Women’s soccer, pro/rel, UConn hoops and taking things for granted

If there’s war between the sexes, then there’ll be no people left — Joe Jackson. (Tori Amos did a terrific cover version.)

I’ve spent too much time on Twitter this week grabbing the third rail. I’ve been in conversations on promotion/relegation, women’s soccer equity, and UConn women’s basketball.

Let’s dispense with the last one first. The “Connecticut is too dominant” issue has reached The Guardian this week, but it’s being fanned by ESPN. You know — the colossus based in Bristol, Conn., founded by people who wanted to watch Connecticut sports.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to point to ESPN’s institutional roots when I’m bringing my own bias to the conversation. I can often toss aside my Duke background — I was disappointed in the way Grayson Allen and Coach K acted as they departed the NCAA Tournament this year, and I’ve been nice and conflicted over the lacrosse saga. But when it comes to women’s basketball, I covered it in the days of drawing a couple hundred people in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and I watched with admiration as Gail Goestenkors built the program into the dominant force in the ACC. My heart still breaks when I think of Kristi Toliver hitting an impossible 3-pointer over the best shot-blocker in women’s basketball to stop Duke from winning the 2006 national title.

Foster's. Australian for stereotypes.
Foster’s. Australian for stereotypes.

So forgive me if one of my better women’s hoops memories involves Jessica Foley taking sweet revenge on Geno Auriemma. The UConn coach had tried to recruit the Australian player, but she opted for Duke instead. Auriemma made some wisecrack about drinking too much Foster’s. Foley got the last laugh.

Does that mean my Duke bias has colored my impression of Auriemma and UConn? Or is just that I have a better memory of him doing things other than winning scads of basketball games?

In any case, I don’t think of him as a latter-day John Wooden. Or Anson Dorrance, who might be accused of having a bit of an ego or competitive streak himself but is always a fascinating interview and gracious to others.

Mike and Mike can tell me UConn is superior because the women work harder in practice. I can counter with first-hand glimpses from other programs of overtrained athletes tearing their ACLs.

Clearly, Auriemma is doing something right. His players love him, and he certainly doesn’t fail to give back to the community with charity work.

But I won’t be watching the Final Four this year. If Dawn Staley, one of the best athletes I’ve ever covered, was leading her terrific South Carolina team against the Huskies, I’d be more inclined to tune in. As a journalist, I’d like to see a good clash of the titans. As a fan, I’d like to see another Jessica Foley moment.

The other big women’s sports topic of the week is women’s soccer pay. I delved into that on the heels of one of the most aggravating promotion/relegation discussions I’ve had in years.

I only mention that because I’ve stumbled into a connection between the two topics. No, I don’t think women’s soccer fans (most of them, anyway) are as delusional as promotion/relegation advocates (most of them, anyway). WoSo fans generally listen, and they appreciate (and argue about) the complexities of the soccer business.

But what’s easily forgotten in both cases can be summed up in one word …

History.

The most zealous pro/rel advocates cherry-pick from history like a corrupt televangelist cherry-picking the Bible. “Oh, see? We had 35,000 people turn up to watch Liverpool play Real Madrid, so obviously, there has always been a huge fan base for soccer in the USA, and the only obstacle to its growth is MLS and its evil NFL owners.”

Argh.

I’m sure I’m already trusting people’s patience here, so I won’t rehash everything I’ve written about pro/rel. In short, there are legitimate, non-evil reasons why it hasn’t happened in the USA, and while a lot of us (including myself) come up with fun pro/rel schemes, it’s a long way from becoming reality. If you won’t take the word of a journalist who remembers the pre-MLS days and has fought tooth and nail to get mainstream media to take soccer seriously, read Offside: Soccer and American ExceptionalismOr Soccer in a Football World. Or talk to the fine folks who’ve poured their hearts and cash into soccer clubs of all sizes across the country. (Not just one guy in San Diego. Talk to a lot of them, especially those who’ve been in the game for decades.)

The fundamental mistake of pro/rel zealots is that they take pro soccer in the USA for granted. They forget what a long, difficult slog it’s been to get things going. It was a risk when MLS launched in 1996, and it was a risk when MLS nearly folded in 2002. It’s still a risk because you can do whatever you want with a U.S. league, and thanks to NBC and the Internet, you can still watch more Premier League coverage here than you can in England. Or Liga MX. Or whatever you like.

At the nadir of 2001/02, MLS had to do something drastic to save the sport. Out of those meetings came Soccer United Marketing.

Which brings us, at last, to the recent flurry of news about women’s soccer and pay equity.

First, read the NY Daily News piece examining the issue. It’s a long read, but it’s worthwhile.

That said, as long as it is, there are plenty of complexities beyond its scope. And so a casual reader can get some false impressions from it. FIFA corruption has little to do with how much revenue the Women’s World Cup generates. (Endemic sexism in FIFA, sure.) No, Soccer United Marketing is not the reason Chuck Blazer had an expensive apartment for his cats. (Not that the piece says so, but the juxtaposition could give you that impression.)

SUM saved MLS. And it helped build MLS to the point at which it can be a legitimate partner for the NWSL.

A more difficult question: How much money is available for women’s soccer? Or should be? Or how much revenue is generated?

The NYDN points out, quite accurately, that it’s hard to quantify the money streams. Everything is bundled — men’s and women’s World Cups, even U.S. national team and domestic league TV rights. Given that, it’s really difficult to come up with conclusions like “Of the $1 billion FIFA doles out in development money every year, only $13 million is earmarked for women’s football.” How much of that money is gender-neutral — say, programs that help men and women? Probably not enough, but we don’t know.

But what we do know is that outside the USA and maybe Canada, the interest in the Women’s World Cup does not compare to the interest in the men’s version. Use any metric you want. How many countries entered. How many people watched.

I covered nine World Cup games in 11 days in Germany, if I remember that whirlwind correctly. Crowds were pretty good. People were excited. It was not the men’s World Cup.

What a trip.
What a trip.

It’s better than it was. Go back to 1995, when the Women’s World Cup was in Sweden. Nigeria vs. Canada. 3-3 thriller. Attendance: 250.

“While we take women’s soccer seriously, everyone else around the world doesn’t,” Alexi Lalas said on Periscope this morning.

Which does not mean women should not or could not be making more. Lalas also said a lot in support of the WNT’s position, and so will I.

But even within the USA, the outlier in which a Women’s World Cup is the media event of the summer, the biggest difference between men’s and women’s World Cup quests is immense. No one’s happy that the U.S. men lost in Guatemala, and even after avenging that defeat a few days later, people are still questioning Jurgen Klinsmann’s job performance. (My favorite: Slate compares Klinsmann’s delusional state with Monty Python’s Black Knight.)

Yet the qualifying gauntlet is intense … for men. More countries enter, so that means more games over a couple of years just to get to the big show. Mexico is still far ahead of the USA in soccer infrastructure. Other CONCACAF countries used to be. And Alex Morgan doesn’t get urine and batteries thrown at her in Central America.

In fact, the U.S. women rarely get anything other hero worship. If Jessica Fishlock thinks Hope Solo was disrespected, she’ll lecture the media (and, by extension, the fans) about it.

It’s a different game.

USSF numbers aren’t as transparent as they could be. I tried to get through the numbers in the Annual General Meeting report, but it’s difficult to get apples-to-apples comparisons. Some charts line up “total national team revenue” next to “total Women’s World Cup revenue.” Some of it isn’t USSF’s fault — last year, the U.S. women played (and won, for the first time in 16 years) the World Cup. The U.S. men did not have an event anywhere near that scale. In 2018, assuming Klinsmann doesn’t totally botch it, the situation will be reversed.

Then figure that the USSF is directly underwriting salaries and office expenses for the NWSL. You’d need a forensic accountant to figure out whether the USSF has a net gain or net loss from MLS. U.S. Soccer has aggressively stepped in to stop another U.S. league from failing.

And some WoSo fans will argue NWSL salaries and conditions should be a higher priority than national team salaries and amenities. Quite possible.

https://twitter.com/HalesBells99/status/715569517263347713/photo/1

But again — we can’t forget how difficult this has been over time. The pay for a U.S. domestic club player in 2005 was $0. That has risen infinity percent.

All that said, when you read about the action the U.S. women have taken to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it’s hard to say they don’t have a point. (Insert my standard reservation about having Jeffrey Kessler represent soccer players here. Safe to say he didn’t impress when he had Sunil Gulati on the witness stand.)

Would a USA-Mexico men’s friendly in Texas draw NFL-level crowds, dwarfing anything we saw on the women’s Victory Tour? Yes. But the “attendance ticket revenue bonus” should ensure the men get paid. Why is it higher per ticket for the men?

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know. But it’s going to be something more creative than simply saying “equal pay for equal play.” It’s not equal play. In some cases, the WNT should get more than the men. The league needs more underwriting to get on its feet. But if the men crash the World Cup quarterfinals and land a massive windfall of money, they should get a fair share, right?

(Maybe the MNT should have lower per-game pay and bigger bonuses? Give them a little more incentive? That’s another rant — and a difficult case to make when a high-paid coach/technical director isn’t being held accountable.)

Just remember: Creative solutions are not evil. Soccer United Marketing is not evil. MLS is not evil.

And look — you can ask all sorts of equity questions. The U.S. women’s softball team has had fantastic success. Why don’t we support it the way we support soccer? Why are U.S. track and field stars and skiers of each gender more famous in Europe than they are here? How many of us even know who Dawn Harper Nelson is? Or Allison Schmitt? Or Ashton Eaton? Or Jennifer Suhr? Or Betsey Armstrong, a goalkeeper with more world championships than Hope Solo?

All of these issues are complicated. And history also tells us USSF could’ve done better for the women’s team in the past, so there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with players drawing another line.

But we need to do what’s best for all parties. Sinking MLS doesn’t help the NWSL. War between the sexes and inflated expectations brought us the WUSA, which sank beneath its excess and returned scores of players to amateur status. Bundling rights for MLS and women’s games with the men’s World Cup is, most likely, a net positive, as complex as that paper trail may be.

We have a lot of boats here. We need a rising tide.

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The U.S. women’s unlikeliest win …

No one saw this coming. Not at this World Cup.

Not after France picked this U.S. team apart in February. Not while Jill Ellis stubbornly persisted with Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian alone in center midfield with Carli Lloyd shoved wide.

Not even after the round of 16 win against Colombia, in which the USA looked indifferent in beating an inexperienced team. Not with the USA persisting in playing a predictable direct style.

Not with the sense that something was wrong deep in the roots of this team, with the latest Hope Solo legal developments likely far less of an issue than the team’s institutionalized favoritism toward established players.

Maybe they’d get lucky against the winner of the France-Germany game, fans thought. At least the defense was playing really well, so if they could just get a goal, they could get to the final, likely against a Japanese team that hasn’t looked like itself.

No one expected the USA to outplay Germany by a considerable margin. And no one expected the USA to outscore Japan by such a wide margin, burying the world champions with a 16-minute outburst after kickoff.

None of the cliches apply. They didn’t answer their critics — they won by doing (surely unintentionally) what the critics wanted in the short term, and the long-term problems are still there. They didn’t win by sheer force of will — they won with intelligent soccer, mesmerizing the German midfield and carving up Japan’s defense with clever plays like Lloyd’s game-opening run on a corner kick and her audacious drive from midfield.

We may not fully comprehend what happened over this month in Canada until someone writes a tell-all book. How this dysfunctional team could suddenly produce three majestic games defies easy explanation. Did something happen in the locker room? Was Jill Ellis always planning to switch things up as needed even after looking so inflexible for months? Did Abby Wambach, as some have suggested, bench herself?

We’ll solve all the long-term problems with women’s soccer some other day. For now, we have a stunning victory to admire and a lot to celebrate:

– The U.S. media have grown up. All the talk of “Hope Solo this and Abby Wambach that” gave way to intelligent dissections of tactics and technique. Defenders like Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston got their due.

– Even this team’s biggest detractors have to smile at the thought of the likes of Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg, overlooked for so long but just plugging away through the death of WPS and the birth of the NWSL, getting World Cup medals and playing so well along the way.

– And then there’s Wambach. You might question much of what she has done or said in the past year. But she is still one of the five best players in women’s soccer history and someone who has fought for her sport. Now her demons have been slain, and her legacy is complete.

The future begins tomorrow. U.S. Soccer needs to take a good look at what went wrong and what went right. And they need to make sure people get out and support the league that is the USA’s only chance for keeping up with the powerhouse Europeans and staying ahead of emerging teams elsewhere.

The “Victory Tour” should be a series of warm welcomes as these players — and a lot of international players who excelled in this tournament — return to their NWSL teams.

Enjoy. Celebrate. And get back to work.

Young U.S. women’s soccer players aren’t really young

The For The Win podcast looking ahead to the Women’s World Cup final made an interesting point about Jill Ellis finally trusting a young player like Morgan Brian to play a key role.

I listened to this the morning after a fun Twitter conversation.

So the two “young players” — Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian — who have made an impact for the U.S. national team in this World Cup are nowhere near the eligibility cutoff for the “best young player” award.

The team wasn’t always this way. The 1999 team had 20-year-old Lorrie Fair and 21-year-old Tiffany Roberts, with Kate Sobrero (now Markgraf) the third youngest at 22. The 2004 Olympic champions had three young Tar Heels: a 22-year-old defender named Cat Reddick (now Whitehill), 20-year-old Lindsey Tarpley, and 19-year-old phenom Heather O’Reilly.

Go back to 1991, and you’ll find precocious 19-year-old Mia Hamm and 20-year-old Julie Foudy. The oldest player on the team, April Heinrichs, was 27.

A lot has changed, of course, most notably the fact that women can make a living in the sport. The USA has a lot of experienced, talented players in their 20s and early 30s. The typical U.S. college player isn’t ready to be a major contributor in the NWSL, much less face off against Germany in a World Cup semifinal.

But you have to wonder if the USA is falling behind at the youth level. The last U.S. U20 team lost to Germany in group play and fell out of the tournament in the quarterfinals, losing to North Korea on penalty kicks. The U17s didn’t even qualify in 2014.

And other countries are producing players who can contribute. Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan, herself a college player at West Virginia, is a Best Young Player nominee. China has no one over age 26. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, who plays at Lyon, turns 20 next week. Most of the Costa Rican roster can’t rent a car in the USA — Gloriana Villalobos couldn’t even drive. Mexican goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago has been around forever and is still only 20.

All that said, this is still a tournament in which the 27- and 28-year-olds are dominant. Some U.S. players are no longer at their best, but Becky Sauerbrunn, who still seems like a newcomer in many ways, is in her prime at 30. So are Japanese captain Aya Miyama, who has been short-listed for the Golden Ball award, Swedish captain Caroline Seger, and Australian attack leader Lisa De Vanna. Only a couple of years younger, you’ll find the best European players — Celia Sasic (26), Lara Dickenmann (29), Vero (28), Steph Houghton (27), Elodie Thomis (28) and so on.

What do these countries all have in common? Solid professional leagues that allow players to continue playing until their athleticism peaks and their understanding of the game is complete.

So FIFA’s concept of a “young player” differs from the U.S. perception of that term. Certainly the USA could stand to give more opportunities to the early-20s players like Brian, Johnston and Crystal Dunn. But the “young player” as FIFA knows it is almost extinct. They’ll need to redefine that award or else hand it out by default to the youngest player in the tournament.

 

U.S. women make their own luck to reach World Cup final

You need a little luck in the World Cup. That’s what you heard from Germany … Germany’s men, anyway, after the World Cup final last year.

Germany’s women, on the other hand, were not so lucky against the USA in the World Cup semifinal tonight. A couple of close officiating decisions went against them. Playing the USA so soon after dragging themselves to a grueling win over France is less than ideal.

So can you take anything away from the U.S. women tonight?

No. Not a damn thing. They earned this.

I joked on Twitter tonight that the USA had the advantage in rest because Germany just played 120 minutes against France, while this U.S. women’s team hasn’t played all tournament. Maybe not in the Ellis era.

They did it with a radical change. We all saw how the USA was playing to this point — even when Abby Wambach wasn’t playing, the team was still playing Abby ball. In this game, they went with two holding mids and one forward, winning the midfield battles rather than relying on their outstanding defense to clean everything up. They suddenly started playing the type of soccer everyone had hoped to see, with dazzling possession that made ESPN’s Kate Markgraf marvel at German defenders being spun in circles.

See Meghan Klingenberg strip the ball away, make a simple move and play calmly to a teammate. See Lauren Holiday win a tackle and play cleanly to a teammate. See Carli Lloyd come up with the ball and race up the field. See Alex Morgan take a sharp pass from Tobin Heath and force a stellar save from Nadine Angerer. It was marvelous.

So yeah — Julie Johnston could’ve and probably should’ve seen red for the foul that led to the penalty kick. Celia Sasic took a very un-German-like penalty kick, perhaps because Hope Solo psyched her out like a poker player staring down someone trying to bluff with a pair of 3s. And Alex Morgan launched herself over the top of the box and drew contact along the way to draw a dubious penalty kick for the first U.S. goal.

But consider this:

– Hope Solo didn’t make a save after the eighth minute. Germany’s offense was so rattled by the U.S. defense’s mastery and Morgan Brian’s shrewd midfield destruction that a couple of people in the third row end-zone seating may have touched the ball more than Solo.

– The USA would’ve been up 2-0 at the half if not for Angerer’s brilliance.

– The second U.S. goal was brilliant, even if it came against a clearly downtrodden German defense.

A 1-0 deficit shouldn’t have deflated Germany so badly. They were being outplayed by France but came back and won it. In this game, though, Germany wasn’t even close to finding its way. After the goal, they looked like Michael Scott following GPS directions into a lake.

The knockout draw has favored the USA, sure. The group stage didn’t. The USA may have looked sluggish and pedestrian in winning the Group of Death, but they had to beat three legit opponents. They weren’t merrily blasting 10 goals past Ivory Coast to fine-tune their offense.

On the Keeper Notes podcast a week ago, I said it’d be a shame in a way if the USA somehow powered its way past to the World Cup final playing the way it was — stubbornly sticking with Wambach as its offensive centerpiece, sticking with Holiday as a miscast lone defensive midfielder, playing unimaginative soccer as if they were pounding their way through some 2004 Victory Tour friendly rather than building up to face teams that had caught up, tactically and technically. What would we learn as a soccer nation if we could win the World Cup doing things in such backwards fashion?

After the China game, where Ellis was forced to change things up, I didn’t feel quite so strongly about it.

Now? I don’t know how they suddenly changed gears, changed personnel and changed styles, but they did it. And they deserve it.

If you had told me a week ago the USA would beat Germany 2-0 in the semifinals, I would’ve said it must have been all luck. Instead, it was a little luck. And a lot good, inspiring soccer.

This result is big for U.S. women’s soccer. The way they did it was even bigger. And it’s reasonable to think they can do it again and regain the World Cup after 16 years.

U.S. women in the World Cup semifinals: Decisions, decisions

Jill Ellis made three lineup changes for Friday’s quarterfinal win against China, two out of necessity. The result: Still just a 1-0 win against a team that had little attacking punch, but the team looked better and felt better.

And it was the kind of performance U.S. fans had wanted to see. Amy Rodriguez was buzzing around making things difficult for China, Alex Morgan was a looming threat, and Carli Lloyd was unleashed. Not that the trio was perfect — A-Rod shanked a great chance like a beginning golfer, Morgan didn’t quite have the scoring touch, and Lloyd had a few giveaways. But this was not the lumbering attack we had seen in the past. Abby Wambach gave some inspiration from the bench and was ready to go if needed.

Then two players stepped up in surprising roles. The versatile Kelley O’Hara was a menace on the flanks, and young Morgan Brian looked like a composed veteran in a holding midfield role.

So now what? What happens when the USA takes a giant leap up in competition from a young, easily rattled Chinese team to a ruthlessly efficient German team that absorbed a couple of hours of French pressure and fought back to win?

Player-by-player:

Rodriguez: Did the German defense look a step slow against France? If so, they could be tailor-made for the speedy A-Rod. Then again, Sydney Leroux has some wheels, too.

Morgan: You just sense that it’s coming, don’t you? She made pivotal plays against Colombia and has the potential to create something magical.

Wambach: She may have another clutch goal left on her head or in her feet. She’d be perfect to bring in against a tired German defense in the second half.

Megan Rapinoe: Has to play. She’s the most creative winger the USA has.

Lloyd: Has to play in the same role she played last night. Don’t forget who scored the winning goals in the last two Olympics, and she scored again last night.

Brian: Clearly the best option at holding mid now. Lori Chalupny can play there at club level, but she hasn’t been tested there at international level in a long, long time.

Lauren Holiday: Unfortunate. She was miscast as a holding mid for months, and now it might be too late to get her back on the field in another role such as attacking mid or second forward. But we would’ve said the same about O’Hara before last night, right?

Tobin Heath: Just isn’t turning those nifty moves into anything concrete right now.

O’Hara: Maybe the best option on the right flank? Her pressure, passing and willingness to test China with an occasional medium-range bomb were outstanding last night.

Christen Press: Can she bring the same tempo-changing ability as A-Rod?

The defense isn’t in question — Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger have been so outstanding that we often forget Hope Solo is even playing.

So those five are sure starters, and I’d add Rapinoe, Lloyd and Brian to that list. Everything else is up for grabs.

Here’s one reasonable lineup that builds on last night’s success:

football formations

And here’s one that’s a little wilder:

football formations

But I’m not sure Ellis needs to do anything that drastic. She has already shown the flexibility for which I was pleading at SoccerWire. They did not play “Whack it to Wambach” for 90 minutes last night.

And as a result, I’ve gone from thinking Germany is a sure bet to thinking we may see an epic on Tuesday.

Hope Solo is unique because …

… there simply isn’t anyone like her.

Obvious statement, isn’t it? It’s the very definition of the word “unique.” She’s an individual.

But in her case, when she’s in the news, we always have a confluence of issues that make it difficult to compare her to any other athlete. And they’re coming up again now that she has been suspended in the wake of her husband’s DUI arrest and the complex situation around it. Read the ESPN story with Julie Foudy’s insider take on what led to the suspension. Elsewhere, I’ve heard the suspension compared to a “persistent infringement” yellow card — an accumulation of questionable decisions.

But even if you agree with the suspension, which seems to be the majority view, you can find yourself in a fiery dispute.

The issues that make a perfect storm around Solo news include:

She’s an occasionally famous athlete: If you’re not a women’s soccer diehard, you may know who Hope Solo is, but you don’t follow her from week to week. She’s in the spotlight at the Olympics and the World Cup. Or sometimes in a magazine shoot. Or in a controversy.

Olympic athletes are the same way. We pay more attention to Tiger Woods getting a tooth knocked out than we do to the reason he was there, Lindsey Vonn setting the record for World Cup wins. If Tiger hadn’t shown up, a lot of people wouldn’t know what Vonn did, even though it’s one of the most impressive feats an Olympic athlete can achieve.

So in this sense, Solo is like some athletes but not like those in sports that are covered in “mainstream” media throughout their competitive seasons and in the offseason.

Her background is different from that of most teammates: That’s a major theme of her memoir. Women’s soccer players typically have comfortable childhoods. She didn’t. In this sense, she’s more like a typical NFL or NBA athlete, whose triumphs over adversity are commonly told.

So that’s two items we’ve considered. One makes her similar to a sporadically covered Olympic athlete. One makes her similar to NFL and NBA athletes. Already, we’re talking about an unusual person.

The women’s soccer community has a chip on its shoulder: Or several. And rightly so. A lot of things have gone wrong in women’s soccer over the years. Two leagues have collapsed, and not even for the same reasons. The last season of WPS was a quagmire of legal action and bizarre incidents that killed any momentum from the 2011 World Cup. Women’s soccer fans can be defensive, sometimes mistrusting perceived outsiders. I’m not judging here — it’s understandable. I feel that way myself at times. I point it out just because it adds to the emotion when a Solo story makes the news.

She has been controversial for a long time: Here, one of the closest analogues would be Allen Iverson, a talented basketball player remembered mostly for his “practice?” press conference and his legal and financial woes (ironically chronicled here by Kate Fagan, one of the participants in last night’s Twitter disagreements). Start with the 2007 incident in which she ripped her coach’s decision in a way that also insulted (intentionally or not) Briana Scurry, then add various Twitter rants (pity her old tweets all disappeared), then add the incident just before a wedding few people expected (to a man with a serious criminal record), then add her recent family fight. Charges in the latter were dropped, and we’ll never really know what happened.

She wrote a controversial book to which most people involved didn’t respond: Consider Tim Howard’s recent memoir and his claim that Brad Friedel tried to block him from going to Manchester United. Friedel responded. Howard listened to Friedel and has edited his book. In Solo’s case, most of the people who come across badly in her book (with the exception of Greg Ryan disputing one specific incident) have remained silent. They’ve decided it’s not worth the effort to get into a back-and-forth dispute with Solo and her legions of fans.

(By the way, the “From the Back Cover” text at Amazon is still inaccurate. It says Solo had four shutouts in the World Cup before she was benched. She gave up two goals to North Korea, then had three shutouts. I was told by the publisher this would be fixed for later editions. But it lives on at Amazon.)

I’ve been down this road before in a post I enjoyed writing mostly for the Saturday Night Live spoof — Hope Solo: Too unique for a double standard. (Yes, it covers the 2007 incident.)

The basic point: It’s not Solo’s gender that makes her unique — at least, that’s not the only or even the primary factor. It’s the totality of the situation. She’s unlike other female athletes, yes. But she’s also unlike other athletes, period.

Given that, I think analyzing and assessing Solo’s suspension and her media coverage require a variety of perspectives. It’s not fair to chase off veteran sports writers who have covered women’s soccer just because they aren’t tweeting about day-to-day NWSL events. (That’s a thinly caricatured reference to some of last night’s Twitter conversation.) They’re basing their analysis on a solid base of knowledge, and it’s a valuable perspective — just as several other perspectives are valuable.

“But weren’t you questioning the late-arriving media in September when they realized Solo was still playing despite a pending legal case?” Here’s the difference: The media in that case came in very late to an existing situation, implicitly insisting that the case was important now that they were paying attention. In case you’re wondering, a lot of people had similar takes, while others quietly unfollowed me. You simply can’t please everyone when it comes to a Hope Solo case, particularly because everyone’s emotions are so inflamed because of the confluence of issues above.

Once again, in the wake of her suspension, I’m not sure we can come up with a comparison to make to another athlete. What if Tim Howard had recently had a criminal case dropped, only to be out late at night at training camp with his spouse, who got arrested on suspicion of DUI? (And was allegedly hostile to the police and nearly arrested himself — the “allegedly” is important here because, frankly, we shouldn’t put our full faith in TMZ’s account of anything, including the Solo incident.) Would Howard get a 30-day suspension and a lot of media coverage?

I’m inclined to say yes. I base that on 20-plus years of covering sports, men’s and women’s. If you come from a different perspective and would guess otherwise, I can respect that. Just understand that my perspective is also valid.

“What about Charlie Davies?” some said last night. Davies was in a U.S. men’s training camp when he got in the car with a drunk driver who crashed, seriously injuring Davies and killing another passenger. Fans rallied to Davies’ support. They also questioned his decision to get in the car.

Davies made a tragic mistake. The soccer community loved the sinner and hoped he would recover. They hated the sin. And there wasn’t much point in any additional punishment — Davies’ injuries cost him a couple of years of his pro career and (barring a remarkable next step in his comeback) any future shot at the national team, for which he had been playing well before the accident.

In Solo’s case, it’s OK to feel the same way we felt about Davies. It takes a rather snarky person to want Solo to continue making headlines for getting in trouble.

And she seems to recognize that she can’t continue down this path. In her statement, she says she thinks it’s best to take a break.

This statement didn’t satisfy everyone — as if any statement could. Some people are quibbling with the need to “decompress.” But we don’t know everything that’s going on with her and her family. Some might say this statement is PR’d-up, but I’m willing to take her at her word when she says something so specific about taking time away. I don’t think it’s the least bit controversial to say she needs to address some issues before she returns to the national team.

My guess is that she’s successful. I’m basing that on years of following her career, including several conversations with her of all types — group, private, friendly, less friendly, sports-related, music-related, philosophical. And yet, after all those years, I can’t say anything about Solo would surprise me. I might not understand her any better than you do if you’ve only read about her.

After all, she’s unique.

Michelle Akers: What experience is necessary?

One of the greatest women’s soccer players ever, Michelle Akers, is upset that the U.S. Soccer powers that be haven’t taken her up on her offer to help out with the national team:

Per a phone conversation with Sunil (Gulati, USSF president), he told me I did not have enough experience to coach at that level,” Akers said. “I disagreed.”

Which raises a general question: Can a former player with no known coaching experience* contribute to a major coaching staff in a meaningful way?

(*Update – She is listed as a volunteer assistant at Central Florida. In a lengthy Twitter conversation, she revealed that she does indeed have a B license.)

Several MLS clubs have had success with players going straight from the field to the sideline. Jason Kreis, winning MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake less than three years after abruptly retiring from the field to take the reins. Ben Olsen did a brief apprenticeship as assistant coach before taking over with D.C. United, which stuck with him through some difficult times before getting to the top of the East. Others haven’t quite caught up to the realities of leading a team.

If you want to coach a pro team in the USA, you need an “A” license. You get a two-year grace period. So sayeth the professional league standards.

Former athletes get fast-tracked through the process, to an extent. Those of us who didn’t play at a high level need more than two years to get to the “A” license. Those with five years of Division 1 pro experience can skip straight to the “B.” College players, like my House league colleague who played at Stanford with Julie Foudy, can often skip some lower level licenses.

A licensing course won’t turn a bad coach into a good coach. But it’ll give a prospective coach, even one with the playing experience of an Akers or an Olsen, a few new ways of looking at things. (Update: And again, she does indeed have the “B.”)

The worst coaches you’ll see, at any level, are those who learned one way of doing things and think that the only way things are supposed to be done. They’re the youth coaches who yell and scream and run unproductive drills because that’s the way they were taught. They’re the pro coaches who can’t relate to players with a skillset that doesn’t easily match something they’ve seen before.

So it’s a little disheartening to read a statement from Akers that’s all about the past. Does the USA always need to play the Anson Dorrance style? Would Akers be able to relate to a new-school player like … oh … right … they never bring in new players.

But there’s another issue of basic compatibility. Whether you agree with the latest trends of Euro-inspired possession ball or the Jill Ellis number system, would you really want a coaching staff with such contrasting visions?

The only former U.S. men’s player on the U.S. national team staff is Tab Ramos, who was always an atypical U.S. player and doesn’t seem to be trying to push the Steve Sampson style on Jurgen Klinsmann.

Sure, the U.S. women have been a tad more successful than the U.S. men through history. But both games are evolving. Bringing in someone from the past is hardly an automatic positive.

Update: Akers has taken issue with this post on Twitter, and her general point is that more people from era should be involved with the program today. And indeed, it’s a larger issue than one person’s experience. A common complaint in U.S. soccer circles is that few women are going into coaching — MLS sidelines are full of MLS veterans, NWSL sidelines are not full of former players. And then there’s the question of whether the U.S. women’s program is just too insular in general, even to the point of shutting out thoughts from previous generations.

So some interesting discussions can flow from these questions. Not that we’re likely to see anything change before the World Cup later this year. 

USWNT vs. Mexico: Key moments and random thoughts

The USA advanced to the Women’s World Cup with a lopsided victory over a Mexican team that left a couple of solid attackers on the bench and never threatened to come back from an early U.S. goal.

Costa Rica advanced in penalty kicks in the first qualifying semifinal, with Dinnia Diaz saving all three Trinidad and Tobago kicks she faced while the Tica kickers calmly converted their attempts. Costa Rica and the USA will play in the final for bragging rights but little else — even calling it the CONCACAF championship seems dubious when Canada (automatically qualified for the World Cup as hosts) isn’t participating.

As promised in the headline, here are the key moments and random thoughts (the latter in italic).

LINEUPS:

USA: Hope Solo; Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen, Christie Rampone, Ali Krieger; Lauren Holiday, Carli Lloyd; Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press; Sydney Leroux

Starting Leroux instead of Abby Wambach isn’t that much of a shocker; Jill Ellis has rotated attackers at times, and Wambach could always come in off the bench. The shocker is the omission of center back Becky Sauerbrunn, arguably the world’s best defender. She should be rested and ready to go. Why leave her out here?

Mexico: Pamela Tajonar; Bianca Sierra, Christina Murillo, Alina Garciamendez, Kenti Robles; Liliana Mercado, Arianna Romero, Lydia Rangel, Dinora Garza, Tanya Samarzich; Luz Duarte

Veronica Perez, Monica Ocampo and Teresa Noyola on the bench, leading the Fox broadcasters to question whether Mexico was simply writing off this game and resting players to try to clinch a World Cup berth in the third-place game instead.

FIRST HALF

10 seconds: Boom, up to Leroux. She’s offside.

Despite that direct start, the USA spend its next several possessions going through the middle through Lauren Holiday.

4th minute: USA free kick, far right, 25 yds out. Rapinoe serves to box, nothing doing.

6th minute: GOAL USA 1-0. As they had early in Monday’s game, the USA has too many players sitting in the middle of the box — three this time — but Tobin Heath’s excellent cross goes straight to the head of Carli Lloyd. Credit Holiday with switching the point of attack out to Heath.

9th minute: Quick ball from the left flank ahead to Press in the middle, and Tajonar has to race out to head it away awkwardly.

15th minute: Mexico has a possession in the U.S. half. Possibly their first, at least their first with more than 1-2 touches.

Mexico has been defending in two lines — the four at the back, then five at midfield, the latter about 30-35 yards up the field, trying to make it difficult for Holiday to distribute. They’ve been somewhat successful, but they only needed to fail once, and they have.

19th minute: Two U.S. shots, the first (from a curiously open Press) saved, the second blocked. Rapinoe, slightly right of center, flicked it to Leroux at the top of the box, who one-timed it to Press. Then Leroux pounced on the rebound but couldn’t punch it in. The danger continued for another few seconds.

22nd minute: Good U.S. chance on a smart ball from Engen at midfield that floats over Sierra to Press. Her shot finds the side netting.

Not really sure I see that, but I’ve been watching Haiti play, so the bar has been lowered for me.

28th minute: Good 1v1 play from Press on the right. Rapinoe can’t quite get onto the cross. Holiday blasts a follow-up shot well high.

29th minute: Penalty kick USA, and on first glance, I don’t buy it. On the replay, I definitely don’t. That’s a dive from Tobin Heath. Lloyd converts it. 2-0

32nd minute: Free kick USA as Mercado tangles with Leroux. Rapinoe takes it about five yards outside the arc. Puts it on goal, but Tajonar handles it easily.

https://twitter.com/Sarah_Gehrke/status/525800962586578944

Indeed — Rapinoe is often up at center forward. Or Lloyd.

35th minute: Ali Krieger gets forward, tries a cross, gets it back and gets hammered by Samarzich. Rapinoe’s free kick from the side of the box is easily cleared.

36th minute: The first corner kick of the game goes to … Mexico! Robles works up the right channel and wins it. The ball bounds out to Mercado, who takes aim from 25 but sends it comfortably wide of the far post. First shot for Mexico, but nothing to trouble Solo.

38th minute: Two more crosses from Press. Also an odd moment on the first one as a second ball materializes on the field. Mexico’s defense alertly clears both of them.

40th minute: Another good cross from Press, this time to Lloyd, who ends up laying it back to Press. She tries to lob it over the mass of red defenders, but it’s over the bar as well.

43rd minute: Second U.S. corner kick, both within a couple of minutes, and Holiday shanks it over the end line.

45th minute: Press crosses to Klingenberg, which makes sense because the outside backs have gotten bored and are just racing into the Mexican box at will now. She receives it at an awkward height and sends it over.

HALFTIME

Shots: USA 11-1; Shots on goal: USA 4-0; Corner kicks: USA 2-1; Offsides: USA 3-0; Fouls: MEX 7-2. But the CONCACAF site credits Mexico with an impressive 16 clearances (USA four) and 27 recoveries (USA 1).

Mexico is playing with no confidence, no discipline, nothing to suggest they’re doing anything other than going through the motions before facing Trinidad and Tobago in the third-place game.

SECOND HALF

48th minute: An actual attacking possession for Mexico, with two crosses coming from the right — one cleared, one out of play. First test of any kind for central defenders.

49th minute: Chance for USA. Ordinarily, you’d laugh at someone who hit the crossbar from three yards out, but Leroux had to stretch out her foot after Rapinoe’s cross went past/was flicked on by/was dummied by Heath.

54th minute: Lloyd tries a little too hard to get something done in the box and is called for the foul.

MEX substitution: Sandra Mayor for the exhausted solo front-runner Duarte, who has not been able to get on the end of whatever hopeful balls the Mexican midfield has lobbed up in her direction.

56th minute: GOAL 3-0 USA. Leroux with a nicely weighted through ball to Press, who was kept onside by a stray center back. Press takes one touch as Tajonar lunges, then finishes into the open net. Rapinoe also could have finished it.

So here’s how fluid the formation is — the forward just played a through ball to the right wing, which she finished alongside the playmaking midfielder.

61st minute: Chance as Leroux hits the woodwork again, this time finding the right post from 18 yards out while her defender retreated.

Well, if it’s any consolation, it’s three now.

USA substitution: Abby Wambach in for Sydney Leroux. Not sure why, other than perhaps to please the crowd. It was not a popular substitution on Twitter.

62nd minute: Cross from Press to Wambach’s feet. She’s wide open on the 6. Can’t get it. Perhaps not quite in the flow of the game after two seconds.

65th minute: Cross from Wambach to Holiday, whose header from 10 yards dead center goes wide.

It’s garbage time now. 

67th minute: Tobin Heath tries to keep the ball in play by leaning forward and kicking it like a one-footed scorpion kick. But it was already out. Did I say it was garbage time?

USA substitution: Morgan Brian for Megan Rapinoe.

71st minute: U.S. corner kick sent to Wambach, who’s defended well enough that she can’t get the header on frame.

MEX substitution: Monica Alvarado replaces Murillo.

74th minute: Press with yet another terrific cross, Holiday dummies it for Heath, whose shot is blocked by the sprawling Robles.

USA substitution: Heather O’Reilly replaces Lauren Holiday. Surely, the USA will juggle the lineup somehow to account for the flank player subbing for the converted center mid, but does it matter at this point?

75th minute: With the first kick after the substitution, a free kick is floated to Lloyd. She’s clearly offside, but everyone briefly celebrates her hat trick before realizing the flag is up.

MEX substitution: Noyola for Robles. They’re rolling the dice on offense now. Well, not really. They’re just throwing warm bodies onto the field until this is over.

Cat Whitehill tells us Abby Wambach has dropped into the No. 10 role. But she’s not going to try to be a playmaker like Rapinoe.

Meanwhile, Tobin Heath is dribbling like Curly Neal against the Washington Generals.

84th minute: Chance as Wambach’s shot is saved by Tajonar. Press follows up but hits the left post.

Fox raises a pointed question: Given Hope Solo’s impending trial, do you play Ashlyn Harris in the final, just for the experience? Cat Whitehill agrees that it’s a good opportunity to play Harris.

Shot count is now 18-1 USA.

Tobin Heath is down holding her shin. From the replay, I’m not sure she’s wearing shin guards. Actually quite common for players to use tiny, flimsy shin guards, which baffles me. But Heath is back up quickly. And Whitehill is now lobbying for Ellis to play Julie Johnston in the final.

90th minute: The USA officially shifts to keepaway mode.

92nd minute: Wambach shoots from 25, easily saved.

So the USA advances for the World Cup, avenging a loss at this stage to Mexico four years ago that sent the Americans on an odyssey to reach the tournament.

The final against Costa Rica could be an interesting test of U.S. depth if Ellis puts out a few reserves. Costa Rica is clearly the third-best team in the region at the moment and should be the toughest opponent the USA will face until it goes outside the continent for opposition.

How will the USWNT line up?

All the tactical talk of the U.S. women’s soccer team may boil down to one question: How’s Lauren Holiday’s defense?

Everything else is working. Tobin Heath is a creative monster on the left. Megan Rapinoe has the playmaking skills and the engine to run all over the field and distribute. Right wing may not be the best place for Christen Press, but it’s good enough. Carli Lloyd’s role hasn’t changed all that much. The central midfield triangle, well-profiled this week by ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, has plenty of attacking power.

First things first — let’s clarify that the difference between a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3 is minimal.

Here’s a 4-5-1:

football formations

Here’s a 4-3-3:

football formations

Either way, the left and right wings will get down to the end line to put in crosses, and they’ll have some defensive responsibilities.

Back to the main question here: There’s little question Holiday can distribute from a deep-lying role. But she hasn’t been challenged defensively.

Maybe Mexico will provide that challenge. Maybe not.

The best precedent the WNT has for an attacker-turned-defensive … er .. holding mid … er … No. 6 would be Michelle Akers. She won everything in the air as a forward, then won everything in the air as a No. 6.

If Jill Ellis wanted to follow that precedent, she’d move Abby Wambach to No. 6. That’s not happening. And the “Wambach to No. 10” discussion hasn’t gained a lot of traction — it’s too tough a gear shift to switch from Rapinoe covering the whole field as a No. 10 to Wambach covering a bit less. And while Wambach has underrated foot skills, playing No. 10 might not give her as many opportunities to use her world-class aerial ability.

The common refrain after Meghan Klingenberg’s scorching performance Monday night, including that goal, was that we couldn’t award her the left back (No. 3) spot until we saw her against better competition.

The No. 6 spot seems to be Holiday’s. But can she fill the defensive duties?

It’ll be a while before we know, so to fill the time, here’s the Klingenberg goal again.

 

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.