John McGrath: A game where gender is irrelevant

I was following a Women’s World Cup game the other day when it occurred to me:

The athletes on the television screen were women.

Of course, the athletes were women — it’s the Women’s World Cup, hello? — but when I watch a Women’s World Cup soccer game, I don’t see women playing a soccer game. I see a soccer game that looks like any other elite-level soccer game.

Same ball. Same rules. Same field. Same ebb-and-flow pace. Same pinpoint passing, assertive ball-striking and dynamic save-making.

If a competitor falls and pretends to writhe in pain during a women’s soccer game, I don’t see a woman exaggerating the difficulty of getting back on her feet. I see a soccer player doing what soccer players do to draw a penalty on an opponent.

Soccer, it seems to me, is the one team sport that erases the distinction between women and men. Not to belittle women’s basketball, but I’ve never watched a women’s game without thinking: There are five women attempting to put a ball through a hoop and five women attempting to prevent the ball from going through the hoop, and what they are doing has little in common with the accelerated pace of a men’s basketball game.

Those striving to be politically correct will point out that women’s basketball is a pure version of the sport as conceived by James Naismith. Sound fundamentals executed from half-court sets take precedence over the improvised acrobatics highlighted on “SportsCenter.”

It’s often said that women “play basketball the right way,” a patronizing observation that suggests men — bigger, taller, faster and stronger — don’t play basketball the right way.

Right way, wrong way, better, worse, whatever. Women’s basketball is different from men’s basketball.

For that matter, women’s hockey, which prohibits bodychecking — the hockey term for initiating a collision intended to gain possession of the puck — is different from men’s hockey.

Hockey without bodychecking? Imagine football without blocking beyond the line of scrimmage. There’s no there there.

Women’s fastpitch softball can be a blast to watch, but it resembles baseball the same way Disneyland’s Matterhorn mountain resembles the actual Matterhorn.

Women’s soccer resembles soccer. When the U.S. takes on Japan in a Sunday rematch of the 2011 World Cup finale, it will look like any other soccer game played with the whole world watching.

The final score will be 1-0, or 2-1, although it’s possible all hell could break loose during a late second-half flurry of teams going for broke and leaving nothing on the field, in which case the score could be 3-2.

Whatever happens, the fact that an internationally significant sporting event pits a women’s team against a women’s team figures to be moot for me.

There will be tears afterward, winners and losers both, because female athletes are allowed the freedom to reveal powerful emotions while male athletes are forced to conceal them. That’s when I’ll realize: Oh, yeah, I just watched a women’s world-championship game.

Until then? To borrow my favorite quote from Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch — OK, his only quote — “It’s all about that action, boss.”

I doubt my eyes will well with tears Sunday, because I’m a man and men aren’t supposed to cry. But if the U.S. prevails in a 3-2 donneybrook, on the weekend of its 239th birthday, all bets are off.