By Neil W. Blackmon
Let’s just get the disclaimer right out of the way, shall we? What follows won’t do today justice. I would hope that’s obvious. Some moments in life are too sensory, too “I wish I could have been there or seen that” for the written word. In the age of youtube and twenty-four hour sports television coverage, this is either even more or far less true- I haven’t quite determined which yet, but one thing is certain: sometimes you just have to feel or experience something to grasp its magnitude. I think the proper word in Mr. Webster’s dictionary for such moments is a word beyond “palpable”… perhaps unforgettable suffices. Perhaps.
What’s more–sportswriting, and even more so sportswriting for a blog, is at times self-serving and always self-important, blog or no. It isn’t self-important in a necessarily bad way—that’s the terrain of shock-jocks and podcasters and yes, Grantland. In that terrain, ego disguises insecurity and shock value replaces the intellectual, humanistic need to constantly question what you’re hearing, reading or watching. But it is self-important. It’s a gratifying self-importance. You get to read and react and you get the lonely page and your own insecurities about being inadequate to describe what is you just witnessed are sheltered on that page. In the old days, or so my professors at school told me, it was even more lonely, and your insecurities were even more hidden. Someone handed you a piece of paper with stats, numbers, letters, trends and a sequence of events and you had to put it together and make a game of it for everyone who couldn’t see it. That was (and is) a powerful, ego-driven thing. And you didn’t care that you were (are) completely exposed. But now that insecurity is more open. Everyone can, and most have, already seen what you’re writing about. So the risk is greater. One failed paragraph, failed letter, misguided suggestion and an entire moment in time falls flat. And that’s a risk that requires a warning—and here’s mine: what you’ll read next simply won’t do what happened today (yesterday) in Dresden, Germany justice. And I suppose I’m okay with that. I’ll just do my best.
“We didn’t stay together. If we had, we would have been European champions eight years in a row. But we still had that moment, that day. If as a nation, we would have won, it would have been the pinnacle of post-war Dutch achievement. And again, we didn’t stay together. I wasn’t there. I had my reasons. What resulted was trauma, and instead of the pinnacle, a requiem.” – Gerrie Muhren, AJAX midfielder, 1968-1976, Member, Dutch National Team, 1968-1974, on AJAX, and the 1974 World Cup final defeat to Germany
Outside of the 1980 Soviet Hockey team, perhaps the greatest sporting team to fail to win the ultimate championship it played for was the Dutch National Team of 1974. Gerrie Muhren, one of the stars of the great AJAX sides (perhaps best known for this magical juggling act against Real Madrid) that formed the nucleus of that team, is quoted above commenting on what is now known as “The Lost Final of 1974”, a game the Dutch mystifyingly lost to West Germany 2-1 after scoring in the first minute. Muhren, who missed the Finals that year because of family problems, reiterates in the quote one of the primary reasons proffered for the Dutch failure: they simply failed to stay together. Sure, there was a bit of hubris involved, especially when they scored in the first minute. But the short story is that there were internal divisions on the side and sideshow scandals (like an alleged pool party the day before the final) that tore the team’s heartbeat asunder at a time when togetherness was absolutely essential. As such, the Dutch surrendered the early lead, and though clearly better than the Beckenbauer-led West Germans, couldn’t find a goal in the final hour that would have extended the game. They returned home with runner-up medals, a history lesson on what might have been and a soccer purists’ anecdote for greatness not wholly actualized.
Sunday evening in Dresden, a United States national team far shorter on superstar gamechangers than that Dutch team did what West Germany did (in the same country, but now unified, no less) on a hot day in 1974: it taught a team with more flair, with more creative ambition, and with the world’s finest talent (Marta to Holland’s Cruyff, with only mild apologies) a lesson in the merits of togetherness.
Taking the early initiative, the Yanks managed an early lead (alla Ajax) on an own goal after pressure forced a Brazilian error. But in a first half that featured more individual attacking play than team football, you couldn’t help but feel the Americans would need more. A 1-0 lead in a very organized game is one thing—a 1-0 lead (the most dangerous lead in soccer) in a samba style, “let the individual merits of the players decide the thing” type game is quite another. Twenty minutes into the second half, all fears that one goal wouldn’t be enough were confirmed.
Australian referee Jacqui Melksham (more on her later) intervened in a game that, despite the halftime fears, increasingly looked safe for the Americans, awarding a very soft penalty (if at all warranted) penalty against Yank Rachel Buehler. The penalty, adjudged to be an egregious foul meriting a red card, appeared to be a benign tangling up after a 50/50 aerial challenge between Buehler and Brazil’s Marta. As Brazil debated who would take the penalty, a dejected Buehler marched towards the Dresden dressing room, leaving ten women on the field, with very little choice but to come together. So many of these women would tell an individual story in the time that remained. Such is the case in most tales of togetherness. The heroism of individuals becomes a perfect tapestry, blended into one larger narrative of greatness. Hope Solo’s heroism became amplified at that critical moment, and she seems as good a place to start, and to be clear, what’s written below won’t do what happened justice.
In Hope Solo’s hometown, one can only imagine the emotion of what unfolded today (yesterday) in Dresden scaled all manner of human emotion. Redemption is as good a place as any start. A word or theme too often deployed by self-important sportswriters these days, Solo truly fits the bill in ways a Michael Vick (for the most part) or a Ben Rothelisberger (certainly) never could. Solo, whose fit of outrage nearly four years ago to the day saw her dismissed from the US Women’s National Team, found her way back onto the team once Pia Sundhage took over. In the time since her dismissal, she has gone about her business, improving her game and controlling her temper, becoming the teammate she wasn’t able to be in 2007. She is, rightfully, widely-regarded as the finest women’s goalkeeper in the world. She is, obviously, a fan favorite, thanks to her all-American looks, big smile and gregarious personality. She was, in the 68th minute, put to the test. She responded, or so all of us watching, including those in Richland, Washington, thought, saving Christiane’s penalty harmlessly to the left.
As Solo, who had terrorized the Samba Queens with brilliant save after brilliant save in four consecutive victories over Brazil leading up to this match, celebrated, Jacqui Melksham (just beginning to write her own story about today) called for a retake, citing Solo for early movement on the penalty, a violation almost never called in soccer at the highest level. What’s more- replays didn’t support the referee’s decision, and as usual, FIFA’s postgame news conference offered long-winded responses but little in the way of a coherent, lucid explanation. Brazil turned to Marta on the retake, and the diminutive, brilliant Brazilian responded, slotting cooly by Solo to level the match. The last full measure of Hope Solo’s redemption would have to wait. Fortunately, togetherness, along with what Abby Wambach called “the soccer gods”, meant it wouldn’t have to wait for another day.
Berkeley and Redding, California
Now down a man, the game proceeded as most eleven on ten games do—the Americans moving forward only cautiously, and the Brazilians coming with waves of pressure. But as the Samba Queens increased their organization and attacking intent, togetherness helped the Yanks weather the storm. Gone were the early self-inflicted wounds that caused one to feel unease even up a goal at the half. Carli Lloyd’s poor-passes to nowhere dissipated. Amy Rodriguez, who on more than one occasion played mystifying balls to Marta, of all players, and who was let down by a heavy first touch when she did get to use her pace, made way for former Cal-Berkeley starlet Alex Morgan (a bubbly personality and so likely the next “it” US women’s star that ESPN the Magazine chose her for its oft-scrutinized “NEXT” series last year), and Morgan helped stabilize the United States going forward. It was as if her mere presence up top and her (sometimes overly) cautious runs helped calm her US midfield mates behind her, mates that lacked intent and decision-making so often a team strength in the game’s first seventy minutes.
Meanwhile, a calmer on the ball Carli Lloyd, the addition of Stu Holden’s long-lost twin, Redding, California native Megan Rapinoe (who just missed in second-half stoppage time on a long range blast), and former Notre Dame star Shannon Boxx, steady all night (but a reluctant, redeemed hero later), helped the Americans weather the storm, even attacking with mild success, and force extra time. Shortly into the extra period, however, the Americans togetherness faced its biggest test yet. And again, Australian referee Jacqui Melksham and her assistants figured prominently in the tale.
The Americans initial attack in extra time had come to nothing, and Brazil threatened down the American left flank. A nice ball found Maurine on the left of the area, and although replays showed her clearly a yard offside, no flag went up. Enter Marta again, and a magical goal that showed the tremendous skill on display at this fantastic tournament. From a ninety degree angle, Marta, well-marked, got a solid foot on the ball and placed it in the far right corner, past two American defenders and a well-positioned Hope Solo. It was in the net in the only place Solo couldn’t stop it, and it appeared to many, probably even those with hearty rooting interests in Redding and Berkeley, California, or Richland, Washington, as if the Americans were headed for a quarterfinal exit.
The doom and gloom extended when early in the second extra time period a deflected ball fell to the feet of Abby Wambach inside the eighteen, and her well-placed left footed strike was saved marvelously by Brazilian keeper Andreia. Indeed, it appeared to most as if the Americans were about to become victims to Brazil’s keeper, as the Samba Queens had been to Solo so many times over the past four years. To make matters worse, As Americans across the country watched the final moments helplessly, some, sensing a chance to capitalize on the sensational and grand nature of the occasion (it isn’t often a large portion of America watches a soccer match, it’s even more rare a large portion of American watches a woman’s sporting event), even pronounced the Yanks dead. Grantland guru and twenty-something white guy idol Bill Simmons offered this tweet, sadly ignorant of his own personal history with rooting interests:
sportsguy33 Bill Simmons
Damn – that Wambach shot was USA’s big chance. This game is over. There’s no way Brazil will blow this now.
Now before you all flip your lid: one more disclaimer (added to this post after some outrage): 1) I like Bill Simmons and for the most part, I like Grantland. 2) I am aware of the reverse jinx. But I’m not as big a Bill follower as some of our readers (apparently), and yesterday, I felt like an attorney who had just listened to another attorney seek testimony without a proper foundation. The way Simmons deployed the tweet- I felt it to be serious, and not a reverse jinx. But here’s the rub: maybe I’m wrong. Think of it this way: if I am wrong– how self-important is “the reverse jinx”? I mean- that’s in the pantheon of most self-important sportswriter moves ever. And if you don’t believe that– think about it this way: you have to be intimately acquainted with Bill Simmons’ twitter feed to get the joke. That’s absurd! And if you aren’t well: either Bill is wrong– but he isn’t, because it was a “reverse jinx”– or Bill is right– the game WAS in fact over– and it wasn’t a reverse jinx. Pretty absurd. So taking the tweet at face value…
Fortunately for Bill, and everyone else watching—much like the 2004 Red Sox, the 1980 US Hockey team, or Auburn, down 24-0 against Alabama last year, to name just a few examples—the ten women still on the field for the US Women’s National Team didn’t care what Bill Simmons thought. Togetherness had brought them together, and togetherness would be the battle cry, win or lose.
Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
n Jim Valvano
It wouldn’t be honest to say you could sense what would happen next. Things certainly looked bleak. The Brazilians resorted to a cynicism not often seen by their male counterparts, feigning injury, wasting time unabashedly (and only once of yellow card consequence) and complaining to the seemingly sympathetic Melksham, who at this point in the match had many US fans longing for Koman Coulibaly, about each fifty-fifty ball. One such plea even led to a rather threatening free kick which sailed over the ball with five or so minutes to play. But despite this, at no point in time did this sportswriter, or the pair of individuals he was fortunate enough to watch the game with, declare it over. Sometimes in sport that sort of declaration is just about body language. At other times, it involves a myriad of factors: the presence of a brilliant player (see Auburn vs. Alabama, 2010; Florida vs. Alabama, 2008), an abiding sense of self-belief (Spain in last year’s World Cup final); the feeling that you, or your team, are simply too good to fail (the Redeem Team in Beijing). Sometimes, it just involves a miracle—this. Or this. Rarely, however, do you see all those factors come together as they did in Dresden Sunday night.
First, the body language suggested the Yanks would go down kicking and screaming if at all. Every failed attack, each missed free kick, saw more and more US players encouraging and urging one another on. Shannon Boxx fired left on a good free kick opportunity, and held her head down, only to have Abby Wambach run by her screaming in her ear. “Let’s Go, Let’s Go”, she yelled. You wanted, you felt like you could, believe her and believe in them. Shortly prior to that, when an exhausted Heather O’Reilly was replaced by Tobin Heath, O’Reilly nearly had a spasm urging her fresh teammate onto the field. A high-five or hug before a substitution is common, a full-fledged shouting match style pep talk is rare. It was hard to see any quit.
Great player? Of course. There is no Marta on this team. Heck, there isn’t even a Mia Hamm. But there is Abby Wambach. There is Hope Solo. There is Shannon Boxx. There is Megan Rapinoe. In that sense, you could see the abiding sense of self-belief, the abiding belief that this group felt it was too good to fail. And still, as the clock struck 120 minutes, it appeared the Americans dreams would die loudly in the Dresden night. But with three minutes of stoppage time—truly only the second break the Yanks received all night (a Carli Lloyd handball probably should have seen her off before halftime)—there was reason to heed Jim Valvano (more on him momentarily). Don’t Give Up. Don’t Ever Give Up.
In Gainesville, Florida—Abby Wambach and Heather Mitts are living and breathing ghosts, reminders of what has been, what came from nothing and excelled, and what might be. They are the foundation of a budding soccer powerhouse, a place where conference championships are the expectation and national championships the constant aspiration. They are “always present, both in our memory and in what we hope to be about”, University of Florida coach Becky Burleigh said in an interview. They were two highly-recruited young women who took a chance on a new program and a young coach and delivered results, even winning a national championship in a massive upset over legendary Anson Dorrance and his North Carolina juggernaut in 1998. In many ways, that team is a joyful but constant pressure-cooker on Burleigh, who laments “early tournament exits with teams just as strong” in the years that have passed.
While Mitts and Wambach were dominating collegiately, the US Women’s National Team was winning the 1999 World Cup in dramatic fashion. It wasn’t until 2003 that one (Wambach) found herself on the game’s largest stage—and semifinal exits have been what she has to show for it. In the case of Mitts, the tale is even tougher—injuries forced her exclusion from the prior two World Cup squads despite being a fixture on the team when healthy. She’s had Olympic glory and all the accolades one could ever desire—but this tournament will be her only shot. To make matters tougher, while Mitts was included on this side, she has not featured—likely because she is again recovering from injury. Indeed, her inclusion seems to have been more career achievement award than anything else. But she was present Sunday in Dresden, and even warmed up before the Brazilian equalizer in the second half. These two program-building women, together in their last moment on the world’s largest stage, seeking to carve out on more legacy, would share a priceless moment Sunday, and countless Gators across America, including this sportswriter and their former head coach, were watching. But there was still the little matter of three minutes.
The Greatest Pass in the History of US Soccer
Sports greatness reaches its zenith when you, heroically or tragically, can recall a single moment with one word or phrase. Perhaps this is why sportswriters are still useful, or so I can hope. The Catch. The Catch, Part II. Buckner. The Drive. The Fumble. Run, Lindsay, Run. Punt, Bama, Punt. Bucky BLEEPIN’ Dent. Aaron BLEEPIN’ Boone. Goal, Goal USA. Do you believe in Miracles? Those are just a few. Sunday, we found a new one. Ladies and gentlemen—meet—“The Pass,”, or for those of you demanding soccer-termed accuracy—“The Cross.”
When Alex Morgan couldn’t quite turn on a shot early in extra time stoppage time and it sailed over the bar, Ian Darke remarked that there may only be one more shot for the US women. How right he was. How gloriously correct, in fact. Carli Lloyd took possession in midfield and found Megan Rapinoe, still fresh, still grinding, on the left. Relatively well-marked but a step ahead of her defender, Rapinoe, who earlier in the tournament celebrated a goal with a stirring “air microphone” rendition of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, explained the goal best to Grant Wahl.
“”I just took a touch and friggin’ smacked it with my left foot,” Rapinoe said. “I don’t think I’ve ever hit a ball like that with my left foot. I got it to the back post and that beast in the air just got a hold of it.”
That beast in the air was none-other than the legacy-seeking—correct, that—legacy ever-growing figure of Abby Wambach, who somehow managed to have more ice water than lactic acid in her veins, and, making a marvelous late run, slotted the ball that landed on her head seven inches beyond the outstretched, “did everything right” Andreia into the back of the Brazilian net. Pandemonium. Perfection on a left foot. The greatest pass in the history of US Soccer, with all due respect to Tim Howard’s outlet last summer. And forevermore—“The Cross.” But penalties remained.
South Bend, Indiana/Richland, Washington/State College, Pennsylvania
Shannon Boxx, Golden Domer, was the first American to shoot. She was denied by an athletic Andreia. But finally, on this seemingly star-crossed evening, the Americans received a break. Call it karma. Call it the soccer gods. Chalk it up to the old and somewhat false adage that sooner or later the breaks even themselves out and the better team usually wins—but either way—Jacqui Melksham, rightly or wrongly, but at least consistently, decided that the Samba goalkeeper had moved too soon. Boxx calmly slotted the second try home, and the Americans led 1-0.
Every great story has a tragic goat. And with the US ahead 3-2 in penalties, Brazilian own goal victim Daiane found herself the victim of more Hope Solo brilliance. Finally, everyone back home in Richland, Washington could sing of sweet redemption. Daiane’s kick wasn’t Roberto Baggio in 94. It was well-taken. But Solo was just too good, blocking the ball with just enough of her long right arm to give the Americans the initiative. Rapinoe put the Yanks up two, only to have victory held off momentarily by a clinical Francielle. But the celebration wouldn’t be held off any longer. Former Penn State All-American Ali Krieger, a star in Germany’s professional league, and a defender by designation—the women’s Steve Cherundolo, if you will—finished the Samba Queens off with a no-doubter penalty kick that sent the American bench into a frenzy. Gone were the demons of 2007, when the Americans, staying in the same hotel as Brazil, arrived home after defeat to find the Samba Queens dancing and partying in the lobby. Gone were the sad memories of 2003, when the Americans could blame injuries to key players and fatigue for coming up short. Gone, for the moment, were the exhausted legs, the thoughts of the two games still left to win, and the lingering doubts about a side that has seen defeat four times this year (heady stuff for the top-ranked side in the world). No—as Krieger’s kick hit nylon—all that mattered was another day, and a chance for the likes of Abby Wambach and captain Christie Rampone, thirty-six year old mother of two playing like she’s twenty-five, to hoist the greatest trophy in the women’s sporting world. And as people from Richland, Washington to State College, PA to Gainesville, Florida to Berkeley, California and everywhere in between celebrated—there was Abby Wambach, hugging her college teammate Heather Mitts, and sharing a Gator Chomp on national television before giving an interview where she nearly teared up speaking of her team’s resilient spirit, of its togetherness. There was Megan Rapinoe, the team’s largest personality, talking about “friggin’” smacking the ball with her left foot. There was Hope Solo, leaping guard rails to find her family and give them all a hug or a kiss. And there was Pia Sundhage, channeling Jim Valvano, running up and down the US sideline, looking for someone to hug.