one of the reasons, i imagine, why many americans fail to care anything at all for soccer, is that the results on the scoreboard appear so loosely tied to the run of play so as to drive any sports fan to distraction. yes, it's a cruel game to anyone who confuses dominance with indomitability, and all the more so when the stakes are all the marbles.
"finishing" is the term often used to try to capture the ephemeral essence of an all-but-unmeasurable quality, and as a defender by nature and by trade, it frustrates me when excellence in the "final third" is confused for something lacking in the opposition. yesterday, while everyone else was watching the us women's team run up and down the field at apparent will over the japanese, i was troubled most not by the posts and crossbars repeatedly being hit by chance after almost us chance, but by the moments of (could it be?) momentary panic at the back of the us formation in front of their own goal. no, the japanese had not mounted any sustained or even acute threat, but there was always this unsettling feeling that, were they to finally, there might very well be a moment when the us could be made to pay.
early on in this tournament, us coach pia sundhage made a subtle but strategically telling change to her lineup, in shifting christie rampone from the right side of the central defense, to the left--a distance of only a few meters (it's soccer--get with the international program, folks!) in terms of the tape-measure, but oh so much further as the potentially dangerous attacking ball bounces. the back left of the us formation had been exploited catastrophically by the swedes, and overmatched amy le pelbeit was finally drawn into committing a red card foul (to be fair, a very subjective one) in that match to put that particular matter out of it's temporary misery. le pelbeit's "pace" wasn't quite what it needed to be, and neither were her decisions with the ball when under pressure and with her back to the attack--a liability any way you look at it, and in the second-worst possible place it could be on the field. (second only to central defense). case closed, right?
the japanese are a technically superior side ("technical" in soccer being used to describe what in ice hockey might be termed stick-handling ability, if that helps) with a remarkable ability to connect passes quickly in a confined space. (coincidentally, the very conditions that describe a well-defended goal). they may have been outrun and outhustled for the ball over 90% of the field yesterday by a determined american side, but they retained their will to resist, and never quit--qualities the americans themselves should have recognized more quickly, as they were the hallmarks of what had enabled the yanks to make the finals as well. twice the united states took the lead on well-earned strikes, and twice the japanese had to decide if they were going to do everything they had in their power to do to make it up.
the first breakdown occured on the back left with barely 10 minutes to play. (usually the sort of duration when a one-goal lead can be made to stand up, but we already know how all this ends). amy le pelbeit was turned inside out by japanese midfielder shinobu ohno, and the resulting opportunity for an easy cross into the box turned out to be the beginning of that particular play's unfortunate-for-the-us end. rachel beuhler did everything that could be done to defend substitute striker karina maruyama and deny her the scoring chance, and she successfully and outstandingly knocked down the crossing ball in superior fashion--but the immediately following moment is the embodiment of everything that could be seen to be troubling about the us defense. in an instant, the weakness at the back left had been parlayed into a loose ball in front of goal, and each subsequent decision would be magnified in its impact to determine the outcome of the entire game.
you know how on airplanes the flight attendants always remind you to check for the nearest exit that might be behind you? they'd make excellent soccer coaches.
rachel beuhler heroically but oh-so-misguidedly sought the exit that was in front of her, which, unfortunately for the american side, was even further to the front of goal. the ball had been what was but a grade-schooler's toe poke from the end line, where the setup for a corner kick would allow the us defense to get reorganized, but that moment of panic induced by le pelbeit's breakdown further induced an otherwise professional defender to forget her best choice, and further fail to respect the danger of the indomitable spirit of the japanese side. beuhler tried to drive it wide across the front of goal, but struck rather the oncoming legs of far-right defender ali krieger, who had been drawn into the center to cover for the vacated space created by christie rampone's having to head out to cover the breakdown by amy le pelbeit. (yes, this is pointedly unflattering to amy le pelbeit--deal with it). krieger's only remaining option was to try to drive it back the other way again across the middle, and the luck ended at the foot of the opportunistic japanese striker maruyama who had no trouble converting the miscue into the tying goal.
and so we go to extra time.
my nomination for us mvp, even above abby wambach, (somebody got her that ball--it just didn't get there for her to head in on its own), megan rapinoe, had already set up the first go-ahead tally, with a savant-like through ball to alex morgan. in the build-up to the second score, she won the midfield ball, drove it into the heart of the defense, and her deflected cross ended up at the feet of alex morgan again, who quickly found abby wambach for the finish. 2-1 with just over ten minutes to play. sound familiar?
the penultimate dagger was a set play--a corner kick where the shorter japanese (the second-shortest side in the tournament at 5'4", and the americans, by contrast have only one single player on their entire roster under 5'5" tall, and she was on the bench) should be on 99 plays out of 100 without any chance at all. but somehow, grace being what it is, or grit, japanese captain homare sawa was able to shake her mark and angle the perfect cross home into the back of the net. 2-2, and on to penalty kicks we go. now THAT's a finish! (worthy of wambach, to coin a possible phrase).
the final result could be portrayed as the spirit of the japanese, or the PK luck finally running out for the americans, or a thousand other things, but, for me, it all stood at the back left of the us defense, in the weak link that could be exploited and broken by a team who would not ever, ever quit. you save away 9 out of 10, and you still wind up guilty. 99 out of 100, even. the measure of a defender is found in that one chance that makes all the difference. can you get there? will you make the right choice? will you deny the best their shot at glory?
yes, it burns me more than a little that the reports for this soccer game, and all the rest for that matter, will not be able to name the failing, just as in other situations they will not be able to name the brilliance that is being able to deny the best in the world their crack at the goal. it's the thankless role of soccer defense, to be missed even by the best-paid commentators. defense wins championships, and yesterday afternoon the us took the field without what was necessary to overcome the japanese. that's a credit to the japanese finishers, and a nod to their defenders, as well as a swipe against the us on both counts. if you can't defend, you can't win, just as surely as if you can't finish either. the japanese defended and finished, and it's all about soccer games being for finishers. all the rest? that's just megan rapinoe being everything in between.
good on the japanese. beating the germans in germany, and the americans anywhere in the world in the same tournament, can't be a coincidence. these are champions. these are finishers.