Sunday, July 17, 2011

Team of Destiny, Meet Team of Destiny

Okay, so I really don't feel much like writing a post about the U.S. vs. Japan match. Or anything else, for that matter.

As an objective observer/soccer fan you have to be more than a little happy for a plucky Japanese team that had more of a never-say-die attitude than the Americans, who had made that their trademark in this World Cup. And that whole tsunami thing undoubtedly makes this a "feel good" story not only in Japan but worldwide.

Except here. Japan didn't win this one; we gave it away.  I wanted to pummel Ian Darke when he kept wondering if the U.S. would rue its repeated missed opportunities in the first 30 minutes of the match, but that was mostly because I suspected he was right (and for God's sake will someone please buy Julie Foudy a calculator?).

Still, those misses shouldn't have mattered. You have to be able to defend a one goal lead in the last ten minutes of any match. And particularly a World Cup Final against a team that had, for 80 minutes, displayed a remarkable lack of finishing ability and had failed to pose a single legitimate offensive threat.

It was the first of the two Japanese goals that was particularly heinous. Horrible, desperate defending when it wasn't necessary or called for. Usually you speak of offensive players who "choke" but it certainly appeared that it was the U.S. defenders who did exactly that, gifting Miyama an opportunity she didn't deserve but, to her credit, she put away.

Not the celebration U.S. fans were hoping to see,
particularly in the 116th minute with the lead.

When Sawa scored the second, with only four minutes to play in extra time, it seemed to seal the deal. It wasn't the U.S. that would be the improbable winner in this match. The shootout was awful to watch and, surely, worse to actually participate in.

So we're left with a lot of good memories and renewed attention, at least temporarily, to soccer in general and women's soccer in particular in this country. But oh, what could have been, if only we had decided to clear the ball upfield instead of treating it like a pinball in our own six-yard box.

And, if nothing else, this match proved exactly what makes soccer unique among all sports: one team can dominate another and still lose. That is indeed what makes soccer so maddening, and so irresistible at the same time.

The next Women's World Cup is in Canada. Anyone else in?

Monday, July 11, 2011

C'mon In Girls, the Water's Fine

Yeah, yeah, you've read this before. Or something close to it anyway.

The difference is fans of women's soccer in the United States don't need an introduction to the sport or to World Cup thrills.

But just as a year ago Landon Donovan and the U.S. men gave us 90 minutes of tension and then jubilation, so too Abby Wambach and the U.S. women (and a less-than-helpful Australian referee) gave us 122 minutes of nail-biting thrills against Brazil in the Women's World Cup yesterday and then tacked on a penalty shootout for good measure.

Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach celebrate Wambach's goal
(and Rapinoe's cross that set it up) at the death against Brazil.

Yesterday's match was the re-invigoration of soccer in our country that we so needed. Instead of its earliest ever exit from the World Cup, Wambach and her resilient, never-say-die teammates gave us a match for the ages and a lesson that makes us all feel a little bit better about the sport in our country. And maybe ourselves.

There's still a long way to go, no doubt about that. The Americans have to beat the surprising French in the semifinal and, if they get past Les Blues, either a team that has already bested them in this tournament (Pia Sundhage's native Sweden), or a Japan team that knocked out the favorites Germany in the quarterfinals.

While you have to like their chances, regardless of what happens in the semifinals and final, this game will likely be remembered as the match of the 2011 Women's World Cup, or perhaps any women's World Cup. Just as Donovan's goal, while ultimately not leading to a World Cup (or even a spot in the quarterfinals), was an example of grit and determination, so to the women's victory demonstrated guts, and heart, and most of all belief in the value of team.

Wambach's perfect header.

At the very least, the women made a believer out of their coach. "I come from Sweden," said Sundhage after the match, "and this American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other, that is contagious. I am very, very proud, and I'm very, very happy to be the coach of the U.S. team."  

The U.S. women faced a daunting task when the match began against a squad with the five-time defending world player of the year in Marta and several other teammates with, honestly, more flair than that possessed by any American player. An early own goal by Brazil seemed at the time a gift (the only one the Yanks received all evening), but may have caused them to play more tentatively as a result.

It would be easy to dwell on the negatives of the next two hours of soccer that followed that first goal.  Horrible refereeing decision upon bad. Cynical play and play-acting by the Brazilians. Even, surprisingly, at times clueless commentary by the usually fine Ian Darke and Julie Fouty (90 plus 15 plus 15 equals 120, not 115 y'all). More globally, whether it's good that the women's game appears to be evolving into the same bad-tempered, cynical affair that marks the men's game. Or whether our apparent malaise regarding women's soccer is indicative of a misogynistic turn that my favorite soccer blogger, Fake Sigi, thinks our nation has taken in the last 12 years.

But we'll leave all that for another day (if ever). Now is the time to just revel. In the accomplishments of a team of resolute women who ignored at best horrible misfortune and at worst a stacking of the deck against them. In a team that stuck to the task at hand and believed, when all seemed lost, that they would persevere.

Or, as Wambach said after the match: "I think that is a perfect example of what this country is about. What the history of this team has always been. We never give up. We literally went to the last second it seems."

The reference in the title to this post is to the Donovan goal a year ago, and to Delmar's invitation to join the nation of believers in O Brother Where Art Thou? But perhaps a better observation from Delmar for yesterday's game, and our reaction to it, comes after Delmar thinks that he has discovered that his fellow escapee Pete in an altered state. "Them syreens did this to Pete." says Delmar. "They loved him up and turned him into a toad."

What's the state of U.S. soccer? For at least one day, it's about as good as it can get, thanks to the sirens of our national team. Color us grey and cover us with warts for all we care.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Can You Demand Support?

The recent National Team matches between the U.S. Men's soccer team and Mexico and the Women's team and Sweden have had me pondering the nature of support of national teams.
Ask anyone who is a fan raised in a football culture and they will tell you club comes before country. In America, however, it's a little different. Unless you're 15 years old or younger, you were born at a time when there was no major professional league in the country. So for my generation, and the one that preceded me, the national team was the team of first allegiance. Maybe that's why I have trouble understanding Americans who root for other countries against "their" nation in any competition.
My Grandfather emigrated from Sweden in his early adulthood and I am extremely proud of my Scandinavian heritage, as well as his accomplishments and assimilation into American life. But I would never think of rooting for Sweden to beat the U.S. Sweden is what I claim as my nation of origin, my heritage. The United States is my country.
The Swedish national team badge.
So while the Swedes made the American women look very ordinary in their World Cup match Wednesday, I felt no elation. Frustration, yes. But the team I was rooting for wore white and the badge of U.S. soccer and they were and are my team.

As noted in my previous post, that is not the case with Hispanic fans who root on Mexico against their adopted homeland, America. While I am far from those who insist on making English the official language of the United States, and have established a track record of non-jingoism, I am troubled by the fact that the American men are the "away" team when they play Mexico almost anywhere within the contiguous 48 states.
The rationalization of one Mexican national team supporter at the Gold Cup final was this: "I love this country, it has given me everything that I have, and I'm proud to be part of it," said Victor Sanchez, a 37-year-old Monrovia resident wearing a Mexico jersey. "But yet, I didn't have a choice to come here, I was born in Mexico, and that is where my heart will always be."
I'm sorry Victor, but, unless you were forced across the border at gun point, yes, in fact, you did have a choice. You chose to come to the land of opportunity over your native land, much as my Grandfather did. And now you turn your back on it.
There are several solutions to this situation. The most obvious is to cultivate a large enough following of the U.S. national team that supporters that they will purchase tickets instead of the Mexican fans. 
The second is to hold to matches in areas that are not traditional "strongholds" of Mexican national team support (i.e., Los Angeles). The most memorable soccer match I have ever attended was in Columbus, Ohio. In February. 

U.S. Soccer finally decided to turn the tables on our neighbors to the South, who generally make us play in the smog-filled thin air of Mexico City for our national team matches against them, and set our first qualifying match for the 2002 World Cup in Columbus. Mother Nature, with a wink and a nod, complied with the plan and served up weather that was 29F at kick-off, with the wind chill in the teens.

The Mexican team never had a chance, emerging shivering from its locker room only minutes before kick-off only to find the Americans already on the field, most memorably for me Tony Sanneh in shirt sleeves. Even with Brian McBride, local Columbus Crew hero and the Americans' top striker, forced out early with a golf ball sized knot on his face, the Yanks dominated and won 2-0.

The third solution is the one that the democrat (little "d") in me whispers in my ear while I curse the pro-Mexican crowds is to make those fans feel a little more American. Maybe, it says, it was easier for your Grandpa and his son and his son's son because they had fair hair and blue eyes. Maybe, if we spent a little less time building walls (real and metaphorical) to keep immigrants out they would feel a little more American.

Pia Sundhage, the U.S. women's national team coach, is Swedish. I seriously doubt that anyone will accuse her of throwing the game against Sweden (although why Megan Rapinoe played for 72 minutes is completely beyond me). Would the same be true if Bob Bradley was of Mexican heritage?

Regardless of why, or what the short-term solution may be, the bottom line is that you can't dictate allegiance. It has to be earned. So, at least for the short run, Victor and his many companions will continue to support their country of origin over their country of opportunity. And I (and Tim Howard) will just have to learn to deal with it. After all Tim, that match in Columbus? It's forever known in Mexico as La Guerra Fria ("The Cold War"). Sounds way cooler in Spanish.