Good Morning Generation

Devastating loss yesterday.  The US women seemed to do everything right, save two distinct moments where they slipped up, and Japan made them pay both times.  I personally won’t dwell on the result much longer than this morning and I generally think that will be the case for most people my age.  What I can’t help but wonder about though is the impact, or perhaps lack of impact, that result will have on a very young generation of female soccer fans.  I personally witnessed the dramatic aftershock of that ’99 team and was almost certain we were about to experience a redux, but can this team now resonate?  Can that loss even come close to inspiring young fans?

I hate to be the one to say it, but the first thing we have to get out of the way is that our team choked yesterday.  Totally choked.  In the most dramatic way possible.  There was no way Japan even deserved to be on the same field as us, given our superior height, athleticism, and history in the sport.  We should have dominated from the start to the finish, and, for the most part, we did just that.  The Japanese were unable to take control of the game from the midfield, as is usually their style, and instead had to control possession behind the midfield line with their defenders in order to achieve any of what they set out to accomplish.  The Americans failed to convert multiple opportunities in the first half, any one of which would no doubt have proven to be the game-winner.  That’s where the choking started, and it was nowhere close to being the point at which it ceased.

The biggest goats yesterday have to be keeper Hope Solo and the American defense, both of which chose the worst possible time to have their worst games of the tournament.  Solo looked anything but confident out there, a feeling which was only reinforced after Japan repeatedly kept breaking through the back line for runs in the second half.  This all culminated in that shocking equalizer late in the game, the result of a failure to clear the ball by the defenders.  In a bizarre series of events, American Ali Krieger actually assisted Miyama’s equalizer.  Totally unforgivable.

Off to overtime where it appeared that Abby Wambach had again bailed the US out for the third consecutive game when she converted a stunning header in the first of two extra periods.  And then, in a total throwback to the ridiculous  fake injury by Brazil’s Erika in the quarterfinals, Hope Solo decided in the second overtime period to fake as if she’d taken a gunshot to the hamstring.  I knew right then and there that we were doomed.  The soccer gods frown upon poor sportsmanship like that.  In the classless move to waste time, Japan set up for the corner that would eventually tie the game and send it to PKs.  Solo of course was caught flat-footed on the play on a shot that didn’t appear to be all that difficult to stop.  Perhaps even more embarrassing was that the Japanese converted on a set piece in which our team likely averaged about four more inches of height to their team.

And finally, in the final act of the choke job, USA coach Pia Sundhage made the baffling decision to start off the penalty kicks in the exact same order as against Brazil to try to win it for the Americans.  Perhaps she had failed to consider that Japan’s goalie was most certainly watching those PKs as the kickers almost always go to the same side, the result of hours of practice perfecting one single “sure thing” shot.  This point was even further rammed down our throat when announcer Julie Foudy made the stunning revelation that one of the American PK shooters revealed to her that before the Brazil shootout, she hadn’t taken a penalty since college and was 0 for 3 in her attempts before that.  Does that seem like a person you want going to the line to decide the freaking World Cup?!  Furthermore, after she was clearly rattled in the Brazil match, did America’s first kicker Shannon Boxx look like she had any hint of the confidence necessary to take the USA’s first kick again?  She of course was stuffed easily by the Japanese keeper after going to the exact same kick she went to twice against Brazil and with that awful momentum from the start, the Japanese of course went on to win it all.

Now, I’m obviously a little bitter and these are most likely just the gripes of a sore loser who really, really wanted to win that match yesterday.  I admit that openly.  However, seriously think about this one thought for the rest of the day.  How crippling was that loss for women’s soccer yesterday?  There is a fledgling women’s league in the United States right now that was no doubt banking on the Americans bringing home the gold.  They were likely hoping it would lead to a surge at their box office as the American heroes could be paraded around on their club teams for the next couple years.  I wouldn’t want to bring my daughter now, if I had one.  How many young female athletes are now going to associate that failure with soccer and choose another sport like basketball or lacrosse?  Am I completely over-analyzing this?

Whatever the impact, I guess I’ll finish it off by saying I feel the most awful for Abby Wambach.  She’s been the face of US soccer for the better part of a decade now and despite winning a gold medal at the Olympics, she’ll likely never win a World Cup as a starter.  She goes down as the Kurt Warner of women’s soccer rather than the Tom Brady.  Huge bummer.

Generation Y, where it’s good to have Heisenberg back in our lives.  Stunning season opener.

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Good Morning Generation

I’ve been attempting to think a lot about the impact of the 1999 US Women’s soccer team, given the recent success of this year’s team.  It’s only natural to compare the two.  One team captured the hearts of a generation of young girls (and secretly boys).  One team is about to capture the hearts of a new generation, should they finish off their dream run with a victory against Japan on Sunday.  But how should we remember the two of them?  What distinguishes the ’99 version from the ’11?

To answer that we’ve got to first figure out what made the 2011 team so popular.

If there’s anything that we first need to admit about the 1999 American squad, the first thing we have to get out of the way is that many of them were very, very attractive.  If that makes me a chauvinistic pig for admitting, so be it.  It’s true.  As a 12-year old boy, I know that my first attraction to that team, before anything ever happened, was that I actually thought I might have a chance with Mia Hamm one day and that we could get married (damn you Nomar!).  I used to stare at pictures of her in SI for Kids and dream about the athletic prowess our children would one day possess.  It also didn’t hurt that having knowledge of the women’s team was the sure-fire number one way to talk to girls at school back then.  My nerdish ability to recall any and all sports statistics and athlete names finally came in handy with the opposite sex.  Women’s soccer ruled!

It of course all culminated in that fateful game against China in the final.  I honestly cannot remember a single game from that tournament other than that. 

And then, Brandie Chastain happened.

So long Mia Hamm!  Matt Corder’s heart had just skipped town as fast as that woman was able to rip her shirt off and reveal her Nike sports bra.  I was in love…again.

My obssession with the team lead to the following three bizarre stories.  First up was a strange autograph-signing session at a soccer field by my house where, along with a good friend of mine, I had to stand idly by and watch as every female classmate of ours got to stand in line and meet the team while we watched from a distance and cursed our parents for making us be boys.  It wasn’t fair!  Why shouldn’t we be allowed to meet the most famous athletes in America?  Next up was an international friendly against Brazil I attended at the old Mile High stadium where, once again, rooting for this team helped me score points with the females at school.  We inevitably ran into by far the best-looking girl at St. Thomas More catholic school and, you guessed, she talked to my buddy and I.  Talked to us! We had found the key to the adolescent female heart and  were sitting on the single greatest secret in the history of innocent middle school crushes.  Lastly, some girl in my little sister’s class was fortunate enough to win a Dreyer’s Ice Cream contest that year and got to hand-pick a select group of girls from school to attend a private soccer camp with none other than Mia Hamm herself, after which they all got to pose for individual photos and get a signed soccer ball.  This event was best remembered for my extreme jealousy of again getting shunned from the festivities and one of my fellow classmates surprising Mia Hamm by accidentally kicking a ball off her face–the number one item of gossip at my school for at least a month.

This new team has carved out quite a different niche, in my humble opinion.  Whereas the old ’99 team was a cultural tour de force on par with the Spice Girls, the ’11 team needs to be remembered as a damn good soccer team.  Abby Wambach doesn’t have the girl-next-door good looks of a Mia Hamm, but I’ll be damned if she doesn’t look like an extraordinarily gifted athlete on the pitch.  This United States has done anything but dominate this tournament, but is it just me or do these other teams look far, far better than the scrub rosters that ’99 team plowed through?  Marta might be the single greatest female athlete alive and the United States was able to survive her “eff you” mode onslaught in order to get this far in the tournament.

I’d of course be remiss if I didn’t mention the obvious attraction many males have found to Hope Solo (count me out) and now, America’s new sports darling Alex Morgan (count me in).  That’s always going to be one of the weirdest aspect of women’s sports, given that a majority of sports fans are males.  What’s important though is that this new version of the team doesn’t have to survive on the sex appeal of its athletes.  This squad tapped into the most American of sports narratives with that improbably header against Brazil.  They’re now in the same conversation with the 1980 US hockey team for greatest American sports victories.  I wrote on this very site that it was one of the five best sporting events I will ever see during my lifetime.  Certainly one of the most satisfying.

If there’s anything to remember about this team, and again I’m walking a dangerous line here, I don’t feel like I’m watching a lesser version of the sport.  Whereas the WNBA kind of pretty much sucks to watch, this soccer team is as exciting and thrilling as the men’s version from only a year ago.  The athletic crosses and finishing headers in the box?  That’s a completely “male” style of play and the women do it far better than our men could ever hope to. 

Soccer is coming people and if the NFL and NBA don’t get their s— together they’ll need to watch out.  It’s not an accident that the two most exciting sporting moments of the last two years have taken place on a soccer field and it’s only going to continue to grow as both sexes continue to perfect their craft.

And, I mean, come on.  How awesome is it going to be to win the freaking World Cup on Sunday?

Generation Y, where Brian Wilson needs to be given his own reality TV show immediately.

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