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Soccer

Sam Kerr Struck, But England Squeezed

9:11 AM EDT on August 16, 2023

Sam Kerr of Australia scores the teams first goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Semi Final match between Australia and England at Stadium Australia on August 16, 2023 in Sydney, Australia.
Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

It did not take long for the world to recalibrate its hopes for the women's World Cup final Sunday. Hoping against hope for 26,000,000 Australians creating the world's largest drunk tank, it will instead have to make do with a potentially excellent game at a neutral site, which is hardly as satisfying.

Don't get us wrong here. England 3, Australia 1 was the absolutely correct result, delivered in a very clinical way. The Matildas' great tactical failure Wednesday was in not producing enough Sam Kerrs to overcome the ways the English removed everyone not named Sam Kerr from the game's big moments, while constructing a stage large enough to contain the more subtle but enduring brilliances of Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo, Ella Toone, Jess Carter, and Rachel Daly.

But a lot of casual fans wanted to be all in on the Aussies over-over-overachieving before their own hypergiddy supporters. They wanted Kerr, especially, to be the Kerr whose Stephen Curry-level goal would be the harbinger for more of the same.

Instead, they got the kind of game that the United States used to deliver on command before the world learned, developed, and now passed. Kerr and occasional forays from Mary Fowler aside, the English carefully and relentlessly squeezed the life out of the game the way a boa constrictor considers dinner. Having the most good players, after all, beats having the most passionate fans every time. We do like to cling to the notion that fan support is the same as measurable power, but it almost never is. After all, the Saudis aren't signing Nigel Beervat or Catriona Incoherent-Screamer for $100 million.

The English have been better throughout because they didn't have a discernible weakness that needed hiding. The Australians were getting by the same way until they ran into a team that could dominate space, remove passing angles, control the ball without fetishizing possession time, block every shot not authored by Kerr, and win most of the other one-on-one battles. To force a basketball analogy, the Australians had their version of Allen Iverson in the 2001 NBA Finals, and the English had the Lakers. You may now pause a moment to look up how that played.

It is difficult now to imagine how Spain, which got to the final the day before by beating Sweden, can overcome what seems to be England's numerical tactical superiority (that's soccer for "more good players") and superior coaching (Sarina Wiegman is superb, while Jorge Vilda is endured by his players rather than actually heeded). The Spanish version of Kerr is Salma Paralluelo, but like Kerr she will need exemplary games from the rest of her mates to make what we saw Wednesday into a lie on Sunday. The smart money isn't seeing it that way.

But that's the thing about the smart money. It may be right, but it isn't always fun unless you're the smart money, and cashing is never not a total hoot. The Australians will probably be fun as hell in the third-place match with Sweden Saturday because fun is the only thing to play for the day before the final. Maybe they can use the experience and the next couple of years to get onto the job that must consume them now that they are no longer the new car in the showroom: making more Sam Kerrs.

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