TSG’s Maura Gladys on the intersection of fandom and objectivity after yesterday’s US Women’s World Cup Final loss.
In the end, this whole tournament was about heart. We saw that in yesterday’s championship match, in the semifinals, quarterfinals, and group stage. We saw that in the way teams played with the grace, creativity and fire that can only come from a good heart.
I’d like to say I was heartbroken after yesterday’s match, when the United States fell to Japan in penalty kicks in the World Cup final. But my brand of heartbreak is easy to take when you put it in perspective with the heartbreak that the Japan squad, and its country, is dealing with. And because this tournament was about heart, and heartbreak, there couldn’t have been a more fitting outcome.
Japan had their own perfect match today, almost identical to the one that the USA celebrated a week earlier. Two comebacks, one of them in the dying minutes of the second overtime period, followed by a triumphant penalty kick victory. For anyone other than a United States supporter, this was a classic ending.
But for the U.S., what about Destiny? What about the idea that there was something special about this U.S. team that was going to guide them to a World Cup championship, regardless of on-field factors?
Make no mistake about it, the United States lost this game. They weren’t unjustly carded, weren’t robbed of a win thanks to a bad call. They lost. They dominated much of the game, were ahead, twice, and let Japan back into the game, twice, then failed to convert on three of their four penalty kicks. As sobering as it is, they lost. But it wasn’t without impressive possession play, goals from the present and future of the American attack, and some trade-mark USWNT drama.
“It is pretty clear to most of us that we are not going to see the same Japan team that we saw the last couple of friendlies. They are playing for something bigger and better than the game. When you are playing with so much emotion and so much heart, that’s hard to play against.”- Hope Solo
Whether it was a gut feeling or a calculated move, Pia Sundhage knew that Amy Rodriguez finally had to sit. After five largely ineffective games, Sundhage benched the striker in favor of right winger Megan Rapinoe, allowing Lauren Cheney to start up top. This way, Cheney could drop into the midfield, to morph the team into a 4-5-1, keeping the midfield tight and compact to better deal with Japan’s passing game.
Sundhage’s switch, as always, paid off immediately. Both Cheney and Rapinoe came out strong, serving up balls to teammates and coming close themselves.
Just 20 seconds into the game, Cheney broke through the Japanese defense and barely missed sliding it over to Abby Wambach in the middle.
For the entire first half, the U.S. dictated the pace, pushed forward and created chances, but in a reversion to old habits, failed to finish. Cheney put one just wide in the eighth minute. Rapinoe missed at 12” and clanged one off the post at 18”. Wambach sent up a beautiful shot in the 27th minute, that was headed straight for the back of the net, but knocked off the far edge of the crossbar. Flashbacks of the United States’ warm up match with Mexico, when the United States could not find the net until Lauren Cheney’s stoppage time screamer, began to creep in as the teams went into halftime tied at zero.
After halftime, Lauren Cheney emerged from the tunnel with her right shoe off and a large bag of ice wrapped around her sock. She had suffered an injury during the first half and wouldn’t be able to continue, making way for striker Alex Morgan. It was a switch that quite possibly would have happened eventually anyway, provided less distribution, but more speed.
With each scoreless minute that ticked, Japan’s confidence grew. Their touches were clean, their passes accurate. It was almost like the United States was in a race with the clock to net a goal before Japan’s momentum and confidence reached an unstoppable level.
“The breakthrough at long last.” -Ian Darke
At 69 minutes, Morgan, whom the team has taken to calling Baby Horse, due to her status as the team’s youngest player and her speedy gallop, collected a brilliant long ball from Megan Rapinoe and was off to the races against her defender. After getting a step on her marker, she coolly slotted a low ball past goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori to give the United States a 1-0 lead. The goal was the product of absolutely swarming defense by the United States at the other end of the field when no less than three defenders crowded around striker Yuki Nagasata until she coughed it up, allowing Rapinoe to spring Morgan.
The ten minutes that followed Morgan’s goal was probably the best possession soccer that the United States played all tournament. Armed with the confidence of a one-goal lead, the U.S. made Japan chase, and possessed around them, as Japan fought for its World Cup life. But the Nadeshiko got a reprieve in the 80th minute, when a U.S. defensive blunder put the ball on a silver platter for Aya Miyama.
Pressing forward, Nagasato sent a cross in from the right wing to Karina Maruyama,that was snuffed out by Rachel Buehler, who slid in step with Maruyama. But, in an effort to clear the ball, Buehler turned, while still half on the ground, and booted her clearance right at Ali Krieger. The ball deflected off Krieger, who was racing towards the play, and fell right to Miyama who had a point blank shot at Hope Solo from about six yards out, something she wasn’t about to miss. One all. Despite some good attacks by both teams, regulation would end in a tie.
“If the U.S. ends up winning this, they’re gonna have to bronze that beautiful dome of hers”-Julie Foudy, after Abby Wambach’s go-ahead goal.
After 90 minutes, Sundhage had made just one sub, due to an injury, an uncharacteristic move for the coach, who usually makes at least two subs in the second half, sometimes three. But with Rapinoe already on the field, and A-Rod not a good fit for the current U.S. system, there was no logical switch. Sundhage certainly wasn’t going to sub for Lloyd or Boxx, who had their best game as a midfield partnership. The two bossed the midfield completely for almost an entire World Cup Championship game, plus overtime, a feat that seemed impossible a few weeks ago.
The game continued on a knife-edge for the first overtime. But then, at the 104 minute mark, Alex Morgan found an unmarked Wambach at the top of the six-yard box, and Wambach, what else, headed the ball into the net for the go-ahead goal.
Ok. Stop here. Cue the credits. This is how it’s supposed to end, with Abby Wambach netting the World Cup winning-goal in overtime. This was supposed to be it. Because Abby Wambach has proven that she is special. Her play was stuff of legend this tournament, and for the United States, there’s no more fitting way for this journey to end than with her leading the team into the sunset.
But, unfortunately, Destiny, and Japan, had other plans. Just four minutes from the end of the game, Japan’s iconic leader, Homare Sawa got a foot on a corner kick and directed above Hope Solo’s head into the goal. There would be no overtime glory for Abby Wambach. Instead, it would go to penalty kicks.
“You don’t.” –Pia Sundhage, when asked by ESPN’s Bob Holtzman how to explain the U.S.’s three penalty kick misses.
Given the chance to match their ever-present 1999 predecessors, to win a World Cup final on penalty kicks, the 2011 squad came up short. It wasn’t a choke. It was an unsettling feeling of knowing that Japan had seen their PKs against Brazil, and that goalkeeper Kaihori had studied their body language. Boxx went right, just as she had against Brazil. Lloyd went high. Tobin Heath, who came on as a substitute for Megan Rapinoe was thrust into Rapinoe’s shooting spot, and went left, but not far enough. Once Wambach came up, the hole was too big to climb out of. Solo, despite picking up an injury during overtime, did all she could, saving one spot kick.
There was a tiny, tiny part of me, that couldn’t help but think that maybe the U.S. could climb out of it. Solo would save the last two shots, and Krieger could make hers, sending it to extra kicks. I mean, what tops the Brazil game? A miraculous penalty kick comeback, that’s what. But, once Saki Kumagai’s shot hit the back of the net, that dream died.
“There are really no words. We were so close.” –Abby Wambach
So what happens now? First, the media tries to out-sunny each other with rosy rationalizations of the game’s outcome. Not saying that’s a bad thing, and several writers make very good points. My attempt at it: At least we did better than the Brazillian men’s team at penalty kicks.
But, what about legacy? What about the new story that this squad was writing? Well, it doesn’t end in a fairytale the way we all would have liked. But, it’s still a damn good book.