I love international soccer. I love the passion of it, I love the tournament structures of the men's and women's world cups, and I love seeing a squad of US jerseys take the field and try to do us proud. I love these things despite the fact that my footy fandom is in the minority in the US and that most American sports fans could give a shit if the Stars and Stripes win a weekend friendly, much less a World Cup. Let's be honest - the men's team looks lost on the pitch a great deal of the time. Sure, they've shocked the world a few times in the last decade, but any true fan is always sitting with hope for a miracle when they root on the Yanks in any legit international tourney. (And, honestly, the Gold Cup is not all that legitimate...and even that we managed to blow). The women's team, on the other hand, has been largely dominant. The 1999 World Cup victory in penalties, on American soil, was the pinnacle of that dominance. Indeed, the fact that they hadn't won since then was the true shocker.
For a country full (or really, not full at all) of soccer fans who've been waiting for the sport to take off in this country, the women's team has always carried the most promise, and the most expectation.
And, for those who watched the disasters of the last two Women's World Cups - the first coach initiated, the most recent player initiated - it's fair to say that the women may have been burdened by those expectations. Fair? Unfair? Anyone's guess could be right, but it's gotta weigh on your mind when you take the pitch with the knowledge that your success or failure is being looked to as the barometer for the game's success or failure in your home country.
As a fan, I wanted the team to win, for the sport to continue its growth with a jolt of energy and enthusiasm, and for sponsors to start lining up to support a game that is far more enjoyable than the monotony of a NASCAR race or the tedium of mid-season MLB. So, naturally, I was disappointed on Sunday. But, as an aspiring realist, I'm also acutely aware that the game's success in the US is dependent on so many factors other than the success of the Women's Team in any given tournament, particularly when the Men's Team is consistently getting bounced out of the World Cup's first round of the elimination stage (if that...). So, when the team lost, I feared that the storyline that has been so thoroughly fed to us - that the US Women's team is the best in the world and should never lose, and that their success could mean a huge uptick in interest - would come back to bite the team in the media coverage that followed.
In other words, Cue the Douchebags.
Let me preface this by saying that I think it's totally fair to criticize the manner of the US team's loss. They held two separate one goal leads that should have each iced the game, only to give up absurdly poor equalizers that forced overtime and then the penalty shootout. And then they didn't close in the shootout itself.
But, what I cannot stand, is bullying - and unresearched bullying at that - taking the form of some distorted feminist meme that demands we all treat the US Women's Team the same way we would if they were men: like good for nothing chokers. Because, clearly, they are much more than that to anyone that's been paying attention.
I start with Greg Couch of AOL Fanhouse. Putting aside my gut instinct to just spend a paragraph taking potshots at AOL generally, Mr. Couch's article, entitled "U.S. women's national team deserves serious criticism," is emblamatic of some of the bullshit reporting coming out of various corners of the internet over the past couple days. In the piece, Mr. Couch essentially argues that any pride in the women's team - any refusal to dwell on the epic fail that was their loss - is somehow an indication that we're condescending the team by failing to call them out for the loss. Indeed, taking his cue from President Obama's tweet ("Couldn’t be prouder of the women of the #USWNT after a hard-fought game"), Mr. Couch feels the need to equate the Prez's sentiment with that of a parent patting the head of a 7 year old from whom "you don’t really expect much and don’t want to hurt feelings."
Or maybe its just that some people choose to voice support in defeat, to not point out the obvious - that a higher ranked team got beat by a lower ranked team after crumbling with the lead - when they are debriefing the biggest story in U.S. women's sports since, well, 1999 probably. That's not insulting to the women on the U.S. team - women who I am sure are well aware that they fucked up. It's patriotic and it's optimistic and it's, frankly, a more accurate interpretation of the hard road that the team had to travel just to get to the final. President Obama and all the rest of us have every right to be proud of this team, regardless of the ultimate result in the final, without being told we're somehow condescending these women we so greatly admire.
Another voice in the chorus of douchebags is T.J. Simers, whose headline describes the World Cup loss as "disgraceful." He starts the article with these two sentences, setting the tone for the hyperbolic shite that follows: "In all my years watching futbol, I have never seen a side on the pitch gag as much as the U.S. gals. Talk about just dribbling it away."
COME THE FUCK ON.
The Google tells me that, when not incessantly bitching about the current state of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mr. Simers dabbles here and there with soccer commentary, much of it bitching about David Beckham and the LA Galaxy. Other than that, though, his resume seems utterly devoid of any contact with The Beautiful Game. So forgive me if my initial reaction is to punch him in the face for saying "In all my years of watching futbol" to open his article. Maybe he's a fan, too, I don't know. But, even if he is, all the more reason to call him out for the unsubstantiated drivel that follows.
Ugh. Where to begin.
Well, for starters, Mr. Simers - and to an extent Mr. Couch as well - COMPLETELY gloss over the fact that, while favorites, the U.S. was not so heavily favored to make this a David v. Goliath matchup. When FIFA last did their world rankings in March, Japan ranked 4th. FOURTH. Behind the U.S., Brazil and Germany, each of whom was favored by many columnists and soccer pundits to win the torunament. But, suddenly, moving to Japan in the 4th spot is coming upon an outmatched underdog with no hope of success. Mr. Stimer, Google is a wonderful thing. You can use it to find facts, in addition to that weird fetish porn you're into. #UntrueTJSimersFacts
Sure, the U.S. hadn't lost to Japan in 25 games, and they thoroughly dominated the match in such a way that probably gave the casual fan the impression that the ladies from Japan were simply bad. But, to somehow equate the stellar play of the U.S. team with the alleged poor quality of the Japanese team is simply sloppy reporting. Japan had already beaten Germany, the two-time defending champion and home nation, so any allusion to them being a bad team is stupid. And the reference to history - which includes very dated history of a women's game far less competitive and skilled than it is today, to anyone who has been paying attention - is simply not a fair metric for whether the ultimate result is a disgrace or not.
Listen, I get that this team lost, and lost in a way that can fairly be called "choking." Fine. But, to push aside the success that they had - beating a Brazillian team from behind, and in doing so denying the reigning world player of the year from the elusive World Cup title - is, I think, a really self-satisfying exercise for sports writers who don't much care about soccer and are eager to take any opportunity for cheap shots at the future of the sport in America. After all, for these writers, soccer's success hangs in the balance whenever our national teams take the pitch in a big tournament. The need for real infrastructure and recruitment at all levels of the national game is apparently lost on these guys. All we need is a great moment, and then we're all hooked right? Maybe, but after the magic that was 1999, and the little sustained interest that followed, I tend to think the process is more about baby steps than the need for one big splash to get Americans' attention. Looking at this one game, and concluding that American soccer is going nowhere because the USWNT lost is missing the big picture, and is ignoring the great things to be happy about with respect to the future of the American game.
For the fan that got hooked during either of the past World Cups - last year with the men, or this summer with the women - the key isn't to give them a winner on the international stage, the key is to give them a watchable sport to keep their interest up during the years between these opportunities for international glory. To that end, if a writer really wants to talk about whether the game can maintain American fan interest now that people have cared enough to sit down for a few matches, let's start talking about the infrastructure, about the national pro leagues and make sure that the new fans of the game are actually aware of what else might be out there for them. For guys like TJ Simer, American women's soccer may be on hold until next summer's olympics, but for those that know, by way of example, the WPS will feature a match between the WNY Flash - featuring Brazillian superstar Marta and American Alex Morgan, among others - and the magicJack - featuring American Abby Wambach - Wednesday night in front of a sold out crowd in Rochester and a national TV audience on Fox Soccer Channel. For those that know or care to do a little basic research online, the Beautiful Game is being played every weekend in our own backyards, with some of the most talented and skilled players on the planet, both men and women.
In my eyes, no grand opportunity has been lost, beyond the obvious opportunity win the World Cup itself, with the result on Sunday. Sunday's loss does not spell the end of the U.S. Women's Team's success in international play, nor does it indicate any sort of danger for the future of women's soccer in American generally. Indeed, a 4-seed beating a 1-seed is exactly the kind of parity the sport needs to gain ground on the men's game, both here and abroad. Calling these women chokers, for the sake of some quasi-principled argument, misses the point about why I, and many other soccer fans across this county, are feeling proud of our ladies today. And why I, for one, am excited to keep watching them and giving them the respect they deserve by continuing to be a fan.