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Olympics – What We Learned: Quarterfinals – United States 2:0 New Zealand

“In one physical model of the universe the shortest distance between two points is a straight line in the opposite direction.” – Ty Webb

The United States Soccer Federation has recently advised all of its men’s Academy teams to try to switch to some variation of a 4-3-3 recently (actually, much stronger than advised in many cases) in an attempt to get more possession-oriented soccer at youth levels, and presumably to try to take that to the national team level at some point in the future.

In theory, I’m all for it: most of my young teams play in a 4-3-3 to try to teach them positioning and to create more possession and movement by giving another option out of the midfield and encouring the wingers to pinch in and allow the outside backs to overlap and get forward. Of course, despite what we may hear from some parents and others, winning isn’t our top priority.

Pia Sundhage, probably taking some advice from somewhere because Scandinavians play it about as often as a winter heat wave takes over Stockholm, experimented with a 4-3-3 after the World Cup, to mixed reviews and results. It was pretty obvious by then that the best lineup for the U.S. women’s national team was something that put Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan together, and quite simply that was a 4-4-2.

As the play of the United States has gotten more and more direct over the last few months, its status has been climbing. Do you remember before the World Cup last year? Germany was heavy favorites, the United States? Not so much. Obviously some personnel changes and more experience help the cause, but the U.S. has reclaimed its spot as the favorite to win a major tournament – in this case the Olympics – by doing what works best for them, playing it as quickly as possible at two of the best strikers in the world.

While against France and Japan (and maybe even Canada), things won’t be as easy, against New Zealand, all it took was one look at the terrified look on poor central defender Abby Erceg’s face every time the ball was played long and Morgan was on her outside shoulder, inside shoulder, or seemingly both at once. If Erceg did get there, she probably wasn’t going to be able to do what she wanted with it, and that kind of pressure just builds up over 90 minutes. New Zealand makes more mistakes, the U.S. gets more of the ball in their end, and gets more chances.

New Zealand – to their credit and as we expected – battled until the end. But the result and the number of scoring chances was inevitable. It won’t be as easy in the final two rounds, but I don’t see any reason why it won’t work.

Here’s what else we learned in the United States’ 2-0 win over New Zealand:

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Olympics – Quarterfinals Preview: Six Degrees Of Ali Riley

“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”  – Grateful Dead

There might be someone on this planet that doesn’t like Ali Riley. Maybe she cut someone off in traffic somewhere once, and that person swears revenge. Maybe when she was playing at Stanford, she smiled a little too much and it rubbed someone the wrong way. But I’ve never talked to anyone who has a bad thing to say about Ali Riley. In fact, I’ve never talked with anyone who’s talked with anyone who’s been negative toward her.

Call it Six Degrees of lack of Ali Riley Negativity, I guess.

Riley grew up like any talented young soccer player in southern California, dreaming of playing on the biggest stage, which was within a stone’s throw of Riley’s home when Ali was just 11 and the United States beat China to win the World Cup in front of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl in 1999. She continued up the youth ranks, good enough to get her a scholarship to Stanford, where she would eventually lead them to the national championship game in 2009.

Along the way, she got the attention of the national team, playing in the 2006 U-20 World Cup, and making her full international debut at a major tournament in Beijing two years later. Now a fixture with the national team, she might be its biggest star and with that comes all the publicity.

Of course, I’m not really fooling anyone reading this, am I? I mean, she has 60 caps for New Zealand by now, right?

Funny how life works.

When she was about to enter college, Ali’s dad John, a UCLA economics professor who grew up in New Zealand, decided to make a speculative phone call to people he knew in New Zealand to say his daughter might be able to help them if they wished. Riley had never been called into a youth national team here in the States, and by most accounts, had never really expected to. Making the U.S. national team is not as easy as it looks. Do the math of Division I college programs and quality clubs in the country and narrow it down to even a pool of a few dozen. Good luck.

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Olympics – Matchday 3: What We Learned – New Zealand 3:1 Cameroon

Sometimes a smile can tell the whole story. As the final whistle blew, and New Zealand finally had a win at a major competition, the smiles told the story. After 14 straight games without a victory over more than two decades, all the hard work behind the scenes had finally paid off. Granted, it was a 3-1 victory over Cameroon that they rightfully expected to have, but as much as we – and I’m as guilty as anyone – want to talk about off-the-ball and off-the-field incidents, sometimes something as simple as a smile is all you need to see, no matter what happens to New Zealand against the United States on Friday.

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