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The women's soccer World Cup didn't just entertain over the weekend. It electrified. The U.S. team conjured up a win for the ages on Sunday in Dresden, Germany, to cap off a weekend that also saw huge underdog Japan record a thrilling overtime victory over the utterly overconfident host team the day before.
It was all great sporting fun and it was a wonderful respite from the grim slog through the totally disappointing local baseball season. Say what you will about soccer - and I've said plenty condemning the MLS's (it is ridiculous that the league's official name is "Major League Soccer") brutal inability to deliver aggressive, exciting soccer - but the weekend's women's matches delivered the goods and then some.
The most amazing thing about the U.S. team's performance yesterday was the fact that the Yanks played better with fewer players. Most observers condemned the red card given to central defender Rachel Buehler in the 66th minute - she was just about shoulder-to-shoulder with Brazil's Marta but she also had a firm grip on her jersey at waist level when Marta went down in the box and drew a penalty.
But the team, which had been playing conservative, defensive soccer before Buehler was sent off, was forced to dial it up thereafter.
And then there was the officials' just monstrously bad decision to award Brazil another crack at the resulting penalty kick after goalkeeper Hope Solo made a brilliant save on the first effort. One of Solo's teammates was a half-step into the penalty box when the first kick was struck but that is a call that is quite simply never made in marquee soccer matches.
Still, if the game had not been tied at that point the U.S. might have really retreated into a defensive shell. They couldn't do that completely with the game tied (playing for a deadlock and penalty kicks was an option but it wasn't really feasible with possibly 65 minutes of soccer remaining in the second half and overtime) and that was to the benefit of viewers.
Then in the overtime, the officials seemed to blow another call. A Brazilian attacker appeared to be offside before her cross found Marta, who conjured up a remarkable touch over her head, over a defender and back toward the far post. Solo didn't get there in time and the ball bounced off the post and in for the lead. But later replays revealed that a far side U.S. defender's positioning may have made the no-call the right call.
This U.S. team does not do a good enough job building possession with crisp, accurate passes through the midfield. It's coach, Pia Sundhage, struggles to put the right players on the field. Striker Alex Morgan is the sort of young, skilled player who would add desperately needed ball-handling and finishing ability to the U.S. attack.
Sundhage's inability to get her on the field before the second half (as a substitute) continues to frustrate, especially as she continues to play others who contribute little other than conditioning (everyone on this team is in as good of shape as can be - that much was absolutely clear after yesterday's marathon).
The leader of that crew is Shannon Boxx, the oldest player (35) in the U.S. starting lineup. She may have served up the cross that resulted in the own goal that gave the U.S. the lead in the second minute but she went on to play the same sort of ineffective game that should have put her on the bench for good early in group play. And then she capped it off by choking on the first attempt in penalty kicks after the overtime.
That was when officials finally decided to bust out a make-up call. The Brazilian goalie who had made the seemingly massive save was called for coming off her line too early. Boxx was given a desperately needed reprieve (if her miss had stood it would have obliterated the momentum Abby Wambach's 122nd-minute tying goal had so memorably generated). And the veteran midfielder didn't blow it the second time around.
The rest of the U.S. shooters blasted their efforts into the back of the net and one save by Solo, on a shot by Dainae - the same defender who had mis-hit a clearing attempt into her own goal in the first few minutes - was enough to provide the winning margin.
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