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.

On the Women’s World Cup and Hope Solo, in that order

What a World Cup we’ve seen so far!

Stunning upsets: Nigeria tying Sweden, Norway tying Germany (this isn’t 1995), and Colombia over France.

– Moments of brilliance: Colombian keeper Sandra Sepulveda, the sequence leading to Karla Villalobos’ equalizer for Costa Rica against South Korea, and this free kick from Norway’s Maren Mjelde that couldn’t have been placed any better if she stood at the post with a stepladder:

– Overwhelming media coverage: Fox has gone all out to demonstrate that the next several men’s and women’s World Cups will be in good hands. Former rights-holder ESPN is also ramped up, matching or even surpassing their coverage from 2011, when they sent people like me to Germany to ride the rails and cover as many games as possible.

But we’re only talking about Hope Solo, right? So says Nancy Armour at USA TODAY, and I’m sure she’s not alone.

Most of my small band of Twitter followers would disagree. I’d say you could exclude the MMA folks in that band of Twitter followers, but actually, you can’t:

But let’s go beyond the anecdotal and look at Google trends: On Friday, the top trend was Women’s World Cup at 500,000. Hope Solo was at 100,000, tied for fourth with Alex Morgan. Gotta get injury updates.

Ratings? They’re good. (TV ratings, that is. U.S. player ratings, not so much.)

So I hope this is just taken as the polite, constructive criticism I’m intending. And frankly, my old paper is doing a terrific job covering both Hope Solo AND the Cup. Which makes Armour’s piece that much stranger.

More interesting stuff from the Cup:

– Abby Wambach is blaming artificial turf for the lack of U.S. offense, particularly her own missed chances. Maybe that’s better than Stephen A. Smith joking about Germany failing to stop Norway’s free kick because the players worried about their hair.

Stories like that are why I love Twitter:

(Laura also has a blog with some pointed insights on the Cup, Solo, etc. That includes a Google Map of women’s teams in the USA.)

On a more serious note — if Wambach isn’t comfortable playing on turf, should she be playing at all in this tournament? If I’m Jill Ellis, I read that and think, “OK, thanks — I’ll go with someone else.”

– But if I’m Jill Ellis, I take Jeff Carlisle’s advice on fixing the offense. Play a dadgum winger on the wing rather than letting Tobin Heath, who can inject some skill and creativity into the attack, rot on the bench. Get Lauren Holiday out of defensive midfield before a good team runs her ragged in the semifinals.

– And finally, on Hope Solo: Look, we all know her version of events is always going to be a little skewed to make her look better. She’s pretty good at spinning — even today, some people look back at the 2007 Women’s World Cup and think she’s the victim, just as she’s claiming she’s the “victim” here in a domestic dispute that most likely has plenty of blame to spread around too all parties involved.

But simply based on the facts, Sunil Gulati simply demolished Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Even after the Outside the Lines report on Solo’s family fracas and her apparently obnoxious behavior afterwards, we still don’t know how much we can trust her accusers. Is U.S. Soccer supposed to bench her now? Why? Because a senator finds it easier to make Solo a scapegoat than to tackle the circumstances that lead families to fight?

Yeesh. When’s the next game?