World Cup – the Final

Its hard to believe, the World Cup is nearly over. We are down to one last match. These have been exciting weeks. Twenty-four teams show up to compete on the world stage. Sixteen advance to participate in a knockout tournament. Every match sees one team go home. Now, just two remain. In a tournament dominated by European teams, perhaps it is fitting the European champions are in the final against the number one team in the world.

There has been a lot of great soccer. Sweden showed why it earned a bronze medal. Two dangerous attackers up front who both scored in the third-place match. Kosovare Asllani and Sofia Jakobsson threatened with runs nearly every match. Nilla Fischer made a great defensive header near the end to seal it. England brought the best defender (Lucy Bronze) and the best attacker (Ellen White) to the tournament. That did not prove to be enough as the Lionesses go home without a medal.

I have been thankful that the local Primanti Brothers opened in time for me to stop in and watch some matches. During the USA vs. England match every television was tuned into the match. And the place screamed when Christen Press hit that header into the net at the ten-minute mark. I still sometimes wonder why Jill Ellis doesn’t do what I want her to do. But then, all she does is win.

Media coverage has been decent. Media hype has been terrible. The attempt to make France and USA match the equivalent of final was bizarre. Sure, France has strong players. Yes, they are the home team. Yes, they have the best song “If you aren’t jumping, then you’re not French.” But let’s face it, that was just an attempt to get Paris rocking and to build television ratings.

Don’t watch for any story the media might be drudging up. This is the World Cup final. It is its own story. There are plenty of reasons to pay attention. Here are a few; 1) The Netherland’s Jackie Groenen might be the strongest midfielder in the tournament. 2) Rose Lavelle is making a good case that she is the strongest midfielder in the tournament. 3) Crystal Dunn has been putting on a clinic at outside defender. 4) Alyssa Naeher might make another surprising save. 5) Becky Sauerbruun, Carli Lloyd, and Megan Rapinoe are likely playing in their final World Cup match. 6) Tobin Heath might make a move that will make you smile. 7) Anything can happen. 8) It’s the World Cup, both teams have made it through a gauntlet to get this far.

World Cup: Knockout Round

The knockout round continues today. Three of the world’s best individual stars have already gone home. Christine Sinclair scored her 182nd goal during this tournament. That is two from tying Abby Wambach (all time leader with 184). But Canada was eliminated by Sweden in the round of sixteen. Marta scored two goals during this World Cup to make 17 world cup goals. The fact that someone has played in five World Cups says a lot about them. But Marta and Brazil were eliminated by host France. Sam Kerr is arguably the best player in the world. She scored five goals in this tournament but Australia have been eliminated by Norway.

Going forward, I look for England, the USA, the Dutch, and the Germans to advance to the semi-finals. But, that will all be settled on the pitch (code for the soccer field).

Some other things, what’s up with VAR? Call me old school, but I am not a fan. Yes, I know it’s not going away. Maybe I will get used to it. France’s Wendie Renard got ripped off, seriously where was the foul on that call? Her side still advanced, thanks to that pass from Amel Majri… wow.

Maybe Cameroon misbehaved. We all wish it wouldn’t have happened like that. But we are reminded that humans are passionate creatures. The girls from Cameroon were playing for the home country on the world’s biggest stage. Just saying, that stirs up a lot of passion. I am cheering they can keep the fire while working on some other things.

Spain vs. the USA showed what can happen when you put two teams against one another who work at maintaining possession and keep their shape well. No one likes to win on penalty kicks, but it is better than losing on penalty kicks. Spain did not make many mistakes but they made two in the box and it will haunt them for four years. When it is time for a penalty kick, it is good to have Megan Rapinoe on the field. She gave a clinic as she kept her shots low and inside the post.

Spain also capitalized on a U. S. mistake. Goalkeepers, do not pass the ball up the middle (I’ll bet Alyssa Naeher won’t do that again), even if you are passing to Becky Sauerbruun. Credit to Jennifer Hermoso for taking advantage.

On what to do when playing. Watch the Dutch score on a set piece against Japan. Lieke Martens is in the right place, moves toward the ball, and just gets a piece of a well-placed ball from the corner. This is what your coach wants you to do.

USWNT: What’s Next?

The U. S. girls complete the group stage tomorrow. They have scored sixteen goals in the first two matches. They have not yet given up a goal. What does this mean before facing Sweden tomorrow? It means Thailand and Chile were over matched. There would have been more goals but for Christiane Endler, the goalkeeper for Chile. To put it bluntly, she was phenomenal.

It means that Jill Ellis has a lot of talent to work with. It means that the team is eager to play and has developed chemistry right in time for the tournament. It means there are a lot of interchangeable parts. Already, all twenty field players have had minutes in the World Cup. It means that, though many of us have ideas about what we’d like to see, it is difficult to question her coaching decisions.

It means they need to be ready for Sweden. There is a lot of soccer left.

Other notes from the tournament include Australia’s Sam Kerr’s four goals against Jamaica. Jamaica scored their first goal ever in the World Cup  and the Reggae Girlz acted like they had just won the tournament. Brazil’s Marta scored her second goal of the tournament, her seventeenth goal to set a World Cup record.

Already, both Sweden and the U. S. are through to the knockout round. Tomorrow’s match will determine who they play next. Also advancing are Norway, Australia, England, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Germany, and Brazil. Yes, there is a whole lot of soccer left to play.

World Cup 2019

For the second year in a row, it is time for the World Cup. This year, we have the opportunity to cheer for the Americans. The U.S. Women are good, as in really good. They are defending World Cup Champions. They are ranked number one in the world FIFA rankings. They are 39-3-4 since the 2016 Olympics. (Make that 40 wins after today’s victory over Thailand).

Still, repeating as champions will not be easy. France is the home team and have a very strong side. The French Women may even be riding the wave of the Men’s victory last summer. They are not the only contenders. England, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Brazil and the Netherlands are all talented teams. Canada’s Christine Sinclair may break the international scoring record during the World Cup. The best player in the tournament might be Sam Kerr from Australia.

If you are a fan, you will not want to miss this. If you are not a fan, you might be by the time this is over. You might even get to know some of the players. Alex Morgan has become the face of the team and is one of the best attackers in the world. Megan Rapinoe will make a pass that will make the highlight reel. Tobin Heath may convince you to learn to dribble. The opportunistic Carli Lloyd will probably score a very important goal in prime time. She has the gift of showing up big in big matches (as evidenced by her performance in the last World Cup and pretty much any other important match played in the past eight years). And I haven’t mentioned Mallory Pugh or Christen Press. No one will be surprised if either of them becomes a star during this tournament.

The defenders are solid. In my opinion, Becky Sauerbruun is one of the best in the world. Abby Dahlkemper, Julie Ertz, Kelly O’Hara, and Crystal Dunn are very skilled. I am cheering extra for Alyssa Naeher in goal. We watched her sister Amanda set scoring records at nearby Messiah College.

But I am a mid-fielder and we tend to think we are more important than we probably are. Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, and Rose Lavelle bring a lot of energy to every match. Ertz will likely play there as well. If healthy, Morgan Brian has significant World Cup experience. In fact, she was the MVP of the 2015 World Cup. (I know most of you think that it was Carli Lloyd, but mid-fielders know it was Morgan Brian. I told you, we mid-fielders tend to think we are more important than we probably are. Stat of note, Lloyd scored 4 of her 5 goals after Brian entered the lineup). The role of the holding midfielder is often thankless and relatively unnoticed by most fans, Brian played it to perfection while Lloyd was freed from defensive duties. Before this starts to sound like a tribute to the six (code for holding mid-fielder), back to the route the USA women have to take to win.

If the U.S. win group F, it is a strong possibility they will face France (number four in World FIFA rankings) and their home field advantage in the quarter-finals. If they are fortunate enough to get to the semi-finals, England and their number three FIFA ranking could be waiting. And then a potential final against number two FIFA ranked Germany. Of course, team Canada, Brazil, the Dutch, or the Matilda’s could change all that. We’ll just have to tune in to find out.

World Cup and Wild Boars

The World Cup final is this weekend. For the record, I stand by my initial prediction that France will win. However, I want to talk about Croatia.

A country of less than four and a half million citizens, but more importantly, they have 23 pretty good soccer players.

Croatia has won three matches in a row coming from behind. Each of them in extra time. Two of them in penalty kicks. It is as if they have played an entire match in overtime.

But the thing I hope every young player saw is how Ivan Perisic, with his back to the goal, did exactly what your coach wants you to do – head the ball into space where opportunity can be created. And then, Mario Mandzukic followed (again, your coach wants you to do this) and hit it with his left foot past the keeper.

Croatia should be pleased. Most of us love underdogs. But whether you will be cheering for Croatia or France- we have all spent the past several weeks cheering for the Wild Boars. All 12 players and coach are now safe, thanks to assists from the Thai Navy Seals and cave diving specialists from around the world. We can all affirm Paul Pogba’s statement to the young boys. The day France won the semi-final he wrote “This victory goes to the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong.”

So while watching the final – put on your Wild Boars jersey while you cheer for your side to win!

World Cup 2018

Every four years the world throws a party. We call it the World Cup. It is good for the world. Good for unity. Good for my soul. Nearly every day brings a new must see highlight. We are witnessing great sportsmanship and great talent on the world’s biggest stage. And I suspect the best is yet to come.

The tournament is down to the final eight teams and there have been multiple stories of interest. Perhaps the greatest group stage story included Iceland. Seriously, who doesn’t like a side that brings a dentist to coach the team and introduces us to the thunderclap? They didn’t make it through the group stage, but surprise, neither did Germany the reigning champs. Mexico advanced, I suspect many of you, like myself were cheering for the neighbors. And so did Russia, it is always good to see the home team do well. Perhaps Japan advanced in the strangest fashion. They made the cut over Senegal because of fewer cards (I agree if you think that is a strange rule).

The round of 16 gave us added excitement as three matches were decided by penalty kicks. Russia defeated Spain and Croatia defeated Denmark. Perhaps most noteworthy, for the very first time in World Cup history, England won in penalty kicks gaining the victory over Columbia.

Russia’s victory surprised us all, Spain is arguably the best possession team in the world. To let you know how good they are, they held possession 79 percent of the match against Russia. But the match isn’t decided by possession, it is decided by goals. Talking goals, there have already been ten own goals this tournament (a new record).

If you are one who likes to root for the underdogs, go for Belgium, Croatia, Sweden, or Russia. Uruguay, France, Brazil, and England have all won before. But the odds are slim. Some World Cup trivia – only 8 teams have won this tournament, ever. Belgium is actually a contender, but would have to defeat Brazil and then likely France to even get to the final. (A difficult road to be sure). Croatia has been playing very well (they have yet to lose during the tournament and will be heavy favorites against Russia in the next match). Sweden has done everything they need to do to be this far and then there is Russia. I hope that spectators can look past whatever opinion they have of President Vladimir Putin and appreciate what this underdog soccer team has been able to do.

If you like to cheer for the favorites stay tuned until the semi-finals. If France and Brazil both advance as expected, many will consider that semi-final match to be the championship. Brazil has the biggest star and have won more World Cups than anyone else. However, they have only won once on this side of the pond.

For the record, I have England falling to France in the final. I suspect England’s Harry Kane will receive the Golden Boot (award for most goals) but the star of the tournament is certainly Kylian Mbappe from France. A 19 year old phenom, I believe he could outrun Usain Bolt if they raced today.

The quarterfinals start Friday. I hope you will be watching (the rest of the world will be). I have no doubts the best is yet to come.

Summer Entertainment that Takes the Biscuit

The Summer Olympics have been great since before the opening ceremonies.  A little scary early as France jumped out to a 2-0 advantage in the first fourteen minutes of the first USA soccer match.  But, the girls rallied to win 4-2 behind two goals from Alex Morgan and three assists from Megan Rapinoe.  These girls are fun to watch and are the obvious favorites to win gold.

Then, the hosts put on a great show including British rockers and the fictitious James Bond escorting the queen to the games where she promptly jumped from a helicopter.  If you love the cheesy humor of public television, you loved this!  I have been talking in a British accent ever since.  I am actually writing this in a British accent right now.  Doesn’t that take the biscuit I say?

Other things become known outside the actual games like the USA swim team video where Missy Franklin solidified her stardom by joining team mates and lip syncing to “Call Me Maybe.”  I do not like that song, but I love this video.  It is good to know that the team has fun together and reminds me of teams that I have been on (it is probably a good thing we weren’t making videos).  Whatever “it” is, Missy Franklin has it.  And what fun would it be to be there when she returns to school this fall and everyone is asking one another “what did you do this summer?”

Brady Ellison represented well.  In a year when Hawkeye of The Avengers, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, and Merida of Brave are shooting arrows across movie screens; Brady is the real deal.  Granted, he was eliminated early.  A hunter, maybe he would have fared better if the competition included a charging bear while archers fired their arrows.  (What would that do for television ratings)?  But how about the legally blind archer from South Korea?  Or the Italian who shot a perfect ten on the last shot to defeat team USA.  Was I cheering for him, no.  Am I impressed by those who can make such a clutch shot, yep.  And we are just getting started, the fun will continue with a myriad of events in the upcoming days.

Meanwhile, the soccer team has gone on to defeat Columbia and North Korea.  Abby Wambach recovered from a punch to the face.  Carli Lloyd seems to have a knack for scoring during Olympic matches.  Hope Solo and Christie Rampone did the worm on the pitch that Manchester United calls home.  This team has a flair for the dramatic.

I am still convinced that this team will not be beat.  But, I do have questions “what is up with Hope Solo criticizing Brandi Chastain’s commentary?”  “This is the Olympics, how does she have time for stuff like this?”  “How in the name of defending your current team mates do you throw your old team mates under the bus?”  “Do smart people suddenly become stupid when using twitter?”

Hope Solo is the goalkeeper for the USA women’s soccer team (and in my opinion the best in the world, maybe the best ever).  She is also promoting a memoir scheduled for release two days following the games.  Just saying, if this is an attempt to get her name out there and market a book it is extremely disappointing.  The Olympics are no time for a solo act, this may be the only thing standing in the way of a gold medal.  Hopefully, team USA stays focused the rest of the way.

The Olympics are good summer entertainment.  The first Olympic games I remember watching included Sugar Ray Leonard and Bruce Jenner and Edwin Moses and Nadia Comaneci.  Watching the games prompted my friend Alden and I to run.  Interestingly, those games also included the queen.  I don’t think she jumped from a helicopter that year but her daughter did compete as an athlete.  As then, the games prompt me to take action.  So alongside cheering for the home team (and some other faves), maybe I will lip sync with old team mates on video.  Maybe I will write a memoir of how fortunate I am to have had team mates.  Maybe I will pretend to be Brady Ellison in a rematch.  Or, maybe I will just  run.

A Great Game

We have spent the past month working in the summer heat to prepare for the upcoming soccer season.  Much of our emphasis has been on passing the ball well.  Receiving it properly.  Utilizing space on the field.  Stressing movement. Communication.  Getting to the ball first.  Maintaining shape on the field.  Attacking in the box.  The importance of eleven players participating in attack.  Eleven players defending.  What to do when we gain possession.  What to do when we lose it.

There is much to learn about this game.  But an increase of skill is not the greatest benefit of playing soccer.  A game like soccer places us in a context where we can learn.  It is a laboratory of sorts that teaches us about self and about life in general.  Soccer reminds us that we are not in control of events.  Players, coaches, nor referees are able to control everything, but we are able to determine how we respond to those events.

In soccer, we may sometimes feel that we come up short.  Other times, we may be participants in great celebration.  This becomes important, because as with any sport, soccer only has real value if it helps you to develop as a person.  Winning (as much as I like it) is not as important as the type of person this game may help us become.  How we respond to winning and losing is a pretty good tool to measure people.  Competition can measure people, it can also develop them.  Outside the lines of the field is where we find out who we really are.

Soccer gives us an opportunity to demonstrate athleticism and creativity.  It is a place to test character and to develop relationships.  These things are important because soccer should not be separated from the rest of life.  Sport overlaps with relationship.  Character overflows into games.

There are many reasons to enjoy soccer.  The rush that comes with competition (as much as I like it) is not the reason to play soccer.  It discourages selfishness.  It demands working together.  It encourages respect for authority.  It requires that you make your teammates look good.  Soccer requires discipline.  Handling the ball properly takes practice and hard work.  Soccer reminds us that no matter how important the goal might be, the work beforehand is just as important.

Success is not the ultimate reward.  Being great in a game is meaningless unless it impacts other parts of our life.  Brandi Chastain is credited with saying that “soccer is a great teacher of life’s little lessons, but it is not life.”  Brandi is right.  Soccer is a game.  But it is great practice for more important matters.

Ready For Action

The letter to the Church at Ephesus is likely a document meant to circulate through Ephesus and on into the churches of the Lycus Valley.  As other New Testament letters, Ephesians finishes strong with application.  And its final emphasis clearly attempts to prepare us for the reality that life is war.  By awakening the troops throughout the valley to be ready.  Every morning we wake up in battle.  Every day we are in combat with an opponent.

Ephesians wants us prepared to face our opponent.  Ephesians is not the only place I have been spending time in recent days.  I have also been spending some time at the soccer field.  I am tempted to apologize for thinking of soccer.  But, the fact is, I can no longer read scripture without thinking of outside things such as soccer.  And while on the soccer field I can no longer help but think about scripture.

Truth be known, I have spent a great deal of time at the soccer field for the past thirty years.  And in preparation for this fall season, I have been working three times a week with a local club team.  Keightley continues to play soccer in the local Mechanicsburg Soccer Club.  And Karissa has just started her college career playing at Ohio Christian University.

While on the field, we are in uniform.  A jersey reminds us which side we are on.  It reminds us that winning requires a team effort.  It reminds us that we can not do it alone.  Shorts free us up for running, for dribbling, and defending.  Cleats are designed for ball control, balance, proper maneuvering, and maintaining traction.  Shin guards serve the obvious but necessary purpose of protecting the lower leg.  The uniform reminds us of the importance to be prepared.  To be dressed and ready for action.

A uniform does serve a purpose.  It is not worn just to look nice.  I may be talking about a soccer uniform but remember – I have been reading the letter to the Church at Ephesus.  I have an interest in the armor of God.  Ephesians wants us to know the importance of the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the belt of truth, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit.  Ephesians wants us to know that we have an enemy.  That we are unable to combat the enemy alone.  Ephesians wants us to know that God desires to protect us.  That we must prepare properly.  We must be dressed and ready for action.

Living Outside the Lines

This has been a great summer for soccer.  In the World Cup, the U. S. women may have settled for second place to the opportunistic Japanese, but fans will long remember Abby Wambach’s scoring header against Brazil in closing minutes.  Alex Morgan’s great goal in overtime against Japan.  Hope Solo’s brilliant goalkeeping.  But, being a mid fielder myself, most exciting was the passing of Megan Rapinoe.  Her long passes led to both Wambach’s header and Morgan’s left footed score in the final.

We traveled to Philadelphia one evening to watch the Philadelphia Union take on world power Real Madrid with its stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka.  It was great fun, a great match, and the stadium (Lincoln Financial Field) was a sight to behold.  Karissa said it best “I’d like to shake the architect’s hand.”

This is good stuff.  There are benefits of spending time on the soccer field.  On the field, there is no need to live by faith; questions have already been answered. Straight lines determine the boundaries.  A flip of a coin determines which direction you go. The goal is visible.

Exceptional plays receive immediate reward. Consequences for mistakes are also immediate.  Poor behavior is not tolerated.  People with whistles let you know if you break the rules.  When the game ends, it is known who wins and loses.  Statistics are precise about how it happened.  It is true, on the field you do not live by faith; you survive by the rules and within the set boundaries.

However, we do not live on the soccer field.  Living by faith is not so simple.  Faithfulness does not receive an immediate reward.  No one whistles you for faithlessness.  Boundaries are not always clear.  Neither are results.  Flipping a coin does no good in determining which direction to go. It is possible to lose sight of the goal.

This presents a challenge.  As the world sets rules for living on its playing field, we do our best to live differently.  Our decisions may not always bring the desired results, but that is not reason to stop living by faith.  We are a people called to live faithfully outside the lines.