Archive for July, 2011

USA 3, France 1: Once More Into The Breach For The USWNT Results In Triumph

EXTERMINATED! (Psst...you hear those Wambach critic crickets? We don't...now.)

It’s gone beyond tactics. It’s turned into a force of will thing now. This collective journey that we’re all taking. It’s out of our hands now.

Today the U.S. proved that you don’t have to play the best soccer for the most minutes to win. You can completely lose the midfield battle, get out-shot, look both confused and exhausted at times, and not only win, but win by two goals.

That’s why you can’t help but think that it’s beyond discussion. This story will be written no matter the tactics or strategy.

Bit of a different game today. Just like Sunday, the U.S. struck first, then gave up a goal to tie it up, and eventually prevailed, just with not as much controversy or drama. But it’s been a little hard to put a label on this game (in an effort to try and avoid chalking it up to the Team of Destiny stuff). So, instead of trying to put together one long narrative, here are three tiny ones, that, hopefully, will add up to a pretty clear picture of the game. All the stuff I missed, hit me up in the comments.

Abby Wambach: American Folk Hero

Twenty years from now, we’ll remember her as a giant, with a forehead that doubled as a missile launcher, a frame that opponents bounced off of and a will that raised the play of her entire team.

In today’s world, it’s really not that far off.

Abby Wambach has become an American folk hero.

But, with the way she scores those goals, it’s hard not to paint her that way. Case in point, today’s goal. France had been dominating for the entire second half, and seemed poised to net a game-winner before the end of regulation. But with one flick of her head, Wambach quashed all of the momentum that France had cultivated for the past 35 minutes. And it wasn’t just a simple nod. Wambach took two giant steps, elevated above everyone around her, right to the exact spot where only she could reach with her head, and sent a statement into the back of the net. Her momentum caused her to smack into the post, but the Wambach wasn’t fazed.

There’s a difference between playing well and being successful, and doing what Wambach does. Lauren Cheney has been playing well. Abby Wambach has been seizing games by the throat.

It’s not just the goals (although there’s something inherently beautiful about those headers). She had two near-misses today (one of which she full-out ran over a defender and the French goalkeeper, leaving them sprawled in her wake) that demonstrated both how skilled she is, and how her talents allow her teammates to play in a way that no other team can. Even when she was slumping during the group stage, she still had the ability to pull defenders away from other teammates, and set them up to score.  Throw whatever superlative you want at her: winner, game-changer, folk hero. It all sticks.

The French Perspective

Turns out Bini's gamble pointed the wrong way....home.

At 77:38 Bruno Bini took a gamble. Despite trailing the United States for most of the first half, France had equalized at 55’ and dominated for most of the second half. But Bini wasn’t content to try his hand against the Americans in overtime or penalty kicks. If France was going to win, it needed to score during regulation. So, he subbed out veteran defender Sandrine Soubeyrand in favor of lightning-fast forward Elodie Thomis. Yes, it would leave France a little more vulnerable in the back, but it was worth it to have the speedy Thomis charging at goal, especially with the confusion that France’s offense was already causing for the American defense. Approximately one minute later, Bini’s risk burned him.  As soon as Abby Wambach’s scorching header hit the back of the net, France’s mission changed from trying to put the game away to needing a goal just to force overtime. But almost immediately after that, Alex Morgan ensured that Bini and France’s luck had run out for good.

It almost wasn’t like that though. Louisa Necib had mystified the U.S. defense all day, opening it up, stretching it, bending it to her will. France was throwing waves and waves of assaults on the U.S. goal for most of the game, and the defense was beginning to crack. Bossing the central midfield wasn’t a problem, thanks to a fifth midfielder, and the less-than-stellar play of U.S. central midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd. They almost equalized in the 32nd minute when Sonia Bompastor sent a rifle off the cross bar from long-range. The long-range shot approach worked well enough, so they kept launching them, mostly into keeper Hope Solo’s arms. The strategy did pay off in the 55th minute though, when Bompastor sent another floater in to Solo. But the keeper had to hold her line in case a streaking Gaetane Thiney attempted to redirect it. That indecision left just enough room for Bompastor’s shot to bounce into the opposite side of the net for the equalizer.

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USA vs. France: Live Commentary…The USWNT Looking For Finals Access.

After 120 mins, Hopo had a huge Solo on Sunday...

One knockout down–in dramatic fashion–two to go.

Today the USA takes on France for the right to face the winner of Sweden vs. Japan for the Women’s World Stein.

Becky Sauerbrunn comes in for the red-card carrying Rachel Buehler.

The United States with one less day of rest than Bruno Bini’s ladies for France.

Kickoff at 9am P.T. Coverage on ESPN at the same time; stream available at ESPN360.com. (We’ll try to find others.)

Starting line-ups shortly as the United States faces a much more zonal-responsible team than Brazil.

Your comments below.

Women’s World Cup Preview Lite: USA vs. France

TSG’s Maura Gladys with a peek into the US ladies’ match-up with France

It’d be nice to just stay suspended in the few days after the United States’ monumental win over Brazil, relishing the glory and beauty of the performance. But alas, it’s on to Mönchengladbach and a semifinal date with France.

Look up "Frenchman" in the dictionary and it's nearly a fait accompli that you'll get the mug of France coach Bruno Bini...

Les Bleus is definitely not the opponent that the U.S. expected to see in the semifinals, but the team has been playing attractive, smooth soccer and have a style that could potentially cause the U.S. some headaches.

France is both technically sound and tactically aware, thanks to its coach, Bruno Bini. Bini encourages creativity and inspiration from the squad as long as they have the discipline to recover seamlessly. The general rule of thumb is, “Be creative, go with the ball, but when you lose possession, cover the zone you’re in.”

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On the Women’s World Cup: TSG’s Shaun Webb says, “the team that dances together, wins together.”

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Nowhere is that creativity fostered more than with Louisa Necib. Necib is the lynchpin of France’s offense and almost all attacks go through her.  The key battle of the game could boil down to Necib against Shannon Boxx. If Boxx can continue her excellent form she’ll cut off Necib’s supply to Camille Abily, Gaetane Thiney and Marie-Laure Delie. However, if her 33-year-old year old legs haven’t recovered and her form from the group games sneaks back in, it will be a long day for U.S. defenders.

The two key issues for the United States are recovery and mental approach. The game against Brazil was both physically and emotionally draining, but the squad needs to be at its best for France, who, despite also playing 120 minutes and going to penalty kicks, had an extra day to rest, and will be gunning to exploit the United States’ fatigue. With the trap-game moniker floating around as well, the United States needs to enter the match re-focused and re-energized

Sauerbrunn... already called on by Sundhage

Sundhage announced that Becky Sauerbrunn will start in place of the red-carded Rachel Buehler. No one expected Sauerbrunn to see any minutes this tournament, but Sundhage is again sticking to her “21-player deep” mantra. She does have an escape valve if Sauerbrunn struggles though. Amy LePeilbet, whose natural position is central defender, could slide into the middle, making room for Stephanie Cox on the left.

Megan Rapinoe’s recent play merits her re-insertion back into the starting lineup, but that doesn’t mean that she’ll get the start. A logical move would be to start Rapinoe at left wing, bump Lauren Cheney up to her natural position of forward and sit Amy Rodriguez. But Sundhage has been reluctant to sit A-Rod all tournament despite her poor finishing and blown chances.

Bini is sharp and knows how to key on his opponents weaknesses. Against England, France attacked primarily through the right side, in order to exploit the lack of pace of England’s left winger and fullback. Expect France to similarly target Sauerbrunn, by attempting to lure her out of an organized defense and play through that space.

But as we’ve learned, no amount of tactics or maneuvering can keep down a passionate, inspired American team.

Editorial: The Women Could Teach The Men A Thing Or Two

In this author's humble opinion, the last truly great Brazil team. The flair and sexiness of their play was orgasmic. Their haircuts and facial hair, not so much.

I’ve watched football (soccer) for almost 30 years. My first real exposure to world football was the 1982 World Cup, the one everyone thought Brazil would win, and I watched with the eyes of an awestruck 6 year old. The beauty and skill on display was magical and I was hooked.

In 86’ in Mexico, I was wowed by Maradona’s incredible and wonderous skill and mortified by his hand of god. As the World Cups came and went and leagues went through their yearly drama, I observed each match I saw with less and less wonderment and with increasing scrutiny and cynicism.

Over the years I’ve witnessed the dominance of Serie A and it’s subsequent impotence, the rise of French international football, and the impacts of Heysel and Hillsborough. I’ve seen the rise and fall of Maradona, the brilliance and madness of Zidane, Man United’s domination of the Premiership, increased theatrics, outrageous transfer fee’s and soccer in the USA… and I’ve seen 3 Women’s World Cups.

Who didn't love the USWNT from '99?

Admittedly, I was fully gripped in 99 and like a lot of people fell in love with the USWNT, but my interest (like a lot of people) waned and I was only a casual observer for the next two cups. Leading up to this cup and writing for TSG, I became more involved with the USWNT as well as the English team’s path to Germany.

The first thing that struck me is that the world has caught up in many ways to the traditional powerhouses of Women’s soccer. England beat and mostly outplayed a strong US team in a friendly. Mexico beat the US and forced the number 1 ranked team in the world to play a 2 game playoff in order to book their ticket to the land of bratwurst and beer. China, quarter-finalists in the past 2 cups and finalists in 99, didn’t even qualify, finishing behind Australian, North Korea (Dear Leader must have been proud and I do wonder how he took credit for it) and Japan.

Making babies cry and milk curdle, Franck Ribery and Carlos Tevez.

Watching most of the games (going to school and working for oneself does have it’s privileges), I’ve noticed that amazing athleticism is not just reserved for the best teams, but is prominent on every team, especially the keepers (Hope Solo is just out of this world). The supreme skill level, the deft touches, the sophisticated tactics and tip top fitness (Brazil aside) is pronounced on every team.

So this is a long winded path to get to my main point (if you know me personally this shouldn’t surprise you) – but I think that we’ve come to the point, where the women and the women’s game can teach the men how to make football beautiful again, and this goes beyond making Carlos Tevez and Franck Ribery wear bags over their heads.

Less handbags, more play.
The most noticeable difference is the general flow of the game. There is end to end action and the ref’s whistle is often silent for prolonged periods of time.

True Grit!

Why is this you ask? Well aside from the Brazil V. USA quarter final, there is no blatant bitching or disrespecting of every call or Oscar worthy theatrics to deceive the referee. Women footballers, don’t get in skirmishes or “throw handbags” like some of their male counterparts.

They respect each other, their opponents, the referee and the game. If a hard challenge is administered, the attacking player gets up, dusts herself off, “sacks up” and gets on with the game, versus squirming around in agony desperately trying to remember which body part to clutch onto, so that their injury is more believable.

The ref’s on their part let the game flow, as they aren’t concerned if every tumble is real or a dive, because no self respecting woman’s player (not named Erika) would feign injury, as they posses more pride in their skill and toughness and believe that’s “not part of the spirit of the game”.

The referee’s also let many tough tackles and fouls go, as they know that the players are not going to bitch and moan, but instead will continue to play.

There is no “me” in team

The team that dances together, wins together.

The overall team camaraderie and pride is also more prominent in the women’s game. Everyone celebrates the goals, the teams huddle and offer support during tough moments, and there is very little petulance directed at teammates and coaches. Are there instances of this? Of course – please step up Birgit Prinz and Marta, but those are rare exceptions.

Yes, men’s teams huddle and celebrate goals (and sometimes very homo-erotically), but you don’t always get the feeling that it’s genuine. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but the men’s game is often less about team and more about the individual – hell, Ronaldo has more product in his hair then the entire USWNT.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T
There also seems to be a greater respect for one’s opponents in the women’s game. Maybe it has to do with the fact that each player recognizes that they share a common struggle to gain respect and earn a living playing a sport they love in a male dominated game.

5 times in row women's player of the year, is only just getting the recognition she deserves in her home nation.

Brazil offers very little support to their national team and women’s soccer was still banned in Brazil in the 80’s. This from arguably the greatest footballing nation in the world, when every time their men’s team play, it’s declared a holiday.

In the States, the WSP is struggling, though they have just added two teams to the league. Hopefully, the World Cup will increase support, but don’t count on it.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that they are doing something they truly love, and so do their opponents and after all it’s just a game. That their opponents are people too, who deserve respect and for 90 minutes and in some cases 120, they will battle, but they will do it within the laws and spirit of the game and competition.

Whatever the reason, it’s a pleasure to see the women treat each other, their team mates, opponents and referee’s alike with dignity and respect. It makes the game better, makes it flow smoothly and offers us a chance to see some real skill and athleticism.

US soccer

Rampone - could you please teach the USMNT to defend

Specifically, I believe US soccer can learn from the women.

First, the USMNT should take some ball control lessons from their women counterparts. I’m not talking about dribbling and trying to beat 3 players on the run (but talk to Cristiane from Brazil who could show Jozy a thing or too), but more about trapping the ball (entire US womens team), precise passes (Chaney and Lloyd), smart and gutsy defending (Rampone and Krieger) and not relying on your superhuman keeper to bail you out of every situation (even though Solo could should she want).

Yes, I get there are differences between the men’s and women’s game, namely speed and power, but the gap in skill has very much narrowed, if it is still even existent. Did you seem some of those long range howitzers? Those precise delicate chips over the keepers and the penalties!

Everyone of the 9 penalties shot in the quarterfinal shootout between the US and Brazil were very well taken, accurate, and sometimes thunderous shots (Daiane’s penalty was actually quite good, but was just amazingly saved by Solo). How I would love it if the English mens team (the English women could use a tutorial as well) would sit down with Wambach and Lloyd and ask “Oy…how’d you do that love?”

Ali Krieger..."Will you marry me? No seriously!"

Also, how much would I love to just sit down with Ali Krieger…sigh!

Finally, I think US soccer commentary could learn a thing or two from Julie Foudy. She’s not perfect, but she is streets better then Harkes, Lalas and Dellacamera put together (the thought of a morphed version of those three made me shudder uncontrollably).

Time-keeping aside, she offers very astute and insightful thoughts about the match, the tactics and the overall play. She doesn’t feel the need to overwhelm the viewer with stupid facts or personal stories (though the occasional one she does tell are appropriate to what’s going on) and she’s fair and mostly unbiased. She’s enthusiastic, yet sophisticated and incredibly well spoken.

She’s developed an excellent report with Ian Darke and has clearly learned from him, something Harkes failed at.

In 6 days the women’s World Cup will be over. 6 months ago, after winning the WPS championship, the FC Gold Pride folded due to financial struggles. The Premiership and the rest of the European leagues will commence in just over a month. The Champions League, Euros and 2014 world cup qualifying, as well as the European Championships will all commence within two months to a year. The chances to see women’s soccer will be few and far between.

I hope every mens player is watching the Women’s World Cup and taking notes. I hope they are realizing that the women “have more stones”  then the majority of them, that they have more pride,  love and respect for the beautiful aspects of the game. I hope they understand that football is best played when it flows, without the constant tweeting from the referee. I hope they understand that they can learn a thing or two…

Hansel Adams Presents: You Write The Caption

Don’t worry.

We’re turning up the knob on MLS coverage as well as transfer talk after the USWNT tiptoes ripping our/your heart out for the last time this summer.

Hansel Adams? That would be TSG photog Matt Mathai–who always captures the winners.

You write the caption below from the DeRosario Cup.

US Ladies Flip The Script….And The Tragedy Is All Brazil’s

Maura Gladys on the USWNT’s monumental win.

Not to be undone....

A little bit of drama, a little bit of emotion, and one heck of a comeback by the USWNT.

Thinking about this game, I thought about an idea that Brian Phillips threw around a while ago on his excellent blog, Run of Play. It’s the idea that when something incredible occurs, we look back at it with a “climate of expectation” that’s drastically different from the one in which it occurred. Basically, we look back at it as if it couldn’t have occurred any other way.

And on rare occasions, every event and occurrence seems delicately, and deliberately placed, one after another, onto a perfect string of moments and emotions, creating something that is almost perfect.

What happened today in Dresden was perfect. Every touch, every run, every call, now in hindsight seems as if it was destined to end with Abby Wambach’s header, Hope Solo’s save, and Ali Krieger’s penalty, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. Because of that afterglow, we’ll remember this game not as one of tactics, but of moments and movement and feeling. In the spirit of that, and giving a nod to the pure literary feel of it all, here’s USA-Brazil in three acts.

Act One: Exposition

There was monumental hype even before the opening whistle. With Germany eliminated just a day before, the game would be a showdown between the two favorites still left in the tournament, the winner emerging as the clear and heavy favorite going forward.

Brazil entered the game on a tear, easily disposing of Australia, Norway and Equatorial Guinea in Group D by a combined score of 7-0. The United States was coming off its first loss in the group stage in program history, a 2-1 loss to Sweden, and looked disorganized and unable to finish.

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage stuck with the same 11 she started against Sweden, despite calls to bench forward Amy Rodriguez, who had trouble finishing all tournament, and defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx, who has been relatively invisible.

Boxx-to-Boxx all day....

The move to leave Boxx on the field proved smart just 74 seconds into the game when she sent a cross into the box that deflected off Brazil’s Daiane for an own goal.

She followed that up by setting an aggressive, fiery tone for the first ten minutes of play, the best opening by the United States thus far.

But Brazil showed just how dangerous they could be, peppering the goal with crosses and shots, forcing Solo to be sharp. In the 23rd minute, Marta’s talent shined through when she raced towards the goal on a breakaway with Christie Rampone trailing just a step behind. Her shot went high, thanks to goalkeeper Hope Solo cutting down the angle and Rampone applying pressure. But it was a reminder of just how quickly Marta could make her presence felt.

Halftime came with the United States still up 1-0, but the Stars and Stripes looked disjointed in the latter part of the first half as Brazil gained momentum. At the start of the second half, the U.S. continued their choppy play.  As the game ping-ponged back and forth, there was no real hints about the controversy that was about to occur.

Act 2: Madness

In the 65th minute, with two feet flailing in the air, Marta’s 5-4 frame slammed to the turf in front of the U.S. goal, with Rachel Buehler’s body splayed beneath her. Marta had just niftily popped the ball up and over Buehler and Rampone and had an open look at Solo, but Buehler lunged with the striker, causing her to miss the ball and land violently. It’s a common tactic of Marta’s, to lure defenders in close, increasing the chances of a sloppy jab or errant elbow, thereby increasing the likelihood of a foul. In this case, the referee deemed that Buehler had denied Marta of a goal scoring opportunity, which was grounds for not only a penalty kick, but a red card. Was it truly a foul? Was it worthy of a red card? Does anyone other than Marta get that kind of call? Yes, no and no. But what followed was even more incriminating.

As Cristiane took the penalty kick for Brazil, Hope Solo took a hard step to her left and punched the ball away, sending the stadium into hysterics. But as Solo took a step, so too did Rampone, who was standing outside the 18 yard box. The step was good enough to earn Brazil a re-kick for encroachment and a yellow card for Solo for dissent (we think.). All of this wasn’t apparent at the time however, and the United States vehemently questioned the referee’s call. Solo wasn’t as brilliant the second go-round, and Marta coolly slotted the ball into the right corner. USA 1, Brazil 1.

But instead of letting their emotions get the better of them, the ten players on the field re-grouped and kept playing. Shannon Boxx dropped back to fill Buehler’s spot, but Sundhage waved her back up. They’d play with three backs. In order to cover for the space that was created in Buehler’s absence, Krieger, Rampone and LePeilbet hustled to close the gaps.  Sundhage also inserted Alex Morgan in an attempt to spark the team, and she did well to earn several corners, but neither team was able to score again by the end of regular time.

And the call is....?

As play went on, Marta morphed into the villain of the match. She was the one who had drawn the foul and netted the second penalty, and now she was voicing her displeasure with every call. Fans in Dresden booed and catcalled every time she took a touch. But it took her just 97 seconds into overtime to prove her status as the world’s best scorer with a deft volley off a Maurine cross that floated above Hope Solo into the open side of the net. Controversy marred this goal as well when replay showed that Maurine was offsides.

The United States was now facing the grim task of scoring against one of the best teams in the world, while playing with only ten players, which, in hindsight, is the most absolutely American situation you can find yourself in. And they responded in the most American way possible. They pushed and pushed and pushed. Wambach almost had the equalizer in the 98th minute, and Lloyd had a shot in the 120th minute that sailed high. Minutes turned into seconds as the game burned down to the dying embers. All that remained was the three minutes of stoppage time. Then it happened.

Act 3- At The Death

On the exact day 12 years earlier that the last U.S. women’s team captured the country’s spirit, in a moment that echoed Landon Donovan’s miracle goal against Algeria, Abby Wambach got lifted.  At the 1:21:19 mark, Wambach rose above her defender and goalkeeper Andreia’s outstretched arms, eyed up Megan Rapinoe’s absolutely perfect cross and drove the ball into the open net. It wasn’t a sloppy tap-in, a bumbled shot, or a messy finish. It was pure, precise and beautiful. It was the only way the United States could have scored, and it was enough to make you believe.

Rapinoe to Wambach...

The goal was a product of a beautiful ball by Megan Rapinoe, which was preceded by a smart swing out from Carli Lloyd and capped the greatest comeback in U.S. soccer. After 55-plus minutes of playing with only ten players, the United States had new life in penalty kicks.

Looking back, you knew they had it in the bag. With the mighty Hope Solo minding net, she was bound to stop one, which she did, stonewalling Daiane (the same Daiane that gave up Brazil’s own goal two and a half hours earlier). Boxx, Lloyd, Wambach, Rapinoe and finally Krieger each unflappably put their shot past Andreia to seal the victory and shock the Brazilians. Probably one of the most poignant moments the cameras caught was the red-carded Rachel Buehler sobbing into Pia Sundhage’s arms after the win, no doubt a release of relief.

But none of it could have happened without each moment that came before it. The own goal, the red card, the penalty kick, the other penalty kick, Marta’s overtime goal, Rapinoe’s cross, Wambach’s header, Solo’s save, Krieger’s kick. It all builds up to a classic story of American spirit and triumph.

But it’s not ever yet. In a very “Miracle on Ice” kind of way, the United States still has two more games to play before they can be crowned World Cup champions. They take on France on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.  and their chances of winning it all are exponentially better now that Germany is out of the tournament.  But there’ll be plenty of time for chalk talk and tactics tomorrow and Tuesday. For now, it’s nice to enjoy the fact that today, America got to witness something perfect.

US vs. Brazil: Live Commentary

It’s big time for the ladies in just a few hours.

Big effort needed from this US lady--Shannon Boxx--today...

Their own private Ghana you might say, with the exception that the US comes up big against Brazil while the men wilt against their nemesis.

Here’s the US starting line-up.

USWNT starters v. BRA: Solo; Krieger, Buehler, Rampone (c), LePeilbet; O’Reilly, Boxx, Lloyd, Cheney; Rodriguez, Wambach

Heather O’Reilly returns to commandeer her wing.

Amy Rodriguez remains up top with Wambach, but you can be sure Alex Morgan will put in some sprints.

Pia leaves the midfield untouched meaning 33-year-old Shannon Boxx will have to put in her best game of the tournament today.

Hope Solo might be the great equalizer, but she’ll surely have to be if Boxx can’t slow Marta & Co. on the attack.

Kickoff shortly on ESPN.

Some thoughts coming out of the first few matches here.

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