Monday, July 18, 2011

I'll Say It: The United States Choked

Sometimes, blogging and talking about sports for a living leads you to have to say things that are unpleasant.

I've had to salute the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings as being the best NFL team I have ever seen, and probably the best team ever to not win the Super Bowl.

How many times have we had to tip our cap at the Yankees? Or the Red Wings? It happens in sports.

And sometimes, you have to say negative things about a team you cheer for.

Sunday, the U.S. Women's National Team fell in penalty kicks to Japan in the Women's World Cup final. The game was a riveting display of skill and creativity on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. In many ways, it was a lesson to the men on how the game should be played when so much is on the line, instead of the ultra-conservative dive-fests we get in the men's World Cup.

It was a great game, but it didn't turn out the USA's way, as Japan rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 down to force penalty kicks, and then beat the U.S. team 3-1 in PKs.

In soccer, you don't see games of this magnitude happen this way very often. Sure, they go penalty kicks, but it's quite rare for a team to blow two leads in a match. It was peculiar to see that same script play out in the quarterfinal match between the United States and Brazil, where the Americans won. This time, they didn't close the deal.

Watching the match, it wasn't like the U.S. team just stopped playing when they had the lead, but they also made too many mistakes on their half of the field. A badly-hit clearing attempt led to Japan's first goal, and the extra-time equalizer was scored on a horribly-defended set piece.

The performance by the U.S. team in the penalty kick shootout was atrocious. Poorly-struck balls followed a bad-luck shot that ended up being a great kick save by the Japanese keeper, one she would be severely challenged to repeat at any point in time.

Why am I bringing all of this up? Well, watching the ESPN postgame coverage led my wife and I to the same conclusion.

ESPN was tap-dancing around reality.

The Americans choked, and no one wanted to say it.

Why did no one want to say it? Because women were involved? Because the U.S. team had to pull off an incredible win over Brazil just to get here? Because we were all -- justifiably -- really happy for Japan, a nation that has suffered greatly because of natural disasters this year?

No matter the motivation, no one would say it ... at least not on TV.

Among others, Bomani Jones and CBS' Mike Freeman tweeted such sentiments, but they still appeared to be in the minority.

The reality is that the "choking" statement is harsh, but it's true. The U.S. team didn't play well with a lead, like they felt too much pressure to hold the lead. Had they capitalized on a multitude of first-half chances, maybe they wouldn't have felt that pressure.

If that 1998 Vikings team choked against Atlanta (they did), if the Houston Oilers choked against the Bills back in the day (yes), then it's fair to say the U.S. team choked Sunday.

It doesn't mean we didn't have a great team with some great players and some faces -- namely Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo -- that will potentially become household names thanks to the notoriety they gained in this tournament. It doesn't mean a silver medal isn't a great achievement.

It just means it could -- and should -- have been better.

You're not wrong if you feel that way. You're wrong if you feel that way and are afraid to express it.

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