The first problem Australia’s national women’s soccer team encountered in a practice match against a team of teenaged boys Wednesday was this: the inability to field the full women’s national team.
The second problem the team nicknamed the “Matildas” encountered in that practice match was this: treating it like a practice match.
Then they got thrashed, 7-0, and it became a story. And that is the biggest problem of all.
The Matildas often practice against high school-aged boys because they cannot find enough high-quality female competition to sharpen them for international competition. That they have grown their program to rank No. 5 in the world under those circumstances is an enormous achievement. But the result against the Newcastle Jets U-15 side is an opportunity for those dismissive of women’s sports — and, man, are they out there — to mock the abilities of women athletes.
It can be argued there was not great depth among national teams as women's soccer developed two or three decades ago, but World Cup champion Kate Markgraff told Sporting News earlier this month, “Tactics have improved so much on women’s side, as well as the technical ability to execute those gameplans — especially among the top women’s teams.”
The Matildas took the field against the Newcastle teens without several of their top players, notably striker Kyah Simon, who is playing here with the Boston Breakers in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). They rotated players frequently in the match, not a common approach for a team looking to get a result. And they did not get one, at least not the one they had in mind.
On Twitter, former Australia midfielder Joey Peters suggested that the team’s brand “might be a little more protected than being exposed in that manner.” In so many words, she indicated her belief that a practice game need not become international news.
But of course it did.
Any legitimate question about Australia’s capability as a national team was answered in their game against the U.S. that opened play for both teams at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. After conceding a 12th-minute goal to American winger Megan Rapinoe, the Matildas’ Lisa DeVanna tied the score 15 minutes later and her team then fought hard until the U.S. grabbed a couple goals late to secure a 3-1 victory.
The Matildas advanced to the round of 16 and lost a 1-0 decision to defending champion Japan. They are hoping to compete for a medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio.
If one suspects a result such as this would preclude that sort of success, it’s helpful to revisit the occasion of a practice game between the U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” of NBA stars in 1992 that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. In Barcelona, the U.S. smashed every opponent by at least 32 points. But those who know that team’s history recall it was beaten by a 62-54 margin in a practice game by a select team of collegians featuring Penny Hardaway, Chris Webber, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley.
“Those young kids were killing us,” Scottie Pippen said in a documentary produced by NBA TV.
That’s why they call it “practice.”