If you watched the 2011 World Cup Final between the US and Japan you saw probably the most heartbreaking game in the history of US soccer, men or women. Abby Wambach puts one in during extra time, in the 104th minute, and the US take the lead. And it looks like they're about to win the World Cup, but with three damn minutes left in extra time Japan ties it up. The game goes to penalties and Japan wins the title. For a fan of US Women's soccer it was devastating. For the players. Damn. I cannot begin to imagine the heartache. Fast forward to 2015 and the World Cup Final is back and so are the US and Japan. Oh my goodness. The drama, guys!
Sixteen minutes into the World Cup Championship Match the United States took a 4-0 lead with Carli Lloyd scoring three of those goals. Much of the drama was lost, but when Japan cut the lead to 4-1 before the half and then 4-2 just after the start of the second half, I started to worry. The US had this thing won four years ago against the same country only to find Japan make an improbable comeback and win the cup, the echos of which were starting to give me tinnitus. Then the US stuck in a fifth goal and all was well with the state of US women's soccer again as they only had to kill some time to win the Cup. And they did and it was awesome.
Jill Ellis, the United States coach assembled and coached a team that wasn't expected to win the cup do exactly what they weren't expected to do. Still she found the players needed to win a title and found myriad ways for them to work together and win. Here's a closer, but not too close, look at what she had to work with. Meet your team, United States:
The Best Defense Is A Good Defense
The USWNT had a lot of question marks going into the tournament. One thing that was never questioned: the back four that comprised the best defensive unit in all of women's soccer. The US rode this world's best defense in the early rounds to eke out some wins and move their way deeper in the tournament.
Hope Solo is a Great Goalkeeper and an Insane Person
As solid and as great as the back four were for the US, when it comes to defense your best player has to be your goalkeeper. Thankfully for the United States they have Hope Solo. There isn't much argument that she is the best keeper in all of women's soccer. There is a whole lot of debate over whether she should be playing soccer. Hope Solo is insane. Violently so. In addition to beating up her husband, NFL football player Jerramy Stevens, she recently bashed her nephews head into a wall repeatedly and punched her sister in the face. Let it be known, that while it isn't cool to beat up people, Jerramy Stevens is a terrible human being who has been convicted of assault and accused of rape, so while I'm against violence, I'm happy that Solo beat the shit out of him.
The weird thing about Hope Solo beating up Stevens, who was found hiding from Solo in a closet until police arrived (this is an NFL player, not just some dude), is that they ended up settling their assault charges for this very altercation in court mere hours before they got married.
With domestic abuse finally becoming an issue that major sports leagues have started cracking down on, there was a lot of debate over whether or not Solo should be allowed on the team. Male athletes across sports have been receiving suspensions, but Solo's case was unique as she was the first woman in the spotlight who was not the victim. The argument went like you would think, that if women want equal rights they should have to play by the same rules. That's reductive and sophomoric. And it didn't end up mattering anyway. Hope Solo played and Hope Solo won the Golden Glove for fewest goals allowed by a keeper in the tournament and Hope Solo won the World Cup along with her teammates. Now, it's just a matter of time until she beats up somebody. Here's to hoping it's her husband again, because that dude is a true piece of human garbage.
Back to the argument against her playing. Stop it. Every team across all sports wants the best players they have playing, despite character flaws and criminal records, and men have been and still are getting away with it. Sure, you can site a few examples where male athletes do get reprimanded, but allowing Solo to play despite her legal problems and questionable morality is an argument that women athletes are starting to get some of the same treatment as their male counterparts have for decades, not that they are getting exceptions.
Carli Llyod Makes No Sense
Carli Lloyd won the Golden Ball for the World Cup, which is to say she won the best player award. It's hard to argue that she doesn't deserve it. She tied for the most goals in the tournament and scored a hat trick in the championship match. The thing about Lloyd that makes no sense is that for somebody so good at soccer she is terrible at soccer.
If you're just a casual fan and were watching any USWNT match you'd point to Lloyd, jersey number 10, and ask the person next to you what the hell she's doing on the pitch. She's out of position. She gives the ball away. She passes it to the wrong team. She stands still, staring off into space. You would not even start her in a junior high league. Somehow though she scores goals at an alarming rate. And she absolutely rules at it. She scores goals on shots she shouldn't even be taking. If you watched the final tonight you saw her launch one at goal from midfield and score. Nobody does that because nobody shoots from midfield. Yet, time after time, Lloyd score improbable goal after improbable goal. She might cost the team a goal, but she'll score at least two to make up for it.
Megan Rapinoe is Awesome at Soccer and Has a Cool Sounding Name
Both of these are objectively true. Rapinoe is also one of the more exciting soccer players to watch. When the USWNT moves the ball down the pitch into the opposing zone, eschewing tactics for throttle, it's generally Rapinoe leading the way in a flurry and blur of excitement. It shouldn't work, Rapinoe's style of play. Defensive should carve up her live and let die style of play, but sometimes the rare, special, ultra-talented athlete comes along that not even the brightest coaches can game plan around. Rapinoe is that rare athlete and were it not for Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd, it'd be Rapinoe's name filling up the headlines.
Christie Rampone Will Not Go Away
The last time the USWNT won the World Cup was 1999. The only player left from that team is Christie Rampone. While she has been relegated to a sub and plays only limited minutes, she's still plugging away and is a clubhouse leader for this team. It's almost certainly her last cup tournament and what a way to go out.
The Midfield Figured It Out
If anything was going to prevent the USWNT from advancing in the tournament it was their midfield. They weren't playing bad, but they weren't playing good and certainly not at a level they needed to advance. That's a common occurrence in national team play across all levels of soccer. You've got a group of people who aren't familiar with playing together, and as midfielders are responsible for most of the ball control in the game, they either find a way to play together or they don't. It is really that simple. And the USWNT found a way to play together and played stronger as the tournament progressed. Chalk this up to solid coaching from Jill Ellis and a midfield buying into Ellis' midfield philosophy. If that doesn't happen the US doesn't win the title.
Abby Wambach Writes Her Name In Stone
As much as any team win is a team win, I get the feeling that this win centered around Wambach more than any other player on the team. She entered the tournament as one of the most decorated women's soccer players of all time, excepting a World Cup title; the World Cup title she scored the go-ahead and presumably cup-winning goal back in 2011, until Japan roared back and throttled the dreams of the US women's team.
There was speculation that she was too old to be selected and likely wouldn't make the team. Coach Jill Ellis saw differently. In Wambach she saw, I surmise, a stalwart role-player and leader of women. Wambach was selected for the team and during the tournament her teammates couldn't stop talking about how much she meant to this team and how much she helped propel them along, especially at the early stages of the tournament when the team was a mess. Wambach was the warm center the team gathered around and while she wasn't on the pitch as much as she was in 2011, you can't argue she didn't find just as many ways to contribute to her team. She was put in around the 71st minute of the championship match against Japan, with the US leading 5-2 and the outcome not much in doubt. Still though, for her to be on the pitch when that final whistle blew must have been the highlight in a career of highlights. Tip one back for Abby Wambach tonight. How can you not be happy for her.
The US Women's National Team Is Maybe Saving Women's Sports In America
How can you not be happy for any of these women. They're doing something in America that their male counterparts cannot. They are succeeding. They are winning at the highest levels of international competition. Women's sports aren't taken as seriously in the US as men's. That's just the brutal case of how it is. But soccer is different. It's the most popular sport in the world. While the US men are barely a factor in soccer the women have now won the World Cup three times, more than any other nation. Much of America might not be paying attention but the rest of the world certainly is. Here's to hoping that the USWNT World Cup win helps lend credence to women's athletics in this country. Women's sports are serious and will hopefully be taken seriously in America. The US Women's National Team just took a huge step forward for women's sports. It'll be news for at least a few days and hopefully spawn interest in women's sports across several demographics. I just hope that it lasts and continues to grow.