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Women’s World Cup 2015: Elements of Victory

For anyone who hadn’t been following the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year, the US victory might come as a surprise. After all, there are suburbs in Rio that play more soccer than the entire population of the United States, and the same goes for dozens of other countries (most of which know the sport by its proper name, football ;)). We could launch into a discussion of the economics of professional sport (and thanks to FIFA financial shenanigans that saw the officials booed by the entire stadium, there’s more than usual to say), but that’s not what we’re here for. What interests us is the formula that led to such spectacular success in that final match, not the technical details, but the approach and the mindset.

The US and Japanese teams were old rivals in international soccer. Japan beat the US to the 2011 World Cup, and the US beat Japan to Olympic gold in 2012. The last time the teams had met, they played to a 0-0 draw. Both teams entered the final undefeated throughout the tournament.

You would never have known it from the play.

Know and Respect Your Opponent

The US team had very obviously used the time since their last World Cup defeat to dissect and learn from the Japanese game. They thoroughly respected their opponents, and knew what it would take to beat them. Throughout the final, this respect manifested in a cautious game right to the end. At the medal ceremony, the US team showed their respect in a different way, forming an honour guard for their opponents.

More Discipline and Control than Aggression

A number of commentators remarked that despite their victories, the US team was not playing its best in the early games, precisely because they were saving their energy and letting themselves “grow into the tournament.” What they didn’t spare was caution, conceding only one goal in the first six games, while accepting narrow margins of victory against their opponents and an early draw against Sweden.

In the final game, the US did hit Japan with four goals in the first sixteen minutes, establishing a durable initiative, something they hadn’t done in previous games. From then on, the US played a focused defensive game, maintaining control of the field and the ball, in that order. Exceptional positioning, cooperation and teamwork were the hallmarks of a playbook that wasn’t afraid to give ground to maintain control. To those who saw the Greek men’s victory over Portugal at EURO 2004, it sometimes resembled that style of disciplined defence as the US broke up Japanese momentum and coordination over and over again.

Unlike the Greek men, the US women didn’t forgo serious attempts to score after those initial goals, and the Japanese defensive game did improve. But the US team never lost its balance, or control of the field, through excessive aggression. Even though they only got one more goal after the first four, the deciding factor for the game was that the US usually had control of the ball and the field.

Teamwork, Coordination and Focus

While on the surface, the US team seems replete with the cult of the individual player which the rest of the world loves to hate in American sports- Carli Lloyd’s hat trick comes to mind- the team was working together, focused, confident and mutually supporting on both halves of the field. If anything, it was the Japanese who relied too heavily on their own star players.

And speaking of stars, the US team brought quite a number of experienced players in their thirties, not to mention 40 year-old former captain Christie Rampone, the oldest World Cup participant and player of more international football games than any other active player, male or female, by a wide margin. That kind of experience tells.

The smoothness of the US team’s passing and its superior tactical coordination spoke of a well-oiled machine and a level of teamwork, mutual support and focus that had to have been painstakingly built up. It was this that allowed them to own the field throughout the game.

And one thing more. Even before the outcome was clear, you could see it in the eyes of the US team- they believed in their ability to win, they knew they were prepared, and they relished the challenge. Where Japan was playing to win, the US won before the game.

Impact

Much has been said about the impact of this year’s World Cup on women in sports. This World Cup blew the top off US viewership records for the sport, male or female. It almost makes one hope that the obscenely disproportionate advantage of men’s soccer in sponsorship will even out a little. But it is clear that this year’s team have managed something even greater. They’ve become folk heroes.

Lessons

If the goals are what people remember from this game, even Carli Lloyd’s spectacular kick from the halfway line that caught the Japanese back line out of position, the point will have been missed. The last US-Japan World Cup final in 2011 was a scoring contest, and saw such great offensive plays as Abby Wambach’s astonishing ninety-degree header, which broke the record for World Cup goals by a player. The teams tied until Japan cleaned up on penalty shots.

This time, with most of the same players on the field, the US had a very different team, a team that won not because of its goals, but because it never allowed itself to be in danger of losing. Aggressive play can be controlled and dissipated, it can unbalance a team and keep the initiative bouncing back and forth. A strong foundation allowed the US team to control the field, the initiative, and the game.




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