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Women’s World Cup – Day 14: 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.

Bonus:

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.

Double bonus:

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.

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 5

It was the best of the women’s game, but it was also the worst of the women’s game Thursday at the Women’s World Cup.

We saw France pick what appeared to be a more athletic Canada side apart with better ball control, more precise passing, looking like the “Barcelona of the women’s game” (although, as a few people have pointed out, just because a team can string four passes together doesn’t mean they should be compared to Barcelona), in an absolute rout.

Then we saw Nigeria, with a great deal of success, try to bully their way to a result against heavily favored Germany, in a match that will be remembered more for the number of injuries and fouls (and a little bit of curious officiating) than for the actual play on the field.

But you have to take the good with the bad when you cover a tournament, and I’ll try to make sense of the Thursday proceedings here.

And so, without further ado, here are the 10 things we learned in Day 5 of Germany 2011.

1) France’s win could reverberate further than just today

We’ve heard rumblings that the game is gettign more technical, that the days of just physically beating an opponent into submission (see: Norway in the 90s) were dead. I’ve read from Anson Dorrance and Even Pellerud on how the women’s game may never really evolve that way, and that athleticism will always win out (Dorrance has changed his tune slightly, Pellerud – who admittedly has had great success – really hasn’t).
For the first 15 minutes, Canada was buzzing, but once France settled down, they did circles around the Canadians, they were better passers, better dribblers, just played the game better, and there was little Canada could do to stop it.
Can France go all the way this way? Possibly, but…

2) Maybe the physicality thing is not quite dead yet

I’m torn with Nigeria’s performance against Germany. Part of me wants to congratulate their organization, and the fact that they’ve come a long way since an 8-0 drubbing in a friendly just six months ago. They battled, clawed, and made things difficult for Germany at every turn.
However, saying it was an ugly match would be generous. It set a Women’s World Cup record for fouls, saw more bodies on the ground than in the previous nine games combined seemingly, and saw very few movements that resembled anything beautiful like France was putting together.
The age old question, of course, is what are the Nigerians to do? Take a beating and smile? They did what they thought was best to try to win the game. It’s up to Germany (and the officials) to break them down. And today they couldn’t.

3) Scorelines don’t necessarily dictate how one-sided a game was

No one is debating that Canada deserved to get a result or anything, but if Canada could have stuck one in (and they were physically dominating the French in the first 15 minutes), who knows? Diana Matheson had a great chance in the 15th minute, it went begging, France was on the board 10 minutes later, and they never looked back from there. But if that first one goes in.

4) Ironically, France’s first goal came off a strong tackle

Canadian holding midfielder Sophie Schmidt was off to a good start in the match, took a touch in the 24th minute and thought she had time to clear. But her counterpart Elise Bussaglia came in with a hard (and clean) tackle, played a quick 1-2 with Louisa Necib, and Gaetane Thiney was at the far post to put France in front, and – as I stated before – it was all France after that.
Even Thiney’s second goal could be attributed to pressure. This time Emily Zurrer thought she had more time, Marie-Laure Delie got in the way of the clearance, and Thiney’s blast from outside the box was perfect. But it doesn’t happen without the pressure.

5) France looked much more comfortable with a formation tweak

Bruno Bini was in a little bit of a bind, as he pulled captain Sandrine Soubeyrand at halftime of the opener against Nigeria in his 4-5-1 to get more on the attack, moving Elise Bussaglia – whom he started wide – into that role.
Many thought he would make that switch permanent against Canada, but he wanted his veteran captain on the field, so he went to a 4-2-3-1 with Bussaglia and Soubeyrand holding. It allowed Louisa Necib to play in front of them and have more of the ball, and it worked very well after the first few minutes.
Whether France will have that same kind of success against Germany, or in the knockout stages, remains to be seen.

6) It was a sad end for Christine Sinclair and Canada

Under Pellerud eight years ago, Canada actually had the lead in the semifinals against Sweden before two late goals killed their dream. But the goal scorer in that game typifies Canada, Kara Lang was 16 when she scored. Eight years later, Lang is retired due to persistent knee injuries. Christine Latham, who also had some big goals in that tournament having just turned 22, but isn’t around anymore, either. Brittany Timko and Diana Matheson, both teenage starters during that World Cup, never developed into stars.
Which leaves Christine Sinclair, who should be around at 32 when Canada hosts the World Cup in 2015, but the current crop doesn’t look as promising as 2003.
But four years is a long time, Canada did win the Gold Cup in the winter, and Jonelle Filigno (20) looks like a potential star, so we’ll see.

7) You can bash Nigeria, but Germany wasn’t good today, either

The ball just moved too slow, and you wonder how much offense Silvia Neid is going to be able to generate with Kim Kulig and Simone Laudehr both as holding midfielers (although, as she did on the goal, Laudehr did get forward a bit today). Birgit Prinz was not a happy camper, and Neid has to make a tough decision and soon, to cut her loose (sit her) and go with Alexandra Popp, or stick with her. A very, very tough one indeed.

8) I’m not sure what we wanted Nigeria to do

Ngozi Uche (and her German staff) know if they come out and play a wide open game, they may get run over. So they turn to the style which they played today. It was borderline hideous and fairly gruesome to watch. But it gave them the best chance to win, didn’t it? That is the object, no?
Holding midfielder Rita Chekwelu has had two very good games and it’s a shame to see her wrapped up with the rest. But, unless someone changes the rules, that’s the way it’s going to go, we saw plenty of it at the Men’s World Cup last summer as well.

9) It may not be worth it to win Group A

It may be slightly embarrassing for the Germans not to win their group when they’re hosting the World Cup, but I take a long look at sitting some people and getting them a rest if I’m Neid and Bini in the last group match.
The likely road to the Cup for the winners of Group A: England, United States, Brazil.
The likely road for second place: Japan, Brazil, United States.
I don’t see enough difference to make this game huge, especially because you’re playing so many games in a short period, some of them in intense heat. But we’ll see.

10) Refs need to show cards sometimes

Cha Sung Mi, the South Korean referee of the second game today, never really had control of the game, and – despite the fact that people decry them as not having control (irony) – probably needed to show some cards early in the match.
When you do that, the Nigerians have to think twice about hacking people because they may get sent off.

Bonus:

French women better than men

The last time the French men won a World Cup game by three goals or more? July 12, 1998. Of course, that happened to be in a World Cup final and over Brazil, too, but hey, one step at a time.

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned, Day 1:

Jenna and the finest women’s soccer website on the planet has been nice enough to ask me to add my two cents (or $2) on the Women’s World Cup. I spend most of my time writing on MLS and the men’s game, but I am a big fan of the women’s game. In my coaching career, I’m primarily a girls coach these days, and it’s always nice for them to have someone to look up to. Sadly, some of the youngsters I coach were barely born in 1999, and obviously have no recollection of that wonderful summer.

However, they can look on their televisions (hopefully they will) and see sell-out crowds in Germany and a country head over heels for the women’s game.

Here’s how I described what I did last year for the men’s World Cup:

“I’m going to try every day of the World Cup for a little different kind of analysis, entitled What We Learned. We won’t go too deep into tactics, and it may not even be terribly cohesive, but they are things we learned during the day’s action, and maybe some things to think about going forward.”

The tactics were so interesting today that they do get a couple of mentions, but without further ado, 10 things we learned in Day 1 of Germany 2011.

1) Nigeria put together, by a pretty wide margin, the most organized effort of an African side in Women’s World Cup history

The Nigerian women have always been known to me as the “Last of the Mohicans” (a fine movie, by the way) because they were still playing a sweeper long after it was seemingly extinct at the world level (and some levels below).
As late as last November, on a grainy Zapruder-like film, it seemed as if Nigeria was playing a sweeper in a 8-0 thrashing (5-0 at half) at the hands of Germany.
But there was no sweeper today. They knew they had a speed advantage, closed down the middle of field, played an organized high line, and were somewhat unlucky to leave with nothing.
Kate Markgraf (who I thought did a good job, too) insinuated that it may not have been Ngozi Uche but her assistants who were the tactical people, but it was refreshing to see some organization out of an obviously talented side.
If Desire Oparanozie finishes a 25th-minute breakaway in which France keeper Berangere Sapowicz seemed to get her angles all wrong, who knows?
It is somewhat unfortunate that Nigeria is stuck in Group A, though.

2) France has skill, but do they have athleticism?

France was able to knock the ball around, but there were a few times where they just couldn’t keep up physically, and that could be scary for them going forward. Camile Abily, Elise Bussaglia, and Sandrine Soubeyrand (who was subbed off at halftime by Bruno Bini) in the midfield, especially, looked like they were completely frustrated by the buzzing Nigerians. Are the Nigerians athletic enough to give the Germans and Canadians the same problems, or is France just slow? I guess we’ll find out together. Elodie Thomis came off the bench to solve that problem in the 57th minute, and we’ll see if maybe Bini goes to her to start in the pivotal Canada match.

3) Louisa Necib taketh and Louisa Necib giveth away

Whenever you hear “the female Zidane”, obviously you get excited, and it didn’t take her long to show off her skill. But as the game progressed, like some of her teammates (see No. 2), she looked a little slow and made some poor decisions on the ball. That’s the difference between a good player and a great player, especially a midfielder, and she did make a great pass to send Marie-Laure Delie in late in the game. So, although I wasn’t overly impressed, it’s only the first game, I guess.

4) Marie-Laure Delie might be the real deal because….

By halftime, I was underwhelmed. But when her moment came in the 56th minute, she checked back, made a fine pass to start the movement, and then was at the right place at the right time to finish it seconds later. Getting 22 goals in 21 caps is no fluke.

5) Ian Holloway would be proud of Carolina Morace

Like Holloway at underdog Blackpool, Morace decided if she was going to go down today to heavily favored Germany, she was going to go down attacking, and we the viewing public thank her profusely. Morace had the “Santa Clara 4-3-3” that Jerry Smith made popular in the college ranks, but most teams today play with two holding midfielders (as Germany did). Morace started with Melissa Tancredi and Janelle Filigno not in a defending 4-5-1, but a straight attacking 4-3-3, Kaylyn Kyle as a box-to-box midfielder. Down two goals, Morace threw Kelly Parker in for Kyle to make it a more attacking formation. It put Sophie Schmidt (who I thought did her best) in a tough spot as the lone defensive midfielder, and it created some holes, but it was fun to watch, and Canada nearly pulled it off? Does Morace do it against France, or against Nigeria, who may use the lack of people back to counter them successfully?

6) Ah, those outside backs

Lots of youth coaches try to hide their weakest players at outside back, but as the U.S. men’s team learned Saturday night against Mexico, at high levels, you’d better have capable people in those spots. Unfortunately for Canada, Marie-Eve Nault had a disastrous first half. Thirty seconds before the first goal, she was beaten badly and Kerstin Garefrekes nearly scored. Then, fellow outside back Rhian Wilkinson switched off, Babett Peter was able to deliver a nice cross, and Garefrekes was able to outjump Nault for the first goal. On the second goal, Nault was woefully late coming forward, and then got subbed out at halftime, although her replacement – Robin Gayle – was caught stepping late just as Nault was in the 66th minute, only to have Garefrekes have one of the worst misses you’ll ever see. So some work for Canada to do there, but some of that is the attacking formation with no real midfielders to track back.
In the other game, by the way, Nigeria had a big injury in right back Faith Ikidi. Sub Josephine Chukwunonge didn’t look nearly as comfortable.
For France, right back seems an odd position for 6-foot-1 Wendie Renard, as – although obviously a target at the other end on set pieces – she looked vulnerable defending, eventually leaving with an injury in the 69th minute.

7) Goalkeeping will be an issue

One of the reasons I like Markgraf is because she is frank, she said that female goalkeeping is not as good as male goalkeeping, and the reason why Germany and the U.S. have to be favorites is because they have the best keepers.
For all of Hope Solo’s immaturity and questionable comments off the field, you don’t get much argument that she’s the best goalie in the world, and when you see keepers flap at crosses in the France-Nigeria game, I think it could be a deciding factor.
For Canada, Nault held Celia Okoyino Da Mbabi onside, but where was Erin McLeod? When she finally came into the picture, she was in her goal and had no shot at a save. If you’re going to play that high a line, your keeper has to play with you and hopefully cut off a ball like that.

8) These teams had a long time to work on set pieces

The coach in me was stopping the tape every set piece to write down some of the creativity these teams were using. You can tell they’ve been in camp for a while.
It started just two minutes in when when Necib hit an overlapping player. A few minutes later, Gaetane Thiney hit a post on a well-worked front-post corner, and Canada had all sorts of tricks up their sleeves.
Of course, as Julie Foudy correctly pointed out, what was the one that actually resulted in a goal? Christine Sinclair (who was fantastic and scary for Canada today) walked up the ball and pounding it home with a great, but fairly straightforward, free kick.

9) Germany has an embarrassment of riches

Silvia Neid’s three subs were Alexandra Popp, Inka Grings, and Fatmine Bajramaj in that order, three players that would likely be starting for any other team in the tournament, and that includes the U.S. We’ll have to see how Neid handles Popp, she doesn’t want to overwhelm Popp, but she’s too good to be on the bench.

10) Thankfully less riff-raff then in the men’s game

After watching a month of the Gold Cup with players rolling around on the ground to embellish, getting in the officials’ faces over and over, and all kinds of gamesmanship, there was none of that today. In fact, we almost escaped the entire day – with all four teams playing aggressive, but clean soccer. In fact, we almost escaped the day without a single card (there were none in the France-Nigeria match), but Germany got two in the final 10 minutes of the second match (Simone Laudehr and Annike Krahn). Hopefully, it continues.