When athletes lose to inferior opponents, the excuses quickly follow. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb, and it applies to women’s soccer, too. Here’s what Hope Solo said after the U.S. lost to Sweden in the Olympics:
“I thought that we played a courageous game,” Solo said. “I thought that we had many opportunities on goal. I think we showed a lot of heart. We came back from a goal down; I’m very proud of this team.
“I also think we played a bunch of cowards. But, you know, the best team did not win today; I strongly, firmly believe that. I think you saw America’s heart. You saw us give everything that we had today. Unfortunately the better team didn’t win.”
The U.S. outshot Sweden 27-2, but the game ended 1-1 after 120 minutes plus stoppage time. The unique thing about soccer is that its tiebreaker is a shootout, which is kind of like playing an NFL game and then having a field goal kicking contest. In other words, once you go to a shootout, the better team suddenly doesn’t have much (any?) of an edge.
Asked to elaborate on what she meant by cowards, Solo referenced Pia Sundhage, the Swedish coach who formerly coached the United States and won two Olympic gold medals.
“Sweden dropped off, didn’t want to open play,” Solo said. “They didn’t want to pass the ball around. They didn’t want to play great soccer, entertaining soccer. It was a combative game, a physical game. Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their game plan was. They dropped into a 50. They didn’t try and press, they didn’t want to open the game and they tried to counter with long balls. We had that style of play when Pia was our coach.
“I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament. I think it was very cowardly. But they won. They’re moving on, and we’re going home.”
Solo’s comments were not deferential or classy or imbued with a whiff of sportsmanship, which is what we expect athlete’s comments to be. More importantly, they were wrong: Sweden beat host Brazil (after losing 5-1 to Brazil in the group state) 0-0 in the semifinal, thanks to a 4-3 win in the penalty kick shootout. Sweden plays in the gold medal match today. Sweden again used its annoying style of play, and this frustrating output led to Brazil outshooting Sweden 28-3.
Anyway, this got me thinking about the NFL. Is there a cowardly way of playing that could draw similar criticism? This is a separate (but perhaps related) concept from the typical David strategies we talk about when we discuss how underdogs can beat favorites. My first two thoughts were (1) Super Bowl XXV, even though the general understanding of why the Giants beat the Bills is incorrect, and (2) Greasy Neale’s comments after losing to the Browns in 1950. Cleveland used a high-flying passing game that Neale referred to as ‘basketball on cleats’, comments that sound like something coaches would say about Oregon football about five years ago. Cleveland just didn’t win the right way.
Of course, passing the ball a ton isn’t the only way to “win the wrong way”: don’t forget that the run and defense strategy can draw criticism, too:
Everyone keeps talking about our game with Miami [in the 1993 Sugar Bowl]. The reason we won against Miami is this: We had the ball 15 minutes more than they did. We ran the ball for 275 yards against Miami. They ran the ball for less than 50 yards. When the game was over, we won. After a game, it may not look good. The alumni may be asking why we are not entertaining them. Let me assure you that our job is to win football games. You win football games by running the ball, stopping the run and being on the plus side of giveaway-takeaways.
So I’ll open this up to the crowd: is there a cowardly way to win football games?