U.S. Women’s Soccer Thugs?
William C. Rhoden has a rather surreal piece in today’s NYT, “U.S. Women Pound Home Message.”
RENE SIMOES entered the news conference yesterday with steam coming out of his head. His Brazilian women’s soccer team had lost to the United States, 2-0, in a first-round game. He had also lost two of his best players for good. Elaine sustained a concussion and Kelly broke her collarbone. Each had enjoyed an exceptional first half when the young Brazilian team outhustled the veteran Americans, attacking relentlessly. Then the United States lowered the boom, and this was what had Simoes fuming. In a stunning rant, he said the Americans played dirty and targeted his best players. “Our opponent played a very physical game in the second half, and that’s why two of my players are at the hospital,” Simoes said. Was he saying the Americans tried to put Brazil’s top players out of the game? “I think so,” Simoes said. “I’m saying I think so. They came to the second half to really go after players, not to go after the ball.” Simoes sarcastically congratulated April Heinrichs, the United States coach, for making the adjustment at intermission in a scoreless game. “I cannot accept the way they played,” he said. “What’s right’s right; what’s wrong’s wrong. When she made the adjustment, things started happening to my players.”
This was supposed to have been an easy preliminary-round game for the United States. Instead it had to scratch and claw – adjust – in a game that may have set the tone for the tournament. Brazil had an aggressive approach from the opening moment against a tough, experienced United States team. The strategy worked – for a half. The Brazilians beat the Americans to the corners, beat them to loose balls and did their share of leveling. Then Heinrichs said enough.
What was surprising about Simoes’s postmatch lament was that he made it and that in his past life as a men’s coach, his teams in Jamaica, and in Trinidad and Tobago, were known for their ultraphysical play. “Look at his history,” Heinrichs said. “It’s consistent with this. The men’s game is more violent and the men’s game is more negative in terms of physical play. Our job is just to be as mentally controlled, emotionally in control as we can be and respond.”
I think Heinrichs spent a little too much time, energy and diplomacy trying to sugarcoat the obvious. She unleashed the dogs. Her veteran team was being pushed around, and she wanted her players to hit someone in the mouth – a perfectly reasonable response in an athletic match. While I’m sure nobody wanted to seriously hurt anyone on the Brazilian team, the Americans definitely wanted to send a message – not just to Brazil, but also to the rest of the Olympic field. “I hope so,” Heinrichs said. “It’s a good response for us. “It was a pretty violent game at times. They were playing physical, the United States was reacting.”
In the second half the United States, behind a core of players who will probably retire after these Games, played with desperation. And yes, during intermission, Heinrichs commanded her team to begin throwing its weight around. “My halftime talk was about being more proactive, more decisive,” she said. The is the last hurrah for women’s soccer’s version of the Dream Team. Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett will retire after this season. Briana Scurry said she would play one final season and then retire.
Simoes’s rant took the focus off an exceptional game and a terrific performance by Scurry, the 32-year-old goalkeeper. She stopped seven shots, three at point-blank range in the first half, when her team was being run ragged. Scurry is playing better and feeling better than she has in years. “I’m up,” she said. “I’m way up. I’m much higher than I was in 1999. Mentally, I’m having a lot more fun. “I really want this,” she said of a gold medal. “For myself, but especially for my dad,” who died in June after a series of health problems. Scurry said she thought Simoes’s accusations were self-serving. “I don’t really have a response except to say I’ve seen a few of my players have scratches and cleat marks on them, too,” Scurry said. “I think it’s just the Olympics. Everybody is high-strung and everybody is out to win. I’m sorry he feels that way. I’m sure he’s got to think of something.”
Ah, the Olympic spirit.