What the USA vs Brazil Soccer game means for women's sports (at least read PART ONE even if you normally skip my sports posts!)

I cannot adequately describe the impact of Sunday's Women's World Cup quarterfinal game (USA vs Brazil) without first establishing the foundation of women's sports in the U.S. and the history of our country's meager interest in this largely international sport. Therefore, this post will be a two-part post: first to give some background and then to address this undeniably amazing game. If you're not a sports-minded soul, like myself, at least read part one, especially if you have any investment in women's roles in sports or if you have children that are girls that are strong, driven, competitive, ambitious, and display capacity for leadership and teamwork as they may one day desire to play sports or participate in a field that once belonged exclusively to men. The story of women's soccer in this country is inspiring to all those girls that delight in play, who want nothing more than to run around in the grass letting their skin soak up the sun, get into a bit of dirt, run hard and fast, sweat, suck deep breaths of air into the lungs, feel the strength of tired and sore muscles and earn badges of bruises playing their sport.

Prior to Title IX (1972), there were few, if any opportunities for women in sports. There was no support, interest, or funding for women's sports, as well as non-athletic activities, in schools at all levels. To women my age or younger, it may be challenging to have a sense of the deprivation as we have never been without these opportunities. One cannot miss what one has always had. When I was quite young my mother was a runner, training for a marathon. I started running little 5k races with her when I was 4 years old. This seemed normal to me, it was always part of my life for as long as my memory stretches. I remember thinking my mom was a bit of a rock star because of all her running. I also remember being shocked when she told me that she was not athletic at all when she was in high school in the late 1960's. At that time, the only women's sports available at her school were tennis and cheerleading. She attended one of the largest high schools in the state, so it was not due to lack of resources (side note: perhaps some of you from smaller towns/schools have your own stories to share about lack of opportunities). Anyway, my mom is muscular and athletic even though she is petite. She was not stereotypically feminine, graceful, or coordinated, so cheerleading was not a viable option for her. She is competitive but also has a great sense of community and companionship, therefore tennis was too individualistic for my mom. In the 1970's, mom became an aerobics instructor, but team sports would never be an option for her. In the 1980's when she began running this was considered too masculine and training takes time, of which young moms just do not have much. This is especially frustrating for me to consider since team sports and running are two things that I have thoroughly enjoyed for my entire life. I participated in everything from swim lessons, to gymnastics, and little league volleyball and basketball... I couldn't get enough! I was never a star, far from it, but I had the mind for most any sport, and I loved working HARD, being challenged. Sports were also a way for me to spend quality time with my dad as I pounced on any and every opportunity to go to KSU basketball and football games with my dad. I listened to Royal's games on the radio with dad and watched Sunday NFL football while he snoozed on the couch and I even loved going to his rec-league softball games every week of summer. Could not get enough. When I think of my mom as a runner, an unpopular choice for women at the time, I am amazed at the shift in perception that has taken place since then. Running is this thing of awe, something that people admire, aspire to, and we respect strong women more now, I think. Personally, running is the hardest, and most rewarding, thing I do. I love the freedom, love having strong legs, and love the feeling of absolute exhaustion and satisfaction when I accomplish every run. I can't imagine being disregarded as "too masculine" because of it.

Anyway, because of Title IX, more and more opportunities for women's sports began to creep into schools, city recreation leagues, and universities. But, it would still be a long road to develop all of the layers that lead to professional women's sports. The members of the US Women's Soccer team that won the 1999 World Cup were forged in university club and varsity teams that were still in their infancy in terms of development. Julie Foudy was the first female scholarship player for Stanford University, and even she did not earn this scholarship until she was a senior in 1991. A more personal perspective: my high school (one of the largest in the state of Kansas at the time) did not have a girl's soccer program until my freshman year in 1994. And some schools that our Manhattan High boy's soccer team played against had one or two female members as their schools still did not have girl's teams. This is just over a decade ago, not all that ancient of history!

So, when the women's national soccer team began to put their stamp on the world of soccer, it really was a story of tenacity, adversity, and determination to play the sport they loved. The U.S. hosted the 1999 WWC and were able to sell out american football stadiums, the same stadiums that hosted the men's WC in 1994! In fact, the women were filling the stands more emphatically even than some of the teams to whom the stadiums belonged! Imagine it: there were nearly 80,000 red, white, and blue fans in support of women's soccer in the NY Football Giants home stadium! When was the last time the Giants sold out? Anyone? Anyone? Didn't think so. Soccer has a hard time gaining any momentum in this country, which I hope is at least in the process of changing. When those soccer phenoms captured the hearts of the U.S. it was not only unprecedented for women's sports, it represented an astronomical leap in the popularity of soccer overall... something the U.S. men's soccer program had failed to accomplish thus far.

For more on the amazing 1999 World Cup and to see interviews with the stars of that team you can watch the video below (about 8 minutes long).

If you don't really care about sports please desist from reading after part one. But, if you love me (hehehe) or if you really have just been longing to hear my breakdown of Sunday's amazing game and you're hanging on my every word, well then, by all means, read on. If you've read this far, I will wrap up part one by saying that I am ecstatic that women's sports have continued to press on and advance despite resistance. I listen to sports radio quite a lot and it's hurtful to hear the mockery of women's sports and the general misogynistic perspectives of female athletes. I understand that in terms of popularity, women's sports have a lot of catching up to do and will probably never surpass football or men's basketball, and I think that is ok. Parity is good and necessary in some places, but it never made anyone better or stronger. As long as football and men's basketball are winning the popularity contests, female athletes will always have something higher to strive for and they will keep getting stronger and more skilled. But, I wish that some of those radio guys would take a cue from the male professional athletes that have gushed about US Women's Soccer in the past few days. I delighted to hear quote after quote, tweet after tweet on ESPN after Sunday night's game, from NBA and NFL players saying how inspired they were by the women's team. In the early 2000's, before KSU men's basketball saw it's renaissance under Frank Martin, the talk of the town was KSU women's basketball and Deb Patterson, Nicole Ohlde, Laurie Koehn, and Kendra Wecker (to name a few). I remember sitting in Bramlage watching this amazing, tough team compete. Across the stadium, I could see the men's basketball team sitting among the fans, cheering for and admiring these "girls" and instructed by their coaches to learn from how this team worked together, to watch Laurie Koehn's form and her incredible range, to take note of Ohlde's presence and her powerful ability to create space on the post. I went to KSU volleyball games and saw football players on the front row of the stands, the loudest (and largest) supporters of those hard-hitting volleyball women! There's a lot to be learned from female athletes; how they compete, how they strive, how they persevere.

Whew! That's a lot of words! So, onto part two: my analysis of the 2011 WWC quarterfinal game between USA and Brazil.

This was not the quarterfinal game I, as a fan, wanted us to play. I would have preferred to play Australia, but in our final game of group play the US team lost to Sweden, thereby surrendering the top position in the group. Sweden claimed the top spot and the far "easier" match-up with the Aussies for their quarterfinal, while the US as the #2 team in the group was set to face the Brazilians. Brazil, with the United States and Germany, is one of the top 3 teams in the WORLD. They have a front 3 that is the envy of most national teams in Marta, Rosana, and Cristiane. These ladies can DANCE with the ball; their feet are quick and rhythmical and deceptive. Marta is the 5 time world player of the year. This was going to be the toughest quarterfinal match-up. So, when at the 74 second mark, literally the opening seconds of the game, Shannon Boxx crossed a ball from the left corner into Brazil's defensive box and it deflected off of a tangle of USA's Abby Wambach and Brazil's goalkeeper and defender (Daiane) into the goal putting the US up 1-0, I released a very satisfying breath of sweet relief. I did not have to fear this game any longer. The stomach ache I had been nursing since 6 am began to recede.

At this point, my mind was able to slow down enough to appreciate a few key factors, the first being that USA coach Pia Sundhage made some adjustments to our defense that were necessary and important. Marta is fast and tricky and wants to go one-on-one with defenders all day long. She plays on the right side of Brazil's offense which corresponds with the left, and typically slower, side of the USA defense. Buehler is a bulldog of a player (Kirk calls her a football player because she drives in with her shoulder like she's a linebacker), but she's slow and I was not thrilled at the thought of seeing her backpeddling at Marta's heels. So when I saw that coach decided to switch Buehler to the right side of our D and put Rampone on the left, I thought, "that's exactly what I would have done!" Another key factor: I have not been terribly impressed by our mid-field play during this tournament (Boxx and Lloyd seem a little slow, our midfield can't seem to possess the ball for more than 1-2 passes, and our placement is not always accurate) but I was glad to see Shannon Boxx start strong with that cross early in the game and felt that our midfield would put pressure on Brazil's back line since they only put 3 defenders back. Finally, I was glad to see that our defense was crashing to the ball anytime Brazil's front 3 touched the ball, giving them space in the midfield but creating a lot of traffic in front of goal to prevent those 3 from weaving and dribbling around too much. We made it to half time and well into the second half with that 1-0 lead but I felt that Brazil was playing more aggressive as the game went along and this made me nervous. And then "it" happened. The worst.

In the 66th minute, Marta got the ball past our defenders and was hurtling toward the goal, elbow to elbow with Buehler, wrestling and battling, and then she leapt into the air and tumbled to the ground in front of the goal. The referee blew her whistle, which I thought strange since it appeared to me that both players were equally aggressive, so I was unsure who the foul was on. And then my stomach sank, absolutely dropped, when she pulled out her red card and walked toward Buehler. Not only a penalty in the box (giving Brazil a one-on-one penalty kick against goalie Hope Solo), but a red card sending Buehler out of the game and the US team would have to play short one player for the remainder of the game. The stadium was incensed, Ian Darke and Julie Foudy, who were commentating the game, could not believe that a call of this magnitude was being made to impact this game. In fact, it was so bizarre that neither of them really understood what was happening, it was that unclear. Cristiane lined up to take the PK for Brazil, struck the ball, and Hope Solo made the most unlikely of saves! I went from total despondency to elation in a matter of seconds! We were still leading 1-0!!! The US team was celebrating the save with Solo, the fans were cheering, it was jubilation! But wait, what's this? Why is Marta carrying the ball to the PK line? What? The referee says what? She says it's a re-kick? But why? No one knows. Hope Solo is being given a yellow card? Why? What is happening? Before any of these questions can be answered Marta takes the PK and buries it in the back of the net to tie the game. And now we have to somehow try to tie or, even more doubtful, win with only 10 players to Brazil's 11. The reason for the re-kick, by the way, was encroachment. The goalie is not allowed to leave the line and the other players must remain behind the 18-yard line until the ball is kicked. From replays it does not appear that Hope Solo left the line early, she moves laterally which is legal, and maybe, MAYBE steps forward ever so slightly, but even Ian Darke stated that he's seen much more leniency than this toward that particular law. Upon close examination of replay, it appears that one of the US players stepped into the corner of the 18-yard box just as the ball was being struck, but again, this is rarely, if ever, called because it does not impede on the player's ability to strike the PK. Overall, highly questionable.

Well, this is just a horrendous moment. I can't imagine a team being able to overcome the physical challenge of being down to 10 players (it's exhausting, you spend a lot of time "chasing" the ball, and you cannot send players on offensive attacks for fear of leaving the defense vulnerable) as well as rising up from the emotional letdown and rage that the players on the field must all be feeling at this moment. When athletes are angry two things can happen: either they start to play "stupid" making mental mistakes out of frustration, or they play more determined, more driven, more aggressive than ever. Amazingly, the US women at this point appear to play with renewed verve, rather than being dejected and sullen. They seem to have fresh legs, they play a better possession game, especially possessing it from the midfield, they mount attacks offensively and create opportunities for corner kicks or free kicks that they weren't even able to muster when they had 11 players on the pitch. Rapinoe and Morgan sub in and give the US fresh bursts of energy. Not one player looks worried, bitter, or resentful. Not one player complains. They just go hard for the final 24 minutes of regulation and force the game into overtime by holding onto the tie. Already this has been a feat. Now, they have to try to maintain this tie, or miraculously try to win, in overtime which consists of two 15-minute periods. If, at the end of the extra 30 minutes, the game is still tied, it will go to penalty kicks... 5 PKs for each team. At this point, I'm hoping just to make it to the PK's because I am skeptical that we can manage a win. I have never watched a soccer game in which the team with only 10 players was able to score to win. I have only ever seen teams hold on for a tie. So, I'm doubtful. And then, within a few short minutes, doubtful became hopeless.

Two minutes into the first 15-minute overtime period, Brazil unveiled an offensive strike from the right corner of our defense that broke my heart. A quick pass to a Brazilian midfielder that appeared to be offsides froze our defense and Boxx turned her sights away from Marta for only a second to check for the offsides flag. That second was all Marta needed to receive the assist from her teammate before she chipped the ball over the US defense to the far post, and it deflected off the post, past Solo into the net. The offsides no-call was so close and I probably would have objectively maintained my sanity had this officiating crew not already ruined this game for me 1000 times over! By this point, Ian Darke and Julie Foudy have abandoned any efforts to withhold criticism of the officiating in this game. Julie put it best when she said that it is never good for officials to insert themselves too much into a game. She lamented that players want to leave a game knowing that it was won or lost on the pitch by the players, not because referees became too involved in creating or denying opportunities.

This is now an insurmountable task for the US team. To come from behind (down 2-1), in overtime, with only 10 players has never been done in the history of the world cup. But still, this team forged ahead. Their faces were set with determination and grit. They attacked harder, faster, and their fitness was far superior to that of Brazil's. Team leaders like O'Reilly and Wambach shouted motivation and encouragement to their teammates, pumping life into the team. Brazil began to play a limp, passive game of time-wasting and antics. They looked spent, weak, and you could practically see the lactic acid rising to their eyeballs. The worst gamesmanship by Brazil occurred simultaneously as USA's desperation was at it's peak, at the 113th minute, with only 7 minutes remaining in overtime. Over the course of the game, the crowd had gradually turned against Brazil, raining boos and whistles down whenever Marta touched the ball or a Brazilian player overtly wasted time or argued with the referee. In the 113th minute, a Brazilian defender, Erika, walked along, watched as the ball rolled out of bounds, and then suddenly, as if struck by an invisible bolt of the most devastatingly crippling lightning, she fell to the ground grasping her back. She rolled and winced, flopping on the ground for several minutes, calling the referee over. Then, she stood up, but several teammates around her appeared to tell her to lay back down and waste more time so she fell again, this time requiring the services of a stretcher. The stretcher carried the poor fragile Erika off the field and no sooner did she cross that line but she was miraculously cured of her non-existing ailment and ran back to re-enter the game! The fans had nothing good to say about that stunt, to be sure! And the referee did not appreciate this patronization either, for Erika was promptly awarded a yellow card. But all of this is of no import because I am watching my beloved team desperately try to get this game restarted and they now only have minutes to try to score a goal to tie this game and send it to PKs! They charged and they crossed the ball and they had a corner and they took shots that flew over the goal, but nothing was very promising to go in. The referee announced that there would be 3 minutes of added time due to the "injuries" so it is now the 120th minute and we know time has all but run out. Ian Darke states that this will be the worst WC finish to date for the USA team.

And then Cristiane has the ball deep in our right defensive corner ready to strike. But our defense takes it away and dishes it off to midfielder Lloyd, who carries it from the right to the left side, nearly losing it before she just barely gets the pass off to Rapinoe who is charging up the left flank. Rapinoe dishes up the. perfect. cross high and arcing to the far post and...

The game is tied!! The game is tied!! In the 122nd minute, Abby Wambach ties the game and we're going to PKs!!!!! New life! This is the latest goal ever scored in the history of WWC!!!

And now, I know we will win. I know Hope Solo will not surrender all 5 PKs, I know she will stop one, make one precious save. I know we will make all 5 of our goals. I just know.

Shannon Boxx is up first. She takes the strike and Brazil's keeper stops it, but... she left the line too early, obviously, undeniably, the ref must give a re-kick. And this one, Boxx does not miss. USA 1.
Cristiane takes the first Brazilian PK and makes it. Brazil 1.
Lloyd is up and she makes it... USA 2.
Marta sinks it... Brazil 2.
Wambach, nails it... USA 3.
And then, Julie Foudy says "here comes Daiane for Brazil, she does not look confident, I think Hope has this one" and Daiane strikes it to Solo's right side, low on the ground, Solo dives, arms outstretched and blocks the shot with just her right hand and she has the one save she needed! She throws her arms up in celebration while rolling out of her dive and the stadium erupts in absolute hysterics! USA 3, Brazil 2.
Next up for USA is Rapinoe, who does not miss... USA 4.
Some player who's name I cannot remember takes PK #4 for Brazil and makes it, still some life left for them if we miss our last PK... Brazil 3.
Last up for USA is Krieger, a defender (reminiscent of defender Brandi Chastain's PK, with her weaker left foot, to win the WWC in 1999) and all she has to do is make this goal and the US have won 5-3 by PKs...
...and she places it with precision in the corner of the goal out of the reach of Brazil's keeper and we have won this unbelievable game!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am screaming and crying and the most guttural sounds are spilling out of my throat! Madly texting my friend Laura in celebration! Running circles around the coffee table in the living room! Calling Kirk on the phone to try to recount for him the story of this game but he cannot discern a word that I'm screaming into the phone, of course! Jubilation!

By far the greatest sports moment in my recent memory. Maybe tied with the 1999 WWC win against China, KSU football win over OU in the Big XII Championship, Jordan draining 3's on Utah while visibly battling the flu, Vince Young leading Texas to a late-game win over USC in the BCS Championship game... it was that good.

Here's what I found the most astounding... several players, when interviewed after the game, said the exact same thing, that they knew they were still in it. Julie Foudy commented that she never really believed Germany would snap out of it to beat Japan, but that she didn't feel like the US was out of this game, even when they were down players! Even down to the last seconds of overtime while they were still losing 2-1, they knew they had a chance. Really????? Did you? DID YOU??? Because I thought there was NO WAY! It was so unlikely for them to win. It was so much more likely that you would see them fold, see them give up, lose hope, play flat, give up more goals, play frustrated, make more mistakes and descend into the depths of sports despair. Why is this more likely? Because you see it all the time, in any sport. When teams are faced with unexpected obstacles, they don't know how to handle it. Teams that are used to winning don't know how to come from behind to win. Teams are dealt the proverbial devastating blow and they just never recover. But this USA team was dealt blow, after blow, after blow, and they just did not surrender. They actually got better and stronger as the game went longer. I have not seen anything like it. Remarkable. My final parting wisdom is really more of a tip: Tivo the replay immediately. I made Kirk watch the game in it's entirety tonight, even knowing the outcome, and his response, his expressions at each glorious and heart-breaking moment, were classic! He kept saying, "And I even KNEW what would happen!!" Watch it. Worth it.


chris said...

What a wonderful post--thank you! There are so many reasons I enjoyed it.
1. I haven't seen/talked to you and Kirk in YEARS (too long), but reading this post was a a true, typical dose of Mendy. Wonderful!
2. I didn't grow up with soccer so, though I have come to a place of respect for the sport, it is difficult for me to engage with it as a spectator. Therefore, I have only been a post-game spectator of this WWC, besides reading all about the US team in Sports Illustrated. Your account of USvBrazil really delivered the full story of the game, both meaning and kick by kick, and that engaged me! What a remarkable moment in sports!
3. The experience I had reading your post reminded me that I am a "sports guy". I have been less maniacal in the last few years. But in a few moments while I was reading your post, I got chills and tears in my eyes, and THAT my friend is the authentic sports guy emerging from dormancy. I'm so happy he emerged. I will now pick up a Sporting News College Football Preview Issue on the way home tonight.
Beautiful account, Mendy, thanks so much for sharing it. Hope you guys are wonderful.
Chris Ward

Laura said...

Mendy, I loved this post. Your account brought tears to my eyes making me so proud to be a soccer fan and not just now jumping on the bandwagon.

Michelle said...

I just set up the World Cup to record tomorrow. If THAT isn't a compliment to your passionate writing, I have no idea what is.:) Loved your post, love you. so grateful to see you as often as I do, friend.