July 17, 2011
By Michael Lewis
There's plenty of blame to go around
Give the U.S. National Team some credit.
The Americans won as a team in the Women's World Cup and they lost as one in the final to Japan in Frankfurt, Germany on Sunday.
Technically, the game will go down as a draw for both teams -- a 2-2 tie after 120 minutes -- in the FIFA record books because the shootout was used to determine a champion. The Japanese prevailed in penalties, 3-1.
Both teams played their hearts out. Some Americans showed their worth by some gutty play -- Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney before she was injured, captain Christie Rampone, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, while others did not necessarily measure up, especially when it counted.
But there was enough blame to go around, from the coach to a misfiring attack, a defense that could not close down the game to players who could not cope with the pressure of penalty kicks.
So, here goes:
The meltdown started during regulation and continued deep into extratime. It wasn't just the fact the Japanese came back, it was how they were able to remain, taking advantage of his questionable American defending, especially by Rachel Buehler on Japan's first goal. At times the U.S. treated the ball as though it was a hot potato.
You know, it's almost as though the U.S. plays better coming from behind. Cases in point: the gutty performances against Brazil in the quarterfinals and France in the semifinals.
The team that couldn't shoot straight -- Part I
The U.S. dominated play and took enough shots at and on goal that could have decided the matter in the opening 45 minutes. Whether it was misfiring, superb goalkeeping or just being unlucky by hitting the woodwork three times, the U.S. could not find the range. With chances at a premium at the international level, if you don't convert the opportunities, they can come back and bite you, you know where big time. And the U.S. is smarting from those chances.
The team that couldn't shoot straight -- Part II
Wow. Three penalty kick failures. Who would have thought? Wow.
Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath had their tries saved and Carli Lloyd, who was shooting high all game, continued to do that during the tie-breaker. Japan had an opportunity to scout the U.S. in the quarterfinals, where it prevailed over Brazil in a shootout. So the Asian side had a good inkling on where the Americans probably would shoot.
Penalty kicks are a cruel way to lose a match, but until someone invents a better way, we're stuck with them.
Why, Pia, why?
Sundhage is an excellent coach, who knows the game, the psychology of players and someone who can sing a mean tune and even dance. But I have to question one of her moves, or rather non-moves in the final. I liked the fact she benched Amy Rodriguez because the striker had struggled the past several games. But I want to know why she did not bring the Philadelphia Independence player on as a late substitute because she had tallied three times against Japan this year. Perhaps A-Rod could have solved the Japan defense for a late goal.
Even with all of my critical comments of Sundhage, the Swedish native should continue as coach. She brings a calm and confidence and a positive thinking to the team. I just wish some of those players would have displayed it later in the game and in the shootout.
On the other hand, consider the case of Argentina coach Sergio Batista, who should be fired for his team's rather disappointing performance and getting eliminated in Copa America in the quarterfinals on its own soil. But that isn't going to happen because Argentine soccer president Julio Grondona has the first and last word on who coaches and the word out of Argentina is that he plans to continue with Batista. But that's another story for another time.
And about those champions
The Japanese are worthy champions. They took advantage of the U.S. mistakes when it counted when the game was on the line late in regulation and in extratime. As we all know, the Japanese team was playing for an entire nation in wake of that devastating disaster that struck the country several months ago. Those players endured more in the past several months that many of us will during a lifetime.
They showed heart, guts and determination upending two-time defending champion Germany on its own soil, favored Sweden and the U.S.
No one said it was going to be easy and Japan showed the world its heart in the most dramatic way.
It's funny. When I discovered that Japanese was going to be the Americans' opponents, I felt if they won, it might be a bigger story internationally and help with the healing process in a country that could have used some good news. It might not solve the bigger issues or problems from the disaster's aftermath, but it might make thousands or millions of people smile for a few minutes or a few days.
And about those '99 comparisons
The U.S. is a good team, a very good team, but a flawed one at that. While some fans of the team don't want to hear about it, it staged one of the great meltdowns in U.S. soccer history, losing two late leads and having three players fail to convert their penalty kicks.
The 1999 U.S. team, which boasted the likes of Mia Hamm, Brandy Chastain, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Millbret, Briana Scurry, Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck and company had ice water in their collective veins when push came to shove.
Sorry. Until you win the big one -- the world championship -- it is not fair to be mentioned in the same sentence.
The last word(s)
Don't worry about the U.S. team. The Americans will be back. This one will hurt, it will hurt for a while. But they have six months to recover until the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Vancouver in January for the London Olympic Games. They will be a hungry side.
If I have one regret it is that Abby Wambach did not get her championship. This was her third time so close to the brass ring and first-place medal after finishing third in 2003 and 2007. Yes, she has a pair of gold medals from the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but in all due respect, the Olympics in international soccer is not in the same orbit as the Women's World Cup. Will Wambach return for a fourth try in 2015? Will she want to keep playing? Will she be good enough to make the U.S. team? It's probably too early to answer that question. But one thing is for sure: Abby Wambach is a champion.