Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Silk Road: US v Norway 7/14/07

It's early, but the Tour has a big day in the Alps today and I'm up early to watch. Thought I'd clear out my head of some things before I settle down to watch le gars attack the Cormet de Roselend.

The U.S. Women's national soccer team is in the middle of a six-game series sending them off on the long journey to the Women's World Cup in China this fall. I'm excited - not so much hoping that we'll see them there, most of the venues are in central or northern China - but in hopes of watching them play well and play some of the great teams in the world.

Between cleaning house, waiting for the Qwest guy to come and fix the DSL modem, driving all around Portland to pay for doors, BBQ sauce, toys, helping Peep set up his new Hot Wheels track and playing with said track, I got to take in the WNT play an old rival, Norway.

I think it was Bill James who wrote that one of the fascinating things about sport - I think the illustration he used was chess, but the subject would have been baseball, that being his passion, and one about which he writes with great elegance and wit, BTW - was that every game is a wordless argument about how the sport should be played. One of the great things about international soccer is that it can be a 90-minute disagreement about whose national brand of soccer is the better version of the jogo bonito.

I emphasize the "can": like so many things in our networked, globalized, international-brand world the national styles of many of the world's footballing nations have been flattened somewhat by exposure to others' ways. Young Brazilians now go play in Italy and learn catenaccio; Britons play in German or Holland and learn "total football"; Americans play for British 1st division clubs and learn how to tackle like maddened clog dancers. Oh, sorry, mate, didn't mean to get my boot tangled in your arse...

Anyway, Norway was once possibly the best example of the Scandinavian women's teams preference for "Route One" football. Playing Norway you used to be able to predict what would happen once one of the big scowegian defenders took possession: boot, boot, cross, header. It was simple, it was ugly, but it worked. It won them the WWC in '95.

The American women had always had a more sophisticated approach, with players like Hamm, Lilly and Milbrett moving the ball on the ground and setting up goals from passing and through-balls. The value of this was shown in 1999 when the U.S. took the title back.

But Saturday's game was a good display of the effect of increased playing time and exposure to each other. The American women have become less cunning, more direct. I love Abby Wambach, the gal is a genuinely great player. But she has become "target man", and the U.S. game has drifted towards a more subtle version of boot-boot-cross-header. A telling statistic ESPN2 flashed onscreen during the game: something like 30% of USWNT goals during this year's run-up to the WWC have come off set-piece, static plays. Not a good sign of a team playing flowing, passing, entertaining soccer. The Germans exploited this four years ago when they beat the U.S. women in the way to the Weltmeisterschaft.

Meanwhile, the Norwegians passed the ball around like, well, not Brazilians, exactly, but with a brio I haven't seen much on a Scandinavian team.

So the game turned out to be a bit of a snore, as often happens when two well-matched teams play not-too-hard (it was a friendly, after all)...the Norwegians marked Wambach out of the game, which ended 1-0 on a lovely Carly Lloyd header. The argument was barely a quibble: the only difference between the two teams was a moment of inattentive marking that led to the goal. The American women have now disposed of an Asian (China, sad remnant of the once-fearsome power of the Nineties), a South American (Brazil, hard and thuggish as ever) and now a Scandinavian opponent. Things look on track for a good September for the USWNT, and yet...I'd sure like to see a little more of the old style of passing and ball movement. I'm still worried about the Germans.

Only one other thought: why doesn't the U.S. have a distinctive National Team jersey? The gals played Saturday in the Tony-Orlando-and-Dawn-looking gold lame' number that Whitehall is wearing in the top photo. At the bottom is Leslie Osborne in the more familiar white strip we see the U.S. play in. But is the American national jersey white? Is it red? Is it gold? Does it have a stripe? Or two? Does it look like the flag? What does it look like?

Mike Agovino has a nice summary of American soccer's sartorial woes here. Here's his discussion of the American men's game v. Mexico in 2002:

The Americans ... donned white jerseys with a plain front and a blue-and-red zigzag down the side—perhaps the National Team's thousandth design in 50 years. (The zigzag was a design tweak mandated by Nike.) The Mexican team, by contrast, is known as "El Tri" for its green, white, and red flag and corresponding uniform—the perennial green shirt, white shorts, red socks (see Cuauhtémoc Blanco, right). On June 2, Mexico played Iran in San Luis Potosi. Just before kickoff, a massive green jersey—maybe 40 yards long and 20 wide—was unfurled in the stands. A flag wasn't needed. The national team is the jersey; the jersey is the national team.

Umm...yeah . What he said.

No comments: