Category Archives: Abby Wambach

NWSL Week in Review: Concussions Are No Fun

It was 10 minutes into one of the final games of the high school season last fall, and our tall center back – perhaps the biggest key to anything we did in keeping from conceding goals – went up for a lofted ball into our box, something she does a few dozen times a game (in some cases in which we were outclassed, probably more).

She won the ball, per usual, but not cleanly. It caromed straight up in the air and was eventually kicked out of bounds. As I looked toward her, she was rooted in the same spot she headed the ball, blinking her eyes. A teammate went over to her, followed quickly by the referee, who waved me on. While she had never actually been knocked off her feet and could answer any question I threw at her, her pupils were clearly dilated and she said she had a little bit of a headache.

Because we were playing at a large school, the trainer had to be called from the volleyball game at the nearby school, which took about five minutes.

“It doesn’t look too bad, and I’ll leave it up to you, but I wouldn’t put her back in the game.”

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NWSL Week in Review: Roses For All in Portland

It was the worst of times, not in the women’s soccer world, but in just about everyone’s world in America last week as sports receded into the background while the nation searched for two terrorists. It’s weeks like this where our games can seem so insignificant, especially when “real life” hits close enough to home that one of the NWSL games has to be postponed because the entire greater Boston metro area was in lockdown and the Breakers could not leave to get to Kansas City.

The last portion of the preceding paragraph would be preposterous just days earlier, but there we were Friday night paralyzed watching as there was at least an ending that saved us more horror. The Breakers, like the rest of Boston, were able to try to get back to some sense of normal on Saturday, although it’s understandable if it takes a little while.

And yet this weekend we were able to see the hope for the NWSL. On Saturday, Washington and Western New York played before an overflow crowd at the Maryland SoccerPlex, which was in remarkable condition (and featured real live grass). A day later, more than 16,000 piled in to Jeld-Wen Field to see Portland and Seattle, and while the number was obviously stupendous, the demographics appeared almost as striking.

We love young players to attend games, as a coach of young girls, I hope this league gives them a chance to have role models and the like, but what struck me Sunday is that – while there was still a family atmosphere – it sounded, well it sounded like a professional soccer match: chants, the din actually following the play, and – yes – roses for the goal scorers.

Well, maybe we don’t see that last one around the world very much.

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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 – The All-Curren Team: Trying To Pick The Best 18 Not Easy

Well, here we are again, the end of another major women’s tournament, and time again for the AWK All-Curren Team. I call it that not out of a massive ego, but to indicate that it is indeed my choices and opinions. I point that out up front because for some reason choosing the best team from the Olympics was even tougher than the World Cup, even though there were fewer teams.

As with the World Cup, I sought to put together a real squad, one that could actually play (as opposed to starting nine forwards where we could score at will, but might end up playing Marta and Alex Morgan at outside back) a legitimate match.

And as always, feel free to put your choices in the Comments. Just remember, if you put someone in, someone has to come out and vice versa.

Among the players who barely missed the cut:

  • Portia Modise (South Africa), who had the goal of the tournament, and was very active in midfield for South Africa, who had their moments. Not enough moments for her to make the 18, though.
  • Renata Costa (Brazil) had a very good tournament defensively despite her team’s lack of organization.
  • Ali Riley and Ria Percival (New Zealand) might have cancelled each other out, as the entire New Zealand defense, including Jenny Bindon and Katie Hoyle, had a great tournament.
  • Two players who barely missed the cut at the World Cup did so again here in  Louisa Necib (France), who got off to a good start, but held the ball a little too long in some key spots for my taste, and Yukari Kinga (Japan), who was just edged out.
  • Lotta Schelin (Sweden), who probably suffered from a lack of support more than her failings.
  • And, perhaps the last cut, Yuki Ogimi (Japan), who scored three times in the tournament, including in the final, but in a tournament loaded with attacking players, we just couldn’t find a spot for her this time around. Next time.

So without further ado, here’s the squad:

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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: Semifinal Preview – U.S.-Canada: One Small Switch, One Giant Leap for Canada

Perhaps one of my best coaching moves ever was a complete fluke, really. The summer months are technically a time for a break, but youth soccer takes few breaks these days, so of course a summer league was hastily organized. The games were glorified pickup, with a ref in the middle.

The parent organizers usually coach the teams so I went to watch one of my players to see how she was doing. Of course, parents always know what’s best in soccer coaching, so this dad thought his daughter (not the same player) was the best attacking midfielder and stuck her there accordingly, which was a little frustrating because I was hoping to see my player in her natural midfield position, the one she would play for my team.

The parent stuck my player at striker. Striker? Whatever. But then – keeping in mind my team had only managed 26 goals in 18 games the season before – a funny thing happened. She scored. Then she scored again. She finished with four goals the first game, a hat trick in another I watched.

Huh.

Six months later, she had the school single-season scoring record and the team erased just about every mark in the books on the way to its first league championship ever.

I’m sure John Herdman’s thought processes behind his tactical decisions are a little more complicated for Canada these days, but you never know. The Canadians were a team that I quite frankly thought was decent, but going to come up a little bit short at these Olympics after a somewhat disastrous 2011 World Cup. I went to Gillette Stadium to see Canada take on Brazil in March, and although Canada got a 2-1 win on two Christine Sinclair goals, my assessment on the Canadians was the same as I had since the World Cup (the Brazil stuff is a little telling, too), and probably all the way back to the 2007 World Cup, to be honest (although you may remember that the Canadians took the U.S. to extra time in the 2008 Olympics):

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Olympics – What We Learned: Quarterfinals – United States 2:0 New Zealand

“In one physical model of the universe the shortest distance between two points is a straight line in the opposite direction.” – Ty Webb

The United States Soccer Federation has recently advised all of its men’s Academy teams to try to switch to some variation of a 4-3-3 recently (actually, much stronger than advised in many cases) in an attempt to get more possession-oriented soccer at youth levels, and presumably to try to take that to the national team level at some point in the future.

In theory, I’m all for it: most of my young teams play in a 4-3-3 to try to teach them positioning and to create more possession and movement by giving another option out of the midfield and encouring the wingers to pinch in and allow the outside backs to overlap and get forward. Of course, despite what we may hear from some parents and others, winning isn’t our top priority.

Pia Sundhage, probably taking some advice from somewhere because Scandinavians play it about as often as a winter heat wave takes over Stockholm, experimented with a 4-3-3 after the World Cup, to mixed reviews and results. It was pretty obvious by then that the best lineup for the U.S. women’s national team was something that put Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan together, and quite simply that was a 4-4-2.

As the play of the United States has gotten more and more direct over the last few months, its status has been climbing. Do you remember before the World Cup last year? Germany was heavy favorites, the United States? Not so much. Obviously some personnel changes and more experience help the cause, but the U.S. has reclaimed its spot as the favorite to win a major tournament – in this case the Olympics – by doing what works best for them, playing it as quickly as possible at two of the best strikers in the world.

While against France and Japan (and maybe even Canada), things won’t be as easy, against New Zealand, all it took was one look at the terrified look on poor central defender Abby Erceg’s face every time the ball was played long and Morgan was on her outside shoulder, inside shoulder, or seemingly both at once. If Erceg did get there, she probably wasn’t going to be able to do what she wanted with it, and that kind of pressure just builds up over 90 minutes. New Zealand makes more mistakes, the U.S. gets more of the ball in their end, and gets more chances.

New Zealand – to their credit and as we expected – battled until the end. But the result and the number of scoring chances was inevitable. It won’t be as easy in the final two rounds, but I don’t see any reason why it won’t work.

Here’s what else we learned in the United States’ 2-0 win over New Zealand:

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Olympics – Quarterfinals Preview: Six Degrees Of Ali Riley

“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”  – Grateful Dead

There might be someone on this planet that doesn’t like Ali Riley. Maybe she cut someone off in traffic somewhere once, and that person swears revenge. Maybe when she was playing at Stanford, she smiled a little too much and it rubbed someone the wrong way. But I’ve never talked to anyone who has a bad thing to say about Ali Riley. In fact, I’ve never talked with anyone who’s talked with anyone who’s been negative toward her.

Call it Six Degrees of lack of Ali Riley Negativity, I guess.

Riley grew up like any talented young soccer player in southern California, dreaming of playing on the biggest stage, which was within a stone’s throw of Riley’s home when Ali was just 11 and the United States beat China to win the World Cup in front of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl in 1999. She continued up the youth ranks, good enough to get her a scholarship to Stanford, where she would eventually lead them to the national championship game in 2009.

Along the way, she got the attention of the national team, playing in the 2006 U-20 World Cup, and making her full international debut at a major tournament in Beijing two years later. Now a fixture with the national team, she might be its biggest star and with that comes all the publicity.

Of course, I’m not really fooling anyone reading this, am I? I mean, she has 60 caps for New Zealand by now, right?

Funny how life works.

When she was about to enter college, Ali’s dad John, a UCLA economics professor who grew up in New Zealand, decided to make a speculative phone call to people he knew in New Zealand to say his daughter might be able to help them if they wished. Riley had never been called into a youth national team here in the States, and by most accounts, had never really expected to. Making the U.S. national team is not as easy as it looks. Do the math of Division I college programs and quality clubs in the country and narrow it down to even a pool of a few dozen. Good luck.

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