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Women’s World Cup – Day 14: What We Learned

Everyone, including me, will spend the rest of time (and perhaps longer in Germany) trying to figure out how the Germans – such heavy favorites going into the 2011 World Cup – fell to Japan today.

Certainly, Germany didn’t play their best, and there will be plenty of questions surrounding Silvia Neid and some of the players on her team.

But this day belongs to Japan, folks.

It was March 11 when the 9.0 earthquake struck Japan. The Japanese are a proud people, and likely some of the last on the planet to ask for help, or to bring attention to their problems, but with somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 dead and any damage estimates would just be a wild guess.

It’s also true that nothing the Japanese women can do at the World Cup can bring back any of the people that died or help rebuild their country.

But, even beyond that, the class that the Japanese women have showed has been astounding. Most of the reports out of the two friendlies Japan played against the U.S. mentioned something about the fantastic attitude and thankfulness the Japanese team had, even when they lost both games.

What’s more, the technical ability they brought to the World Cup was refreshing, not using the lack of height on their roster as an excuse.

They didn’t get a yellow card in the group stages, and here’s what impressed me most of all.

Trying to hang on for dear life against a heavy favorite on the road, not one Japanese player went down “injured” or really stalled for time at all in the 22 minutes after they scored their goal. And they won anyway.

With all the crap we see in soccer (and sports in general, let’s face it), it’s nice to see the good guys win every once in a while. And do it the right way.

Here are the 10 things we learned in Day 14 of Germany 2011.

1) Japan was simply technically better

Early in the second half, Ian Darke sounded amazed when he was told the possession was 57 percent in favor of Japan. Um, not really. Did we so easily forget how easily Japan dismanted Mexico? I know, it was Mexico, but still. It’s not like Germany looked like they could string a million passes together in their group stage games. Japan was under some pressure, but they were rarely forced to chase the ball.

2) In fact, the best two technical teams in the tournament are on to the semifinals

I’m as stunned as you, but it’s a good day for women’s soccer, even if Germany and England – two countries that might have needed a boost to their women’s domestic leagues (but in all honesty, who doesn’t?) – bowed out. Finally, the Evan Pelleruds of the world can see teams that can keep the ball and win doing it. A France-Japan final, while probably a ratings disaster, would be a brilliant advertisement for the women’s game.

3) Saki Kumagai was my Woman of the Match

I almost didn’t recognize her without her unique headgear on, but she headed away at least a couple of balls in the first half that Ayumi Kaihori (who seemed to get stronger at the game wore on) looked unsure on. Inka Grings was very quiet, and every time Germany looked ready to do something, it seemed that Kumagai was there.

4) Germany got very, very tight as the game wore on

The longer the game went on, the more desperate Germany looked. We’ll never know what would have happened if Kim Kulig didn’t get hurt, but other than Celia Okoyino de Mbabi, it’s hard to pick another German player that stood out. It wasn’t Simone Laudehr’s best game, Inka Grings and Melanie Behringer both looked a step (or two) slow, and Kerstin Garefrekes appeared as if the occasion might have gotten to her. Such is how upsets happen, and it did today.

5) Silvia Neid should take some blame, but not all of it

I actually didn’t mind the starting lineup that much, and although it was a slight surprise to see Lena Goessling come on in the 65th minute, I thought she was one of their best players (probably second to da Mbabi in her time on the field). That left Neid with only one sub left, meaning Lira Baramaj or Alexandra Popp was not making it on the field (I don’t think Birgit Prinz ever stood a chance). She went with Popp, which I can understand, but the change should have been made earlier. Way earlier.
You can knock her for not starting Baramaj if you want, though.

6) It would have been a real shame if France had lost

For once, the right team won on penalties, and again, I’m as shocked as you. I say “right” team because – let’s be honest – France prettty much dominated proceedings from start to finish. England really had three good chances. One fell to Kelly Smith in the first minute, Jill Scott scored with the second, and Ellen White had the third in the 103rd minute. The first two you can really put down to goalkeeping errors.

7) Although England didn’t deserve to win, it was sad to see Kelly Smith possibly go out that way

It makes sense for Smith to retire after next year’s Olympics in London, so this may be it for the World Cup, and even on one leg for a lot of the match, she did her best and was one of the top players on the field, dutifully burying her penalty when it came to it, too. Just didn’t have enough help on the day, however.

8) It may be the end of Hope Powell with England as well

It wasn’t a good tournament for Powell, her substitutions again today left much to be desired, taking both veteran outside backs out with a 1-0 lead in the 81st minute (Alex Scott looked as baffled as I did). While penalties are a crapshoot, sending Claire Rafferty and an injured Faye White as your last two kickers obviously didn’t work out. Powell hinted after the game that this might be it for her.
It’s a shame because Powell has done probably more than anyone besides Kelly Smith for women’s soccer in England over the past 20 years, and to go out like that isn’t quite fair, either.

9) France is the favorite to win this thing right now

Will they win in the end? As we saw today, who knows? Anything can happen, but France has played the best soccer in the World Cup. Their biggest liability today was third-string goalkeeper Celine Deville (who tried her best, you could tell she was just a bit overmatched), but Berange Sapowicz returns for the semifinal, and if the winner of the U.S.-Brazil clash thinks they’ll have an easy semifinal, they’ll be in for a rude awakening.

10) Kudos to the referees

We’ve had a couple of poorly officiated games, but not many. Today, Jenny Palmqvist (Sweden) and Quetzalli Alvarado (Mexico) were outstanding, particularly Palmqvist, who did not have the easiest game to ref, but was calm, composed, and had just the right demeanor to make the game go smoothly. She had a couple of chances to give a second yellow card to Kelly Smith, but instead talked to her. One of these two will likely be on the final and it will be well deserved.

Bonus:

I feel for England because I hate penalty kicks

As a Chelsea fan, I’m sure you can understand why. But my high school team was also eliminated in penalties last fall, as was a U-11 team I coached. The poor girl who had the last one saved looked a lot like Claire Rafferty walking up to the spot, quite scared. But if they kept playing, England may not have had any players left at the end.

Double bonus:

Was Hope Powell really asking people to take penalty kicks in the England huddle?

Haven’t seen a follow-up on that, so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now, but you hope they at least practiced penalty kicks. Rafferty had her hand up like she was volunteering.

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 10

The thing about a tournament in soccer (or in any sport for that matter) is that it really doesn’t matter how well or how poorly you played in your last game.

The goal is simple and clear: advance to the next round. There are no style points, and – unlike in a championship that is won over the long haul – dropped points are erased when you get to the next round.

And so those first two games where Germany struggled and France looked unbeatable, they have been quickly forgotten. While England at times had trouble getting out of their own way, and Japan was doing their best Barcelona impersonation, that has been pushed past the back burner all the way off the stage.

But it’s also a warning that things could flip the other way just as easily. I picked France to go the finals because I thought they could beat England, and maybe catch Brazil off guard. I still like those picks, despite what happened today.

I also picked Germany over the United States in the semifinals, and I’d like to say Germany just had a good day today, but I’m not so sure.

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

1) That was the Japan we thought we might see in the World Cup

My worst pick appears to be not having Japan go through, and the reasons were what you saw today. They were still able to move the ball, and had the territorial advantage, but there was no end product. There wasn’t really much that make you think there was going to be an end product.

2) Hello, Ellen White

You hear things like the women’s Wayne Rooney and one of the next big stars on the women’s scene, and you just didn’t see it in the first two games (of course, in the opening draw against Mexico, she didn’t even start, which looks a tad inexplicable now). But, even though the first goal had a hint of shoddy goalkeeping, Smith was dangerous and a complete handful for the Japanese defense for most of the match, one they didn’t have in their first two games. Karney Carney wasn’t too bad, either, including the assist on the second goal.

3) A little redemption for Karen Bardsley, too

Those of us that have watched WPS at least a little have seen that Bardsley has the ability (including physically, obviously) to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but the goal from distance against Mexico could not have helped her confidence. But she was tremendous today, possibly the best performance by a keeper at the World Cup.

4) It doesn’t mean much going forward, though

As I said in the opening, it is a great accomplishment to win the group, and I’m sure they’re happy to avoid Germany in the quarterfinals, but I think it’s still a toss-up at best in the England-France match (and that should be a good one). Obviously, just on today’s performances, maybe England was better, but as we’ve seen already, things change from game to game.

5) Mexico can leave with their heads held very high

It’s tough to get respect when you play in CONCACAF, and you’re not named the United States or Canada, but Mexico showed they were well deserving of their berth in this World Cup. They’ll be upset at giving up two goals in the closing minutes to New Zealand, but they may make things fairly difficult for the two big powers in the next few years, although they’ll likely have to do it without Maribel Dominguez, who has had a fine career. How they wish she was a decade younger.

6) Simone Laudehr might be the best player in the world not named Marta

She had probably been Germany’s best player in their first two matches, but she was on a different level today. She sets up as a holding midfielder, but when she can run box-to-box as she did a little in the first match, and did a lot of today, she just adds so much to the German attack. However ….

7) Laudehr (and a bunch of others) probably shouldn’t have been on the field today

I could be completely off here, but is there that much incentive to winning this group to play anyone with a yellow card? But both teams did.
Take it one step further, why would you play anyone you thought you were going to need in the quarterfinals? It’s tough to predict red cards, certainly, but now France has to face the quarterfinals without their starting goalkeeper (Berange Sapowicz).
(Was it a red card? It looked like there was a covering defender coming behind Sapowicz, and she might not have been the last man. Of course, there is no such things as “last man” in the FIFA Laws, it says “denying a goal scoring opportunity”, and I guess that was certainly a goal scoring opportunity just six yards from goal and the net virtually empty.)
I’ve talked about the tight schedule, and how many games these teams have had to play in a short period of time, but both these teams had most of their starters out on the field for 90 minutes today.
Obviously, the France attack is completely different with Marie-Laure Delie on the field, but would a full week’s rest have set her up for a big quarterfinal against England? Some players were rested, so why not rest everyone you can?

8 ) It might be a sad ending to the World Cup career of Birgit Prinz

I made a slight mistake in how I worded saying that Marta had caught Michelle Akers with 12 World Cup goals. Obviously, Prinz is still the overall leader with 14.
But that may be it. After today’s game, you can’t see Prinz starting the quarterfinal. And if they win that, she probably won’t start the rest of the way (and if they lose, they’re out and done). The only way you can see her getting back on the field is if Germany trails and needs a goal in the late stages of a match. It might not happen.

9) Nigeria deserves some credit for this World Cup, too

Off the field controversy notwithstanding (and maybe the second half against Germany), Nigeria was organized, and really not that far off against the toughest group the World Cup had to offer, a long way from where they were four years ago, and even longer from a decade ago when African teams simply couldn’t compete.
Their win today was no fluke, they were the better team against Canada, and Rita Chekwulu would make my Best XI from this World Cup. She was outstanding in her holding midfield role, and the biggest reason why they only conceded twice in the tournament.
If they can keep their act together, they might be the first African team to get out of the group stages in four years. Canada hopes it isn’t against them.

10) It was a sad ending for Christine Sinclair and Canada, but…

Today’s game reminded me a lot of the United States’ final game against Iran in the 1998 Men’s World Cup. The U.S. was out, they had little motivation, and would just outplayed by a hungrier Iran side. Obviously, there will be some fingers pointed at Carolina Morace.
Fittingly, Nigeria’s winner came right after a power outage delayed action in the match for 11 minutes, as if anything else could go wrong at this World Cup. We can only hope Sinclair can be in decent form when Canada hosts this tournament in four years. That U.S. team that was embarrassed in 1998 came back to have their best ever World Cup performance four years later, reaching the quarterfinals, and they weren’t even at home.

Bonus:

Zonal marking is stupid

I don’t always agree with the commentators on ESPN, but I think they’re right here. I don’t get it, I really don’t.

Double bonus:

Belief is the best of things

This is not commentary, but the summer soccer camp circuit started this week. A little 8-year old girl was sporting the old gold U.S. women’s jersey, and I asked her if she knew why there were two stars on the back collar.
She didn’t know, but her 10-year old sister butted into the conversation:
“That’s how many World Cups the United States has won. But they’ll have one more in a couple of weeks.”
Hopefully, the team has the same level of confidence.

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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