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Archive for July, 2011

If six softball games played in a tournament of debatable significance prove anything, it’s that even for a roster of players closer in age to the “Twilight” generation than the twilight of their careers, there is no time like the present.

Thrown into the deep waters of international competition at its highest level, albeit under the relatively benign conditions of the World Cup of Softball, a six-team tournament that is more than a series of exhibition games but less than a major championship, an inexperienced Team USA did more than stay afloat, claiming the championship with a 6-4 win against Japan on Monday night.

Over the span of five days, a team showed it has a future together.

Is that enough?

An American roster comprised almost entirely of current collegians and those for whom the ink on the diploma is still drying looked its age when it struggled to put away the Czech Republic in its opener, suffered a rare loss against Canada (rarer still without Canadian ace Danielle Lawrie on the roster) and struggled to maintain momentum and master execution throughout the weekend in Oklahoma City.

The dugout’s preferred gesture of moment, hands crossed in a reverse wave that mimicked the wings of a bird, was playfully light-hearted. It was also the kind of thing 20-year-olds come up with if left to their own devices for hours on end.

But if a team can act its age, it must also be possible to act its ability. That the latter trait is more extensive than the former is limited became apparent as the weekend continued. First came a late rally Friday after squandering a lead against Australia, Team USA capitalizing on Australian mistakes, such punishment for even minor transgressions a familiar hallmark of previous national teams. Then the United States put away Japan with a five-run sixth inning in an 8-4 win in preliminary play, erasing the sting of three losses against its rival in the previous week’s Canada Cup and responding to pressure after the loss earlier in the day against Canada made missing the title game for the first time in the event’s history a very real possibility.

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What Team USA is at the moment landed it in some trouble through five-plus innings of Friday’s game against Australia. Young, unsteady and perhaps even a little unsure of themselves, collectively if not individually, the Americans squandered a lead and allowed their opponents to pull even at 2-2 in the top of the sixth.

And unlike a night earlier, when an overmatched Czech Republic team hung around but never really threatened to pull the upset against the United States, the opponent on this night, having already taken Japan to extra innings earlier in the day, was entirely capable of walking out of Hall of Fame Stadium with a win.

What Team USA could eventually be took over from there.

Facing Australia’s Justine Smethurst, who first appeared in the World Cup in 2005, pitched Hawaii to a super regional trip to Knoxville in 2007 and earned a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics, momentum seemed headed Down Under. Instead, the United States benefitted from a few Australian misplays in the field behind Smethurst but also seized the initiative in taking full advantage of the good fortune to push across three runs and hold on for a 5-2 win.

There is some truth to the idea that great teams are those which bounce back from adversity. (There is also a great deal of truth to the idea that great teams don’t give themselves many opportunities to prove it). This United States team has a long way to go to be great, but after spending the opening game and the Czech Republic and much of the early innings against Australia looking like a team a little daunted by the uniform it was wearing, it went out in the bottom of the sixth and acted like a team that realized it had the pieces in place to do the intimidating.

You aren’t going to play flawlessly in the field? Team USA has the speed to make you pay. You’re going to intentionally walk Brittany Schutte to get the Valerie Arioto? Team USA has the depth to make you pay.

Some days will be two steps backwards and one step forward. Other days will see the latter outnumber the former. Either way it’s nice when the last step is one in the right direction.

Especially with a long day against Canada and Japan ahead on Saturday.

Player of the Game
Stacey May-Johnson turned in another good game, driving in the game’s first run in the fourth and running out a grounder in the sixth that turned her into the eventual go-ahead run when Stacey Porter misplayed the ball at third. Schutte followed that with a double that nearly cleared the fence in left and held her own behind the plate on defense. Arioto delivered the big hit, a two-run triple to score May-Johnson and Katie Cochran and break the tie in the sixth. But even if she wasn’t part of the drama that eventually won the game, Jordan Taylor gets the nod.

Taylor took a no-decision after being charged with the tying run in the sixth after she was relieved by Keilani Ricketts, but give the former Michigan star credit for a steady, workmanlike effort. That doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement (and admittedly, “workmanlike” isn’t the first adjective that generally comes to mind for Cat Osterman or Monica Abbott), but it is. Working with the team’s least experienced defensive catcher in Schutte, at least in terms of college service behind the plate, Taylor navigated her way out of trouble when it arose, showing the must-have ability in international play to get strikeouts in big spots, and held her own in the heat. She wasn’t perfect, but she looked comfortable from the outset.

When her teammates followed that lead, the win came, even if Taylor didn’t get it.

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The Czech Republic acquitted itself rather well, all things considered, in a 7-2 loss against the United States. The European side worked out of some jams, showed some defensive playmaking ability and had the tying run on deck as late as the sixth inning. But among the aforementioned things to consider are that this is not a team in the same class as Australia, Canada or Japan, and it was playing its second game of the day (having lost to Australia 11-0 in the heat of the day). All of which added up to what felt like, from the distance of a television screen, a very exhibition-esque vibe for Team USA. which made plenty of use of its roster over seven innings.

It wasn’t the most convincing win ever earned in Hall of Fame Stadium. In this instance, it didn’t need to be. Strictly from a softball point of view, what was on display in Oklahoma City didn’t match up to what was being played in Florida between the USSSA Pride and Chicago Bandits, and that’s going to take some getting used to. But rough edges and all, it’s still a national team, and it’s still loaded with a lot of talent and a lot of potential to entertain.

Player of the Game
Let’s go with Stacy May-Johnson. Sluggish as the game felt at times, Team USA didn’t really need a virtuoso individual performance from one player to gain control, and there was enough lineup shuffling to keep most from getting many opportunities for encores. But May-Johnson’s name kept popping up through the course of the action. She went 3-for-4 at the plate, including a home run to push the lead to 6-2, but she was equally notable in the field at shortstop. Good all night out there, she was best when she needed to be. With the Czech Republic threatening in the top of the sixth (you read that right), runners on first and second and no outs, she covered well at third base on a ball down the line to Jenae Leles and made a strong throw to first to complete the 5-6-3 double play.

If I was writing in Oklahoma City tonight, I would definitely be heading for Jessica Shults in search of some good stories about any fun had at the expense of the team’s oldest player — and, jokes aside, what kind of effect a player with both college coaching and professional playing experience has on such a young Team USA.

Random moment
I have a tendency to gush when the conversation turns (often at my insistence) to Val Arioto and plate discipline. Suffice it to say, if I was in a band, “Val Arioto’s Plate Discipline” would undoubtedly come up in the list of potential names (although “Etch A Sketchy” or “The Knights Who Til Recently Said Ni” would be tough to edge out).

One at-bat in the third inning of Thursday’s game showed why she may have the best eye in the sport.

The first two pitches weren’t particularly close — most hitters, certainly those at the national team level, would have been up 2-0 in the count. But a lot of those same hitters might have swung at the third pitch, a rise hanging tantalizingly in front of someone expecting something close. Arioto was tempted but checked her swing almost as soon as her hands started back, passing on a pitch that, in all likelihood would have produced nothing more than a foul ball. After the obligatory strike on the 3-0 pitch, she again held off on a 3-1 pitch low and inside that was definitely out of the strike zone but close enough to draw its fair share of swings.

A lot of really good hitters would have been in the box with a 2-2 count and largely blameless for it (and, sure, some of the really good ones might have been on base after hitting a pitch they didn’t have much business hitting). Instead, Arioto was jogging to first base to give Team USA runners on first and second with no outs, the start of an inning in which some misplays from the Czech Republic eventually helped the Americans extend a 3-0 lead to 5-0.

I’ve never seen Ben Gibbard tune a guitar or watched Mario Batali shop for vegetables. I’d like to do both before I pass. But I have seen Val Arioto play chess to a pitcher’s checkers, and as master craftsmanship goes, that ain’t bad.

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We’re going to have to make do without the British accents in the booth, but it’s already time for more World Cup. Less than a week after the end of the quadrennial soccer extravaganza in Germany, the annual softball event begins in Oklahoma City. Obviously, this one isn’t quite as big a deal, serving as one of several international rendezvous before next year’s World Championship in Whitehorse (yes, that Whitehorse, the one for which the 700-mile drive to Anchorage could be considered a short commute), but it’s still a chance to see the new-look Team USA, right?

Anyway, it’s July and I remain sweltering in Connecticut, instead of where I’d rather do my sweltering: Oklahoma City.

So please allow me some five-part softball ramblings.

1. Brittany Schutte is Alex Morgan
Excuse the soccer crossover, but it’s difficult to get the Women’s World Cup out of the brain. If it isn’t already, what should gradually become apparent as all the chatter about the final loss against Japan, the sustained drama, the painful penalty kicks and Hope Solo’s burgeoning (and deserved) mainstream acclaim recedes from post-WWC high tide is that the United States has a world-class striker in the making in former Cal star Alex Morgan. Lauren Cheney, Amy Rodriguez and a host of others will continue to have major roles, but if that isn’t the last major international tournament for a long time in which Morgan comes off the bench, then Pia Sundhage has some explaining to do.

Wait, I was talking about softball, right? Sorry.

Anyway, the point is that what you saw from Morgan in Germany? Brittany Schutte is ready for the same kind of showcase in Oklahoma City. Come to think of it, Schutte is used to putting on a show at Hall of Fame Stadium, given her penchant for home runs in the Women’s College World Series, but this could mark her arrival on the international stage. Make no mistake, just as Morgan had the benefit of Abby Wambach alongside side on the pitch, Schutte is well served by having Katie Cochran ahead of her in the Team USA order. Cochran is the offensive anchor of pretty much any lineup in which her name appears, as she showed hitting .519 with seven RBIs in 10 games in the Canada Cup. But Schutte’s three home runs led the team in British Columbia, and her 11 RBIs were second only to Stacey May-Johnson. Cochran hit almost exclusively singles in the tournament, but teams are going to have to come after her with something easier to drive if Schutte keeps going over the fence in response to teams going around Cochran.

I am a big believer in statistics and objective analysis, not as gospel but certainly as indispensable tool. But I’m also of the belief that some truths reveal themselves in more subjective ways. And when it comes to softball, one of those things is the sound a ball makes coming off the bat and the reaction a swing produces in the observer. When Schutte makes contact and you’re close enough to hear it — really hear it — your head perks up. It’s as true on a clean single to the outfield as a blast over the fence. She’s one of those gifted few who has it, whatever it is.

Now, all that praise aside (and trust me, I’m holding back), it will bear watching how she handles her at-bats. She struck out eight times and walked once in Canada. Without seeing the at-bats, that’s obviously too small a sample size from which to discern much, but while she’s been a relatively high-strikeout hitter at Florida, she also works counts well and swings at what she can do something with.

She struck out twice against Ueno hitting fifth behind Cochran in the final in Canada. A rematch in Oklahoma City might be the perfect opportunity to pull a Morgan. And if not now, then soon.

2. Shouldn’t you have started at the beginning?
Probably. Such are the perils of not having an editor.

But speaking of the beginning, losing Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe in one fell swoop is going to slow down any lineup. The good news is that’s about the only race Michelle Moultrie and Rhea Taylor might lose — and bet on even that being a photo finish. Moultrie and Taylor topped the order for Team USA six times in the Canada Cup, including the team’s final four games. The two combined to hit .333 in those games (13-39), and while those numbers suffered in four games against Australia and Japan (5-for-27 with one walk), it will be interesting to see if they remain in those spots and are allowed to develop in the roles. That isn’t to say Kelly Grieve or someone else won’t emerge as a better option for one of the spots, but Moultrie and Taylor just has a certain ring to it.

Taylor’s power numbers were a mild disappointment in her senior season at Missouri, at least given the development she seemed to show the season before, but nobody is going to complain if she hits .406 for Team USA by going one base at a time, as she did with 12 singles out of 13 hits in Canada (she also stole three bases).

3. Who is the ace?
Don’t count on getting an answer to this one. The team split pitching duties in Canada relatively equally between Whitney Canion, Keilani Ricketts, Jordan Taylor and Chelsea Thomas, and there’s no reason to change that equation here. Even if you believe the team needs a clear pecking order for Whitehorse next year, there’s plenty of time for that, not to mention an entire college season for three of the four to continue showcasing their stuff. Ricketts started the final against Japan in the Canada Cup, and while that didn’t go there, it’s reasonable to think she might get a similar call on Monday in Oklahoma City — emphasis on the Oklahoma City part of that, considering that a Ricketts-Jessica Shults battery might help fill up some of those seats on a weeknight.

Nothing tests a pitcher quite like heat and humidity (although Japan’s lineup might come close), so count the weather as an opponent to be reckoned with for the Team USA staff.

For what it’s worth, Taylor allowed just six hits and four walks and struck out 33 in 21 innings in Canada.

4. Welcome back, Jessica Shults and Valerie Arioto
Last we saw Oklahoma and California, fans were out of luck in getting to watch two of the best players in college softball at their best, Arioto out because of an injury at the beginning of the season and Shults missing for all but one game in the World Series because of an illness diagnosed late in the campaign. Both are back on the field, Arioto in a more extensive role in the tournament in Canada.

Admittedly, watching Cochran and Arioto in a walk derby might not make for the most compelling television, but it would go down to the wire. (I’ve already used the photo finish bit, right? Drat.) Before the injury, Arioto was my pick for USA Softball Player of the Year, and the two things I’m most eager to see are Ashley Holcombe picking off a runner and Arioto working an at-bat.

5. What’s it going to take to mention Stacey May-Johnson?
Sorry, my bad. Admittedly, for reasons of employment, I’m drawn toward the travails of the players on Team USA with college eligibility remaining, but one of the best stories of the weekend will likely be someone who coached in college last season. An assistant at Iowa during the spring, May-Johnson is the elder stateswoman of this team at the advanced age of 27. (Did I mention that I nearly choked to death on my morning coffee today after realizing in the course of writing an email that “Glory” came out 22 years ago? I’m old.) And with experience, apparently, comes the ability to hit the bejeezus out of the ball. The master’s degree in physics probably doesn’t hurt, either.

Your USA schedule
July 21: USA vs. Czech Republic, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
July 22: USA vs. Australia, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
July 23: USA vs. Canada, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN, tape delay)
July 23: USA vs. Japan, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
July 24: USA vs. Great Britain, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
July 25: Championship game, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

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Four years later, two moments from the World Cup in China are as clear in my mind as if they happened yesterday. One, stepping out of a minivan in the middle of an intersection in Chengdu and realizing as it pulled away in a hurry (the folks inside were late for a United States practice) that I didn’t know where I was, didn’t have a functioning cell phone or a map and didn’t speak a word of any unhelpful Chinese dialects, let alone the one used in that part of the country.

Let’s just say my feelings about the situation now are far more fond than they were in that moment.

The second moment was in first catching wind that U.S. coach Greg Ryan had decided to change keepers on the eve of a semifinal against Brazil. I had only recently arrived in Hangzhou, a stunningly beautiful city a hundred miles south of Shanghai that, at least on this occasion, offered humidity with the same approximate thickness as oatmeal. As a result, after sweating through a shirt in walking over to the stadium to scout out the scene in the morning, I opted to lighten my carrying load and leave my laptop in the hotel when it came time to walk back over for U.S. press conference in the afternoon.

The team had been available the previous afternoon before it (and we) left Shanghai, and I had everything I needed to file a preview. Short of one of the players spraining an ankle getting off the bus, what could possibly have changed in the 18-or-so hours since last we met? We’d sit down with Ryan for a few minutes, listen to him evade any substantive answers (like any coach) and be on our merry way.

Oops.

It didn’t take a genius, fortunately, to know all of that went out the window with that one decision, a move that was sure to become a talking point even back on the other side of the Pacific (although the exact magnitude were certainly aided by a 4-0 score and a few words from Hope Solo). This was the fuel on which modern media runs.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the sense of being caught completely off guard by what has become the flashpoint in the wake of Sunday’s World Cup final between the United States and Japan, the debate that filtered through the office today and even led “Pardon the Interruption” tonight (which I point out only to suggest that when something has infected PTI, which I enjoy and respect to no end, it has infected the entire sports world).

Did the United States choke?

Wait, what, really? That’s what we’re talking about?

You watched that game — you watched Alex Morgan emerging as a player the national team can build around for the next decade, you watched Homare Sawa’s flick, Ayumi Kaihori’s kick save and 120-plus minutes of persistence from two teams, and you came away with the profound conclusion that we’re being too soft on the United States today because they’re … women? That we should rip them to shreds because Abby Wambach blistered a long-range shot off the crossbar, Lauren Cheney couldn’t quite get the right touch around a defender on a redirection eight minutes in, Rachel Buehler and Ali Krieger botched a clearance in the heat of the moment and Carli Lloyd channeled Roberto Baggio in the shootout?

Oh for the love of lederhosen.

To start with, and I hesitate to bring reality into such close proximity to a carefully crafted media backlash, there are plenty of people who have followed this U.S. team for a lot longer than three or four weeks who are ready, willing and able to point out the flaws in Pia Sundhage’s team, both on this day and over the longer haul. And talk about them they will, in the days to come, long after the peanut gallery has moved on to more Ochocinco antics. Yet I somehow imagine that if the United States had lost 5-4 in penalty kicks or hit the posts less frequently in defeat, those people currently bloviating about whether we’re being too easy on them would pass on a chance to talk about tactics and strategy.

You (which paradoxically does not apply to anyone who has sifted through enough cyberspace to find these words, so maybe I should stop using it) weren’t invested in women’s soccer in the first place, or soccer at all, for that matter.

It’s easier to say they choked than to admit you don’t understand a sport well enough to offer reasoned criticism.

This was a good American team, but it was far from a perfect team. In truth, it got everything it could reasonably have been expected to out of its talent — and probably a little more — by dint of effort. Anyone who thought it entered the World Cup as any sort of favorite did so purely on the basis of it being No. 1 in FIFA’s ever-meaningless rankings.

Ask Luke Donald and Caroline Wozniacki how much a ranking is worth (and it pains me to say that of a fellow Dane).

Anyone who thought the United States entered Sunday’s final as a prohibitive favorite probably didn’t watch a single game Japan played leading up to the final, a classification that coincidentally likely applies to just about everyone pushing the choke agenda. What the Americans did in largely controlling possession was, in fact, a remarkable bit of soccer. Again, I know it pains these people to watch anything that doesn’t involve our flag, but go back and watch what Japan did to Germany and Sweden.

What, you’re back already? That was quick. Where was Fatmire Bajramaj anyway, am I right?

The United States created chances that they would, could and sometimes should have finished. Lots of them. Oodles of them, in fact. Best I can tell, nobody is suggesting otherwise. But choke? Give me a break.

If the United States choked, it would have lost 3-1 (ask Sweden about it). If the U.S. choked, it would have ceded control of the game to Japan, trying excessively hopeful long ball after excessively hopeful long ball in reply (ask Germany about it). The United States didn’t finish chances. And you know what? That happens in soccer.

You know why we didn’t talk about the United States choking? Because we just watched a fantastic WORLD CUP FINAL between two teams that offered the rarest of things in sports — a meaningful game that exceeds the hype.

It was a game in which even the imperfections added something, the flaws only emphasizing how much effort was expended in its creation. It was a game that seemed safe to leave to history, confident nothing could alter that story.

I should have known better, the lesson of China clinging to me like the Hangzhou air. There is always time for the media, my media, to ruin things.

I’m sorry; I’m getting all choked up.

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Twelve years after a soccer game introduced some number of sports fans in this nation to the notion of excellence in women’s sports, 22 women from the United States and Japan used the World Cup final to put on a display of something far more familiar to fans of all stripes, from the more than 48,000 in the stadium in Frankfurt to those watching from afar.

Excellent sports.

Japan’s double come-from-behind effort and eventual win in penalty kicks was mesmerizing, building from missed American chances early through a foothold gradually gained by Japan and reaching a peak in the suddenness of Alex Morgan’s strike to stake the United States to a 1-0 lead midway through the second half. Yet such drama proved to be only the preface, setting the stage first for Aya Miyama’s equalizer in the 81st minute, Abby Wambach’s seemingly storybook header off Morgan’s cross in the first period of extra time and Homare Sawa’s final fairytale leveler in the 117th minute to send the game to its conclusion.

That it all ended with penalty kicks, simultaneously the most thrilling and least satisfying conclusion currently available in sports, hardly dulled the game’s glow. This was sports at its best — moments like those from the United States vs. Algeria in the most recent men’s World Cup, sustained tension like that from Connecticut vs. Syracuse in the six-overtime 2009 Big East tournament quarterfinal and competition like Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final.

It didn’t matter if you knew of Christie Rampone back when she was still Christie Pearce, if you watched Lauren Cheney endure College Cup disappointment after College Cup disappointment with UCLA or had never seen a women’s soccer game before Wambach’s header against Brazil in Dresden a week earlier.

If you’re a sports fan, you savored Sunday’s game because it was, in a word, brilliant. Devastating, heartbreaking and eternally frustrating if you watched with an American rooting interest, but brilliant nonetheless.

Brilliant because of the rich characters coming to life on the field, from the scoreboard successes of Wambach and Morgan to the athletically tragic figures of Carli Lloyd, the frustrations of shots she couldn’t quite get on target throughout the tournament boiling over in a penalty sailing over the bar, and Hope Solo, the best keeper in the world left to be consoled after the shootout loss. (To say nothing of the other side of the field, where Sawa, goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori and coach Norio Sasaki and his oddly disarming pre-shootout grin offered compelling stories of their own).

And brilliant in the way in which sports offer an escape from and a magnifying glass on reality, the Japanese team’s athletic artistry unable to solve the problems affecting a country in the wake of a natural disaster, but also arguably able to lift battered spirits and inarguably able to remind the rest of the world of people still in need of assistance.

The debate arising after just about any memorable game involving women’s team sports, often frustrating passionate and casual fans alike , centers on the ramifications for women’s sports writ large. While there was little talk after Barcelona put on a show against Manchester United in the Champions League final about the greater meaning of the game for sports and society, there will be plenty of such conversation in the wake of Sunday’s final.

That’s unfortunate if it takes away from a game that stands on its own, from reliving thrilling, gut-wrenching moments like Wambach’s shot off the bar in the first half, the defensive lapse and attacking persistence that left Miyama alone in front of goal with the ball at her feet when Rachel Buehler’s attempted clearance ricocheted off Ali Krieger.

It’s also entirely legitimate.

All of this transpired in a tournament that came into being just two decades ago, within the lifespan of every player on the United States roster and most of those on Japan’s roster. That cannot be overstated. When Solo was born in 1981, the World Cup, even under another name at first, was 10 years away from creation. The United States national team was still five years away from playing its first match internationally. When that first World Cup took place in 1991, Florida, UCLA and USC, among many others, didn’t even have women’s soccer teams. Two decades later, those college programs had provided Wambach, Lauren Cheney and Amy Rodriguez to the national team’s front line.

Put another way, the first Women’s World Cup took place four months after Darren Clarke played in his first British Open. Looking at the product on the field Sunday and in this tournament, that’s evolution at breakneck speed.

Less than an hour after members of the Japanese team gleefully accepted their championship trophy in Frankfurt, WPS sides Western New York Flash and Sky Blue kicked off from Piscataway in a nationally televised game on Fox Soccer Channel. Odds are the ratings for that game didn’t get a huge boost from fans suddenly starving for more women’s soccer. And if history in any indication, even a chance to watch Brazil’s Marta, Canada’s Christine Sinclair and the United States’ Morgan share a field for Western New York won’t suddenly catapult the domestic professional league into the spotlight once college and (apparently) pro football begin to gear up next month.

But even if the crowds drift away and leave the passionate base to its pleasures as the WPS season continues and a college season approaches with rising stars like Melissa Henderson, Kristie Mewis and Bianca Henninger working on WNT-worthy profiles of their own, there is something happening here, just as it’s happening in professional leagues and training programs in France, England, Sweden, Japan and elsewhere around the globe.

Sunday’s game between Japan and the United States was one for the ages for reasons that had everything to do with sport and very little to do with gender or sociology.

And that’s a powerful statement in its own right.

Sunday’s game won’t change women’s sports all on its own. But women’s sports already changed games like Sunday.

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