Sunday, June 28, 2015

Soccer 2015


U.S. Crushes Japan In World Cup Final, Ending Drought In Fairy-Tale Rematch
(By Steven Goff, Washington Post, 05 July 2015)

When the final whistle sounded on the Women’s World Cup final Sunday, Carli Lloyd dropped to her knees near the sideline and looked to the open roof at BC Place, pumping her arms before teammate Heather O’Reilly embraced her.  Players and coaches penned in the bench area flooded the field like water released from a dam. Tears flowed. Flags snapped throughout stands filled with American supporters.  The 16-year wait was over: By virtue of a 5-2 victory over Japan, the U.S. women's national soccer team was world champion for a record third time.   “I envisioned winning the trophy,” said Coach Jill Ellis, a graduate of Robinson Secondary School and William and Mary in Virginia, “but five is a dream come true.”

With Vice President Biden among 53,341 in attendance, Lloyd gave one of the great performances in men’s or women’s tournament history, scoring three goals in the first 16 minutes, including a shot from the midfield line some 55 yards away.  Lloyd, who had beaten Japan for the 2012 Olympic gold medal with two goals, set championship marks for the fastest goal (three minutes) and first hat trick. She became the first American to score three times in a World Cup game since the inaugural event in 1991.  “She always does this to us,” Japan Coach Norio Sasaki said. “We are a bit embarrassed, but she is an excellent player and I admire her.”
After underperforming in the three-game group stage, the 32-year-old midfielder from Delran, N.J., and Rutgers University scored in four consecutive knockout rounds to claim a share of the scoring title with Germany's Celia Sasic (six goals).  Lloyd won the Golden Ball award as the tournament's most outstanding player. Hope Solo earned the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper.  During a break a few weeks before the tournament began, Lloyd was home in New Jersey, training on her own.  “Just my headphones, myself and I,” she said. “I just completely zoned out and dreamed of playing in a World Cup final and visualized scoring four goals. It sounds pretty funny, but you can be physically strong, but if your mental state isn’t good enough, you can’t bring yourself to bigger and better things.”

The outcome was sweet redemption for Lloyd and 13 other holdovers who not only had lost to Japan in the 2011 final, but, for four years, carried the burden of unfulfilled expectations dating back to the Rose Bowl party in 1999.  Reminders of the last championship tailed this squad for years. The narrative was inescapable and, with the title in reach, it crested ahead of the final. Several members of the last trophy-winning team were in the audience: Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry, Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers, among others.  Beyond the team feat, individuals embraced the moment. In her fourth and final tournament,  Abby Wambach, the sport's highest international scorer regardless of gender, added a World Cup title to her substantial portfolio. As she entered in the 79th minute, Lloyd handed her the captain’s armband.  "I felt like I was in a dream sitting there on the bench watching Carli Lloyd go off," Wambach said of the early stages.
The triumph brought joy to Ellis, who has been on the job only since spring 2014. As the Americans stumbled through the early matches, Ellis was criticized by fans, media and former players, most notably Akers, for lineup choices and tactical decisions.  “It’s not vindication,” she said. “It just feels really good. I knew they had it in them. They knew they had it in them.”  She remained steadfast in her long-term approach to the month-long tournament, committed to the defensive plan and alternating attackers until ultimately reinforcing central midfield to free up Lloyd.  There was no reason for Ellis to alter the lineup Sunday.

Despite meeting in a final for the third straight major competition, there were no hints of animosity between the teams.  The Americans’ deference morphed into cold-hearted dominance.  In the third minute, as Megan Rapinoe served a low corner kick, Lloyd made a sharp run from outside the penalty area. She met the ball in stride and, using the outside of her left foot, stabbed a nine-yard shot into the lower left corner.  Two minutes passed. Another Lloyd goal.  From inside the penalty area, Julie Johnston flicked Lauren Holiday’s free kick. The ball caromed off the arm of a Japanese player and bounded into the six-yard box. Lloyd beat two defenders and poked it between defender Saki Kumugai’s legs.  Lloyd embarked on another celebratory sprint. From field level to the upper reaches of the Olympic arena, bedlam reigned.
There was more. In the 14th minute, Holiday rushed at Azusa Iwashimizu’s poorly headed clearance and volleyed a 12-yarder over goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori.  Then came one of the most implausible goals in men’s or women’s World Cup history, a shot that defied soccer convention in both audacity and execution. With the Americans breaking out of their own, Lloyd dodged a challenge in the center circle.  At this point, a player will accelerate into space or spray the ball wide to launch a counterattack. Lloyd looked up and saw Kaihori at the top of the penalty area.  Why not? The ball sailed. Kaihori backpedaled, stumbled and got a hand on it before watching the amazing strike touch the post and roll into the net.  “When you are feeling good, those plays are just instincts,” she said. “I feel like I blacked out for the first 30 minutes. It was crazy.”

Japan was deflated but not defeated. Yuki Ogimi fired past Solo in the 27th minute, ending the U.S. shutout streak at 540 minutes.  Seven minutes into the second half, Johnston contested a long free kick in the penalty area and headed the ball past Solo for an own goal.  Two minutes later, Tobin Heath restored order, smashing in Morgan Brian’s cross.  All that remained was the entrance of Wambach and Christie Rampone, a 40-year-old defender at her fifth World Cup.  For the first time since 1999, a trophy awaited.  “Those were the pioneers,” Lloyd said of the ’99 squad, “and now it’s our turn to keep the tradition going.”  


For United States, A Display Of Dominance At Women’s World Cup
(By Jerry Brewer, Washington Post, 05 July 2015)

The patrons at Summers Restaurant in Arlington hadn’t even settled. They had barely sipped their beers, and they had yet to decide on food. They were pacing themselves to watch at least a 90-minute Women’s World Cup final.  After 16 exhilarating minutes, however, the game was over.  After a fourth “U-S-A!” celebratory chant in that time span, the patrons were delightfully stunned. And out of breath.  “I’m exhausted,” one fan said, laughing.  The rest of the match became an exhibition to determine just how impressive the United States wanted to be. It settled for one of the most dominant title-game performances in sports history: an early onslaught, a midgame cruise and a strong finish in a 5-2 throttling of rival Japan.

For the first time in 16 years, the U.S. women’s national team captured the World Cup, defeating its own vulnerability along the way. There was no way to see this coming, especially after the Americans began this tournament in lackluster form.  The reasons to doubt kept multiplying. Germany was supposedly the world’s best team. Abby Wambach couldn’t carry the U.S. squad anymore. Hope Solo had disturbing off-field issues. Coach Jill Ellis was too green. And what about the pressure mounting after it failed to win the past three World Cups, including a devastating loss to Japan in the 2011 final?
The U.S. women, who won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 and lifted the sport to new heights with their second title eight years later, had never seemed this vulnerable. Then on Sunday, in less than the time it takes for a power nap, they looked their most overpowering at BC Place in Vancouver.  And this old Arlington soccer bar, which has been showing matches from around the world for 31 years, experienced another significant moment. This World Cup didn’t match the drama of 1999, when the U.S. and China fought until Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick and jersey-removing glee at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.  That U.S. team, playing on its home soil and featuring Mia Hamm in her prime, had to win to lift the entire sport. This team had to win to prove it has maintained international supremacy.

At Summers, they celebrated the evolution of women’s soccer. Jorge Parrado was a customer during the World Cup 16 years ago. Now Parrado, 44, works at the restaurant and assists with social-media promotion.  While this title game had its drama end early, Parrado was still able to recognize the meaning.  “It was much more intense 16 years ago,” he said. “The expectation was there. There was no excuse. They had to win it. This was more determination to walk in and take back what they lost four years ago — which they did in 15 minutes. This team didn’t really play that well at the beginning of the World Cup. In 1999, they were a machine. Nothing could really stop them. But look at how far this team came.  The fan base has evolved, from my perspective,” Parrado said. “In 1999, you had more kids around, and now those kids are young adults. I see more men and women coming here to watch the matches, a more diverse crowd. Men have, compared to back then, a greater respect for the female athlete, the female soccer player.  “The men are actually paying attention and reading the game instead of coming in because, wow, she was in Sports Illustrated. They’re not just here because their girlfriends asked them to come. It’s an evolution.”
Four hours before the final, three preteen boys walked together on Lee Highway in Arlington, boasting their national pride. One boy had a soccer ball tucked under his arm. They wore socks with stripes on their left feet and with stars on their right feet.  They were ready to root for the women, who represented the red, white, blue (and yellowish green and black). They weren’t disappointed.  The Americans won their third Women’s World Cup, the most of any nation.  Carli Lloyd completed the tournament of her life by becoming the first U.S. player to score in four straight World Cup matches. But that stat might get lost in the celebration. This game will be remembered for the three goals Lloyd scored in the first 16 minutes. She punctuated her instant hat trick with an absurd goal from near midfield that resembled a basketball player attempting a heat check.  Thing is, most heat checks don’t go in.  And for her next trick, Lloyd will boot disgraced FIFA President Sepp Blatter into oblivion. 
The World Cup is back in the United States, and soccer legend Abby Wambach won the only major event that has eluded her. Before the match, she expressed to reporters how badly she wanted this World Cup, saying that if the United States won, “I might just give you all a kiss on the mouth. Don’t tell my wife, though.”  Surely, after the Americans erased 16 years of disappointment in 16 minutes of dominance, Wambach will be allowed as many victory smooches as she desires.

Soccer Outsider: Women’s World Cup Review And Player Ratings
By Jeffrey Maurer July 6 at 3:39 AM

How do you prepare for a World Cup final? The players always play it cool. “Oh, I just relax and listen to some cool music.” (Nobody preps by listening to Phil Collins’ “No Jacket Required.”)  Given how big the game is, they are either incredibly composed or completely lying. If I were days away from playing in a World Cup final and someone asked, “How are you preparing?” I’d say: “Well, I’m panic-vomiting a lot, and also vomiting as a result of the heavy drinking I’ve been doing to calm myself down. In my more lucid moments, I think of excuses, specifically who I could scapegoat — both on my team or in society at large — in case it all goes wrong. In my spare time I rock back and forth and suck my thumb. And I’ve been listening to Phil Collins’ ‘No Jacket Required.’ ”

My take on the U.S. women’s team through the tournament so far? The back five has been outstanding! All of them: calm, composed, well-organized and alert. The fullbacks are providing offense, and the center backs have been almost mistake-free. And my take on the attack, except for Megan Rapinoe?  Hey, how about that back five, huh?  The U.S. starting lineup: Solo, Krieger, Sauerbrunn, Johnston, Klingenberg, Heath, Brian, Holiday, Lloyd, Rapinoe, Morgan.  Very happy to see Brian in the lineup. The U.S. team had huge problems in the midfield in the first half of the tournament; things seem to have settled down since Brian stepped in.
Here’s kickoff from Vancouver’s beautiful-but-turf-covered BC Place. Does anyone think maybe this stadium deserves a more creative name than “BC Place”? Maybe BC Park, BC Arena or even Stade de BC? One could argue thatevery place in British Columbia is at least a BC place. This stadium sounds like the diner where the kids hang out in a pre-teen sitcom on CBC: “Hey, you hosers, want to go to BC Place and get some poutine?”

3’ – GOAL USA! Lloyd off a set piece! Unbelievable – the fastest goal in Women’s World Cup finals history, and the second in women’s or men’s afterNeesken’s penalty in ‘74! What a sucker-punch start! Classy finish by Lloyd.
5’ – ANOTHER GOAL – LLOYD AGAIN! I can’t remember a big match ever starting like this, even Germany 7, Brazil 1 didn’t really get rolling until the 23rd minute. This is incredible — this is a bloody nose on the first punch of the fight. This match might end up being like Donald Trump’s presidential campaign: effectively over before it began and with a positive outcome for the USA.

6’ – That second goal was scored so quickly that Fox didn’t even have a chance to roll out the “Japan came back from a goal down twice in 2011” stat.
7’ – Everyone thought the U.S. would be dangerous on set pieces, but that was because of the height advantage. And now Japan has been undone by two balls played in on the ground. No excuse for that; the Americans were just first to the ball.

8’ – Japan is huddling up after each goal. They’re probably talking strategy, but I like to think it’s pure panic. “Girls, this is baaaaaaad! I’m embarrassed — we’re gonna lose HARD!”
14’ – ANOTHER GOAL! A poor clearance, and Holiday punishes the mistake with a well-taken volley! This is amazing but kind of lacking in suspense, like if “The Sixth Sense” started with Bruce Willis saying, “Hi there. I’m dead.”

15’ – Another Japanese huddle after the goal. That’s only worth doing if the topic is, “Hey, there’s a trap door by the corner flag. Let’s drop in one-by-one and get the heck out of here.”
15’ – Fox commentator Tony DiCicco: “Terrific start for the USA.” Great insight, coach! That’s why you get paid the big bucks.

16’ – It’s rare to see one team surge and another team collapse in a huge match like this. This is shock, this is panic. It’s Brazil-Germany in 2014, or the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII.
16’ – GOAL Lloyd! And it’s the goal of the tournament, an amazing hit from the midfield stripe! 4-0 — absolutely stunning. The only danger for the U.S. now is that the second half might be so boring it’ll be preempted by an “Alf” rerun.

17’ – No Japanese huddle after this one. Yeah, forget it: The huddles are useless. Maybe the huddles were the problem.
20’ – Carli Lloyd has scored the fastest hat trick in World Cup Finals history. Let’s all say it together: Geoff Hurst[] is a bum.

22’ – We should acknowledge that the U.S. has a huge home-field advantage, since these matches are being played in Michigan’s Upper Upper Peninsula (Canada).
27’ – Goal Japan! 4-1! Okay, that goal means we’re one goal away from this being interesting.

29’ – Actually, Japan, having hit rock bottom, has finally settled in to this match. They’re possessing the ball and playing their game.
39’ – Japan makes its second first-half non-injury substitution, and never have early substitutions come so late. You’re down 4-1, coach; when it was 3-0 after 14 minutes, did you maybe have an inkling that your game plan had gone awry?

39’ – A Japanese player commits one of the most obvious handballs I’ve ever seen, but it’s not called. Pretty much everyone in the stadium stopped; I actually thought for a moment that the player would call a pickup-game foul on herself. Watching the replay, there are Harlem Globetrotters routines in which they don’t handle the ball that much.
Halftime: 4-1 USA. Well, that could not really have gone much better. If I’m the Japanese coach, here’s my halftime talk: “What is soccer, really? Just a bunch of people kicking a ball. Kinda dumb if you think about it. The important thing is: We all got free airfare to Canada.”

52’ – Goal Japan! An own goal by Julie Johnston. Luckily for Johnston, this will not be remembered as the own goal of the tournament. Sorry, Laura Bassett, it’s true.
53’ – 4-2. Do we have a game on our han …

54’ – No! No we don’t have a game on our hands! Heath puts home a cross from Brian and it’s 5-2! Much like HBO’s “The Leftovers,” this game looked for a second like it might get exciting but then didn’t.
60’ – With this game seemingly in hand, I feel comfortable devoting my time to reviewing the FIFA vanity-project film “United Passions.” I watched it in its entirety for this piece, making me one of the very few Americans to have seen the film, which was recently confirmed as the lowest-grossing film in US box office history. It made only $918 in its theatrical run, displacing the previous record-holder, the horrifying-teddy-bear-come-to-life-child’s-romp “Gooby.”

For the record: I have also seen “Gooby” and it is an infinitely better film than “United Passions.” “United Passions” is excrement, and I’d like to draw attention to the “r” in “excrement,” as I wouldn’t want Rotten Tomatoes to misread that as “excellent” and spoil the film’s perfect 0 percent rating. “United Passions” is what you’d get if a dental convention had a baby with a condo board election in Coral Gables. It’s just old men sitting in meetings and talking. It has sub-George-Lucas-level dialogue (come at me, nerds!). It has three — three! — extended sequences of people silently voting. It has a montage of the ‘86 World Cup that involves lots of Sepp Blatter looking out the window of an airplane and exactly zero seconds of the greatest goal ever scored. It stars Tim Roth as Sepp Blatter, meaning the psychotic monkey general Roth played in “The Planet of the Apes” is now his second most villainous character. It is also, by itself, circumstantial evidence of corruption in FIFA, as seemingly none of its $29 million budget is on the screen. If you want to see a film about FIFA, don’t see “United Passions”; see the one they’re going to make in five years about FIFA’s downfall.
80’ – Not much going on here except for the U.S. closing the game out. The USA are absorbing the pressure and that’s all they have to do. Now it’s just a matter of who gets the cameo substitutions; so far we’ve had O’Hara and Wambach, looks like Rampone will be next. And after that: Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, and — what the heck — Billie Jean King. Take a bow, ladies.

85’ – There will be plenty of debate about where this team and these players belong in the pantheon of U.S. women’s soccer, but one thing is beyond debate: Michelle Akers had the best hair in U.S. women’s soccer history. The golden mane of a lion, that one.
90’ + 2’ – Just counting down the seconds to history now … almost time to celebrate! Anyone who did not blow their hands off yesterday: get ready to light your extra fireworks now!

Full time: 5-2 USA! WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS! The U.S. will receive their medals from beautiful women in cocktail dresses. (What? No! It should be shirtless beefcakes in bow ties. Do they not have Chippendales in Canada?) But no matter: It’s a third star for the U.S. women! Just 47 to go to honor the whole nation, ladies!

Player ratings (first for the match, then for the whole tournament):
Solo: 6, 7. The rightful winner of the Golden Glove, though she didn’t have much to do. In the last two matches she actually got in the habit of “saving” shots that were several yards wide of the post, presumably out of boredom.

Klingenberg: 8, 9. Not only made full use of her towering 5-2 frame, she was arguably the team’s best offensive player for the first half of the tournament. Fullbacks don’t get enough credit; you can make a case that Klingenberg should be the team’s MVP.
Sauerbrunn: 9, 9. She basically didn’t put a foot wrong the entire tournament; she’d get my vote for MVP. Why does she hunch over like that when she’s off the ball? Whatever — it works.

Johnston: 5, 7.5. Some not-awesome moments in the last two matches, but a very good tournament overall.
Krieger: 7, 8.5. Another neglected fullback! Look: I know when you’re 7, you put the worst player at fullback. But that’s not the case at the highest levels. Fullbacks should get more love.

Holiday: 7, 4. You have to say this about the midfield: They showed up when it counted. Or at least when it counted most.
Brian: 9, 7. Had a slow start to the tournament, but came on very strong and ended up looking like a future star. She also pronounces her name “Brian,” like some dude you know instead of “Bree-on” like some French dude you know, and I like that lack of pretension.

Heath: 8.5, 6: The offense sprang to life when they changed the formation, and Heath was a big part of that.
Lloyd: 10, 7: So, I’m an idiot: I would have benched her after the Colombia match.

Morgan: 5, 4. She didn’t really ever seem to play her way into form.
Wambach: NR, 5. Even more valuable than a World Cup medal: not having to spend a lifetime dealing with those “but she never won a championship!” idiots.

Rampone: NR, 6. “I won the World Cup twice” is in the Hall Of Fame of Awesome Brags next to “I Walked on the Moon” and “I Killed Bin Laden.”
O’Hara: 6, 7.5. Every tournament, there’s one player who just plays much better than expected and ends up getting a lot of minutes (think Mastroeni in ‘02, Jimmy Conrad in ‘06). That was Kelley O’Hara.

Sydney Leroux: NR, 3.5. Had the disadvantage of playing the part of the tournament when our midfield was completely comatose. Best tattoos on the team, though.
Amy Rodriguez: NR, 3.5. No matter what, she’ll always be the more likable A-Rod by miles and miles.

Christen Press: NR, 5.5. She scored a nice goal in the first game and I was a little surprised that she wasn’t used more. Also if we’re scoring tans: 10.
Whitney Engen, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny: NR, NR. Thank you for your application but at the moment we do not have any vacancies.

Backup goalkeepers Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris: 10, 10. I’ve never heard their names, so obviously they weren’t a distraction — that’s exactly what you want in backup goalkeepers! Great job!


‘Beast,’ ‘Weirdo,’ Choker, Winner: Carli Lloyd Is Bundle Of Contradictions
(By Michael E. Miller, Washington Post, 06 July 2015)

Unstoppable “beast” or erratic turnover machine? Eccentric “weirdo” or boring and blithe? Last-second hero or season-ending liability?  Choker or champion?  As U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Carli Lloyd stepped onto the field for Sunday’s World Cup final in Vancouver, she was all of the above: a player who could be inspiring one moment and infuriating the next; a player who had sandwiched two outstanding Olympics titles with a 2011 World Cup final to forget. A player, in other words, of many contradictions.

Lloyd did her absolute best to simplify her confusing résumé with a clearly dominant display on Sunday, scoring three goals in 16 minutes and powering her team to its first World Cup trophy in 16 years.  As the final whistle blew and gold confetti fell on Lloyd, sportswriters and soccer fans lined up to celebrate her — and rightly so.  “Carli Lloyd has a performance for the ages,” ran the headline in her native New Jersey.  Even the White House chimed in with praise.
What a win for Team USA! Great game @CarliLloyd! Your country is so proud of all of you. Come visit the White House with the World Cup soon.

— President Obama (@POTUS) July 6, 2015
The accolades were well earned, but they don’t erase Lloyd’s complex and-  yes- contradictory career, which has been a veritable roller coaster ride up and down over the past six years.  In a sports world of slogans and seconds-long Sports Center clips, Lloyd shows how misleadingly simple labels — whether “beast” or “weirdo,” goat or great — can be.  She also shows how fine the line is between winning and losing. Despite its emphatic 5-2 triumph over Japan on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Team was — dare we say it? — downright boring at times during this tournament. And Lloyd was not without blame.

In many ways, the midfielder encapsulates American soccer: athletic but sometimes artless, disciplined but also prone to breakdowns, capable of greatness but often coming up short.  Perhaps it’s because sports demand simple story lines, or maybe it has more to do with the fact that women’s soccer is televised roughly every four years in this country, but Lloyd functioned like an ink blot for writers tackling this year’s World Cup, allowing them to see almost anything they wanted to in the attacking midfielder.  “The player at the heart of the U.S. offense is a stone-cold weirdo,” opined Vice. “Take a look through her Instagram or Twitter feed for a few minutes. She is a walking motivational post. She loves ice baths. Sometimes, these two interests collide.”
“Carli Lloyd is the weirdest world class professional athlete ever,” argued SB Nation, a stretch considering the uneven play of so many professional athletes. “Lloyd is often so poor that people who have watched nearly every single one of those 201 games she’s played for the national team forget the point of her. They get angry, they scream at their television screens, they Tweet insults, they text their friends things like ‘why the f— won’t Jill f—ing drop Carli already?’, even though they know the answer to that question. The answer isn’t at the forefront of their brains when they ask, but if they took a step back, calmed down and thought really hard, they’d find it. Carli Lloyd is a big-time player who scores big-time goals in big-time games.”

But as a profile in the Wall Street Journal also made clear, Lloyd’s basic approach to soccer is actually pretty banal: She just works harder than everyone else.  “Like an eighth-grader at travel-soccer practice, Lloyd sprints up the gym floor dribbling only with her right foot, first the outside, then the inside,” Matthew Futterman wrote before the tournament began a month ago. “Then she does the same with her left. On one series, she fakes a kick before each touch, making sure to raise one arm in the exact motion. On another she dips her inside shoulder each time to accent a feint.”  “It’s all about repetition,” Lloyd told the newspaper.  While some of her teammates made headlines with scantily clad photos, Lloyd was either working out or hanging out with her fiancé, golf pro Brian Hollins, whom she has dated for 15 years. 
Hard work. Repetition. Consistency. Ice. Inspirational messages.  If her “weirdo” public image doesn’t quite add up, neither does Lloyd’s career.  After a Hall of Fame career at Rutgers, Lloyd launched herself onto the national team in 2005. Three years later, she was the hero at the 2008 Olympics with an overtime goal against Brazil.  But then came the 2011 World Cup. Lloyd didn’t just sky her penalty during the decisive shootout loss to Japan. She was woeful before that game as well.  “The U.S. played some of its best soccer of the tournament with Lloyd on the bench late in the semifinal against France,” wrote Sporting News in an article listing Lloyd as one of the cup’s “goats.” “Perhaps she should have stayed there. She did little to help the Americans keep the ball when trying to protect two leads Sunday, and her awful accuracy when shooting was a prelude of shootout nightmares to come. Only a player completely fatigued and/or overwhelmed by the moment hits a penalty kick as high as Lloyd did.”

Twelve months later, however, Lloyd was back to being the hero. After starting the tournament on the bench, Lloyd scored both goals in a narrow 2-1 final victory over Japan in the London Olympics. “When someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to always prove them wrong,” she said. “That’s what champions do.”  By this summer, Lloyd was supposed to be a sure and steady-footed veteran. When Abby Wambach dropped to the bench, Lloyd even acted as captain.
But her play proved erratic once again. Lloyd failed to feed the forwards the ball, spraying errant passes across the field, and the U.S. struggled to score.  For many, it was a familiar sight.  “You’ve watched her turn in terrible performances in countless friendlies, and in the group stage of the World Cup,” wrote SB Nation. “You think she should be dropped to the bench, even though you know what’s coming. Part of you, even though you’re a fan of this team and want them to win, hopes that she doesn’t score, just so the mystique of Carli Lloyd can go away. If she goes an entire tournament without a game-winning goal or assist, maybe then we can finally move on and replace her with someone who doesn’t make a dozen turnovers per game, ones which AYSO coaches wouldn’t tolerate.”

Writer Kevin McCauley went so far as to call her “a relic of a time gone by.”  “Her turnovers weren’t punished as harshly when women’s soccer was a game that was mostly about individual athleticism, and it’s not like there were considerably less turnover-prone players behind her,” he said. “But as the years have gone by and the game has shifted into something different, one now defined by midfield positioning and possession, Lloyd’s deficiencies have gradually become more obvious. Now that every top team has technically skilled, tactically drilled, do-everything midfielders — including the United States — Lloyd sticks out like a sore thumb. ‘Oh god,’ you realize, ‘that’s how everyone used to play soccer. How did we watch that? We’ve come so far.'”
It’s not just armchair coaches that scratch their heads wondering how Lloyd can somehow be so fearsome at times and yet awful at others. It’s real coaches, too. Lloyd’s own coaches.  “Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach,” former coach Pia Sundhage told the New York Times. “When she felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players. But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst.”  “Pia, you’ve unleashed the beast,” warned Lloyd’s teammate turned broadcaster Heather Mitts ahead of the U.S.’s group stage showdown with Sweden, Sundhage’s current team.  “I plan to respond on the field,” Lloyd told Sports Illustrated.  The result? An insipid, scoreless draw in which Lloyd and the rest of her team created little excitement.

But then Lloyd buried a penalty against Colombia in the round of 16 and the confidence that had flickered on and off insider her seemed to burst into flame. She climbed over an opponent to bury a game-winning header in the quarterfinal against China and then cooly slotted home another penalty kick against No. 1 Germany in the semi-final.  On Sunday evening, Lloyd seemed to finally unleash the “beast” mode that Mitts had warned about. She scored a screamer off a set piece in the third minute, added a tap-in two minutes later, and launched an audacious half-field lob over the bewildered Japanese goalie’s head in minute 16.  The hat trick was the fastest in World Cup history for either sex, and the first in a women’s World Cup final.  “‘Big Game Carli’ delivers” declared ESPN.
The article ignored Lloyd’s 2011 final miss and glossed over her other ups and downs. “Lloyd certainly had her struggles early on,” Jeff Carlisle begrudgingly admitted, “but she stayed the course and benefited immensely from a tactical switch by U.S. manager Jill Ellis that saw her pushed closer to goal.”  Of course, Carlisle couldn’t resist a dig at Lloyd’s former coach, writing “one is left to wonder what former U.S. manager Pia Sundhage thinks about her former player now.”  But there is no need to wonder, or to pretend that Lloyd has always been “Big Game Carli.” Sundhage herself explained how “challenging,” contradictory players like Lloyd are ultimately worth the headache.  “Those players who always do exactly what I say, then that’s not (always) good,” Sundhage said.  “Some players are very challenging and those players, they create gold.”

Why Hardly Anyone Sponsored The Most-Watched Soccer Match In U.S. History
(By Drew Harwell, Washington Post, 06 July 2015)
 The U.S. national team celebrates its 5-2 victory over Japan in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup soccer final at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, B.C. (Frank Fife/AFP/Getty Images)

For the U.S. national team's stunning 5-2 win over Japan at the Women's World Cup on Sunday, a rout that made the Americans the first team ever to win three world championships, soccer's global governing body will award the team $2 million — about 5 percent of the $35 million FIFA gave to the German victors of last year's World Cup.  And while viewers made the Sunday match by far the most-watched soccer game in American TV history, little of that excitement could be seen in the tourney's marketing deals. Fox grabbed an estimated $17 million in ads from corporate sponsors of the elite women's matches — a tiny fraction compared to the $529 million ESPN pocketed in sponsorship revenue from last year's tournament in Brazil.
The World Cup matches over the last month proved to be a showcase of dominance for international women's soccer, led by the powerhouse American team and stars like Abby Wambach, the game's all-time leading scorer, regardless of gender. Attendance for the games in Canada surpassed 1.2 million, a Women's World Cup record, while U.S. ratings for the final game topped even the viewership of this year's NBA Finals or Stanley Cup.
But the financial details also showed how some of the ugliest imbalances between the sexes still prevail, even in The Beautiful Game. The Women's World Cup attracted far fewer of the marketing blitzes or mega-deals seen in men's tournaments, and far less of the cash or corporate support, a glaring loss for players and fans of the world's most popular sport.  Critics have slammed the tournament from the start for its strange disparity between men's and women's play. While male World Cup players ran across fields of grass, women's teams played on artificial turf, leaving them scarred with nasty turf burns (and sparking an ongoing gender-discrimination lawsuit from some of the top players last year).
But the financial rewards for women's teams and their players at the end of the tourney revealed a more subtle gulf. The $2 million prize, though double the purse from the 2011 Women’s World Cup, is only one-quarter the $8 million that men's teams earned from losing in the first round of last year's World Cup.  Men's teams played for a total of $576 million in World Cup prizes last year, compared to the $15 million up for grabs from women's teams this year. For perspective, that's less than what FIFA paid to make "United Passions," the league's $27 million history film, which was almost universally panned and made only $918 (yes, less than $1,000) at the American box office.  FIFA has defended its bigger prize pool by pointing to the mens' tourney's size and age: The World Cup brings in $4.5 billion in direct revenue and has been played 20 times, compared to the seven Women's World Cups.  But the extra millions would have gone a long way for the National Women's Soccer League, America's most elite professional soccer corps, which set minimum salaries this season at $6,842 — about one-ninth what male players in Major League Soccer make at the low end, about $60,000.
It's not for lack of talent. The U.S. national team won the Women's World Cup two times before, in 1991 and 1999, the latter of which was immortalized when defender Brandi Chastain whipped her jersey off after a shootout win. Wambach's 183 international goals dwarfs those of the top U.S. men's player, Landon Donovan, who has scored 57.  Nor for a lack of name recognition: Popular players such as Wambach, Mia Hamm and goalkeeper Hope Solo have laid the foundation for rising stars like Carli Lloyd, who on Sunday netted the first hat trick in a World Cup final, for men or women, since 1966. 
 Yet even for all of their success, the players have gotten next to none of the backing or recognition of their male counterparts. Before winning the Golden Ball, an award for the World Cup's best player, Lloyd's few sponsorships included a deal last year with Usana Health Sciences, a seller of dietary supplements, and an agreement last week to represent Visa during the 2016 Olympics.  (For comparison: Last year's Golden Ball winner, Argentine star Lionel Messi, is one of the world's highest-paid athletes, expected to take home $74 million in winnings and marketing deals this year.)  That odd disparity has led some companies to change the way they roll out offerings for a growing pool of fans. For the first time this year, Nike started selling jerseys for the Women's World Cup-winning team in men's sizes, quashing a long-running double standard; men's team jerseys have sold in women's sizes for years.

Meanwhile, other changes have helped highlight just how far the sport still has to go. Video-game giant EA Sports said it will, for the first time ever, include women's national teams in its latest edition of one of the world's best-selling video-game franchises, FIFA 16.  The change was announced after years of petitions in which signers said they wanted young girls "to be able see themselves in the games they love." Still, only a smattering will be included: 12 women's teams are expected, compared to the more than 600 men's teams (and more than 16,000 male players) in last year's edition, FIFA 15.  The business of this year's Women's World Cup saw some big gains over the 2011 tourney. Fox aired 16 matches live with ads from more than 20 corporate sponsors, including Fiat and Nationwide Insurance, and brought in sponsorship revenue that was nearly three times as much as in 2011.
But companies that invested exhaustively in ad blitzes and social media around last year's tournament, like Adidas, proved staggeringly quiet during the Women's World Cup. And some of the ones who took up the slack, a FOX executive told Ad Age, were "non-traditional" advertisers relatively unseen in sports broadcasts, including grooming and personal-care brands like Clorox and Tampax.  Many companies, analysts said, remain skittish to spend money on a sport without the proven returns of a bigger spectacle, like professional football, or the market power other sports can command on shelves.  "The fan base is growing for the Women's World Cup, but it will take some more time," Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, director of the University of Oregon Sports Product Management Program, told the Oregonian. "Translating watching sports into buying sports products is more direct for men than women."
But others argue that it's all part of a bitter cycle: Women's sports are seen as lesser moneymakers, ignored in media and merchandising deals, given less dramatic coverage, fewer cameras, less airtime - all of  which might help explain why the sport is overlooked in the first place. An updated 25-year study in the journal Communication & Sport last month, titled "It’s Dude Time!," found that women's sports were featured in about 2 to 5 percent of all sports coverage last year, less than even in 1989.  The women's tournament's strong ratings and increased visibility, analysts said, could compel more networks and sponsors to take notice. But for now, players and boosters of the sport may have to continue to fight for cash and recognition off the field.  "It’s like anything: There is always an evolution, there’s always a process to go through before equal footing is gained," U.S. coach Jill Ellis told the Guardian earlier this month. "I hate to say money is the driving factor in a lot of things, but this is a very popular sport. Sponsors understand it, the general public understands it, so hopefully the establishment takes note and understands that."


Heartbreak Of 4 Years Ago Haunts Wambach, But ‘That Fuels Our Fire’
(By Steven Goff, Washington Post, 04 July 2015)

The date is seared in Abby Wambach’s mind, a daily cue reminding her and the rest of the U.S. women’s national soccer team of what they missed out on four summers ago in Frankfurt.  “July 17, 2011,” she said pointedly.  Wambach said she does not remember the date of her U.S. debut or first goal, her pro championship with the Washington Freedom a dozen years ago, the two Olympic gold medals or the day she became the greatest international goal scorer. She does, however, remember when the United States lost to Japan in the World Cup final, a match that was decided on penalty kicks after the Americans surrendered leads late in both regulation and extra time. 

Four years on, it still gnaws at her.  “It’s always there, and that is what happens in heartbreak,” Wambach said ahead of Sunday’s championship rematch at sold-out BC Place. “Heartbreak never goes away, but now we have an opportunity.”  It’s an opportunity for the Americans to win their first cup title since 1999 and become the first country to hoist the Women’s World Cup trophy three times. It’s an opportunity to celebrate with thousands of traveling supporters who have trekked across Canada for four weeks and flooded this waterfront city in a swath of red, white and blue.  It’s an opportunity for the current generation of players to shake free of constant comparisons to the 1999 squad.  And in her fourth and final attempt, it’s an opportunity for Wambach to win the only treasure that has evaded her.  “That fuels our fire. That motivates us,” she said of the 2011 setback. “We know what that feels like from four years ago, and it’s not a good feeling.”

Ten days before the World Cup began, Wambach was asked whether she needed a world title to complete her extraordinary portfolio.  “You’re damn right I need it,” she said.  Wambach’s pursuit this year comes in a secondary role. At 35, she is no longer the daily focal point of the U.S. attack. She did start three of the first four matches, scoring the lone goal in the group finale against Nigeria, but those assignments came in large part because Alex Morgan, returning from a knee injury, was not ready to play 90 minutes.  Wambach was a late-game substitute in the round of 16 and quarterfinals. In all likelihood, with Jill Ellis’s squad in rhythm after defeating Germany, Wambach will wait her turn again.

Wambach said she is okay with her place in the squad and doing what best serves the team. It does feel different, she admitted, after starting for a dozen years.  “It’s nerve-wracking. It’s brutal. I’m not saying this because I’m sitting on the bench and not playing, but it’s taking years off my life,” she said. “I now understand why parents say how stressful it is because you don’t have any control about what is going on unless you are on the pitch.”  Ellis met with Wambach several times ahead of the World Cup to discuss the striker’s role. “She has been exemplary,” Ellis said.

As Wambach embraced the new role, her teammates embraced her, knowing it’s the final go-round. Wambach has not announced her retirement from international soccer, but following this tournament, Ellis is preparing to integrate more young players ahead of next year’s Olympics in Brazil.  Wambach’s bond with longtime teammates continues to endure.  “I could play with her with my eyes closed,” said midfielder Carli Lloyd, the team’s leading scorer in this tournament with three goals.  “I always know where she is going to be. I always know what she is thinking. She has been a true leader. We wouldn’t be where we are without her. And I want nothing more than to help her legacy by winning the World Cup. I want to win it for myself and the team, but being her last one, I will do whatever it takes.”

Defeating Japan in the 2012 Olympic final in London softened the World Cup blow a year earlier, but a victory Sunday would turn the page on the 1999 spectacle.  “It’s been a lot of years between ’99 and now, and it’s time,” said defender Christie Rampone, a member of the ’99 squad who, at age 40, is also playing in her last World Cup. “After this game, hopefully we end up on top and it grows the game of soccer. I hope it’s not compared to ’99 anymore. I hope it’s leading on to the next team that wins the World Cup.”

This year, while the Americans (5-0-1) have made continual improvement as the tournament has transpired, Japan has won six consecutive one-goal matches. It secured passage to the final Wednesday on an own goal by England’s Laura Bassett in the dying moments in Edmonton.  The Japanese team will also say goodbye to a revered player, 36-year-old midfielder Homare Sawa, who is in her record sixth World Cup. Like Wambach, she has made periodic starts in this tournament.  “She has had such a storied career. I was so happy she was able to win that 2011 World Cup because she put the team on her back,” Wambach said. “That was their time.”  Maybe, on Sunday, it is the U.S. team’s time.

Indictments Are Just The Start Of FIFA Scrutiny
(By Sally Jenkins, Washington Post, 27 May 2015)
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and other U.S. law enforcement officials launched a sweeping effort to clean up corruption in world soccer that she termed “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” Wednesday, indicting 14 influential figures in the globe’s most popular sport on racketeering and bribery charges.  In a series of remarkable scenes, FBI agents raided international offices in Miami Beach, while Swiss authorities working with the United States escorted some of the game’s highest dignitaries from a five-star hotel in Zurich, where they were meeting, and detained them for extradition.

Officials from the Justice Department, FBI and IRS jointly announced the indictments of nine officials from soccer’s world governing body, known as FIFA, and five sports executives at a news conference at the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York. The 47-count indictment spelled out how $150 million in bribes were allegedly solicited by FIFA officials for vote-rigging to send events to certain countries or steer business to various companies.  Officials emphasized this is just the start of their investigation. Among the subjects of ongoing scrutiny, the law enforcement officials said, are banking institutions through which bribes flowed and sponsors who may have participated in alleged kickback schemes. The indictments contain 75 references to “co-conspirators.”
 “The beautiful game was hijacked,” FBI director James Comey said. “The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world. Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.”  In colorful detail, the indictments described officials at the very top of the game engaging in more than two decades of relentless corruption, including an alleged $10 million bribe to award the 2010 World Cup to South Africa with that government’s cooperation and a FIFA official passing out envelopes stuffed with $40,000 in cash to buy votes in the 2011 FIFA presidential election. It also outlined bribes for lucrative media and marketing rights for World Cup qualifiers and other events. According to Lynch, one FIFA official alone received $10 million in bribes.  U.S. officials said they are working in close cooperation with the office of the Swiss attorney general, which announced its own related though separate criminal investigation into suspicion of money laundering, criminal mismanagement and “unjust enrichment” around FIFA’s controversial awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Swiss authorities seized electronic data and documents from FIFA headquarters in Zurich. 

Rumors of corruption have swirled around the awarding of the World Cup to both countries; last year the Times of London reported to a parliamentary committee that it had information that Russia won the bid partly by giving away artwork from its state collection. A FIFA internal report on the bid process written by former U.S. prosecutor Michael Garcia was suppressed, and Garcia has disavowed FIFA’s summary of his work.  Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich expressed unhappiness with the investigation, calling it “another case of illegal extraterritorial application of U.S. laws” in a statement on the ministry Web site. “We hope this will in no way be used to tarnish the international football organization in general and its decisions.” 
Officials from FIFA, the French abbreviation for Federation Internationale de Football Association, were rousted from their rooms by Swiss agents at the luxurious Baur Au Lac hotel on the banks of the Zurich canal, where they had congregated for their annual meeting. They were taken away in police cars while at least one hotel staffer tried to shield the proceedings by holding up a white bed-linen.  According to U.S. law enforcement, among those in custody were FIFA vice president and executive committee member Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, FIFA vice president and executive committee member Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay, FIFA executive committee member-elect Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, and officials of the Nicaraguan, Venezuelan and Brazilian football organizations. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of racketeering.  IRS criminal investigation chief Richard Weber said at the news conference, in which officials seem to vie for the best sound bite, “This is really the World Cup of fraud.”

The FIFA annual congress is expected to reelect its 79-year-old president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, to a fifth term Friday with little opposition, though Blatter appeared Wednesday to lose the backing of traditional football powerBrazil, which called for the vote to be postponed.  The Swiss-born Blatter has been the head of FIFA since 1998 and wields enormous international influence, given his control over the immensely popular World Cup and its related revenues, which in 2014 amounted to $4 billion. Blatter is not named in the indictments, and U.S. officials declined to comment on whether he is a subject of their ongoing investigation.  Blatter said in a statement that he and FIFA are cooperating with authorities. “As unfortunate as these events are, it should be clear that we welcome the actions and investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football,” it read.
The U.S. indictments allege a pattern of chronic corruption in FIFA that dates back 24 years. Among the charges are that an unnamed FIFA official arranged to pay members $40,000 apiece simply to hear his pitch to become FIFA president in 2011 at a meeting in a Hyatt Regency in Trinidad and Tobago.  The payments were allegedly coordinated by former FIFA vice president Jack Warner, a member from Trinidad and Tobago who resigned in 2011 and is among those indicted. Warner is quoted telling the bribed FIFA members, “There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou. If you’re pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.”  They also allege that Warner collected a bribe for arranging a soccer event by sending a member of his family to Paris to collect a briefcase packed with cash in $10,000 bundles. Warner issued a statement Wednesday denying the charges.

However, at the same time it unsealed the indictments, U.S. law enforcement announced that four individuals and two corporate defendants already have pleaded guilty to charges as part of the investigation. They included Warner’s sons Daryll and Daryan Warner, as well as Brazilian sports marketer Jose Hawilla and former FIFA official Chuck Blazer of the United States.  Blazer’s guilty plea and apparent cooperation with U.S. law enforcement seem to have been the most important building block in the investigation — and will have the largest ramifications for other FIFA officials who have something to fear from the U.S. and Swiss investigations. Blazer was for many years the most powerful American in soccer, a member of the FIFA executive committee from 1996 to 2013 and the former general secretary of CONCACAF, the regional federation of FIFA that oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Blazer admitted to 10 counts of tax evasion, racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. Contained in the information documents against him are descriptions of how bribes were solicited and distributed at the highest committee-member levels of FIFA, including “bulk cash smuggling.”  The Blazer documents describe a $1 million bribe paid by a Moroccan official to a FIFA executive committee member in hopes of securing the 1998 World Cup and a series of bribes to steer media and marketing rights to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.  Blazer was also involved in negotiations to accept bribes from Morocco and South Africa over the 2010 World Cup site.


Abby Wambach: Her Aim Is True
(By Mia Hamm, Time, 16 April 2015)
Hamm, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was twice named FIFA world player of the year

Abby Wambach has always been fearless. Even as a rookie on the U.S. women’s national team, she would score goals that made me say, “Gosh, if she doesn’t win the ball, she’s probably going to get crushed.” She never blinked. If it is what her team needed, it is what she was going to do. How can you not cheer for that?  As Abby has developed into a star, scoring more international goals than any other player in history, she has embraced being a leader. There are times when Abby just throws the team on her back and wills it to victory when that looks almost impossible. Abby is also a great role model for young fans and recently led the charge to get FIFA to use grass for this summer’s Women’s World Cup, as it does for men.

Though she lost the battle, the fight sent a powerful message about equality in sports. Whether inspiring her team on the field or taking on important issues off it, Abby uses her passion and fearlessness to lead by example.  Team USA is poised to do amazing things at the World Cup. While I can’t predict what will happen, I know that under Abby, they will never quit.


Abby Wambach On Making Her Last Chance Count
(By Francesca Trianni, Time, 16 April 2015)

“I have one more opportunity to win a World Cup for my country, I’ve never won one,” says Wambach, a champion American soccer player. “I want to make my country proud. And I know that in 2011 we did but we fell short, we didn’t come home with the World Cup. I know people think we won the World Cup because of that Brazil goal, but didn’t win. And I feel that hurt and the heartbreak every single day.”


U.S. Women Poised To Advance, But Improvements Are Needed
(By Steven Goff, Washington Post, 13 June 2015)

A soccer team is at its best when partnerships are in prime working order.  Three combinations form the spine of the U.S. women’s national team lineup. Through two World Cup matches, though, only the center backs, Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn, are in peak form.  Central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday have put in the work but haven’t passed well or broken down defenses through individual effort. On the front line, Coach Jill Ellis changed starters between games and adjusted personnel during them but is still trying to identify the ideal duo.

The shortfalls have not stricken the U.S. operation. Despite a 0-0 draw with Sweden on Friday, the Americans remain atop Group D with four points heading into the first-round finale Tuesday against Nigeria (one point) in Vancouver.  Only a heavy defeat mixed with the outcome in the other group match — Australia (three points) against Sweden (two) in Edmonton at the same time — could knock the United States out of a top-two position and force the two-time champions to sweat out third-place scenarios.  Two teams in each of the six groups will secure passage to the round of 16 while the third-place finishers will vie for the last four slots.

In every major tournament, the Americans carry the weight of great expectations. When women’s soccer launched in earnest 25 years ago, they’ve never failed to reach the semifinals of a World Cup or Olympics. And upon their arrival in this 24-team competition, they joined Germany, Japan and France as favorites.  Ellis’s squad has conceded only one goal and not lost. But it hasn’t performed to standard either, raising questions about its capability to reach the July 5 final in Vancouver.  Counting a 0-0 draw with South Korea in the final tune-up two weeks ago, the attack has come up empty in two of the past three matches. The forwards have been blanked in all three; left wing Megan Rapinoe (two goals) and right wing Christen Press furnished the scoring in the 3-1 victory over Australia on Monday.  “In the first half, it’s been hard for us to find our rhythm,” said forward Alex Morgan, who has been used off the bench as she seeks to regain form after recovering from a knee injury.  “Once we start to wear teams down in the second half, we become more in control and gain more of a rhythm. It’s been tough in the first half of these first two games.”

Ellis started Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux in the opener, then added Morgan late. In the second outing, she began with Leroux and Press, then inserted Amy Rodriguez, Wambach and Morgan in the second half.  “I don’t think it was as efficient as we needed it to be,” Ellis said of the Leroux-Press partnership. “In terms of quality looks and quality chances, we could have been better and more productive.” 

What’s in store for the Nigeria match? It’s hard to predict. Complicating matters is Morgan’s push for optimum fitness and form. She played 12 minutes in each of the first two matches, but those close to the team do not expect her at full effectiveness anytime soon.  When in top form, Morgan offers a blend of speed, improvisation and finishing touch. She also changes the dynamic of the frontline and offers a greater scoring threat than Leroux, who assisted on Press’s go-ahead goal against Australia but has been generally static.

Wambach remains an aerial warrior. But her lack of pace and mobility holds back team rhythm. And when she had the opportunity to score with her head, she did not finish: Two attempts against Australia glanced wide and a courageous diving bid against Sweden was touched away by the leaping goalkeeper.  Lloyd and Holiday haven’t manufactured many chances, leaving Rapinoe as the primary playmaker from a wide position.

There has been better news in the back. Johnston, 23, was the most polished player on the field Friday, timing tackles, reading the game and imposing a physical presence. Sauerbrunn, primarily a reserve at the previous World Cup and Olympics, was cool under pressure.  “A lot of teams aren’t getting tested as much, and we’re getting tested,” Ellis said. “It’s good for us, it’s good for our younger players. Those are things you hope will pay off later on.”



U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Not At Its Best Before Round-Of-16 Match
(By Steven Goff, Washington Post, 21 June 2015)

The summer solstice drenched this far northern outpost in more than 17 hours of sunlight this weekend, perhaps a symbolic forerunner to brighter days for the U.S. women’s soccer team.  This is not to say the Americans have been swathed in darkness during the World Cup campaign. They did, after all, finish atop a difficult group to remain embedded among the favorites ahead of the knockout stage of this month-long tournament. The next obstacle is upstart Colombia in the round of 16 Monday night at Commonwealth Stadium.  But from the beginning of this adventure, a 3-1 victory over Australia that was more arduous than the final scoreline suggested, the Americans have not looked comfortable with themselves.

They have enjoyed fine moments — a good half here, a scoring spell there, dense defense throughout — but not the complete performance that punctuated much of their 25 years of excellence.  They have gotten by. If not careful, though, they could soon be saying goodbye.  Everything seemed in place for a run to the July 5 final in Vancouver: an emotional wave supplied by thousands of traveling fans, a mostly healthy roster, experience and positional depth. Through the group stage, though, the Americans failed to exhibit special qualities that portend a championship.
Acknowledging their shortfalls, Coach Jill Ellis and the players have leaned on the old cliché that it’s better to be playing best at the end, not the start. Fair enough, but they have made only incremental strides. They’ve been good but not great.  True, their path here was more problematic than Germany, France, Brazil or Japan’s. But they were also outplayed in the first half against Australia before rallying in the second. They sputtered through a scoreless affair with Sweden and cheated defeat thanks to Meghan Klingenberg’s goal-line clearance. Abby Wambach’s volley subdued Nigeria.

Based on history, rankings and reputation, the Americans have the cleanest path among the favorites to reach the semifinals. On paper, Group D, the so-called Group of Death, posed greater threats than the first two rounds of the knockout stage: By defeating Colombia, they would face an inexperienced Chinese side in Friday’s quarterfinal in Ottawa.  The Colombians, who stunned France en route to their first advancement in a major international tournament, are not the slightest bit in awe of their highly decorated opponents. In recent days, they have spoken in bold, confident terms.  American swagger has been more intimidating than their actual play. And because that play is not at full capacity, the U.S. team is bracing for a determined insurgence.  “Colombia is a fantastic team,” Ellis said. “They’ve got a lot of technical players, a lot of special players. It’s a thoughtful transition; they try to pull you apart. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

Ellis’s comments reflect her respect for Colombia’s accomplishments and perhaps restraint about her own underperforming team. She realizes that, despite the massive disparity in program resources and tradition, this is not going to be easy.  Aside from an emboldened foe, the Americans will again confront their own limitations. Through three matches, they have been defined by Hope Solo’s exceptional goalkeeping and Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn’s seamless partnership in central defense; by Megan Rapinoe’s energy and ingenuity on the left wing; by a void of creativity in central midfield; and by a rotating set of five forwards.

Without U.S. nuance and surprise, new ideas and unpredictability, opponents are better prepared, if not fully equipped, for the trial.  The Americans have conceded just one goal but haven’t scored in the run of play since Rapinoe’s late clincher against Australia. Since then, the lone goal came off a set piece on the brink of halftime against Nigeria: Wambach’s leaping one-timer off Rapinoe’s corner kick.

Goal production has been a concern for months now: five scoreless performances in 14 matches since December, an alarming figure given the wealth of attacking riches. The longer they go without scoring or maintaining the lead, the tighter they become. And lesser opponents have seized upon those faults.

The U.S. program has never failed to reach the semifinals of a major tournament: five Olympics and six prior World Cups. And in all likelihood, the second-ranked Americans will break from their shell, cast aside Colombia and China and forge a showdown with the top-ranked Germans in the semis in Montreal next week.  Through hard times, they have always found a way, whether with ruthless domination or late-game persistence (i.e. Wambach’s unfathomable equalizer against Brazil in the quarterfinals four years ago in Germany).  This American squad, though, remains functionally incomplete. And unless Ellis uncovers the answers soon, the World Cup trophy is likely to remain overseas for another four years.


Living In The Shadow Of The 99ers: Why This USWNT Will Never Measure Up
(By Clinton Yates, Washington Post, 25 June 2015)

The players and coaches for this incarnation of the U.S. women’s national soccer team are facing an unfortunate reality: Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.  Ahead of Friday’s match against China, the U.S. squad is under siege from all sides — a far cry from the adoration the Americans received the last time these two teams faced off in a World Cup match in 1999.  Then, of course, the trophy was on the line. That ’99 title-winning squad, led by head coach Tony DiCicco, set the standard for what Americans thought success should look like on the pitch. Now, heading into the quarterfinals, the entire identity of the U.S. team is in question and the group has yet to capture the hearts and minds of fans the way they have in the past — like, say, in 2011, when the final against Japan broke records on Twitter — and we’ve yet to see that memorable moment that we typically associate with a team on a tournament tear.  Why is that, exactly?
First and foremost, there are the ever-present ’99ers and the impossibly high bar they set. On the way to a World Cup title, the casual American soccer fan became accustomed to winning. Olympic Gold medals aside, that hasn’t happened in the World Cup in the 16 years since. And there are plenty of people hanging around from that iconic ’99 team to naysay and tell the current squad exactly what they’re doing wrong.

Tony DiCicco is a television analyst, who has no problem criticizing the current coach, Jill Ellis, during games. The ’99 team’s co-captain Julie Foudy is a soccer analyst for ESPN, as is her teammate from that squad, Kate Markgraf.  Perhaps most notably, there’s Michelle Akers, the U.S. soccer legend who was not only a key member of the ’99 team, but also scored both goals in the 1991 Women’s World Cup final to lead the U.S. over Norway. Monday, she went on SiriusXM FC and laid it all out there.  “What I was thinking about when Tony was talking about the team and how he would play — and he’s frustrated — he invested a lot of his heart and soul, blood sweat and tears, all of that, into that team. And so did I, so did lots of other people,” Akers said after Monday’s U.S. win over Colombia. “So, it’s not just about, hey, Jill said she’s going to do it this way and she’s not, or our team isn’t playing well.  It’s about, that’s me out there. That’s my team.  And so when we struggle, or when, in our opinion, the coach isn’t handling the personnel right… The lineup sucks. The subs are sketchy, we’re not all on the same page. That’s me out there. And I can feel it with Tony, too. He’s taking it personal, you know? That’s our baby out there, too.”

When the best-ever-to-do-it are out there informing the world that the current team simply isn’t doing it right, it’s hard to build momentum with fans. Just as important, if experts don’t like what they’re looking at, the next step is to question their overall strategy.  The U.S. women’s national team heads into Friday’s quarterfinal match against China down two key players.  The Americans have long relied on a style designed to outpace other teams physically, but the rest of the world has caught up using other methods. Comparatively, the U.S. team isn’t that fun to watch anymore.  “But as the rest of the world sheds antiquated notions about women playing soccer and invests more resources into women’s programs, it has given rise to serious national teams in countries with rich footballing cultures,” Caitlin Murray wrote for The Guardian before the tournament started. “Opponents are becoming more technical, more tactically adept and highly sophisticated. Amid a quickly changing landscape, sometimes USA still look to be playing the same game they always have.”
Of course, Akers isn’t buying that as an excuse, and echoes the sentiments of many fans when she says that it shouldn’t matter. “We expect — we know — the U.S. can overpower and be more talented, more physical and be the best team, hands down, on any given day,” she said in the SiriusXM FC interview. “We know, that should be. So to see us struggle again is frustrating. Because why aren’t we? We should be.”  Women’s World Cup President and CEO of the 1999 tournament Marla Messing thinks all of the scrutiny is a good thing, in many regards.  “I think because it was to a large extent brand new [in 1999], to a great majority of the public, there wasn’t a lot to criticize. They were obviously fantastic women, incredibly talented soccer players, intelligent, educated. They were ideal role models,” Messing said Thursday in an interview with The Post. “So as the program’s evolved, I think that the players are the same, but like anything else, because it’s evolved and because it’s become much more established, people feel much more comfortable being critical. I really think that’s more a sign of success than a sign that the current group of players can’t match the standards that the players of ’99 set.”

But this U.S. team is also being hurt by a decline in television exposure. When Fox Sports won the bid to broadcast the World Cup back in 2011, shelling out $425 million for the tournaments through 2022, most of the discussion surrounded the men’s game. But the women’s tournament benefits greatly from being on a family of networks that many people are already watching — and struggles in the shadows. Cross-promotion over channels and platforms is critical for an event that otherwise isn’t drawing a ton of eyeballs. For most, ESPN and ESPN2 are already default sports channels. Nearing two years old, Fox Sports 1 is still unheard of to many and Fox Sports 2 is even farther on the fringe. Just look at the numbers.   “As of February, according to Nielsen, Fox Sports 1 (formerly the Speed Network) was in about 85 million homes (or 73% of households). Fox Sports 2 (once known as Fuel), was in 45 million homes (39% of all households). Compare that to ESPN and ESPN2, both of which are in 94.4 million homes and 81% of all U.S. households with television,” Marketwatch’s Jason Notte explained Tuesday. “Meanwhile, Fox’s sports streaming app, Fox Sports Go, was made available on Apple, Android, Amazon Fire and Windows devices, but still lacks support on devices including Roku, Microsoft’s Xbox One and Blu-ray players that have access to ESPN’s WatchESPN streaming app.”
Pair that lowered visibility with the fact that this year the games are broadcast in prime time, forced to compete with other sporting events and marquee programs. In 2011, the games in Germany amounted to daytime watching here in the United States, timeslots in which there were far fewer top-shelf rivals battling for viewers.  Given the obstacles it has encountered, it’s not exactly the USWNT’s fault that the interest level has been middling this far into the tournament — and the squad likely deserves more. As it gets ready to take on an old rival Friday, there is considerably less fanfare for this group, one of the more maligned U.S women’s teams, than years past. The honeymoon period long ago ended for women’s soccer in the U.S. — whether it returns or not is anyone’s guess.

Former co-captain Foudy actually wondered about that very possibility in the 2013 film “The 99ers.”  “It’s still the most watched soccer match in U.S. history: 40 million [viewers],” she said, referring to the U.S.-China final at the Rose Bowl. “And someone once asked me, ‘Were you pioneers, or was ’99 an anomaly?’ And that question actually has haunted me for a long time. Because we so badly didn’t want to be the only ones. This is going to be the standard that everyone else would then follow with. You think that’s happened?”  Unfortunately, it hasn’t. Not yet.





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