Well, I had 2-1 France as the final score in this game, and I’ll take full credit for it, but I didn’t exactly expect it to go down like this. In the end, Sweden had France exactly where they wanted them: down a goal, questioning themselves in the back, they even had a chance or two to go 2-0 up. But – before halftime no less – they had imploded twice on set pieces, and never really recovered. In a way it’s just Sweden being Sweden of late, good enough to compete with the best, but just not quite good enough to topple them. Meanwhile, for France, respect or no respect, here they are again in a major tournament semifinal with a chance to really announce their presence on the world scene:
Canada scored only one goal (a consolation tally in their first game) at the World Cup last year, and their offense hadn’t shown too many signs of being respectable, yet alone explosive since John Herdman took over the helm from Carolina Morace last year. So the key at the Olympics was clearly scoring goals, their defense should be able to keep people in check if they could only find someone to help out Christine Sinclair.
There are still many questions to be answered about the Canadians, but after a spirited 2-2 comeback against Sweden, one thing you can say for certain. It’s better than where they were last summer.
Sweden and Japan played to a scoreless draw, and although Japan had the better of the play and more chances, Sweden wasn’t exactly dominated, with the exception of a 20-minute stretch in the second half. Really, the game was about what I expected, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Sweden is close to the top teams, the question is whether they can get past them and make a run at the gold medal. I think they can, but it might take a couple of breaks. Here’s what we learned:
Poor Sweden, always one of the best teams in the world, always in the hunt, but never quite able to take home a major trophy, and therefore overshadowed by something. This year’s version – with two of the best players in the world in Lotta Schelin and Caroline Seger on display – rolled to victory over South Africa in their first game, but all the talk will be about Portia Modise and her 60th minute goal from midfield that will likely be the goal of the tournament when all is said and done. Of course, there’s good reason for all the talk about Modise, she’s a fantastic story that’s worth our time.
Was it already more than a year ago that we watched in delight as the United States women’s soccer team pulled off a comeback for the ages against Brazil, and then in horror as Japan did the same just a week later to capture an unexpected (and its first) World Cup.
Of course, it’s a little hard to be horrified when speaking of Japan, what a great story and a class act in a country that was not far removed from a devastating tsunami.
For whatever reason, the United States has continued to just about own the Olympic tournament, even if they haven’t won a World Cup since 1999, the U.S. has won every gold medal but one (2000) the Olympics have had to offer, posting a dominant 18-2-3 all-time mark.
Both losses at the Olympics came to Norway, including the opener of the 2008 Games in Beijing, but the Norwegians are nowhere to be found in Britain, and they’re not alone. The entertaining cast of 16 characters we had last summer in Germany has been cut to 12 for London (of course, most soccer matches won’t be in London, but I digress), and sadly we’ll be missing the Germans themselves, the aforementioned Norwegians, up-and-coming Australia, and African sides Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, neither of whom embarrassed themselves in Germany (Nigeria, especially, they beat Canada, and gave France fits).
But even without those teams, when it comes to the medal rounds, there are plenty of nominees to dethrone the Americans, starting with World Champion Japan. If you’re like me, you forgot (at least a little), but the Japanese were beginning to knock on the door way back in China four years ago. A new coach named Norio Sasaki had them playing decent soccer, but they were derailed twice by those darn Americans, 1-0 in the group stage and 4-2 in the semifinals after grabbing an early lead (Japan also played the U.S. tough in the 2004 quarterfinals, losing 2-1 on an Abby Wambach goal).
Then, of course, there are the French, who on paper, might be the favorites, running roughshod over just about everyone (including Japan) in friendlies, and seemingly just getting better since last summer, where they were pretty darn good. They haven’t knocked off the United States yet, but that didn’t stop Japan last year, did it?
Those seem to be the three heavy favorites. Great Britain, as the hosts, could be a factor, but I find it somewhat amazing that countries scour the world for players that will be eligible to play for them, and then Scotland and England can barely get along to combine to make a team for the Olympics, for crying out loud. But I don’t live there, so who am I to talk?
Sweden can’t be counted out, Brazil has Marta, and Canada has Christine Sinclair. So, really, if all goes according to plan, the entire knockout stage will be to eliminate one of: New Zealand, Cameroon, Colombia, South Africa, or North Korea.
So much for drama there, huh?
But I’ve been invited (as far as you know) back to the AWK Summer Timeshare, so here I am. The place looks a little different, but I’m happy to be here. Coverage will be a little tougher at the Olympics than it was at the World Cup. As Hope Solo has told us (and some others), there is plenty of other action going on around England, which means that all 12 teams will play on the same day in all three group match days. But we’ll do our best.
And have fun doing it.
A few times after the completion of games of the recent men’s Euros, Michael Cox of the fantastic Zonal Marking website simply said, “Small margins.” Like Spain beating Portugal in penalty kicks, for instance. With the real start of the tournament not until the quarterfinals, a team getting some breaks for three straight games may be able to beat the odds and take home an unlikely gold medal. But, as the Spain men have proven repeatedly, maybe not.
Here are my quick predictions:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.