Women’s World Cup Day 10: How Many Brazilians Fit On One Field?

Day 10* of the Women’s World Cup saw the US Women turn into the US Men by going down 2-0 very early in the first half, and get beaten 2-1.  Brazil conquer Equatorial Guinea with three goals in the second half.  The bad news for the rest of the world (especially the United States who has to play them next) is that those goals were scored by players who aren’t Marta.

The Other Matches

Just as I had to apologize yesterday for not watching two matches, I have to apologize for choosing Brazil v. Equatorial Guinea and US v. Sweden over Norway v. Australia and Colombia v North Korea respectively.  Well, actually I refuse to apologize for not watching Colombia v. North Korea.  That match had “dull and meaningless” written all over it.

But Australia v. Norway, that was important.  I have no excuse for not watching other than I wanted to see Brazil play instead.  I probably should have chosen Australia/Norway given that the match actually had significance and the commentary team was the wonderful Healey/Markgraf rather than the more difficult to listen to Mowins/Whitehill.  But, you know, Marta!

Australia’s defeat of Norway means that finally a European side has been eliminated.  Norway needed the win while Australia needed only a draw.  Although Norway went up 1-0, immediately afterwards Australia equalized.  Near the end of the match Australia put another away, both goals were scored by Kyah Simon.  I thought Norway would probably go through, but I can’t say that this result was unexpected, especially after Australia’s tough match with Brazil.

As for Colombia and North Korea, I didn’t watch it.  Every time I switched over to ESPN 2, the score was 0-0, so I switched back immediately.  The match ended 0-0, so both teams got a point (and North Korea got a one point better goal difference.)  This also means that the team with the worst record in this World Cup was Canada, whose goal differential was worse than Equatorial Guinea’s.  Oy.  It’s a good thing the next World Cup (in Canada) is four years away.

A quick note.  Like the 2010 World Cup, the officiating at the 2011 Women’s World Cup began strongly and then went downhill very quickly.  If the standard of international refereeing is that bad that consistently in two consecutive major tournaments, the problem may not just be with the refs.  Something needs to change, but no doubt FIFA will do nothing.

Brazil v. Equatorial Guinea

Pop quiz.  What is the only team not to have given up a goal yet this tournament?  The answer is Brazil.  Yes, that’s right, Brazil with the leaky defense, the outmoded tactics, and lousy coach.  That Brazil.  Three clean sheets.  On top of that, only two other sides (Germany and France) scored four goals.  Brazil had the best goal differential of any team in the group stages.  Yet Brazil’s defense gets maligned nonstop.  Give credit where credit is due, however uncomfortable and shaky Brazil look in the back, their defensive record is thus far the strongest of the tournament.

Equatorial Guinea has a Brazilian-born coach, a Brazilian-born goalkeeper, a Brazilian-born midfielder, and at least six or seven players who play for Brazilian clubs.  (There are probably other naturalized Brazilians on the squad that I am missing but Wikipedia doesn’t have much on the squad.)  Does this make Equatorial Guinea–or EQG as Beth Mowins repeatedly called it–Brazil’s B team?

The first half of this match was a mess, as every Brazil first half has been.  Añonma (or is it Añonman, someone please let me know) looked dangerous, and Bruna (yes, that Bruna, the one who should have been red carded for a handball) attached herself to Marta like a conjoined twin.  It’s no secret that if you want to neutralize Marta, you man mark her with a good (and fast) defensive player to deny her space.  Other WPS teams have done that a lot lately.  This is an extremely effective way of neutralizing great players, and it works regardless of whether the player is Marta, Messi, or Maradona.  The problem with this strategy is that it leaves the marking team one player short, which means that the rest of the attacking team can overwhelm–if the attacking team is capable of being overwhelming.

That was Brazil’s problem in the first half.  Without Marta, the entire attack stuttered.  Aline** may be the captain, but Marta is unquestionably the team leader.  That is the problem with Brazil sometimes, they other players depend on Marta too much and fall apart when she is not dominating.  At the half I kept shouting at the Brazilians through my television, telling them that they could not depend on Marta, and had to pick up their own game.  Clearly their coach Kleiton Lima said something similar because in the second half, they picked up their game.  In the 49th minute, Érika (a defender!) juggled the ball and volleyed it over the keeper for a spectacular goal.  This was the second Brazilian goal this tournament that was juggled first.  Brazil’s samba style is unmatched.

Despite Bruna’s attempts to neutralize her, Marta (who has scored a ridiculous 12 goals in 13 World Cup matches) was still vital.  First she set up Cristiane’s first goal, and then she won the penalty which led to Cristiane’s second. As Brazil got better and better, Equatorial Guinea fell apart, and the players not named Añonma (or Añonman) repeatedly broke some very basic rules, as though they completely forgot how to play when confronted by Brazil.  Not quite as bad as this, but certainly not something you should see from players of this caliber; I wonder if the Equatoguinean players face similar pressure.

The reward–Brazil now have to play the United States in the quarterfinals rather than the finals, something neither team wanted.

Sweden v. United States

I did not feel good watching this match.  Everything US fans were afraid of came true.  The defense fell apart, the forwards couldn’t score, and the midfield couldn’t pull it together.  Then they went down by two very avoidable goals.  Does this sound familiar?  It should, I just described a typical US men’s match.

Every loss is ultimately a team loss, but some players deserve more blame than others.  In this case the goat was Amy LePeilbet, a center back turned into a left back for this tournament.  LePeilbet had been shaky since the first match, and it finally caught up with her.  I don’t want to pile it on LePeilbet too much because (1) I am sure she feels awful; (2) I don’t enjoy kicking someone while they’re down, and no doubt LePeilbet has played her last match of the tournament; and (3) as I write this no doubt preteen girls across the nation are creating “Amy LePeilbet Sucks” blogs.  Nevertheless, she was directly responsible for both of Sweden goals.  First she fouled Lotta Schelin in the box, and thus setting up a penalty kick (and getting yellow carded), then Nilla Fischer’s free kick deflected off her into the net.

The problem is that the entire US lineup was fairly woeful.  With regard to analysis, I’ll defer to those whose expertise is far greater than mine, but there were a few things that I saw that seem like huge flaws.  Abby Wambach did her part today; she scored a goal, broke her drought, and gave life back to the team.  Granted it came off of her shoulder, and was therefore an illegal handball, but call it justice for all the times her shots against Colombia wouldn’t go it.

Sweden won, and all credit to them.  They are the first team to beat the US twice in one year since 2002, and they are the first team to ever beat the US in World Cup group play, something else that sounds depressingly familiar (as is the dependence upon 4-4-2.)    Sweden scored two goals, which is a marked improvement for them, and this is only the fifth time they beat the US in their history, and the first time at a World Cup.  I still maintain though that Sweden is not that good.  They are solid but not spectacular.  Even if they do get past Australia, which they probably will, I cannot see them upsetting Germany.

And speaking of Swedes, Pia Sundhage bears some responsibility for this loss, although I am not sure how much.  Sundhage has been a decent coach for the US.  She restored belief to a team in crisis, but her team selection has left much to be desired.  Any arm-chair tactician can dissect Sundhage’s decisions, but it is clear that something needs to be done.  If anyone can do it, Sundhage can.  On the other hand, it is not clear that something can be done.  The US won the Olympics after losing the first match to (former?) archenemy Norway, but in the Olympics, the US still won their group and didn’t have to play Brazil until the final.  Right now, the confidence is low.

Coach of the US Women’s National Team is one of the most thankless positions in sports, right up there with coach of the Brazilian men.  Because of such outstanding past success, there is no acceptable result except victory.  Can you imagine if Bob Bradley, or any US men’s coach, was judged by the standards that Pia Sundage has to live up to?

It was interesting watching ESPN’s coverage of the tournament.  Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, and Tony DiCicco had a very hard time trying to figure out whether to be cheerleaders for the US, angry fans, or cold hard analysts.  Foudy has been more of a cheerleader and Chastain and DiCicco (especially Chastain) have been more angry fans.  Chastain can barely contain her anger.  DiCicco’s comemntary, usually very insightful, was remarkably unfair to Sundhage today.  He called her out for playing LePeilbet as left back, which is fair criticism, but comparing her to his own tenure was not.  He blamed Sundhage for using a converted center back instead of moving an attacking player into the defense, like he did with Chastain, who was actually a striker before he moved her.  When DiCicco coached the USWNT, there were no league.  The only team for his players was the USWNT, and the only coach was him.  Therefore, he had time to mold Chastain as he saw fit.  Sundhage, unlike DiCicco must vie with the WPS.  Her time with players is more limited, and she is not her players’ primary coach.

This is one of the big issues that plagues the international game, you can only use what your country has and hope for the best.  If you don’t have a good left back, then you improvise with a lesser or makeshift one.***  The international coach, unlike the club coach, cannot simply buy quality players (unless the nation is wealthy from oil-production, in which case the rules change.)

Nevertheless, the WPS is a godsend to American football.  If the US is faltering on the international stage it is because the program is in a down cycle as the rest of the world has caught up, and the US is for once behind the curve.  The US is used to being the top dog, but this is no longer the case.  Michelle Akers retired 12 years ago, and Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, and Joy Fawcett are also long gone.  The US cannot just hope another Golden Generation appears.  To be a real contender at every tournament, quality players have to be constantly developed.  The US is quite capable of that, but needs to follow through.

Footnotes: 

* Technically this is Day 11, but I am only counting days on which there is are actual matches.

** Mowins’s and Whitehill’s pronunciations continue to annoy me, particularly Mowins.  Today in addition to Añonma, she regularly mispronounced the names of Maurine, Cristiane, and Aline.  Surprisingly, she more or less corrected pronounced Rosana’s names.  In the first half, Mowins kept talking about how Equatorial Guinea earning a draw against Brazil would be the biggest upset ever in the tournament’s history.  This is only half-true.  From a FIFA rankings point of view, I see what she means, but realistically, she’s wrong.  Brazil had already won the group in and only a miracle would have changed that.  A draw with Equatorial Guinea would have put the group beyond reach for Australia or Norway. The Brazilians had nothing to play for except practice and momentum.  A major upset is when there is still something on the line, such as France v. Senegal in 2002 or Spain v. Switzerland in 2010.  The US’s loss to Sweden was a far bigger upset (had Brazil drawn or lost) because there was still something on the line to win, FIFA rankings be damned.

***  Even the Brazilian men lack strong players in key positions.  In 2010, the two best right backs in the world, Maicon of Inter and Dani Alves of Barcelona were on the squad, and neither would (or could) play at left back, a position that Brazil desperately needed.  In the end, Maicon played at right back, and Alves rotated around the midfield.  Brazil still has not found a great left back.

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