Women’s World Cup

Much of the reporting on the USWNT’s overtime loss concentrated on Sweden’s winning penalty kick, which crossed the goal line by one, or maybe two, millimeters after being largely saved by US goalie Alyssa Naeher. Had it been saved, however, there was no guarantee the result would have been any different. The US would still have had to convert a penalty and hope for a corresponding Swedish miss, when the US women had already flubbed three of their last four tries. No, the crucial game-defining moment was Sophia Smith’s attempt. The US, thanks to Naeher’s save, had a 3-2 lead. If Smith scored, the US would be up 4-2 with only one Swedish shot to go. I was already envisioning an American celebration. The press, however, has been nice to her, which is okay, but different than they would be to, say, Kirk Cousins. She is young, gifted and Black, and has a lot of time to make people forget this one bad moment. Megan Rapinoe’s shot was even worse. As it turned out, the Americans would have won if she had converted, although we didn’t know that at the time (Naeher’s save came later and effectively neutralized the damage for the moment). Rapinoe, the face of women’s soccer and, indeed, of women’s sports for the last decade, was understandably given a pass as well. Kelley O’Hara was the third US player to miss–her soft shot (why?) bounced off the post–giving Sweden its opportunity to close out the match. O’Hara had been substituted into the game in the final minute (along with Kristie Mewis, who made her shot), solely to take a penalty kick if needed. One is tempted to blame the coach as much as O’Hara for putting her in that spot. Why not let the players who have played 120 minutes get to decide the outcome?
I am not a goalie, although I played one for the Aujila town team in Libya, but I wonder that goalies invariably dive left or right when facing a penalty kick. Yes, they generally have a 50/50 chance of guessing the correct direction, but that is not enough. If the shot is higher than their outstretched arm or too hard to stop, the correct guess won’t matter. Of the ten penalties on goal in this game, the goalies dove in the right direction a majority of the time but stopped only one shot. If I were a shooter–and I only attempted one penalty kick in my soccer career–I would aim straight ahead. There’s less, maybe no, chance of missing the net, and so long as the goalie dives, it doesn’t matter in which direction she goes. Naeher was the only shooter who took this route, scoring easily. The converse advantage for the goalie is that if she stays on her line and guesses right, the save will be relatively easy, whether the kick is low, high, hard or soft. Even if the US is no longer playing, I’ll be watching how penalty kicks play out the rest of this World Cup. And I’ll be rooting for Japan.

PS: The penalty shootout in the Australia-France game underscored just how bad the U.S. effort was. The two teams combined for twenty (20!) PKs, and not one went over the crossbar. All 20 were well struck; and while three hit the post and four were saved, or vice versa, none of the strikers were as embarrassed as the three missing Yanks should have been.

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