Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thanks, Billie Jean

TigerBlog read a story earlier this week on about the 1999 Women's World Cup and the legacy of the United States team that won it.

The writer's point is that the U.S. championship that year was the single biggest moment in women's sports history in this country, an assertion with which TB disagrees.

In fact, just as TigerBlog is sure that no sports moment can ever possibly top the Miracle on Ice, he's also reasonably sure that no moment can ever be bigger for women's athletics than the night in 1973 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in the Astrodome in Houston.

For starters, Riggs - already well past his prime as a tennis player at the age of 55 - had already beaten the No. 1 women's player in the world, Margaret Court, rather easily, 6-2, 6-1. As if that wasn't bad enough, Riggs did so in completely chauvinistic fashion, even presenting his opponent with a dozen roses prior the start of the match.

Had Riggs beaten King, it would have set women's athletics and the women's movement in general back considerably.

Instead, King wiped Riggs out, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and in doing so almost single-handedly changed the sporting landscape for American girls. The result of that match, held shortly after Title IX became law, did more to advance the cause of women's equality, especially in athletics, than any other single event, sporting or political.

Because of that historical significance, it can never be topped.

The U.S. women's soccer win in 1999, in TB's opinion, is known more for the fact that one player ripped off her shirt to expose her sports bra on television and in front of nearly 100,000 people in the Rose Bowl than it is for the soccer itself. In other words, the moment is known for its sex appeal value more than its athletic value.

No, when TB watches Little Miss TigerBlog play organized sports in a world that encourages it and where it would be unheard of for her not to have the same opportunities as her brother, he thinks of Billie Jean King, not Brandy Chastain.

The 2011 Women's World Cup is currently in its earliest stages over in Germany, where the U.S. team is not the heavy favorite, though it certainly would surprise no one if the Americans were to win.

Competing for Canada is former Princeton great Diana Matheson, who could be the greatest Princeton athlete of all time who was less than five-feet tall. Matheson, who as TB remembers wore size 4.5 shoes, helped Princeton to the 2004 NCAA Final Four as a freshman, when she (and current assistant coach Esmeralda Negron) earned first-team All-America honors.

Matheson played all 90 minutes of the Canadians' first game, a 2-1 loss to the home team, and her game today against France will be the 124th of her career for the Canadian national team.

TigerBlog can't even remember all the places that Matheson has played for Canada, though there can't be many Princeton athletes who have ever played in more countries than she has.

While the women are having their World Cup in Germany, the U.S. men are still reeling from their loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final last weekend. The Americans scored the first two goals of the game before falling 4-2, also in the Rose Bowl.

As an aside, the crowd was almost all in support of Mexico, which isn't surprising, given that the game was in Southern California. Since Mexico and the U.S. were the prohibitive favorites to play in the final, why wouldn't the game be moved to the Northeast or Minnesota or someplace like that, where the Americans would have more of a "home" crowd advantage?

The U.S. is coached by Bob Bradley, a Princeton alum who also coached the Tiger men to the 1993 NCAA Final Four. His brother Scott is the Princeton baseball coach; his son Michael scored a goal against Mexico.

Obviously, with such strong Princeton connections, the U.S. team - which trained at Princeton before the World Cup last year - has attracted even more attention on TB's part than it otherwise might have.

Bradley has come under fire from all corners since the U.S. lost to Mexico, including a piece on Soccer America's website that basically suggests Bradley doesn't like Hispanic players.

Of course, the writer doesn't suggest which Hispanic players Bradley should bring onto the team, which would have added greater credibility than making such a dumb blanket statement. TB's hunch is that Bradley would play pretty much anyone he could to find a way to win the Gold Cup, and ultimately the World Cup.

And why not? It won't be his job for much longer if he can't. And it might even be too late for him now, which would be a shame.

It's not like there's a magical coach out there who can simply come in and turn the Americans into the best team in the world.

Not with the way soccer works in this country.

Basically, every little kid gets signed up to play soccer at about the age of 4 or so. From there, some stay with the sport, while others begin to branch out to other sports that don't start as early. By high school, about 80% or so of kids aren't playing an organized sport anymore.

Soccer is the single most structured youth sport there is. The travel concept originated with soccer. The for-profit club originated with soccer. The idea of playing on a specific team as a youth player in hopes of getting a college scholarship originated in soccer.

American soccer clubs aren't interested in player development. They're interested in winning their state championship or getting to the national tournaments, so they can get the next group of players to pay the huge amount of money to be part of the program.

Want to field a word-class national team? It requires players who can go out and score goals, and the way you learn that isn't by doing drills at practice on Tuesday and Thursday. It's by going to the park and playing every day, against the other kids who are the best players.

That's the basketball model in this country. That's why American basketball is superior.

And that's the other problem with American soccer. The best athletes don't play it.

Until there is a fundamental change in the way American soccer talent is developed, there are going to be more nights like this past weekend.

And it won't be Bob Bradley's fault.

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