games were a little bit more high scoring (107 goals compared to 100) and although there were a few more closely competitive games, there were also a few more wild blow-outs which led to a higher average goal differential (1.75 in 2015 compared to 1.5 in 1982.) Frankly, it’s quite surprising how similar the numbers are across gender and generations. The women’s game in 2015 is not as evenly matched as the men’s game in 2015 is but it’s basically exactly where the men’s game was in 1982 when its World Cup expanded to 24 teams and the women’s game has arrived at this point much faster.

All the data I got for this post was taken from the Wikipedia entries for the 1982 men’s World Cup and 2015 women’s World Cup. You can view or copy the data here. Please give attribution if you use it.

How to Watch the World Cup Round of 16: USA vs. Colombia

Tonight, Monday, June 22, 2015, the United States women’s national soccer team will play in their World Cup Round of 16 game against Colombia. The game starts at 8 p.m. ET (regardless of what television stations that want you to watch their pre-game shows tell you) and it will be televised on Fox Sports 1. Whether you’re jumping on the band wagon now or have been there for the ride from the start, here’s some useful background information about the game.

What’s the plot?

The Round of 16 is where things start to get real in the World Cup. No more ties, no more advancing on points, this is single elimination. Win and move on. Lose and go home. The United States was expected to win their group, and they did, with wins over Australia and Nigeria, and a scoreless tie against Sweden. Although fans have to be happy with the result so far, by and large, they have not been impressed with how the U.S. team has played. Colombian fans, on the other hand, are delighted despite the team’s third place finish in Group F. Colombia scored the tournament’s biggest upset so far when they beat France, 2-0, in Moncton.

Colombia might have preferred to see a less highly regarded team than the United States in this round of the tournament, but if so, they are hiding it well behind a campaign of bluster and accusation. In the days leading up to the game, Colombian players have said they were happy to be playing the United States, accused the U.S. team of taking them lightly, made veiled accusations about the U.S. team being a dirty, trash-talking team, and guaranteed a victory. On the U.S. side, the players have remained calm and utterly bland in their press appearances. The two teams do have a heated history though. In the group stage of the 2012 Olympics, the United States beat the Colombian team 3-0 but not without controversy. During the game, a Colombian player, Lady Andrade, punched Abby Wambach in the face. Although the ref didn’t penalize her during the game, she was later given a two game suspension by FIFA. Wambach, black eye and all, scored later that game. Then she scored the next game… and the game after that… and the game after that. The U.S. won the gold medal. 3-0 was also the score of the last World Cup match these teams played, in 2011, also in favor of the United States.

As a small historic bonus, this is also the 21st anniversary of the United States men’s national team upsetting Colombia 2-1 in the 1994 World Cup. Famous at the time as a feel-good story about an under-powered host team playing over their talent level, it became infamous only a few weeks later when Colombian player, Andres Escobar, was murdered in a killing that was at least partially motivated by his own-goal blunder against the United States.

Who are the characters?

Lady Andrade – Set up to be a villain by her punch to Abby Wambach’s eye, Lady Andrade seems determined to be not just a henchwoman but the main boss-level bad gal. She’s Colombia’s striker and best player. She scored the goal that propelled Colombia to their victory over France and was their best field player throughout the game. At 5’8″, Andrade is a thoroughbred striker, high-strung, athletic, and extremely skilled on the ball.

Sandra Sepulveda – Colombia’s goalie started the World Cup on the bench but after teammate Stefany Castano struggled in the first game, Sepulveda was called on and didn’t disappoint. During the team’s upset against France, Sepulveda had six saves, and was extremely strong in net. Colombia will need her to have a repeat performance if they hope to beat the United States.

Carli Lloyd – The hardest working woman on the U.S. team, Lloyd has been conspicuously inconspicuous through the team’s first three games. It may be that like her male counterpart, Michael Bradley, in last year’s men’s World Cup, Lloyd is being asked to take on so many defensive responsibilities that she’s unable to show up offensively. It’s time for her to show up and I think she’ll come through. Watch for a few long-distance blasts from Lloyd this game.

The defense – while team’s attack has left something to be desired, it’s hard to complain about the back line. Made up of wing backs, Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger and center backs, Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, the defense has been rock solid. They have a big job in stymying the Colombian attack but I think they’re up to the task.

Alex Morgan – Injured coming into the tournament, Morgan has slowly reclaimed her position as the core non-Wambachian U.S. striker. What she hasn’t done yet is score. I expect she’ll start up front with Wambach and show us something. If she can’t, she might not be able to hold off Sydney Leroux, who has been playing inspired soccer, for the rest of the tournament.

If you’re interesting in meeting the rest of the United States team, here are our profiles of all 23 of them.

Who’s going to win?

The United States should win this game. It’s easy to be swayed by Colombia’s masterful play against France and the United States’ modest play in the Group stage and think this should be a very close call. It shouldn’t be. The folks at Five Thirty Eight have the U.S. a 95% favorite to advance. In the FIFA rankings, the U.S. is second, Colombia 28th. Colombia is clearly capable of having a big game against a good team but if even a hint of the team that tied Mexico and lost to England shows up, they won’t have a chance. It would be very easy to argue that having survived the “Group of Death,” this should be the easiest game yet for the United States.