How the U.S.A. won the Women’s World Cup
By PEYTON FINE
Here is a quick little multiple choice question for all of you who watched the U.S. women’s soccer team become world champions last week: why did the U.S. win?
- The pure brilliance of Carli Lloyd
- The inspiring leadership of Abby Wambach
- The suspension of two U.S. midfield players due to yellow card accumulation
The answer, in my opinion, is all of the above. The reasoning behind the first two choices is obvious. During the finals, Carli Lloyd recorded the fastest hat trick in World Cup history, and Abby Wambach, the all-time leading goal scorer for the Americans, accepted a role as a sub to get more speed on the field. Wambach gave up her leadership on the field to lead from the bench. Now, here comes the crazy part. I know it sounds out there, but just hear me out when I say that none of that would have been possible if not for the suspensions of two American midfielders.
Before I get to the suspension, a little background. To win a World Cup, a team must first advance past the group stages, which means placing in the top two of four teams that compete in a round robin format. After that, a team enters a single elimination 16-team tournament with no room for error. It is a grueling schedule, but one that allows a team to scuffle early and still peak at the time of the finals. If the World Cup were a piece of music, it would be unlike any other; the goal of its composer would be to create a slow tempo for the first three games, then slowly pick up the pace until reaching a fast-paced crescendo in the finals. It is a delicate balance; teams cannot peak too soon, but they must also not play too far below potential so as to lose.
That balance was teetering off course in the group stage for the U.S. women’s team. The Americans beat Australia 3-1, but that result should not have fooled anyone as the U.S. looked pedestrian at best in tying Sweden without scoring a goal during their second group game. The Americans actually needed a result in the third game to advance from the group, a fate unseen in recent World Cups for the U.S.A. Luckily, the Americans did get that result, a 1-0 victory over the 33rd ranked Nigerian team. The U.S. at the time of the game was ranked 2nd. They had advanced, but the grand crescendo they needed in the finals seemed unachievable.
In these first three games of the tournament, the U.S. started a midfield that included Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and Lauren Holiday. All three players are incredible attackers, but none are defensive-minded players. With that in mind, rather than leaving the defense exposed by all three attacking, Lloyd and Holiday both decided to defend. The result was that the U.S. held their opponents scoreless, but rarely attacked and scored for themselves. Watching Lloyd and Holiday constantly defend was like watching two Ferraris drive in a school zone at all times. You know the potential is there, but it is bridled by outside circumstances. In these first three games of the tournament, with this starting trio, Carli Lloyd scored no goals. The savior of the finals started out as nothing more than an average midfielder. But then something unexpected happened: Rapinoe and Holiday were suspended.
Now, you have to be asking why I think this is a good thing. (Or simply asking if I need to hop on the crazy train.) But, when Rapinoe and Holiday were suspended for a game due to an accumulation of yellow cards, American head coach Jill Ellis was forced to turn to Morgan Brian, an unproven 22-year old midfielder and the youngest member of the U.S. team, to play as a purely defensive midfielder. That meant Lloyd’s sole job was to attack, and the Ferrari was unleashed. In the first game playing with Brian, Lloyd scored. When Holiday and Rapinoe came back from the suspension, Ellis chose to keep Brian in the line-up, and Lloyd scored again.
By the time the World Cup Final rolled around, the U.S. was primed to reach that crescendo. They had just managed two goals against Germany who was ranked first in the world and had only allowed in three goals total in their first five games of the World Cup. Morgan Brian’s presence freed both Holiday and Lloyd to attack, and boy did they ever. In the finals, Lloyd recorded the fastest hat trick in World Cup history and Holiday added on another goal to put the United States up by four goals before the match was even sixteen minutes old. The U.S. went on to win the match 5-2 and claim their first World Cup since 1999. In the process, they defeated Japan, the team that had defeated them in the 2011 finals and a team that had not trailed in the World Cup before the Finals.
What’s amazing though is that none of this may have happened without that suspension. Morgan Brian, the defensive midfielder who freed both Holiday and Lloyd to attack, was still in college when Rapinoe, Holiday, and Lloyd were playing in World Cup matches. Jill Ellis, a first-time World Cup head coach, would have been labeled crazy to ever play Brian during meaningful minutes, unless an emergency had arisen. Luckily, when Rapinoe and Holiday were suspended during the same game such an emergency arose.
Along a season or a tournament, teams can point to the one singular moment where the team finally begins to play at a championship level. Most of the times, those moments are great plays within a game or coaching decisions that turn out just right. But, as this tournament came to an end, it was clear that the necessary crescendo to end this perfect symphony was none of these expected scenarios. Rather, it was the opportunity stemming from a suspension that was seized by a young player that tuned this piece to perfection.
Peyton Fine ’17 (peytonfine@college) will be writing for the Indy blog this summer about sports and the strange things he sees in the games.