Monthly Archives: April 2012

2011-12 UEFA Women’s Champions League Semi-final Pt. 1: Changing of the Guard

Olympique Lyonnais probably didn’t need any help from Mother Nature in its bid to reach a third straight UEFA Women’s Champions League final. Still, it didn’t hurt. Lyon on Sunday collected a comprehensive 5-1 win over Turbine Potsdam at the famed Stade de Gerland. Lyon’s tournament rivals were simply swept away in the ensuing deluge.

Patrice Lair’s scintillating side handed Turbine Potsdam its heaviest defeat in tournament history. Lyon were utterly unstoppable on the night. The German powerhouses stumbled through a hellish opening 21 minutes and never recovered. Amandine Henry’s stunning sixth minute strike (.GIF) sailed past Alyssa Naeher and set the tone for the rest of the match. A picture-perfect Camille Abily free-kick and trademark Lotta Schelin strike followed soon after.

The rain-soaked pitch contributed to Turbine Potsdam’s concession of the battle in midfield. The sudden three-goal deficit saw them lose the battle of the mind.

The team’s disjointed attack only mustered three measly shots on goals. Lyon, meanwhile, produced 15. True to the hosts’ cool, calculating style, every third attempt resulted in a goal.

Possession was slightly more equitable in the second half, but Lyon refused to let up. Lara Dickenmann’s weaving run culminated in Lyon’s fourth goal of the night. They capped off the win in the 61st minute as Abily connected with Schelin for her second.

It was as if the driving rain played directly into Lyon’s hands. It did nothing to disrupt their oft-breathtaking style of play. The wet conditions even appeared to up the tempo of Lyon’s attacks. Each Lyon player seemingly had a telepathic understanding of teammates’ movements and whereabouts.  Turbine Potsdam were ultimately powerless to stop Lyon’s silk-smooth passing and, ahem, fluid movement.

Bianca Schmidt’s late header may have given Turbine Potsdam a tenuous life-line. The side hasn’t lost a Champions League match at home since 2006. They must now overcome the daunting first leg scoreline and the psychological bruising. Both could be insurmountable.

Lyon have markedly strengthened since losing the 2010 UEFA Women’s Champions League final to the Germans in penalty kicks. The tournament may only crown the best club team in Europe, but if Lyon perform like this in the final in Munich, a grander title is deserved. This is women’s football in its most highly evolved state.

 

Olympique Lyonnais may have just dashed hopes of an all-German final, but Frankfurt can at least still claim legitimate eligibility. The competition’s only three-time winners pulled out a 2-1 away victory against Arsenal. It was dramatic in a very familiar sense.

Frankfurt advanced to the semi-finals on the back of an immensely suspenseful quarter-final second leg match against Malmo. They overturned a 1-0 aggregate deficit thanks to Silvana Chojnowski, who struck the vital equalizer in her debut appearance for the side. A Kerstin Garefrekes brace put the tie on ice.

The recently retired German international came through in emphatic fashion once more.

Ane-Marie Crnogorcevic broke the extended deadlock after 64 minutes. Arsenal offered a speedy retort just five minutes later as defender Ciara Grant bested goalkeeper Desiree Schumann. A 1-1 draw seemed inevitable until Garefrekes powered Frankfurt to victory with mere seconds to spare.

The last-minute triumph was the latest peak in a thoroughly topsy-turvy season for Frankfurt and manager Sven Kahlert. The side – along with its attack – has frequently misfired this year. Frustration has stemmed from injuries to key figures, discontented players, maddeningly inconsistent form, and occasionally incomprehensible tactics.

Five straight wins suggests Kalhert’s team has finally turned the corner, however. It comes at the timeliest juncture of the season. Frankfurt currently lie fourth in the Frauen-Bundesliga, but are just three points adrift of a Champions League spot. A date in the DFB-Pokal Cup final has also lifted spirits.

A victory over Arsenal in the return leg will likely qualify the season as a success. And if history counts for anything (re-branding aside), this is the competition the club knows best.

For U.S., The Kirin Cup is Half-Full

Carli Lloyd gets a fair amount of flak from women’s soccer’s talking heads for alleged inconsistent play, but you have to hand it to her–her knack for coming through out of nowhere is beyond question. Perched in a darkened Tokyo internet cafe hacking out a post on the USWNT’s latest encounter with the Nadeshiko, I was blissfully oblivious of the oncoming typhoon until I meandered over to Twitter and spotted Lloyd’s tweet about the game schedule being “tweaked” to a 4 p.m. kickoff. To make a long, waterlogged story short, a fifty minute trip from Ueno to Chiba City turned into a three hour slog as Tokyo’s labyrinthine transit system came to a skidding halt. Stepping up to the gate at Fukuda Denshi Arena just as the FIFA Anthem began to blare over the PA system and glancing into the almost deserted stadium,  it was apparent that Lloyd, once again, had played the unexpected hero. So even though Lloyd had a very solid outing against the Brazilians, I need to say up front that I just can’t bring myself to nitpick anything about her performance after that close call. Not after seeing the faces of fans who arrived at 6 p.m. to find an open gate and an empty field.

Thankfully, however, the drama of getting to the match turned out to portend little about Tuesday’s one-sided affair. As if determined to ward off drama early on, the same starting eleven from the game against Japan took the rainy pitch for the opening whistle (despite Pia Sundhage’s earlier suggestion to the contrary), and quickly went to work. Jorge Barcellos’ back line surely realized that they were in for another long afternoon when Abby Wambach dribbled her way out of trouble and sent a left-footed blast off the crossbar. The tone of the match quickly deteriorated from there, with the Brazilians racking up fouls left and right–17 free kicks in total–as they tried to muscle their opponents off the ball. Wambach appeared to be the primary target, taking some audible hits before even being able to touch an incoming pass.

The Canarinhas seemed unable to establish much of a rhythm from this strategy, and indeed it was a free kick from off a foul at the top of their defensive third that helped broke the deadlock in the 18th minute. Carli Lloyd came up big for the second time on the afternoon, driving home Buehler’s redirection of into a gaping net. And after Alex Morgan was sent sprawling on the right flank five minutes later, Shannon Boxx headed Cheney’s pseudo-corner home under Barbara’s gloves to put the U.S. in command.

Brazil also couldn’t catch a break on two glorious chances in the following minutes. In the 28th minute, Rosana found herself mere yards from goal with the ball at her feet after a long ball into the box ricocheted between her own forehead and that of Amy LePeilbet. But tangled up with LePeilbet, and with Buehler closing in, Rosana sent it a wide of the far post. Brazil came agonizingly close to salvaging the momentum seconds later when Cristiane bounced Formiga’s cross past Solo, but the goal was called back for having crossed the end-line in midair (although the replay had no good angle to confirm this). While Rosana again had a chance at the far post just before the halftime whistle, it was the U.S. that was unable to capitalize on the the best chance of the half, as a sublime Wambach pass threaded two defenders to find Heather O’Reilly charging alone into the box, only for Barbara to stuff the chance at point-blank range.

As the wind began to swirl through the arena in the second half, the U.S. offense seemed to hit a higher gear. In the 67th minute, Morgan headed in perhaps the most elegant goal of the evening off a swooping Stephanie Cox service, only to be the victim of an utterly mystifying offside call. Even though Amy Rodriguez would capitalize ten minutes from time on box chaos after yet another free kick to put the game on ice, the Kirin Cup was probably lost right there (not that the team stuck around in hopes of collecting it).

Drawing lessons from this match for either team is a difficult proposition in the absence of Marta. To state the obvious, no game plan is the same when you have to account for her spontaneity. For Barcellos’ part, his side showed that it has the ability to get some consistent service into the box–provided it can maintain possession long enough to get there. That’s a start, but it’s an open question what can be done with it if Marta isn’t there to take care of business. With the exception of Cristiane, no one else in a yellow shirt showed the patience or presence of mind to be truly deadly in front of goal. But Brazil has come close to the top of the podium several times with less to go on than that.

Far more worrying for the man in charge must be his back line’s continued struggle to communicate about much of anything. The only thing funnier than watching Wambach’s backwards header go wide was the fact that she and three teammates were onside and all alone behind a scrum of Brazilians. Even though all of the U.S.’s goals came off set pieces, their opponents seemed disorganized all evening, allowing them to move the ball toward goal with relative impunity. Aline and company’s approach seemed to rest on scrappy, one-on-one defending, and it’s tempting to dream about the scoreline had the Americans been just a little quicker to get offload the ball in those situations. For that matter, these back four also lack the speed to recover if beat. Aline could well have seen red for her takedown of Amy Rodriguez (which set up the final goal, in any case), as she was arguably the last defender between her and a straight shot at goal. Time together as a team–should their federation find some money between the sofa cushions to make that happen–will help, but the shocking errors continue to pile up with only a few months remaining until showtime.

If it’s any consolation, however, Pia Sundhage might have similar, though far less severe, worries–if, y’know, she were the sort to worry–about the defending she’s seen in this tournament. Botched clearances, in particular, continue to be a worrying trend despite the team having received the harshest possible lesson on the subject last July. Loose balls are either left to bounce around for far too long, or they’re cleared short and into the wrong hands. Though Brazil didn’t have the personnel to really take advantage of it today, the Nadeshiko do, and Marta will not be so imprecise if the ball comes her way.

Kelley O’Hara’s positioning also raises one’s blood pressure at times–she ‘s often too far upfield from trouble, and was caught too far left to bail Solo out under pressure, leading to a somewhat dangerous Formiga pick in the backfield. That said, O’Hara’s development as a left back has been accelerating quickly. Her speed masks the occasional positioning mistake well, and she shows flashes of the playmaking instinct that won her the job in the first place. Her frequent forays beyond the center line are well spent lifting a bit of the distribution burden from Cheney. Another question mark is Amy LePeilbet. Long one of the team’s best one-on-one defenders, she looks far more comfortable filling in for Ali Krieger than she ever did on the left side, and is more of a presence in the attack than we’ve seen before. Sundhage’s system relies on her doing just that, but she’s still vulnerable in a footrace, and is slow to gain control or clear the ball in a scramble. She also took down Rosana in a way that was almost reminiscent of the penalty against Sweden in the WWC. A penalty would have been quite a harsh call, but against a team known for its theatrics it would still be best avoided come London. Still, she’s the best option in Krieger’s absence, and her starting spot seems justifiably secure. Cox and Mitts acquitted themselves well, but it’s hard to imagine someone with LePellbet’s experience and developed chemistry with the rest of the line being benched in favor of one of them.

The U.S. was also able to exploit Brazil’s defensive weaknesses with its inconsistent possession game, even if they couldn’t get on the score sheet as a result. While it’s always nice to have Alex Morgan ready to split defenses on a long ball, Sundhage can hope that the patience showed in the offensive third today is a good omen. Wambach’s awareness in linking up with O’Reilly on that almost-goal is exactly that will be required this summer. And the fact of Alex Morgan was (however unjustly) not among the day’s goal scorers can only be seen as a positive step toward the versatility and depth that defines a championship caliber squad. Both have always been present, it’s just a matter of fitting the pieces together in a way that maximizes the creative possibilities. There’s much work to be done, and it’s questionable whether China or Canada can expose any more serious flaws with sufficient time to fix them. Nonetheless, we saw this team find another way to win on Tuesday–and you can never have too many of those.

Marginalia:

  • One fantastic benefit of watching a match in a nearly empty stadium was being able to hear everything being said on the field. It’s hard to grasp on TV just how communicative the players are with each other. Virtually no player ever touches the ball without being immediately bombarded with instructions and announcements of open passing channels. Sorting through such a massive level of input is perhaps an unsung challenge of the game at this level. Fitting with their style, though, I observed that the Brazilian players talk to each a great deal less than their American counterparts.
  • Hot damn, Brazil does not like the USWNT. And while the U.S. players were more composed about it, the feeling seemed to be mutual.
  • Sundhage followed an increasingly predictable pattern of putting Tobin Heath and Amy Rodriguez in during the second half, although Rapinoe’s appearance was a nice surprise after her conspicuous absence against Japan. What’s a shame is that none of these players have the opportunity to share the field with Heather O’Reilly. She continues to be a terror down the right flank, and the well-matched partnership between her and LePeilbet continues to evolve with great results. Rodriguez and Rapinoe each bring a great deal to the table, but neither truly replaces the opportunistic positioning and playmaking ability of O’Reilly. In the last two matches against Japan and again in this one, the well of opportunity on the right side seemed to dry up a bit in her absence.
  • The only field player besides Megan Klingenberg who didn’t get minutes this tournament was Lori Lindsey. Given her impressive, albeit unsuccessful, outing in the Algarve Cup against Japan, that’s regrettable. One hopes that at age 32, she’s got enough in her to stick around and compete for Shannon Boxx’s presumably vacant starting spot after the Olympics. More in an upcoming post about what to make of Sundhage’s lineup dilemma without only a few matches left before London.
  • A little known fact about Japan’s famously homogenous demography is that Brazilians and those of Brazilian ancestry make up one of the largest minority populations in the country. That was on full display in Chiba, as a large contingent of fans egged on the Canarinhas in Portuguese. Given that only 502 fans came out, they made their presence known. Though I noticed, walking back toward the train station after the match, that there was a Brazilian restaurant not twenty yards from stadium. The sign indicated they’d closed shop early due to “inclement weather”, which will now be my new euphemism for playing hooky to watch soccer.
  • The ten or so U.S. supporters who heard about the kickoff change in time went for quality over quantity, Hauling out the flags (mine was purchased in Ameyokocho Market on my way to the station), and keeping a constant stream of chants up throughout the match. Congregating in the front row, their efforts did not go unnoticed by the players. Shannon Boxx came over for a wave during a warm-up jog to start the second half, while Solo, Heath, and Lloyd did the same after the match before quickly getting of the downpour.
  • Just as we were ready to head out, Megan Rapinoe sauntered over to the stands in a down jacket. Without saying a word, she extracted her game-worn jersey from inside, proceeded to wipe the sweat off her face with it, and tossed it to this lucky gal before jogging back toward the tunnel:

  • The fans who waited by the bus were also rewarded with U.S. Soccer pennants (those exchanged by players before matches), water bottles, an appearance by Heather O’Reilly, Amy Rodriguez, and Tobin Heath, and the equipment manager tossing a pair of used cleats to the guy standing next to me. Their former owner remains a mystery (White, blue-spiked Adidas Predators? Anyone?)

In Sendai, A Revolution–of some sort–Is Televised

Japan has this eerily consistent habit of making observers feel as though they’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in, if not Wonderland, then at least a pretty good knock-off of it. To American eyes, accustomed as they are to unforeseen snafus and unmet expectations, everything in Japan just seems to work. Consider: everything–for better or for worse–occurs exactly on time; lost wallets get returned untouched nine times out of ten; convenience stores not only sell food you’d actually want to ingest, but just about anything else you could conceivably want; and no matter where you go, there are friendly, vocal, vending machines to offer you hot coffee in a can. Any long term resident can tell you that the feeling fades as you discover the maddening inconsistencies and staunch resistance to change that hamstring this society in more than a few places. But even then, Japan keeps coming up with new ways to keep your jaw scraping asphalt.

As the daylight faded over Sendai this past Sunday, Yurtec Stadium  served up a doozy for followers of the women’s game. We know, by now, that captivating World Cups can give us a dream summer. But a scene like this, in 46 degree weather on a Sunday night, for a glorified friendly?

Photographers Perched at the Tunnel

This is to say nothing of the journalists encircling the pitch, the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces marching band warming up near the bench, or the souvenir stands emptied of the newly-released Nadeshiko Japan scarves by half-time. The fitting cap on the evening, of course, were the over 15,000 spectators–many of whom had begun lining up hours before the gates even opened–singing, screaming, and chanting “Mi-Ya-Ma, Mi-Ya-Ma” before each corner. In fact, save for a complete sell-out and Dan Borislow being shipped over freight class to take a Miyama free kick to the groin, few dreams weren’t at least fleetingly glimpsed on Sunday.

Maybe it’s only mildly surprising that the Nadeshiko’s first domestic match in ten months would be on such a grand stage. Since Frankfurt, Sawa and her teammates have become permanent fixtures on those fabled, diabolical Japanese game shows, graced convenience stores nation-wide with their endorsement of prepackaged deli foods, and hosted numerous clinics for displaced kids throughout the quake-stricken Tohoku area. Rural newspapers now have a small column devoted to covering Nadeshiko League results, and Miyama’s smiling face is sometimes the one to inform you “You’re Watching NHK” before the nightly news.  The Nadeshiko’s stature here is currently pegged at “Rock Star”, and the team is getting the treatment fans have long felt their own country’s stars deserve. Yet again, and in a manner few countries can manage, things in Japan seem to work exactly the way they should.

It’s easy to fantasize that if Rachel Buehler’s foot had extended just a few inches further, or Shannon Boxx had sent her spot kick a few degrees more toward the post, the above photograph could have been taken in Seattle rather than Sendai. After all, we’ve assumed the existence of a magic, missing ingredient for so long that the World Cup naturally becomes the “what-if” of the moment. But if Japan is women’s soccer’s soup du jour, its secret sauce may not be easily copied.

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Algarve Cup Flashback

I was going through my photos from Portugal when I realized I had a whole bunch of soccer-related photos that I hadn’t shared, many of which I thought would be of interest to readers of this blog. So I went and put all of them online – you can find them here.

And if you want to see a selection of photos from my trip in general (not just the soccer stuff), you can go here.

Split Decision In Sendai: Japan 1, USWNT 1

*Spoiler alert for those deterred by the 6:30 A.M. ET kick-off time*

 

The USWNT earned a 1-1 draw against Japan in the first match of the inaugural Kirin Challenge Cup.  It was the latest episode in the burgeoning rivalry between the sides. Japan reigned victorious in the sides’ two most recent meetings.

Unlike the World Cup final and the Algarve Cup semifinal, Japan did not easily cede possession to the U.S. The hosts took the initiative from the get-go. They controlled the tempo of the match by bossing the center of midfield, this despite the absence of Homare Sawa. As a result, outside midfielders Lauren Cheney and Heather O’Reilly were largely marginalized figures. Central players Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, and Shannon Boxx struggled to maintain possession, thus starving lone striker Alex Morgan of much service.

The U.S. defense came under pressure early. The back four did well to read and deal with incoming passes. Clearances were another issue, though. A failed clearance resulted in Japan’s first goal. Yukari Kinga exploited the mass confusion in the box and tucked away the first goal of the match.

Per usual, the U.S. looked slightly sharper in the second half. Also per usual, Alex Morgan (because who else, really?) came through with the game-tying goal in the 73rd minute. The goal was initially called back for offside but was eventually validated after the match official counseled with the assistant referee.

The U.S. has traditionally dominated the series against Japan and went into the World Cup final with a record of 22 wins and three draws. The USWNT has failed to beat the Nadeshiko since. The hoodoo has seemingly been reversed.

 

More notes:

-  Kelley O’Hara is steadily improving. At first it was hard to make sense of her switch from outside attacker to left-back. O’Hara looked more comfortable in her position today, showcasing the characteristics that help define her: tenacity and speed. She’s in for a bit more refinement, but has been making steady progress.

 

- Alex Morgan’s numbers are staggering. She’s now scored 12 goals in 2012 alone, two more than she did in 2011 and 2010 combined. She’s also scored 10 of the U.S.’s last 18 goals. Not quite Celia da Mbabi Okoyino numbers (who has scored 10 goals in her last three appearances for Germany), but still quite impressive.  Today’s goal brings her up to 19th on the all-time USWNT list, tying her with Shannon Boxx on 22 total.

 

-  Speaking of Boxx, at half-time ESPN broadcast a piece about the midfielders’ struggles with lupus. Much respect to Boxx for sharing her story and refusing to let the energy-sapping condition slow her down.

 

-  The atmosphere looked fantastic on television with the constant drumming and chanting. Fans apparently showed up in costume hours before kick-off. It was a rather chilly night in Sendai (the official match report has it at 46 degrees), but that didn’t prevent the 15,159 frenzied spectators from making their presence known.

 

-  So this was the first match of the first edition of a women’s soccer tournament in Japan and it occurred at a rather unsociable hour for American viewers. None of that seemed to matter to ESPN, who pulled out all the stops with Julie Foudy and Adrian Healey on the call and Tony DiCicco in studio, who managed to sneak in a blurb about WPS’s demise whilst on the topic of Shannon Boxx.

Twitter was also abuzz with devoted USWNT fans who obviously paid no mind to the pre-dawn hour. It was probably the same during the 2007 Women’s World Cup, but it’s hard to imagine it was as much fun in a Twitter-less world.

 

Let’s do it all again on Tuesday when the U.S. take on Brazil. More exclusive coverage of this game to come.