Last weekend was the kind of footballing weekend where you want to wax poetic about the thrill and thrall of it until Eduardo Galeano's ghost rises from the grave to grab you by the scruff of the neck and say, "Chill out, buddy, you're kind of overdoing it." Let's elaborate.
A Moment Like This
It's at least in part the job of the soccer writer to look at a match like the Women's ICC Final and think about what this all means for the future of the women's game. Every match, every fluctuation in attendance, especially during and after the World Cup, while thrilling, has felt so heavy in this way. Is this the World Cup bump or organic growth? Can the League sustain this interest? There's a bit of frustration that comes with this, these questions constantly circling in the back of your brain.
It's impossible to truly divorce any sports discourse from social and political context, nor would we ever suggest you should try. But the Women's ICC final between Olympique Lyonnais and the North Carolina Courage was so hard-fought, and such a delightful showcase of skill. It was one of those matches that reminds you to still hold on to love and pleasure of watching the game itself – even as fans and players and people in the WoSo community fight for a more just and equitable sports future.
It was a match to remind us that being a fan of women's soccer is not just about supporting the game more than once every four years to ensure some semblance of sustainability, or out of a lovey-dovey sense of fairness. You're a women's soccer fan because watching women's soccer is fun. Writers and supporters much smarter than I am have belabored the point about how these women are elite, world-class athletes, not charity cases whose fortune shalt rest upon the goodwill of Hulu and Luna Bar.
A 1-0 scoreline gets a bad rap as a boring result for boring teams, but it's a misleading one. (That one goal was an absolute stunner from Lyon's Dszenifer Maroszán, showing up after an injury during the World Cup like a soap opera villain back from the dead, ready to raise all kinds of havoc.)
This game had individual talent: some heroics from Sarah Bouhaddi and Stephanie Labbé to keep the score level until near the end; Lucy Bronze and Sam Mewis orchestrating movement of the ball for their respective sides; the persistence of Kristen Hamilton and the focus of Wendie Renard. And it was a joy to watch these teams come together and play against one another, to pick out the matchups and combinations. Nikita Parris, in one of her first outings at her new club, combined well with her England teammate Lucy Bronze and even got a dangerous shot in that Labbé managed to save. The Courage's attack, buoyed by Debinha and Crystal Dunn at the position she plays best, kept the excellent Griedge Mbock, Renard, and the Lyon defense on their toes.
ICC organizers have already discussed expanding this particular tournament to eight teams and adding cities, and there are conversations worth having about the value of these preseason tournaments and showcasing the competitiveness of domestic women's soccer leagues globally. It's a thrill to know there are more games like this in the future.
Blue Days, All of them Gone
We've written about it here before, but the NWSL is in this strange limbo where a crowd of 9,400 for a match can feel wanting and bare, or it can feel like an absolute triumph. In the case of Sunday's matchup between Sky Blue and Reign FC, it felt like the latter. Sky Blue played at Red Bull Arena in their first home match away from Yurcak Field since 2009, nearly doubling their attendance record they had previously broken after the World Cup this year, and there was cheering and rejoicing and a rigged tifo!
In the 36th minute, Elizabeth Eddy gave the home fans what they came to see with a beautiful, arching, off-the-knee goal that sailed high and into the net, and a flurry of shouts followed. Sky Blue couldn't hold on to all three points – not even two minutes later, some good one-two-three linkup work from Ifeoma Onumonu to Allie Long for service to Jodie Taylor netted an equalizer for the Reign. Watching a club go from dread to optimism to progress in real time is the sort of heartening story we needed in this trash fire of a summer.
Speaking of the Fun and Beauty of Football, Let's Talk About The Puskás-Nominated Goals
Okay, so we know all awards are subjective and awards from Eurocentric institutions run by exaggerated comic book villains even more so. I mean, hell, you would think the selection committee breaks out in hives every time they nominate someone that isn't Messi or Ronaldo*. And who's to say, with respect to the Puskás Award, what counts as an "aesthetically beautiful" goal? Is it the physics? The timing? The sheer catharsis of a particular thud at the back of the net?
The Puskás Award, while totally subjective, is cool and fun because goals are cool and fun, and it's one of those rare times FIFA looks outside the big European men's leagues when considering achievements. The Puskás Award reminds us, in the words of a certain British holiday rom-com, that good football actually is all around, in the Swedish Third Division and the Venezuelan Women's U-17s and the Malaysian Premier League.
This year, three WoSo goals made the Puskás shortlist, including the second NWSL goal ever to be nominated for this award, and arguably the defining goal of the World Cup. The Premier League Avatar Reply Guy Army is already out in force insisting that Ajara Nchout and Lionel Messi shouldn't be up for the same award, further reminding us that women and any marginalized folks have to prove themselves twice, thrice, four times as hard for the cynics who write their excellence off as tokenism, and also that stans suck the fun out of everything.
Let’s revisit Ajara Nchout’s goal to put Cameroon through to the World Cup Round of 16 first. She jukes past Ria Percival once, and then again, sending the Kiwi defender tumbling, and it's just her and the net. Her timing and sense of positioning are a thing of beauty. When, as the kids say, will your fave?
Let's now consider Amy Rodriguez's goal for the Utah Royals from this past June. You know that feeling when you’re at the top of a really tall roller coaster and you can feel your stomach begin to drop and it’s equally thrilling and upsetting and you can hear the screams before they start? That’s this goal. ARod sprints past defenders and sets up a perfect, sailing rocket into the top corner, unsaveable and unassailable. And the crowd goes wild.
And finally, there's Billie Simpson, of Cliftonville Ladies, a midtable side in the Northern Irish Women's Premier Division. I just… what? How? Is there a word for when the counter is just you chipping in a perfect rainbow-shot volley from inside your own half with one touch? Can you imagine? If I were her coach, I think I would just sub her out after that, like, take the rest of the day off. It's not gonna get better than that.