Sentimments on a sensational, dramatic final, on the ascending quality of women's soccer and on one particular word that really needs to be retired from the sports writing lexicon:
1. What a superb final. As we all know, caution rules and expectations rise in championship deciders and the matches rarely deliver what we would call, on and around July 4 fireworks period, the “big finish.” As punctuation, these are usual more “period” than “exclamation point.”
The U.S.-Japan delivered like FedEx. And how. Heartening story lines abounded, the bigger one on Japan’s side. The game had goals, two comebacks, added time, tension you could get out and walk on and then the body blow of penalty kicks. ESPN’s excellent Ian Darke said it best: This match ruined anybody’s attempt to enjoy a relaxing Sunday afternoon.
About that one presiding storyline: If we’re honest, every Olympic event and World Cup is wrought with tired rhetoric from media and participants about winning for folks back home. Generally speaking, athletes at this level are highly motivated; they play to win for themselves, for each other and then, perhaps to some extent, for national pride. That should be enough on its own, but somehow we prefer to stretch the truth to up the emotional ante. In this case, however, I think Japanese motivation was truly hard-wired into desire to help mend an aching homeland.
It had something else, too, which made the match (and the entire tournament) enjoyable …
2. The quality of women’s soccer just keeps rising. These matches on the whole were top shelf in technical ability and tactical acumen when held against the well quality of 1999. (I didn’t watch the 1995 or 1991 tournaments, so I can’t go back further in the comparison. Curse my pitiful desire in the early 1990s to actually make a good living as a sports writer rather than scratch out a living as a soccer writer!)
The highly technical French and Japanese sides played a brilliant brand. Brazil always has. The United States shoved its way into Sunday’s final through desire and timely goals, but did add a better possession element in Frankfurt. (Oh, and speaking of quality on Sunday … a quick ‘atta girl to German referee Bibiana Steinhaus for flawless management of a final. She certainly could teach male counterparts a thing or two.)
And can we talk about a tourney full of stunning goals? Erika’s effort against Equatorial New Guinea made me shout out loud. Brazilian teammate Rosana netted an absolute beauty against Australia. Nahomi Kawasumi’s audacious long ranger for Japan against Sweden was a dandy. So was Gaetane Thiney's strike from distance against Canada. I could go on, but you get it.
3. A word about this “choke” notion at the U.S. side. Generally, I just truly detest the word “choke” in sports writing. It’s usually a tool of the lazy and the simple-minded. You take the high ground by tossing the “choke” card and then abdicate any responsibility for further analysis. Now, in all honesty, I don’t think many truly informed sources have written or said this. Some columns suggest perhaps they have, but I tried hard and could only find a few instances, mostly from fringe media ninnies. (And the Twitter thing, but that’s a different animal, one that clearly shouldn’t be fed after midnight, if you know what I’m sayin’.) Still, let’s take this dog of notion out behind the wood shed and put it down:
Losing a one-goal lead is neither perfect nor pleasant. Losing it twice is tougher to swallow, still. But let’s credit Japan’s resilience while we point to U.S. defensive flaws that we all noticed – but kept fingers crossed that Sundhage and Co. could hide for one more match. And let’s have a discussion about Shannon Boxx, who looked gassed. Did anybody notice that Boxx was laboring to move into supporting positions when the U.S. fullbacks held possession late Sunday? In my opinion, that contributed to a turnover that led to one of Japan’s goals. So, how about we toss that around the table? Or, how about U.S. coach Pia Sundhage leaving one sub in her pocket through 120 grueling minutes?
Are we perhaps not talking enough about all those missed chances in the first 20-30 minutes? Can we just dig a little deeper to dissect a bevy of bad choices near Japanese goal, and how that came about?
Now, those penalty kicks were something different. It was a poor, poor round of spot shots for the Americans. But, again, I just hate to reduce so much to one word (“choke”). Was Japan more relaxed, able to step to the spot with a better mindset? It appeared so. Again, let’s have a discussion about the choice to have Boxx, who missed her PK last week (but was allowed to retake), step up first once again. I would have shaken up the order, at least. How could she possibly approach the critical moment with a 100 percent positive mindset in such a familiar scenario?
Did the Americans, during pre-match prep, discuss changing their individual MOs on PKs? After all, Japan had seen the U.S. shooters once, which is a significant scouting advantage.
You may agree or disagree with any of these thoughts; my point is that we can have the discussion. But to wave the wand of “choke” and then just check out … that’s just lame in my opinion, a tactic left to the goofballs who don’t know the game but like to seem like they do.
All in all, none of it should detract from a humdinger of a tournament, capped by a great match won by a deserving champion.