The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament finishes this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited, or feel more patriotic. Go USA! International sporting events bring out my usually fairly latent Americanism like nothing; I want to festoon my vehicles with bald eagle decals, hang a flag outside my home, even sing that ‘Proud to be an American’ song, which I usually avoid at all costs. This year’s World Cup narrative is a richly textured yarn, with numerous subplots and complexities, some of which actively encourage anthem-singing and some of which kind of don’t.
The USA squad is generally recognized as one of the three best in the world, but hasn’t won the World Cup since the Brandi Chastain/Mia Hamm team in 1999. That final remains the highest rated TV soccer broadcast in US history, and was wildly inspirational and aspirational: grrrl power. In fact, the USA should be good at women’s soccer. Millions of American girls play soccer. And although soccer is the most popular team sport in the world, that’s not necessarily because girls play it; in many football-crazed nations, the sport is tied to ideals of machismo that make soccer-playing girls national afterthoughts. Even as the US men’s national team lags behind the rest of the world in the development of young players, the Title IX-driven idea of sporting gender equality is something of a US phenomenon. Why not? Youth coaches in any sport love to talk about how the participation of kids in, whatever, football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, teaches invaluable lessons about laudable values: hard work, team play, fairness, sportsmanship. If those lessons are good for boys, they’re equally good for girls, are they not? So the success of women’s soccer should be applauded.
And applauded for another reason as well; it’s fun to watch. If, as a sports fan, I like the celebration of human excellence that sports embody, then why on earth would that be gender specific? I like soccer. I like the amazing athletes who play it. I love the strategy, the tactical decisions, the sheer beauty of speed and power and strength and quickness and field vision.
But I also love sports for its narratives, for the stories that unfold behind the scenes, then play themselves out on the field. One of the real revelations on this US team has been the play of central defender Julie Johnston. She’s an amazing athlete, tall and graceful and disciplined, and she’s technically proficient. She seems never to be out of position, even when dashing upfield for set pieces and counters. Her center back partner, Becky Sauerbrun, is equally tall, blonde, and capable. The US has given up only one goal in the entire tournament, and it’s mostly due to Johnston and Sauerbrunn. Johnston is dating Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zack Ertz, which is why you see so many Eagles’ players at World Cup matches; Ertz has made them all fans. When asked what a typical date would be for her and Ertz, Johnston said they loved playing UNO together. I think that’s so great; these two world class athletes dropping Draw Four Wild cards on each other, cackling in delight. As for Sauerbrunn, she’s a noted bookworm, never without a book close to hand. But in play she has this constantly worried look, like a Mom working as a crossing guard.
The US goalkeeper is Hope Solo, probably the most controversial player on the team, if not in the world. She’s the best keeper in the world, strong and powerful. But she’s also been accused of domestic violence, by her step-sister; accused of beating up a nephew twice her size. That’s not hyperbole; the nephew is a three hundred pound high school football player, and Solo goes maybe 5’11, 150. Large for a woman, sure, but did she really beat this big kid up? And that’s the thing about Solo; I don’t automatically disbelieve it. There’s an edge to Solo’s play, a barely controlled aggression. Even more than most keepers, she seems to regard being scored on as a personal affront.
(Do I defend her domestic violence? I do not. If it happened. Her accuser is a sister from whom she’s been long estranged. At the same time, Solo has had a drinking problem in the past. I don’t know what happened; the case has not been adjudicated. Presumption of innocence; all that. Hope Solo is, as always, a puzzle, an enigma. And a brilliant soccer keeper.)
One of the key plays in the entire tournament involved Johnston and Solo. Johnston made a rare mistake, taking down a German player in the goal box. It was an obvious foul, and she could well have gotten a red card dismissal for it. As Johnston wept, comforted by Saurbrunn, the referee rewarded a penalty kick; German star Celia Sasic took it. Germany never misses penalty kicks. I mean never; not once in World Cup history had a German player missed a penalty kick. They were 12-12. But you watched Solo back there, preparing, lithe as a panther, and you noticed how long she took. Stalling. With a look of utter confidence–barely perceptible contempt, even– on her face. She was clearly psyching Sasic out, and it worked; Sasic put her shot wide left.
There are other fascinating narratives involving this year’s team. This may be the last World Cup for the great Abby Wambach. Wambach is one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history; she tops the list of all time World Cup goal scorers, and is the greatest scorer in American women’s soccer history. She scored one of the great goals in World Cup history; a game tying header against Brazil in 2011, in a semi-final match the US eventually won. She’s tall and strong, and known particularly for her aggressive and accurate headers. And she turned 35 during this tournament. She’s one of the slowest women on the pitch, anymore. So there’s been a lot of question about how much she should play this year. There are younger, faster, more creative players on the roster–Morgan Brian, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux. But they’re not Abby Wambach; can’t match her sheer determination and courage.
The US was seen as an underdog against Germany. Morgan Brian played, with Alex Morgan as the only striker, an odd formation the US hadn’t used previously. It could hardly have worked better. Wambach came on right at the end, and meanwhile cheered her teammates on; was an inspirational sideline presence. I expect we’ll see the same lineup against Japan in the final, on Sunday.
But this wouldn’t be the Women’s World Cup without some sense of a larger purpose, of more significant socio-political issues at play. It’s not just that these are women playing what is regarded internationally as a man’s sport. It’s how they’ve had to cope with the corrupt cluelessness of the international soccer establishment. When men play in the World Cup, they play on grass, on perfectly groomed pitches that conduce to sporting excellence. But in this World Cup, FIFA (the morally bankrupt governing body for the sport), scheduled all the women’s games on turf. Turf is a bad surface for soccer. It’s a thin carpet laid over concrete; it’s painful to fall on, to dive on. And it’s plastic; players can get the nastiest contusions. Wambach was the most vocal athlete to raise a ruckus over the turf issue, and FIFA’s initial response was infuriating–condescending mansplaining, mostly. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s head, suggested that the women wear tighter shorts while playing, to increase viewership. Alex Morgan, the best US player, won a Player of the Year award; she says Blatter ignored her, didn’t know who she was.
This women’s team has become notorious on another front. The recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down last Friday, during the tournament, and was enthusiastically applauded by the women on the team. Wambach is married to former player Sarah Huffman. The most exuberant and creative player on the US team, dynamic Megan Rapinoe, is also openly gay, as is the team’s coach, Jill Ellis. And all three are LGBT activists. So for this team, at this moment in history, to win a championship, would be serendipity of the highest order. Go US indeed!
More to the point, this team is wonderful to watch. I’ve grown fond of little Meghan Klingenberg, who is short and feisty and relentless defensively. The German game was a showcase for Carli Lloyd, who scored one goal and set up the second one with a perfectly placed pass, to Kelley O’Hara, one of the youngest women on the team and one of the fastest. Lauren Holliday has an amazing knack for stopping off-target passes from going through. Christie Rampone, the oldest player on the team, has taken time off for childbirth and various injuries, but remains an obdurate and tenacious defender.
They’re a terrific team, and I love watching them play. I have watched at least part of every game played by every team in the tournament, and enjoyed every second. The best two teams have been Japan and the US. Japan is talented and superbly coached; they’ll be worthy opponents, and could well win. And that would be triumphant too, if a bit melancholy to this American guy.