Monthly Archives: June 2011

Six Things That Happened on the Fourth Day of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Canada got bowled over in Bochum – and it was brutal.

It was a performance that seemed completely out of character.  Carolina Morace’s side set up in its favored 4-3-3 with a battle-worn – and face mask-wearing – Christine Sinclair fronting the line. In the early going Big Red looked up to the challenge and rangy central midfielder Diana Matheson nearly got off a shot off in the penalty area. But the tide turned in the 24th minute as Gaetane Thiney nodded in a scrappy goal to give France the advantage.

At halftime, Morace needed to figure out how to close down an enterprising Louisa Necib and get Sinclair more involved in the match. Canada saw a bit more of the ball, but appeared too rattled to retain possession to make it count. France, meanwhile, seemingly made the most of every goal-scoring opportunity the team had earned. Perhaps most disappointing of all, Canada failed to show the mental steel it had against Germany.

The team got completely demolished, conceding three goals in a span of 23 minutes – each more demoralizing than the previous. France’s spellbinding technical precision and swift movement forced Canada to revert to its old tactics of lumping up long balls – despite the fact Sinclair was unable to head a ball.

It was difficult to derive much pleasure from watching France thoroughly outclass a disoriented Canada side. By the time Elodie Thomis rolled the ball into an open net for France’s fourth, it just hurt.

Morace needs to be credited for this new-look Canada team, even if it certainly didn’t live up to its best today. The team has also made significant strides off-the-field that will have long lasting benefits.

And with all that progress in mind, it’s just weird to think that Canada’s World Cup journey (effectively) ends here. The team has managed just one shot on goal in two matches and look perilously close to setting an all-time record for least goals scored in a World Cup (the record is three back in the 1999 edition. Canada needs to score at least two goals against Nigeria to equal that mark). Shocking.

Canada will have to shake off the bitter disappointment of 2011 and look forward to coming home in 2015.

 

Les Bleues validated their dark horse credentials.

Did France put forth the most comprehensive performance of the tournament so far? Quite possibly. Against Nigeria France looked a step out of sorts. The team came together and kicked on after Delie’s goal, however. It was the same set of circumstances today. After Thiney’s goal, the team surged ahead and really showed its quality. The impact of developing at Clairefontaine and having 10 players at Lyon really shone through in the team’s technical ability. France hardly put a pass wrong in the second half and finished with tremendous efficiency. It was rather beautiful.

If goals are the catalyst for tremendous performances, perhaps this match gives France the momentum needed for a deep run. Look out.

 

Nigeria got down and dirty after playing well enough to pip a result.

As Ray writes below, Nigeria’s rope-a-dope tactics are the big talking points. The match really boiled over as the match wore on, thanks in part to referee Cha Sung Mi’s failure to impose her authority in the first half, thereby enabling Nigeria to up the brutality in the second.

The thing is it didn’t have to get to that level. Nigeria’s exceptional defensive performance in the first half will likely be forgotten. Nigeria had Germany on the ropes, batting away every incoming cross while disrupting the hosts’ passing rhythm. It was a defensive master class that drew hisses of dissatisfaction from the capacity Frankfurt crowd. The question was whether Nigeria could sustain it in the second. They couldn’t and instead resorted to brutal fouls.  

With nothing left to play for, it’s a wonder whether Canada will be the victims of such rough treatment.

 

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Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 5

It was the best of the women’s game, but it was also the worst of the women’s game Thursday at the Women’s World Cup.

We saw France pick what appeared to be a more athletic Canada side apart with better ball control, more precise passing, looking like the “Barcelona of the women’s game” (although, as a few people have pointed out, just because a team can string four passes together doesn’t mean they should be compared to Barcelona), in an absolute rout.

Then we saw Nigeria, with a great deal of success, try to bully their way to a result against heavily favored Germany, in a match that will be remembered more for the number of injuries and fouls (and a little bit of curious officiating) than for the actual play on the field.

But you have to take the good with the bad when you cover a tournament, and I’ll try to make sense of the Thursday proceedings here.

And so, without further ado, here are the 10 things we learned in Day 5 of Germany 2011.

1) France’s win could reverberate further than just today

We’ve heard rumblings that the game is gettign more technical, that the days of just physically beating an opponent into submission (see: Norway in the 90s) were dead. I’ve read from Anson Dorrance and Even Pellerud on how the women’s game may never really evolve that way, and that athleticism will always win out (Dorrance has changed his tune slightly, Pellerud – who admittedly has had great success – really hasn’t).
For the first 15 minutes, Canada was buzzing, but once France settled down, they did circles around the Canadians, they were better passers, better dribblers, just played the game better, and there was little Canada could do to stop it.
Can France go all the way this way? Possibly, but…

2) Maybe the physicality thing is not quite dead yet

I’m torn with Nigeria’s performance against Germany. Part of me wants to congratulate their organization, and the fact that they’ve come a long way since an 8-0 drubbing in a friendly just six months ago. They battled, clawed, and made things difficult for Germany at every turn.
However, saying it was an ugly match would be generous. It set a Women’s World Cup record for fouls, saw more bodies on the ground than in the previous nine games combined seemingly, and saw very few movements that resembled anything beautiful like France was putting together.
The age old question, of course, is what are the Nigerians to do? Take a beating and smile? They did what they thought was best to try to win the game. It’s up to Germany (and the officials) to break them down. And today they couldn’t.

3) Scorelines don’t necessarily dictate how one-sided a game was

No one is debating that Canada deserved to get a result or anything, but if Canada could have stuck one in (and they were physically dominating the French in the first 15 minutes), who knows? Diana Matheson had a great chance in the 15th minute, it went begging, France was on the board 10 minutes later, and they never looked back from there. But if that first one goes in.

4) Ironically, France’s first goal came off a strong tackle

Canadian holding midfielder Sophie Schmidt was off to a good start in the match, took a touch in the 24th minute and thought she had time to clear. But her counterpart Elise Bussaglia came in with a hard (and clean) tackle, played a quick 1-2 with Louisa Necib, and Gaetane Thiney was at the far post to put France in front, and – as I stated before – it was all France after that.
Even Thiney’s second goal could be attributed to pressure. This time Emily Zurrer thought she had more time, Marie-Laure Delie got in the way of the clearance, and Thiney’s blast from outside the box was perfect. But it doesn’t happen without the pressure.

5) France looked much more comfortable with a formation tweak

Bruno Bini was in a little bit of a bind, as he pulled captain Sandrine Soubeyrand at halftime of the opener against Nigeria in his 4-5-1 to get more on the attack, moving Elise Bussaglia – whom he started wide – into that role.
Many thought he would make that switch permanent against Canada, but he wanted his veteran captain on the field, so he went to a 4-2-3-1 with Bussaglia and Soubeyrand holding. It allowed Louisa Necib to play in front of them and have more of the ball, and it worked very well after the first few minutes.
Whether France will have that same kind of success against Germany, or in the knockout stages, remains to be seen.

6) It was a sad end for Christine Sinclair and Canada

Under Pellerud eight years ago, Canada actually had the lead in the semifinals against Sweden before two late goals killed their dream. But the goal scorer in that game typifies Canada, Kara Lang was 16 when she scored. Eight years later, Lang is retired due to persistent knee injuries. Christine Latham, who also had some big goals in that tournament having just turned 22, but isn’t around anymore, either. Brittany Timko and Diana Matheson, both teenage starters during that World Cup, never developed into stars.
Which leaves Christine Sinclair, who should be around at 32 when Canada hosts the World Cup in 2015, but the current crop doesn’t look as promising as 2003.
But four years is a long time, Canada did win the Gold Cup in the winter, and Jonelle Filigno (20) looks like a potential star, so we’ll see.

7) You can bash Nigeria, but Germany wasn’t good today, either

The ball just moved too slow, and you wonder how much offense Silvia Neid is going to be able to generate with Kim Kulig and Simone Laudehr both as holding midfielers (although, as she did on the goal, Laudehr did get forward a bit today). Birgit Prinz was not a happy camper, and Neid has to make a tough decision and soon, to cut her loose (sit her) and go with Alexandra Popp, or stick with her. A very, very tough one indeed.

8) I’m not sure what we wanted Nigeria to do

Ngozi Uche (and her German staff) know if they come out and play a wide open game, they may get run over. So they turn to the style which they played today. It was borderline hideous and fairly gruesome to watch. But it gave them the best chance to win, didn’t it? That is the object, no?
Holding midfielder Rita Chekwelu has had two very good games and it’s a shame to see her wrapped up with the rest. But, unless someone changes the rules, that’s the way it’s going to go, we saw plenty of it at the Men’s World Cup last summer as well.

9) It may not be worth it to win Group A

It may be slightly embarrassing for the Germans not to win their group when they’re hosting the World Cup, but I take a long look at sitting some people and getting them a rest if I’m Neid and Bini in the last group match.
The likely road to the Cup for the winners of Group A: England, United States, Brazil.
The likely road for second place: Japan, Brazil, United States.
I don’t see enough difference to make this game huge, especially because you’re playing so many games in a short period, some of them in intense heat. But we’ll see.

10) Refs need to show cards sometimes

Cha Sung Mi, the South Korean referee of the second game today, never really had control of the game, and – despite the fact that people decry them as not having control (irony) – probably needed to show some cards early in the match.
When you do that, the Nigerians have to think twice about hacking people because they may get sent off.

Bonus:

French women better than men

The last time the French men won a World Cup game by three goals or more? July 12, 1998. Of course, that happened to be in a World Cup final and over Brazil, too, but hey, one step at a time.

Dispatches from Deutschland, Pt. I

A longtime Freundin of the blog is currently in Germany as part of a covert operation launched by AWK enjoying the soccer and taking in the sights and sounds of the World Cup.

She’s been kind enough to send us a few tidbits from her travels. We hope to post them throughout the tournament. Because they - much like our source - is awesome.

 

Sunday:

  • TV news (ZDF?) had piece on the impact of women’s soccer on the nation – ie, does anyone know the players. Street queries revealed that almost no one (well, three people) could name a player, until a woman suddenly named Prinz and Laudehr. Anyway, at least they can name someone!

 

  •  There are many German side view mirror flag things on cars – we say this during men’s WC. Drug stores everywhere have funny soccer window displays ext to their usual summer displays for ticks and sunscreen.

 

  • Heard in [Berlin Olympic] stadium behind us – man “It’s so nice that the women’s game is so much slower than the man’s – you can really watch each play.”

 

  • Enormous amount of families with kids, our German friends say this is unheard of at men’s soccer games, where it is 80% men, and very unpleasant men at that, that get on the s-bahn drunk as hell. Many families and women of all ilks walking around Berlin in soccer hats. Very well-behaved, (ahem!)  Strong gay presence, About 5% of crowd was lesbians.

 

Monday:

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By Now We’ve Seen Everyone Play, So Here Are a Few Notes

It’s anyone’s knockout round.

After eight group stage fixtures, there haven’t been any lopsided results. Not even close. The highest goal differential stands at merely two goals – and that was in just one game.

In each match we’ve watched the momentum seesaw between opponents. The favored team has always been put on the back foot (remember the final seven minutes of the Germany/Canada match) and/or have needed time to figure out how to break down their opponents (i.e. Sweden/Colombia, France/Nigeria, Brazil/Australia and on and on).  

The big fish have shown some vulnerability (Germany, U.S., Brazil) while the minnows (Equatorial Guinea, Colombia) have earned praise, but no points. From where we stand today, is there any team we can prohibitively say won’t make the knockout round? Nigeria probably. Colombia perhaps. And that’s only because of the level of quality around them, not necessarily because of their lack of class. Trying to predict the outcomes of the rest of the group matches has become a futile task. Expect the unexpected, and all that.     

 

The U.S. has played the best 45 minutes of soccer thus far.  

That would be Germany’s honor, but Canada gave them a real challenge in the first 45 – particularly in central midfield. In a complete about face, the U.S. completely bossed North Korea in the second half on Tuesday, and in every area of the park. Maybe it was the “struck by lightning” excuse that did North Korea in or perhaps the U.S. are just plain good.  

 

It’s been a low scoring affair.

This is the lowest scoring first round of group matches in any Women’s World Cup, and by quite some distance. Here’s some historical perspective. The following is the average number of goals scored in each game by the end of the first set of opening round fixtures in past World Cups:

2011: 1.75

2007:4.875

2003: 3.375

1999: 3.25

1995:4.3

1991: 3.6

It’s important to note that there has been at least one blowout in every previous tournament by this stage:

In 2007 there was Germany 11, Argentina 0.

In 2003 it was Japan 6, Argentina 0.

1999 saw Brazil 7, Mexico 1.

1995 had  Norway 8, Nigeria 0.

And in 1991 it was Italy 5, Chinese Taipei 0.

All of those score lines have vastly inflated the averages, but that only reinforces the point. So what are the causes? Increased parity (definitely), more defensive matches (eh), and loads of missed shots (yes, that).

The 2010 FIFA World Cup was derided for low-scoring, turgid matches. The average number of goals by the end of the first group stage matches? 1.5 - only slightly lower than this tournament. But at least these games have been engaging. 

 

As was hoped for, the tournament has shown how much the women’s game has progressed.   

More competitive matches are a telltale sign of this, for sure, but there are many other instances of this: The technical ability observed in how often teams have retained possession, the organized defenses, the quality of the goals scored.

Then there’s the tactics, like how Australia had completely out-thought Brazil in the first half by making them play with a deep defensive line that didn’t allow for much Joga Bonita-ing. Brazil changed things up a bit in the second half, and finally broke through with a lovely piece of skill from Rosana.

One benchmark that’s used to illustrate how the men’s game has developed is to observe the speed of play. Watch the  final of the 1970 FIFA World Cup; generally considered the best edition in history:

[vsw id="BYWy4Ey7PfM" source="youtube" width="500" height="450" autoplay="no"]

It almost looks like they’re playing underwater, at least when in comparison to the blistering pace that the game is played at today. You enter dubious territory when you start comparing men’s and women’s soccer as they each have their unique virtues. But it’s hard to watch a match like the Germany vs. Canada and not acknowledge the quick pace the game was played at.

The professionalism of the women’s game, whether that be at the club or national team level, has to be credited for the marked development.

It can only get better.

 

[More after the jump]

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Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 4

Sometimes the real world can be a cruel, cruel place. Australia and Equatorial Guinea began Wednesday’s action as underdogs, teams that would likely have to get very lucky to get a result against Brazil and Norway, respectively.

As it turned out, they had no luck at all.

Now, in the end, just as in any of life’s endeavors, you make your own luck and neither the Aussies or the Equatoguineans (my favorite world of the World Cup, by the way) could find a way to score a goal, and therefore got nothing, absolutely nothing, they lost (say it in your best Willy Wonka voice).

But as the final whistle sounded on the Australia-Brazil match, while the poor Matildas looking disconsolate after a last-second corner kick rattled around the box for one seemed like an hour, I thought, “Darn it”.

I didn’t pick Australia or Equatorial Guinea, I have no ties to either, they just didn’t to deserve to lose today. And, as these things go, they may not get a better chance to win than they did today.

Onto the 10 things we learned in Day 4 of Germany 2011.

1) It’s good to be Genoveva Anonma

Well, except for the whole “being accused of being a man, thing”. I’m sure that’s terrible.
However, imagine you’re Genoveva, you just turned 22, you led your tiny country no one ever heard of to its first World Cup, no one thinks you have a chance to do anything, and your coach tells you to run around, get the ball as many times as possible, and shoot whenever you get within the same zip code as the opponents’ goal.
I’d probably paint my hair Equatoguinean (2) green as well. Anonma took 13 (?!?) shots, and was the most entertaining player in the tournament. We hope she can keep it up for a couple more games. The only downside …

2) Finishing seems like a lost art at this World Cup

The only thing Anonma (the official roster lists her an Anonman, must be a translation thing) was missing was the finish. After trying her luck from distance in the first half, she got her first great look at the stroke of halftime when she hit Norwegian goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth right in the chest. In the 53rd and 71st minute, she was clear again, but couldn’t make it work either time.
Alas, she’s not alone at this World Cup, Norway took a page out of the Swedish handbook, and Australia missed more than their fair share of chances. We’ll see if it changes going forward, but it might be the difference between winning and losing the World Cup (yeah, pretty obvious, but still).

3) Equatorial Guinea had a couple of other players, too

I was particularly impressed with Carolina (Martins Pereira). Of course, until a few years ago, she was probably about as Equatoguinean (3) as I was, but the veteran Brazilian was a calm presence when her team needed it in the back. (And, hey, it’s not like men’s teams aren’t doing the same thing in naturalizing players, I guess). Despite Cat Whitehill talking about the weakness of Miriam (Silva da Paixao) in goal (another Brazilian), I thought she was reasonably solid, she punched out a few balls and didn’t make any glaring mistakes. Of course, Carolina was taking her goal kicks, however, which is never good. But there’s reason to think, they’ll at least make things interesting in their last two matches.

4) I don’t despise direct play, but you need a Plan B, too

It looked like either Norway was surprised how good the Equatoguineans (4) were in the air, or didn’t really have another plan other than to lump the ball forward at every opportunity and hope for the best. I guess it’s a good sign for the women’s game that a team like Equatorial Guinea forced Norway to try something else, as I said, it’s a shame they didn’t make them pay for it at the other end.
I was encouraged to see Norway start in a 4-2-3-1 (not a 4-4-2), and and they did have some bright spots…

5) There were some bright spots for Norway, so there’s hope going forward

You can add 19-year-old (and just turned it two weeks ago) Emilie Haavi to our growing list of young standouts, as other than Anonma, she was probably Woman of the Match, which made it fitting that she got the winner in the 84th minute (with Equatorial Guinea going for the winner). Of course, Haavi is a decidedly un-Norwegian like player, and not just because her hair is not completely blonde. She has skill, and wasn’t afraid to use it.
The only other player on the Norway roster shorter than Haavi was second-half sub Lene Mykjaland, who made an immediate impact, but had to be subbed out herself after just 24 minutes on the field. Elise Thorsnes on the other wing had her moments as well, Norway is going to need those players if they want any shot of advancing, even with this result.

6) Brazil was using a sweeper

Like finding evidence of a reportedly extinct animal, there it was for Brazil (of all people) against Australia. I made fun of Nigeria for using it in past World Cups, and it was personally jarring.
My playing career was mostly as a sweeper, and my coaching career started a decade using a 4-4-2 with a sweeper because that’s all I ever played. But once more and more games came on television, especially the 2002 Men’s and 2003 Women’s World Cup, no one was using a sweeper (except the Nigerian women). No one. I really haven’t seen it since, except among some local coaches, who – like me – probably knew nothing else and don’t watch as much television.
And it wasn’t a high sweeper, it was a deep sweeper, with Daiane way back and Aline and Erika basically man-marking the two Australian forwards in front of her.
And so Kielton Lima is either revolutionizing tactical soccer, or he’s 20 years behind the times. Obviously, I’m biased, but I’m going with the latter. Australia and Lisa Da Vanna should have made them pay and didn’t, and Brazil (which was listed as a 3-4-3) never seemed sure where they were supposed to be defensively. But Lima got his clean sheet and three points.

7) Again, it’s about the goals, stupid

We can talk tactics and 100 other things, but when Christiane keeps the ball alive early in the second half and Rosana takes two brilliant touches and buries it, that’s the difference in the game. It’s the reason why Didier Drogba has been so valuable, why Chicharito is so valuable, and the difference between a good team and a championship team.
You can blame young right back Caitlin Foord for not stepping up, or the center backs for failing to clear the ball, but give credit to Rosana, too.
Despite all their failings today, Brazil is capable of scoring just like they did today – in lightning quick fashion – and I don’t know how many other teams in this tournament are.

8) Australia has a future, if not a present

Foord was excellent at right back and doesn’t turn 17 until November, fellow teenager Emily Van Egmond didn’t stand out as much, but didn’t stand out in a bad way, either. Center back Servet Uzunlar just turned 22. Kyah Simon, who didn’t score, but was pretty dangerous and lively celebrated her 20th birthday earlier in the week. And, based on today’s performances, you’d still have to make Australia a favorite against Norway, wouldn’t you?

9) However, let’s not get too worked up over one game

Brazil and Norway, my picks to advance, were not good today, I’ll readily admit that, but one game does not a tournament make. What kind of adjustments do Eli Landsem and Lima make going forward is the big question? Does Lima scrap the pseudo 3-4-3 and old-school sweeper? Does Landsem order the ball played to the feet of her skill players?
We may look back on the first game as an aberration if Brazil and Norway make a deep run.

10) Low-scoring does not necessarily mean bad or unentertaining

Scoring is down, way down, in this World Cup, but the Equatorial Guinea-Norway match was the most entertaining of this World Cup and would have been even if it had finished scoreless. So I’m not worried about the lack of scoring, even if people that don’t actually watch the games will point to it as reasons why people shouldn’t watch.

Bonus:

Europe is the only undefeated confederation

But yet between Sweden, Norway, England, and France, they probably haven’t been as impressive as CONCACAF or Asia (with Australia). Discuss.

Buzzwords for the USWNT/North Korea Game

Let’s try something new. Instead of doing player ratings after each USWNT match (because each player would have gotten a 1 after the first half [kidding] and a 10 after the second [kidding again], we’ll try thinking of buzzwords that help sum up each player’s performance. So here goes:

 

Hope Solo: Unruffled. North Korea didn’t really test the agility of Solo’s reportedly suspect right arm with long-range efforts. Solo wasn’t called upon often, but when she was, she parried shots away with sharpness and confidence and just that smoldering Solo-like intensity.

Ali Krieger: Calm. Probably Definitely her best national team game yet. Early in the first half Krieger provided service to O’Reilly on the right flank. When North Korea began bunkering, she dropped back into defense and manned the position well – even when the defense began to cave under growing pressure. There was a reason why North Korea didn’t bother pressing up the right flank. Her crossing was also more on point than not. It was her initial lob that resulted in Buehler’s goal, after all. Great game.

Christie Rampone: Satisfactory. Not a great performance, but not a horrific one either. Rampone deserves credit for regrouping the defense in the second half, as the communication definitely seemed like it had improved. Still just a meh outing, which means there’s still things to be desired from the veteran center-back.

Rachel Buehler: Resilient. Buehler had a difficult first half, trying to help cover for Breakers teammate LePeilbet on the left. In doing so, she got caught out of position and left a gap immediately in front of Solo which North Korea managed not to exploit. In the second half she looked more comfortable and less underwhelmed. The goal was a nice moment as well. She’ll continue to be a threat in the attack, as she always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

Amy LePeilbet: Liability. LePeilbet’s improved second half performance wasn’t enough to gloss over the first half. The natural center back’s inability to cut and turn became apparent, just like it had in the England friendly. In the last 20 minutes of the first half, Kim Su Gyong had her beat. It was Marie-Eve Nault-level bad. Cheney’s intervention (and the U.S.’ control of possession) helped fix things in the second half, but that left-back position looks to be a trouble area. LePeilbet just isn’t a left-back.

Heather O’Reilly: Quiet. The consummate work horse showed flashes of vintage HAO; she combined well with Krieger on the overlap in the first 10 minutes and also served up a particularly beautiful cross to Wambach in the first 15 minutes of the second half. But besides that, she was rather anonymous.

Shannon Boxx: Taxed. Boxx looked exhausted, just as she did in the first Japan game. And possibly for similar reasons: Boxx assumed a mostly defensive role in both games, and got absolutely inundated with pressure in the first half of each. She lacked the sharpness to help turn possession for the U.S. in the first half, and by the second half, North Korea had stepped off. Still a conundrum.

Carli Lloyd: Improved. More errant passes and misreads in the first half. But again like in the Japan friendlies, Lloyd bounced back and help the U.S. control the midfield in the second half. As a result, North Korea quit pressing up the center which allowed Lloyd more time on the ball to make better decisions. While not being excessively productive, she helped marshal the middle third. She does have a scorching shot on her; you just wish she’d show it more often.

Lauren Cheney: Integral. Fantastic performance. It seemed (anyone have confirmation?) that each and every one of Cheney’s shots was on frame. There’s this interesting OptaFranz stat, and at least half of those shots must have been come from Cheney. Granted, her shots in the first half were all driven directly into the goalkeeper, but the fact that she actually got them on frame means a lot for a team that has had recent issues doing just that. Sundhage put Cheney at outside mid for that precise reason: her ability to shoot, and shoot with accuracy and power. The fact that mobility isn’t one of her playing characteristics isn’t an issue. Every time Cheney got a glimpse of a look, she took the shot (and none sailed over the crossbar!). Her ability to track back and help defend should also be noted. Cheney’s tenacity alone should keep her in the starting line-up.  

Abby Wambach: Adaptive. Wambach had a frustratingly quiet first half. Her central midfielders weren’t getting her involved, and she had a difficult time finding space to work in when they did. In the second half she shifted to the wing and it worked. Wambach really showcased her skill on the ball, as well as her ability to cross. So she used to be a striker, then she became a no. 10, and now she’s a winger? If she keeps providing assists like she did for Cheney’s goal, she can be whatever she wants.  

Amy Rodriguez: Latecomer. It took about 60 minutes, but A-Rod finally looked dangerous when she began combining with her fellow forwards. Her speed helped flummox a tiring North Korean defense, and her movement looked good. The thing is it took about 60 minutes.

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Women’s World Cup – Day 3: Things We Learned – United States Edition

There were few people that pushed the panic button, but there seemed to be quite a few whose hands might have reached in that general direction as the United States sputtered to a halftime draw against North Korea Tuesday afternoon.

Thankfully, none of those people was named Pia Sundhage. She stayed calm, collected, made no substitutions, but tweaked the right things, and gave the right motivation. The result: a fairly shocking second half (at least in its complete and utter domination) as the U.S. rolled to a 2-0 win over usually stubborn North Korea that could have been double that.

There’s a long way to go, obviously, but certainly the U.S. looked like contenders for the title. Unless, of course, it was the lightning that got the North Koreans.

In the other match, well, let’s just say the Swedish finishing left much to be desired against Colombia.

Here are the 10 things we learned in Day 3 of Germany 2011.

1) Lauren Cheney needs to be on the field

You or I might switch up the formation to find a way to get her in, but Scandinavian coaches like Pia Sundhage (or Hans Backe in MLS for the Red Bulls, for instance) never seem to vary from that 4-4-2. Which is fine, to each their own, and – as we saw today – sometimes the formations can just be numbers. Cheney spent much of the day tucked in and acting as a third striker, in the process probably being the most dangerous player on the field today.
Now, doing that does leave some holes behind you, and that’s something the U.S. will have to address, but you have to give up something to get something, and the positives seemed to outweigh the negatives today, namely a threat to score every time Cheney touches the ball in the opponents’ third.

2) Abby Wambach has some skill, too

We know Wambach as the hard-charging, physical presence who gets most of her goals with her head, a job she has been remarkable in, scoring 118 times for her country in 157 appearances.
But it was the things she did off the ball and with the ball at her feet that helped the U.S. most today.
On the first goal, her run into a wide area opened space and a beautiful Carli Lloyd long ball found her on the left. Instead of just hitting it first time, though, she cut it off her left, sending the North Korean defender jumping, which opened up everything. Wambach’s cross found Cheney, and it was a pretty simple header back across goal.
That little touch, though, was the difference.

3) Who is Dawn Scott?

If you know before reading this, you are an A+ U.S. women’s fan, and – if I could – I’d send you on a plane to Germany and get you tickets.
Dawn Scott is the fitness coach for the U.S., and in a tournament full of cramping and other fatigue issues at the end of matches, the States showed none of it today. In fact, I can’t remember a single cramp.
Now, it was a little cooler in Dresden, and the U.S. kicked off a little later in the day, but it was still warmer than ideal, certainly.
Scott was hired last year, ironically from England, where she worked with Hope Powell for almost a decade.
Why ironic? Because England was one of the teams most affected by the conditions on Monday, completely wilting at the end of their match against Mexico. Appears to be a fantastic signing for U.S. soccer. Yea, Sunil Gulati.

4) Amy LePeilbet may need more help at left back

Sundhage knows that LePeilbet is slightly out of position, but it was exposed far too often in the first half by 16-year-old Su Gyong Kim down the North Korean right. A lot of coaches, especially with the game still scoreless would have pulled LePeilbet for Stephanie Cox, but Sundhage stuck to her guns and was rewarded, North Korea wasn’t nearly as dangerous in the second half.
In fact, LePeilbet got forward much more in the second half – more than I’ve ever seen her. Was that the tactical adjustment? Going forward, Sweden attacked mostly down the left through Therese Sjogran and Sara Thunebro today, and Colombia’s most dangerous player – Carmen Rodallega – was also on the left, so maybe that will help, at least through the group stages.

5) Carli Lloyd played well in a big spot

Lloyd had the secondary assist on the first goal, but – more importantly – had the engine to match North Korea and was still going strong at the end (I guess Scott gets a little credit for that, too, Lloyd looks as fit as she’s ever been in her career). She won plenty of balls and was a dominant force in the middle.
North Korea did, however, get a few shots in the middle of the field, and that’s the concern with a “flat” 4-4-2, we’ll see if it will get exposed by other opponents.

6) It’s OK to go direct sometimes

Some of the Twitter chatter at halftime was about how many teams are better technically than the U.S., and how embarrassing that is for U.S. soccer. I don’t disagree completely with that sentiment, but now is not the time to worry about things like that.
Sundhage has Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney, and others, and I don’t mind using some direct play to go at some shaky defenses and goalkeepers.
That doesn’t mean just smacking the ball forward at every opportunity. Look at the first goal: Ali Kreiger had a little bit of a poor touch, but didn’t panic, laid it off to Christie Rampone, who hit Lloyd, and Lloyd delivered the long ball to Wambach. That works.

7) It would be shocking to see the U.S. not win the group now

More about Sweden-Colombia in a second, but Sweden had a chance to hang a few goals on what is sure to be the minnows of the group and didn’t do it, which should mean that the U.S. would have to lose to Sweden to not win Group C. I don’t see that happening. However, while that may help them avoid Brazil, Norway has been feisty of late as a potential quarterfinal opponent. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

8) Megan Rapinoe’s goal was correctly disallowed

FIFA’s Law 12, as it pertains to goalkeepers, states:
“A goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball: a) while the ball is between his (it says his, sorry) hands or between his hand and any surface (e.g. ground, own body); b) while holding the ball in his outstretched open hand; c) while in the act of bouncing it on the ground or tossing it into the air.
When a goalkeeper has gained possession of the ball with his hands, he cannot be challenged by an opponent.”
So the hand on the ball disallows the goal. It shouldn’t matter, I don’t see goal differential being an issue.

9) Sweden should have scored a few goals on Colombia today

I wasn’t impressed by Colombia today as I was with Mexico yesterday. Carmen Rodallega was pretty good on the ball, but Sweden – thanks to some dreadful finishing – really could have and should have had 4 or 5 goals by the end of the match. Colombia didn’t even look like they could get a goal kick further then 30 yards down the field (as Sweden took advantage of when it finally scored, it was a nice goal) and gave the ball away several times in their own end. I thought Colombia keeper Sandra Supulveda was decent, but Sweden barely even tested her. I think if the U.S. is a little more clinical, they can hang a crooked number and advance with ease on Saturday.

10) Where was Yoreli Rincon?

I hate to break it to Ricardo Rozo and young Yoreli, but you’re not going to replace Marta as Player of the Year from a holding midfield role. At least, you’re not going to replace her as a holding midfielder who has as little impact on the game as she did today. Rincon’s touches were decent, but she didn’t do anything to really make you notice her, which is a little bit of a shame after the hype she was given. We’ll see what happens against the United States.

Bonus:

Was Colombia talking trash in the pregame tunnel?

I probably wouldn’t try that on Saturday. Just saying.

USA 2, North Korea 0: A Brand New Vintage USWNT

The following is an exchange a friend and I had during the opening minutes of the U.S./Japan game in Columbus back in May. He’s a big MLS and USMNT fan, but this was his first time watching the USWNT play.

 

*Japan begins pressuring immediately. The U.S. get dispossessed twice in a span of 15 seconds*

Him: What the hell?

Me: I know.

*By his tally, Japan has completed seven consecutive passes. The U.S. has completed two*

Him: Do they always play like this?

Me: Sometimes.

*Japan rips through central midfield and puts a shot on frame*

Him: Why?

*Seven minutes have elapsed. Japan continues to press through the center*

Me: I don’t know. We just have to hope they don’t concede early. They get rattled by things very easily.

Him: Like starting 0-0?

 

And such was the case today. The first half went from bad to worse. As North Korea tightened its grip on the midfield, the U.S. became increasingly disoriented. Save for three shots driven directly into the North Korean goalkeeper by surprise starter Lauren Cheney, the U.S.’ attack looked toothless. Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez struggled to receive balls through a swarm of North Korean defenders.

The tension was real, and you could see it in the players’ body language. Maybe it the overpowering sense of the Rudolf-Harbig Stadium’s eerie history. Or the fact that many of them were playing in THE WORLD CUP for the first time.

North Korea’s technical quality shone through as the team passed circles around Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx before releasing perfectly placed balls to players that had timed their runs to a mechanized perfection.

And then there was the U.S. defense. It began to buckle, then break down. North Korea continued to make headway down the left flank. The back four truly lost its poise as it began getting shredded by incisive runs and cutting crosses.

The halftime whistle blew and the U.S. retreated to the locker room having conceded some of its confidence, but – fortunately – no goals.

This was the same USWNT, wasn’t it? The same disorganized USWNT devoid of cohesion or creativity. The same tactically confused USWNT. The central midfield problems remained, as did the gaping seam on the left side.

World Cup jitters seemed to be the general consensus both on Twitter and television. 45 minutes left. Not time to panic. They’re no. 1 in the world, after all. They just have to calm down, be patient, and regain their composure. They can do it.

And did they ever. Sundhage made no substitutions and the tactics remained the same.

Only this time Abby Wambach evaded much of the pressure by drifting to the flanks. Lauren Cheney doubled back in defense in an effort to help out a besieged Amy LePeilbet. Carli Lloyd pressed higher up the field, took her time, and worked the passing channels more effectively. The U.S. back four clicked back into form and defended as a unit.

And in the 65th minute, the U.S.’ improved build-up play paid off as Abby Wambach served in a cross to Lauren Cheney’s head in what seemed like a reverse of initial plans. Cheney connected and drove the ball into the top right corner.

1-0 USA.

The extra surge in confidence helped the U.S. to its most complete second half performance in recent memory. The joy (the relief!) was apparent in the team’s play. And it was certainly apparent in the team celebration after Rachel Buehler thumped in the team’s second goal. 2-0 USA.

Megan Rapinoe’s late goal (3-0 USA) was waved off, but it had little consequence.

The game was won, the U.S. had three points in the bag. So much for the anxiety and sloppiness that had marred the first half. So much for the insipid performances that had provoked so much criticism (and slight disillusionment) throughout the U.S.’ journey to the World Cup.

Like the commercial says, history doesn’t determine results.

Although the U.S. lacks the precision and the technical quality that have been showcased throughout the tournament, today’s second half performance proved the team will be able to contend for the world title. That is, so long as the team stays true to the principal virtues that remain at the core of the program: brute force, athleticism, fitness, individual talent, and mental strength. That last item in particular.

Innovative tactics and faultless organization just aren’t in this team’s DNA (although Sundhage deserves loads of credit for seeing that Cheney can do serious damage on the left from the start. Boy, did that work.) But if they show can the same unbreakable will - and physical stamina - they did this afternoon, it’ll be O.K.

It’s good to see there’s still plenty of reason to believe in the U.S. Mostly because the U.S. still believes in themselves. And each other.

A Few More Notes from the Second Day of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup

New Zealand simply couldn’t go the full distance.

Last night Ray Curren pointed out the fact that Canada’s performance on Sunday would have made Blackpool manager Ian Holloway proud. And another dubious EPL comparison: did anyone catch New Zealand coach John Herdman tip his hat to Stoke City boss Tony Pulis post match? Herdman’s direct tactics were effective up to a point, but just as the midday sun began to scorch and Japan’s quality began to show, New Zealand hit a brick wall. Lack of full match fitness isn’t something that can be remedied by the time group play concludes. Perhaps Herdman will try a more aggressive approach against England on Friday and use the team’s height advantage bombard England’s wary center-back pairing with an early aerial assault.

At the risk of sounding horribly patronizing, New Zealand did well before their legs gave out. They even managed to score – something that hasn’t been done in a World Cup since November 21, 1991.

 

Japan are prepared, but not 100% precise.

Thanks to Aya Miyama’s peach of a free kick, Japan’s lack of finishing didn’t come back to bite them. It could become an issue though, as squandered several chances and Yuki Nagasota couldn’t get her shots on target after the first goal. Mana Iwabuchi had a dynamic cameo appearance in the second half, and injected life into the side. The precocious talent was the victim of poor first touches, heavily weighted balls, and wayward shots, however. Blame it on overexcitement maybe. On the other hand, Japan’s threat on set pieces was patently obvious. In dead ball situations, Japan’s preparedness resulted in the desired result and all three points.

 

Mexico doesn’t have to be in Cancun to be in control.

So the 4-5-1 formation Leo Cuellar used against the U.S. was a ruse. Well, kind of. Cuellar still used a five-woman midfield but in a hybrid 4-5-1/4-3-3 system with wingers. Mexico waited out England and began slowly throwing more numbers in the attack as the match wore on. Cuellar’s side kept countering and pressing until – boom – Monica Ocampo converted the long-range screamer [goal of the tournament]. From there, Mexico kept showing the swagger it used to befuddle the U.S. last November. Nayeli Rangel and Stephany Mayor ran England’s back four ragged. The team began to play with a higher line as well, and felt confident enough to initiate the attack from the back line, rather than only through counters. Mexico showed no signs of fatigue and England couldn’t turn the tide. The playacting got a little tiresome though.

 

England couldn’t adapt.

Hope Powell’s formation left little space in behind midfield. Mexico responded by parking the bus. Cuellar’s team conceded possession in midfield and opted to bunker in behind the ball and pack the defense. Cuellar’s tactics worked: England couldn’t make any headway in the final third and grew frustrated. Neither Kelly Smith – who did her best up to the 70th minute – in the center nor Karen Carney on the flank could sneak a ball into the center of England’s final third. When England managed to break through in the beginning of the second half, Eniola Aluko squandered the opportunities. England had no alternative. Carney was bizarrely pulled for Ellen White but by then, Mexico had all the momentum.

 

Amazing goal:

[vsw id="Nqijz_dRO5E" source="youtube" width="500" height="450" autoplay="no"] 

 

A few more notes:

Continue reading

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 2

The “group of life” took center stage today, but anyone who thought Japan was a little bit of a soft No. 4 in the world may think differently after they handled New Zealand much easier than the final 2-1 tally would indicate.

Meanwhile, England looked like they were well on their way to doing the same until a 40-yard dancing missile out of nowhere from Mexico’s Monica Ocampo shook them so much they never really recovered. You’d still consider them favorites to go through, but finishing second in Group B will likely get you a date with Germany in the quarterfinals, and then likely get you on the next plane home.

So what happened? I’ll try to tell you in the 10 things we learned in Day 2 of Germany 2011.

1) The weather (and fitness) will be a factor for some

New Zealand had a pretty good gameplan to pressure Japan into mistakes and try to take advantage of their lack of size at the other end. Through most of the first half, despite conceding, it worked pretty well, they went into halftime 1-1.
But on a very warm day, New Zealand just couldn’t keep it up. Betsy Hassett and Katie Hoyle slowed down significantly in the center of midfield, players started cramping up, pressure was non-existent, and tackles were lazy, including the one Rebecca Smith put on Mana Iwabuchi, which eventually led to the winning goal. New Zealand never did get a shot on goal in the second half, and obviously never threatened.
You could argue the same for England, they seemed to run out of gas in the final 30 minutes, not as creative, not as fluid, and it nearly allowed the Mexicans to steal the game. Add the fact that teams will be playing a lot of games in a short period of time, too.

2) You can add Mana Iwabuchi to the list of youngsters to keep an eye on

Some of it is what you just read in No. 1, New Zealand was very tired in the second half, but if Japan was gaining momentum already, Iwabuchi put them over the edge, running at the Kiwis at will. She came on relatively early for Shinobi Ohno (55th minute), so you wonder if Norio Sasaki thinks about starting her, but probably not for now.

3) You can talk about a lot of things, but sometimes quality just shines through

Yes, it came from a New Zealand giveaway, but if you get a chance, look at the pass from Ohno that set up the first Japanese goal in the 6th minute. Ridiculous. And it wasn’t an easy finish for Yuki Nagasato, either. Brilliant goal, men, women, or martian. And Aya Miyama’s winning free kick goal was also pure class. Class that New Zealand just doesn’t have, unfortunately.

4) It’s going to be tough to outprepare Japan

Did you notice that Japan seemed to be putting all of their corner kicks toward the same long spot, even though they had a significant height disadvantage? It wasn’t an accident, New Zealand had obviously been scouted zonal marking and left the spot 12 yards high on the far side open. Japan hit that spot, put it back into the mixer and nearly got a couple of goals.
To a lesser extent, Japan also tried to take advantage of New Zealand “squeezing” them to one side of the field, preventing them from switching, but they couldn’t exploit it too often (they did once when Mizuho Sakaguchi should have scored in the 18th minute, but hit the post).

5) Japan may struggle with Mexico, too, though

New Zealand’s goal came because Japan was caught pretty high up the field and right back Yukari Kinga couldn’t get anywhere near Amber Hearn, while goalkeeper Ayuma Kihari was a little lost, resulting in a pretty easy finish. Mexico won’t have the height, but they will have the counterattacking ability to possibly take advantage, although they probably won’t wilt like England, either. OK, maybe they won’t struggle.

6) Speaking of goalkeepers, Mexico’s Cici Santiago was the best of the four today

She really doesn’t look all that intimidating, but she makes the saves she’s supposed to make, and doesn’t do anything stupid. There’s something to be said for simplicity. She didn’t get scored on from 40 yards out like her counterpart Karen Bardsley, for sure.

7) Hope Powell’s substitution pattern left plenty to be desired

How Eni Aluko goes 90 minutes in that game is beyond me. First, she was struggling phyiscally from about the 60 minute-mark onward, and I thought she might come off with an injury. Second, she was ineffective, missing a couple of chances and giving the ball away on a few other occasions after a decent start.
Add to that the weather, and the fact that Powell didn’t use her second sub until the 83rd minute and never did use her third with her team in dire need of energy from somewhere. Surely, there was someone on that bench who could have done something. Ellen White had an impact in her 18 minutes of work, but probably should have been called on earlier.

8) The women’s game is officiated a little differently

In the 57th minute, Jill Scott was cleaned out with a late, studs pretty far up challenge by Mexico’s Stephany Mayor. The referee (Silvia Reyes of Peru) never did give a card to Mayor, and Kate Markgraf thought it was a “fair challenge”. If that were MLS, people would be screaming for a suspension.

9) Mexico’s Leonardo Cuellar doesn’t share the “defending through attacking” philosophy of CONCACAF rival Carolina Morace, but it worked nonetheless

The 4-1-4-1 Mexico put out today started out by giving England a ton of space, but Maribel Dominguez ran until she couldn’t run anymore, Mexico had enough players behind the ball, and was able to steal a goal at just the right time, because if they had to come out and play down 1-0, they might have been picked apart.
In the second half, Cuellar and Mexico took advantage of a tiring England and pushed higher up the field, which is why they not only had more of the game, but prevented England from coming at them in waves as well. Good tactical game from Cuellar, he certainly won that battle.

10) The United States has to feel a little better about themselves

Well, except for the England part, I guess. But they did handle Japan pretty well in friendlies and despite a 1-0 scoreline, completely played Mexico off the field. Japan was very good today and Mexico was obviously no slouch, either, meaning the U.S. should be pretty confident heading into a game against North Korea, although I don’t know how confident you can ever be about playing North Korea.

BONUS:

I wish Alina Garciamendez was American

Wait, she is? Someone alert US Soccer, quick.