Tag Archives: homare sawa

Olympics – Gold Medal Match: U.S. Worthy Champions, But Japanese Teach Us In Defeat

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   – The Olympic Creed

Growing up, I used to listen to WFAN out of New York in pretty much all my spare time. It was one of the first sports talk radio stations in an era where ESPN offered little in the way of commentary (just highlights). Looking back, I don’t know what drew me to it, or what draws so many people to it today.

What doesn’t the manager play so-and-so? That guy stinks, we should trade him. The referees are clearly against our teams.

Just soooo much negativity.

As I got older, and not so coincidentally became a reporter and coach myself, I nearly completely stopped tuning in to sports radio. I try to stay clear of commentary shows with people spouting opinion that are clearly designed more for ratings and to get a rise out of people than actual analysis.

Before I come off as Mr. High and Mighty, as hard as I tried, the negativity never really left me. It’s easy to make fun of athletes when they fail or when they make mistakes, both on and off the field. Sometimes criticism is needed to be a proper journalist and not just a fan. The proliferation of Twitter has made it even easier to do that, complete with amateur humor.

I’m not here to cry, “Oh, those poor athletes.” They are in the public eye, they should be able to handle it to some extent. Of course, there is fair criticism, and then there Is what I think is overkill.

After Carli Lloyd yanked a penalty kick high after missing the target several other times at the World Cup, the next day at my camp anytime someone shot high it became known as “pulling a Carli Lloyd”. I remarked that the fact that everyone knew who Lloyd was and was watching the World Cup final was a victory onto itself, which was true, but I’m sure it didn’t make Carli feel any better.

There’s a more important lesson about negativity here, though, and it is has to do with the team who didn’t win the gold medal. While they weren’t quite as bizarre as they were against Canada, the U.S. was the beneficiary of a couple of breaks, most notably a pretty blatant Tobin Heath first-half handball in the penalty area.

Japan can also say they probably had the better chances in the second half, they could have won with a break or two, they were that close.

You know what, though, folks, you can say that about almost every big game in almost every sport. A break here, a break there, a call here, a call there. Small margins, as I’ve said (with credit to Zonal Marking) many times are the difference.

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Olympics: Gold Medal Match Preview – U.S.-Japan: Nadeshiko Try To Prove Me Wrong. Again.

“Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”

– Albert Einstein

There are probably psychologists – both amateur and professional – that can explain better than I the reluctance to leave a first impression, no matter what evidence there may be to the contrary. There’s something about what your eyes tell you the first time you see something that just makes it stick in your mind, no matter what comes after.

Last May, just two months after a horrific earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Japan, the Japanese came to America for a two-game series. Japan showed little different than what I had seen from the Nadeshiko in the past: they knocked the ball around pretty well, had spurts (especially early in the matches) were they looked like they could be dangerous, but eventually the U.S. did what they had done every time (almost: Japan was 0-20-3 against the U.S. lifetime at this point) they’d seen the Japanese before, they took over, posted a couple of comfortable 2-0 wins in which the Japanese looked horribly vulnerable in set pieces and in the air.

When it came time to make the picks for the World Cup, I wanted to get an upset in there, looked at the brackets and focused on New Zealand. They were in a weak group, they could knock off Japan, right? And so I didn’t have Japan getting out of the group stages.

New Zealand nearly got a point from Japan, but I immediately recognized I had underrated the Japanese as they blasted Mexico. However, the vulnerabilities showed up in the final group game as a 2-0 loss to England sent them to second in the group (don’t think Norio Sasaki was telling people not to score that day) and a date with host Germany in the quarterfinal.

(Too bad Germany had to miss this party, by the way. What a great event, too. They’re going to be mad when they check their text messages when they get back from vacation. Next time, girls.)

They stood no chance, right? In the end, despite the upset, I attributed more of it to a failure by Germany than anything Japan did, and therefore picked Sweden to win the semifinal. Wrong again, as Japan was opportunistic one more time.

Of course, we know what happened in the final after I again dismissed Japan’s chances prior.

A year later, it was harder to dismiss the now World Champions. They had proven themselves at every turn. Clearly they were now a contender, but as 2012 commenced, Japan was beaten by Germany in the finals of the Algarve Cup (although they had beaten the United States 1-0 to get there). They were beaten soundly by France and the U.S. in warm-up matches for the Olympics.

I looked at the brackets and conceded that Japan would likely win their group (I wasn’t counting on a draw against South Africa, but I digress), but figured their luck may run out in a quarterfinal against France.

Bzzzz. Wrong again.

Japan is 90 minutes away from winning back-to-back major tournaments in consecutive years, a feat that’s never been accomplished. Not by the United States. Not by anyone.

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Olympics – What We Learned: Quarterfinals – Brazil 0:2 Japan

Statistics can be useful information, and everyone is looking for an edge in any kind of endeavor, but one of the reasons why I love soccer so much is that the numbers don’t always tell the whole story or the same story that your eyes do. Brazil officially had a 21-10 edge in shots and had 64 percent of the possession, but that doesn’t begin to tell you what happened in the game. Marta and Christiane tried their best, but the disorganization of Brazil, from the top to the bottom, as disastrous. Meanwhile, Japan knew what to do, stayed where they were supposed to be and just waited for the opportunity to strike, taking advantage of lackadaisical play and mistakes to advance to the semifinals. It’s really a shame for Brazil, but it’s gone way past the point where I’m surprised, and probably past the point where I care anymore, which is even more of a shame. But we shall see.

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Olympics – Matchday 3: What We Learned – Japan 0:0 South Africa

TMI, Norio, geez.

Japan – which arguably plays the most beautiful women’s soccer in the world – was sluggish and clearly didn’t want to get out of about third gear against South Africa in their final group game. The match meant virtually nothing, so that was understandable. So was changing as many people as humanly possible (seven with an 18-person roster allowed). Still, it was a little embarrassing to be held to a scoreless draw by South Africa, even though they dominated proceedings. They should be able to turn the switch back on for the quarterfinals, though, right? Except the scoreless draw was a plan all along by coach Norio Sasaki to allow Japan to finish second in the group and therefore stay in Cardiff and not have to go to Glasgow, while at the same time avoiding France in the quarterfinals? Bah, you are your conspiracy theories. What? The coach admitted it? I’m kind of speechless:

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My 2011 On AWK: At Least We’ll Always Have Germany

Mere seconds after Abby Wambach’s dramatic equalizer in the World Cup quarterfinals back in July against Brazil, I got a text message: “Wambachhhhh” was all it said.

What was significant was not the message itself, but who it was from. My friend Steve (the name may or may not be changed to protect the guilty) is not a soccer fan. He’s certainly not a fan of women’s athletics, occasionally prone to both negative comments about soccer (“How could you call it a sport if you can’t use your hands?”) and women that play sports (I’ll let
you insert your own sexist remark here).

Maybe (or maybe not) like you, my life is divided into “soccer people” and “non-soccer people”. They usually stay as far away from each other as possible.

But for a magical week or two in July, as the noted philosopher George Costanza first theorized, my worlds were most definitely colliding.

People like my mother – whom I love very much but I can probably count how many soccer matches she’s watched on television on my fingers – wanted to know when the U.S. was playing next. Radio stations that I’d heard the week before begging to go to their website to vote for “The Hottest Moms in Connecticut” were talking up the semifinals and finals (and not just Alex Morgan and Hope Solo). People turned down Yankees tickets because they wanted to stay
home and watch the games in the knockout stages.

In some ways it seems like years ago, and in some ways, the final shootout against Japan seems like yesterday. And I can’t thank Jenna enough for the opportunity to give analysis and perspective for All White Kit. It was probably the highlight of my year, and I’m guessing the World Cup might have been the highlight of some of yours as well.

I began in June on AWK with my (horribly wrong) previews this way:

“Jenna and the finest women’s soccer website on the planet has been nice enough to ask me to add my two cents (or $2) on the Women’s World Cup. I spend most of my time writing on MLS and the men’s game, but I am a big fan of the women’s game. In my coaching career, I’m primarily a girls coach these days, and it’s always nice for them to have someone to look up to. Sadly, some of the youngsters I coach were barely born in 1999, and obviously have no
recollection of that wonderful summer.”

And 1999 mirrored 2011 in so many ways. Well, except the end, of course. But after spending years trying to get my players to learn by watching games on television, suddenly everyone has seen the games.

“That girl Necib is awesome on the ball.”

“Look how quickly the Japanese play, all one-touch stuff.”

“I wish I could head the ball like Abby Wambach.”

“Alex Morgan never stops running.”

When the high school season began, the girls had not only seen the games, but some could talk intelligently about individual players and teams. A few had even watched the WPS as its season wound down.

Ooooh, did I mention WPS? That brought our party to a screeching halt, didn’t it?

Seemingly just weeks after our glorious time in Germany was over, there was the WPS in the hospital again, near death. I don’t need to rehash the reasons, you can find them splattered all over this site, surely. But it did make me a combination of sad and angry.

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The All-Curren Team: Picking The Best 18 From The World Cup

Well, I promised you people I’d have an All-Tournament team for the Women’s World Cup, and after a week of stalling (and working with the future soccer players of America in 100-degree heat), here you go.

But to do it the right way, I need to make an actual team. It’s easy (at least, easier) to give you a list of players, harder to pick the best at each position, and who I might want to use off the bench if I had to win a game (of course, I think I’ll do OK with this team no matter what 11 I choose).

Among the players that didn’t make the cut:

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Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Final Edition As Japan Is Crowned

The rules of athletics (at least knockout style) dictate that there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.

Expert commentary, I know.

But (and I realize not everyone reading this is a United States fan, and I love that about AWK, so keep visiting) if you can take yourself out of your rooting shoes (or jersey) for a second and take the game you watched on Sunday for what it was.

A brilliant advertisement for women’s soccer, which saw the best the game has to offer. An underdog that everyone could root for, coming off an unspeakable tragedy in their home country, playing an attractive style of soccer, and exuding pure class and sportsmanship at just about every turn.

Of course, the rub is that this great story of Japan comes at the expense of the U.S., who lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, leading both in normal time and extra time before losing in penalties. It’s hard to imagine losing in a more painful fashion, actually.

But, perhaps the biggest lesson I try to get across to both the players I coach and students I teach is the “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” lesson.

Can you be happy for someone else even if it comes at your expense? Can you put aside your pride to congratulate an opponent or adversary on a job well done?

This one will hurt for a while for the United States. There’s no telling where the national team program will be in four years, there’s a lot of work to be done to stay on top of an ever-changing and improving women’s soccer world.

But there’s something to be said for being a part of something great. Sunday’s final capped a beautiful tournament that drew attention to women’s soccer that it hasn’t seen in 12 years. And, I would argue, this was even better because people seemed to be tuning in more for the quality of the play than the novelty of it. Or if they tuned in for the novelty, they were stunned by the quality and refreshing way the women went about their craft: few horrible tackles, less gamesmanship, more reasons to smile on a daily basis.

It was capped by the “right” team winning, the one with the best story, the underdog everyone can attach themselves to.

It was just unfortunate it wasn’t the team in our country.

But that doesn’t mean the U.S. shouldn’t be proud that they played such a big part, they had the better chances, controlled play, and played their best game of the tournament. They did everything but win the title, and getting so close will sting.

As Abby Wambach did, though, just minutes after the match, it doesn’t mean you can’t tip your proverbial cap to the Japanese and walk away with your head held high.

After all, even though they lost, they were part of something special. It may not mean anything tomorrow on the plane ride home or next week or even next year.

Someday, though it should.

The final edition of the 10 things we learned at Germany 2011.

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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.