Well, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is over, and the United States Women’s National Team waltzed through to yet another championship without even a hint of trouble.
Yep. No trouble at all. The USWNT only had to claw out a 2-1 win over Spain, then another 2-1 win over England (which controlled the ball for 58% of the match) before finally breaking through against the stubborn Dutch after 60 minutes of play in the final.
Oh, and there weren’t any distractions along the way or anything.
US national soccer team player Ali Krieger has said she would "absolutely not" go to the White House if invited and stood by her teammate Megan Rapinoe in her war of words with President Trump https://t.co/igCiRVQ8Ke pic.twitter.com/UXTkZufcbs
— CNN (@CNN) July 5, 2019
The idea that the domestic women’s soccer team is winning “academic” FIFA gold medals against an overmatched and hapless bunch of European teams is the biggest Fake News to come out of the sports media since Tiger Woods was written-off forever in major newspapers 5 years ago.
But just because the Women’s World Cup is harder to win than American talking heads think it is doesn’t mean there aren’t international sports in which the United States is dominant.
Maybe too dominant.
Take Team USA softball for an example. Softball was once an official Olympic sport, included in the Summer Games after a groundswell of support from enthusiasts and activists. The American team was clearly superior to any roster that an opposing nation could put together, and the Stars & Stripes clobbered other Olympians on the distaff diamond with scores like “USA 24, Netherlands 0.”
I played the role of the grumpy curmudgeon while those ballgames ran on TV. “Don’t keep running those scores way up,” I would mutter at the screen while others cheered and laughed. “If you humiliate too many opponents it can cause baaaaaad things to happen.”
Not that a 6’2” softball slugger is going to bat a blackened eye toward my advice. The U.S. women decided to score as many runs as they could at the Olympics, bawling for blood from the dugout long after rival squads had been vanquished.
Then the other shoe dropped. In 2008, the Yankee softball team had a bad day against a determined Japanese side, simmering with resentment after years of being embarrassed at the Games. Japan upset the United States 3-1 in the gold medal game in Beijing, shortly after the IOC had announced it would no longer recognize softball as an Olympic sport.
What rationale did the International Olympic Committee have for the decision? The A-#1 factor they cited was the number of lopsided medal-round games the American ballplayers had pointlessly sneered their way through…en route to 3 straight gold medals.
Charles Barkley made a similar mistake at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The original United States “Dream Team” had been challenged by an opposing coach from Angola prior to what was to be a markedly 1-sided round-robin game. Barkley took umbrage to the coach’s opinion that NBA players were skilled offensively but weak defensively and cowardly on contact.
Well into the scoreboard massacre, Sir Charles “knighted” an Angola cager with a swift elbow to the chin.
The only thing that could have possibly slowed the Dream Team down was a controversy like that. Fortunately, the squad’s veteran leaders like David Robinson and Larry Bird stepped in to calm Barkley down and prevent any more bad blood in Spain.
It’s not that I’m some namby-pamby, goody-2-shoes, choose-your-cliché marshmallow who cries for teams that get blown out on the world stage. Sports are always a 2-way street. Whatever is good for a team is bad for their opponent, and whatever is good for their opponent is bad for them. Every tournament has a winner and a bunch of losers.
But there are negatives that come with winning too much and by too many. Interest in the game can become polarized or focused in the wrong spots. For instance, “UCONN” has become a bigger brand than the rest of ladies’ NCAA basketball put together only to struggle to get back to where the program used to be as the decade winds to a close. Connecticut built women’s college hoops into a national sport, only to have to stand back and watch other schools compete for its richest prize in 2019. International and NCAA “programs” share many of the same pleasures and problems, making the Huskies’ tale an ominous warning for dominant national team coaches to heed.
It’s not just women’s sports (and certainly not women’s soccer no matter what you hear) in which the USA often crushes all competition. When the “X-Games” started to filter over into the Winter Olympics with IOC medal competitions in snowboard cross and freestyle, at first it seemed like an excuse for America to rack up a bunch of easy “intramural” golds. Daredevils from other lands soon caught up.
And what of USA Basketball with the FIBA World Cup right around the corner?
The United States isn’t winning World Cups and Summer Olympics by embarrassing scores anymore, but if the Red, White & Blue prevails in China this August, it will be a 3rd title in a row for the men’s team. Women’s basketball on the Olympic and FIBA levels is arguably owned by the Yanks to a greater extent. I’d imagine there will be at least a (-500) line at Bovada Sportsbook on the women’s team to win gold when the Olympics visit Tokyo in summer of 2020.
FIBA World Cup: Could Team USA Win By Losing in 2019?
Even if NBA and WNBA superstars are “too good” at beating the competition from Europe, South America and Asia, we can’t exactly say that it would be “good for the popularity of basketball” around the world for a few other nations to win gold. It would be a blessing in the country that beats the Americans and wins the gold, but basketball doesn’t really need a popularity boost. It is already the most popular participation sport on the planet.
A surprise loss by Team USA in 2019 would be good for the FIBA tournament’s popularity in the USA, though, just as the occasional loss by the USWNT helps to keep women’s soccer flourishing in the United States. Few would bother to watch the Women’s World Cup if they thought the competition was eternally weak and that Alex Morgan and the Yanks didn’t have to try hard to win. (Given that the U.S. media actually believes that narrative, it’s a wonder that they’re still tuning-in.) A
Americans will watch the FIBA World Cup out of curiosity and for fun. But nothing ratchets-up attention on a sport like a good villain. Let the “bad guys” from Argentina or Spain prevail over Team USA in 2019, and suddenly the next World Cup will garner a few more “serious” TV viewers who want revenge. If LeBron James was inspired to fall off the wagon and join the national squad again for Tokyo after watching the team lose in China, then the loss of a FIBA gold medal would help create another truly epic display of Yankee dominance on the hardcourt when it mattered most.
Here’s a few other international games at which the United States could stand to lose once in a while.
IIHF Ice Hockey
Finland came within inches of causing Helsinki to freeze-over (like it hasn’t already) with a Women’s Ice Hockey World Championship gold in 2019.
A dodgy video-replay call took the team off the podium and handed victory back to the 4-time defending United States.
From Y2K through the early 2010s, the United States and Canada women’s hockey teams plowed through European opposition and met in “intramural” gold medal games that were almost too-perfectly matched in style and form. Also-rans like Japan were humiliated by the Westerners, and the division was in danger of being “killed” by lack of intrigue in much the same way that Team USA softball had dominated its way out of fashion.
Things started to change in 2013, when the United States began winning every gold medal at the World Championships and at the Four Nations Cup. But as Canada began to sink, there was no alternative “villain” trending upward.
Until now. The 2-1 overtime loss in front of a host crowd of supporters set off a firestorm in Finland, with hockey officials even threatening to sue the IIHF. Team USA goaltender Maddie Rooney gave an exaggerated, embellished “body slam” description of the fateful play in which she had fumbled the puck and then skated out of the crease and into the body of the Finnish forward.
That’s not something an athlete does when she’s used to crushing international opponents, then speaking in “aww shucks, they try so hard” terms in the postgame presser. Rooney is part of a new generation of Yanks who must take European women’s teams seriously…or perhaps wind up having their long IIHF and Olympic winning streaks snapped soon.
On the men’s side, it’s not as if International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments or the Winter Olympics are dominated by the United States or even Canada. Russia is the reigning Olympic gold medalist, and despite riches of NHL talent, the Americans win international hockey gold about as often as Haley’s Comet visits the Earth.
The NHL does dominate the Worlds, though, and all-NHL teams have won 3 of the last 4 gold medals. That’s what made Finland’s journey in 2019 so special, as the Lions honored a ripped-off women’s side by winning the men’s gold in Slovakia.
And they did it without a single active NHL player on the team.
Most NHL fans have been OK with the USA and Canada losing at the Men’s Worlds so long as the National Hockey League maintains its death-grip on the IIHF’s top echelon. With the KHL and other European leagues rising in 2019, that narrative has begun to show a few cracks.
I include American football not because it is a legitimate international sport…yet. The World Football League succeeded in integrating a few players from Europe and Japan, but none of them ever made it to the NFL and the league soon wore on fans who didn’t need any more preseason-level pigskin.
Today, the “international” component of America’s Game consists of events in which countries like China and Italy are encouraged to put together the best rosters they can, while the American teams’ GMs are asked to recruit marginal talent as if “governing” an engine that can lap the other cars.
But there will come a day in which a noteworthy gridiron team of boys (or men) from the USA are beaten by an opponent from a foreign land where they picked up the fad.
It could be an NCAA program losing an exhibition against All-Stars from the United Kingdom in 30 years’ time. It could be a United States international team that doesn’t beef-up quite enough and loses to an FCS-level unit from Sweden or Norway in 2050.
Or the A-Team could even be forced to coach a hapless American team against the Russians, causing Mr. T to take umbrage at Joe Namath’s refusal to play for the USA.
Whether by hook, crook, or a talkin’ fist named “Knockout,” at some point in the next 50 years a terrible loss is going to occur for USA football against an overseas (or more likely Canadian) upstart. Whoever the coach might be, we’ll all pity the fool.
On the bright side, such an upset might help American football to take off from Mexico to Malaysia.
Snowboarding and Skateboarding
Finally, it looks like skateboarding at the 2020 Summer Olympics is a dream that has become a reality.
When a 13-year-old Jay Adams and the “Z-Boys” invented modern skateboarding in the early 1970s, they could never have imagined that their seminal urban culture would ultimately take its place next to basketball, track, and other time-honored “playground” sports at the world’s biggest event.
Maybe an overseas skating team will “crash” the Tokyo competition, just as the Z-Boys crashed the Del Mar tournament in 1975.
(That’s a nice clip and all, but it leaves out the part at Del Mar where Adams picked up his skateboard with himself still on it and bounced himself like a basketball. It wasn’t just a street gang invading a sports tournament – it was a heavy metal band showing up to a jazz club.)
But I doubt it will happen right away at the Olympics, first and foremost because skaters from other countries learned the American street style (or SoCal surf style) of skating from watching athletes from the USA as youngsters.
Also, the early top favorites are from – you guessed it – the Land of Opportunity. Nyjah Huston is a 24-year-old skater who could dominate the men’s “street” and “park” competitions, while Brighton Zeuner is expected to contend for women’s gold at the tender age of 15.
If Yankee skaters waltz to 4 gold medals in a row in Japan, as Team USA snowboarders often did when the sport was introduced in the Winter Olympics, fans will marvel at the highlight clips and move on.
But if someone from overseas wins the 1st gold medal in yet another sport America invented?
In that case, prepare for everyone – not just leftover Z-Boys – to dress for war in Paris in 2024.