Monday, July 18, 2011

Why the U.S. Women's Soccer Team Blew the World Cup Final

Yesterday I wrote about why Phil Mickelson blew his chance to win the British Open. The U.S. women's loss in the World Cup final game was my second huge disappointment.

In her AP summary of the World Cup title game, Nancy Armour said that "the Americans lost this game as much as Japan won it."

She's right about that. But not because the Japanese players made three of four penalty kicks, while the U.S. players made only one of four.

Like a lot of Americans who don't usually watch soccer on TV, I was caught up in the drama of what our women had achieved. They had won some close games to earn their way to the finals. I wanted them to win. I was glued to my TV set.

I'm not an expert soccer fan. I played intramural soccer in college, but that doesn't count for much. I just haven't followed it over the years. But I could tell that while the Japanese women were fast and athletic and played with a lot of heart, the U.S. team was bigger, stronger and more talented. They played precise, in-your-face soccer, and when Alex Morgan scored at minute 69, I shouted a loud "Yeah!" I couldn't help myself.

But then something weird happened. With quite a few minutes to go in regulation, the U.S. women stopped trying to score. It was as if they all they cared about was trying to keep the ball away from the Japanese players. It was the soccer equivalent of "stall-ball."

I'm an over-the-top Duke basketball fan. I got my M.A. and Ph.D. at Duke in the early 70s. Mike Kerzyzewski and I were cadets at West Point at the same time. I remember watching him play under Bobby Knight. Back then, the under-sized West Point team went to the NIT equivalent of the "Final Four" two years in a row. Today, all my personal activities, including family events, are planned to accommodate the Duke basketball schedule.

Quite a few years ago, one of the better Duke teams surged to a 35-point lead against Virginia. With about 15 minutes left to play, Coach K ordered the team to hold the ball and milk the clock. I won't bore you with the details, but here's what happened. Duke would hold the ball until there was about 10 seconds left on the shot clock, and then they would make their move to the basket. But that's only time enough for one play, and Virginia's defense would see it coming. They disrupted the shot, got the rebound and charged down the court and scored. Too easy. Imagine my chagrin when this pattern repeated itself until Virginia erased the advantage and won the game. It was an abomination - a totally misguided strategy.

This wasn't the last time Duke would blow big leads playing stall-ball. It gives the opponent a tremendous advantage. You can't make baskets when you aren't trying to make baskets. It's hard to make a basket when you make only one time-pressured attempt. The other team continues to play aggressively, so they score. Besides, Duke always has talented players on the bench who need playing time experience. If you have a big lead, why not put them in and tell them to show their best stuff?

I know that as soon as the 2011 season starts, Coach K will have won more games than any coach in the history of Division I basketball. But in my opinion, he could have won more. This has always been his greatest weakness as a coach. He's a smart guy, so I always wondered why he continued to do this. Even the announcers and commentators would talk about it, so I know the opposing coaches knew and were waiting for their opportunity.

Actually, I believe Coach K has improved in this regard. He doesn't use the stall-ball strategy as often, and he doesn't initiate it as soon as he used to. Watching his end game is a lot more fun.

So when the U.S. women started playing stall-ball, I got worried. A one-point lead is no lead at all. There was quite a bit of time left. What if the Japanese team scores? Then the lead is gone. You can't score goals if you aren't trying to score goals.

Well, the Japanese team did score on a late possession, forcing the game into extra time. The U.S. team scored again at minute 104. Alex Morgan kicked a perfect set-up pass to Abby Wambach, who headed the ball into the goal. The U.S. took a 2-1 lead. If they had scored again, they would have iced the game and there never would have been any penalty-kick finish. But they didn't try. They immediately shifted to stall-ball again, trying to keep the ball away from the Japanese players.

When the Japanese team got the ball, the pace picked up. Sure enough, they scored again.  And when tiime ran out, the game was decided by penalty kicks, which are a very chancy way to win. This time, the luck fell to the Japanese kickers, and everything the U.S. women had worked so hard for was lost.

After the game, Abby Wambach said, "Evidently, it wasn't meant to be." That was a gracious thing to say.

But I'm going to say it differently. It wasn't meant to be because the U.S. coach, Pia Sundhage, thought it would be a great idea to play stall-ball with only a one-point lead, instead of trying to score a decisive goal.

I think it's important to name names and hold people accountable. The U.S. women played their hearts out. They couldn't have played better. It was the coach who lost that game. She didn't play to win.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from


Ryan Biddulph said...

Hi Denny,

Luved the post.

I'm a hoops nut, and actually have a few connections with the Triangle Area/Duke.

My father's cousin heads the Chamber of Commerce in Durham.

We spoke to Coach K a few years back. He was in town to recruit Kyrie Irving. Ky played for St. Pats in New Jersey. I've followed the program for the past 20 years, it's always one of the best in the country.

So I got to see a Kyrie play for a few years before going to Duke. Best guard I've ever seen in NJ, and the most humble superstar I've ever been around, and I've seen a few.

Jay Williams is from my home town - Plainfield, NJ. Lived 5 minutes down the road. Another great guy and a heckuva ballplayer.

My high school scrimmaged against Bobby Hurley's team in high school. Got to see him a few years before he laced em up for Coach K.

Way cool story on many levels.

Thanks for sharing!


Anonymous said...

"Stall-Ball" will stay in my mind. I've seen that happen in relationships, corporations and a particularly memorable episode when a "shoe-in" would-be congressman ran a great campaign, was way ahead, then rested on his laurels and just stopped campaigning two weeks before the election. He even rented an apartment in Washington. His opponent used that as a cudgel and deservedly won.