Monday, July 11, 2011

The Nightly Note: America's Finest Moment

If you're an American who has, through decades of under promoted and unexciting women's sports, become complacent about women's sports in general, you could be forgiven for missing yesterday's World Cup match between the United States and their arch-rival Brazil. After all when the biggest thing going in women's professional athletics is the WNBA, well, it's just hard to get too worked up. Add in the fact that futbol (or as we say it in this country, soccer) just isn't very popular in the States, and it's a perfect storm of American disinterest.

But if you're into watching top flight competition, on the grandest of a sports stages, then you should've been watching the women's World Cup. The US women's squad not only has a history of success (unlike the men) they're a perennial favorite, and for the casual fan the difference between the men's and women's games is hardly noticeable.

For those of you who aren't familiar, Brazil is probably the world's most talented squad in terms of measurables. Their players are fast, they're strong on the ball, and exceptionally creative, and they're led by the world's best player (by a lot) - Marta.

They're also the world's most perpetually underachieving team.

Having never won a major tournament, the Brazilian's have been both incredibly unlucky, and a frequent victim of US keeper Hope Solo as this video of her making an incredible save against Marta to preserve the US lead in the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal Game can attest. The Brazilian Squad, known as the Samba Queens, has finished as the runner up in the Olympics twice and the World Cup once. 

Always bridesmaids, as they say.

Worse still, it seems that every year it's been the US squad that's outed them. With the exception of a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Brazilian's in the World Cup in 2007, the United States has beaten them in their past seven matches, including the last four in a row leading up to this.

So when the two teams met again on the pitch in a quarterfinals matchup, the match needed no buildup.

To be certain, this wasn't the 1980 Men's Hockey Team - that team was made up of college kids going up against an undefeatable powerhouse with nothing less than the Soviet-US rivalry on the line. But it was a US team that had just gotten handled - especially on their defensive line - by Sweden in a 2-1 loss, and their opponent was still the extraordinarily talented Brazil, a squad with a huge motivation to beat them.

At the outset of the match the US women, clad in all black uniforms that must've had the players sweltering under the sun in weather that reached 90 degrees outside the stadium - and must've been considerably hotter on the pitch - received an enormous break when a crossing pass from US midfielder Shannon Boxx deflected off Brazilian defender Daiane and into her own net for an early 1-0 US lead.

The match would go on without anything particularly notable happening through half time. Both teams had a couple of opportunities, and each squad sent a ball off the cross bar, one on a long volley from a Brazilian midfielder and one off a header from a corner kick by US midfielder Carli Lloyd. Beyond that, the Two teams played an evenly matched game with neither team seeming to be able to create in scoring range.

Of course, it was in the 66th minute that the match would take a controversial turn, and the truly  historic nature of the match would begin to take shape.

At that point Marta showed her real brilliance on a deep run into American territory. After seemingly being trapped by a pair of American defenders, she flipped the ball over their heads, cut behind and she and American defender Rachel Buehler raced for the loose ball. Diving feet first in the air, both players seemed to get to it at the same moment and it trickled harmlessly into the waiting hands of Solo.

Referee Jacqui Melksham however saw it differently.

Instead of allowing play to continue she not only awarded a penalty kick to the Brazilian's, but gave a red card to Buehler which not only meant she was ejected from the game, but that the US would have to play the remainder of the match a player down.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game of futbol, it's hard to describe how incredibly devastating that turn of events was. Not only is a penalty kick, which is taken from a mere twelve yards away, essentially impossible to stop - the US would now not only have to somehow survive to full time a player down to the world most talented team, a staggering 23 minutes away - they'd then have to play through two more 15 minute extra-time periods before reaching penalty kicks.

A truly staggering task in which the US women would have to run an incredible 53 minutes a player down. 

Then something incredible happened - Solo actually stopped the penalty kick of exceptionally talented Brazilian striker Christiane on an amazing diving save.

However in her second controversial call in minutes, Melksham called the teams back, claiming that Solo had left her line prior to the shot (goalkeepers are required to keep their feet on the goal line until the penalty shot is taken). At that point the Brazilian's sent Marta to the line and she buried the second opportunity.

The United States squad never wavered though. Instead of hanging their heads in defeat or capitulating in the face of overwhelmingly long odds, the team rose to the challenge.

Flexing their incredible conditioning the US squad not only survived a player down, they started to wrest away control of the game, consistently outrunning the Samba Queen's despite having to cover significantly more ground than the Brazilian's given that they were playing a woman short.

When the US made it to full time tied, it seemed as though it might, just might be possible.

But in just the third minute of the first 15 minute extra time period Marta once again proved why she's the best player in the world. Taking a cross from the left side, Marta, positioned at the near post flipped the ball over the head of her marker and past Solo, sneaking the ball in at the far post.

It was a play that only she could make, and it was truly brilliant.

Now down 2-1, and down a player to a team that could simply pack the defense in with the first extra-time period coming to an end, the odds for the US squad were not only long, they may as well have been non-existent.

Seemingly understanding that they couldn't beat the Brazilian's straight up with their passing in the scoring area, the United States squad had been playing most of the game for corner kicks. Hoping that they could play a ball in and find a fortuitous header. For the most part they executed the strategy well, but one after another, the attempts were cleared by the Samba Queens.

Then as the second extra-time period expired, the referee's awarded eight minutes of stoppage time (largely due to stalling by the Brazilian's which drew heavy boos from the crowd). All that stood between the Brazilian's and the vanquishing of their long-time foe was eight minutes.

One by one, those minutes ticked by.

116, 117, 118, 119, 120...

Following a long clearance of an extremely dangerous opportunity by the Brazilian's that could've very well put them up 3-1, and a strike that went just high by Lloyd, the American's in the 122 minute got the ball to midfielder Megan Rapinoe - a player who had drawn my ire throughout the match for turning the ball over nearly every time she touched it - who dribbled the ball up the left sideline, and with a left footed strike, let a long volley fly...

Waiting on the other end was the most prolific goal scorer in United States history, Abby Wambach.

The 31 year old Wambach who had, for many years been one of the top players in the world, had looked like a shadow of her former self throughout much of the tournament. Gone was the pace [speed] that had once allowed her to run past defenders. Despite her age however, Wambach was still a savvy veteran, and a capable player on set pieces with her ability to leap over her markers.

And this time the oft-errant Rapinoe's volley found it's intended destination. The ball, sent in from nearly 30 yards away sailed perfectly over a leaping defenders head, and past the outstretched arms of the desperate diving goal-keeper - and onto the waiting forehead of Wambach, who buried the ball into the back right of the net.


The goal ignited nothing short of pure mayhem. As Wambach sprinted toward the sideline in jubilation, her teammates mobbed her and the stadium erupted.

The Brazilian's just looked on dejected, stunned by the horrendous turn of their own fate.

Nothing I can say of course, could surpass seeing the moment yourself.

That goal, dramatic as it was however, only set up a finish that would have to be decided on penalty kicks.

For that, the US would have the advantage with Hope Solo, probably the finest keeper on the planet in their net.

Through two rounds the two teams stayed even, with both sides burying their opportunities with little difficulty. Then Solo made her presence known, making an unfathomable, fully extended, mid-air, diving stop against Dainae (who was responsible for the own-goal earlier), on a ball to her right to give the US the advantage.

With four rounds complete, the United States was up 4-3, and if they could bury their next one, it would be all over.

Taking the final kick for the US would be defender Ali Kreiger, a late entry since the player originally expected to take the shot, Rachel Buehler, has been ejected earlier.

12 years ago to the day was the day that the US women beat team China on penalty kicks to win the 1999 World Cup, an iconic moment that will be forever remembered by Brandi Chastain's topless celebration.

With cool resolve the unlikely replacement grounded a ball into the far left corner past the diving keeper, and the celebration was on.

It may not have been USA vs the Soviet Union in 1980, but if you care at all about the spectacle of sport, the thrill of competition, this contest has to rate as one of the greatest moments in US sports history.

A player down against a superior team, the United States found a way to succeed where almost anyone else would've failed. They had to play nearly 55 minutes at a grave disadvantage, to a point where other, lesser athletes would've caved to their exhaustion. Down a player and down a goal in the waning seconds of the contest this team rose to the moment, and became champions.

While the team may have lacked the pure skill and talent of their opponents, they displayed characteristics that are incredibly American: tenacity, courage, and perseverance.

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