One of the toughest things when trying to project what’s going to happen in a tournament as it progresses is how much a single performance matters in the context of the entirety of it. Great Britain was awesome against Cameroon, arguably the best game I’ve seen anyone play at the Olympics to date. But was it because Britain was that good or was Cameroon – even though they seemed to be playing hard – that poor? And even if it was Britain, can they replicate it in the next few outings? I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but I was encouraged.
Probably not too surprisingly under a British coach and with a young, athletic team that might not quite add up talent-wise with some of the best in the world, New Zealand under Tony Readings came out with a high-pressing, direct style that gave hosts Great Britain a lot of trouble at times in the Olympic opener. But as it was at the World Cup last year, the Ferns came up a little bit short, thanks to Stephanie Houghton’s free kick in the 64th minute. With eight teams out of 12 instead of eight of 16, New Zealand still has a decent chance to advance. Here’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wish Alina Garciamendez was American
Wait, she is? Someone alert US Soccer, quick.