soccer

How to Watch Sports

If you frequent my blog on any level, you’d know that most of my posts focus on one concrete subject and involve facts surrounding that subject. The subjects are related to music, television or film entertainment, or women’s soccer because let’s be real, I don’t often write about other sports. What I want to write about this week is more subjective than usual, but it pertains to all sports and specifically watching sports.

There are two ways to watch sports: in-person or on live stream via a television or the internet. If you’ve ever been to a sporting event, you’d know the experience is much different than watching from your couch, bed, a bar, etc. Seeing a game or match play out right in front of you while taking in the sights and sounds is an experience like no other. If you’re at a team sporting event and you’re rooting for the home team, you’re probably not alone. There are most likely thousands of others cheering on the team with you. You can usually be as loud as you want. At some sporting events, they even encourage fans to scream or be loud. You might be able to do that from your home too, but it doesn’t have the same effect.

Another important difference is the view you have. On a live stream of the match you can only see what the camera sees. You might not be getting a view of all the players or the whole field. You don’t get to watch pregame warmups or post-game interactions either. That being said sometimes the camera has a great view and can offer close-ups of plays and athletes you wouldn’t be able to see from your spot in the stands. It might be why some people prefer to watch games or matches from home.

Another reason why some people might prefer to watch from home is weather. Weather conditions can have a huge impact on outdoor sports. It also impacts the spectators. It can be extremely hot or extremely cold. It can snow or rain. It can even cause delays. In outdoor sports, it’s not always a perfect day or night for a game. You have to prepare accordingly if you attend and some people just enjoy the comfort of their own home better.

There’s also the money factor, which rules a lot of things in our lives. It can be expensive to see a live sporting event, especially championships or major tournaments and that’s if you can even get tickets at face value. It can be a big factor in whether someone watches from home or not. Add in your personal schedule and then you’ve got another dilemma. Sometimes people don’t have a choice in how they watch sports.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see many live sporting events. I’ve been to football, basketball, baseball, and hockey games. I’ve attended soccer matches, a golf tournament, and a skateboarding competition. I have my fair share of preferences on the way to watch sports. Sometimes I like watching from home, but sometimes I’m caught up in a sport that I just want to experience live.

On Friday night, I attended my second NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) match. I decided to go because it was the first ever home playoff match for the team I’ve followed since the league’s inception in 2013, the Washington Spirit, and because I had available time in my schedule. I like the complex where the Spirit play. It’s a great venue to watch soccer (venue might be another reason people like to attend or not attend live sports too) and I wanted to make a trip there this season. Plus, it was a playoff match. As any sports fan knows, playoffs are the best and most exciting time of any season.

The weather last weekend was terrible throughout the mid-atlantic region. Thursday through Sunday brought tons of rain. I hate rain when I have to be out in it for an extended period of time. I was bummed when I saw what I would have to deal with at the match. Add in that the Spirit had a disappointing final two weeks of the regular season and I was wondering if I made the right call to attend the match. I already committed though so I knew I had to brave through the elements and whatever outcome the match brought.

Friday night’s semifinal match between the Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars was the best soccer match I’ve ever attended in my time of being a soccer fan. It misted the entire game, but it was cool enough that I was able to comfortably wear a hoodie with a light rain jacket the whole night and stay dry. The Spirit won in extra time when Franny Ordega scored a beautiful goal that resulted from a pure team effort in the 111th minute. Most importantly I saw my favorite soccer player score a goal in-person, in front of my own eyes.

Okay, I get it. You’re thinking it’s not a rare feat to see your favorite soccer player score a goal. It is when your favorite player is a defender though. Defenders just don’t score often. When they do, doves sing, according to Becky Sauerbrunn at least. It’s not a big secret by any means, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it on here before. My favorite soccer player is Ali Krieger. She’s a defender. More specifically, she’s a right outside back for the Spirit and for the USWNT. In her national team career, she’s scored 1 goal and a pretty important PK that lead to one of the biggest surges in women’s soccer since 1999 (I didn’t even see this one on livestream). Since her career with the Spirit began in 2013, she’s scored about 1 goal per season. That’s about 4 professional goals since I started paying attention to her. Out of those 4 goals, I’ve never seen any in-person. I missed 3 of them totally because I wasn’t able to watch those matches. On the goal I did see, I didn’t even realize she was the one who scored until the replay happened. Seeing her put one in the back of the net Friday night was everything. I wasn’t even sure how the sequence was started until I saw the replay later that night (I was both watching and chatting to a friend who also attended). It was beautiful header off a ball into the box by fellow defender and CANWNT player, Shelina Zadorsky, that started from a play beginning with a corner kick taken by Krieger herself. I just remember seeing the ball float in off a kick from about halfway between the goal and mid-field, meet Krieger’s head, and careen into the back netting.

It was one of my favorite live sports moments that I’ve seen in-person in a while. I’ve seen plenty of good ones over the years too like a game winning triple overtime goal and ones that clinched series’ victories. I’ve never seen a team win a championship in front of my eyes however. That’ll be for another time.  This one was special though. It was hard to come by given the situation and I won’t forget it. It made me realize how special it is to see a sporting event live. Standing in the mist or rain or whatever element was worth it, so was the travel distance, the price (it wasn’t too expensive), and the slight traffic. It all was. So I’m urging you. If you’re one of those people who like to watch from home, remember there are some irreplaceable moments in sports and seeing them in front of your own eyes every once in a while is what makes being a sports fan that more special. Put aside your preferences. Make time. Spend the money. It’s worth it to go to a game.

Advertisements

Right Side, Strong Side

When I became a U.S. Women’s National Team fan in 2011 and more so in 2012, it was because I fell in love with the personalities of the players on the team. As you may know, they got my attention after their dramatic 2011 Women’s World Cup Semifinal win against Brazil on penalties. I watched the rest of that World Cup and realized how amazing these women were at their craft. It was a year later when I got to know them as more than just athletes though. I watched videos, read articles, books, and interviews, followed twitter accounts, and in turn learned so much about these incredible role models. They had a strong core group of players lead by Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone. They had young rising talent in Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux. They also had several players in the middle of the pack who brought special elements to the team. Some were around for years, while others made their way into the lineup over the last cycle (the 4 years between World Cups). One of those players was Heather O’Reilly, who I quickly learned was known to the Women’s Soccer world as HAO (pronounced Hey-Oh) (O’Reilly’s initials which stand for Heather Ann O’Reilly).

The New Brunswick, New Jersey native made her USWNT debut in 2002 while still in high school. She played alongside 1999 Women’s World Cup heroes Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, and Brianna Scurry. Then she began her storied college career at women’s soccer powerhouse, the University of North Carolina under legendary head coach, Anson Dorrance. At UNC, she was a part of 3 National Championship winning teams and also made the USWNT roster for the 2004 Olympic Games, where she helped the team to Olympic Gold. After college, she continued with her USWNT career and played professionally once women’s leagues were again formed in the U.S. by joining Sky Blue FC in the WPS and the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City in the NWSL. HAO currently plays for FC Kansas City. As a member of the USWNT, O’Reilly played in 230 matches, scored 46 goals, assisted on 54 goals, won 3 Olympic Gold Medals (2004, 2008, 2012) and 1 World Cup Championship (2015), out-performed everyone on the beep test multiple times, and displayed a limitless amount of game faces. HAO has been nothing short of incredible. Tonight she will play her final game as a member of the USWNT. She isn’t retiring from the game of soccer by any means, just from international play. Nonetheless she will be missed tremendously on the world’s stage.

With the additions of many new faces to the USWNT in the past year, HAO’s playing time dwindled. I’m guessing it may have played a role in her decision. Despite that and the fact that she was named an alternate for the 2016 Olympic Games, I didn’t see this one coming. It hurts a lot more than the rest. She’s only 31, which is on the older player range, but still not as old as some. HAO was also a part of the USWNT for so long. She was a part of that core group I began following when I became a fan and part of a special duo that most fans of the team know and love.

As a midfielder, HAO played along the right side of the field. Somewhere along the way, which I believe began around the 2011 Women’s World Cup, she formed an in-game connection with right outside back Ali Krieger and the phrase “right side, strong side” began. I’m not sure who coined the phrase. It might have been an announcer, a fan, or even the pair themselves, but it became known among the USWNT community that #9 and #11 in the game equals right side, strong side. They might have coined the phrase themselves because they use it too. Hopefully HAO and Kriegs take the field tonight and play one last time dominating the right side of the pitch. Either way it will surely be an emotional night for HAO’s family, friends, teammates, coaches, and fans who watched her perform for the red, white, and blue. She’s the true definition of world class and represented U.S. Soccer in the best way possible. Thanks HAO for all you’ve done both on and off the field. Right side, strong side forever!

Rio 2016: Medal Round

I was looking forward to watching the USWNT take on Brazil in the semi-finals of the Olympic games today at 12 p.m. ET, but sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. On Saturday, the team lost to Sweden on penalties. I was working at a music festival and was unable to watch. I tried my best to follow along on twitter when I wasn’t busy. It was still upsetting regardless of the fact that I wasn’t totally enamored with the game on a TV in front of me.

Saturday’s loss was the earliest Olympic exit for the USWNT since they began competing in the games in 1996. The U.S. won gold at the previous 3 Olympic tournaments. The game was scoreless through the first half. Mid-way through the second frame in the 61st minute Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius put her team up 1-0. The U.S. tied it up 15 minutes later on a goal from Alex Morgan. Neither team was able to score through 90 minutes plus stoppage time. In the 30 minutes of added extra time again neither team was able to find the back of the net so the match went to penalties.

Alex Morgan took the first shot for the U.S. It was saved by Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. Lotta Schelin (SWE), Lindsey Horan (USA), Kosovare Asllani (SWE), and Carli Lloyd (USA) all scored on their PK’s. Linda Sembrant stepped up next for Sweden but was denied by Solo, igniting a surge for the U.S. At that point the score was 2-2 after 3 rounds. Then Morgan Brian put the U.S. up 3-2, but Sweden countered quickly with a goal by Caroline Seger. Christen Press was the final kicker for the USWNT (unless of course the score still remained tied) but her shot sailed over the cross bar leaving it to Lisa Dahlkvist to seal the deal for Sweden, which she did. The U.S. fell 4-3 ending their chances to medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

No matter what the situation it’s always a surprise when the USWNT loses, especially at this point in the competition. They’ve set the standard for so long in the women’s soccer world that it’s expected for them to compete in every final in every major tournament. This time that wasn’t the case. For the first time ever the U.S. failed to medal in a major tournament, but a part of me believes this was coming. Since winning the World Cup last summer the USWNT went through some major changes. The lineup changed drastically with retirements, pregnancies, and injuries, but also with healthy players. Heather O’Reilly, a 14 year USWNT veteran wasn’t part of the active roster. Her status on the USWNT seemed to drop off last year playing in only a handful of matches including once in the World Cup for no visible purpose. She was named as an alternate on the Olympic squad. Ali Krieger, the States’ most consistent and reliable right outside back, began riding the bench some time during Olympic qualifiers for no explicit reason as well. She was a major part of the back line that almost broke the record for scoreless minutes in last year’s World Cup.

When it came to retirements, veterans Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday, and Lori Chalupny hung up their boots. Forwards Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez were left off the roster because both were pregnant. Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL back in December and worked her way back into the lineup and Olympic roster but still wasn’t 100 percent ready to go. Injuries to Morgan Brian and Tobin Heath right before the Olympics and Julie Johnston and Mallory Pugh during the first match of the games happened too. It seems that the USWNT didn’t have the right lineup and game plan formula for winning which puts Coach Jill Ellis to blame and rightfully so.

At one point in the match on Saturday she had midfielder, Tobin Heath at right back, a move that made most shake their heads. Her philosophy of having a more offensive team backfired. The U.S. barely outscored opponents during the tournament, never scoring more than 2 goals in any match. Relying heavily on rookies and injured players to perform against some of the best teams in the world was another blunder. Good rookies are important to have on any roster but there needs to be a core group of healthy veterans involved as well. In my opinion, Ellis wasted a roster spot on Megan Rapinoe. She wasn’t ready. She may have been healthy enough to play, but she wasn’t in her element at all. Without playing since December, it’s tough to come back strong and perform at your best in a major tournament. It seems to me that their were more politics at play than anything in this tournament, which caused for the early exit.

Now it’ll be another 2 years until the USWNT begins preparing for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It’ll be time to focus on the NWSL and growing the women’s game in that regard. It was around this time 4 years ago that my love of women’s soccer grew and inspired me. It inspired me in so many ways. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without the game and incredible players/humans that are a part of the U.S. women’s soccer team. Missing the game Saturday was slightly disappointing, but I missed it for great reason as I continue to follow my own dreams. I wouldn’t be doing that without “the Gals” and for that I’m grateful. Win or lose I’ll always be proud of the USWNT players and the way they compete. They’re incredible both on the field and off, and I’m glad to support them. I believe that we will win, but another day and time from now.

Rio 2016: Group Stage

The 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil kicked off on Friday night. Before the opening ceremonies, the United States Women’s National Team began their tournament Wednesday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil against New Zealand. “The Gals” then squared off against number three ranked France Saturday afternoon again in Belo Horizonte and Colombia last evening in Manaus. Through three games the USA women’s soccer team had a record of 2-0-1 earning them 7 points and the top spot in their group, Group G. The first place seed sets them up for a quarterfinals match-up with former Coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden on Friday.

In the first match against New Zealand the U.S. came away with a 2-0 win. The goals came from the feet of Carli Lloyd in the 9th minute and Alex Morgan in the 46th minute. The U.S. wasn’t tested much against New Zealand, but that changed quickly when the team played France in their second Olympic Group Stage match.

The U.S. squeaked away from France with a 1-0 win. The game could have gone either way, but France failed to capitalize on multiple scoring opportunities. It also could have ended in a tie, if not for 2015 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. Lloyd scored off a rebound of a Tobin Heath shot that was saved and hit off the post. France exposed the USWNT back line several times during the match, but U.S. Goalkeeper, Hope Solo, stepped up when needed.

In their third and final group stage match against Colombia last evening, the U.S. succeeded in winning the group but not in the way they would have liked. The game finished in a 2-2 tie with the game tying goal coming from Colombia in the 90th minute. The U.S. fell behind early in the match in the 26th minute when Colombia’s Catalina Usme sent in a free kick that slipped through the five hole of Hope Solo. The U.S. equalized in the 41st minute when Crystal Dunn cleaned up the rebound of a Carli Lloyd shot that was saved and hit off the crossbar. Then shortly into the second half Mallory Pugh beat out several Colombia defenders and kicked the ball through the Colombia defense to the back netting. Her goal came in the 60th minute and put the U.S. up 2-1. Then right before the game went to stoppage time, Catalina Usme again sent in a beautiful free kick from the right side that beat Hope Solo far post. The USWNT failed to hold on for the win and Usme’s brace gave Colombia their first tie against the U.S. after losing their previous 5 meetings. The goals for Dunn and Pugh marked their first ever major tournament goals for the senior national team since both are making their Olympic debuts this summer.

In my opinion, the USWNT is not playing their best soccer. They’re not taking advantage of their scoring chances and their defense doesn’t seem as strong as it was last summer in Canada at the World Cup. Fortunately being as good as they are, they were able to pull out of the group stage with a number one seed. The medal round will be a whole different animal though. If they make it past Sweden on Friday and Brazil beats Australia, the stage will be set for a semi-final between the top ranked team in the world and the host nation. The culture behind the USWNT is a winning mentality. The ladies in the red, white, and blue are going to give it their all to try to win gold for their country. They just need to start peaking to make it a little easier on themselves.

Of note from the group stage, Julie Johnston’s been out with a slight groin injury. Whitney Engen filled in at center back the past two matches. Pugh also took a knock in the first match that kept her out of the France contest. Morgan Brian has seen limited action due to a prior injury. She only played some of the first three matches. Lastly and finally, Megan Rapinoe made her return from being out due to an ACL tear that happened in December. As you can tell, the U.S. has some injury concerns to be aware of going forward too. Hopefully they’ll be able to manage, improve, and secure their third straight Olympic gold.

Road to Rio: Roster Release

I told you the next time I’d blog about the USWNT it would be after the Olympic roster was released. Well the release happened around noon today. With months since qualifiers and a tournament and friendlies in between, there were no surprises, just a few disappointments.

The 2016 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Olympic Roster is as follows:

Goalkeepers: Hope Solo and Alyssa Naeher

Defenders: Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen, Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston

Midfielders: Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian, Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe

Forwards: Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Mallory Pugh

I think the only question anyone had about this roster as time went forward was whether or not Megan Rapinoe would be healthy for the Olympics. She tore her ACL back in December, had surgery, and rehabbed post-op. She made it back though, just in time. My only concern is that she probably won’t be at 100 percent, despite what sources say. She hasn’t played in a match since October (she was injured prior to the U.S. Victory Tour matches in December). It’s almost like Alex Morgan at the World Cup last year. Morgan was injured twice for extended time periods over the past 2 years prior to the World Cup. At the World Cup, her performance suffered. She wasn’t at her peak. I feel like that might be the case for Rapinoe come August.

Two of the biggest disappointments of this roster are the exclusion of long-time USWNT veteran Heather O’Reilly (HAO) and 2015 Women’s World Cup back-up goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. O’Reilly’s playing time began to drop when Jill Ellis took over the reigns of the national team in the spring of 2014. She only played in one match last summer at the Women’s World Cup coming in as a sub in the quarterfinals against China PR. Harris on the other hand was named back-up goalkeeper in the months prior to the Women’s World Cup. After the World Cup, somewhere along the way during the Victory Tour, Harris’s status dropped. It became noticeable following the Victory Tour match in Orlando, FL, a city only about an hour away from Harris’s hometown of Satellite Beach. Harris didn’t receive any playing time, which isn’t common when a friendly gets played in or near a player’s hometown. It was disappointing and rather odd, raising a red flag for anyone who paid attention to the team. Coach Ellis also stated prior to the three December matches that each goalkeeper would receive playing time. Unfortunately the Hawaii match was cancelled because the field was deemed unplayable. In the other two matches Naeher and Solo played. Harris again didn’t receive any minutes, which was another red flag. Maybe she was supposed to play in Hawaii, but we may never know. Since the Victory Tour, Harris hasn’t played in any matches and has repeatedly not dressed for games, which was a sure indication of her third keeper status. Harris and O’Reilly will serve as alternates for the team along with Emily Sonnett and Samantha Mewis. Both are world class players who would undoubtedly be starters on any other national team in the world. What caused their status to drop on the USWNT is unknown and therefore a disappointment for this year’s Olympic Tournament.

On a happier note, the final cut from last year’s World Cup roster, Crystal Dunn, has finally made the USWNT for a major tournament. Dunn’s response to being left off the World Cup roster last summer was nothing short of inspirational. She lead the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with 15 goals and received the 2015 Player of the Year Award. She’s also scored 13 goals and had 7 assists since rejoining the national team during the Victory Tour. She’s been on fire and was a guarantee going into the Olympics. Her comeback was incredible and if you want to read more about that from Crystal, herself, check out this article in the Players’ Tribune.

Another happy note from the roster is the 31 year old, USWNT veteran, first time Olympian, Ali Krieger. In 2012 during Olympic qualifying, Krieger tore her right ACL and MCL and didn’t make it back in time to be on the Olympic roster, despite efforts of surgery and rehab. At the time, she was an integral part of the USWNT as the only player who played every minute in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and scored the winning penalty kick against Brazil in the legendary quarterfinal match that put the USWNT in the headlines.Her exclusion on the 2012 roster was expected but also a disappointment. Since then, she has stated numerous times that being an Olympic athlete was always a dream of hers. Now that dream is finally coming true. As a world class defender/right outside back, there’s no doubt that Krieger will be an impact if this team is to win gold, despite her playing time in the last few months being much less than normal (another questionable decision to say the least).

Lastly three other players (in addition to Dunn) on this Olympic roster were not part of the World Cup Champion team last summer. The youngest of those three is Mallory Pugh. She received her first call to the national team during January camp and has been lights out since receiving her first cap. The catch is that she just turned 18. She’s about to start college at UCLA in the fall. She’s also scored 2 goals and added 7 assists since her debut for the senior national team. Her 7 assists actually lead the team this year. She’ll be a quality play-maker for the USWNT going forward.

Lindsey Horan is another of the other three who wasn’t part of the World Cup last summer. Horan is the only player on the national team to pass on college and go straight to the pros. She played 4 seasons for Paris Saint-Germain in France before joining the Portland Thorns of the NWSL this year. Since coming in this year Horan has played as a holding center mid, occupying the spot most previously held by recent retiree Lauren Holiday (Cheney). There were questions of who would take on that role after Holiday retired, but Horan has fit into the spot well, even if she played forward all her life. Allie Long, the last of the other three players not a part of the World Cup, has also been competing for that spot with Horan. Long has been in and out of the national team for years. She could never quite secure a spot until now making her roster spot a “long” awaited accomplishment.

The rest of the roster contains players who won gold in Canada last summer including 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd, 2015 Women’s World Cup Golden Glove Winner Hope Solo, and the face of the USWNT since 2011, Alex Morgan. Hopefully these 18 players will be able to bring back gold in the Olympics. If the USWNT wins gold, they will be the first team to ever win World Cup gold and Olympic gold back to back. They’ll face plenty of tough tasks along the way, including France, who beat the U.S. back in February 2015. Host country Brazil will also be a tough task if they meet at some point as well as Germany and the 2012 Olympic bronze medal winning team, Canada.

Only time will tell what happens this summer to the reigning world champion USWNT, but it will surely be entertaining no matter what. I’ll probably update a couple times during the Olympics, but I doubt it will be as much as when I covered the World Cup last summer. Look for updates nonetheless. See you in Rio!

Breaking Records

The title of this post can be taken 2 different ways if you think about it. It could literally mean smashing vinyl records or it could mean surpassing a high achievement. With the whole theme of this blog though, you never know. For today, interpret it the second way.

Since Coachella 2016 has finally passed, it’s time to get back to the normal blog posts instead of just Coachella Band Previews (although I know how much everyone (me included) loves them). Over the weekend there was an epic achievement made by a new team in the women’s pro soccer league in this country, the NWSL (for more on the league check out my blog post from last year). This past year the NWSL announced the addition of a 10th team in the league, the Orlando Pride. The Pride, who are run by the same management as Orlando City SC of the MLS, had their inaugural home opener on Saturday night. The match attracted 23,403 fans to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL, which broke the prior NWSL attendance record of 21,144 set by the Portland Thorns in 2015.The former record was set during a post-World Cup “welcome back” match for the 2015 World Cup Champion USWNT players. The only significance of the match in Orlando was that it was the first home match in the club’s history. Nonetheless numbers like that are incredible. I mean think about it, 23,000+ fans for a non-international women’s pro soccer match. Most NHL arenas hold less fans than that. It’s proof that soccer is growing in America, and not only soccer, but women’s soccer.

Two weeks ago I had a thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if one day a women’s sport was more popular than a man’s?” (I, of course, meant a sport of the same nature i.e. women’s soccer vs. men’s soccer, not field hockey vs. football.) I even tweeted it. Wouldn’t it though? It would be an incredible feat for women. Since the dawn of time, women were always considered less than men, and that notion, although much more improved, is still a factor in many aspects of today’s society. It’s why the USWNT is currently in a legal battle with U.S. Soccer. It’s why many players in the NWSL have to live with host families or have second jobs. It’s why many businesses, corporations, etc. are managed by men. It’s why in the film industry many directors are men. It’s why women are objectified. It’s why in other cultures women are mistreated or abused, and none of it is fair or just. Sex or gender shouldn’t dictate a person being seen as less or making less money. It’s something we have no control over. Neither should sexual orientation or skin color because again we have no control over those things either, but I digress.

The point is even with the amount of progress made over time, inequality still exists, which means we, as a society, still need to grow. Growth is happening though. It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening. This is why we need to continue to support equality and growth. Remarkable things can happen. I truly believe that one day a women’s sport will be more popular than the same man’s sport. Hopefully by then women will be making the same amount of money too. Equal pay for equal play, ya feel me? At some point, seeing 23,000+ fans of all ages and genders attend a women’s pro soccer match will be the norm. It won’t have to be incredible because it already will be. Do you get what I’m saying? Until then, support the NWSL and women’s soccer any way you can. Get out to a game. Sponsor a team. Spread the word. Impact the conversation. Because each small action makes a difference in the much bigger picture. More growth will happen. More equality will exist and more records will be broken.

Road To Rio: CONCACAF Qualifiers

Last year I chronicled the United States Women’s National Team’s 2015 Women’s World Cup journey from qualifiers in the fall of 2014 to July 5, 2015 where “The Gals” dominated Japan in a 5-2 victory to secure the U.S.’s first World Cup victory in 16 years. Fortunately for the USWNT, there’s another major tournament this summer, the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unlike in men’s soccer where the U-23 national teams compete in the games, the women send their senior national teams to battle for Olympic gold. You see, in soccer, the Olympics aren’t as important as the World Cup, which is the reason the men only send their U-23 squads. Of course, the men in general have more tournaments to compete in, and like in most sports, men have more opportunities financially and physically (but hopefully that begins to change). Nonetheless, women’s soccer has and will be a bright spot for the United States in the Olympics this summer as the U.S. punched their ticket to Rio Friday night with a 5-0 win against Trinidad & Tobago.

Like I said, the Olympics aren’t as big of a deal as the World Cup so I’m not going to hype this summer tournament like I did last year. Before the U.S. women won the World Cup, they hadn’t won it since 1999, whereas the U.S. has won gold at the past 3 Olympic games. However, that being said, no women’s team has ever won a World Cup and then won gold at the Olympics the following year. If the U.S. wins gold in Rio, they will be the first team to do it. So if you’re looking for any story lines, there’s that.

Since the World Cup victory though, the roster has changed greatly for the USWNT. Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Lauren Holiday, and Abby Wambach have all retired. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez will be skipping the Olympics this summer due to the births of their first and second children, respectively. Then there’s Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe whose Olympic roster statuses are in question due to injury. Through 2015 Rampone dealt with nagging knee and back injuries that paved way for defender Julie Johnston to take center stage in Canada last summer. Since December, she has been out with a bone bruise in her left knee. Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL during training in December before a match between the USA and Trinidad & Tobago that was ultimately cancelled because of poor field conditions at Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium. Rapinoe had surgery back in December and has been in rehab mode since to hopefully be well enough to earn a spot on the Rio 2016 roster and play in the games. In total though, 8 out of 23 players from the WWC roster are either out for the Olympics or in question. The Olympics has a catch though. Only 18 players are allowed on the official roster (with 3 alternates available). Despite the smaller roster number, U.S. Coach Jill Ellis brought a few new players into the mix during January camp. She also opted for many fresh faces to compete in the qualifying tournament in favor of active and healthy veterans Heather O’Reilly and Whitney Engen (both part of the World Cup winning team) and there’s a few you should watch out for leading up to the Olympics.

17 year old Mallory Pugh earned her first senior national team call-up during January camp and was subsequently named to the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament roster. She got her first cap when the USA played the Republic of Ireland in a friendly on January 23rd in front of 23,000+ at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. She entered the game in the 58th minute for Alex Morgan who earned her 100th cap that day. In a passing of the torch moment, the future UCLA Bruin became the youngest player to debut for the USWNT since 2005. She also scored a goal during the 83rd minute to put the USA up 5-0. During qualifying, Pugh played in all 5 matches and settled into the level of play. Her speed and play-making ability sparked the U.S. offensive attack on several occasions. She even earned 3 assists throughout the tournament. By the end of the tournament, Pugh played as a starter. If she makes the Olympic roster, she’ll definitely be a name to watch out for in Rio.

Lindsey Horan is another name to pay attention to as time progresses. Horan, only 21 years of age, opted to forego college at women’s soccer powerhouse, UNC, to play professionally for the past 3 years in France for Paris-Saint Germain. She saw time with the USWNT during camps in the past and earned her first cap back in 2013 at the Algarve Cup. Playing her whole life as a forward, Horan has recently stepped into the defensive center mid spot left vacant by retiree Lauren Holiday. At first with Holiday’s, retirement I was a little concerned because of the tough shoes to fill, but I’ve been incredibly impressed with Horan’s play. She’s created a chemistry on the pitch with fellow center-mid Morgan Brian, who played her way into a starting role during the World Cup last summer. She’s also maintained possession, created offense, and quarterbacked the best team in the world throughout her time on the field. Not to mention, her 5’9 frame and goal-scoring/heading capabilities create an offense threat on the attack and set pieces. At this point I would be shocked if Horan didn’t make the Olympic roster because she seems to have the defensive center mid position on lock and as recent camp call-up Rose Lavelle would say, she’s “The Great Horan”.

Massachusetts born Stephanie McCaffrey and Samantha Mewis were also two new additions to the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament roster. Both players saw limited time during tournament play but made an impact on the national team leading up to Olympic qualifying. McCaffrey earned her first cap in October during the Victory Tour where she also notched her first goal during the final minute of stoppage time in the match against Brazil in Orlando. For the national team, most of McCaffrey’s appearances have been as a forward/mid on the wings, predominantly the right side. She makes great runs and expands the width of the offense, while aiding in the attack. Mewis has played a center mid role in her recent national team appearances. It seems like she’s been in a competition for that center mid field role along with Lindsey Horan and Morgan Brian. At 6’0 tall, Mewis has a height advantage much like Horan when it comes to set pieces, but Horan has been crushing any competition she has for the position, including Mewis. Unlike her fellow “masshole”, Steph McCaffrey, Mewis’s first cap came in December 2014, but during qualifying last week, she finally scored her first goal against Puerto Rico.

Defenders Jaelene Hinkle and Emily Sonnett made the qualifying tournament roster as well. Like McCaffrey and Mewis, both saw limited action in the tournament since the USWNT already has a strong defensive core with Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg getting much of the defensive playing time. Both players did earn starts in the match against Puerto Rico, which saw a much different back line than in prior matches. Hinkle, an outside back, earned her first cap during the Victory Tour and has been a call-up ever since. With Chalupny retiring, the USWNT seems to be looking to fill a void left by the former outside back, which is where Hinkle fits into the mix. Sonnett also earned her first cap during the Victory Tour and was recently drafted first overall in the 2016 NWSL Draft to the Portland Thorns. It seems the center back made the Olympic qualifying roster in favor of Whitney Engen who has been in the national team system for a while and was on the 2015 WWC roster. She has a ways to go before she replaces Johnston and Sauerbrunn, but she gained experience during the tournament and played solid throughout.

Lastly, the  new additions to the tournament roster wouldn’t have been complete without the familiar face of Crystal Dunn. As the final cut from the 2015 WWC roster, the UNC grad seems to have finally guaranteed her place on the national team. Dunn’s ride on the team so far has been bumpy. She received her first cap in 2013 and primarily played in the outside back position. She experienced some injuries during 2014 which slightly set her back and was left off the World Cup roster in favor of several veterans. Her response was one of the most inspiring efforts of the past year. Instead of defense, she played in the forward position for her NWSL team, the Washington Spirit, during the 2015 season and lead the league in scoring with 15 goals earning her the 2015 NWSL Golden Boot and MVP awards. Dunn was called up to the national team as a mid/forward during the Victory Tour in September and had a goal and 2 assists in her first game back after being left off the World Cup roster. Since being left off the roster, Dunn has appeared in every match the USWNT has played since September and has scored 10 goals and 4 assists in that time. During qualifying, Dunn recorded a five goal performance against Puerto Rico becoming the third player to achieve that mark on the USWNT and winning her the Golden Boot Award for the tournament. As you can see, she’s back with fire and she’s here to stay. Like Horan, there’s no question in my mind about Dunn making the Olympic roster, so keep your eye out for her and an abundance of puns using her last name.

With the mix of old and new at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament the USWNT not only guaranteed their spot at the Olympics but also won in the final 2-0 yesterday against a gritty Canadian team, who will also appear in Rio. The goals came from former PSG teammates Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath during the second half of play. Becky Sauerbrunn also received her 100th cap by playing in the match.

Unlike last year, I won’t be summarizing each match leading up to Rio, but I will be posting here and there with news and developments on the team, especially once the roster is released. In the following months USWNT fans can look forward to the She Believes Cup, which will take the place of the USWNT’s typical beginning of March trip to the Algarve Cup in Portugal. It starts next week. The She Believes Cup takes place Stateside and will feature matches against three of the world’s top ten teams, Germany (March 9th), France (March 6th), and England (March 3rd). It should be a great test for the USWNT leading up to Rio. Both France and Germany will be at the Olympics as well (England cannot compete in the Olympics because England competes under the name of Great Britain during the games which also includes Scotland and Wales, two countries with separate national women’s soccer teams). The USWNT also has a friendly scheduled for April 6th. The Olympic roster is expected to be announced in May. I’m sure there will be matches between then and the Olympics, which take place August 3-20, as well. The Road to Rio should be fun, new, and exciting so follow the World Champs on their journey to see if they can win the gold once again and become the first women’s national team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back to back.

Dear Abby

Dear Abby,

Four and a half years ago, the only soccer I ever watched was youth soccer matches for teams a few of my friends played on. I didn’t know much about the game, except the few things I learned from watching those matches. In fact, at the time, I wouldn’t even refer to them as matches (which goes to show how far I’ve come since then). Something changed in the summer of 2011 though. Something that would eventually impact my life in the biggest way possible. Something that wouldn’t have happened without you. But to get to that point, it’s best to discuss the kind of player you are and the impact you’ve made in your time as a soccer player.

You’ve been playing soccer for quite some time now. You played as a child, a teenager, and as an adult. You’ve played for youth clubs, your high school, your college, The University of Florida, and the Olympic Development/U.S. national program (and maybe even other teams that I’m missing). You’ve played for professional clubs (Washington Freedom, magicJack, and Western New York Flash) throughout your career too. Most importantly though, you began playing international, professional soccer for the United States Women’s National Team over 14 years ago. You got your first cap on September 9, 2001 against Germany during the Nike U.S. Cup. You scored your first international goal on April 27, 2002 in a friendly against Finland and it’s only gone up from there.

You’ve went on to play in 254 matches (255 if you count tonight), including 4 Women’s World Cups, 2 Olympics, and many other tournaments, friendlies, and victory tours in between. You’ve scored a total of 184 international goals (and counting if you score some tonight), many of those with your head, and you’re the United States’ all-time leading goal scorer (for both men and women). You’ve won the World Cup (2015), Olympic Gold (2004, 2012), and the FIFA Player of the Year Award (2012).

Your impact has been great off the field as well. You’re an ambassador for women’s pro soccer and for equality in the women’s game. You’ve supported many causes and charities throughout your career. You’re even a role model in the LGBTQ world as an out professional athlete, even though that was never your intention as a soccer player. You also have an extreme passion for and dedication to Chipotle, possibly greater than mine, especially since you scored a personal burrito card (I’m super jeal).

Despite all your accomplishments, you never take all the glory. You always give the credit to your teammates and to those who put you in the position to be great. You influence and inspire those around you to be better, no matter your role. In all these ways, you really have been an impact in every aspect of your life, so now I guess I should explain how and why you impacted me. Back to the summer of 2011.

That summer you and your national team teammates competed in Germany in the Women’s World Cup. You reached the quarterfinals of the tournament after finishing second in your pool. You played Brazil and I think you remember what happened from there. After playing a man down for 25 minutes in the second half and all of extra time, your team was down by 1 entering the stoppage minutes of extra time. In a last ditch effort to tie the match, Megan Rapinoe took the ball up field and sent in the greatest cross of her life to the far post where the ball met your head as you easily directed it into the back of the net. Tie game. End of extra time. Next came the PKs. Every player (including you) nailed their shots and Hope saved one. You guys won and it sparked news all over the country. That’s when I heard about it. After that I thought, “Hmm, maybe I’ll tune into the next game.” I did and I was hooked. I watched your last two matches that summer. I cheered for most of you guys by name in the final and sadly, I watched you lose to Japan on PKs. It was at that moment that I declared out loud to myself, “They’re gonna win it in four years.” (And just an FYI, I was right!)

In the four years since the 2011 Women’s World Cup, I fell in love with the game and the national team. It was slow at first, because I really didn’t start following your team closely until after the 2012 Olympics. But when I did, it was all because of what happened in 2011. I wouldn’t have cared to watch the Olympics that summer if I didn’t already know about you guys and think to myself, “Oh yeah, I love that team! They’re beasts.” I watched almost every game of your Olympic tournament that summer, including that crazy semi-final against Canada, and the gold medal winning match against Japan. From that point on it snowballed. I was inspired by so many players, a few in particular and you included. Your diverse stories and personalities inspired me to change and accept things about myself that I never had before. It was life-changing. I truly believe I’m a better person because of it.

Without that goal in 2011, who knows if anything would be the same. I know for certain my life wouldn’t be where it is today without it or without you. Although maybe I should take a page from your playbook, thank Pinoe for the cross, and the rest of the gals for playing their hearts out  during the quarterfinal and rocking their PKs. You’d probably tell me I should, but for now, you deserve some credit too, so thanks for using your head and scoring that goal!

Even though your playing career ends tonight, I know you’ll still impact the game through whatever you decide to do. I hope you finally have the time to do all the other things you love and want to do, including playing golf and starting a family with your wife, Sarah. It might even be a great time to start campaigning for the position as the President of FIFA, or at least a spot on the board. I heard they have some availability. I also heard you wanted to change the world, but I think most can agree you’ve already done that. I guess you can always just do it in a different way the next time. We all know you’re capable of it. No matter what though, I can’t wait to see what other great things you have in store for the future, because greatness runs inside you.

Lastly, before your final game in your illustrious soccer career, I wanted to say thanks. Thanks for being a world class athlete. Thanks for having that “American mentality” and the drive to never quit, despite the odds. Thanks for accepting and embracing every role you’ve been asked to play. Thanks for motivating your teammates to succeed and giving them all the credit. Thanks for inspiring me, this nation, fans, and others throughout the years. Thanks for being true to yourself while in the spotlight and most importantly, thanks for being you, the GOAT, Abby Wambach.

Sincerely,

An Inspired Fan

 

 

USWNT: 2015 WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS

“Carli Lloyd who scored both goals and was named Woman of the Match was an absolute beast on Wednesday. She’s a special player. ….She’s a key piece for this team to be successful at the Women’s World Cup. They’ll need her to be on top of her game and on the pitch as much as possible this summer so hopefully she’ll be up for the challenge. With a mentality like Carli’s though, I have no doubt she will.”
-Me from a blog post dated 3/11/15

Four years ago, I sat in my basement on July 17, 2011 and watched the USWNT lose to Japan on penalty kicks. After that match as I watched players walk around the pitch in devastation and disbelief, I proclaimed that this team would win the next World Cup for sure. Almost four years later on July 5, 2015, I sat in basement with a USWNT jersey on my back and watched the USWNT beat Japan 5-2 to win the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup (it feels so good to be right!). Yes, I’ve been hyping this team since I started this blog. I’ve been following them so closely for the last 2 1/2-3 years and now…WORLD CHAMPS! THREE STARS ABOVE THE CREST! THEY DID IT!

I could not be more happy and proud of these women. They’re incredible humans on and off the pitch. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their inspiration. True story. It’s difficult to really recap the game and try to analyze it like I always do because I don’t feel like talking about stats or what they did well or could’ve done better. They didn’t need to do anything better. They got it done. They won the World Cup. Since I was so amped every time they put the ball in the net though, I guess I should at least recap the goals.

Last night was the Carli Lloyd show. She comes up in big games as I stated back on March 11th. She scored the goals in the last two Olympic gold medal matches but, last night she was on another level. For a team that was all about defense and not conceding goals, only allowing 1 in their first 6 matches, they could have fooled me. The offense came alive last night early in a large part due to the absolute beast that is Carli Lloyd. On a beautiful set piece corner in the 3rd minute, Megan Rapinoe sent a low ball into the box that made its way through defenders and to Lloyd’s foot as she put the ball into the back netting. Two minutes later Lloyd struck again. It was off a set piece free kick taken by Lauren Holiday. Lloyd found herself in the right place at the right time as she tapped in a ball that was headed forward by Julie Johnston off the Holiday cross. Holiday, herself, found the back of the net in the 14th minute. She volleyed in a shot from an attempted Japanese clear. Then Lloyd recorded the first ever Women’s World Cup Final hat trick two minutes later from just beyond the midline when she chipped Japanese goalkeeper, Ayumi Kaihori, who was off her line. 16 minutes into the game and the U.S. were up 4-0. They were going to win. There was no doubt in my mind at the start of the match, but after the first 16 minutes, it was certain. I think the goals caused the team to let off a bit on the defensive end. In a way, they kind of lost focus as the emotion from going up by so many goals so early took hold. Japan broke their shutout streak in the 28th minute. Before the Japanese goal, the defense went 540 minutes without conceding a goal. They were seconds away from breaking Germany’s 2007 shutout streak record, which also stands at 540 minutes.

In the second half, Japan recorded another goal. It was an own goal by Julie Johnston when she tried to clear a Japanese free kick. The ball found its way to the net to make the score 4-2. There wasn’t anything to worry about though. Two minutes later Tobin Heath one-timed a Morgan Brian pass into the net to put the U.S. up by three once again, which is how the score stayed until the final whistle blew after 90 minutes plus 3 minutes of stoppage time.

After the U.S. beat Germany Tuesday night, it was pretty much written in the cards that they would win last night. As fate would have it, nothing stopped them. They won the World Cup. There’s a new legacy. 1999 was great, but now it’s all about 2015. The 15ers earned that third star that will be above the USWNT crest forever. It was incredible to follow this journey that began almost four years ago. Women’s soccer truly changed my life.

It feels like a new chapter begins today. Even though the Olympics is next summer, a new World Cup cycle begins. Players will retire. The team will change. I will change. A lot can happen in four years and I can’t wait to see what the future holds. But until then, it’s time to celebrate a championship four years in the making. To perfectly quote the band Queen, “WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD!”

The USWNT lifts the World Cup trophy after defeating Japan 5-2 to win the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Final at BC Place.

The USWNT lifts the World Cup trophy after defeating Japan 5-2 to win the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final at BC Place.

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015: USA v. CHN

Last evening at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, Ontario the USWNT continued their World Cup journey with a quarterfinals match-up against China PR. From the get-go the match was in the USA’s favor. They created more chances and had better possession early in the match. Within the first few minutes, Amy Rodriguez, who started the match in favor of Abby Wambach, slipped through the China defense with the ball and took a shot that went just wide. Despite the heavy U.S. attack, they again failed to score in the first half. Before the team took the field for the second half, Wambach, who stood at the center of the huddle, had some inspiring words for her teammates, “First 10 minutes, we get a fucking goal!” (And no it wasn’t bleeped when she initially said it.) The USWNT did just that.

In the 51st minute, Julie Johnston sent a soaring cross from near the right center of the field after receiving the ball on a free kick from Meghan Klingenberg. Carli Lloyd, playing in her 200th cap, beat her defender and headed the cross into the back of the net to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. From there the U.S. continued their strong play from the first half. The defense put up another strong showing which limited China from ever having a great chance to score. So far in 5 matches, the defense has allowed only 1 goal and has gone through 423 consecutive scoreless minutes. Later in the 73rd minute, the U.S. just missed the chance to go up 2-0 when a strong strike from just outside the box by right back Ali Krieger hit the crossbar. Overall, the USA proved to be too much for China though. They held on to their lead to win the match and move on to the semifinals against the number one team in the world, Germany.

Along with the insertion of Rodriguez at the forward spot, the lineup saw a few other changes from the previous matches. Since both Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were unavailable for the match due to yellow card suspensions, Kelley O’Hara started her first 2015 Women’s World Cup match in the midfield on the right side and Morgan Brian started in the defensive center midfield position. The game also saw longtime veteran Heather O’Reilly get her first 2015 Women’s World Cup action by subbing in for Alex Morgan in the 81st minute (right side, strong side!).

The last time the USWNT met China in a World Cup match it was an extremely positive outcome. It was in the 1999 World Cup final. The USA beat China on penalty kicks to win the World Cup. It was a win that inspired a nation and boosted the rise of women’s soccer in this country. Most of the players on the current USWNT roster have memories of that match and were inspired by it to reach their greatest soccer goals. The team hopes to do the same for a new generation in about a week. But first, Germany.

The German squad is pure offensive, attacking power. They’ve already posted 20 goals in this tournament. Forwards Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag have combined for 11 of the 20 goals scored. It’s not just the forwards who make Germany so strong either. Midfielders like Lena Goessling, Dzsenifer Marozsan, and Simone Laudehr can both score and create scoring opportunities for their teammates. They have a strong goalkeeper in Nadine Angerer, 2013 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, who came up with the deciding save in penalty kicks against France yesterday afternoon to send Germany to the semifinals. There’s also plenty of other talented players willing to step in and step up when called upon. They’re not ranked as the best team in the world for nothing.

They will be the toughest test for the USWNT thus far and maybe in the entire tournament. It will be a match between the best offense of the World Cup (Germany) versus the best defense of the World Cup (United States). Winning against them will require an incredible performance from the entire U.S. team. However, it has been said that defense wins championships. We’ll just have to see if this defense can play to the challenge that is the German Women’s National Team. We’ll also have to see if the offense can manage to put some goals in the net. One thing is certain. The USWNT is one game away from playing for the ultimate prize that has eluded them for 16 years. They won’t go down without a fight. So prepare for battle Germany because Tuesday night…it’s on!