Team USA took its first step in the march back to World Cup supremacy on Tuesday, beating Korea 2-0.
The US Women, as previously noted, have had a comparatively rough time of it lately in the World Cup; after winning the inaugural competition in 1991, taking third place in 1995 and winning it all again in 1999, with the memorable finish from Brandi Chastain, we've been stuck in third place since. (This, of course, discounts the success the women's national team has had in the Olympics: winning gold in 2004 and 2008 makes it hard for anyone to feel like we've not been performing.)
But before thinking about winning it all once again, the team had its hands full with the first round of pool play. Korea proved a capable opponent, despite being ranked only eighth in the FIFA World Rankings to Team USA's first. The first half of action was a sloppy affair, as neither side was able to connect for a goal.
In the second half, the big story got its traction. Lauren Cheney put the ball in the back of the net with a header from an Abby Wambach cross. Cheney was not a normal starter for Team USA, but got the nod for this game from coach Pia Sundhage over Megan Rapinoe. As the Women's World Cup was still being built up to, there were whispers among many soccer fans about the inconsistencies of this squad. Coach Sundhage knew that something had to change and took a bold risk in inserting the more-recently experienced Cheney over Rapinoe. She also demonstrated the kind of leadership that recognizes Rapinoe as the type of player to overcome what some might see as an insult. The gambit obviously paid off, and Team USA now has something positive to focus on, instead of subliminally addressing those whispers.
Team USA has plenty more ground to cover in order to be mentioned with some of the classic teams that came before them, but what we saw on Tuesday (in the second half, at least) is a positive sign of things to come. The women get their next chance to prove their mettle on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN 2 at 10 a.m. local time, and will be simulcast on ESPN3.com.
As the 2010 World Cup builds toward its finale, one fact has stood head and shoulders above the rest: Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) must institute some kind of goal-line technology (if not instant replay) and/or referee accountability. This obviously means different things to different sports in America—challenges from a coach in football, reviewing whether a ball is fair or foul in baseball, the aforementioned goal-line technology in hockey, and out-of-bounds calls in basketball —and it’s hard to predict how it would ultimately occur in soccer. The need, however, is not difficult to see.
This is far from a homer issue, as Team USA, viciously robbed of two separate goals in two separate games, ultimately won their group in the first stage of World Cup play. Those goals, amazingly, turned out to be superfluous. However, in the Round of 16, Team USA was one of the teams that wasn’t a victim of poor officiating changing the course of those games and, perhaps, the rest of the Tournament. (Brazil dominated Chile and Paraguay defeated Japan on penalty kicks, in the only real snoozers of the Round of 16.) England lost its match 4-1, but lost a goal that would have made the game 2-2 and could have affected momentum. On the other hand, Argentina’s first goal over Mexico was scored by Carlos Tevez, who clearly appeared to be offside. With these mistakes being made in crystal-clear HD and being analyzed over and over on ESPN, it might seem as though FIFA has no choice but to revisit these issues. But Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, made it clear that the only thing that would be discussed in the aftermath of the World Cup would be goal-line technology. This is a good start, but it’s not good enough.
The bottom line is that, as long as the world is watching, as long as soccer is the most popular sport in the world, there will be a need for change. FIFA can start with the promised look at goal-line tech, but there needs to be more transparency in the officiating process, and some kind of checks-and-balances in place for blatant rule-breaking that isn’t seen in the first place.
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