Tag Archives: hope solo

Olympics – What We Learned : Matchday 2 – United States 3:0 Colombia

One of the problems we find with young players in this country is that they just don’t see enough soccer. Therefore, not only do they not fall in love with the game the way I (and I’m assuming you) did, but they miss out on nuances that can sometimes be the difference between a good player and a great one. Little head fake there to let the ball run across your body here, movement off the ball creating space for others there.

So, a fellow coach had a great idea for his 11-year old girls. Give them a “homework” packet that they can complete by watching the Olympic soccer tournament. Not too hard, just enough to watch a few minutes at a time, and with a whole channel devoted to Olympic soccer for two weeks, how hard could that be?

One of the parents arranged for the girls to get together for the only group game that made sense (i.e. a weekend): against Colombia at noon. The other coach couldn’t go so I did today, which led to a site you hope you see more often, a bunch of girls together watching and cheering their heroes on the screen.

An area of the “homework” was entitled “Physical Play”, with the idea being that the game at higher levels is much more physical than young players (and their parents) often imagine, how often body position and using your body helps both attacking and defending.

And as the two girls in front of me had the little booklet out to the “Physical Play”, it happened. Abby Wambach was laying on the ground, after play was stopped, the camera focused in on her with a shiner on her eye already, and Abby telling the Greek ref, “Do you see my eye?”

Many times during games the girls hear me say, “That’s not a foul” when two players come together, an answer that is twofold: most times it isn’t a foul, but even if it is, you want them to respect the referee’s calls.

In this case, though, it was a pretty easy answer: “Coach Ray, wasn’t that a foul?”

“Yup. That’s definitely a foul.”

Here’s what we learned from the U.S. and Colombia on Matchday 2:

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USWNT vs. CanWNT: Wambach & Morgan were Left Unmarked and Made Canada Pay

The United States concluded their post-2011 Women’s World Cup Celebration Series tour against Canada with a 3-0 victory. Both friendlies were played in front of incredible crowds; Megan Rapinoe joked earlier in the week that the fanfare has been like if the WWC runner-ups had actually won the title.  18,570 strong serenaded the team with chants of “U-S-A” at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon, as did 16,191 at the first friendly in Kansas City, Kansas last Saturday (1-1 draw).

Similar to the previous game, the USWNT lined up in a new 4-2-3-1. As promised, Pia Sundhage featured all 21 players over the two friendlies, a full strength roster from the WWC. Notably in the starting XI, the experiment with Amy Rodriguez as a left winger continued, while Shannon Boxx and Lori Lindsey replaced Carli Lloyd and Lauren Cheney as holding midfielders. Stephanie Cox stepped in for Amy LePeilbet and Becky Sauerbrunn slide over from her usual role in central defence to the outside right.

John Herdman, who is playing without two of Canada’s regular starters Christine Sinclair and Candace Chapman, switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 and made two changes to his starting lineup from the first friendly, with Lexi Marton in place of Emily Zurrer and Karina LeBlanc in goal for Erin McLeod. Herdman’s fourth ‘keeper, 22 year-old Justine Bernier, was the only one of the 22 player roster not to see playing time. New talent was introduced as three players received their first senior caps during the two friendlies.

The US peppered the Canadian 18-yard box with dangerous crosses and well paced shots throughout the match, but were upstaged by great Canadian goalkeeping from Karina LeBlanc in the first half and Stephanie Labbé in the second.

Canada was kept deep on defensive duties for much of the game, but Melissa Tancredi got an early opportunity when she fended off a couple defenders before sending the ball over the net.

LeBlanc made her first of several great saves in the 17th minute. Abby Wambach started the play when she blocked Sophie Schmidt’s cross, which fell to Rapinoe. She was able to advance the ball up field before laying it off to Wambach, whose ensuing cross was met by an unmarked Rodriguez.  Her side-footed shot from point blank range was denied by a one-handed save.

About 10 minutes later, Heather O’Reilly led the charge forward when she beat Diana Matheson to send in a cross. Lauren Sesselmann was in a great position to block Christie Rampone’s initial shot. Her far post rebound was grabbed in the air by LeBlanc, who then sparked the Canadian attack with her goal kick. The bouncing ball eluded Rachel Buehler and fell favourably for Tancredi. Her header into space allowed her to turn and shoot, but the low bouncing ball went just wide to the right of Hope Solo.

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The USWNT & CanWNT Battled in a Scrappy 1-1 Draw

The first of the two-game friendly series between the United States and Canada resulted in a 1-1 draw in front of a near capacity crowd of 16,191 packed into Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

Boisterous fans created a lively atmosphere to welcome home their Women’s World Cup heroes, whose performance in this summer’s tournament ignited interest all over the US. Of the three friendlies played at home in 2011 prior to the WWC, two took place in comparatively large stadiums, like Red Bull Arena (25,000 capacity) and Columbus Crew Stadium (20,000 capacity), but had only managed to draw attendance merely in the 5,000s.

The situation for both teams couldn’t be more different: the USWNT was playing with the exact same group who recently propelled themselves to newfound celebrity status, and a coach whose unwavering loyalty to a particular formation and players have drawn cries for change and ingenuity from fans and commentators alike; in contrast, the CanWNT was playing under a new coaching staff following a sorrowful WWC with new players and new tactics.

September 17 was to be a battle of old and new. Yet, surprisingly, both teams stepped onto the pitch to test new strategies.

Pia Sundhage implemented a 4-2-3-1 for the match, a departure from her favoured 4-4-2.  The USWNT coach expressed her hopes of adding another dimension of unpredictability to the attack. Sundhage experimented by moving Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd, both of whom normally occupy more offensive roles, back to act as deep-lying midfielders. She was quick to point out that the pair would be “possession midfielders” as opposed to holding midfielders. Still in search for the team’s true No. 10, the Swede had Megan Rapinoe assume that role in the starting XI. The new formation was to emphasize play in the centre of midfield, but the US still found the most success attacking from the wings, especially in the first half.

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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: U.S. Semifinal Victory Edition

It was former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards who went on this rant in 2002, with the money quote, of course, being:
“You play to win the game.”
Less infamously, he continued, “You don’t play it to just play it. That’s the great thing about sports. You play to win.”
Edwards’ speech has – somewhat rightfully so, don’t get me wrong – been relegated to the comedy files, mostly because Edwards’ coaching career in the NFL was pretty forgettable (see: mostly mediocre).
But the message isn’t necessarily a bad one.
Yes, France was more technically sound than the United States today. Yes, Japan will probably be more technical in the final. Both can pass the ball better and probably had a better first touch overall than the U.S.
France clearly won the possession battle, and Japan probably will – by a wider margin – on Sunday.
Is that something we should strive for when we’re developing our players? Absolutely.
However, you play to win the game, and the United States has won in the quarterfinals and the semifinals.
They’ve done it through hard work, superior fitness, athleticism, better ability in the air, having the best goalkeeper in the world, and – yes – a little but of luck.
Those are the reasons why they’ll win in the finals as well.
You can say a lot of things, but you can’t say France was “better”, and neither was Brazil.
This isn’t a figure skating competition where we’re judging artistry, the rules are pretty simple: you score more goals than the other team and you advance.
(I’m not advocating cheating or gamesmanship, that’s a whole different element.)
Little known fact about Edwards and the 2002 Jets, they won seven of their next nine games, and pulled an upset in the playoffs before bowing out in the conference semifinals.
Maybe it’s the American attitude in me, maybe it’s because much of my playing career was spent against (and with) players that were probably better technically than me, but (and obviously not at younger ages, I understand) there is only one goal when you get to a World Cup and that is to bring home the trophy.
You play to win the game.
The United States only has to win one more.

Here are the 10 things we learned in Day 18 of Germany 2011.

1) Goalkeeping is the most important position on the field

We talked early on about goalkeeping being an issue at this World Cup, and the U.S. had a massive advantage again, and again put it to good use.
While none of the U.S. goals were complete goalkeeping calamities, you were never comfortable watching Berange Sapowicz in goal today, and that surely has an effect on the team.
Meanwhile, at the other end, you just sort of laughed when the French tried more than a few long-range shots.
Sorry, you’re not beating Hope Solo from there, France.
The first U.S. goal (which I’ll get to in a second) was a good example. It actually started with a Solo save on a pretty good Louisa Necib shot. Obviously, that resulted in a corner, Solo eventually got a hold of it, and less than 30 seconds later, the U.S. had a 1-0 lead.
There’s a lot in between, but it starts with the keeper.

2) France was better technically, but the U.S. had some good (and pivotal touches) as well

Back to the first goal, it was on a pseudo-counter, which helped the United States greatly in the end.
Carli Lloyd found herself on the left touchline, Shannon Boxx played her the ball, and Lloyd came up with a nifty backheel to find Heather O’Reilly (who had also popped up on the left momentarily).
Lloyd’s touch took right back Laure Lepailleur out of the play, center back Laura Georges had to come over and cover and that was a speed battle that O’Reilly was always going to win.
(Ironically, Georges probably should have known that. While Georges was ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Boston College in 2006, O’Reilly was also on the All-ACC First Team that season.)
Lauren Cheney’s deft touch finished the movement, and just like that a huge goal was scored.
But without Lloyd’s backheel, they probably get nothing.
Alex Morgan’s goal to seal it was also a very skillful touch as well that obviously led to another U.S. tally.

3) Don’t want to bring up Dawn Scott again, but…

You have to, don’t you? The U.S. fitness shined again in this match as just when it seemed they were getting tired of chasing France around the field, they seemed to get a second wind and took the game back in the last 20 minutes.
Again, I’m repeating myself, but you don’t know how hard it is to play as many minutes as these women have in the past few weeks and not get fatigued.
And it’s not like the U.S. is a young team, players like Boxx and Wambach have logged a lot of minutes in their careers and – those two particularly – looked strongest at the end of the game.
Of course, some credit goes to….

4) Pia Sundhage again seemed to press the right buttons

The Alex Morgan substitution made sense, but Megan Rapinoe for Lloyd in the 65th minute of a tie game? In retrospect, Lauren Cheney was in the middle most of the time anyway, and Rapinoe’s energy seemed to be contagious for the rest of the squad.
Leaving Amy Lepeilbet on the outside and inserting Becky Sauerbrunn worked as well.
Meanwhile, Bruno Bini’s move to take Marie-Laure Delie off in favor of Eugenie LeSommer at halftime seemed to be a good one, despite its awkwardness, but the U.S. scored twice in four minutes after he made an attacking sub with Elodie Thomis for captain Sandrine Soubeyrand in the 78th minute.
That wasn’t the main reason for the French collapse, but it probably didn’t help.

5) The France 4-2-3-1 did give the U.S. fits, but they couldn’t cash in

As we surmised, trying to matchup with a Necib the way the U.S. was set up proved to be a big problem. Early in the match, the strategy was to have one of the back four step up and pressure, which worked for a little while.
But once Necib found holes and/or Lloyd and Boxx gave the ball away in dangerous positions, Necib has her space.
At that point, though, the U.S. defense did well. They didn’t dive in, held their ground, and forced Necib to either shoot from outside the box or try to play a perfect pass to a teammate. Necib is great on the ball, but her decision-making wasn’t quite quick enough, and the U.S. was able to get back just in time on a few occasions.
(There were a couple of times that Necib was very close. In the 29th minute, Necib played a through ball to Gaetane Thiney, but Solo was there to save the day.)
That will be the next step for France or what Japan will look to do on Sunday, can they quickly take advantage of an exposed U.S. defense in the 4-4-2 before they recover.
We shall see.

6) France still should leave with their heads high, though

They easily could have won this game (they probably think they should have won) and certainly have to be in the discussion in the best teams in the world right now.
They’re not as young, though, as they were made out to be on the broadcast. This is probably the end for Soubeyrand and Bompastor, although you’d think everyone else will be around for Canada 2015.
You’d hope the French people support their team a little better. Reports from Monchengladbach were that there were very few French fans in attendance.

7) Becky Sauerbrunn was fine in a huge spot

You didn’t notice Sauerbrunn much in this match, and a good center back can often work like a good referee, the less you notice her, the better match she had.
Interesting note, Sauerbrunn (playing for Virginia) was also on the 2006 All-ACC Team with O’Reilly and Georges.
I still think Sundhage goes back to Rachel Buehler for the final, though, but we’ll see.

8) The winning goal was a disaster all around for France, but good hustle from the U.S. caused it

In the minutes before the goal, the subs Morgan and Rapinoe were using their energy to put pressure on the French, and the winning goal started with an awful clearance by Sapowicz that basically hit Rapinoe, and eventually became a corner kick.
It was 5-foot-7 Lepailleur who was picked to mark Wambach (would it have been Delie if she was still in the game?), and that went horribly wrong quickly.
As I would tell my players, “She’s going to the goal eventually, isn’t she?” But Wambach was two steps ahead of Lepailleur early, there was no one on the back post, Sapowicz couldn’t get there, and the rest is history.
(By the way, what Wambach did on that play was as brilliant as anything else in this game. The way she shook her mark, used her body as a shield, and knew exactly where to go to finish? Those are skills you can’t really teach, at least the hunger part of that.)
You’d think if there was one player you wouldn’t want to beat you, it would be Wambach. And that’s what makes her so good.
(And, yes, for those of you that have read this throughout the World Cup, I’m fully aware that it was a man marking problem and not a zonal marking problem. That happens sometimes, too.)

9) It’s cold in Germany in the summer sometimes

Even here in the Northeast (U.S.), it gets pretty hot in July, but watching the game today, we saw plenty of winter coats in the stands (and on Bruno Bini).
That probably helped with the fitness of both teams.

10) So it’s Japan in the final

A great matchup, but one I tend to like for the United States, although I said the same with Germany and then picked Sweden to beat them in the semifinals, so what do I know?
The danger will be if Kozue Ando can find the room that Necib did today, but we’ll have plenty more on the matchup Friday night.
One thing I will say is that I’m very happy for the Japanese, who deserve everything they’ve gotten at the World Cup. Great story, and they seem like a class act all the way around.

Bonus:

Hopefully, Ali Krieger is OK

She finished the match, but never looked 100 percent after going down midway through the second half.
It’s obviously not serious, but the U.S. is going to need her at her best (and she’s been one of the best players in the tournament) for the final.

Double bonus:

Did a man buy the U.S. uniforms?

Not soccer related, but it seems like we guard against the “see-through effect” when we buy our uniforms for girls at our club (or for boys or girls when you have white shorts).
But at least Alex Morgan matches.

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Go Go, USA Edition

Thomas Paine wasn’t born in America, but he probably deserves his place with the Founding Fathers for his contributions in making the United States what it was in the Revolutionary War period.

It was Paine who wrote in December of 1776 (you’ll have to excuse the history lesson, it’s my day job) with the Americans falling apart and seemingly ready to capitulate, “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

We don’t know what kind of soccer fan Paine was, but he was reasonably progressive, I’m sure he would have been proud of the American women today.

It’s hard to imagine a win with more value or a harder conflict than the United States had today. (In soccer, of course. We’re not comparing today’s win to the Revolutionary War. It was a big, big soccer win, though, so bear with the analogy.) Against their nemesis Brazil, with a bunch of things (including one big one) that didn’t go their way, down a man and a goal in stoppage time of extra time on the world’s biggest stage, one where they haven’t won in 12 years, the Americans got the job done.

And that’s all that matters in the knockout stages of a major tournament.

Paine’s quote could almost apply to women’s soccer in this country as well. Maybe the U.S. obtained success too cheaply at the beginning of the World Cup era, winning two of the first three Cups, being No. 1 in the world for virtually all of the last 20 years. Whenever there was a loss, like there was to Germany in 2003 or Brazil in 2007, it was a huge letdown. What was wrong? Why was everyone as good as us all of the sudden? Why aren’t we developing players like we used to?

For one day at least, you can shove all that stuff where the sun don’t shine, excuse my Portuguese. The U.S. met a team that was in most ways their equal, was dealt a very hard hand to play, and found a way to get the job done, and it‘s the United States in the semifinals and Brazil on the next plane back to South America.

I try hard to guard against overdoing nationalism and patriotism, they lead to very bad things when used incorrectly. But when Abby Wambach said after the game, “that is a perfect example of what this country is about,” I smiled and went out the door with as much U.S. national paraphernalia as I can find.

I’m not right much, so surely I’m going to let you know when I am, I wrote after the Sweden loss that in spite of it, the Brazil match could be the U.S.’s finest hour. If beating China in 1999 was No. 1 in that category, this is surely No. 2.

But one cautionary note, folks, in case you haven’t noticed, France can play a little bit.

Without further ado, the 10 things we learned from a heartstopping Day 15 at Germany 2011:

1) Abby Wambach deserves her place in the pantheon of the U.S. greats

It’s not often I agree with Tony DiCicco, either, but when he said that Wambach put the U.S. on her back, he wasn’t kidding. Really, she’s been doing that for most of the tournament in one way or another. Her goal today was her 120th international goal and 48th with her head.
The second part of that may be why she’s sometimes not put in the same category as a Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, or even a Julie Foudy. And, yes, she hasn’t won a World Cup yet, and it’s true they won the Olympic gold medal without her in 2008.
However, even if she doesn’t have the flashy style of some of her predecessors or the star power off the field of a Hamm, hopefully Wambach will get her due when she hangs up her cleats. Obviously, two more wins in Germany will help the cause.

2) Yes, that call wasn’t very good

Let’s be as impartial as we can here. I praised the referees yesterday, and I’ve seen worse games than Australian Jacqui Melksham had today. But when Rachel Buehler and Marta are fighting for the ball, there’s nothing there, at least worthy of a penalty kick, Marta was giving as good as she got. That’s a no call.
From there, is it a clear goal-scoring opportunity? Probably, and that’s something I think FIFA should change. Aside from handballs on the goal line, the penalty of a red and a penalty seems silly to me, and always has. But I’m not going to blame Melksham for that one.
Then to disallow Hope Solo’s save because an American encroached nowhere near the ball on something that didn’t seem to have an effect on the play was also a little ridiculous. But by the letter of the law, I guess she’s correct. Common sense, though, after a controversial penalty (and red card) to begin with, dictates you let that go.

3) And still the Americans found a way

I’ve gone over this before here, but let’s remember that even in the 2008 Olympics which the U.S. won, they were probably outplayed by Brazil, and they obviously were in the 2007 World Cup debacle.
I don’t think, even with 10 people on the field, you can say that here. The statistics were remarkably similar and the chances were as well. It wasn’t the U.S. evening the game against the run of play or holding on for penalties and winning it that way, they played a very good game, their best game of the tournament, almost from start to finish.

4) Marta didn’t really deserve the crowd abuse, though

After the controversial call, the neutral Germans seemed to turn against the Brazilians and for the Americans (leading my friend to channel Rocky IV, “Some cheers now for the U-S-A”). The crowd particularly went after Marta, but – even though I think the call was incorrect – it wasn’t a case of diving by Marta, nor has she done much unsportsmanlike at this tournament (she seemed pretty gracious afterward, as well). But I guess as the best player on the team the crowd wants to root against, that’s going to happen. But Marta played pretty well today including scoring both goals, so she has nothing to be ashamed of.

5) Pia Sundhage’s loyalty in her midfield paid off

Shannon Boxx didn’t look 34 today, she ran her butt off and played a tremendous game. Like she was a couple of years ago, she was everywhere and never stopped working, even in extra time. Boxx was also getting forward more than in any other game. Carli Lloyd was also at her near-best today, as she and Boxx made their presence felt with sheer determination, and rarely left the back line exposed for Brazil to run at.

6) Goalkeeping was a big difference, too

That was where the Americans had their biggest advantage, and in the end, it came through. The first goal was obviously an own goal, but could Andreia have come and gotten it? Possibly.
On the second, Andreia comes and gets nowhere near it, blocked off by Daiane. Hope Solo also had some anxious moments at the other end, but there was nothing she could do about either goal, and she won the game with a penalty save, and that advantage is something the United States should carry into the rest of the tournament.

7) Down goes the sweeper

Hopefully, you read the preview, so I was personally happy to see that both goals involved the sweeper playing extremely deep. On the first goal, the switch of the field (something I wish the U.S. could have done a lot more often, but I digress) left the Brazilian defense lost and Daiane (the sweeper) got the own goal. On the second, Daiane was way too deep, allowing her goalkeeper no space to come out and get the ball (although who knows if Andreia would have missed it anyway?). Unfortunately, for most of the game, the Americans actually had trouble exposing the Brazilians, but at least – in the end – they did twice, and a team with a sweeper won‘t win the World Cup.

8) The U.S. was clinical from the spot

Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, and Ali Krieger were the five penalty takers, and none of the goals was soft. Andreia guessed the correct way a couple of times, but the kicks were just too good. Penalties can be a random outcome, but credit deserves to be given for the coolness under pressure of the Americans in the biggest of big spots with all the pressure they had on them coming into the World Cup.
I debated whether Krieger should have taken off her shirt as an homage to Brandi Chastain and the 1999 bunch, and I’m still torn. Maybe you can help me whether that would be completely tacky or funny and appropriate.

9) The U.S. defense still did look a bit shaky

Not trying to be a Negative Nancy on such a glorious day, but now that the U.S. is still in the tournament, so we do have to say that things weren’t always secure in the back, although some of that is obviously Marta and the Brazilian attack. Now the team must do without Rachel Buehler for the semifinals, which leaves Sundhage with a dilemma: move LePeilbet inside and go with Stephanie Cox outside, OR leave LePeilbet (who I thought had her best match of the tournament today) at left and bring Becky Sauerbrunn in (even though Sauerbrunn would be coming in cold), OR Shannon Boxx at center defense, as we saw a little of today? Not likely, although interesting.
They’ll need to figure it out, because ….

10) France will be a stiff test in the semifinals

Brazil has better athletes and Marta, but – for my money (which isn’t much) – France has been the best team at the World Cup through four games. Although it took penalties, they took apart England in the second half and extra time and should be able to keep the ball better than Brazil (or anyone else the U.S. has played thus far). But I’ll have a preview either tomorrow night or early Tuesday, let’s take the time to enjoy this one first.

(By the way, Thomas Paine also tried his hand in the French Revolution as well, only things weren’t quite the same over there. Not sure where his loyalties would lie Wednesday, though.)

Bonus

Hey, we’re Sweden over here

Unfortunately, the Sweden-Australia game gets pushed to the back burner today, as Australia’s youth an inexperience, especially in the back, finally brought their demise. There were some curious lineup selections from Tom Sermanni as well (like starting Ellyse Perry, who‘s a great story with the cricket and all, and scored a great goal, but was a liability defensively. Take nothing away from Lotta Schelin, who was very good, miles ahead of her performances in the first couple of games.

Double bonus

It’s not original, but …

Hopefully we’ll see some more of these soon. And hopefully they won’t be staged, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

Triple bonus

No Go Go, U.S.A.?

I’m disappointed in Ian Darke, although I guess that wouldn’t have been too original, either. Oh, well.

Quadruple Bonus

Go Go, WPS?

Might today’s victory – in the manner in which it happened – aired on a Sunday afternoon with very little else going on (it seemed to have buzz with people I normally don’t associate women’s soccer with), help save the WPS? Obviously, that’s very speculative and Jenna could answer that question (at a later date, perhaps) with much more evidence and validity than I can.

 

 

 

U.S.-Brazil Quarterfinal Preview: The Sweeper Is Dead, Long Live The Sweeper

If you’re like me (honestly, hopefully you’re not) and you grew up playing soccer in the United States 20 years ago, you probably played most of the time with a sweeper.

The person behind the back line was essential to a good defense, they were often the team’s best athlete, covered for mistakes that the rest of the defense played, and told the rest of the team where to go.

It was just how you played. Through high school, our teams played in a 4-4-2 with a sweeper, and so did almost everyone else.

(I don’t have time for it here, but you’d be amazed how much of an English flavor there is in U.S. development. We had an English coach, and there were more than a few others around at a time where not many people other than at the highest levels were very versed on the intricacies of soccer.)

About this time (the mid 90s), the sweeper was slowly disappearing from games at the highest level. By the turn of the century, it was just about extinct. Coincidentally, it also happened to be the time when I started coaching soccer. As you might have guessed, my teams most definitely played a 4-4-2 with a sweeper.

But I also began to watch more and more soccer, at least what was available. It’s easy to forget that a decade ago, there wasn’t much soccer on the tube, some MLS, some internationals. As a coach, you start to look at the games a little differently.

Where was the sweeper?

There was no sweeper.

As I started coaching varsity high school and higher level youth games, some teams I played against didn’t have a sweeper, either. I noticed that most of the coaches that didn’t use a sweeper were pretty organized, and people that had played the game on a higher level than I had.

And so in 2003, I set out to learn as much about playing a flat back as I could. My teams have never played with a sweeper since.

(Ironically, for this discussion, this was also the time where I made the switch from coaching predominantly boys teams to predominantly girls teams.)

I’ve come to see how much better the flat back works, especially when trying to teach how to play team defense and how to read the game. Sadly (at least for me), I still play against teams with sweepers all the time, more so on the high school level where the coaches often aren’t experienced or – like me – just played with a sweeper when they were younger and don’t really watch much of the game.

One exception (the only one I had seen over the past few years) was the Nigerian women’s team, who actually did pretty well with the sweeper in 2007, although it often looked chaotic to say the least. You could see the sweeper running in circles last November when Nigeria was bludgeoned by Germany 8-0 in a friendly.

But when Nigeria opened the World Cup two weeks ago, much to my delight, the sweeper was gone, and I remarked “it was, by a pretty wide margin, the most organized display ever by an African side at the Women’s World Cup.”

Nigeria lost that game to France 1-0, but gave up only two goals in three games. If they weren’t in a group with France, Germany, and Canada, they may very well be still with us this weekend.

But just when the sweeper was about to be pronounced dead and Franz Beckenbauer was being found to speak at its funeral, the Brazil women’s team took the field against Australia. The lineup was announced as a 3-4-3, which got my attention, Kleiton Lima was really going to open things up with a formidable trio of Rosana, Cristiane, and – of course – Marta leading the line.

Something looked strange, and about 10 minutes in, Australia played a through ball wide, and Daiane came across from a deep position to win it.

“Boy, they’re playing deep,” I thought.

A few minutes later, it happened again, and the light bulb went off in Julie Foudy’s head at about the same time it did mine.

Daiane was playing as a sweeper and Erika and Aline were marking the two Australian forwards.

Cancel that call to Mr. Beckenbauer, please.

Foudy, like me, has been apoplectic about Brazil’s sweeper system. Just like I see in my games, their defense looks disjointed and completely vulnerable to switches of the field.

But the ultimate proof is in the pudding and the scorelines, and there is only one team that has yet to concede a goal, and that, folks, is Brazil.

Is Kleiton Lima a genius? Has he started a sweeper revolution? Or is it just that he has some of the best players in the world, and he could send them out there without any organization at all, and they still might win.

Unfortunately, my coaching career has also taught me that the teams that have the best players usually win, regardless of set up and anything else a coach can do in a short period of time.

So will the United States be unceremoniously dumped in the quarterfinals. By rival Brazil. Using a sweeper? Oh, the humanity. Everything I believe in rests on this game.

I fear the worst, but like Foudy, I think eventually the sweeper system is going to break down. It might as well be Sunday.

Here are 5 things to look for in Sunday morning’s epic clash between Brazil and the United States:

1) Lima’s tactics seem odd even with a sweeper

It is a 3-4-3, but the front three doesn’t seem to pressure all that much, allowing opponents to keep the ball in their half. When they have pressured, they’ve caused a couple of mistakes, but the only thing I can think is that Lima is afraid that his team isn’t fit enough to run for 90 minutes, particularly if it’s a hot day.
Also, I guess he figures his team is set up to counter well, so if they do get the ball they can come at opponents with their front three, with Maurine and Fabiana joining them.
The problem I’ve seen (and Brazil has scored only once in the first half, and that was a controversial goal against Norway) is that Brazil’s formation has turned into a 5-2-3 at times, which makes it very tough for them to get forward. To take advantage of this, the U.S. will need its central midfielders to play well and will need to get someone (Heather O’Reilly?) to run at Brazilian defenders in wide areas. But we’ll see.

2) There’s some history there

It seems everyone (me included) remembers the 2007 embarrassment more than any other, but the U.S. – minus Abby Wambach – came back and knocked off Brazil for the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics back in China on Carli Lloyd’s overtime goal. Jacqueline Purdy of ESPN (whom most of you at this site know) had this excellent piece on the rest of the history between the two teams, and why it’s likely the best rivalry in women’s soccer.

3) The 2008 team has some names you’ll recognize, but some differences, too

There were two major factors why the U.S. was able to prevail three years ago. One is in No. 4, but the other was the aforementioned fitness. If you remember, Brazil got very tired at the end of regulation and it only got worse in extra time.
The U.S. back four will feature only one of the four that played in 2008, Christie Rampone. The other three were Heather Mitts and Lori Chalupny (boy, did the U.S. miss her against Sweden. While the media has generally done a decent job, the fact that the Chalupny story hasn’t been more reported is very, very surprising) on the outside and Kate Markgraf joining Rampone in the middle. So things have changed in the back more than you’d think. The only difference in the midfield was Lindsay Tarpley starting at left mid, but Lauren Cheney did come on in the 71st minute at that spot, and played a part in the winning goal. Many people (me included) forget that.
With Wambach out, it was Angela Hucles who led the U.S. in scoring at the Olympics.
Statistically, Brazil outshot the U.S. 15-10, but had a 15-3 edge in corners, which is a bit scary, even if it was three years ago.

4) Hope Solo may be the biggest advantage the U.S. has

As you probably know by now, I’m not Solo’s biggest fan off the field, but on the field she’s the best goalkeeper in the world, and – if this World Cup is any indication – it’s not real close.
She can’t be faulted for either Swedish goal (although she did not come out on an early breakaway when she probably should have), and has looked confident for the most part, at least more confident than Andreia at the other end. It wouldn’t be shocking if a goalkeeper mistake was the difference.

5) So what lineup for Pia Sundhage?

Really, your guess is as good as mine. There are so many questions. Here are the definite starters: Wambach, Cheney, Rampone, Krieger, Lloyd, Solo.
That’s all, folks.
So there are five positions that we probably won’t know until Sunday morning, also scary.
O’Reilly will start if healthy at right mid, and if she’s not, I expect it to be Megan Rapinoe, I don’t think Sundhage would go to Kelly O’Hara to start.
In looking at lineups from the last few years, an interesting one was May of last year, when the U.S. crushed Germany 4-0 in Cleveland. The center back pairing that day was Amy LePeilbet and Rachel Buehler, with Ali Kreiger (Heather Mitts played the first half) and Stephanie Cox on the outside. Does Sundhage drop Buehler, put LePeilbet in the middle, with either Cox or Mitts (who we haven’t seen yet) on the left? Not out of realm of possibility.
I really think Lori Lindsey starts for Boxx in midfield, and I think that’s the right decision, although my dream is still a 4-3-3.
Which puts us at forward. I thought Amy Rodriguez had a good first half (and she nearly scored), but she was replaced for Alex Morgan. I really can’t see Morgan starting, but I’m not sure what Rodriguez’s confidence is right now. But if there’s someone that can move around and drag Brazil’s marking defenders all over the field, I’m sure it’s got to be Rodriguez.
So if it’s me (and you forced me to go 4-4-2):

Kreiger-Rampone-LePeilbet-Cox
O’Reilly-Lindsey-Lloyd-Cheney
Rodriguez-Wambach

Unfortunately, as I said, is just may come down to the fact that Brazil has better attacking players. But they did in 2008, too, and don’t underestimate how important the goalkeeper will be in this matchup. It may not be pretty, but I think the U.S. can get this done with superior aerial ability and a chance to wear down Brazil as the game goes on.

I hope I’m not out on a wing and a prayer.

Prediction: United States 2-1 (aet)

Elsewhere (times EDT):

SATURDAY

England vs. France, Noon
This will probably come down to whether France can handle the pressure. Most of these players have played in the Champions League, but this is another level of pressure in front of the whole world (sadly, the whole world isn’t watching the women’s Champions League yet).
I think Bruno Bini tried some things against Germany, like starting Wendie Renard for instance, that just didn’t work. Marie-Laure Delie is for real, and I think she’ll prove that again, no matter how good England looked against Japan.
Prediction: France 3-1

Germany vs. Japan, 2:45 p.m.
Japan has very skilled players and I would like to pick them, but I think this is probably the worst team they could have drawn, and not just because they’re the hosts.
Germany will surely impose itself physically on this game, and I’m not sure the Japanese will have an answer. But give Japan too many set pieces near their goal, and the Germans will be asking for big trouble.
Prediction: Germany 2-0

SUNDAY

Sweden vs. Australia, 7 a.m.
To best describe Australia, I have to go back to the Bad News Bears when the hated Yankees begrudgingly gave the Bears a little respect, “We still don’t think you’re all that good a baseball team, but you got guts. All of ya.”
Australia’s got guts, all of them, whomever Tom Sermanni throws out there. And it might be enough to get the Aussies to a surprise semifinal.
Prediction: 1-1 (Australia advances in penalties)