Like many Americans, I tuned in Sunday to watch the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team compete in the World Cup finale on Sunday. Like many, I don’t profess to follow women’s soccer, but I did enjoy watching this team play. Unlike many, however, I watch a lot of other soccer – MLS, Team USA, EPL, Champions League, etc. – and so I recognized a familiar theme unfolding Sunday as the USA seemed to dominate Japan for long stretches of the match yet couldn’t pull away. It can be a frustrating when it occurs, and something many American sports fans have a hard time with. Call it the Score Reflection Principle (or SRP).
We’ll define the Score Reflection Principle as the link between the final result or score and the various aspects of on-the-field performance, individual efforts, and statistics. In sports like football, basketball, and baseball (all of which have multitudes of statistics to analyze), the SRP usually matches up fairly well. On the gridiron, the team the controls the line of scrimmage, wins in turnover margin, and has high red-zone efficiency usually wins. In hoops, you shoot well, limit turnovers, keep your opponent from shooting well and you win. Many of these statistical compilations come down to winning those individual battles also. Your center (in either sport) dominates his area. Your guys are quicker to react and move on defense. Your quarterback or guards are more accurate passers, etc.
But Soccer is a lot different. Much of this comes back to the low scoring and few scoring opportunities. Another factor is how difficult it is to control the ball individually, which makes turning the ball over much more common and less egregious (except when in your own box). There aren’t many opportunities for stoppages and set plays, and the game ebbs and flows with the players on the field. Thus the SRP on a soccer match can fluctuate all over the place.
We saw this on Sunday as the USA dominated the first 30 minutes of the match and could have easily scored 2-3 goals. Good opportunities that just missed, darting runs in the box, and Abby Wambach hitting the post from about 25 yards. The U.S. seemed to be winning every individual battle, Japan seemed overwhelmed and could barely get the ball into their half of the field. But our girls did not get that early goal, and Japan stayed compact on defense and didn’t panic, and they started to play better as the game progressed. When Alex Morgan finally scored the opener, you had to think to yourself, finally! And yet Japan continued to play under control and took advantage of a bad turnover and sloppy box defending to even the score. Wambach’s goal in extra time again seemed in line with the flow of the game, but an unbelievable play on the corner kick by Japan leveled the score again. And we all know what happened in penalty kicks…
Last summer at the men’s World Cup, the USA was on the other end of one of these games. The opener against England probably should have gone against the good guys, but their goalie made a bad mistake, while Tim Howard played solid on the other end. This went the other way as well, as matches against Slovenia and Algeria did not reflect Team America’s dominance, mostly through blown calls by the officials.
In perhaps no other sport can a team thoroughly dominate the run-of-play and key statistical areas and still come out on the losing end. A deflection here, a bad call there, one brilliant play, and the game turns. It’s both frustrating and exhilarating. This is one reason why I enjoy the sport so much. It may also explain why I prefer college football and basketball to their pro cousins – in the NCAAs, confidence, home field advantage, and the general unpredictability of younger players seem to make the SRP more variable.
It’s tough when your team comes out the loser in one of these games, though – especially, like Sunday, in a final.