USWNT rediscovers top form in time to win 2015 World Cup amid strong fan support

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Berkeley residents, students and restaurant employees all moaned, nervously groaned and cheered as they had their eyes glued to the nearest television screen to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team’s stressful journey en route to winning the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Sights like this were abundant in restaurants, bars and anywhere with a television, where casual and hardcore soccer fans congregated to show their support for the USWNT.

Their grunts of frustration and sighs of disappointment were numerous during the United States’ group-stage matches. The United States entered the tournament as one of the heavily favored sides to win the tournament but left much to be desired on the pitch in its early fixtures, despite its favorable final scores.

Team USA’s explosive offensive line seemed almost nonexistent in the group stage. Its lack of creativity and inability to finish goal-scoring opportunities raised doubts about the team’s ability to go far in the tournament, but the defensive line served as the team’s reliable crutch to help keep victories within reach. The strong defensive line helped goalkeeper Hope Solo win the Golden Glove award and record five clean sheets, as she conceded only three goals.

“The backline of (Meghan) Klingenberg, (Becky) Sauerbrunn, (Julie) Johnston and (Ali) Krieger performed as well as I’ve seen any backline play on the U.S. national team against great opposition,” said Cal women’s soccer head coach Neil McGuire. “It’s a fairly inexperienced backline, in terms of international experience, though they were warriors. So much credit has to go to Carli Lloyd for our goalscorers, but our defensive line really made a great difference.”

As the tournament progressed, the United States gradually improved and played more like a well-rounded championship contender. The Americans began effectively dictating the pace of their matches, maintained possession and showed less trouble penetrating adversaries’ defenses.

According to McGuire, it seems that it took some time for USWNT head coach Jill Ellis to figure out the best sequence of players to include in her team’s lineup, and near the tail end of the World Cup, the United States’ overall performance finally became as good as everyone expected because Ellis figured out the right balance in her squad.

The United States rediscovered its sharp form in its victory against Germany in the semifinals, in time to face Japan in the final — a rematch of 2011’s championship match. Most pundits and spectators, however, didn’t expect to see the heavily one-sided affair that the 2015 World Cup final turned into. The United States dominated Japan throughout most of match and routed the team, 5-2, to claim its third World Cup crown.

“The game was over very quickly, and even though Japan responded, it seemed like the result was never in doubt. I think it shows the spirit of the women’s national team,” McGuire said. “People questioned them. People didn’t think they were ready. I think they wanted to prove (to) everybody that they were the best team in the world.”

Although Alex Morgan did not score as many goals as she and many U.S. supporters may have hoped for, McGuire believes that the Cal alumna’s speed, strength and aerial ability helped Team USA play in a certain style that Japan couldn’t overcome in the final.

Stateside support for Morgan and the rest of the USWNT in the World Cup final was astounding, as Team USA’s victory was watched by 26.7 million viewers in the United States — nearly double the viewership of the team’s loss to Japan in 2011. The match’s audience surpassed that of Game 7 of last year’s World Series, Game 6 of last month’s NBA Finals and last month’s Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, as reported by Fox Sports.

“The support is real,” McGuire said. “Soccer’s growth has been exceptional. People are watching the games. People are playing the game. I think that soccer should be one of the top three or four sports in this country, and it deserves to be because it truly is a wonderful sport.”

Manny Flores is the assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @manny_0.