Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Women's World Cup: US vs North Korea

The consolation for US soccer fans, who are long accustomed to hoping the men's team will put on a good show but can have no hope of winning a major international tournament like the World Cup, is our women's national team. They're a well-trained, well-funded group of professional athletes, and they're enormously successful: in four World Cups, they've won twice and placed third in two others.

But lots of the legends have retired over the last few years--Mia Hamm, Tiffany Milbrett, Brandi Chastain, to name just a few of the more household names--and this new squad has some young and inexperienced players. And little was known about the North Korean team they faced yesterday. No one who saw yesterday's match, however, is likely to forget that North Korean team, least of all the US women who, following Abby Wambach's powerful strike in the 50th minute that gave them the lead, found themselves struggling as the Koreans answered with goals in the 58th and 62nd minute. (Wambach went down with an injury to her head a few minutes after her goal, and both Korean goals were scored during the time she was off the pitch getting patched up.) Fortunately Heather O'Reilly equalized a few minutes later, and although the game continued to be dynamic and attacking, neither side was able to put away a winning goal.

The US defense made several errors, and new keeper Hope Solo let the first Korean goal--blasted in by Kil Son Hui--slip through her fingers. In the second half, however, Solo's confidence seemed to increase, and she finished with two spectacular saves in stoppage time. Both squads played a fast, exciting, aggressive game.

These games are on in the middle of the night in the US, not unlike the 2002 World Cup, so unless you are an insomniac or a night owl you might have trouble catching them live. Fortunately, ESPN 2 is replaying the US games, at least, at a reasonable time (4 pm Pacific). I'm going to keep watching and I'll try to write about as many of the matches as I can. There's plenty of drama here: the word is out that the formidable US team is vulnerable, and the Koreans a force to be reckoned with. Will the US shore up their defensive line and claim a decisive victory in the next match against Sweden on the 14th? How will their draw against North Korea affect their efforts to get out of their group? Will they reclaim their place as champions, lost in 2003?

If you are a fan of men's soccer, I hope you'll make an effort to catch at least one of these matches as well. The level of play is very high; moreover, many of the teams from other countries train in substandard conditions amid indifference and even prejudice regarding women in the sport. In other words, they do it for the love of the game. In a world of overpaid, overpampered, oversponsored superstar athletes, that's worth tuning in to.

More at the official FIFA site and the official US soccer site.

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