USA-Japan: Immediate Reaction

Where last week I only watched the last ten minutes of extra time of USA-Brazil in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals, I set the finals match-up between the USA and Japan as a priority to carve my day around. Instead of going to watch the game at a soccer bar with my roommate and a few other friends, I opted to watch the game at home with Twitter, leftover pizza, and Diet Coke. (Side note: I know most people who are not on Twitter mistakenly think that its utility is primarily derived from finding out what celebrities had for lunch or that athletes just worked out. This is patently untrue: its detractors have NO idea how effectively Twitter optimizes your sports viewing experience with regards to humor, understanding, and overall enjoyment if you follow the right people).

In their resilience, grace, and class, the USA women soccer players have captivated the nation in the past couple weeks. However, these reasons were not alone in why there was such positive and extensive coverage of a women’s sport–the US women soccer players and their international counterparts demonstrated such surprisingly high levels of fundamental talent and execution that the discrepancy in watchability between women and men was far smaller than what we are accustomed to seeing in basketball.

As Chris Mortensen tweeted, the beginning of the match felt a little bit like an NFL game where one team is objectively dominant in physicality, yardage, and time of possession but not on the scoreboard. In the NFL, this may be because of odd bounces, untimely turnovers, and special teams. Today, the US women kept hitting the posts and the crossbar, suffering one excruciating near miss after another.

In sports, there is a mantra that the physically superior team or player needs to assert its dominance and convert on early opportunities. The longer that underdogs stick around, the more confidence–rational or irrational–they gain. If the right “inferior” competitors hang close for long enough, they can exorcise extreme will, take advantage of lucky breaks and opponents’ errors, and ultimately win.

Unfortunately for the US women, Japan’s team was comprised of these determined competitors. When Alex Morgan scored on another beautiful long pass from Megan Rapinoe in the 69th minute, I had a feeling that, as in many soccer contests, a 1-0 lead was insurmountable. Japan kept its poise and rebounded with an Aya Miyama goal in the 80th minute. Japan’s players were not just hanging around anymore–they had equalized.

In extra time, Abby Wambach and her magical forehead looked to seal the US’s destiny, heading a beautiful Alex Morgan pass into the goal in the 104th minute. Japan countered again, this time with a Homare Sawa goal in the 117th minute. Surely, though, with stellar goaltender Hope Solo, the US would prevail in a shootout. Until it did not.

Japan persevered, winning the shootout 3-1, consummating an improbable victory over a nation where so many more young women play soccer and a team that was decisively bigger in size. As much as I would have liked the US to win this game, Japan earned it. Its athletes took it. “They were playing for more than just their team. They were playing for their country that has experienced so much,” disappointed but admiring US midfielder Heather O’Reilly told ESPN’s Bob Ley after the game.

In their magnificent victory, Japan’s athletes exhibited the qualities that are the reasons we watch sports. They fought and clawed every second of every minute, transcending their bodies’ inherent limitations to squeeze out every ounce of grit and determination that they possessed and then some they did not; their out of body effort exemplified the cliche “giving 110%.” Every coach of every underdog should show his/her teams tape of today’s match-up for inspiration. I will personally think about the perseverance of Japan’s squad in this game to make myself work harder through difficult situations. In the face of pressure, against all odds, I aspire to similarly ignore the possibility of failure and give it everything I’ve got. I think the lessons that were reinforced to me today were more valuable in the long run than the fleeting happiness I would have had in seeing our country win.

The US did not play poorly. Alex Morgan tweeted, “I am a little heart broken. But we left it all on the field, and I am proud of this team.” The US women have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. They represented their country with grace and class. Although they did not come out of this game with a win, they are not losers. Japan won.

Situational variance is something that prognosticators often fail to account for when they make assured, confident predictions of who will win games. The US women might have beaten Japan’s in nine games out of 10 but today was that one exception. One in ten is a much more significant chance than it is typically given credit for. Today, Japan’s team took advantage of luck and made its own. That’s why they play the games.

Please follow me on Twitter – @RGSpiegel

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