The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.

July 6 2015 1:18 PM

The USWNT and Women’s World Cup Have Evolved Eons From 1999, Are Still Being Held Back by FIFA

When the United States stampeded over Japan 5–2 on Sunday to claim the Women’s World Cup trophy for the third time, it was a victory 16 years in the making. The triumph was the first American title since 1999, and Carli Lloyd’s team is rightfully being heralded as the heirs to Brandi Chastain’s legendary championship side.

Unlike the team of Chastain, Mia Hamm, and Julie Foudy, though, this squad—and the rest of the teams at this tournament—did not have to endure the ever-present notion that they were mainly there as a novelty act or political symbol. The fact that the past four weeks have been a celebration of one of the most entertaining spectacles in sports is easy to take for granted. Unlike the past, the main thing now holding the sport back from becoming a global phenomenon closer to par with its male cousin is not a lack of quality competition or fan interest, but FIFA, the sport’s governing body, whose incompetence nearly sabotaged the 2015 World Cup in multiple profound ways—from the field, to the hotel rooms, to the draw.

Still, in spite of FIFA, it’s worth recognizing how far women’s soccer has come since the last U.S. championship. It’s difficult to remember today amid Lloyd’s unbelievable and record-breaking 16-minute hat trick and a game that matched the most goals scored in a final in men’s or women’s World Cup history, but a great deal of the media responded to the U.S. victory in Pasadena not as pure sport.

In the lead-up to that 1999 final, the New York Times devoted an entire story to a debate over whether the U.S. team had successfully blended “athleticism with a sexual presence.” David Letterman dedicated segments to scantily clad photos of the U.S. team in “Late Show” T-shirts with the caption “Soccer Mamas!” The Weekly Standard talked about how the “heart-pounding drama won by the American women on the very last kick, a magnificent victory by skillful, disciplined athletes,” was being ignored for questions of femininity in sports. This magazine, unfortunately, published a piece by Christopher Caldwell that argued “the women's sports craze is a fad [serving] a feminist political end, a fashion end, and a commercial end” and noting that “‘Brandi Chastain’ sounds like a name you'd see on the credits for a hardcore porn film.”

Brandi Chastain of the US celebrates after kicking the winning p
Brandi Chastain of the US celebrates after kicking the winning penalty shot to win the 1999 Women's World Cup final against China, July 10, 1999 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Even the now-iconic image of Chastain ripping off her jersey in celebration of clinching the American victory, which today we rightfully remember as an moment of spontaneous joy by an athlete celebrating the pinnacle of her career, was viewed as controversial (and possibly staged). Katie Couric asked Chastain on the Today show about “some of the mixed signals that little girls may be getting” from the image. Couric followed that up with a question to Foudy about a Sports Illustrated photo she had taken in a bikini.

All of that babble seems like ancient history, but it’s not. “We’re talking about them as athletes, rather than some of the conversations we had in ’99—‘My God, who are these women? They’re kind of hot!’ ” remembered Foudy, now a journalist and one of the sport’s most important analysts, in an interview with the New York Times after Sunday’s game.

Unlike 1999, as Foudy noted, the controversy surrounding this U.S. women’s national team was one over soccer strategy. In the early stages of the tournament, the U.S. women looked like anything but world beaters. Coach Jill Ellis’ tactics of stacking as many strikers as possible on the field and leaving Lloyd to play a less attacking role were roundly and rightfully criticized. But in the quarterfinals Ellis made necessary adjustments, pulling aging captain and all-time leading international goal scorer Abby Wambach from the starting lineup. In the next game, Ellis took things a step further, going to a five midfielder lineup that allowed Lloyd to take center stage in a natural attacking position. Lloyd scored her third goal of the tournament, and the Americans upset Germany 2–0 in the semifinals, dominating all facets of the game against the top-ranked team in the world.

The Americans followed up a total victory with the historic triumph over Japan. It only took three minutes for the Americans to get on the books in the final. It was a shocking start to the game, the kind that can throw contests off balance into a frenzy of goals—and it soon did. Lloyd scored her second two minutes later, and Lauren Holiday added an absolute scorcher of a volley less than 10 minutes after that. If that wasn’t enough, Lloyd capped off the hat trick with a goal from midfield that will be remembered as long as soccer is played. That 16-minute stretch to start the game put the match almost entirely out of reach and was reminiscent of some of the greatest performances the sport has ever seen.

“I would think we would have to be considered one of the best teams there ever was,” Rapinoe correctly noted after the game.

The U.S. legacy, and that of Lloyd, the tournament’s Golden Ball winner, will dominate the conversation around this team in the coming days, rather than questions of femininity and role models.

We didn’t get to this point overnight. As my colleague Josh Levin noted after the U.S. beat Japan in the Olympic final in 2012, the foundation was set by the exciting performances of this U.S. team at that Olympic tournament and in the previous World Cup. “Rather than addressing them as heroes and pioneers and role models, we now talk about the U.S. women like they’re any other athletes,” Levin wrote. “This is what the best sports look like—occasionally uplifting, often infuriating, and always worth watching.”

This Women’s World Cup had all of that. The expanded World Cup field—from 16 to 24 teams—demonstrated the increased quality of play all over the planet. It also allowed for newcomers to the Women’s World Cup from traditional men’s powers to make a name on the world stage. The Netherlands was the prime example of this with stunning goals and a dramatic last-minute equalizer, but cocky, upstart Colombia was another team that showed it is poised to delight fans for years to come. Even Germany’s opening 10–0 romp over Ivory Coast was incredibly fun to watch. And, as in all great sports, the drama extended to the tragic with Laura Bassett’s devastating last-minute own goal in the semifinals.

Aside from a couple of small outlying bloviators, the discussion of this World Cup was rarely derailed from where it belonged: on the pitch. The one problem was that on—and off—that pitch, FIFA still treated players—and fans—as second-class citizens. This was most apparent in the organization’s decision to play all games on turf fields, something that has never happened at the men’s event and inspired a since-abandoned lawsuit against the organization. But it was also apparent in FIFA’s skimping on everything from the prize money, which was a tiny fraction of that at the men’s tournament, to the hotels, which teams were forced to share with their opponents. The excuse that the lower popularity of the event compared with the men’s game—or, alternatively, the relative youth of the sport—necessitated miserliness is a poor one. FIFA has boasted that it would shatter previous attendance records with 1.2 million tickets sold. Sunday’s final, meanwhile, was viewed by an estimated more than 21 million people in the United States, breaking the American record of about 18 million viewers during the 1999 final. Both of these totals, by the way, are more than the highest-ever U.S. total for a men’s final (Sunday's final is also the highest ever viewership for a soccer game in the U.S.).* The average match viewership was strong as well, way up from 2011.

The only remaining pretext for FIFA's disparities is that the sport is just not accepted enough yet across Europe, but even that is wearing thin. While the game didn’t get the attention it deserved in England—with so-so ratings and programming that was consigned to BBC Three—the nation’s first-ever third-place showing and embrace of Laura Bassett shows that the country is poised to take the sport more seriously in four years when the event will be played in a more convenient time zone.

478664632
France versus Germany was one of the most thrilling soccer matches you will ever see. To bad FIFA made it a quarterfinal.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

That tournament, which will be played in France—a nation that is beginning to fully embrace its sterling national team—offers the opportunity for FIFA to right the greatest injustice it perpetrated at this event, namely the draw. Allegedly in order to boost ratings and attendance, the organization jerry-rigged the draw so that the top-three teams in the world all ended up in the same half. This led to France, the most entertaining offensive team at this tournament (do yourself a favor and watch these goals), being forced to play Germany in the quarterfinals. Despite dominating, they lost the match on penalty kicks and were eliminated at an absurdly early stage. The lopsided draw also meant that Germany and the United States—Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, respectively—were made to face off in the semifinals. All of this was an utter debacle from a fan’s and from a player’s standpoint. It would never have stood in the men’s event and shows that, despite how far the women’s game has come, there are still man-made obstacles being placed in its way. With an expected restructuring of FIFA due to take place following the U.S. federal criminal probe against some of its top officials, here’s hoping that it won’t take another 16 years for the next round of basic equality to arrive for the women’s game.

Correction, July 6, 2015: Due to a photo provider error, a caption in this post initially misidentified Alex Morgan as Ali Krieger and Whitney Engen as Kelley O’Hara. This post also mistated that viewership for both the 1999 final and the 2015 final were more than the highest-ever total for any men's game. The 2015 final was, but the 1999 final viewership was slightly below that of last year's World Cup group phase match between the United States and Portugal.

Video Advertisement

July 5 2015 11:02 PM

This Is What a World Cup Champion Looks Like, America

There are so many indelible images from this Women’s World Cup final, from Carli Lloyd celebrating her hat trick, to the American eagle rejoicing after each American goal, to America’s women lifting the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1999. Perhaps most dramatic was 35-year-old all-time leading international goal scorer Abby Wambach, playing in her fourth and likely final Women’s World Cup, celebrating the victory by running to the sidelines to embrace her wife, Sarah Huffman. Here are the iconic images of one of the most entertaining and joyful finals in World Cup history.

479588884_1
Three minutes into the World Cup final, Carli Lloyd celebrates the first of her three goals. It would be one of the greatest World Cup performances in history.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

479589140
Lloyd celebrates her second goal. Nice.

Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

479597294
Lauren Holiday also scored a banger of a goal, and also let out a banger of a celebration.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

479592182
“Are you kidding me, Carli? A World Cup final hat trick ... from midfield?”

Photo by Stuart Franklin/FIFA via Getty Images

479596610
Tobin Heath celebrates capping off the 5–2 victory with a fifth and final goal.

Photo by Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

479593008
Vice President Joe Biden is a fan of all the goals.

Photo by Andy Clark/AFP/Getty Images

479587878
The eagle believed that we would win. The eagle knows all.

Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

479604818
This is what a World Cup medal looks like, specifically Hope Solo's.

Photo by Stuart Franklin/FIFA via Getty Images

479601830
This is what the World Cup trophy looks like.

Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

479604920
This is what a World Cup champion looks like, specifically Kelley O'Hara.

Photo by Mike Hewitt/FIFA via Getty Images

479600704
This is what the best player of the 2015 World Cup, Carli Lloyd, looks like with her Golden Ball trophy.

Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

479604592
This is what the best goalkeeper in the world, Hope Solo, looks like with her Golden Glove trophy.

Photo by Stuart Franklin/FIFA via Getty Images

479604482
This is what a world champion locker room looks like.

Photo by Lars Baron/FIFA via Getty Images

479601706
Abby Wambach. 'Murica.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

July 5 2015 8:44 PM

"Pearl Harbor" Trending on Twitter. This Is Why the U.S. Can't Have Nice Things.

After the United States ran off to a 4-0 lead over Japan in the Women's World Cup final on Sunday, some game-related keywords started to trend on Twitter demonstrating the nationwide interest the U.S. women’s national team had captured. Many of the trends seemed to be fairly innocuous, like #USAvJPN, “Alex Morgan,” “Tobin Heath,” and “Julie Johnston.” But, unfortunately, one of the trends showed why the United States just can’t have nice things—like historically dominant World Cup final performances—without a few knuckleheads screwing things up, when “Pearl Harbor” became one of the top trending topics on Twitter. Some representative Tweets of the same stupid joke getting posted over and over again:

As some noted, the trend was probably amplified by people noting and/or scolding the fact that the trend existed.

Perhaps the best thing to do is forget this ever happened and just rewatch the first 16 minutes of the game.

July 5 2015 7:55 PM

The United States Wins World Cup. Watch the Insane Four-Goal Stretch That Made It Happen.

Update, 9:03 p.m.: After going on one of the greatest 16-minute stretches in American sports history by scoring four quick goals to start the Women’s World Cup final against Japan, the United States wrapped up a comfortable 5-2 victory to claim its third World Cup title in four visits to the final. The Americans also avenged their defeat against the Japanese in the last World Cup final. While they didn’t match Brazil’s 7-1 defeat to Germany from last year’s World Cup semifinals, it was one of the most dominant World Cup final performances—men’s or women’s—in history, matching Brazil’s 5-2 win over Sweden in the 1958 men’s tournament. It was the first American title since the United States beat China on penalties in the 1999 final on home turf.

Original post: Well, that was pretty fun. The United States had the greatest start to a World Cup final in history on Sunday, scoring four goals in 16 minutes. Three of those goals belonged to star midfielder Carli Lloyd, who capped off the hat trick—the fastest in Women’s World Cup history—with an insane chip from midfield to beat Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori. Lloyd’s salivating opening goal came in the third minute with a gorgeous put away of a perfect low cross by Megan Rapinoe, while her second goal came just two minutes later off of another set piece. Lauren Holiday scored the United States’ third goal just two minutes before Lloyd would add the fourth on the midfield chip, and Holiday's flying volley was just as scintillating as Lloyd’s first two. You can watch all four beautiful strikes below.

The Japanese pulled one back on a very solid effort by Yuki Ogimi in the 27th minute to end the United States’ scoreless streak at 539 minutes, just shy of a Women’s World Cup record.* The Americans did let the Japanese battle back from one-goal leads twice in the last Women’s World Cup final in 2011 and ultimately lost that contest on penalty kicks, but four goals (or three goals for that matter) is a whole other kettle of fish, especially coming against a team that had conceded just once the entire tournament prior to the final. After that start, a repeat of last year’s 7-1 German humiliation of Brazil seemed more likely than any sort of completed Japanese comeback. 

Correction, July 6, 12:19 a.m. This post originally misstated the U.S. scoreless defensive streak at the World Cup was 540 minutes.

July 3 2015 12:22 PM

USA v. Japan: These Six U.S. Stars Were Rejected From Youth Teams. It Made Them Great.

Twelve-year-old Morgan Brian sat at the computer at a friend’s house, heart pounding as she went online to find out whether or not she had made Florida’s Olympic Development team. Brian, nicknamed “Plankton” by her teammates, thanks to her tiny size and her feistiness, wanted nothing more than to make the team. She remembers pulling up the list, frantically looking up and down the rows of names. Her name wasn’t there. All ten of her club teammates had made an A, B, or C team—everyone except for Brian.

“I definitely cried. I was so upset, so embarrassed—I remember just feeling like I must be the worst player on my team,” Brian told me before the start of this World Cup. In the summer, her entire team left for Montevallo, Alabama for the regional Olympic Development Program camp. Brian stayed home, but her failure would become her motivation. “It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the hardest I’d ever worked in my life.”

On Sunday, Brian and the U.S. women’s national team will face Japan for the Women’s World Cup title in a rematch of the 2011 World Cup final and the 2012 Olympic final. Brian is not the only U.S. player motivated by early rejection; her story is emblematic of the rest of the team. Five other key American stars described being cut—or not making the cut—at youth levels, and credit their drive to become the best soccer players on the planet to that rejection. The mental toughness that is so often ascribed to the Americans—the mentality that has allowed the Americans to win—is rooted in failure.

After failing to make the ODP team, Brian played constantly—doing two-v-twos on the St. Simon’s, Georgia beach where she grew up, playing pickup with the guys, trampling the crabs that crept out of the marsh as she worked on fundamentals in the driveway. Her best friend, Anna Barrow, remembers Brian’s fanatical training.

After school, Brian insisted they go straight to the field and play until practice. Then they stayed long after practice ended. Brian made Anna work on technical skills—touches, volleys, chest traps. “I didn’t enjoy doing it—but Morgan loved it. She never wanted to stop,” Barrow told me.

morgan_brian
A young Morgan Brian.

Photo courtesy Morgan Brian.

The next year, Brian made the state team—and then the regional team, and then the youth national team. At 22, she is now the youngest member of the full U.S. national team. Playing as a holding midfielder in the semi-final against Germany, she was the connective glue that held the team together.

Playing beside Brian in the midfield was Lauren Holiday. Holiday’s mother, Rita Cheney, remembers her daughter’s reaction when she was cut from the regional team: Holiday went into her bedroom, put a blanket over her head, and listened to Gloria Estefan’s “Reach” on loop: Some dreams live on in time forever/Those dreams, you want with all/Your heart/And I'll do whatever it takes/Follow through with the promise I made/Put it all on the line/What I hoped for at last would be mine.*

“She listened to that song over and over—it was like she had to process what happened…and make sure it would never happen again,” said Cheney. Though one evaluator had told Holiday she would never make it as a Division 1 soccer player, she became UCLA’s leading scorer and the NCAA Division 1 Freshman of the Year. Now, Holiday is a starting center midfielder for the national team.

Kelley O’Hara, who scored the United States' second goal against Germany, also got cut from a regional team. “I was crushed. I found out when I talked to a friend who made it, and she had gotten a call, and I hadn’t—which meant I hadn’t made it,” O’Hara remembered. “There was that sinking feeling. I cried my eyes out. You want something and you don’t get it, it makes you want it even more.”

The next year, when she was called in to play with a youth national team, O’Hara thought it was a prank. “Even my mom thought it was a prank—she was like, ‘I’m going to need some written confirmation.’” Eventually she figured out it was real, that they wanted her. “At that level, it’s perform or don’t get called back in,” O’Hara said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ll be damned if I don’t get called back in the next time.’”

Meghan Klingenberg, the outside back whose goal line clearance against Sweden kept the team in the game, has a yellowed letter of rejection from a youth national team taped to her mirror. “It will never come down,” says Klingenberg. “People said, you’re never going to be able to do it. My stature, my size. As a player, I’m more steady than flashy, I’m never going to stand out. But that email is my reminder that you can persevere against the world.”

Christen Press watched her club teammates make the youth national team; she never got a call up. Press went on to become the top player in college soccer, the leading scorer in Stanford history, and the rookie of the year in the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer league. It wasn’t enough to get her a call up to the full team; this failure played a part in her eventual move to the Swedish league, where she developed new aspects of her game and earned a spot on the national team, ultimately scoring a goal in the World Cup opener against Australia.

Even the team’s top star at this tournament, Carli Lloyd, believes getting cut from the U-21 team was the wake up call that allowed for her success. In 2015, Lloyd is the leader of the U.S. midfield. On Tuesday, Lloyd was player of the match; she scored the first goal and assisted on the second in the 2-0 victory over Germany. Lloyd has scored in three consecutive matches for the U.S.—every round of the knockout phase.

479078600
Carli Lloyd celebrates after assisting on Kelley O'Hara's goal against Germany.

Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Up until the Germany game, many had criticized the U.S. World Cup performance: while they’d managed to come out on top of the Group of Death, they were missing offensive creativity and firepower. Some critics said the U.S. was just not that good, that this was not the USA team of old.

Against Germany, the U.S. players—who are clearly so well-versed individually in proving people wrong—set out to collectively show just how great they are. In the World Cup semi-final, the U.S. not only beat the number one ranked team in the world—they made a statement: they dominated possession, created many offensive chances, and played with a level of conviction previously unseen. And—questions of whether or not she should have remained in the game after a head-to-head collision in the first half aside—Morgan Brian may have been the key piece of the puzzle.

In the United States' second game of the tournament, against Sweden, Brian had started as an outside midfielder but never managed to get very involved. In the next game, against Nigeria, she didn’t get on the field. But when Lauren Holiday was forced to sit out the quarterfinal after acquiring two yellow cards, Brian got a second chance to prove her value, this time playing center mid, the position where she’s most at home.

Against China, she controlled the midfield, orchestrating passes on the offensive end and winning tackles defensively. She played well enough to convince Ellis to alter her formation—going from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1, in order to accommodate all three center midfielders; Lloyd, Holiday, and Brian.

As a holding mid against Germany, Brian connected passes all over the field and dominated defensively: she won 6 tackles and had 10 interceptions. The kid who was once the only one on her club team not chosen for the Florida ODP team is now a breakout star for the national team.

479072724
Morgan Brian's midfield play has been critical for the United States.

Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

In recent years, the idea that we benefit from our failures has seen a surge of interest—from JK Rowling’s Ted talk to Conan O’Brien’s commencement speeches, to the growing number of bestsellers examining the psychology of failure. Overcoming failure is also a classic American storyline.

The U.S. team will look to keep in that tradition on Sunday, when they have the chance to redeem the disappointments of their last three World Cup campaigns. Based on the team’s personal history, it would be wise not to count them out.

Correction, July 3, 2015, 11 p.m.: This article orginally misstated the name of Gloria Estefan’s song "Reach" as "Reach Higher."

July 3 2015 11:10 AM

No, FIFA and Jill Ellis, Team Doctors Are Not Neutral Arbiters of Concussions

The U.S. women’s national team’s 2-0 victory over Germany in the World Cup semifinal on Tuesday was, in many ways, glorious. The Americans passed better, ran faster, and defended more fiercely than they had all tournament, thoroughly outplaying the top-ranked team in the world. Carli Lloyd’s textbook penalty conversion, followed by her assist to Kelley O’Hara for the team’s second goal of the evening, left no doubt that the Americans deserved their win.

But the triumph was bittersweet, thanks to a gruesome cranial collision between American Morgan Brian and German Alexandra Popp in the 28th minute and the medical decision that ensued. With Popp bleeding profusely from her hairline and Brian looking dazed, there was a real possibility that either or both players had suffered a concussion. But after being examined by their respective team doctors for a few minutes, both players continued playing for almost the entire game. (Brian is also expected to play in the final on Sunday.)

This was a bad outcome from a medical perspective. Women are at higher risk of concussion than men, possibly due to the structure of their necks, and soccer is the most dangerous sport for women in terms of brain injuries. Concussions are extremely dangerous both in the short term and in the long term. People with concussions must avoid strenuous activity for days or weeks after the initial jolt, since you’re at higher risk of additional concussions when you’re recovering from a concussion. A second concussion can cause a rare, fatal condition called second impact syndrome. In the long term, repeated knocks to the head are associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which causes memory loss, depression, and dementia.

Diagnosing concussions isn’t easy. It takes up to 15 minutes for a doctor to properly evaluate a player for a concussion by asking her questions about her symptoms. Scientists are at work on a blood test that can objectively diagnose a concussion within a few minutes, but we are still years from having that technology available on the field.

What can change now is the way players, coaches, referees, and doctors respond to head injuries. The problem with soccer is that the rules of the game seem almost uniquely ill suited to the proper evaluation and treatment of concussed players. This is in large part because coaches have only three substitutes per game, and once a player is subbed out, she can’t come back on. In basketball, an injured player can be subbed out, examined, treated, and subbed back in; in soccer, the stakes of removing an athlete from play are much higher.

So coaches are basically incentivized to keep injured players in, so they don’t waste one of their substitutions. Meanwhile, team doctors—who are charged with determining whether players should stay on or come off, based on a very cursory examination—are incentivized to make their bosses happy by keeping the player in. This is not to say that team doctors are bad people or bad doctors; just that their job involves a fundamental conflict of interest. Referees’ top priority, meanwhile, is to keep the game going, and players—well, players have maybe the worst incentives of all. For most of their careers, elite athletes are told to push through pain and discomfort, to subjugate their own needs to the needs of the team, and to win at all costs. As we’ve seen in the NFL, this can be a disaster when players face brain injuries. But you can’t expect players to suddenly prioritize their long-term health over their thirst to win, just because they’ve been hit in the head.

So this is what soccer is up against: No one on the pitch has any incentive to ensure that players who’ve been hit in the head are properly evaluated and treated. The easiest and most effective way to change how head injuries are handled would be to make the desires of coaches, players, refs, and team doctors irrelevant. In an ideal world, there would be an independent, unbiased doctor on site with the authority to order players off the pitch for a thorough evaluation. To avoid interrupting the game too much, and to avoid penalizing the team of the injured player, coaches could be allowed to temporarily put in a substitute player while the injured player is being evaluated. If the player is deemed healthy enough to keep playing, she would be allowed to return to the game; if not, the substitution would be permanent. Either way, the involuntary substitution wouldn’t count as one of a coach’s three regulation-time subs.

But let’s be serious: FIFA is terrible at taking steps to protect players’ safety, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. In the real world, without changing any rules or protocols, is there anything that can be done to protect players?

It would help if coaches—who arguably have the most power in situations where a player is injured—stopped passing the buck. USA coach Jill Ellis and Germany coach Silvia Neid did just that after the collision between Brian and Popp on Tuesday. “I have absolute faith and trust in our medical team to do the right thing. I would never question our doctors,” Ellis told the New York Times’ Jeré Longman. Neid went even further, saying, “If the player says to our doctor she is well, and the doctor can look in her eyes and can verify that, then I don’t know why we need a neutral physician.”

It’s willfully naïve for a coach to believe that a doctor isn’t influenced by his bosses’ and colleagues’ strong desire for a certain outcome—and it’s plain ignorant to believe that a doctor can diagnose a concussion just by looking in a player’s eyes. Given the current rules and regulations of professional soccer, coaches have the most control over what happens after a player gets hit in the head—and they should take responsibility for that decision.

They should also err on the side of safety. It’s not easy to play with 10 women, or to spend a valuable substitution, in order to take a star player off the pitch for a thorough, 10- to 15-minute evaluation—but it’s the right thing to do. And it’s better for a team, in the long run, if the players are healthy and if they know their coach is looking after their best interests.

There is also an obvious role fans can play in changing the soccer culture that brushes off head injuries: Stop praising players for continuing to play after getting hit in the head. On Tuesday night, after both Popp and Brian kept playing following their nasty collision, I saw plenty of tweets commending both players for their toughness. One Fox broadcaster acknowledged Brian “looked like she was concussed,” before immediately praising both women for continuing to play. If, as fans, we care about our favorite players, we need to root for them to come off the field after head impacts. I long for a day when an arena full of USWNT fans chants, “Take her off! Take her off!” for an American player who’s gotten hit in the head—not because they want to stop watching her play, but because they care about her too much to let her keep playing.

July 2 2015 12:31 PM

England’s Response to Laura Bassett’s Own Goal Nightmare Offers Lesson for Men’s Sports

England was eliminated from the Women’s World Cup after losing to Japan 2–1 on Wednesday in the most historically apt way possible for a country famous for tragic exits from major tournaments of its beloved national pastime. But the response to the nightmare end to a dream World Cup from England's fans was heartening and offers a model for how fans should react to similar moments from athletes across genders.

In the second minute of injury time, just seconds away from the game going into two extra time periods, England defender Laura Bassett sent a looping clearance attempt in the direction of her goal and watched as it bounced off of the top bar and over the line to hand Japan the victory and a place in the Women’s World Cup final alongside the United States.

As the English press quickly noted, the heartbreaking circumstances of elimination for England’s women—who were making their first-ever World Cup semifinals appearance—are very much in line with recent experiences for their men's team.

The BBC pointed out that Bassett's despair and tears were reminiscent of England men’s star Paul Gascoigne at the 1990 World Cup after he got a yellow card in the semifinals that would have eliminated him from playing in the final. Gascoigne subsequently was too upset to take a penalty kick in the game's final shootout, which England lost to Germany 4–3. His tears are one of the country’s most iconic sporting images.

The website Eurosport also catalogued England’s long history of late-game trauma in late rounds of major tournaments, bringing up penalty shootout losses in the 1996 European Championships, 1998 World Cup, and 2011 World Cup.

The English public and press, meanwhile, rallied around the England team, and even around Bassett, who received an outpouring of sympathy on Twitter from across the soccer world.

“Laura Bassett, without a shadow of doubt, will go home a hero but we will be there for her. We will stay together and stay strong,” said England coach Mark Sampson. “Laura is one of us, she is one of our team, we get around her, we console her and we tell her how proud we are of her, because without her we wouldn't be in that semifinal.”

The hashtag #ProudofBassett even reportedly trended on Twitter after the own goal, while her teammates showered Bassett with support, one of whom described her as the nation’s “rock.”

“Laura Bassett feels like she has let everyone down but she has given everything for England,” goal-scorer Fara Williams said.

At least one writer, Claire Cohen of the Daily Telegraph, pointed out that the sympathy for Bassett might be part of a sexist double-standard—similar men’s soccer failures have resulted in players being broadly vilified and, in one tragic case, even killed.

But, as Cohen acknowledged, offering empathy for a player who had performed at the top of her game to help her team reach heights it never had before, but then made one bone-headed play that will haunt her the rest of her life, is the right approach for both women athletes and men.

July 1 2015 4:53 PM

FIFA Airs Suggestive Slow-Mo Shot of Hope Solo Hydrating. What Is Wrong With FIFA?

If you turned away from the game for a few seconds during Tuesday night’s glorious 2–0 United States semifinal victory over Germany at the Women’s World Cup, then you may have missed one of the oddest moments of the tournament so far.

With a 1–0 U.S. lead in the 79th minute, the FIFA telecast decided to hold the screen on an 11-second slow-motion replay of star U.S. goalkeeper (and legendary jerk) Hope Solo hydrating and cooling herself with the contents of a water bottle. The apparently necessary slow-motion view, though, made the shot look gratuitously, um, suggestive.

A colleague at Slate wondered if noted women’s rights advocate and disgraced FIFA president Sepp Blatter was in the control room directing the game, while I couldn’t help but be reminded of this 1990s Super Bowl commercial starring Cindy Crawford drinking a Pepsi. Reddit has flagged that some enterprising YouTube user slowed the clip down even further to make it 30 seconds of awkward and ridiculous-looking refreshment, which just emphasizes the absurdity of the FIFA clip.

While it’s fun to laugh off something like this, the apparent focus on a player’s sexuality by an official broadcast—even one subtle enough to be dismissed as a possible mistake—is a disappointing blip in what has otherwise been fine coverage of an exciting, world-class sporting event.

Last year’s World Cup tournament provided a similar opportunity for people to objectify the athletes in that competition, but I can’t recall a telecast lingering on a male player in such a suggestive manner. Also, as Slate's Amanda Hess pointed out at the time, there’s an ugly history of female athletes being appreciated in the media and by the public for their looks and not their skills that makes the objectification of male players far less troubling, if troubling at all. FIFA would be wise to double-check that Blatter is not in the control booth for Sunday’s final. 

 

July 1 2015 8:53 AM

Why Were All the Player Escorts in the USA-Germany Game Girls?

On Tuesday night, a few minutes before the kickoff of the Women’s World Cup semifinal between the U.S. and Germany, the starting players for each side walked onto the pitch accompanied by 22 young children. This intergenerational spectacle is familiar to even casual soccer fans: The children are youth players who’ve been selected as player escorts, and they’re an expected sight at professional soccer games around the world. Their purpose is basically to embody the connection between players and young fans (and to make FIFA look good). “The Youth Programme highlights the importance FIFA places on enabling children to connect with the sport from an early age,” according to a FIFA press release.

Player escorts at men’s games are almost always co-ed, but the player escorts at the USA-Germany game last night were all girls. In fact, the vast majority of player escorts at this year’s World Cup have been girls, which is a shame and a missed opportunity. The message conveyed by the gender imbalance of the player escorts is that only girls should care about the Women’s World Cup. It would obviously be better for the sport and the fans to show that boys care about the Women’s World Cup, too.

FIFA and the Canadian national organizing committee behind the tournament aren’t forthcoming about why most of the player escorts at this year’s World Cup are female. The Youth Programme participants, which also include other, less visible roles, were selected from more than 50 soccer clubs based in and around the six host cities: Edmonton, Moncton, Montréal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.* “Our local venue teams reached out to their various soccer communities (many of which had purchased group tickets to the Competition) in order to fill the roles of Player Escorts, Ball Crew and FIFA Flag Bearers,” explained Richard Scott, the director of communications for the Canada 2015 national organizing committee, in an email. “It is our understanding oftentimes a Club and/or Team would select the participants, such as having one team fill a particular role as they were all attending the game.”

I asked for clarification on what exactly this meant—did FIFA, the local venues, or someone else instruct local organizers to favor girls over boys as player escorts? I have yet to hear back. Regardless of whether the heavily female composition of the player escorts was intentional or simply a reflection of the types of youth teams that bought tickets to the tournament, it’s an unfortunate result.

If the organizers did favor girls on purpose, I’m sure that that decision came from a place of good intentions. It is indeed important to teach girls that they can grow up to play professional sports, if they’re driven and talented enough, and to show them women who have succeeded in careers that have traditionally been male-dominated. And in fields that have been historically controlled by white men, it can sometimes make sense to set aside positions for women or minorities in order to help correct the imbalances of the past.

But the FIFA Youth Programme isn’t an ideal place for girls-only roles. That’s because player escorts’ purpose is largely symbolic: The children are there to look up to professional footballers as a proxy for all the children (and adults) around the world who admire these gifted athletes. In the men’s game, the fact that player escorts are usually boys and girls represents that people of both sexes can and do respect professional male footballers.

The unintentional symbolism of excluding boys from walking out with the women’s national teams is that boys either don’t look up to female soccer players, or that boys shouldn’t look up to women’s soccer players. The latter is, needless to say, a terrible message. The women playing in this year’s World Cup are better athletes than the vast majority of boys and men who play soccer will ever be. If boys care about skill and athleticism, they should look up to Megan Rapinoe and Célia Šašić. And if they don’t currently look up to Rapinoe and Šašić, adults should teach them to! Women’s sports will never get the respect and attention they deserve if boys grow up believing that they needn’t care about female athletes.

Luckily, a glance in the stands indicates that many boys do care about the Women’s World Cup. As a fan watching from home, my favorite part of the tournament has been seeing shots of bleachers occupied by men and boys wrapped in flags and plastered with body paint, cheering themselves hoarse for their women’s national team. I only wish FIFA would catch up with the fans and go find some Canadian boys to walk out with England and Japan today. Because the sight of a young boy literally looking up to a world-class female soccer player would be a powerful symbol of the respect that all soccer fans—male and female—owe the women’s sport. 

Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled Ottawa.

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.

READ MORE STORIES