Day 13 of the Women’s World Cup saw . . . aw, the hell with it . . . USA! USA! USA!
[Ed. note: In my first draft of this post, I realized I did not actually put any scores in. Both the US and Japan won 3-1.]
United States v. France
I have never been so glad to be so wrong. My throat is raw and sore from all the screaming, and I fear I may never recover. I blame Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. I completely lost all composure after Morgan’s lovely chip goal–set up by Rapinoe–in the 82nd minute. Over and over again the US defy all logical analysis. You know how the English talk about heart as an excuse for a lack of proper technique? The US Women actually have heart (and unlike the English men, they play well and win.) The USWNT never give up. They can be behind, outplayed, down a player. The refs can have it in for them. The US just win.
The US began strongly, but France start slowly and build up (see: Nigeria, Germany, England.) In the 9th minute, the US took the lead. Heather O’Reilly’s passed to Lauren Cheney who finished beautifully. US up 1-0, which was comforting because the US have a ridiculously good record of winning competitive matches after scoring the first goal. Ridiculously good, as in the US never lost a match after scoring first.
That goal woke up France, who seemed to realize that they were facing a better team than England. This was a fascinating match on a tactical level because in addition to the 4-4-2 of the US against the 4-2-3-1 of France (and Jonathan Wilson believes that the latter is designed to beat the former), it was a really a battle between a team with a strong defense, Hope Solo, and an offense that is good in spurts (US) and a team with a dynamic offense and an awful defense (France). With the exception of Sonia Bompastor, who scored France’s lone goal in the 55th minute, France’s back line is woeful. And the goalkeeper Sapowicz is very poor. But that offense–Necib, Abily, Thiney, and Delie–that is a murderers’ row right there. Fear Les Bleues at the next World Cup and at the Olympics.
For most of the match, France looked like the were going to win. Bompastor’s goal was really an inevitability. The US could not maintain possession, and after Cheney’s goal the US had very few chances on goal. But then Pia Sundhage made some smart substitutions and Abby Wambach channeled her inner Michelle Akers (who got deserved love from Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain in the penalty booth), put her team on her back, and carried them to victory. When I said yesterday that I debated not putting Mia Hamm in my all time XI, it was because I was thinking about using Wambach instead. Her goal changed everything against France, and the French wilted. It was like air being let out of a balloon. They saw what happened to Brazil and they must have known, “We can’t beat them; they just keep coming.” Although I have said over and over that I believe Homare Sawa deserves the Golden Ball, if the US beats Japan, Wambach certainly made an eloquent case for herself.
Nike must be loving this. Their whole “Pressure Makes Us” ads? Dead on. It completely makes up for their “Write the Future” campaign from last year which imploded in hilarious fashion.
Both matches today were a battle of the established class against the up-and-comers. The US and Sweden have been at the top of the game since the 1980′s while France and Japan are both relatively new, at least in terms of being in the upper echelons of the game (Japan has been around forever, but never like this.) The young Turks are pounding at the door, and they can’t be kept out forever. The US were able to beat back their opponents, but Sweden were not. Given that France has Clairfontaine, one wonders how long the US will be able to maintain supremacy.
There is always a question of what is the American style. When we think of style, we think of the jaw-dropping Brazil’s samba flair, or the easy-on-the-eye passing/possession games of France and Japan. The USSF desperately wants an American style, and I cannot imagine that Pia Sundhage (who, as I have said all along, has been a wonderful coach for the US) is unaware of that. The truth is that there is an American style, which Sundhage has helped to foster. It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing style out there, but it uniquely American. There are no tricks. It is a very direct, muscular, and physical style of play. More important, it is a never-give-up attitude. The US Men have it in spurts, but it is the US Women who have perfected it. They showed it even before the World Cup when they fought back after a demoralizing loss to Mexico to claim the last spot.
Perhaps more than any other US sports representative, the USWNT are the quintessential American team. Perhaps now Americans will finally and permanently appreciate them.
Japan v. Sweden
Let me just say upfront, I am so glad I will not have to see Sweden’s stupid little goal dance anymore (okay, so maybe the 3rd place match, but really who cares about that one?) I wanted them out even if I picked them to win. It may well be even more irritating than Norway’s train from 1995. Good bye, Sweden; take your goal celebration to Let’s Dance, and leave the football to more interesting teams.
Homare Sawa is my hero. Granted, I have had a few of them this tournament, Christine Sinclair and Marta to name two, but Sawa, a veteran of five World Cups led Japan to a place it has never been before. She is a rock, and an inspiration All this unexpected success just four months after natural and man-made disasters have brought devastating havoc and misery to her country. Listening to Adrian Healey and Kate Markgraf talk about how little Japan could prepare for the tournament because of what happened was so sad, and this team and their absolute graciousness have been so heartwarming. Their banner, which the entire team carries around the pitch, always brings a tear to my eye. If you want a team to adopt, you could do far worse than Japan.
You could do far worse because their style is so different from anything that has ever existed before in the women’s game. Markgraf (correctly) noted today that the Barcelona comparisons need to stop, but those comparisons diminish what Japan has done in its own right. Despite not having the physicality of other teams, despite not having an effective goal scorer, and of course despite all the hardships of the past few months, Japan beat Germany and Sweden in succession, two teams that were heavily favored contenders to win–especially Germany. Japan never beat European opposition before at the World Cup and this week it beat the top European teams in succession.
In both matches, Japan, led by Sawa, played calm and collected. They kept their heads and possession, constantly probing for the opening that would give a goal (or three). They kept their defensive shape. Nothing Germany did could break them. Even after Sweden got the first goal, Japan remained calm and simply struck back. Like the US, Japan never lost the belief that they were going to win, and eventually Sweden fell apart under the Japanese pressure.
In the process, Homare Sawa scored her fourth goal of the tournament, which ties her with Marta for the lead in the Golden Boot chase. Wambach, who is now tied with Akers on 12 World Cup goals, is just a goal behind. Sawa’s four are one more than she scored in her other four World Cups combined (the other three coming in 2003.) Granted three of her goals this year came in her match against Mexico, but it speaks to how good Sawa is that 16 years after her first appearance, she is the player of the tournament.
Pia Sundhage and her coaching/training staff have their work cut out for them. Somehow they are going to have to limit Japan’s possession game because unlike France, Japan is most definitely not shaky at the back.
The Golden Boot tally is really low this year. The previous low was six in 1995. Michelle Akers holds the record with ten in 1991. Every other year the Golden Boot winner(s) netted seven. The closing of the gap has also lowered the Golden Boot tally, just as it has in the men’s game. No doubt this has something to do with how close all the games have been. There have been two 4-0 routs, and that is it. Even the men’s World Cup last year had one 7-0 blowout–Portugal over North Korea
As an American, I am thrilled to see the US back to where they belong, and hopefully they can win it all. Nevertheless, this does bring up another point: how the hell are you supposed to root for Japan to lose?