How US Women’s Soccer Can Survive Its Biggest Test in Years

Megan Rapinoe (right) celebrates her second goal by penalty kick with teammate Alex Morgan during America's sloppy 2-1 win against Spain on Monday in the Women's World Cup.

Source Zhizhao Wu/Getty

Why you should care

Because the global talent gap has closed.

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What do two penalty-kick goals and a narrow win get you? If you’re U.S. women’s national team star winger Megan Rapinoe, a war of tweets with the leader of the free world. And some on-pitch skepticism. 

Team USA underwhelmed in its 2-1 Round of 16 win against Spain on Monday. Between sloppy execution and coach Jill Ellis’ failure to rest obviously fatigued stars Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz, the game was ugly. Spain’s plodding pace and physicality nearly broke the Americans. If not for a chintzy penalty in the 75th minute, the plan may have worked.  

C’est la vie. 

On Friday, the U.S. looks to regain its swagger in a matchup against tourney host France — the biggest game in recent women’s soccer history.  The French side is, bar none, America’s most challenging test since being eliminated by Sweden at this same stage of the 2016 Olympics. 

France had the same pre-tournament odds (+350) as America. That was partly thanks to being hosts, but the talent gap between the U.S. and other countries is shrinking — fast. (Follow the strands of history on how the U.S. got ahead in the first place with OZY’s hit podcast The Thread.) The U.S. is 17-3-3 all-time against France, but only 4-3-2 since 2012, as France has climbed into the elite rankings. 

Since the 2016 Olympics stunner, Ellis has built a roster with the ideal balance of experience and youth, which she’ll deploy on Friday (3 pm ET on Fox), against a skilled, fit French squad. Ellis will likely keep legs fresh by employing more substitutions, emphasizing ball control to keep France’s clinical attack away from the vulnerable U.S. back line.

 

What to Watch & Pick ’Em

Largest Deal in NBA Free Agency

Potentially 40 percent of NBA players become free agents on Monday. We don’t yet know where stars like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker are headed, but we know they’re about to get PAID. How much will the biggest deal be?

  • Over $195.5M (+105)
  • Under $195.5M (-145)

Francis Ngannou vs. Junior Dos Santos, UFC Fight Night (Saturday at 9pm ET on ESPN)

Fresh off a knockout win over MMA legend Cain Velazquez, rising star Ngannou (13-3) looks to take out another former UFC heavyweight champ. Dos Santos (21-5) has won three straight since losing the belt in 2017. 

  • Ngannou (-260)
  • Dos Santos (+200)

Ones to Watch 

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Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is giving the Cubbies a much-needed youthful arm.

Source Jonathan Daniel/Getty

Adbert Alzolay. Chicago Cubs fans cashed in most of their prayers back in 2016, but the arrival of Alzolay suggests that at least a few recent invocations have been answered. After six seasons in the minor leagues, Alzolay, 24, struck out five across four scoreless innings in his major league debut on June 20. Then, on Tuesday, he allowed one run over 4 2/3 innings in his first Major League start — the one run coming when Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. blasted the first pitch of the game into the bleachers. After that, though, the man Cubs fans are hoping can solidify Chicago’s starting rotation retired 12 of the next 13 batters. That resilience, combined with Alzolay’s sheer talent, is a great sign for a front office that’s taken a lot of heat for its failure to develop starting pitching, even as it has groomed a stable of young hitters under president Theo Epstein. If Alzolay’s success continues, the young man who was signed out of Venezuela for just $10,000 in 2012 will be a fifth impact starter — and much needed injection of youth — with Kyle Hendricks on the injured list. 

Ashleigh Barty. The first Australian woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world since 1976, Barty, 23, has reached the summit of a meteoric four-year rise. The question now is how long can she stay there? Unranked in 2015, the Queenslander won the French Open this May, then overtook Japan’s Naomi Osaka for the top ranking in June. Now she’s the top seed at Wimbledon, which gets underway Monday. A junior prodigy, Barty was the girls’ singles champion at Wimbledon at age 15, but she didn’t break through as a teenage pro. At 18, Barty stepped away from tennis, choosing to focus on her mental health while giving professional cricket a try. There was no guarantee she’d return, but now she’s No. 1. Still, some experts believe Barty is prime for an upset at Wimbledon. At 4-1 odds, she’s the favorite in London, with Osaka (9-1), Petra Kvitova (12-1) and last year’s Wimbledon winner Angelique Kerber (14-1) close behind. So far, the only woman to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year is Serena Williams, who did it twice. Now that’s a summit. 

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Looks like Ashleigh Barty made the right move giving up cricket.

Source Jordan Mansfield/Getty

Trending Up 

NCAA injury concern. Golden State Warriors fans aren’t the only ones wondering if athletes are being pushed too far when injured. In a new survey, 19 percent of college athletic trainers reported that a coach played an athlete who had been deemed “medically out of participation.” Additionally, about 36 percent of respondents said a coach has been able to influence the hiring and firing of sports medicine staff, despite the NCAA’s attempts to crack down on undue influence. The survey comes less than a year after the heat-stroke deaths of football players Jordan McNair (Maryland) and Braeden Bradforth (Garden City Community College). In a system built around the delicate balance of unpaid laborers led by millionaire coaches and supported by considerably less powerful (and less compensated) staff, is it any surprise that many coaches go full dictator? Anyone who has spent time around college athletics knows that trainers take orders and operate in parallel with the head coach’s vision. Likewise, players are taught to do the same, with a clear understanding that everyone is replaceable. Except, of course, the coach. 

Trending Down

The NHL talent gap. Perennial All-Star P. K. Subban is again on the move, traded on Saturday from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils. With three seasons remaining on an eight-year, $72 million contract he signed with Montreal in 2014, Subban becomes the highest-priced NHL player to be traded twice. What’s going on? Hockey’s summer movement can be considered the inverse of what’s going on in the NBA, where the biggest names are free agents trying to link up for mega contracts on superteams. The NHL, by contrast, is tightening its belt: Next season’s salary cap was set at $81.5 million on Saturday, $1.5 million lower than previously projected, so teams immediately started shedding high-priced players. This is a function of hockey’s “hard cap,” meaning teams all spend roughly the same amount to build a roster. NBA teams can go over their league’s cap, as long as they pay a luxury tax. Would the NHL be better suited to allow more stars to plant roots in a single market? The NHL seems confident that parity produces its best product. After a wild postseason and historic Stanley Cup Final, who are we to disagree? 

Read This

Afghanistan’s Stunning New Success Story: Sports by Maroosha Muzaffar in OZY

The war-torn nation’s sporting successes — from cricket and soccer to martial arts and wrestling — are helping it dream of a new identity, while also offering hope of a better future to the younger generation.

Can Lacrosse Work as a Professional Sport? by Katie Baker in The Ringer

The Premier Lacrosse League — founded by star player Paul Rabil and his brother, Mike — wants to make the clubby sport into a money-making phenomenon. Does the world need more lax bros? And can the U.S. support another professional sports league? 

The Giants Changed Corey Ballentine’s Life. Hours Later So Did a Bullet by David Waldstein in The New York Times

Hours after the NFL Draft, Navarro Simmons’ phone kept ringing and newly drafted New York Giant Corey Ballentine’s name kept flashing across the screen. Simmons ignored the calls at first. He didn’t know that his son, Dwane Simmons, and Ballentine had been shot.

The NBA’s Unlikely Real Estate Mogul: Inside Luol Deng’s Towering $125 Million Portfolio by Kurt Badenhausen in Forbes

Luol Deng has averaged nearly 15 points for five teams across a 15-year career, never becoming the primary star. Off the floor, the Sudan-born, London-raised Deng isn’t waiting until retirement for his next score. 

Don’t Miss

The New York Yankees have hit at least one home run in an MLB-record 29 straight games. So, of course, it was a 100-foot duck snort by second baseman Gleyber Torres that gave the Bronx Bombers a win on Wednesday. Now, the AL East leaders head to London for a two-game series against Boston — the first ever regular season MLB games played in the U.K. With a 385-foot fence in centerfield at London Stadium, British fans should expect the big flies to continue.

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