Brittany and I have been following the Women’s World Cup these past few weeks. The games have usually aired during our get-ready time, so we’ve watched some first half action before heading off to school and work.
Last week’s Brazil match was pretty ugly from the American perspective. Coach Greg Ryan made a very curious switch in goal. The US players looked uninspired after falling behind in the match. The coaching got even more head-scratchy with at least one defense-minded substitution in a game in which the Americans needed all-out attack to come back from their 0-2 deficit at half. That game exposed creaky leadership on the women’s team, from both the coaching and the on-field stars.
Andrea Canales at ESPN has a good take that seems mostly spot-on. I’ll add my own:
A second-tier sport can ill afford an ego-driven coach who seems to lack the skills to pull out an expected championship. This women’s team can obviously play. Sometimes great teams need a bench leader who knows how to motivate and massage egos to attain the desired result.
In the 90’s, all of women’s soccer was an underdog. The US victory in 1999 placed the American women on the other side of that line. That means dealing with a new kind of adversity, even including dissension in one’s own ranks.
By his reaction to criticism from goalkeeper Hope Solo, Ryan reveals he’s running his team like a high school varsity squad. Criticize the coach and you’re gone. If he could banish Solo from the prom and check “attitude needs improvement” on her report card, he’d probably do it.
Unfortunately for him he’s coaching a team of adult women. Unfortunately for them they don’t seem to realize it either. The best thing for the US women’s team might be to hire a coach from abroad: a person who lacks the American hang-ups of school culture, who can teach teamwork and coordination on the practice field, and who will get out of the way and inspire the women to take responsibility for winning.
Most alarming to me is the behavior of the team. Unlike the other games, I did watch the second half of the Brazil-US match. I thought the team quit after the 30th minute. On the field, they didn’t seem supportive of each other or Brianna Scurry. Handing off the captain’s band to the veteran keeper? Real athletes know gestures like that must be backed up with two things: total commitment on the field, and communication. After an own-goal and some uninspired attacking in the Brazil match, the black armband seems more like a gesture of “We’re sorry.”
I think Hope Solo’s outspokenness spooked her teammates. Their reaction says they’re still in high school mode; good little girls who won’t rock the boat. June Cleaver and Carol Brady for the new millennium. Unlike their international competitors in Germany and Brazil, they seem worried about getting detention and missing the next big game. I’m not surprised they blitzed Norway for third place and played their best game of the tournament. When you’re free from playing not-to-get-detention, the skill and fun can take over.
I hear the resurrection of a top-shelf women’s league in the US has been pushed back to 2009. More time to grow up. Meanwhile, we have a most unsuitable coach, a most unsuitable scapegoat, and a big question, “Why did it take so long to play so well?”
If Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly, and the others really want the answer, they’ll have to look within.