TIME World Cup

In Women’s World Cup, U.S. Feels Weight of Expectations

Members of China's national team take part in a training session at Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa on June 25, 2015 on the eve of their 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinal match against the US.
Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images Members of China's national team take part in a training session at Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa on June 25, 2015 on the eve of their 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinal match against the US.

It's not enough for the Americans to just beat China in Friday's quarterfinal

They haven’t lost a single game in this World Cup. They haven’t given up a goal since the opener, stringing together a remarkable 333-minute shutout streak. On Friday night, they face China—a team that hasn’t beaten them in 24 matches, dating back to 2003—in the World Cup quarterfinals. They’re three games away from a championship.

So why all this anxiety about the U.S. women’s soccer team?

Despite the wins—and a scoreless draw with Sweden in group play—the team has drawn more critics than cheers. Eric Wynalda, the former men’s national team player and commentator for Fox, went so far as to call the team’s performance against Colombia, a 2-0 U.S. win in the round of 16, “pathetic.”

Wynalda, and other pundits, have pointed fingers at the coach, Jill Ellis, for the team’s lack of offensive dynamism. She’s employed a defensive-minded game plan—which has clearly worked. So far. If the team couldn’t rack up more goals against early-round competition, the U.S. will be in trouble against a Germany, France, or Japan. “There’s been a lack of offensive flow and rhythm,” said former U.S. star Julie Foudy, a member of the last American team to win a World Cup, in 1999. “They’re not creating a lot of chances, they’re not taking players on, it’s really been four stagnant games.”

OK, but what about all that winning? Does it count for anything? According to Foudy, an ESPN analyst, the complaining has a bright side: we gripe because we care. “It really speaks to the growth of the game here, that we’re all debating it, we’re talking about it, we’re not content with just winning anymore,” said Foudy. “Sure, you can win on good defense. And sure you can grind it out. But really, with more support, more funding, more kids playing in the United States, why are we relying on grinding it out anymore?”

For the Americans, the beautiful game needs to be more beautiful. To that end, Foudy’s hoping that Ellis will deploy three scoring forwards—perhaps a combo of Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach and Sydney LeRoux—against China, instead of the usual two. Such a formation would ease the burden on the veteran Wambach, 35, who has had to cover more ground in the two-forward set. “For her to be chasing balls down on into the corner flag is crazy to me,” Foudy said. “That’s not her game.”

Bottom line, Foudy wants Ellis to shake up the game plan now, before trying it out against Germany or France in the semis. Not that the U.S. can look past China. They’ve got strong goalkeeping, and can cause trouble off set pieces. China faced the U.S. in the epic ’99 final, but women’s soccer has declined in that country since that time: as the New York Times reports, only some 6,000 or 7,000 female players above the age of 12 are registered to play. Parents are more likely to stress school over soccer, which offers few opportunities beyond the national team. But China’s president, Xi Jinping, likes soccer, and is backing a plan to revive the game.

Heading into Friday night’s game, the U.S. is also missing midfielders Megan Rapinoe, who along with goaltender Hope Solo has probably been America’s MVP this tournament, and Lauren Holiday, who’ve been issued two yellow cards in the tournament, and thus have to sit out a game. Still, said Foudy, “the U.S. should be absolutely fine” against China.

Fine, however, is no longer fine. The Americans need to win big to temper all this stress. Until the next game at least.

TIME Basketball

Appreciation: Harvey Pollack, Hoops Stats Guru

Harvey Pollack
Matt Slocum—AP Philadelphia 76ers stats keeper Harvey Pollack waves during a celebration of his 90th birthday during an NBA basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz, March 9, 2012, in Philadelphia.

The pioneering analyst delivered new knowledge, but never forgot the fun

Sports are smarter these days, to the great benefit of all fans. We look at the games in more minute detail, and can glean strategic insights that making watching sports more engaging. Thanks to the notion that where a certain player takes his shots is just as important as how many he fires at the rim, we knew that Steph Curry was shooting 91% on left-corner three-pointers in the playoffs at one point. Let’s see if the defense can keep Curry away from his hot spot. What are the Warriors going to do to get him open there?

Across all sports, technology is unlocking secrets. Cameras tell you where every pitch landed in, or out, of the strike zone, and the angles of tennis shots. Teams own proprietary formulas to evaluate talent that are so valuable, it may seem like a good idea to hack them. In the midst of this new-agey analytics industry that has ascended over the last decade, it’s just so sweet that the man who started the stats revolution, in basketball, was a 93-year-old employee of the Philadelphia 76ers who had been working in the NBA since its inaugural season in 1946. His technological innovation on the night of March 2, 1962, when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Penn., was to write “100” on a white piece of paper and give it to Wilt, who held it up to a camera, creating one of the most iconic photographs in sports history.

Harvey Pollack, director of statistical information for the Philadelphia 76ers and the last original employee of the NBA’s first season still working in the league, died on June 23, at 93. Pollack made epic contributions to the game. He started tracking numbers that fans, players, coaches and talent evaluators now consider routine: offensive and defensive rebounds, steals, turnovers, blocked shots and minutes played, among others. He also began compiling more advanced information, like 48-minute projections, plus-minus evaluations, distances of field goals. He coined the term “triple-double.”

Today’s advanced stat gurus, who now occupy plum positions in NBA front offices, drew on Pollack’s work. “He was certainly an originator of many great ideas and concepts that, back in the day, were monumental,” said Roland Beech, vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks. “They were definitely powerful. Absolutely, all the stats you see today owe their gratitude to him.” John Hollinger, vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, tweeted:

Thanks in large part to the best-selling book Moneyball, Bill James, godfather of baseball analytics, is more widely known that Pollack ever was. (Back in 2006, James earned a spot on TIME’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world). But Pollack had a similar impact on his sport. While James’ annual Historical Baseball Abstract was the bible for the sabermetric crowd, the Harvey Pollack Statistical Yearbook was the sacred text for hoops quants. While Pollack came up with his share of player evaluation formulas, measured crunch time performance and pinpointed which five-man player combos performed the best, he never forgot the fun. “He just loved basketball,” said Beech. “He’d include things that had no real statistical value, but that added some color to the game. He always appreciated the fan.”

A glance through Pollack’s 2010-2011 statistical guide reveals his hodgepodge of interests: it includes a list of left-handed pro players over time, the most common surnames in NBA history, and a personal favorite, the players who recorded the most games that ended in a trillion between 1993-2010 (a player records a trillion when he enters a game and contributes no statistics, resulting in a string of zeroes next to his minutes played tally in the box score). Congratulations former Atlanta Hawks guard Mario West, who topped the chart with 79 trillions.

Sports numbers can be goofy, and incredibly insightful. And if you’re like most fans—not a hard-core stathead—they can, at times, be boring. But thanks to an innovator like Pollack, numbers matter. “We lost somebody central to the NBA,” said Beech. RIP.

TIME tennis

Chris Evert: Serena Williams Is the Greatest of All-Time

Williams’ French Open victory was her 20th major win, four behind the women’s all-time career record.
Clive Brunskill—Getty Images Williams’ French Open victory was her 20th major win, four behind the women’s all-time career record.

With Wimbledon approaching, Williams is chasing history

Serena Williams owns 20 Grand Slam singles titles, just four short of Margaret Court’s record 24, and two behind Steffi Graf’s 22. But one tennis legend—who has a cool 18 major titles herself—isn’t waiting for Williams to break the record to declare her the best women’s player ever. “She is the greatest of all-time,” says Chris Evert, who spoke to TIME for our profile of Serena Williams that appears in the June 29 issue, available on newsstands starting Friday.

Evert cites Williams’ record in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments—20-4—and her lack of a rival as reasons for declaring her the GOAT. The absence of a consistent challenger for Williams usually works against her in this debate. After all, Court had Billie Jean King, Evert had Martina Navratilova, Graf had Monica Seles. Any of these Hall of Famers would dominate the competition Williams is currently facing—and pile up major championships.

Five or six years ago, Evert says, she bought the argument. But not anymore. “After watching her matches and watching her closely, these players get close, they’re doing really well, and then she’ll get to another level where she slaps winners and she starts acing people,” says Evert. “It’s not one level. All of a sudden, she’s up two or three levels better than the field. It’s not about the other women. It’s about how good Serena is.”

Evert is rooting for Williams to become the first player since Graf in 1988 to win the calendar year Grand Slam—a sweep of the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, plus Wimbledon, which starts on June 29. She’s halfway there, having become the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the Australian and the French (the U.S. Open begins in late August).

“I think we want to look up to somebody larger than life, and kind of go along for the ride,” says Evert. “We like to be in awe of somebody, it’s superhuman what they do, it’s just nice to feel like you’re part of that journey with them.”

TIME Basketball

The Golden State Warriors Are a Team for the Ages

The small-ball gunslingers will never be forgotten

The Golden State Warriors, NBA champions, were so clearly the deeper, more athletic, more skilled team in these NBA finals. So much was made of LeBron James’ singular brilliance, in the face of injuries to his All-Star teammates. Yes, James was the reason Cleveland took a 2-1 series lead, the reason the Finals stretched to six games. His performance seemed to overshadow everything in this year’s Finals.

Years from now, sports fans may remember James’ big numbers. But mostly, they’ll marvel at how the Warriors won it all.

They did it with a wizard, Stephen Curry, at point guard. Curry nailed three key threes in Golden State’s 105-97 Game 6 victory in Cleveland Tuesday night, because that’s what he does. In the clincher, however, the regular-season MVP’s passing stood out. He patiently let the Cavs double-team him far from the basket – what choice did the Cavs have against a guy who can sink shots from Cincinnati? – and hit cutters down the lane. Or flipped one-handed passes down low. Or skipped the ball cross-court, or into the corner, to open three-point shooters. Curry had eight assists. Golden State finished with 13 three-pointers.

How deep is Golden State? The MVP of the series, Andre Iguodala, didn’t start a game the whole regular season, and can barely hit a foul shot (he shot 6-21 in Games 5 and 6). In Game 6 a guy named Festus Ezeli, who played three minutes, and scored no points, in Games 4 and 5, sparked the Warriors by scoring nine points in the last four minutes of the third quarter. Draymond Green finished Game 6 with a triple double: 16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists. Harrison Barnes shot 3-4 from downtown.

Once Golden’s State first year coach, Steve Kerr, decided to stick with a small lineup against Cleveland in Game 4, his Warriors didn’t lose again. Soccer is called the beautiful game. But basketball, as the Warriors played it Tuesday night, is mighty pretty too. The ball zipped around, and almost always found the open man. No plodding here. Just speed. Just fun.

In the fourth quarter, LeBron James’ legs were shot. His attempts fell consistently short. It took a few Hail Marys from J.R. Smith, a shooter who went missing for most of the series, to keep it close. But when you looked at the players on the floor, no way could the Cavs keep it any closer. For example Matthew Dellavedova, the Game 3-grit hero, looked like he didn’t belong on an NBA court.

Cleveland should feel no shame. The more deserving team won the title. The gunslinging Golden State Warriors: small, unselfish, and simply unforgettable.

TIME Horse Racing

American Pharoah Trainer Bob Baffert Talks Triple Crown Win

In an in-depth interview, American Pharoah's trainer discusses his horse, his hair, and forgetting to take his meds

A day after American Pharoah became the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, the colt’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, met with TIME at a New York City hotel restaurant—flanked by his wife, Jill, and 10-year-old son, Bode—for an extended conversation.

Some excerpts from the interview:

After this 37-year Triple Crown drought, and after you lost three prior Triple Crown chances at the Belmont, including losing by a nose with Real Quiet in 1998, honestly, did you ever think you’d win the Triple Crown?

I grew up with Quarter Horse racing, but I never imagined even having a thoroughbred or even being a trainer of a thoroughbred or anything like that. And once I got involved, after going through it three times, I never imagined ever getting a fourth shot at it. Because I thought, well, I had a good chance, in 2001 with Point Given, my best shot. But he didn’t win the Derby; he missed the first one and then he won the other two. After that, I felt like that was my last chance to do it with a horse that I felt was superior to the rest of them. I thought that was it. I was done, and I already missed my window.

After the win, you said that the Triple Crown is about sharing greatness. What’s the greatest thing about American Pharoah?

Not only his athleticism but he has a great mind. And you need that too. Because he had to go through a lot to get here. The grind of running, shipping out of state back and forth. It can wear on a horse. He’s got the mindset to be able to continue. He never lost his appetite, he kept his weight on, which is very important. And the way he moves. He moves like no other horse I’ve ever had. Somebody measured: his stride is two feet longer than Secretariat’s. He just moves over the top of the ground. He’s quick, he’s fast and he doesn’t use a lot of energy. So that’s why he dominates.

How do you know if a horse has a good mind?

After they run a few times, you’ll know if they can handle the experience. Some horses, they can be really quiet. They run one time, and their minds can get frazzled. They start stressing, they can’t take it, they stop eating. They don’t handle it well, they don’t handle situations. He handles people. He’s been surrounded by hundreds of people. And he’s a kind horse. He’s very quiet, kind, but competitive. He wants to dominate. And when he runs, he always look like he’s having fun.

How can you tell if a horse is having fun while running?

Their ears are forward. And in the Belmont, when Pharoah is out there, he’s just like cruising around there, checking out the scenery. Just cruising along.

Soon after the race, I noticed that you gave American Pharoah a nice kiss. Did you say anything to him?

I’m constantly thanking him for coming through. But he’s really moved me in a spiritual way. You know my parents were always with me when I went through all the Triple Crowns. And they’re gone now. And to me, I always feel like maybe they have some connection to the horse. It makes me feel … that’s why I get very emotional when I talk about that horse. There’s something about this horse I’ve never felt with another horse. He’s just like, when you see him, you just love to see him because not only is he a sweet horse, but he carries a certain … he’s a very noble horse.

Do you really think that a Triple Crown winner will draw more casual fans to the race track and boost the sport?

I remember Secretariat, Seattle Slew, you wanted to follow them. You couldn’t wait for their next race. Just like any great athlete, you can’t wait to see a guy bat, to see him play.

American Pharoah will race a few more times before Breeders Cup. I’m sure he’ll run some time in July-August. Wherever that race will be, he’ll have a very positive following. Everybody was pulling for that horse. I’ve come up here before. You know how tough New York is. I was warning him [Baffert’s son Body, 10, sitting nearby] about the hecklers and everything. There was not one heckler. Every time I’ve come up here, there have been hecklers. There’s always, ‘not today Bob.’ But everybody was behind the Pharoah.

But wasn’t the Triple Crown drought, the elusive chance to witness history, driving interest? In a way, could this win backfire against horse racing down the road?

If it happens again, a lot of people will say, ‘I want to be there.’ I think a lot of people got to the point where they said, ‘you know what, I’ve been coming and coming and its just the same disappointment.’ Now it’s doable. There’s a big difference. I think it will draw more interest now. Can there be another one like him?

What human athlete does American Pharoah remind you of?

LeBron James, a Michael Phelps. Tiger Woods in golf, he’s like him, like Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt. I love Usain Bolt. When he’s in there, I can’t wait to watch him. Because you know he’s going to put on a show. That’s what the Pharoah does.

What did you say to jockey Victor Espinoza before the race?

I when I saddle him, I can tell the energy level. I told Victor, “He’s really, really good. You still have a lot of horse. Ride him with confidence, get him out there rolling, hopefully he’ll leave you alone. If he gets tired, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to save him, just let him rip.” Pharoah gave me this feeling, he looked the part in the paddock. He was doing some super-posing in the paddock, you should have seen him. He was there, he just stood there, all these people around him. And all of a sudden, he was looking at people way in the back. He was like this [Baffert cranes his neck], with his head up.

He’s got a lot of swagger, a lot of swagger. I think those other horses in the paddock, they knew. I believe in the herd instinct. When they’re running, they know. Like that horse Materiality, it’s a good horse, a speed horse (Materiality finished last). He stayed close to Pharoah, was trying to keep up with him, but he broke his heart. They give in, just like if you were chasing Usian Bolt. Dude, you’re going to look up, you’re pumping, and Usain’s going, ‘ah, you OK?’ They know.

When did your hair turn white, and why?

It’s a family trait from my mother’s side. When I was probably 17-years-old, it was salt-and-pepper. It was white probably about the time I was 30.

What would you be doing if you weren’t training horses?

That’s scary. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t training horses. I’d probably be … (turns to wife, Jill) What do you think I would be doing?

Jill: Rock star

(laughs)

So is that the answer?

No. I really don’t know

Jill: You really like music

I like music but I wasn’t really good at music. I think I would be in some kind of sales.

You don’t seem like a sales guy.

Jill: That’s not even… no, you would not be a sales person.

What would I be? I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen so successful, I just don’t think of anything else. There’s no plan B in my life.

I love how it went from “rock star” to “sales.” (Laughs) You forgot your heart medication at the Belmont. What a day to make that mistake.

And I thought about it when we started to take the horse to receiving barn [around an hour before the race]. ‘Oh, I forgot to take my meds today.’ I think I felt pretty good though. Once in awhile, I started thinking, and I was starting to get nervous. But it was a good nervous. The horse looked so good going up to the barn. And I remember seeing him in the back, and we always give him a bath before we take him to the paddock. And right before they gave him a bath, he was out in the sun, and the sun was hitting him, and his coat was just so bright, so healthy, gleaming. I was like, ‘Oh God, I’d hate for you to bathe him because now he’s going to look dull.’ He just looked like a picture.

Then he walked up there, we waited, we had to wait there like 30 minutes in the receiving barn, it was long. If the horses could talk they’d say, “hey, come on, you’re taking us up there way too early.’ But he was giving off a good vibe, a really good vibe, during this whole journey. It was just a positive, positive thing.

Still, in that moment, forgetting the heart medication could have cost you.

I just wanted to make it, man. I just wanted to make it to the race. What happens after that, whatever, you know?

Who’s the biggest influence in your life?

My father, because he is the one that fell in love with horses. He brought a couple of Quarter Horse mares and he decided that they were bred for racing. And that’s how he got got started. It stared out as a hobby. I was at the right age where I followed him everywhere to watch these horses run. And when I got old enough I helped take care of them, that’s how I got into it.

What does it take to be a successful horse trainer?

You need to be able to learn to read the body language of a horse. It just comes with lots of years of experience. I grew up with horses and animals. You just learn by looking at them. You can tell by the look in their eye. You can tell if they’re happy, or sad.

You know, their ears. If horses get their ears pinned a lot, they’re not happy. They’re not enjoying their job at all. Ears and the eyes. You can tell by their hair color, their tone, their body. This horse, every time he got here he galloped over to the track. He just marched on to the track. I kept seeing the way he would move, that he was a beautiful horse.

Much was made of how often jockey Victor Espinoza whipped American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby. Are horses whipped too much?

The issue in the Derby for Victor, it came up because people were surprised. American Pharoah, he never gets the whip. But he didn’t run his A-race, he wasn’t focused, he was not engaged, he was not running. I don’t know if it was the screaming—he has very sensitive hearing, that’s why I keep the ear plugs. For some reason that’s the only race he ever had to be whipped.

First of all the whip that they use now, it’s really light. It’s just to keep them focused, so they keep a straight course. I know Victor felt like he was hitting the brakes with him [in the Derby]. He wasn’t tired, he just didn’t want to go on; 170,ooo people, he hadn’t seen anything like that.

They don’t do it to punish the horse. They do it just to keep his focus. It doesn’t leave any welts. In the old days they had these really long ones, and they’d leave welts.

Will we have to wait another 37 years to see this again?

Well, I won’t see it if it’s 37 years. Hopefully, it won’t be. I think the game has changed. A lot of people skip the second one. It will take another horse like this to come along. Pharoah is a very sturdy horse. Races don’t take a lot of out him. He won the Preakness effortlessly. The Belmont, that was nothing for him. And that was a mile-and-a half. I was worried about the mile-and-a half. When he turned for home, Victor was just sitting on him. He hadn’t even asked him to run yet. I saw that [and thought] ‘Every time I run him, he shows me a new dimension.’

American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, had previously fired you. What’s that dynamic been like?

When he first got in the business, he was all over the place. He’s a stats guy. He had multiple trainers, and he hired me and he went into it thinking he was going to do it his way. A lot of people that are very successful in their own business, they try to bring that mindset into horse racing. Well you can’t. I can be the brightest guy, but when I get outside the stable game, your IQ is so much higher than mine. But when we get inside the stable area, yours drops and mine goes way up.

It’s hard for some people to realize, ‘I‘d better listen to this guy.’ So it took him a few years, and we got back together and ever since then we’ve had a great relationship, mutual respect for each other. He is very emotional, and sometimes he can be very hyper. He sounds like the Bruno from Dancing with the Stars, you know what I mean? That’s him. He’s like a big kid. But at the end of the day, there’s a really soft good side to him. But he’s a tough businessman, and he’s a super family man.

I noticed that a rep from Monster, the energy drink, asked you to wear a company pin at the Belmont. You declined, citing superstition. But I got the feeling that you didn’t want to wear a company logo on a potentially historic day. Did I read that right?

I just wanted to stay with the plan. I just wanted to keep it historical.

But someone in a Burger King costume was in your box.

The reason we did it was because the money goes to charity. [Jill says Burger King paid $200,000 for the placement, and the money would be directed to causes like post-career assistance for jockeys and racehorses.]

What’s been some of the reaction to your win?

The phone’s buzzing non-stop. There are some numbers I don’t know. I say thank you to a random number. I’m afraid to say, ‘who’s this?’ in case I’m supposed to know. A lot of people I haven’t heard from in a long time. I mean I even got a text yesterday from Reggie Jackson, and I hadn’t talked to him in … (turns to Jill) since when?

Jill: 14 years?

Any advice for wannabe Bob Bafferts out there?

You’ve got to really pay attention to the great trainers. That’s how you learn. When I first came in, I saw saw what those guys did, how they handled their horses. If you love the horse, they’ll respond. You have to love the horse.

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