By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
After sleepwalking through a humdrum opening round, the Women's World Cup awoke last week with the jolt of urgency that comes from single elimination. Through the four quarterfinals, the only dreary match came courtesy of the Jockbeat-tipped Russians (Ed: too much pre-reporting vodka?), who adopted a hangover-like go-slow strategy and got spanked 2-0 by the Chinese.
Norway, playing an identical game to their male national counterparts, wore down, then demolished, a young and skillful Swedish squad who played the same creative passing game as their men's team. Then we had Germany, all organization and direct intervention (remind you of any particular men's team?) falling heroically to the U.S., and, well, we won't even start on the jogo bonitoof Brazil and the "who cares about defense" Nigerians.
We'll leave it to the social anthropologists to expound on why so many nations develop culturally exclusive styles of play. For soccer scientists, and for those looking to the future of women's soccer, it is the two female exceptions to the national stereotype that prove the most interesting.
They are China and the U.S., perhaps the strongest teams in the competition and, without a doubt, the most sophisticated. Unlike their counterparts, both China and the U.S. have had no national soccer "identity" to model themselves on: China, because the game is relatively new there; the U.S., because well, just look at the MLS.
With the freedom to invent their own characters, both teams play a tight, rapier-quick, attacking game, keeping the ball to the front for the most part, while still being able to defend in numbers (though the U.S. has consistently committed defensive lapses in the early moments of every match). In short, each team plays as a compact, mobile unit, one that's difficult to break down and very difficult to defend against. Put simply, both China and the U.S. play a perfect team game. When they're on, it's great to watch.
Now that the NBA Finals are ancient, ancient history, it's time to mothball your knowledge of free-throw statistics and playoff comeback scenarios. Baseball is front and center and an awareness of Jose Canseco's career high for home runs and whether Tom Seaver had more strikeouts than Roger Clemens is what earns clout in the city's sports bars. So, for when you've decided to go out and invest considerable cash and shelf space in a baseball stat book, here is Jockbeat's consumer guide to the genre:The Baseball Encyclopedia, $59.95, 3026 pp., 8 lbs. 6 oz. While the original "Big Mac" is the most important book since the Bible or at least Naked Lunch, it hasn't kept up with the times. Its stat lines lack the game's most important number on-base percentage and the edition you'll find in bookstores is McGwire-free and Sosa-less; it dates from 1996. grade: C The Major League Handbook, $79.95, 2696 pp., 8 lbs. 9 oz. Benjamin Disraeli would have hated this one nothing but page after page of player's stats. On the plus side, these breakdowns are the most complete available, adding Bill James's runs created, fielding stats, pitcher's batting, and home/road breakdowns for home runs. Nice to have, but most fans won't miss them. What is missing is something to read. B+ Total Baseball, $59.95, 2538 pp., 6 lbs. 9 oz. If you're stranded on a desert island with the Professor, Mary Anne, and one baseball book, Total Baseballhas got to be the one. The stat lines are comprehensive, if not exhaustive, and the season-by-season standings and leaders now embellished with highlights are eminently scannable. But the thing that separates Total Baseballfrom the others are the funny, smart essays, on everything from ballparks to women in baseball to the origins of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The expanded biographical section, profiling 400 of the most important figures in the game, is almost worth the price of admission alone. A+ STATs Inc.'s All-Time Baseball Sourcebook, $79.95, 2653 pp., 8 lbs. 7 oz. The Sourcebookis the Rickey Henderson of stat books the one that does all the little things. A perfect complement to Total Baseball, the Sourcebookincludes everything from the history of the amateur draft to a complete accounting of every MVP and Hall of Fame vote ever cast to career leaders sorted by franchise, age, and era. Everything you could ever want except, of course, career stats. A
Reilly's Leering Eyes
Oh to be an irony editor at Sports Illustrated. Last week's issue includes a feature that highlights U.S. World Cup forwards Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan, and their scorn for the sexist treatment they received while playing for a club team in Japan. "Basically, they wanted us to be their cutesy showgirls," says Milbrett. "We were appalled by that." Understandably so, but then Milbrett had best avoid the magazine's back page, where the reliably loathsome Rick Reilly serenades the "Goal-Goal Girls" of the U.S.: "They've got ponytails! They've got kids! They've got (gulp) curves!" Put your tongue back in your mouth, Rick, and stick to focusing on the game. Even when women are on the playing field.