Eisenberg: World Cup Win Feels Familiar In Baltimore


If the United States' triumph in the World Cup of women's soccer seems vaguely familiar to Ravens fans, there's a reason.

In a nutshell, here's what happened: One player got extremely hot and the team peaked at just the right time.

That's exactly what happened to the Ravens when they went on their Super Bowl run in 2012.

For the U.S. soccer team, the hot player was Carli Lloyd, who scored three goals in the first 16 minutes of Sunday's final, the decisive goal in the team's semifinal and the only goal in its quarterfinal. Who knows how the U.S. would have fared without her nose for the net?

For the 2012 Ravens, the hot player was quarterback Joe Flacco, who set a slew of records while throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in four postseason wins. Who knows how the Ravens would have fared without his amazing performance?

But of course, in both cases, it took more than one player's brilliance for the team to go all the way. Soccer and football are a lot alike in that they're team sports featuring offenses, defenses and players continuously working in concert. It takes a village, as they say, for a team to excel.

Just as the U.S. couldn't have won without players other than Lloyd doing their jobs – especially the defense, which only gave up three goals in the tournament – the Ravens couldn't have won without Ray Lewis' inspiration, Jacoby Jones' big plays, the defense… so many elements they can't all be mentioned here.

But for both the Ravens and the U.S. team, the big lesson of their triumph was the importance of good timing – saving your best performances for the games that matter most.

The soccer team took heat for a handful of underwhelming showings earlier in the month-long World Cup; former team members and the media ripped the Americans for sleepwalking and scolded their coach, Jill Ellis, for changing some basic tactics.

But that narrative became dated as everything meshed for Ellis and her players in their last two games. The Americans played brilliantly, especially in Sunday's final, which began with an unforgettable goal-scoring barrage that shattered their usually sturdy opponents from Japan.

There were other good teams in the tournament (Germany was ranked higher and Japan was unbeaten and untied before Sunday) but the U.S. saved its best performances for just the right time.

The Ravens were even farther down the pecking order when the 2012 NFL playoffs began. They were the AFC's No. 4 seed and had lost four of their last five games. Few analysts expected them to last long in the playoffs. Like the women's soccer team halfway through the World Cup, they were, ahem, not being praised.

But also like the soccer team, they meshed at the right time, outplayed their seeding and ending up hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

It's a familiar story line that plays out all the time in major sports.

The Ravens aren't the only relative longshot to go all the way in the NFL in recent years. The New York Giants won as a No. 4 seed in 2011, the Green Bay Packers as a No. 6 seed, a wild card team, in 2010.

In baseball, the 2014 World Series was contested by a pair of wild-card teams, the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals. Three years before that, the St. Louis Cardinals went all the way as a wild-card team. In 2006, the Cardinals barely finished above .500 during the season but ended up going all the way.

The lesson is that records and seeding don't always matter as much as getting hot at the right time, a development borne of a team's ability to a) get better as it goes along b) endure tough times, and c) rise to the bigger occasions.

The requisite traits for that are mental toughness, confidence, doggedness and poise, which the Ravens do possess. Rightly or not, they're known as a solid regular season team that becomes dangerous in January. That certainly was their calling card in 2012, and again last season, they showed a side of themselves in the playoffs that was not always evident during the regular season.

That's important to remember when times get tough in the middle of the regular season. What matters isn't so much how you fare along the way, but whether you at least put yourself in position to win in the end, and then, most importantly, keep getting better.

Sometimes, that's all you need.

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