The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.

June 30 2015 9:15 PM

USA Is Going Back to the Women's World Cup Final for a Record Fourth Time

The United States is going to the World Cup final after beating Germany 2-0 on Tuesday. The No. 2 ranked Americans played their best game of the entire tournament and—despite being saved by a critical non-call in the second half—dominated the world’s top-ranked team. The U.S. will head to its record fourth World Cup final, while the Germans will have to settle for the third-place consolation match and remain stuck on three Women’s World Cup final appearances. The U.S. will also be going for a record third Women's World Cup trophy.

The Americans dominated much of the game, but looked like they were going to concede first after Julie Johnston pulled down injured German midfielder Alexandra Popp in the box in what many thought could have been a red card. Fortunately for the Americans, Johnston—who has been one of the best players for the U.S. at this tournament—was only given a yellow and Germany’s star striker Celia Sasic sent the ensuing penalty kick wide left. The U.S. had even more luck when Alex Morgan was taken down by German defender Annike Krahn just outside the penalty area, and the ref again pointed to the spot. Carli Lloyd buried the penalty for her third goal in as many games to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead and they never looked back.

Lloyd helped put the icing on the cake in the 84th minute, beating a defender in the box and delivering a perfect cross to the streaking Kelley O’Hara, who scored to put the game out of reach.

The U.S. will play the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between England and Japan in the World Cup final on Sunday, which you might recall is the day after Independence Day. Here’s hoping that England wins, so we can beat them again.

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June 30 2015 8:33 PM

The USA-Germany Semifinal Just Proved Why FIFA Needs a Better Concussion Protocol

About 28 minutes into the Women's World Cup semifinal between Germany and the United States on Tuesday, German midfielder Alexandra Popp and American midfielder Morgan Brian competed to head a ball near the U.S. goal area—and they ended up heading each other in a nasty, forceful collision. Both players remained on the ground for several minutes, and though Popp's injury looked worse, thanks to copious blood, Brian looked truly dazed when she finally stood up.

Amazingly—or not so amazingly, if you know anything about the way head injuries are usually handled in professional soccer matches—both players were quickly back on the pitch soon after play continued a few minutes later, Popp's hair streaked with blood, Brian's expression still not looking right, in the words of USWNT alum Julie Foudy. It's too early to know how serious the players' injuries were, but it's obvious that if FIFA had a sane, reasonable concussion protocol, neither would have resumed play so quickly. Unfortunately, nothing is likely to change as long as FIFA continues to get a free pass from its broadcaster, Fox Sports. During halftime, Fox analyst and former Germany player Ariane Hingst said “she looked like she was concussed, but well done by the players to stay on and play.” No, that is the opposite of well done.

June 26 2015 11:47 PM

The U.S. Is Just Two Wins Away from Promised Land after Beating China

People have been hard on the United States at this World Cup. After the U.S. women’s national team defeated Australia 3-1, a cheeky Australian team blogger commented on how sluggish the Americans looked. Earlier this week, Deadspin’s Billy Haisley noted that the team—short on offensive creativity and long on desperately pumping the ball forward to the aging Abby Wambach—needed to “evolve or die.” Haisley, in watching the Americans eke past 10-woman Colombia 2-0 in the last 16, was reminded of Brazil’s tired, uninspired performances at last year’s men’s World Cup before they were ultimately humiliated 7-1 in the semifinals to eventual champions Germany (I had the same thought). In my own incredulous write-up of that Colombia match, I said that the American fans were getting used to these unconvincing wins and the team needed to fix the offense before it was too late.

While one game was never going to provide the necessary longterm evolution Haisley described, the United States showed enough offensive improvement in a 1-0 quarterfinals victory over China on Friday to give the most skeptical fans among us something we haven’t had all tournament: hope.

That hope relied on U.S. coach Jill Ellis being forced to meddle with her line-up in the last eight. In addition to the midfield changes she had to make because of the suspensions of 2015 World Cup star Megan Rapinoe and regular starter Lauren Holiday, Ellis finally did what she had to do and moved all-time U.S. leading scorer Abby Wambach—who has been one of the biggest disappointments at this tournament—to the bench. Wambach’s replacement, Amy Rodriguez, missed some excellent early chances, including an absolute howler on a one-on-one chip attempt in the third minute. But her pace and ability to hold the ball for long stretches in the U.S. attacking third helped establish the tone of the game, which was dominated by the United States from the outset.

While the team wasn’t able to break through in the first half, the way they controlled possession made it only a matter of time before they’d score. Abby Wambach may have helped inspire the breakthrough—and may have found her new, best calling for this team—with a rousing and prophetic halftime prediction that in the "first 10 minutes we get a fucking goal."

Of course in the 51st minute, Carli Lloyd—making her 200th appearance for the United States—scored on a lovely header past the diving Chinese goalkeeper Wang Fei. For Lloyd, who was also responsible for setting up what should have been a goal on that blown opening chance by Rodriguez, it was her second score in as many games and the most important one of the tournament so far for the Americans. It would be the game-winner. While Lloyd’s performance was impressive, she was outshone by the woman who set up that score on Friday: Julie Johnston. The defender has been one of the American standouts at this tournament. In addition to setting up Lloyd’s goal with a beautiful deep ball, she was tenacious both on the defensive end of the ball and in helping to press the Chinese in their own half. Johnston had two of her own scoring opportunities, and generally made life difficult for the Chinese women on every part of the pitch. As U.S. men's national team forward Jozy Altidore put it, Johnston was "beast mode."

Johnston has been one of the anchors of a U.S. defense that hasn’t given up a goal since the first game of the tournament, claiming a Women’s World Cup team record scoreless streak of 423 straight minutes.* Prior to Friday’s slight offensive surge, that defensive line—along with star goalkeeper Hope Solo—have been the main argument for those who wanted to contend that the U.S. could defeat the best teams in the world and claim this title. Ali Krieger, one of the other anchors of that defense, joined Johnston in marauding mode and nearly added her own goal in the second half, drilling an amazing shot from distance that just hit the post.

The United States will need similar pressure to defeat No. 1 ranked Germany, their opponent in the semifinals. The Germans advanced on Friday to the last four by beating an impressive French team 5-4 in a penalty shootout after coming from behind and playing out a 1-1 draw. France, whose flowing attack was one of the most entertaining things about the contest and had been one of the best things to watch at this World Cup, easily deserve to be in the next round. It is only by an intentionally stupid FIFA draw that the Group F winners and world No. 3 ranked team were forced to play the Germans so early in the knockout round—the incompetent soccer governing put two of the best three teams in the same quarter of the bracket in order to goose ratings and ticket sales.

France versus Germany could have easily been a World Cup final and it would have been a worthy one. Let’s hope the same is true of the United States’ next match against the Germans on Tuesday. History bodes well for that—in each of the three previous times the two teams have met at the Women's World Cup, the winner has gone on to claim the title. At this point it seems almost certain that the United States will stave off anything even resembling Brazil’s embarrassment against Germany in last year’s men’s World Cup semifinal. But to do more than that—to overcome the toughest team of this tournament—the Americans will need every bit of creative spark they showed against China, and then some. Then again—with Hope Solo in net—maybe all the Americans will need to do is extend that record scoreless streak for a mere 120 more minutes and hope for the best.

Correction, June 30, 2015, 9:55 p.m.: This post originally misstated that the team claimed a Women's World Cup record scoreless streak.

June 25 2015 6:01 PM

World Cup Jerkwatch: Is Abby Wambach the Greatest Jerk in American Soccer History?

Name: Abby Wambach

Home country: USA

Known for: Captaining, complaining, being hardheaded.

Why she might be a jerk: The U.S. women’s national team won a tough round of 16 World Cup match on Monday, defeating Colombia 2-0 in a game that saw team captain Abby Wambach botch a penalty kick against a third-string goalkeeper and get caught in an offside position for what might have been an easy goal. Instead of being happy to walk away victorious from a game her team could conceivably have lost due to her ineptitude, Wambach publicly theorized that a French referee may have been conspiring against the USWNT when she awarded yellow cards that will force two other U.S. stars to sit in Friday’s quarterfinals (the French team is in the same half of the bracket as the Americans):

I don't know if they were yellows. It seemed like [French referee Stephanie Frappart] was purposefully giving those yellows to maybe players that she knew were sitting on yellows. I don't know if that was just a psychological thing, who knows. Who knows.

The only thing worse than a sore loser is a sore winner. And the only thing worse than a sore winner is a sore winner who blames externalities for dragging down the team while failing to realize that she’s actually the one doing the dragging. Wambach has been slow and bad during this year’s World Cup, and while you can’t blame an athlete for getting old, you can blame her for not realizing it, especially when her self-denial works to the detriment of a team built offensively around her.

Sportsmanship aside, the claim that the ref was out to get the Americans is bogus—the U.S. was awarded two penalty kicks in the game and Colombia had a goalkeeper sent off. Also, it wasn’t the first time at this tournament that Wambach had blamed external factors in a way that distracted from her own poor performance: After missing multiple headers in the team’s first two games, Wambach said she would have scored, but she didn’t want to lay out her body on the artificial turf. (The turf problem is a legitimate issue, and one that arugably indicates sexism at FIFA, given that the men’s World Cup is played on real grass. But when Wambach mentioned it, the time for using it as an excuse had already passed.) Anyway, not only were her conspiratorial comments inartful and lacking self-awareness, they also placed her at risk of her own suspension ahead of the crucial game against China.

Wambach had already left her club team in the lurch earlier this year when she abruptly announced during training camp that she was going to skip the season in order to train for the World Cup. That’s a pretty jerky move, but it would’ve been understandable if Wambach planned to devote all her time to some intense training regimen involving, like, hyperbaric tents and ultramarathoning. Instead, according to the New York Times, Wambach’s World Cup preparation apparently consisted of running around her neighborhood, playing pickup games at the Nike complex in Oregon, and playing golf. This is the training routine of a retired person, and is somewhat comparable to the pre-World Cup activities that saw men’s star Landon Donovan left off of the U.S. men’s World Cup team in 2014.

Wambach has been open about how her “emotional devotion” to soccer declined after her marriage to girlfriend Sarah Huffman. It’s admirable to admit that you’re not as committed to something as you once were. It’s sort of jerky to then keep on doing that same thing anyway, only in a less-capable, more half-assed manner, especially when there are plenty of other qualified players out there who would love an opportunity to play on the world’s biggest stage.

In that same Times article, Wambach portrayed herself as the only player on her team willing to take the big risks needed to be great. “Why do you think I score?” she asked Jeré Longman:

“Because people are a little bit scared,” she said, referring to the pressure. “They’re like: ‘I’m going to pump that ball up to Wambach, see what happens. I don’t want to play this little 5-yard ball, because if I pass it and it gets picked off and we get scored on, then it’s my fault.’ The nerves and stress make people play a little more direct, make them play a little ‘Let’s just pump the ball in there; this is a safer play.’ And I just make stuff happen.”

On Monday, Wambach shanked a penalty kick that she should have made after having blown an earlier scoring opportunity. Sure, Wambach is an all-time great, and sure she scored one goal at this tournament. But these days she most resembles that really loud, annoying, over-the-hill superstar whose mouth writes checks that her abilities can’t cash.

Why she might not be a jerk: If Wambach is a jerk—and I’m not convinced that she is—it’s in a very different manner than the other jerks I’ve featured. When Hope Solo acts like a jerk, she is basically just saying “I am a mess.” When Edwin Okon does it, he’s saying “I am overmatched.” Abby Wambach’s purportedly jerky behavior is basically just her saying “I am an intense competitor who wants to win.” And there are a lot of professional athletes who fit that mold. Perhaps the famous sports jerk she most resembles is the notoriously aggro Kobe Bryant, who, like Wambach, is also getting old and bad and isn’t dealing with it particularly well. The line between “competitor” and “jerk” is thin, and if Wambach’s demeanor seems more annoying now that she’s not as good as she once was, well, at least she’s not going around calling her teammates “Charmin Soft” and gratuitously yelling at Jeremy Lin. Also, to Wambach’s credit, she later apologized for questioning the referee’s integrity, saying “that is something I take ownership of and apologize for because I don't know what the referee is thinking.” Finally, I’d just like to point out that Wambach is responsible for the classic YouTube video “Abby Wambach Hits Guy Carrying Hot Dog.” That might actually be evidence that she is a jerk, but I like to think that Guy Carrying Hot Dog had it coming. Take that, Guy Carrying Hot Dog!

Jerk score: I’ll give her 2 out of 3 for style, based on her teammates' descriptions of her intensely awkward pregame motivational speeches. 1 out of 3 for technique, because no conspiracy theory these days is truly complete without a reference to WTC7. 1 out of 3 for consistency, because a true jerk would have also eaten the guy’s hot dog. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Did I train for the Women’s World Cup by playing golf?” 5 out of 10 for Abby Wambach.

June 23 2015 3:20 PM

The Norwegian Soccer Team’s Timely Response to Sexist Stereotypes

During a women’s World Cup already plagued by gender disparities and run by an organization headed by a noted sexist, Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit decided he had something important to add. The NFL analyst tweeted on Monday night that his personal disinterest in women’s sports spoke to a universal truth.

Benoit Tweets
Screenshot of Andy Benoit's tweets from June 22. They have since been deleted.

Supporters, both male and female, of women’s soccer were quick to offer some snark and stats in response to Benoit’s sexism:

Benoit took down his tweets, and it remains to be seen if Sports Illustrated might reprimand him for his short-sightedness. Unfortunately, his dismissive opinion is merely an echo of what sports media already shouts. It’s not news that the media is way less interested in women’s sports than men’s, but a new report about the stark discrepancy in the type of coverage male and female athletes get is startling. The University of Southern California’s study detailing those discrepancies—called “It’s Dude Time!”—reviews 25 years of women’s sports broadcasting to show how little television coverage has improved over the last quarter-century. The researchers found that “women’s sports are rarely covered, and when female athletes are interviewed in any depth, it’s to portray them as mothers or girlfriends, stressing those roles over their roles as athletes.”

The problem goes beyond just female athletes, with women in sports journalism lacking representation in significant numbers: “In [a] 2014 study, women made up less than 5 percent of sports anchors and 14.4 percent of ancillary sports reporters.” With more female analysts, we’d certainly have a better chance of tackling the sexist culture Benoit represents.  

Professional women’s soccer players are, unfortunately, used to the chorus of doubters. Norway’s national team—which crashed out of the tournament in the last 16 after a 2–1 loss to England on Monday—recently decided to take the naysayers head on. Last week, they released a clip satirizing all the familiar stereotypes about women and sports.

The documentary-style video features mock interviews with star players about their supposed struggles with soccer: The sport is boring, they don’t understand basic rules, and the hottest player had to switch from a team “teeming” with lesbians. Out of desperation, they reached out to Sepp Blatter, asking for changes to the sport to make it easier. But their requests—for a smaller, lighter ball, free throws instead of free kicks, gadgets to help the goalie, and a tee for free kicks—were unmet. This sarcastic takedown of sexist stereotypes is the perfect putdown to common misconceptions.

If you want to see what the Norwegian women’s soccer team is really like, check out this amazing free kick by Maren Mjelde from one of their first games. That should, but probably won’t, persuade Benoit and others like him of their ignorance, but it certainly proves him wrong.

June 22 2015 11:41 PM

Wambach Disappoints Again as the United States Marches Into World Cup Quarterfinals

It was not very convincing, but American fans are getting used to not very convincing. The United States advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals with a 2–0 victory over 10-woman Colombia on Monday after wearing down another inferior opponent despite another mixed-bag first-half team performance and another mediocre showing from star striker Abby Wambach.

The second-ranked Americans will go on to face China for the first time at a World Cup since the 1999 final, when Brandi Chastain buried the penalty kick that clinched the U.S. its last title. 

The U.S. will have to beat the Chinese women without their best player of this tournament, Megan Rapinoe, who will have to sit out the next game after earning her second yellow card of the World Cup. Lauren Holiday, another star American midfield performer in Canada, will also miss out on the next game after receiving her second yellow card of the event on a controversial first-half call.

Even with the two absent midfielders, the United States will be overwhelming favorites against No. 16 China in the next round, with ESPN’s advanced analytics giving them an 88 percent chance to advance. That seems like a reasonable prediction considering the United States hasn’t dropped a match against China in 24 straight games, a streak running back to 2003.

Part of the reason the Americans are so favored is their depth, and coach Jill Ellis has already said that 32-cap midfielder Morgan Brian will replace Holiday. Meanwhile, dangerous, young attacking players Sydney Leroux and Christen Press will both be available to play for Rapinoe should America choose to emphasize a pressing style with an extra forward.

But beating Colombia is not what the U.S. came to this tournament to do—it came to win the entire thing. And despite an impressive defensive run of not having conceded in more than 330 minutes, if and when the United States reach the last four, it will need some more offense.

Looking ahead, past China lies either the top-ranked team in the world and one of the most imposing teams at this World Cup in Germany, or the third-ranked team in the world and one of the teams with the most flair at this tournament in France. Les Bleues have scored nine goals thus far, while the Germans have scored 19 goals. As a reminder, the U.S. has only scored six goals at this entire event. That includes a 0–0 draw with Sweden, a team the Germans demolished 4–1 in their last 16 matchup.

The American offensive woes extended throughout a tough first half in its own round of 16 match, in which upstart Colombia played like the world-beaters it entered claiming to be. The U.S. did have three great early opportunities to score, but second-string Colombian goalkeeper Catalina Perez came up with three huge saves. The first one, a lunging save of a distant blast from the very-fun-to-watch Tobin Heath, should have resulted in a rebound goal, but Wambach's subsequent shot into the back of the net was disallowed after she was caught for an obvious offside.

Wambach’s struggles continued in the second half when, in the 49th minute, she fired a left-footed penalty kick well wide of the mark. Fortunately for the United States, that penalty was set up by an illegal sliding challenge of Alex Morgan in a one-on-one situation—set up by a beautiful long ball from Rapinoe—that Perez sent off.

The Americans were able to play almost the entire second half 11 versus 10, and Colombia, already heavy underdogs, were forced to rely on third-string keeper Stefany Castaño. Despite the team's first-half ineffectualness, America’s well-conditioned attack made it look easy against the 21-year-old from Bogotá, as Ali Krieger slipped in a pass behind the Colombian defense just four minutes after Wambach’s miss, and Morgan calmly finished for her third-ever World Cup goal and first as a starter.*

From there, Rapinoe almost earned another penalty—slaloming through the Colombian penalty area and getting taken down by two defenders—before getting a deserved penalty call minutes later on a hard tackle deep in the area. This time Rapinoe’s efforts were not wasted, and Carli Lloyd buried the penalty with ease.

Despite the win and another impressive defensive display that kept star goalkeeper Hope Solo from having to do much work at all, the United States have still yet to look like the best team in this tournament, never mind like a team that should reach the final in Vancouver one day after Independence Day.

As mentioned, a big part of that has been Wambach’s disappointing performances, which she has at times blamed on the fact that the Cup is being played on turf—a disappointing problem indeed, for which it’s impossible not to impute sexism by FIFA, but one that the better players at this tournament have managed without complaint.

After the game, Wambach seemed again to subtly nod to this poor excuse when discussing why the Americans haven’t been scoring. “Goals don’t come easy for many different reasons so you have to take the goals where you can get them,” she said on Fox Sports.

It might be time to start playing young guns Leroux and Press together—as the team did in its opening 3–1 victory over surprise quarterfinalists Australia—and maybe leave the nation’s 35-year-old all-time-leading scorer to come off the bench if the Americans want to find their offensive spark before it’s too late.

Correction, 2:15 p.m., June 23, 2015: This post originally misstated that a Tobin Heath pass set up Alex Morgan's goal.

June 22 2015 9:03 AM

Who Won the Women’s World Cup of Arm-Folding?

Watching the 2015 Women’s World Cup has been an exciting ride. Viewers got to cheer for more teams than have competed than ever before, including eight debutants. We’ve watched the world’s best female footballers score masterful goals (including two games featuring multiple hat tricks). And we’ve witnessed, once again, the repeated triumph of hundreds of elite athletes turning 90 degrees while folding their arms.

As with their male counterparts last year, the arm-fold is the means by which Women’s World Cup players introduce themselves to the estimated 1 billion people watching around the globe. It's the arm-fold that determines whether a player comes across as the life of the party (like Ecuador’s Denise Pesantes) or as someone who’s dying to get away from a conversation with a mansplainer (like Japan’s Saori Ariyoshi).

For a gesture that takes literally two seconds, a decent arm-fold requires surprisingly precise timing. There’s a fine line between folding your arms too quickly (like Mexico’s Kenti Robles), folding your arms too slowly (like Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala), and folding your arms way too slowly (like Cameroon’s Raissa Feudjio).

In the men’s World Cup, my colleague Dan Kois wrote last year, “The primary issue is where your hands should go.” This remains an open question in this year’s World Cup. Wayward fingers undermine the integrity of the pose for Josée Bélanger of Canada, peeking out from behind her tricep for a distracting second. And Australian Stephanie Catley’s attempt to adjust her hands underneath her arms makes her arms look oddly jiggly, as if made not of rock-hard muscle but of Jell-O.

So the key, clearly, is to be decisive about finger and hand placement. But this still leaves players with lots of choices. Choices like cradling your fists inside your elbows (à la Canada’s Adriana Leon), or shoving your hands, Mary Katherine Gallagher-like, into your armpits (as does Angela Clavijo of Colombia). You could show off all your fingers, like Dzsenifer Marozsán of Germany, or you could present an alluring mystery: Does Tan Ruyin of China even have fingers?!

Even when you nail the technical aspects—timing, sequence, limb placement—there remains a question of attitude. Do you want to fold your arms in a friendly manner, or do you want to use the opportunity to show off what a badass you are? A majority of players in this year’s tournament elect to smile, like Brazil’s Monica, who beams with the satisfaction of a teenager in an after-school special who’s just dissuaded her best friend from trying drugs. But there’s a fine line between Monica's confident smile and the forced, desperate grin of her teammate Luciana, who looks as though she's posing for an elementary school portrait.

To avoid ambiguous signals, some players keep their faces stern. In the best cases, serious expressions convey confidence, competence, and a hint of intimidation, like Wendie Renard of France.

But this tactic can also have unfortunate results, as with Norwegian Ingrid Moe Wold, who looks like a robot learning how to act human, or American Hope Solo, who is flat-out terrifying.

To be fair, not all arm-folding mishaps are a result of players’ actions. England captain Steph Houghton’s arm-fold is most memorable for the cameraperson’s apparent failure to adjust the angle of the camera to fit her height.

So who successfully navigates the rocky shoals of turning to the left and folding one’s arms? American captain Abby Wambach’s experience in the international arena shows in her arm-fold, which is pure, unruffled swagger. And newcomer Cathy Bou Ndjouh of Cameroon leaves no doubts as to her professionalism with her arm-fold, which is powerful and poised.

Some players let their arm-fold convey their sheer joy at being at the World Cup—players like Dutch skipper Mandy van den Berg, who radiates a sense of accomplishment, and Colombian defender Nataly Arias, who shows off a hundred-watt smile worthy of a homecoming queen.

I’m partial to the pithy, self-assured arm-fold of Ji Soyun of South Korea, who resembles nothing so much as a 1950s television superhero.

But even better than these fine examples is the sly, conspiratorial arm-fold of Costa Rica captain Shirley Cruz. Cruz turns and folds her arms as though to say, “You and I both know this is silly, but this is the biggest women’s sporting event in the world. Let’s try to make the most of it, shall we?” Shirley Cruz wins the Women’s World Cup of Arm-Folding.

June 21 2015 12:02 PM

Why You Should Root for Cocky, Upstart Colombia Against the USA at the World Cup

Colombia faces the United States on Monday, which is enough of a reason to shut down any good vibes American fans would want to send toward this year’s most entertaining upstart World Cup squad. Plus, there’s also the punch. When America played Colombia at the 2012 London Olympics, Colombia’s Lady Andrade ran up toward Abby Wambach from behind and punched her in the eye. Plucky, lovable underdogs aren’t supposed to inflict bodily pain on American soccer luminaries.    

But I can’t help but root for Colombian success when the two teams square off again in the Round of 16. I don’t want to sound un-American or unpatriotic. But watching absurd amounts of college basketball every March for the last 20 years has conditioned me to support underdogs, and to at least crave a competitive performance even when Cinderella squares off against my favorite team. No. 28-ranked Colombia has the feel of a great underdog. It already sprang the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history by beating No. 3 France, surviving and advancing in a sporting event where Cinderella rarely even attends the ball much less gets to dance.

Historically, you haven’t needed to know much about women’s soccer to predict with decent accuracy who would advance to the knockout stages. Just pick wealthy countries and a handful of very large, less wealthy countries. And never pick a non-Brazilian Latin American team to advance.

From 1991 to 2011, 17 different countries reached knockout round stages, which until this year’s tournament had featured eight teams. Only five of them had a per capita GDP outside of the world’s top 50 (Brazil, Nigeria, Russia, North Korea and China).

In the men’s Cup, we’re used to deep tournament runs by Latin American countries. Four of them made the quarterfinals last year, including Colombia. Becoming the first Latin American women’s team aside from Brazil to reach the second stage of the women’s Cup makes Colombia an ultimate underdog. Not only is the team breaking that barrier, the country is also one of the least wealthy countries left in the tournament, ranked 73rd in per capita GDP by the IMF.

Like all good underdogs, the team also has a cool factor. Its star player this tournament, Andrade, has bypassed the saccharine, aw-shucks attitude of “Rudy”-style underdogs for a swagger befitting our favorite modern underdogs, like Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” crew. She predicted a 1-0 or 2-1 victory against the U.S., telling USA Today, “We’re going to beat them since they like to talk so much.” Colombia also has the best nicknames, Las Chicas Superpoderosas and Las Cafeteras, which translate to the Powerpuff Girls and the Coffee Makers or Coffee Machines. Who doesn’t love coffee and cartoons?

Las Cafeteras began their late foray into major international tournaments in 1998 (making them the least experienced team of any country in this year’s knockout round) and started to show that they would become a factor in international play seven years ago when they took first place in the 2008 South American U-17 Women’s Championship. The development transferred to the highest level, with a berth in the 2011 Women’s World Cup. 

Slights against women’s soccer are common everywhere, including here in the United States and in other countries with top teams, like Norway. Hell, FIFA is systematically discriminating against women every time one of them steps on the artificial turf fields of this Cup. This lack of respect is arguably deeper in Latin America, including, as of at least four years ago, in Colombia.

In 2011, John Turnbull wrote in The New York Times from Popayan, Colombia, of a country ambivalent at best about its presence in that World Cup. He asked soccer fan after soccer fan if they had heard of the team’s hyped midfielder Yoreli Rincón. Nobody had. Liliana Zapata, a former national team member, also described intimidation from men and older women who discouraged women from playing and described female soccer players using a derogatory term for “masculine” women.

Progress is happening, if only slightly. The Colombian Federation spent a total of about $2.7 million on Las Cafeteras from 2011 to 2014. The number sounds adequate until you realize it’s only 5 percent of the Colombian federation’s total budget. The men’s national team got 72 percent of it. In America, for fiscal year 2012-13, the women’s national team’s expenses were about $9.5 million, not too far behind $12.8 million of the men’s team. If this were the NCAA Tournament and based on finances, the USWNT would be the University of Florida; Colombia would be McNeese State.    

In a sense, the American women are underdogs every time, too, fighting to live up to high expectations and to attract enough interest to keep a professional league alive. They’re also a reason why the rest of the world has invested in women’s soccer. Everybody wants to gun for the USWNT. Countries like Colombia, which didn’t have a real women’s national team 20 years ago, are starting to legitimately compete as the tournament has expanded in size to accommodate them and their fans. Against England—a country with one of the oldest traditions of women’s soccer—in the team’s final group play game, Colombia supporters reportedly constituted the vast majority of the crowd

Colombia represents a future every women’s soccer fan should cheer for, even if as an American you’d prefer its last-second, Cinderella shot clank off the United States goalpost this time around. 

June 17 2015 3:19 PM

Meet Nigeria’s Handshake-Snubbing, No-Scouting, All-Praying Embarrassment of a Coach

Name: Edwin Okon

Home country: Nigeria

Known for: Coaching, snubbing, underpreparation

Why he might be a jerk: There are two basic rules that every professional soccer coach must follow: 1) Bring your own whistle, and 2) Win or lose, shake hands with the opposing coach after the game. While it’s very possible that Nigeria soccer coach Edwin Okon observes flawless whistle etiquette, he definitely needs to brush up on the second rule. After Nigeria lost to the United States 1–0 in a Group D Women’s World Cup match Tuesday night, Okon apparently refused to shake hands with American coach Jill Ellis, who approached Okon with her hand outstretched, only to be denied as Okon rose slowly from his seat while shaking his head “No.”

Maybe the video was just shot at a bad angle, and Okon was actually shaking his head “Yes”? Unlikely. After the game, Ellis confirmed that she had been snubbed:

The bench personnel shook my hand and the coach, I said, “You're not going to shake my hand?” He said, “No.” He kind of put his hand out a little bit, but that's his call, not mine.

Okon seems to make a lot of questionable calls. His team is wildly talented, and star forward Asisat Oshoala was recently named Women’s Footballer of the Year by the BBC. Yet Nigeria failed to win a match in this World Cup, and that probably has at least something to do with Okon’s commitment to overworking and underpreparing his players. Okon made zero substitutions during Nigeria’s 3–3 draw against Sweden, telling the press, “We did not make any substitutions and that is because the girl[s] are fit.” Fit, tired, call it what you want: Nigeria didn’t score again in the tournament.

The coach is not popular on soccer message boards, where his stewardship of the Nigerian national team has been compared with “a race car being driven by an old lady,” and where one vitriolic poster has dubbed him “that illiterate fat bellied no technical input no scouting all praying embarrassing coach.” This is unfair to Okon: I refuse to believe that the coach is illiterate. The “no scouting” bit is apparently true, though. Okon has repeatedly claimed that he doesn’t bother scouting the opposing teams.

“I’m a complete grassroots coach, and it’s always been a part of my philosophy,” he announced in December. “I don’t need to scout any team to take them on.” In a press conference on June 7 preceding Nigeria’s opening match against Sweden, Okon baffled a room of journalists by claiming that he knew nothing about the Swedish squad. I would not be surprised if Okon’s car sports a bumper sticker reading “God is my advance scout.” The coach is known for his demonstrative religiosity, dropping to his knees and touching his head to the turf in prayer every time his team scores a goal. “The Nigerian team is a praying team,” Okon informed the media after the Sweden match. In an April interview, Okon said, “God is here. He is the greatest player. He plays for the Super Falcons. Every match I call on him to help. He never disappoints. At the end of the day, success will always be ours.” And now Nigeria is out of the World Cup without having won a single match. So does that make God the jerk, or Okon? You tell me.

Why he might not be a jerk: I’m not sure if Okon is a jerk so much as he’s maybe just not as polished as we expect big-time coaches to be. His apparent refusal to shake Ellis’ hand was preceded by two other postgame sore-loser moments: After the Sweden match, Okon told the press that Sweden had scored two cheap goals, and after losing to Australia 2–0, Okon announced that he was unhappy with the officiating. These actions and statements come across as unsporting or at least impolitic. But you could make the argument that it’s better to have a coach who speaks his mind rather than simply resorting to uninformative platitudes. I’m sure that every coach thinks these sorts of things after his team loses a close match, but he never says them. Doesn’t that make them the jerks? No, probably not. But, still, Okon is entertaining—and it might be worth noting that when Okon eventually did make a substitution midway through Nigeria’s second match, the substitute player promptly elbowed an Australian forward in the jaw and ended up with a three-game suspension. Maybe Okon knows what he’s doing, after all.

Jerk score: I’m going to give him 2.5 out of 3 for style, entirely on the merits of the oddly brimmed hat he is wearing in this video clip. 1 out of 3 for technique, because a real jerk would have extended his own hand in response to Ellis, only to pull it away at the last second while screaming “Psych! Psych! Psych!” 2 out of 3 for consistency, because while Okon does drop to his knees without fail after every goal, he also eventually gets up. And 0 out of 1 in the category of “Is he a bigger jerk than Bill Belichick?” 5.5 for Edwin Okon.

June 17 2015 1:59 AM

The Cinderella Super Falcons Were Really Fun to Watch, but the USWNT Is Just Too Good

A 2013 Adidas video provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala: The teenager washed her face, made a breakfast of four raw eggs, and headed out on the roof to juggle the ball, surrounded by corrugated tin homes, mildewed concrete, clothes lines, and satellite dishes.

“I play football for a living,” narrates Oshoala as she heads to training. On the team bus—FC Robo decal and soccer ball on the hood—the players are joyful, raucous. “I love my teammates very much. We joke together, eat together, dance together, sing together, do everything together,” says Oshoala.

When the team bus breaks down, they get out and push it along the freeway, still smiling. At training, on a dirt field beneath a highway overpass, they jump over upright tires. On a Lagos beach, they do sprints in the sand, running past electrical towers. At game time, with a handful of fans watching, Oshoala does a scissors move in the dirt, scores a goal, and leads her team in a celebration.

Nigeria’s star player and her story are representative of the sort of team the United States was up against in their World Cup Group D finale on Tuesday: a plucky and desperate underdog with an incredible amount of talent and even greater love for the game. Unfortunately for Oshoala and her Super Falcons, though, they were facing one of the world’s few soccer superpowers. The United States ultimately triumphed 1–0 over Nigeria—playing for much of the second half with just 10 women—to claim the top spot in the group and highest possible seeding they could have earned in the knockout round.

As the Americans continue their effort to claim a third World Cup title, Oshoala and Nigeria will now go home. But after another hard-luck tournament for the African champions, it’s worth reflecting on what the success of Oshoala and her team mean for the sport that needs as much support in as many nations as possible to grow to its potential.

Nigeria’s women’s league has been around for more than a decade. According to the BBC, players receive a signing fee ranging from $800 to $2,500, and they make a monthly wage between $50 and $200. Players are able to make a modest living off the game, which allows women like Oshoala to chase their dreams.

Nigeria’s league is, as the BBC describes it, “a pacesetter for the continent.” This support at the league level translates into success for the national team: They have won the African Championship nine of 11 times. In 2014, at the U-20 World Cup, Nigeria lost in extra time to Germany in the final. Oshoala was the leading scorer and MVP of the tournament. She’d go on to become the first African player in the women’s English Premier League and was named the BBC Women's Footballer of the Year this season.

In spite of the continental dominance and impressive results at the youth level, in the senior World Cup success has eluded the Nigerians. While they’ve qualified for every tournament since 1991, they’ve only made it out of group stage once—losing a 4–3 extra time heartbreaker to Brazil in the 1999 quarterfinals after having fought back from a 3–0 deficit.

In Nigeria, the women’s game is growing and attracting more and more fans, and a successful run at the world’s greatest event could have had a huge impact. “We want to show girls and young women in Nigeria what is possible,” Oshoala told USA Today.

In 2015, while the Nigerian side is probably its most talented ever, the team found themselves—for the third time—in the Group of Death, facing three teams ranked in the top 10 in the world.

Faced with Sweden, the No. 5 team in the world, in their opener, Nigeria came back from a 2–0 deficit to tie 3–3. When Oshoala scored the equalizer, the Nigerian sideline went mad—players leaping and rejoicing, two coaches kissing the ground. But the tie against Sweden was Nigeria’s tournament high point. In their second game against Australia, they looked nowhere near as good and lost 2–0.

Against the mighty Americans, the underdog story came to an end. In the 24th minute, Oshoala had her best opportunity with a head-to-head chance against Hope Solo after a gorgeous run, but Julie Johnston’s lunging slide caught her from behind and deflected her shot wide.

Throughout the course of the game, the Nigerians were overpowered by a United States team who looked entirely in control—confident and in sync, playing with a fluidity and conviction they’d lacked in the previous two group matches.

That’s not to say the U.S. was brimming with offensive firepower. The team only had a handful of good chances: In the eighth minute Johnston scored a goal that was ruled offside. Alex Morgan—who started her first game of this World Cup—created a few dangerous chances, and Abby Wambach ultimately found the game winner in the last play of the first half—a flying volley for her 183rd international goal.

But after the 62nd minute, when Ali Krieger’s through ball to Morgan forced Nigerian goalkeeper Precious Dede to come up big, the U.S. offense dried up. Even when Nigeria went down to 10 women after defender Sarah Nnodim was ejected in the 69th minute, there was no U.S. bombardment on the Nigerian goal.

Still, their play grew steadily more convincing as the game went on. Fox announcer Tony DiCicco likes to refer to this as “the U.S. trap”: During the course of the game, the Americans subtly raise their level, until the other team is unable to hang.

Thus far, “the U.S. trap” is also operating at a tournament level—the American side is getting better with each game. With the prospect of facing another difficult opponent in the round of 16—a third-place group stage finisher that could include impressive 2015 sides such as Costa Rica or Colombia, or true powerhouses like England or France—that trend will need to continue.

As for Oshoala and the young Nigerian team, all the hope, all the effort, has ended. They’ve got four more years before they try once more to change history. 

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