Tag Archives: shannon boxx

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 – 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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U.S.-France Semifinal Preview: Beware Delie, Necib, And The 4-2-3-1

A few months ago, Richard Farley (who does an excellent job over at Foxsoccer.com, where you can find the suddenly ubiquitous Jenna as well) and I started to predict what was going to happen in the Women’s World Cup.

I had just seen the U.S. get taken apart by England (at least in the first half) in a friendly, saw England had a relatively easy group, and told Richard that England might be able to make it all the way to the finals to face Germany.

(I was never sold on Brazil for reasons that I don’t have time to get into here, but they had to do with disorganization in the federation, etc.)

Richard countered with France. Typical Farley, I thought, pick an obscure squad that no one else was going to look at. France wasn’t going to touch Germany, and had CONCACAF champion Canada in their group. There was no way.

Of course, truth be told, although I don’t like to admit it publicly, Richard is usually correct in these arguments.

And, another truth be told, I hadn’t really done any research on the subject (which is probably why Richard is usually right most of the time, shocking how that works). The more I looked at France, the more I was impressed. There were some curious results (like losing to Holland in the Cyprus Cup in the spring), sure, but it was most certainly a program on its way up.

After going to the finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2010 with a good chunk of the French national team, Lyon won it in 2011 impressively over German opposition (Turbine Potsdam), and by wiping out England’s best team – Arsenal – in the semifinals.

The French women’s league is probably the third best league in the world. Montpellier, which went to the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010, finished fourth domestically – even with French goal scoring machine Marie-Laure Delie leading the way – and didn’t even qualify for the Champions League last year.

You add in a veteran coach in Bruno Bini, a supportive federation, and the World Cup right next door, and you’ve got yourselves a sleeper.

If France finished second behind Germany, it would likely get England in the quarterfinals, and France could take them, which would likely get them Brazil in the semis. And so, I picked a France-Germany final (yea, I had the U.S. losing to Germany in the semis. Sorry.)

And so, here we are, the United States and France in the semifinals. Perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised. And we certainly shouldn’t think this will be an easy game for the U.S.

Here are the five things to look for in Wednesday’s semifinal (11:30 a.m., ESPN):
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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)

Women’s World Cup – Day 11: What We Learned – United States Edition

There’s always a point in every season where things go wrong. When they do, I inevitably refer to Apollo 13, specifically the scene where it didn’t look good for the astronauts.

One of the men says, “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.”

Legendary Flight Director Gene Kranz snaps back at him, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

I still believe, even after today’s pseudo-debacle for the United States women, this might prove to be our finest hour.

If there were few people that thought the U.S. had a shot of dethroning Germany, there are surely less now. But, now that we’ve seen each team three times, even with all their faults – and they were on full display today in the back – they might still be the best team in the World Cup.

(I can hear you laughing, but seriously, think about it. And don’t just use the third game as your barometer, all three games, please.)

Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle will likely come Sunday against Brazil in the quarterfinals, but four years ago at this time, there were few people that thought Brazil was going to beat the United States back then (let alone 4-0). We shall see.

(I’ll have a preview of the U.S.-Brazil game and the dreaded sweeper Friday night.)

For now, here are the 10 things we learned in Day 11 of Germany 2011.

1) You saw the danger of playing a high line in the back and of playing a flat 4-4-2

People will talk about the lack of pace and that certainly is an issue, but in the center of a defense, it’s more about reading the game than pure speed, and Rachel Buehler and Christie Rampone had a lot trouble anticipating and being in the right spot today. That could be a real problem against Brazil, but it might not with a little different game plan.
The trouble on the first goal started when Buehler had to step up where a holding midfielder would have (should have) been, and then all heck broke loose behind her (and Amy LePeilbet should have been sent off, there’s not much doubt).

2) Lauren Cheney not only should start, but is one of the best three or four players in this tournament

Starting her at left mid has turned out to be brilliant by Pia Sundhage, because teams can’t track her coming in from the left. She pops up in dangerous spots, and is a dangerous player, able to score from places on the field others can’t.
Unfortunately for the U.S. today, she wasn’t very clinical around goal, but she’s shown enough of late, that if you give her the chances she got today against Brazil, I’ll bet on her scoring at least once.

3) Of course, Cheney vacating the left side leaves LePeilbet on an island

And that’s going to be a real lonely place when Marta and company start running at her. I don’t know what Sundhage’s answer is there, maybe put Heather O’Reilly – who hopefully will be healthy – on the left side and Cheney on the right. We’ll talk about that Friday.

4) It doesn’t mean much going forward, though

This is from yesterday, but it bears repeating: “As I said in the opening, it is a great accomplishment to win the group, and I’m sure they’re happy to avoid Germany in the quarterfinals, but I think it’s still a toss-up at best in the England-France match (and that should be a good one). Obviously, just on today’s performances, maybe England was better, but as we’ve seen already, things change from game to game.”

5) It is a missed opportunity, though, for the U.S., and Germany has an easy path to the finals

You can’t help but think the U.S. would be better off against Sweden and Australia then Brazil. But such is life. The real winners are Germany, who get a tricky game with Japan (but one with a good matchup for them) and then the Sweden-Australia winner in the semifinals. Hello, finals.

6) Unfortunately, it might be too late for Sundhage to make changes

Sundhage has proven she’s not afraid to pull the trigger on player moves, and I wouldn’t put it past her to throw a lineup out there Sunday that didn’t include LePeilbet, or possibly Lori Lindsey for Shannon Boxx.
But my mind wonders what a 4-3-3 with Megan Rapinoe able to sit in a hole and run at people with O’Reilly and Lauren Cheney in wide positions would look like. It ain’t gonna happen, though, so there’s no use dreaming about it.

7) Thomas Dennerby did win the tactical battle, though

Some of what he did was forced by the suspension to Caroline Seger (another discouraging point for the U.S.), but Dennerby decided that speed was the way to beat the United States, gave Josefine Oqvist the start over Jessica Landstrom, and it was definitely the way to go.

8) Australia may lack some in talent and experience, but not in guts

Sometimes you can get by with guts, like when your opponent takes advantage of a defensive calamity to grab a lead, and you come back – literally – off the ensuing kickoff and tie the game. Sweden will probably have more talent on the field on Sunday, but I’m probably picking Australia just because of the pure hunger factor. If they can’t find a way, they’ll make one. Until they play Germany, I guess.

9) Brazil was more of the same today

They played almost all their regulars, which was somewhat surprising (read yesterday’s stuff), and still went into halftime against Equatorial Guinea scoreless. Through Marta and some fantastic finishing (Erika’s goal was fantastic), Brazil prevailed, but didn’t really dominate in they way you’d expect them to. Again.

10) The Brazil-U.S. quarterfinal should be a great game

You can bet as you read this that the U.S. coaching staff is scratching their heads trying to figure out how to attack a Brazil sweeper formation they probably haven’t seen in 20 years.
I think they’ll succeed there (more on Friday), but stopping Marta? That might be a taller task. But we’ll see.

Bonus:

Zonal marking is still stupid

That is all, Sweden.

Double bonus:

Did not going to ground hurt Elise Thorsnes and Norway?

Hear me out. If Thorsnes were any men’s player, she probably would have gone to ground when she was hit by Australian keeper Melissa Barbieri on the Aussies’ defensive nightmare that nearly cost them a spot in the quarterfinals.
She scored, and that is admirable.
But, if she didn’t, and went down, it likely would have had to be a penalty and a red card to Barbieri. Would Australia with 10 players been able to come back?
I know I’m reaching. But, at the least, Barbieri is lucky she’ll be playing in the quarterfinals.