Everywhere I turned after the Women's World Cup Finals, I read the same things about the performance of the US Women's National Team in its loss to Japan. They choked. They surrendered the lead twice and succumbed to the pressure. And because they blew a one-goal lead twice -- once in regulation and a second time late in extra time -- the performance was labeled as a choke while ignoring what truly caused the loss.
It makes me wonder if any of those writing about the Women's World Cup Final had watched this team before. The way the lead was surrendered was all-too-predictable. Winning had masked the flaws of Pia Sundhage's team, but the underlying issues have lingered for quite some time -- beginning well-before the Women's World Cup even began.
For as good as Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and the US attack has been, the defense has been as bad or worse. The back-line is below-average and plays as if it's on skates the majority of the time. The back four has had, and continues to have, a tendency to give up soft goals. Simply put, it leaks goals, no matter the stakes or pressure.
It didn't surprise me to see the two centerbacks combine to botch a clearance that led to Japan's first goal in regulation. It wasn't a surprise to see the offside trap burned ahead of the second goal, which came off Japan's ensuing set piece. And it wasn't a surprise to see Japan score on a set piece, one of the better parts of its game.
To label a performance as a choke-job implies the team succumbed to the pressure of the moment when, in fact, it followed the same script it has in the build-up to, and throughout, the Women's World Cup. The midfield and strikers show flashes of brilliance mixed with moments of pure frustration while coming inches from a flood of goals. The back-line is a constant, and consistently sub-par, giving up goals against the run of play in seemingly routine situations.
We look for explanations when the inexplicable happens. The US women, unlike the men, are a world soccer power, consistently holding a place at or near the top of the FIFA rankings. Every Women's World Cup ahead of the 2011 version had ended in a win, be it in the title game or the still somewhat useless third-place match. And this year's team, we were told, was a team of destiny.
And maybe part of the choke label is the team's own fault. After all, we'd heard Hope Solo say she was bringing home the cup after the USA defeated Brazil in the quarterfinals. We'd been spoiled by the late-heroics in the knockout round that included edge-of-elimination goals at an unsustainable rate. We'd been blinded by luck and wins.
Those wins allowed us to forget what happened in the US team's final group stage match against Sweden. The back-line gave up two horrendous goals and the USA probably should've lost by a much larger margin than the 2-1 scoreline would indicate. The defense surrendered a penalty kick and a free kick in a dangerous area, both of which resulted in goals. Sweden dominated the run of play and was erroneously called offside more than once, denying clear goal-scoring opportunities. The flaws of the USA were on display throughout the match, right there for anyone who was watching to see.
When discussing the US Women's National Team with Aaron Campeau, we came to the same conclusion about its construction and limitations. The problems that plague it are not unlike those that have plagued the men's side. The midfield is dynamic, the strikers can be quite good, but the back line is downright horrendous. Oh, and there's that goalkeeper thing: Both teams boast a top-flight keeper that's considered one of the best in the world.
Until US Soccer develops competent defenders, it will continue to face its limitations. A team can only attack so much before being hit on a counter and seeing its porous defense exploited. With fullbacks that struggle both in defense and capably getting forward, and centerbacks that are inconsistent, often struggling to mark strikers out of the game, the USA played on a thin edge in the Women's World Cup, and will continue to do so.
The problem stretches far deeper than simply stating the team choked and moving on. Doing so would be a disservice to any meaningful analysis, and ignores the real issues at play. After all, the choke label serves as an easy scapegoat; Choking is temporary, the flaws of the US National Teams have the potential to limit both for years to come.
Japan is a quality team that deserves credit for exploiting the flaws of the US Women's National Team. While the USA may have dominated the run of play and created numerous chances, Japan took advantage of the most glaring weakness US had. They waited, absorbed the attack and countered with brilliant through-balls that exploited the back-line of the USA. It paid-off with dangerous chances, eventually forcing a shootout. By placing the blame on the USA and ignoring the play of Japan, it does a severe disservice to them, as well.
It wasn't a choke that the USA surrendered the lead twice late in the Women's World Cup Final and lost in the crap-shoot that is a penalty shootout. In fact, it was the US Women's National Team in a nutshell.