A Couple Of Firsts For Those Who Last

Sure, soccer is far and away the world’s most popular sport overall, but around these parts it still takes a back seat to the likes of American football, baseball, basketball and yep, in some parts even hockey.  But this past weekend saw a couple of signposts, and certainly enough attention being paid to, the awarding of championships to first-time recipients that have reminded many sports fans of exactly what is possible even if the odds are against you, and what the repercussions might be if you fail to deliver on promise.

The team currently in 29th place out of 29 MLS teams, Inter Miami, won the first-ever in-season championship competition. with more than a little help from its most recent acquisition that has served notice that as the regular season resumes, things are likely to change.  As the MIAMI HERALD’s Michelle Kaufman crowed:

The Lionel Messi traveling circus stopped in the Music City Saturday night and fans who traveled long distances and paid big bucks to see the Argentine icon and his Inter Miami teammates play Nashville SC in the Leagues Cup final were treated to a thriller. 

Messi scored on a brilliant strike, his 10th goal in seven games, and Inter Miami overcame its toughest test yet this tournament, surviving a dramatic 11-round penalty kick duel 10-9 to win its first trophy in team history.

When it was all over, the jubilant pink-clad Miami players tossed Messi up in the air as thousands of Miami and Messi fans in the stadium celebrated. Messi has lifted the entire club since his arrival last month, and now it was his teammates’ chance to lift him. Goalkeeper Drake Callender also deserved to be feted, as he came up with several huge saves, including the game-winning save on Nashville keeper Elliot Panicco’s attempt in the shootout.

“What happened tonight is amazing, this is for the City of Miami, for our fans after so many years of sacrifice,” said Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas. “This was a spectacular final. To see Lionel with that smile, all the guys how they are playing. This will be the first of many trophies for this team.”

Meanwhile, early Sunday morning our time a new queen of the sport was crowned, culminating an unlikely storyline that cemented the country’s claim to be the de facto capital of the soccer world, per the AP’s Anne Peterson:

A champion’s medal around her neck, Salma Paralluelo lay on the field for a while and nestled into the golden glitter that had fallen over Spain’s Women’s World Cup team as it celebrated a 1-0 victory over England.

Already a world champion in the Under-17 and Under-20 levels, Paralluelo took her time soaking up the atmosphere at Stadium Australia on Sunday after helping the Spanish women’s team overcome adversity to win its first senior major global title.  Overcoming the turmoil that had surrounded the team, the victory made Spain the first team to hold the under-17, under-20 and senior women’s world titles at the same time. Spain also joined Germany as the only nations to win both the men’s and women’s titles.

A victory all the more unlikely given how much of a prohibitive favorite the United States’ women’s national team were going into this year’s World Cup, as they were seeking an unprecedented third consecutive title for the first time in the sport’s history among both genders.   But as we know by know, things didn’t go quite according to plan, and so last Thursday as the world awaited the Spain-England showdown this unsurprising story dropped via CNN’s Wayne Sterling:

Vlatko Andonovski has stepped down from his position as head coach of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT), the US Soccer Federation announced Thursday.

The federation said in a press release that US Soccer and Andonovski mutually agreed to part ways.

The US lost to Sweden in a dramatic penalty shootout in the Women’s World Cup round-of-16 earlier this month, ending the dream of an unprecedented three-peat. The four-time World Cup winner failed to reach at least the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in its history.

In prior years. certainly without the recent success and the scrutiny of the world, and clearly more than a few politically charged observers, upon them, such an underachievement might have been taken in stride.  The U.S. team still remains one of the world’s unquestioned powerhouses.  But with Spain’s success, the gutty performance of the English team that narrowly found a way to return a Cup to its motherland for the first time in nearly six decades and the overachieving of the host Matildas that captured Australia’s attention sufficiently enough that their semifinal loss against England set an all-time record for the most-watched broadcast in the history of Australian television, accountability was inevitable.

The silver lining: the overall health of the women’s game is at an all-time high. As Front Office Sports’ Doug Greenberg reported this morning, the 2023 World Cup delivered a record $570M in revenue.  And added a couple more continents to its growth potential in the process.

And all this is going on as the Premier League and Championship League seasons have kicked off, with the assurance that the next nine months will be filled with reminders that more would-be Messis are still out there, and I can assure you that more and more of us will start to care.   Between Apple, Peacock and Paramount+SHOWTIME (that still rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?), not to mention ESPN+’s exceptionally heavy coverage of college men’s and women’s soccer, I defy you to go a day where you aren’t exposed to dozens of clickable titles of matches waiting for your attention.

Weekends like the one we just experienced are a reminder that we’re that much more inclined to click on them, and watch.  And, I’ll willing to offer, enjoy.


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