Category Archives: Pia Sundhage

The Sermanni Dilemma: Where Does The USWNT Go From Here?

Tom Sermanni Courtesy U.S. Soccer

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – For those who have been around long enough to remember the reference, the U.S. women’s soccer team trip through Connecticut had the feel of the old-school Ice Capades last week. You know, when the Olympic figure skating stars came back and tried to make some money (because they were still amateurs previously) by touring the country showing off their routines and signing autographs for screaming fans?

No one really cared how well they did, no one kept score, the people just wanted to see the Olympic stars in action.

There were obviously no triple axels from Alex Morgan – at least not that I saw – and cool costume choices were limited to both teams’ kits (the Where’s Waldos? against a minor league hockey team someone in the press box commented), but although some of the best players in the world were on the field, you had the distinct feel that competition was secondary as the game ended in a 2-2 draw.

As you can probably surmise already, I was torn. For someone who loves tactics and competition, both of which made the World Cup and Olympics an instant hit, I wasn’t going to get much of it here, which was frustrating when the top two teams in the world (at least according to the FIFA rankings) were below me.

But it’s not like I was a victim of false advertising or something, I was attending the “Nike Fan Tribute Tour, presented by Panasonic” for crying out loud. Abby Wambach had a goal (her 148th) and was all smiles afterward, even though the U.S. was generally outplayed (and outshot) and was forced to settle for a 2-2 tie, the first time since 2004 the USWNT failed to win in consecutive home games.

Wambach, like me, seemed a bit torn, mentioning that “this wasn’t our best soccer”, but quick to praise the nearly 20,000 people who braved a fairly hideous weather evening to see her and the U.S. play.  Morgan voiced similar sentiments, and you got the feeling she was a bit tired – mostly mentally – although she did have two assists. She sounded like an entertainer nearing the end of a long tour, but knowing that the people here deserved the same show that the people who came a month ago did.

And the fans that dodged the raindrops in Hartford cannot be discounted when discussing the overall dynamic here. Having lived here most of my life, I can tell you that Connecticut is not a great sports market, and the fact that 18,000+ showed up on a rainy, chilly Tuesday night is a testament to the popularity and success of Morgan, Wambach, and the U.S. machine.

Also, let’s be honest, most of them could care less about tactics, or whether interim coach Jill Ellis is integrating new players into the fold, or even the final score. As a youth coach, the talk at our practice the following day didn’t involve rising German star Dzenifer Marozsan, how the U.S. can stop her, or even why the U.S. doesn’t seem to have any players like her ready to join the USWNT in the near future, but how nice Abby Wambach was after the game, and who got whose autograph.

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Olympics – Gold Medal Match: U.S. Worthy Champions, But Japanese Teach Us In Defeat

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   – The Olympic Creed

Growing up, I used to listen to WFAN out of New York in pretty much all my spare time. It was one of the first sports talk radio stations in an era where ESPN offered little in the way of commentary (just highlights). Looking back, I don’t know what drew me to it, or what draws so many people to it today.

What doesn’t the manager play so-and-so? That guy stinks, we should trade him. The referees are clearly against our teams.

Just soooo much negativity.

As I got older, and not so coincidentally became a reporter and coach myself, I nearly completely stopped tuning in to sports radio. I try to stay clear of commentary shows with people spouting opinion that are clearly designed more for ratings and to get a rise out of people than actual analysis.

Before I come off as Mr. High and Mighty, as hard as I tried, the negativity never really left me. It’s easy to make fun of athletes when they fail or when they make mistakes, both on and off the field. Sometimes criticism is needed to be a proper journalist and not just a fan. The proliferation of Twitter has made it even easier to do that, complete with amateur humor.

I’m not here to cry, “Oh, those poor athletes.” They are in the public eye, they should be able to handle it to some extent. Of course, there is fair criticism, and then there Is what I think is overkill.

After Carli Lloyd yanked a penalty kick high after missing the target several other times at the World Cup, the next day at my camp anytime someone shot high it became known as “pulling a Carli Lloyd”. I remarked that the fact that everyone knew who Lloyd was and was watching the World Cup final was a victory onto itself, which was true, but I’m sure it didn’t make Carli feel any better.

There’s a more important lesson about negativity here, though, and it is has to do with the team who didn’t win the gold medal. While they weren’t quite as bizarre as they were against Canada, the U.S. was the beneficiary of a couple of breaks, most notably a pretty blatant Tobin Heath first-half handball in the penalty area.

Japan can also say they probably had the better chances in the second half, they could have won with a break or two, they were that close.

You know what, though, folks, you can say that about almost every big game in almost every sport. A break here, a break there, a call here, a call there. Small margins, as I’ve said (with credit to Zonal Marking) many times are the difference.

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Olympics: Gold Medal Match Preview – U.S.-Japan: Nadeshiko Try To Prove Me Wrong. Again.

“Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”

– Albert Einstein

There are probably psychologists – both amateur and professional – that can explain better than I the reluctance to leave a first impression, no matter what evidence there may be to the contrary. There’s something about what your eyes tell you the first time you see something that just makes it stick in your mind, no matter what comes after.

Last May, just two months after a horrific earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Japan, the Japanese came to America for a two-game series. Japan showed little different than what I had seen from the Nadeshiko in the past: they knocked the ball around pretty well, had spurts (especially early in the matches) were they looked like they could be dangerous, but eventually the U.S. did what they had done every time (almost: Japan was 0-20-3 against the U.S. lifetime at this point) they’d seen the Japanese before, they took over, posted a couple of comfortable 2-0 wins in which the Japanese looked horribly vulnerable in set pieces and in the air.

When it came time to make the picks for the World Cup, I wanted to get an upset in there, looked at the brackets and focused on New Zealand. They were in a weak group, they could knock off Japan, right? And so I didn’t have Japan getting out of the group stages.

New Zealand nearly got a point from Japan, but I immediately recognized I had underrated the Japanese as they blasted Mexico. However, the vulnerabilities showed up in the final group game as a 2-0 loss to England sent them to second in the group (don’t think Norio Sasaki was telling people not to score that day) and a date with host Germany in the quarterfinal.

(Too bad Germany had to miss this party, by the way. What a great event, too. They’re going to be mad when they check their text messages when they get back from vacation. Next time, girls.)

They stood no chance, right? In the end, despite the upset, I attributed more of it to a failure by Germany than anything Japan did, and therefore picked Sweden to win the semifinal. Wrong again, as Japan was opportunistic one more time.

Of course, we know what happened in the final after I again dismissed Japan’s chances prior.

A year later, it was harder to dismiss the now World Champions. They had proven themselves at every turn. Clearly they were now a contender, but as 2012 commenced, Japan was beaten by Germany in the finals of the Algarve Cup (although they had beaten the United States 1-0 to get there). They were beaten soundly by France and the U.S. in warm-up matches for the Olympics.

I looked at the brackets and conceded that Japan would likely win their group (I wasn’t counting on a draw against South Africa, but I digress), but figured their luck may run out in a quarterfinal against France.

Bzzzz. Wrong again.

Japan is 90 minutes away from winning back-to-back major tournaments in consecutive years, a feat that’s never been accomplished. Not by the United States. Not by anyone.

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Olympics – What We Learned: U.S.-Canada – Sorry Canadians, But “Tuff S***”

SamuelLJackson: “Don’t know enuf about Soccer refs to know, but TV dude says he’s never SEEN that call made! Wow….we ll… TUFF S***!”

Yup, that’s what Samuel L. Jackson (indeed, that’s the same guy) sent to his 1,256,000 followers after the end of the U.S.-Canada game. I don’t know how much soccer Samuel has watched over the years (although we’ve seen him before), but in a game that is impossible to sum up in 1,400 words, let alone 140 characters, he did a pretty good job.

There is so much to talk about in this epic encounter that to spend too much time talking about a single referee’s decision will take away from how great this game (and this day) was for women’s soccer, but you have to start somewhere and we might as well get it out of the way.

In the 78th minute, Pia Sundhage and the U.S.,  trailing 3-2, had just played its trump card by substituting Sydney Leroux in for Amy LePeilbet and gone to a 3-4-3 formation. Megan Rapinoe put in a rare poor corner and Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod claimed it rather easily, falling to the ground as she did. She rose and was about to kick it quickly, then looked, saw her tired defense slow getting out, realized time was in her favor, took another couple of seconds, and punted the ball, as has been done thousands of times in last two decades (since the 6-step rule was changed to the 6-second rule for goalkeepers by FIFA) and likely hundreds of times at the Olympics.

We know what happened next. I don’t have a big problem with the ensuing penalty call that eventually allowed Abby Wambach to level the game, although common sense usually dictates that if you made one controversial call, you might let another questionable call against the same team go seconds later.

There are some that say that common sense has no place when we’re talking rules. They might be right. They might not.

But there is a rule that states that a goalkeeper must release the ball in six seconds. Not necessarily six seconds after they receive it (from the run of play), but – as it states here – six seconds after they are able to release it (as in not on the ground, how McLeod started). In watching the play again, I counted about eight legitimate seconds that McLeod had the ball.

So technically, she broke the rules, an indirect kick was correctly awarded and the U.S. eventually scored. There is no arguing that from here or anywhere, really.

However, to paraphrase Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee from A Few Good Men: “Yeah, but it wasn’t a real rule, was it? After all, it’s the Olympics. She wasn’t being asked to call a penalty or give out a red card. I mean, surely a referee of Christina Pedersen’s intelligence can be trusted to determine, on her own, which are the really important rules and which rules might, say, be morally questionable?”

If you know the movie, you know the response: “No she cannot.”

(Ironically, McLeod said after the game, she was warned, but “it wasn’t a real warning”. Really.)

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Olympics – Matchday 3: What We Learned – United States 1:0 North Korea

For those that don’t know – and I suspect most of you here may not – I spend most of the winter with my alter-ego writing about men’s college basketball for the Mid-majority. When creator and all-around fantastic writer Kyle Whelliston had two “mid majors” reach the Final Four (Butler and VCU) in 2011, he had to deal with all the hype surrounding the Final Four: stories about stories, angles upon angles upon subangles, and just minutia that has nothing to do with basketball, “sportz” as he would call it.

Finally, when semifinal Saturday was actually upon us, Kyle wrote his preview headline as follows: “There’s a Basketball Game Today at 6:09 PM ET”.

Well, with Hope Solo wittingly or unwittingly (or a little of both) dominating the headlines once again in the Olympic soccer world, there really was a soccer game today at 12:15 PM ET.

Alas, it wasn’t much of a soccer game. As expected, the United States dominated  from start to finish against outclassed North Korea. It may have been somewhat surprising that the U.S. didn’t put up a bigger total than 1-0, but they missed some good chances and didn’t quite have the intensity they did against France. Why would they, really? They did the job they had to do, no one got hurt, got the full nine points, and have a fantastic draw all the way to the finals.

Solo barely had to do anything, therefore Brandi Chastain didn’t have to talk about her (although it seemed as though Arlo White was trying a bit too hard to be complimentary of Hope). There were no punches, no hideous refereeing calls, really a yawnfest, to be honest.

But if there was ever a good time for a snoozer, the last group game of a tournament in which you’ve already progressed is certainly it.

And it doesn’t mean we can’t learn a few things. Like these:

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USWNT vs. CanWNT: Wambach & Morgan were Left Unmarked and Made Canada Pay

The United States concluded their post-2011 Women’s World Cup Celebration Series tour against Canada with a 3-0 victory. Both friendlies were played in front of incredible crowds; Megan Rapinoe joked earlier in the week that the fanfare has been like if the WWC runner-ups had actually won the title.  18,570 strong serenaded the team with chants of “U-S-A” at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon, as did 16,191 at the first friendly in Kansas City, Kansas last Saturday (1-1 draw).

Similar to the previous game, the USWNT lined up in a new 4-2-3-1. As promised, Pia Sundhage featured all 21 players over the two friendlies, a full strength roster from the WWC. Notably in the starting XI, the experiment with Amy Rodriguez as a left winger continued, while Shannon Boxx and Lori Lindsey replaced Carli Lloyd and Lauren Cheney as holding midfielders. Stephanie Cox stepped in for Amy LePeilbet and Becky Sauerbrunn slide over from her usual role in central defence to the outside right.

John Herdman, who is playing without two of Canada’s regular starters Christine Sinclair and Candace Chapman, switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 and made two changes to his starting lineup from the first friendly, with Lexi Marton in place of Emily Zurrer and Karina LeBlanc in goal for Erin McLeod. Herdman’s fourth ‘keeper, 22 year-old Justine Bernier, was the only one of the 22 player roster not to see playing time. New talent was introduced as three players received their first senior caps during the two friendlies.

The US peppered the Canadian 18-yard box with dangerous crosses and well paced shots throughout the match, but were upstaged by great Canadian goalkeeping from Karina LeBlanc in the first half and Stephanie Labbé in the second.

Canada was kept deep on defensive duties for much of the game, but Melissa Tancredi got an early opportunity when she fended off a couple defenders before sending the ball over the net.

LeBlanc made her first of several great saves in the 17th minute. Abby Wambach started the play when she blocked Sophie Schmidt’s cross, which fell to Rapinoe. She was able to advance the ball up field before laying it off to Wambach, whose ensuing cross was met by an unmarked Rodriguez.  Her side-footed shot from point blank range was denied by a one-handed save.

About 10 minutes later, Heather O’Reilly led the charge forward when she beat Diana Matheson to send in a cross. Lauren Sesselmann was in a great position to block Christie Rampone’s initial shot. Her far post rebound was grabbed in the air by LeBlanc, who then sparked the Canadian attack with her goal kick. The bouncing ball eluded Rachel Buehler and fell favourably for Tancredi. Her header into space allowed her to turn and shoot, but the low bouncing ball went just wide to the right of Hope Solo.

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The USWNT & CanWNT Battled in a Scrappy 1-1 Draw

The first of the two-game friendly series between the United States and Canada resulted in a 1-1 draw in front of a near capacity crowd of 16,191 packed into Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

Boisterous fans created a lively atmosphere to welcome home their Women’s World Cup heroes, whose performance in this summer’s tournament ignited interest all over the US. Of the three friendlies played at home in 2011 prior to the WWC, two took place in comparatively large stadiums, like Red Bull Arena (25,000 capacity) and Columbus Crew Stadium (20,000 capacity), but had only managed to draw attendance merely in the 5,000s.

The situation for both teams couldn’t be more different: the USWNT was playing with the exact same group who recently propelled themselves to newfound celebrity status, and a coach whose unwavering loyalty to a particular formation and players have drawn cries for change and ingenuity from fans and commentators alike; in contrast, the CanWNT was playing under a new coaching staff following a sorrowful WWC with new players and new tactics.

September 17 was to be a battle of old and new. Yet, surprisingly, both teams stepped onto the pitch to test new strategies.

Pia Sundhage implemented a 4-2-3-1 for the match, a departure from her favoured 4-4-2.  The USWNT coach expressed her hopes of adding another dimension of unpredictability to the attack. Sundhage experimented by moving Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd, both of whom normally occupy more offensive roles, back to act as deep-lying midfielders. She was quick to point out that the pair would be “possession midfielders” as opposed to holding midfielders. Still in search for the team’s true No. 10, the Swede had Megan Rapinoe assume that role in the starting XI. The new formation was to emphasize play in the centre of midfield, but the US still found the most success attacking from the wings, especially in the first half.

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Thoughts on the United States' 2-1 Victory Over China

Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe Was Sensational for the U.S. in Saturday's Win

The Good

-The Real Megan Rapinoe was on the pitch in Atlanta on Saturday night. Chicago Red Stars fans are probably cursing their fate as the jaded and inconsistent player of WPS form was nowhere in sight on Saturday. This Rapinoe was a constant terror down the left (or right when she switched flanks with HAO), making surging runs down the flank or cutting inside while also defending well from the front, forcing some of the Chinese defenders into mistakes. Rapinoe took her goal well to give the U.S the early lead and had an opportunity to add a second in the second half that was kicked away by Chinese keeper Huang Luna.
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Wambach Scores 105th in Winter Wonderland

(Michael Brandy, Desert News)

The WNT defeated Mexico 1-0 at the Rio Tinto Stadium, despite winter weather conditions. It was the first time the National Team had ever played in snow. The game plan was completely forgotten as the snow continued to steadily fall. Despite Mexican keeper’s Erika Vanegas’ valiant efforts throughout the match (she made 12 saves), Wambach broke the deadlock after an hour, tapping in a cross from Shannon Boxx.

The goal ties Wambach with WNT legend Michelle Akers in 105 goals scored. Kristine Lilly started, making her the only player to have started matches in the past four decades. Also, Alex Morgan and Brittany Taylor earned their first caps, each coming on in the second half.

Here’s the Salt Lake Tribune match report.

And this is the official word from USSoccer.

Well, that wasn't so bad

Perhaps the biggest blunder of the match didn’t even occur on the pitch at all. Sidestepping FSC’s blunder at the beginning (presumably it was technical) where in which the starting line-ups and first four and half minutes of the game were lost, Coach Sundhage has reason to be pleased with her team’s performance.

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