Tag Archives: norio sasaki

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 – 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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Olympics – Matchday 2: What We Learned – Japan 0:0 Sweden

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:

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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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