Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pouring It On

The United States women's national soccer team qualified for the Olympics this past week at the CONCACAF tournament held in Vancouver, beating Canada 4-0 in the Final. The women also avenged their loss to Mexico in World Cup qualifying a year ago, beating them 4-0 in the group stage.

All told, the U.S. outscored their opponents 38-0 in the five game, ten day tournament. Those gaudy statistics were aided by a 14-0 thrashing of the Dominican Republic in the first game of group play and a 13-0 stomping of Guatemala in the second. 

Those two wins had some people grumbling that the Americans' coach, Pia Sundhage, had lost her sense of sportsmanship. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that substitute Amy Rodriguez scored five second half goals against the Dominicans and Sydney Leroux the same number (also in the second half as a substitute) against Guatemala.

Sydney Leroux, celebrating after a goal
against North Korea in the U-20 World Cup.

It's easy for someone who isn't a coach in general, or the coach of a national team in particular, to make a judgment call about what is or isn't sporting. But, having been in Sundhage's position a few times myself, I am convinced that there are no simple answers to the question of when, or whether, to call off the dogs.

In my third season as a head coach my high school team beat a school, which happened to be our biggest rival in all sports, 13-0. We didn't start the game intending to inflict that type of humiliation, but things got out of control on the pitch and before I knew it, it was too late to try to save the dignity of the opposing team. I apologized after the match to the opposing coach, who I like very much. He graciously deflected my genuine remorse with a simple "it's our job to stop you and we couldn't" but if anything that just made me feel worse.

After that, my team never scored more than nine goals in a game against any team, no matter how badly out-matched they were. As we strengthened our schedule those breathers got fewer and farther between, but there were always a few matches each year where it was more work to not embarrass the other team than it was to win. I would devise various games within a game to try to keep the score down - after six or seven goals we could only shoot outside the 18, or shoot after five consecutive passes, score on a header, or only a player who had not scored that season, or had never scored, could shoot.

And the players played by the rules or else. I remember at least one game when one of our stars (and one of the fiercest competitors that I ever coached) shot and scored during a blow-out when the rule in effect did not allow it. The goal made the score 9-0 and I immediately yanked her out of the match. She came to the touch-line with a "what did I do wrong?" look on her face, but she knew. And every other player on our team knew too.

My job of trying to keep the score down, though, was easier than Sundhage's. Most importantly, I had the ability to freely substitute players and did so. Sundhage, on the other hand, was limited to three substitutions per match in the tournament. And, let's face it, her bench is a wee bit more talented than mine was.

Another factor that was to my advantage was that when the score got to nine, we would simply pass the ball around. No shooting, no scoring. It was always a concern that it would look like we were toying with the other team. And, to some extent, we were. But we were playing on a field in West Virginia with 50 or so people in the stands most times. The memories of those who played or watched have faded with regard to how the score was reached, but the score itself has not.

To play "keep away" in front of 20,000 fans and television audience, however, is a very different proposition. Was it more humiliating for the Dominicans and Guatemalans to lose by two touchdowns (one with a missed extra point) or to lose 9-0 and have to chase the U.S. players for the last 20 minutes of the match, everyone knowing that they were not up to the task? Would that have been a more sporting way for the U.S. to play rather than continuing to try to score?

I'm not sure I know the answer, or that there is one. But I do know that anyone who says they are absolutely sure what the answer is has, very likely, never had to make that decision themselves.

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