Tuesday, September 11, 2007

China is in a really tough time zone

For me, at least. The Women's World Cup kicked off this week and today was the U.S. team's first game. The game was shown live on ESPN2... at 3:55am CST this morning. I hadn't really done the math on the time difference so it was only last night while watching Monday night football, when I saw a commercial for the first game "live at 4:55am EST," that I realized the extra hours I'd need to be awake. I should have remembered the game times from the 2002 Men's World Cup that was in Asia. I remember several middle of the night/wee hours of the morning treks to The Diner in Adam's Morgan or Lucky Bar in Dupont usually with Carly and/or Brendan to watch group play. (This was just a couple weeks before I met Rob. :)

If you're not a soccer person, then you may not know that the World Cup begins with "group play." Each of the 16 teams are put in a group of four teams. The four teams in each group play each other in the opening round, then the two teams from each group with the best record move to the next round. From there it's elimination play. Generally, there's a little bit of structure to the group assignments so that the top four teams in the world are spread out over different groups. The twist is that the home team gets to count as a top four team to have a better chance of advancing. The home team is China, and they're not a top four team.

Conveniently for the rest of the world (a little two conveniently if you ask U.S. Soccer folks off the record), the U.S. drew into a group with Sweden, North Korea and Nigeria. (Interestingly, these are the same four teams from the U.S.'s group in the 2003 World Cup.) Sweden is currently ranked 3rd in the world (they were four, though, at the time of the drawing). North Korea is ranked 5th in the world. Nigeria is the best African team, but ranked about 24th. So you can see the issue with the U.S.'s group -- one of the top five teams in the world won't be in the next round of eight teams. The groups just shouldn't work out that way.

This morning, the U.S. faced North Korea. In 2003, after a fast start by the Koreans, the U.S. handily won the match with most of their stars on the bench. After opening group play with a win against Sweden and then a win against Nigeria, the Americans' spot in the next round was secure. I remember seeing two North Korea games live in the last World Cup -- versus Sweden and versus Nigeria. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I remember that at the press conference following the victory over Nigeria (North Korea's first game), the coach and the star players took questions from the media, brimming with confidence. (I was covering the games.) After the loss to Sweden, the team sent out a trainer to answer the media's questions -- although the trainer at first seemed to be pretending to be the head coach. It was very strange, and it was clear that losing was not to be tolerated by the team's organization... or possibly not even acknowledged as legitimate results. The officiating was decried by the team's trainer, and that was pretty much the end of the press conference.

All this is to say that when I saw the U.S.'s group draw, I was worried. Sweden would undoubtedly be tough. And North Korea... North Korea probably went home after their 2003 elimination at the end of group play and trained every single second of every single day for the four years since then. Guess who won last year's Under-20 Women's World Cup? North Korea. Guess who came in fourth? The U.S. The Americans in this World Cup have several veterans who are well past playing on the U-20 squad. Meanwhile, the average age of the North Koreans is about 22. So the comparison isn't fair. But it also means that means the vast majority of the North Korean team won a championship last year and are used to coming out on top of the Americans. Plus, any lessons learned from the 2003 game are useless against this new, younger North Korean team.

This morning, I set my alarm for 3:50am, stumbled downstairs when it went off, and curled up under a blanket for the game. The first half was intense. It was raining hard and the North Koreans were incredibly fast, taking a shot in the first minute. Their midfield organization was much better than the Americans'. The U.S. defense seemed a little prone to miscues. The U.S. forwards weren't seeing the ball much. I was so stressed that at the beginning of the second half, I changed the channel for a few minutes. Lame, I know. I know. But there's a real chance the U.S. could be knocked out in group play in this tournament. The world playing field is as level as it's ever been. A new women's professional soccer league is looking to launch next year, but I can't imagine that business plan would stay on track if the U.S. failed to place in this Cup. The game this morning, then, was about a lot more than just one tournament. I would be more crushed by the U.S.'s early exit from this tournament than I would have been if the Colts failed to come back last year in the AFC Championship against the Pats. Seriously. And I was a wreck and a half for that Colts game. See, no matter the outcome the Colts were guaranteed to come back the next year as part of the NFL, which has no chance of going away. Imagine if the NFL would fold if the right team didn't do well in the playoffs. A bit more at stake if you're both a football lover and a fan of that team, right?

I flipped back to the game to see the U.S. up a goal. Amen! But my joy was short lived. During a U.S. corner kick, star forward Abby Wambach (who had scored the lone goal) smashed heads with a North Korean and wound up on the ground with a bloody head. She left the game for several minutes to get stitches. The U.S. tried to play defense, but a goalkeeper mistake and then horrific defense led to two (yes two!) North Korean goals while Abby was out. I flipped the channel again to catch my breath, fearing I'd cry if another goal was scored by North Korea. Good thing I'm not covering this game! I came back and Heather O'Reilly had evened the match. Oh thank you thank you thank you. Of course at this point I was convinced that my watching the game was causing the U.S. to play worse, but I kept watching, busting out some frozen custard to help me through it. I felt both relief and sadness when the game ended in a tie. Not devastating, but not what the U.S. needed. I crawled back into bed.

I woke up to drive Rob to work a little before 9am. I turned on ESPN to check the score of the Sweden-Nigeria game that was finishing up. Miracle of miracles... it was a tie too. And it ended that way. That means everyone is even in the U.S. group. The U.S. are back to square one, along with everyone. If any team wins out their remaining two games, they'll advance. I'm sure the U.S. players are dancing with relief with the Sweden-Nigeria result. Hopefully that will be just the boost they need to knock out Sweden on Friday morning, which will begin at 1:55am Napa time. So Rob will have to try to sleep through my cheers in our hotel room that night. We're off to Napa on Thursday for Roxanna's wedding. Yea!

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