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Glenn Clark: Soccer's The Thing Worth Discussing Regarding USWNT's World Cup Run

July 8, 2019
My goal for this column was to offer "19 Thoughts on the 2019 Women's World Cup," because, internet. The thing about that is that a full 19-thought column probably takes up more interwebs than the powers that be (yes, the government) would prefer and also, sometimes otherwise separate thoughts kinda end up running together. So I'm just going to spit out a bunch of thoughts. Perhaps it will equal out to 19. If it doesn't, send PressBox a self-addressed stamped envelope and I will handwrite however many thoughts you feel you were cheated out of. 

The reason this is particularly difficult is because I sort of wish that I could just type out the following thought ... 

"1. The soccer was the thing really worth discussing about the tournament, and it's a shame more of you didn't bother to care as much about it as all of the other nonsense."

... and then that just be the end of the column. It would be the easiest way I could zip together my overarching opinions about the last month or so. I've genuinely been disappointed by how the majority of the conversation about the World Cup has been about far more trivial, largely irrelevant side topics. 

The truth is that while soccer is wildly popular in America, it remains niche within sports media and the greater media as a whole. The World Cup was a significant enough event that major media knew they had to acknowledge the event was happening and discuss it, particularly considering the American women were expected to, and of course ultimately did, find themselves in championship contention. But the lack of interest in or knowledge of the game (either generally or specifically the women's game) made it far easier for televised windbags to spend a few minutes batting around "should a team stop trying to score goals when they're up big" than "is Jill Ellis using Lindsey Horan appropriately?"

The first debate requires no knowledge of ... much of anything, really. You don't have to know who Jill Ellis even is in order to be able to vomit out some sort of opinion about sportsmanship. The topic was always breathlessly lame. This was, of course, the ACTUAL WORLD CUP we were talking about, not a mid-week friendly against Guyana in Spokane, Wash. 

Major sports media wasn't alone. The back and forth between Megan Rapinoe and President Donald Trump created a distraction that allowed even your uncle (you know, the one who spent your entire childhood laughing at the notion of anyone even watching women's sports) to suddenly have something to say about the Women's World Cup -- but sure as hell not about any of the play on the field. Even international media piled on, somehow bothered that the American players ... celebrated scoring goals in close games, too? 

This nonsense has all made my head hurt.

We should talk about the soccer, you guys. The soccer was wonderful. Even the final, which frankly wasn't particularly competitive, was somehow competitive. The Americans were dominant and yet well into the second half were still in danger of a goofy ball turning the outcome. They were in serious danger at times throughout the knockout rounds, as opponents like France and England had long stretches of momentum and fortune smiled on the U.S. in big situations. 

Rapinoe was marvelous, particularly considering the bullseye she carried. Alex Morgan thrived in the moment. Rose Lavelle was the absolute breakout star of the tournament. (Lavelle and Mallory Pugh play for NWSL's Washington Spirit, based at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md.). Goalie Alyssa Naeher silenced those who wondered how she'd handle stepping into the shoes of the legendary Hope Solo. Ellis made some downright puzzling decisions at times. But she also navigated injuries and red card issues and delivered a World Cup title defense for the first time in American history. 

Away from the Americans, European nations like France, England and the Netherlands proved they are narrowing the gap and will continue to be threats to the Americans' overall dominance. It has been necessary for the USWNT to continue to look to younger stars because at least some parts of the world are simply catching up. 

The other soccer topic that I found to be worthy of more conversation during the course of this World Cup (and really since the expansion of the video assistant referee) is a potential evolution of the offside rule. As we saw with the negated goal late in the second half of the U.S.-England semifinal, VAR has created a new world of "razor thin" analysis. The offside rule was created to prevent cherry picking. It is enforced now even more punitively than before, somehow absurdly suggesting two human beings running full speed should be able to know exactly where each other's toenails are via non-existent heat mapping. 

I acknowledge that we generally don't like officials having discretion in sports, but even VAR reviews of penalties are still left up to the official's discretion, just with additional camera angles at their disposal. The entire sport should be willing to have a greater conversation about the enforcement of the offside rule. I understand there's probably a "slippery slope" argument to be had, but the time has come for extensive conversation. 

And if we need to talk about something off the field, there's nothing wrong with intelligent conversation about the "equal pay" debate. It should extend to "equal resources" and even further. You don't have to understand what a center back is to be able to discuss that intelligently, either. But again, discuss it intelligently. 

Major kudos to the American women. It was again an honor to be able to watch their super exciting, incredible performances throughout the World Cup. It was fun to watch matches with my sons, who jumped and chanted U-S-A and never had to hear a single person insanely suggest a player shouldn't be representing the country if they don't sing along with every word of the national anthem. 

Hopefully the national team will remain this dominant when we finally figure out that the soccer is the part we should care about.