An observer named Paul Smith said USA’s semifinal match against France should be called Rachel Buehler’s Day Off. I like to think of Coach Pia Sundhage going all Ben Stein in the locker room before the game, droning, “Buehler? Buehler?”
Looking back on USA’s victory over France, everyone is noting correctly that Megan Rapinoe’s substitution shortly after the hour mark was what turned the game. The French midfielders had completely overrun their American counterparts, but Rapinoe’s energy and speed down the left side (plus the omission of Carli Lloyd, who had a poor game) stemmed the tide of the French attacks. That’s not even counting the fact that Rapinoe won the corner kick that led to Wambach’s go-ahead goal, or the through ball that she played that Alex Morgan latched on to before she scored USA’s third goal. French coach Bruno Bini is taking a lot of heat for removing defensive midfielder Sandrine Soubeyrand for offensive player Elodie Thomis shortly before Wambach’s goal, but he sensed the Americans were buckling and wanted to kill off USA before the end of regulation. The move didn’t work, but I have to respect his willingness to go for the throat.
The real bad move that he made was taking off striker Marie-Laure Delie at halftime for another striker Eugenie Le Sommer. It’s true that Delie was rendered invisible by USA’s defense, but she might have been more effective with another striker alongside her. Had the French put on Le Sommer for one of their five midfielders, their offensive dominance might have yielded more. As it was, Le Sommer missed some of the best French chances. Les Bleues shot the ball 25 times, but those shots came from an average (I repeat: average!) of 30 yards away. That’s a sign of an offense without a cutting edge, and with a goalkeeper like Solo in the net, it’s not a recipe for success. For contrast, USA had only 11 shots, but they came from much closer range. In soccer, basketball, hockey, or firearms, moving closer to the target greatly improves one’s accuracy.
It’s understandable that France’s Gaëtane Thiney groused to the French newspaper L’Equipe after the game that the French were the better team. Understandable, but only fractionally true. Their midfielders dribbled and passed circles around USA’s, as they did to other opponents through much of the tournament. It’s a mesmerizing brand of soccer to watch as long as your team is not on the receiving end of it. The French won the battles in the middle, but lost the game on both ends of the pitch. Even their one goal was a fluke, albeit a deserved one, with Bompastor’s cross eluding its target but rolling into the net anyway. Not only could they not finish, but goalkeeper Bérangère Sapowicz had a terrible game, especially with her positioning on Wambach’s goal.
The 3-1 scoreline was harsh on the French, but don’t feel too bad for them. Reaching the semifinals of a major tournament is unprecedented success for them, and after the embarrassing spectacle that the men’s team made of themselves at the men’s World Cup last year, the women have given the French a reason to feel proud of their soccer. The women have also gained a lot of media exposure for themselves in their homeland, making the cover of the esteemed magazine France Football for the first time. This seems to be the pattern in women’s soccer: It generally takes success on the field to make media organizations notice their country’s teams. That happened in Brazil when the women started getting to the finals of World Cups, and it happened in Britain when the Englishwomen reached the finals of Euro 2009.
In the meantime, USA will have to deal with Japan, a team that plays a lot like the French. USA should be able to win by testing Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, but that’s much easier said than done. Japan defeated Germany and Sweden in the same way, keeping the ball away from them and preventing them from building any offensive momentum at all. Watching those games was like watching two large, powerful predators fall into quicksand and slowly choke to death. The Germans and the Swedes tried to use their advantages in size and speed, and those were of no use at all. Commentators keep harping on USA’s heart and will to win, but the Japanese have just as much playing for a country that was so recently devastated by the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor meltdown. Players lost relatives, friends, and houses in the disaster. They’ve responded by playing attractive, free-flowing soccer and thanking the world for its support before every game. Team captain Homare Sawa, likely playing in her last World Cup, assisted on the killer goal against Germany shortly after being accidentally kicked in the crotch. How do you root against a team like that?
Coach Pia Sundhage has stuck single-mindedly to her core of starters, and though most of the ones in bad shape turned out to repay the coach’s faith (LePeilbet, Wambach), the one who hasn’t yet come good is Amy Rodriguez. Not only has she not scored, but she’s been invisible on the field — at least Wambach during her recent scoring slump was shooting and missing left and right. Right now, it’s hard to see how Rodriguez merits a start over Alex Morgan. Of course, if Rodriguez scores a hat trick in the final, we’ll all hail Sundhage as a genius.
And now for a few all-star teams like I did with the men’s World Cup last year. I am not doing a team of ugly players; the ugly guys I listed for last year’s tournament are all multi-millionaires, but most of these women are barely pulling the equivalent of a minimum-wage salary for playing soccer, so knocking the unattractive players doesn’t feel right.
THE WORLD CUP ALL-HAIR TEAM
Sadly, I can’t field a full 11 here because, unlike the men, the women aren’t spurred by the knowledge that billions of people are watching them on TV, so they have less incentive to wear crazy hairstyles. Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a lot of sensible ponytails and headbands. That’s not much fun. Still, there’s Ayumi Kaihori (Japan) and her spiky brown ‘do — half the Japanese team have brown dye jobs, in imitation of the 1% of Japanese people with naturally brown hair. Then there’s Megan Rapinoe (USA) and her bottle-blonde combover that people have compared to USA men’s player Stuart Holden. Sally Shipard (Australia) had this weird mullet-y thing on her head, though in previous years, her hair has looked more conventional. The coolest hairstyle I saw was Genoveva Añonma (Equatorial Guinea) and her tastefully colored cornrows.
THE WORLD CUP ALL-NAME TEAM
I’m one short of the full 11 here, but in 2015 the Women’s World Cup will have 24 teams instead of 16, and I’ll have more to choose from.
GK: Hope Solo (USA) — Really, with a name like that, a kid’s just destined for great things.
DF: Heather Mitts (USA) — A name that would really be better suited to a goalkeeper.
DF: Rachel Unitt (England) — She should call Randy Johnson and see if she can take his nickname.
DF: Casey Stoney (England)
DF: Trine Rønning (Norway)
MF: Glory Iroka (Nigeria) — This team has both Hope and Glory.
MF: Sarah McLaughlin (New Zealand) — Undoubtedly she finds it easy to help her team retain “Possession.”
MF: Blessing Diala (Equatorial Guinea)
FW: Lady Andrade (Colombia)
FW: Stephany Mayor (Mexico) — What’s best: The last name that means “better” or the fact that entering her name in a search engine gets the author of the Twilight novels?
THE WORLD CUP ALL-PRETTY TEAM
GK: Ursula Holl (Germany) — A shocking pick ahead of Solo, but Germany’s backup goalkeeper is gorgeous. She’s also openly gay, one of the few such players at this tournament.
DF: Heather Mitts (USA) — Easy pick, really.
DF: Ellyse Perry (Australia) — This 20-year-old is also a member of Australia’s national cricket team. Why do I think that she’ll take over the world in the coming decade?
DF: Marie-Eve Nault (Canada) — Unfortunately, her looks couldn’t keep the Big Red from finishing last in the group.
DF: Érika (Brazil) — She’s a cheater. But she looks good in a bikini.
MF: Gaëtane Thiney (France) — If you think she’s pretty, check out her dribbling and passing skills.
MF: Louisa Necib (France) — They call here “Zidanette” because she’s an Arab from Marseilles, like Zinedine Zidane. Fortunately, she has a lot more hair.
MF: Simone Laudehr (Germany) — A steadying influence in the middle of the park, and easy on the eyes.
FW: Jessica Landström (Sweden) — Proof that not all Swedes are blonde. The most impressive set of biceps on this list.
FW: Josefine Öqvist (Sweden) — By the way, she swapped jerseys with a German fan after one game.
FW: Alex Morgan (USA) — Reportedly receiving marriage proposals after her goal against France.
Bench: Hope Solo (USA), Rhian Wilkinson (Canada), Natalie Vinti (Mexico), Corine Franco (France), Fatmire Bajramaj (Germany), Eniola Aluko (England), Cecilie Pedersen (Norway).