And just like that, the US women's soccer program transformed overnight from a story you read uneasily, just knowing there's no way in hell it's going to end well, to a full-blown telenovela complete with foreshadowed failure, betrayal, heated words, the reappearance of characters from the past, and changing loyalties. Ryan benches Solo, Solo lashes out, Ryan snipes back, Foudy and Chastain spank Ryan, Foudy slides in a slap at Solo, BigSoccer message boards see more traffic (complete with gridlock and multiple drive-bys) on the women's side than any time in recent history.
This US team wanted the same media buzz that surrounded the 1999 champions, and they're sure getting it now. Just not in the same, uh, what's the word--oh, yeah, "positive"--way as the '99ers. What conclusions can we draw from what is rapidly becoming one of the sorriest two weeks in American sporting history?
The federation's top-down control of development has stifled technical development and creativity. To make it into the player pools at any age level, girls must demonstrate proficiency in the boot-and-chase system that's been in place since the Heinrichs regime. It's the soccer equivalent of elementary and high schools teaching to aptitude tests rather than than teaching critical thinking along with rote memorization, and then wondering why kids get to college and bomb in their freshman writing seminars.
The long-term residency program is detrimental to players' tactical sharpness. God love Abby Wambach--and I most definitely do--but when she repeatedly says that the US players' lack of international club experience is not a problem because "we get the best competition in the world every day at practice," I have to wonder if she's really that short-sighted or is simply saying what she's been instructed to say. And then I wonder which of those is the less distressing possibility. Going up against the same players who come out of the same system every day only teaches you how to beat those players and that system. After a few times you'll know everyone's tendencies, and you'll be anticipating moves rather than learning how to react to unfamiliar tactics and personnel. Club teams will not match up with the US roster in terms of individual skill, top-down, but playing in meaningful games every week against rotating opposition creates pressure, exposes players to adversity, and hones their reactions to changing circumstances in ways that end-of-practice scrimmages never will.
Success at the international level requires informed flexibility in tactics and personnel, the ability to recognize when something--say, the 4-3-3--is not working, and a level of trust in the roster to make changes on the fly. But it also requires that the right choices be made. Ryan's failure to substitute in pool play and the quarterfinal has been shredded by roughly two zillion people already, as has his inexplicable choices when he did finally make changes in the semi, and I'm too downtrodden to repeat it all here. Try Googling "Greg Ryan is a numbnuts" if you're into self-flagellation.
Oh, and bring the friggin' team psychologist with you when you go to a tournament, and remember that keepers are different from field players, and women are different from men. Ryan's comment that Solo's mental state after being benched "is not my concern" reveals volumes.
Mia Hamm, wisely, is staying above the fray on this one. Chastain, predictably, is not. Foudy's taking swings at all comers. Lilly and Wambach have been silent, probably due to a combination of good judgment and a clampdown by US Soccer on anyone else on the active roster opening their yaps until this one is long over. It's been a disheartening 24 hours. I'm glad so many people do seem to give a shit, but it feels like the world is coming apart. We've been exposed, and it's going to be a long hard slog up out of this hole.
Political ranting is scheduled to return over the weekend.