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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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Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 6

You may have noticed that I picked France to go to the finals of the World Cup. Based primarily on Lyon’s Champions League run and the camaraderie (and skill on the ball) they have, that one seems like a fantastic pick, and makes me feel like I know what I’m talking about.

Hopefully you didn’t notice that I picked Japan to bow out of the World Cup a the group stage, primarily due to a lack of finishing ability and a lack of size in a group that included a couple of physical teams in New Zealand and England. That pick? Well, most certainly I look like an idiot and makes me feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

I’m sure the truth is somewhere in the middle.

And so we trudge on, here are the 10 things we learned in Day 6 of Germany 2011:

1) Don’t foul Japan anywhere near your final third

On the surface, Japan – and their lack of height – would not be a dangerous team on set pieces. But Aya Miyama’s service has been more than excellent, it’s been nearly perfect, resulting directly in three goals in Japan’s first two games.
Someone brought up the fact that the men’s team was also pretty good on set pieces, and – to me, at least – it’s just a matter of having a person who can serve the ball well, for the Japan men it was Keisuke Honda, who continues to star in the Russian League with CSKA Moscow.

2) The last day of group action may not be terribly exciting

It’s possible that Mexico could beat New Zealand, but to make up the goal differential deficit they currently face is asking a bit too much, methinks.
So, basically, we have four teams already in the quarterfinals: Germany, France, Japan, and England. If the United States beats Colombia as expected and Sweden can top North Korea, those two teams will have qualified as well, which leaves Group D where Norway and Australia don’t meet until the third game, which may give us the only drama, at least as who will qualify.
There is still seeding to worry about.

3) Japan’s fourth goal should be shown at clinics everywhere

It gets a little bit of an asterisk because Mexico was chasing the game and was pretty tired by the 80th minute, but a 14-pass sequence that was primarily one and two touch and covering almost the entire field, finished off by an overlapping right back (Yukari Kinga), a dummy front-post run (Yuki Nagasato), and cut back pass to Homare Sawa for the nice finish?
Brilliant. Sadly, I forgot and erased the game off my DVR as soon as the match ended. D’oh.

4) Hat tricks are actually very rare at the Women’s World Cup

Sawa’s hat trick was only the 14th in World Cup history, with Norway’s Ragnhild Gulbrandsen getting the last one in 2007 against Ghana (in a 7-2 win) in the group stage.
The only other three hat tricks in 2007 all happened in the same game, as Germany throttled Argentina 11-0 behind three goals each from Birgit Prinz, Renate Lingor, and Sandra Smisek.
Japan actually had a hat trick in 2003 as well, Mio Otani came off the bench to also exploit Argentina 6-0 (in a game Sawa also had two goals.)
Amazingly, to find the last United States hat trick (and the only two in U.S. history) you have to go back to the first World Cup in 1991, in the semfinals, Carin Jennings (now a fine coach at Navy) did the trick in a 5-2 semifinal win over Germany. In the quarterfinal, Michelle Akers (who had a nice piece in Sports Illustrated this week) had five goals in a 7-0 win over Chinese Taipei. That’s it, just two.

5) Alina Garciamendez had a tough time dealing with Japan’s movement

Ironically, you may be able to point to this as a development problem for U.S. soccer. Garciamendez came up through U.S. youth clubs and played very well against England, but the movement and ability off the ball of the Japanese had her completely baffled.
Sadly, you just don’t see that kind of stuff at the college level (and Garciamendez is among the best at one of the best in Stanford), and maybe you should. So far we’ve seen it from France and Japan, certainly.

6) Jill Scott put England on her back

New Zealand accounted for Kelly Smith fairly well, and no matter who Hope Powell was trying on the outside, England wasn’t able to break through. But Jill Scott, whose build would seem better suited to a center back, took over the game, even before she got the equalizing goal. She was winning everything in the midfield, and that started to put a tiring New Zealand squad under more and more pressure.
Alex Scott’s cross in the 63rd minute was perfect, as was Jill’s header, and 20 minutes later, when New Zealand going for a winner, Jill Scott had the stamina to get into the box, and the composure to lay the ball off to substitute Jess Clarke for the winner. Women of the Match, for my money, fairly easily.

7) New Zealand gave it all they had

It wasn’t for a lack of trying that New Zealand didn’t pull this game out (and you could probably say the same for their first match), but the Ferns just didn’t quite have the skill to keep up: a few too many bad first touches and giveaways that eventually got them tired by chasing again. To their credit, they went for the winner when the game was tied, but it eventually cost them in the end.
But you can’t knock the effort and the energy they they showed, which was refreshing.

8) The referees are still letting them play

Christina Pedersen (Norway) and Therese Neguel (Cameroon) didn’t hand out a single yellow card, and seemed to let things go a lot more than you’d see in the average men’s game. It didn’t have as much of an effect as it did yesterday with Nigeria, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Also, through 12 games, there has yet to be a penalty kick awarded. Take it for what it’s worth.

9) England still has some holes, but don’t count them out

It’s easy to look at their first two performances and think that England will never beat Germany (or France), but their history in Euro 2009 in Finland is interesting.
England lost to Italy in their opener, got down to goals to Russia (neither of whom is even in the World Cup) before coming back in that game, sqeaking into the knockout stages and going all the way to the final before getting shellacked by Germany, 6-2. To be fair, their opponents in the quarterfinals (Finland) and semis (Netherlands, who beat France in the quarters on penalties) aren’t in the World Cup, either, but you never know.

10) Colombia may be falling apart a little bit

Word out of the Colombia camp is that Yoreli Rincon might not even start on Saturday, which is slightly shocking, but looking at Colombia’s remarkable run to the U-20 semifinals last year in Germany, Rincon had only one goal from the run of play in the tournament (in the quarterfinals against Sweden).
But if Rincon is on the bench, who do they have to replace her? If the U.S. an get an early goal or two, they may be able to put up a fairly big number and assure their advancement.

I also just wanted an excuse to get this good article from the New York Times in.

Bonus:

Culture difference

If you look at the Colombia-Nigeria semifinal game at the U-20 World Cup last year, as many as six Colombians who started that match will start for Colombia tomorrow (one of them being Rincon). Nigeria has a similar number.
But if you look at the U.S. roster, not a single one even made the final senior World Cup roster this. The only one playing in the World Cup? Teresa Noyola, who appeared for Mexico today.

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.

Predictions: It’s Germany’s Show, But Look Out For France And, Yes, “Underdog” U.S.

With the World Cup fast approaching (so close you can almost touch it), we’re happy to announce that Ray Curren has rented a room in AWK’s summer timeshare. You might be familiar with Ray’s previous work for World Soccer Reader and Set Piece Analysts. He’ll be providing updates for us throughout the tournament. Here he gives his tournament predictions:

 

I guess it’s in vogue to say that the United States women’s soccer team is down these days. Everyone has caught up and passed them, the youth system needs to be changed, just as on the men’s side, we can’t develop players.

But a closer look at the 2011 World Cup sees an obvious favorite in Germany, who will have the crowd on their side, and may very well expose all of the negative things said about the U.S. above.

Other than that, folks, though, I’m not so sure anyone is better than the States.

You can say Brazil, they did trash the U.S. four years ago 4-0 in perhaps the darkest day for U.S. women’s soccer, and Marta is still around to torture opponents, but one person does not a squad make, and the rest of the team may not be quite as good.

Despite close scorelines, Japan really wasn’t much of a match for the U.S. in preliminary games. Australia is extremely young and banged up. Norway doesn’t have the technical skill to keep up. Canada certainly knows the U.S., but they’re on the other side of the bracket.

Also on the other side is the potential breakout team of this World Cup in France, meaning the U.S. can’t meet them until the semifinals. Unfortunately, if both teams win their group, Germany and the United States will meet in the semis, and that could be bad news for the U.S. Or it could mean a return to glory.

But they do have to get out of their group first.

Here are my quick predictions:

GROUP A

Quick Preview (in order of predicted finish):

Despite being heavy favorites, Germany didn’t exactly get an easy group to navigate, starting with an opener against Canada on Sunday. But it’s a machine Silvia Neid has put together. Not only have they won back-to-back World Cups, but this team is probably better than either of those, with veterans Inka Grings and Birgit Prinz pushing along youngsters like Alexandra Popp. They shouldn’t be stopped, at least in the group stage.

Until I did some actual research, I was skeptical about France. Of course, usually when I do research on teams, it turns out to be false anyway, but we’ll see. Most of us know about Sonia Bompastor, but Marie-Laure Delie (21 goals in 20 caps) and some others may be more well-known in a couple of weeks. With the already mentioned failings of others, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see a France-Brazil semifinal, or France in the final?

Canada is on the upswing after the whole Carolina Morace fiasco was ironed out, and Canada did win the 2010 Gold Cup remember (after Mexico beat the U.S. in the semis). Christine Sinclair and youngster Jonelle Filigno will be worth watching, but I think the Canadians just got stuck in the wrong group.

Speaking of the wrong group, Nigeria is in big, big trouble here. They have some players that do play in Europe (mostly Sweden), and Ngozi Uche has apparently brought some organization on board, but an 8-0 throttling at the hands of Germany in a friendly doesn’t bode well. I’m mostly interested to see if Uche brings back the sweeper that was Nigeria’s signature in the last two World Cups. It should be noted that Nigeria only conceded four times in the 2007 World Cup, including a 1-0 loss to the U.S. in which Lori Chalupny (remember her?) scored seconds into the match, and the Americans never could build on it. It is hard to take Nigeria seriously when you see stuff like this, though.

Random fact:

Although Germany scored eight in a friendly against Nigeria, they’ll be hard pressed to score more than they did against Argentina in 2007 when they put 11 past Argentina in the tournament opener. Argentina gave up 18 in the tournament.

Player to watch:

Helen Ukaonu, Nigeria – It was Ukaonu’s sublime equalizer last summer that drew Nigeria level and eventually allowed them to upset the United States on penalties at the U-20 World Cup last summer. Perpetua Nkwocha, their best striker, and possibly the best name in the tournament, also needs to be watched.

Game to watch:

Canada vs. France, June 30 – This match should decide who goes through to the knockout stage, and France will likely enter as favorite, but Canada – as has been discussed – can be dangerous.

Likely end of the road:

Germany – Champions (over France)
France –  Finals (loss to Germany)
Canada – Group Stage
Nigeria – Group Stage

GROUP B

Quick Preview (in order of predicted finish):

Is it possible that England is playing too well coming into this tournament? Coming off wins over the United States and Sweden in friendlies, and stuck in – let’s face it – the easiest of the four groups, hopes are high for Kelly Smith and crew. But Hope Powell’s team is also prone to bad losses: a loss to Scotland in March, a loss to Italy to open Euro 2009 (they went on to the final). But if Fara Williams is healthy, she should be the difference.

Well, we need at least one off the radar pick, and I’m going with New Zealand to advance. They’re young enough not to know better, they have nothing to lose, they’re in a weak group, and they seem to match up well with Japan in the opener. Of course, then they’ll get Germany in the quarterfinals.

Watching Japan against the U.S. in friendlies, they could move the ball, but they’re just tiny, and that could be a big problem against New Zealand in their opener. Japan also hasn’t been out of the group stage since 1995 and I just sense that – without much scoring prowess – up top – this may not be their year, either.

Mexico beat the United States less than a year ago, and nearly escaped with a 0-0 draw just two weeks ago, they’ve got Maribel Dominguez (who is 32 now?), they’ve got a few very good college players, so I think they’ll be competitive. But I don’t see them getting over the hump this year. Four years from now in Canada?

Random fact:

Hope Powell has been in charge of the England women’s national team since 1998, longest among any manager in this World Cup. Of course, Kelly Smith has been with the squad since 1995, or the same year Mexican goalkeeper Ceci Santiago was born.

Player to watch:

Amber Hearn, New Zealand – Hearn is in good form and has 22 goals in 46 caps for her national team. She actually plays her club football for the Ottawa Fury in the W-League. Also quick shoutout to Alina Garciamendez of Stanford, who is playing for Mexico.

Game to watch:

Japan vs. New Zealand, June 27 – If New Zealand is going to advance, they’re going to have to get a result in this game, and that will probably mean getting a goal off a set piece of some kind. Hearn can do that for them.

Likely end of the road:

England – Quarterfinals (loss to France)
New Zealand –  Quarterfinals (loss to Germany)
Japan – Group Stage
Mexico – Group Stage

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