Fun and frustration of voting on soccer awards

Even without Hope Solo’s Twitter jab at Julie Foudy, the voting for the U.S. women’s national team’s all-time Best XI was sure to be controversial, full of difficult cross-generational comparisons.

Michelle Akers was a certainty (the one voter who omitted her from his/her ballot should really speak up and explain why). But what about the other two-thirds of the Triple-Edged Sword from 1991 — Carin Jennings Gabarra and April Heinrichs? Do you take Alex Morgan ahead of them even though Morgan is still in the early stages of a surely great career?

How about Megan Rapinoe? The midfield competition is even tougher. If you go with a 4-3-3 to add a third forward alongside obvious choices Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, you have only three midfielders, leaving Rapinoe to displace Akers, Kristine Lilly or Julie Foudy. And that omits Shannon Boxx and two-time Olympic hero Carli Lloyd.

And then you get to the choice that started all the debates, Solo or Briana Scurry. (Note the single ‘n’ in Briana. Now that she’s on the centennial celebration all-time Best XI, do you think we could spell her name correctly?)

My ballot had 10 of the 11 honorees: Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, Christie Rampone, Akers, Lilly, Foudy, Hamm, Wambach, Morgan and Brandi Chastain. But it wasn’t an easy pick. I didn’t turn in my ballot right away — I slept on it and went back and forth on the Morgan/Gabarra choice. My last decision was to put in Chastain and go with a 4-3-3 formation rather than a 3-4-3, in which I would’ve picked either Boxx or Lloyd. (I hadn’t decided.)

Yes, I was debating whether to include the person who gave U.S. soccer its most indelible image AND played forward in a winning World Cup campaign AND was a defensive anchor for two Olympic champions as well as the ’99 Cup winners. That’s how difficult these choices got.

The voters clearly had the same questions I had. Among field players, the obvious picks of Fawcett, Overbeck, Rampone, Akers, Lilly, Hamm and Wambach got at least 46 of a possible 56 votes. Foudy, the captain of multiple Olympic and Cup triumphs, got 40, even though she pointedly omitted herself from her picks on ESPN. (In this politicized environment, I’d guess a couple of other people left her off their ballots for non-soccer reasons, as surely as some people used off-field issues as a tiebreaker between Solo and Scurry.)

Chastain and Scurry also got more than half the votes — 31 each. Then it got tough. Solo (24) actually got more votes than Morgan (15), but having two goalkeepers wasn’t an option.

The race for the 11th spot was a barnburner. Morgan won with 15. Gabarra had 13. So did midfielders Boxx and Lloyd, nearly pushing the final formation to 4-4-2. Heinrichs had 12. Tiffeny Milbrett, who lost some time in her career when she fell out with then-coach Heinrichs, had 10. Kate Markgraf, whose 200-plus caps and defensive steadfastness would make her an automatic pick in any other national team, got 9.

If you were picking a Best XX from this group, then Rapinoe (6) barely pushed ahead of Heather O’Reilly (5) and the lovely protest vote for Lori Chalupny (5). That’s a strong Best XXII.

So I feel relatively happy with this vote. I’ve seen one vociferous protest over Gabarra’s omission, and that’s a worthwhile lament. Scurry-Solo could be debated forever, though it’s probably not a good idea.

The men’s Best XI? I don’t envy those voters one bit. They’re judging players who pulled off astounding World Cup feats (and then had few other opportunities to play in noteworthy games) before most of the voters were born. How do you compare Bert Patenaude’s hat trick, the first in World Cup history, with Brian McBride’s decade of excellence? Some players in the Hall of Fame aren’t on the ballot.

Which brings me to the good I hope will come out of this Best XI discussion — better-informed Hall of Fame voting.

I’ve ranted many times about the high bar some Hall of Fame voters are setting. Those of us who go public with our ballots typically vote for five, six, even 10 people. Those who keep their ballots private are clearly less effusive.

Kenn Tomasch has a good archive of our voting shame. Earnie Stewart, the man who steadied the USA through countless World Cup qualification campaigns, needed several years to get in. No one made it in 2008, prompting the Hall to lower its acceptance threshold to 66.7%. And that’s how Joy Fawcett finally made it.

Fawcett was a unanimous choice for the Best XI. So are we finally getting smarter? Maybe not — the pool of voters for the women’s Best XI was carefully picked, with most of them having solid credentials in the women’s game. The Hall of Fame voters aren’t gender-specific — though we should note that Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers were still nearly unanimous first-ballot selections.

Now we’re having discussions. How do these players stack up? Which players did the Best XI voters consider that the Hall of Fame voters might not?

Maybe, just maybe, we’ve pushed voters to think a little more. We’ll see.

In the meantime, tread lightly on Twitter.

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