July 19, 2011

To Criticize or Not To Criticize

The World Cup has been over for two days now. Japan won the 2011 World Cup, defeating the US in the finals. It was a thrilling final that saw the Nadeshiko come from behind, not just once, but twice to force penalty kicks.

Now that it's over, the focus here in the States has been on the US team and how they managed lose a game that they dominated for all but just a handful of minutes. The discussion has caused a bit of disagreement within the media. More specifically, the question being debated is whether or not the USWNT should be criticized, and if so, to what extent.

One question I have heard asked several times in the past 48 hours is did Japan win it or did the United States lose it? My answer to that question is "yes." The United States had several opportunities to put the game away early and build a lead that would have made it impossible for Japan to come back as they did. The US, plain and simple, did not close the game out.

That's not to take anything away from Japan, who did everything they needed to in order to win the title. They had a tough road on their way to the World Cup, defeating the 2nd, 5th, and 1st ranked teams in the world consecutively in the knockout stage. They won it without the benefit of any screwy calls and they won it with class. What it came down to in the end was that one team did what it needed to win the title and one team didn't do quite enough.

But getting back to the subject at hand, my personal feeling is that this is a team of professionals and they have earned that respect. Any male team in the same position in any sport would be subject to criticism. To pat this team on the back and say "nice try" would be patronizing at best. To me, the fact that their play is being analyzed and criticized shows that people are taking this team seriously, which is a good thing. It means people were watching and that they care about it.

Over the Top Criticism

First off, let me say that I don't think this team could have given any better effort than they did. I have no doubt in my mind that they left it all out there on the field. If anybody says differently, they better produce some convincing evidence to the contrary. The US played through five tough games on the road to the final, losing only one and defeating Brazil in penalty kicks after playing one down for nearly an hour.

Then there are a few loud, shrieking people using the word "choke." How the heck do you even measure something like that? This isn't basketball where a player might have two free throws late in the game in which he gets to shoot uncontested and misses both. This is soccer. The other team has a lot to say about what you can and can't do. Even on penalty kicks, there is a goalkeeper between the shooter and the goal. It's not like there is nothing in the way and all you have to do is kick the ball straight ahead.

Choke has become a word used all too often for any team that doesn't achieve the expected result in a major sporting event. I don't want to hear it in any discussion of what happened on Sunday.

Then there are those that say the USWNT just aren't tough enough and Japan was. Well then how do explain the game against Brazil? Even Japan didn't have those kind of odds against them, down a goal and a player for nearly the last 30 minutes, before tying it in closing seconds. Sunday's game was not about who was tougher, it was about taking advantage of opportunities and after that, any time it goes to penalties, it's a crapshoot at best.

There were those that thought we would win a penalty shootout because we have the best keeper. Well, we do probably have the best keeper, but there's a lot more to it than that. The shootout against Brazil was a bit of an aberration. Andreia, the Brazilian goalkeeper, guessed right four out of five times and the US still converted all five, which is truly amazing. They were THAT perfect. By contrast, in the 2009 Algarve Cup final, the United States made only three of seven attempts and lost to Sweden.

Valid Criticism

I do believe there are valid criticisms to be made about the United States' performance in the final. These, of course, are my opinion.

The game's most glaring statistics to me were shots and shots on goal. The United States attempted 27 shots in the match, but only five were on goal. Japan, on the other hand, attempted only 14 shots for the match, but six of their shots were on frame. That's right, in spite the United States dominating much of the match and creating far more chances, Japan actually put more shots on goal.

That had a lot to do with the outcome. There's the obvious, you can't score on a shot that isn't on goal. It also takes some of the pressure off the opposing keeper, when they don't have to dive to make saves, don't have to worry about rebounds, don't have to worry about opposing players running into to them all the time, all of which can be physically and mentally taxing.

What else did it do? Well, it also gave Japan's beleaguered defense a chance to catch their breath. In the first 18 minutes of the match, Japan took eight goal kicks. Between the time the ball went out of play to the time Kaihori put the ball back in play was a total of over 3 1/2 minutes for those eight goal kicks. That's a lot of time to rest over an 18 minute stretch of a soccer match, especially when the United States was pressuring almost the entire time.

Another criticism has to be defending in, and clearing from, the penalty area. Japan only had the ball in their possession in the US penalty area twice with any real chance to score in the first 79 minutes of the match. One ended in a weak shot right at Solo, the other was a shot over the crossbar which wasn't the least bit dangerous.

But on the first Japanese goal, the United States could not clear what was a fairly routine cross. From then on, every time the ball got into the penalty area, it became an adventure. Kinga seemed to be running free and open every time she came forward from her right back position.

Which leads us to another criticism, holding leads and finishing off games. The United States gave up seven goals over the last four matches, something they've done only twice since 2001. But the disturbing thing is that they gave up the lead four times after the 54th minute in their final three matches. That just cannot be allowed to happen.

The United States gave up a 1-0 lead against Brazil, a 1-0 lead against France, and two different leads against Japan, both times when within 10 minutes of winning the match. To their credit, they fought back and won the first two matches, but it finally caught with them against Japan.

There are certainly other facets I haven't touched on, including coaching decisions which will always come into question no matter what the sport. It's just the nature of the beast, but that's a conversation best left for another day.

Hopefully, the United States will learn from the loss and the next time they are in this position, they will finish it off. In any event, they gave us three weeks of exciting soccer and their best effort. The country was watching and took notice. And that is a good thing.