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.
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 Higher” 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 into 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.
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 State’s 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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Supporters, both male and female, of women’s soccer were quick to offer some snark and stats in response to Benoit’s sexism:
.@Andy_Benoit I can think of plenty of women who'd be better than you at your job, even.— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) June 23, 2015
.@Andy_Benoit still mad a girl beat you at dodgeball in 4th grade?— Brittany Schray (@brittanyschray) June 22, 2015
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.