In Defense Of The United States Women’s National Team

I did not plan on writing anymore about the World Cup, but I feel like I have to.

In the two days since the World Cup has ended, I have been extremely surprised by what I have seen.  Rather than appreciate the fact that the US Women did their nation proud and placed second, an improvement on the last two World Cup performances, the sports media has directed invective toward the USWNT.   ESPN in particular, which pimped the USWNT to no end during the tournament, has been the biggest culprit.

This is not limited to ESPN of course.  The comments on All White Kit, a site that I admire very much, have been extremely negative (not the actual AWK bloggers who have been very fair and astute in their analysis.)  On World Football Daily, Kenny Hassan and his co-host of the day were questioning whether it was sexism that no one is calling the USWNT’s performance a choke. Clearly Kenny and co-host were not actually looking at the sports media, and instead pulling that sexism argument out of thin air.  Bill Archer on Big Soccer also made that exact same argument, again without any basis.

And then there is Jemele Hill of ESPN, a “writer” of such shocking ignorance that she doesn’t know what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution actually says.  Ms. Hill, no doubt trying to be edgy, also used the word choke,  Now to be fair to Ms. Hill, if you go to ESPN for quality commentary, you are bound for disappointment (with the occasional exception*.)

Taking apart a Jemele Hill’s column argument is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Her writing displays nothing except intellectually laziness and woeful ignorance.  I don’t want to pick on her, but her latest misinformed screed uses all the same arguments being circulated by people who should (and should not) know better about why the US women lost.  They did not choke.  Did the pressure get to them?  Maybe, but losing a one goal lead, even it losing it twice is not choking in football.  Choking in football is losing a 4-0 halftime lead in a league match when the title is on the line.  Choking in football is losing a 3-0 halftime lead in the final of the Champions League to a team that would not have even qualified for the next year’s tournament had it not won (oh, no wait, that’s actually Liverpool fighting bravely, not Milan choking.)  And as painful as it is for me to say, choking is losing 4-0 in the Champions League final you are expected to win because your opponent has been hamstrung by suspensions and injuries.  A one goal is extremely tenuous in football.  One error and it’s gone.  Unfortunately for the US, the back line had a bad game and made two very critical errors.  That’s not choking; that’s football.

Ms. Hill’s writes

If the U.S. men’s soccer team had been ranked No. 1 in the world and lost in the World Cup final to a team that hadn’t beaten the Americans in 25 tries, what would we be saying about them in the aftermath?

They choked.

Ms. Hill does not bother to hide her ignorance of the game in the least.  Anyone who knows a damn thing about international football knows that the FIFA rankings mean absolutely nothing.  The rankings are a way of ensuring that teams from the most historically successful teams do not play each other in the early rounds of international tournaments and qualifications.  They are ridiculous.  Right now England is #4.  No one, not even English, believe that England is the 4th best team in the world.  It’s a convoluted system that no one takes seriously.  Even when the US Women were ranked #1, everyone who knew better did not think they were the best team in the world.

As for Japan, it’s not like all 25 of those previous matches came in the months just before this World Cup.  They go back over two decades to when the landscape of women’s football looked far different from how it does now.  See, Ms. Hill what happens is that over time teams improve when they have aspirations of breaking into the elite.  Often this is inspired by not wanting to get beat 22 out of 25 times and drawing the other three.  But Ms. Hill, let me translate this into terminology that you presumably are more familiar with:  The #4 seed beat the #1 seed.  The #4 had beaten the #2 seed in a previous round, thereby becoming the darlings of the tournament.  It happens all the time and everyone talks about the Cinderella side’s spectacular tournament, not the bigger side’s choke.

Actually, except for the No. 1 ranking thing, there’s no need for the hypothetical. That’s essentially what a lot of people said about our men’s national team when it lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final last month despite leading 2-0 in the early going.

Again, you’re wrong.  What people were saying about the US men was not that they choked, but that they were a talentless bunch of hacks who could neither defend nor attack and were coached by a toadying yes-man who plays favorites and lacks tactical acuity.  Not that I ever said that,  Everyone knew going into the Gold Cup final that Mexico were the better side; the shock of the match was that the US took a 2-0 lead.  What people said afterwards was the instead of trying to get a third goal, the US should have bunkered down and defended.  As a result, the US lost the lead 13 minutes later.  No one accused the US of choking, we accused them of having no grasp of basic tactics and going stagnant because of from a manager who had passed his shelf life.

Also, Ms. Hill, the Gold Cup is not the World Cup.  If the US men were to get to the World Cup final, I would be thrilled if they lost on penalties after a hard-fought match.  It would be an incredible improvement.

Yet in the aftermath of Sunday’s thrilling Women’s World Cup finale, most of us seem to be picking up the pompoms instead of taking a critical look at why the U.S. lost to Japan, an inferior team that the Americans dominated for most of the match.

Perhaps it is because Japan were not actually inferior.  The US played a better game, but Japan never gave up, and they were the better side all tournament long.  By your logic the US should have lost to Brazil or France.  Football is not a fair game, and sometimes better sides lose.

From a survey of the coverage and analysis in the mainstream media, you would think the U.S. women’s national team had just accomplished something extraordinary rather than suffer what should be considered a devastating loss.

In the last two World Cups, the US lost in the semifinals.  In 2007, the US suffered its worst loss ever, a 4-0 defeat to Brazil.  US fans still have nightmares about this.  Coming in second is actually an improvement, especially for a program that had been heavily criticized in the months leading up to the World Cup.

Instead, the U.S women are being praised for their gutsiness. Because the match against Japan was the highest-rated soccer telecast ever on an ESPN network and was the most-tweeted-about event in Twitter history, the U.S. women’s World Cup experience is being viewed as a watershed moment for women’s sports.

Ms. Hill, I’m not sure if you knew this, but people don’t actually watch sports because they know the results ahead of time.  They watch the results because they are rooting for their team.  By the way, you may not find this interesting, but one of the biggest Twitter-using countries is Japan.  Although this doesn’t conform to you theory, the people of Japan may have been on Twitter during the match too.

Uh, let’s slow our roll.

Indeed, this was a terrific moment for women’s sports. It proved that female athletes are every bit as capable of captivating millions of sports fans as men.

But the reaction to the U.S. loss doesn’t seem progressive. It feels like stereotypical coddling of female athletes.

It seems patronizing to view the loss to Japan as historical or groundbreaking. The Americans are far too good to be patted on the back and given the we’re-just-happy-you-made-it treatment.

Is it possible, just possible that we can be proud of our team’s performance even if they didn’t win?  Is everything either victory or shame?  Ms. Hill, I hate to tell you this, but other countries play football, they play it well, and they have been playing it for as long if not longer than the US.  The rest of the world has caught up to the US, which gained an advantage from Title IX.  That advantage has come to an end, and unless the US changes its program, the US will not make the final again.  New Zealand gets their first draw ever, and they do a celebratory haka.  Our team gets to the final and barely loses and derided as chokers?  If the US men ever did what the US women did this year, I would be dancing in the streets.

Only a person looking for sexism would see a double standard in being proud of your team.

Keep in mind that the Americans were among the favorites to win the World Cup. Once the host team from Germany — perhaps the biggest favorite — was eliminated and the U.S. took care of Brazil in the quarterfinals, this tournament became the Americans’ to lose.

So why is everyone acting like the U.S. won something?

This isn’t a slight against Japan, an enormous underdog in the World Cup. The Japanese deserve a ton of credit for overcoming constant U.S. pressure on the pitch with a pair of come-from-behind goals. And when you consider that their country is coping with recovery from a devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was heartwarming to see their fans rewarded with the championship.

Not a slight against Japan?  I don’t know any other way to read this?  You flat-out called them inferior.  Basically what you are saying is that if Germany, Brazil, or the United States didn’t win, then it must be some crap team rather than the fourth best team in the world, and a side that has taken the women’s game to stylistic places that no one expected.

You clearly don’t watch football.  If you did, you would know a basic truth that all true fans know through bitter experience: there is no such thing as a guaranteed win, especially in the international game.

But let’s not pretend the U.S. didn’t whiff a huge opportunity. It let Japan hang around for far too long and eventually blew two leads. And other than Abby Wambach, the Americans looked shaken during the penalty kicks to break the 2-2 tie.

If true equality means giving women’s sports the same sort of analysis with which we scrutinize the men, then it shouldn’t be considered crass, unknowledgeable or unpatriotic to suggest or think the USWNT choked.

Male athletes and men’s teams are routinely judged against expectations. For the past month, for example, LeBron James has been vilified for his performance in the NBA Finals.

Some of the criticism directed at LeBron is mean-spirited, but a lot of it is justified. You can’t rationalize his disappearing act in the Finals, even though the Miami Heat came within two wins of the championship. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t form their trio in Miami to finish in second place.

So if James can choke, why can’t the U.S. women, who haven’t won a World Cup since 1999, be considered choke artists, too?

Perhaps the reason that LeBron James has gotten as much criticism as he has gotten has less to do with him losing and more to do with the fact that James had that distasteful spectacle of a show (aided in large part by your own ESPN) in which he ridiculously announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach, squandered all the good will people had toward him (especially in Cleveland), cried racism when he was criticized, made fun of a final round opponent who was very much respected around the country (and who gracious despite that), and generally acted like the pampered jerk that everyone hates in professional athletes.  As far as I know, no one in the women’s game has gone to those extremes.

Bob Bradley, the embattled U.S. men’s soccer coach, has his decisions constantly second-guessed; and U.S. women’s head coach Pia Sundhage should be facing criticism, too, because her team was unable to close out an inferior team. Doesn’t Sundhage deserve some blame for the U.S. team’s seeming inability to match Japan’s incredible will?

Bob Bradley’s team underachieved in a major way at the World Cup, not just according to the expectations of US fans, but also according to the governing body of United States soccer.  That’s why they looked for a replacement.  It was only after they could not come to terms with said replacement, that they kept Bradley.

As for Sundhage, she is facing criticism, but unlike Bradley, she actually won a world title, the 2008 Olympics.  Her record has as US coach has been stellar.  And, as I said before she improved on the US’s prior two World Cup performances.  Although some have blamed her for penalties (and there is a point), the truth is that penalty kicks are as much luck as nerve.  Criticizing a coach for a penalty shoot out is just not fair.

Of course if you actually watched football, Ms. Hill, you would know that.

Oh, and I thought you weren’t trying to take anything away from Japan.

Elevating women’s sports doesn’t always mean being obligated to run amok with praise when women’s teams are defeated. Female athletes already struggle to receive the same recognition and coverage as men, and whatever progress they’ve made is undermined when we pamper women after they lose. It sends the message that female athletes can’t handle scrutiny like men.

I’m not saying the U.S. women deserve extreme criticism. I’m not saying Sundhage should be fired, or that the women’s legacy was somehow hurt by the loss to Japan.

But our expectations of them shouldn’t be lowered just because they’re women.

Actually everything that you are claiming you’re not saying, you’re saying.  In fact you have contradicted yourself so many times in one article that your head must be spinning.  If the US had gone out in the quarterfinals or in the group stage, believe me Pia Sundhage would have been fired the next day.  But she got the US to the final where they unfortunately lost a great match, possibly the greatest the women’s game has ever seen.  There is no shame in that.  It hurts, but it is not shameful.

What there is shame in is lazy thinking and ignorance masquerading as a call for equality.  Ms. Hill, your ignorance of football is shocking for someone writing a column on it, and the thinking you have displayed is incredibly lazy.  But don’t worry, I am not calling your ignorant and lazy because you are a woman.  I’m saying it because your writing is ignorant and lazy.

Footnotes:

* ESPN’s European football site Soccernet has much better writers and commentators, but I consider that separate from ESPN.

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4 responses to “In Defense Of The United States Women’s National Team

  1. Pingback: Criticism for the USWNT? « The World's Sport

  2. Nice work. Of course, saying that Jemele Hill is ignorant and lazy isn’t exactly breaking news. But a good take down nonetheless. I hadn’t actually read the original article because I typically shun Hill’s columns, along with Rick Riley’s. Anyway, I completely agree that much of the criticism has been unjustified. The US finally ran into a team more resilient than they were, and they lost. But they still had a great run, and as you said, losing a one-goal lead to a very good team isn’t exactly a choke job. As you said, it only takes one mistake (or one spectacular play by the opposition or one unlucky bounce) for it to be gone. Unfortunately for the US, it happened twice because of defensive breakdowns. The real problem was not converting their numerous chances in the first half, when they really could have buried Japan. Speaking of which, I’m a little miffed by all the criticism of Pia Sundhage. I know the team lost and all, but shouldn’t she get credit for whatever strategic and tactical moves she made at the outset of the match that led to the US dominating the first half? I mean, it isn’t her fault that her players couldn’t get anything on target. And it seems like the defensive breakdowns were due to poor execution rather than tactical and strategic errors. Also, I’ve saw one of the writers on ESPN (Grantland, technically, which is a spin off) who criticized Hope Solo for not stopping the second goal, which I thought was ridiculous. Watching the tape closely, the ball went off Sawa’s leg and was heading right at Solo’s left hand…but then it ricocheted off Wambach’s hand and into the top of the net. I’m not sure if Solo would have made the save if the ball wasn’t deflected at the last second, but I think she probably would have. But as good as she is, no keeper in the world can be expected to stop a high-speed double deflection at the goal line unless it hits them right in the chest or something.

  3. Thanks for this. The various articles written about how the US team “choked” seem to have been written by persons who only watched the US games (after group play, at that), not the other matches in the tournament, and so assumed that Japan would be a cakewalk–but Japan beat two teams with the same size and skill as the US (one of which was favored to win the whole tournament, both of which were favored to beat Japan) before reaching the championship (and, of course, had to escape group play to be in a position to do so). Yes, the US team made some costly errors, but the errors resulted from the pressure of Japanese players, who also positioned themselves to take advantage of mistakes. Either Germany, Sweden, and the US all conspired to choke against a lesser team–or Japan was good enough to hold its own, exploit opportunities, and continue fighting with poise and determination even when the games seemed out of reach. (Ironically, this is the same thing that many people said about the US vs. Brazil; but they can’t seem to make the connection that the same things could be said about Japan vs. the US.) Casual fans don’t give Japan proper credit: They see Boxx missing a penalty shot rather than Japan’s goalie making an improbably acrobatic and resourceful save with her leg after her hands and body had been beaten.

  4. Pingback: Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 6: Golden Girls | tracingthetree

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