2015 Women’s World Cup — Win? Lose? The Draw!

On December 6, the drawing for the group stage of the 2015 Women’s World Cup (or as I like to call it, the World Cup) took place.  I’ll spare the suspense, although if you are reading this, you probably already know.  Here are the groups:

GROUP A: Canada, China, New Zealand, Netherlands
GROUP B: Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand
GROUP C: Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador
GROUP D: United States, Australia, Sweden, Nigeria
GROUP E: Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Costa Rica
GROUP F: France, England, Colombia, Mexico

Two topics have dominated the conversation and no doubt will continue to do so.  The first is that SPECTRE and The Legion of Doom FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association have decided to use artificial turf pitches, despite the fact that they would never allow that for the Men’s World Cup.  The players are trying to fight it, but time is running out.  If there is an increase in injuries during the World Cup, watch FIFA try to dodge this debacle too.  Is FIFA the most loathsome organization in the world or merely just one of a select few?

The other issue that you will hear about until you are sick of it is the lack of depth in the field.  FIFA expanded next year’s tournament from 16 teams to 24.  But there is a perceived danger that the depth of quality has been watered down, and we will go back to the days of 6-0, 7,-0, 10-0 scorelines.  (This is also a complaint about the expanded 2016 European Championship.)  Certainly everyone thought newby Equatorial Guinea would be the recipient of such drubbings during the last World Cup, but that turned out not to be the case.  The Equatoguineans’ performance was (admittedly aided by some dubious calls) quite respectable, better than Canada’s even.

Eight nations are making their World Cup debut: Netherlands, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador, Spain and Costa Rica.  Thailand has never qualified for a men’s or women’s World Cup before, so this is truly uncharted territory for them.  Most likely they would not have qualified at all had the AFC not been given an additional two slots this year and (more germane) had North Korea not been banned from qualification due to the doping scandal at the last World Cup.  The AFC is (unlike in the men’s game) a very strong division in the women’s game with Japan the reigning world champion, China a-once-dangerous-but-now-faded power, Australia and North Korea as perennial dark horses and South Korea as a potential future player.  It is hard to see where Thailand will fit into this scheme in the future.

Speaking of North Korea, this is the first competition in God knows how long in which neither Colombia nor North Korea will play the United States in the group stage.  In divine retribution, the US will play in Group D, unarguably the toughest group in 2015 World Cup.  The US, Sweden, Australia, and Nigeria.  The US is the strongest team in this group and should make it through to the next round, but it is not a given.  Australia, as I mentioned above, is a perennial dark horse, and probably the second best team in the AFC.  Nigeria has never missed a World Cup, is almost always the African champion, and gets better and better every tournament.  And then there is Sweden.  Last time around Sweden beat the US in the group stage, which to my recollection, is the first group stage loss the US ever suffered.  This year the US and Sweden have an even stronger link than mere revenge.  Pia Sundhage, the Singing Swede who coached the US to two Olympic golds and World Cup runners-up in 2011, is now coach of Sweden.  Sundhage knows all about the US.  The US players and staff know all about Sundhage.  And of course, it is a grudge match for the US, which no doubt is still angry about four years ago.

If there is a second difficult group in this tournament, it is Group F: France, England, Colombia, and Mexico.  What both Group D and Group F have in common is that all eight teams in those two groups have played in World Cups before.  (Contrast that to Group C which is Japan and three debutant nations.)

As a US fan, I am hoping that the 2015ers can finally bring the trophy back to the US, but of course the other two major forces of the women’s game, Germany and Japan, stand in the way.  Brazil is always a contender, but as Marta gets older and her magic wanes one wonders if Brazil is able to supplement her individual brilliance.  France and host Canada are also top seeds hoping to make that breakthrough that has thus far eluded them.  Norway will continue its sad, slow decline.  For my part, I am really interested in how Spain will do.  It their first World Cup and they are led by the magnificent Vero Boquete.

Because the World Cup is still over half a year away, I’m going to gather and save my thoughts for a future dates.  But the draw is out, and the excitement has already begun.

 

FIFA Oscars 2013: ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi!

Ah the annual pageant of the Ballon d’Or.  Every year the spectacle becomes ever more bloated, which means that every year I appreciate it all the more as a camp spectacle, or more accurately, only as a camp spectacle.  Like the real Oscars, the FIFA Oscars are less about the awards themselves and more about big names vying for media attention.  It’s so tacky, that one can only laugh at it.  Which is why Lionel Messi’s polka dot tuxedo (he apparently gets his fashion tips from El Diego) may represent the epitome of the ridiculousness that is the Ballon d’Or.

As with any year, there are a whole bunch of little awards that FIFA wants me to care about, but I don’t.  I feel like FIFA keeps adding awards just to stay relevant–if you can consider giving an award to Franz Beckenbauer, a man who has not kicked a ball competitively in decades, relevance.  And of course there is the annual Puskas award for best goal, which never seems to go to the most interesting goal, but rather to a long ball volley from a player who either plays in or for Turkey.  If you want to know about those other awards, the Guardian has a nice live blog.  Otherwise you are on your own.

Women’s Player of the Year

Every year I wonder whether people who vote for these awards actually watch women’s football.  This year is no exception.  Given that the US team won the Olympics, the only important international competition in 2012, it is no surprise that two US players–Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan–were nominated.  What is something of a shock (if you follow women’s football, that is) is that the third player in the final three was Brazil’s Marta.  I am a big fan of Marta, as I have made clear numerous times on this blog.  I have called her possibly the greatest individual player the women’s game has ever seen (or second behind Michelle Akers), but this year was not a particularly good year for Marta.  Last year when she was also somewhat surprisingly a top three finalist, at least it made sense because of her good club season and because she played well at the World Cup was stellar (if her team did not).  But this year?  By Marta’s standards it was pretty mediocre.  Nevertheless, Marta is a name and a known international commodity while the person who should have been in the top three in her stead, Canada’s Christine Sinclair, is not.  (One might also suggest that FIFA look beyond the international game into the club game where Lyon won a second Champions League in a row, but that may be asking too much.)

I have no complaints about Abby Wambach winning.  She is certainly deserving.  Over the past two years, the US got to the finals of the World Cup and the Olympics almost sheerly by Wambach’s will alone.  But for Homare Sawa’s incredible World Cup performance last year, Wambach probably would have deserved last year’s award too.  Alex Morgan arguably had the more spectacular year, but Wambach is very close to breaking Mia Hamm’s international goal record, one that I thought would stand forever.  Therefore, there is a certain symmetry to Wambach being the first American winner since Hamm.  Alex Morgan will probably win next year because FIFA will not pay attention to women’s football until the 2015 World Cup, and Morgan is the new star.

Women’s Coach of the Year

Unlike Wambach’s win, which was not easy to predict, there was no doubt that Pia Sundhage would win the women’s coach of the year.  And being Pia Sundhage, she sung when accepting the award.  Like with the player of the year, there were two candidates who deserved to be there, Sundhage and Japan’s Norio Sasake, and one candidate who was a complete head scratcher, France’s Bruno Bini.  FIFA’s website says that he was nominated because:

Semi-finalists at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, Les Bleues continued their excellent run of form at the Olympic Football Tournament by again finishing fourth, a few months after their success at the Cyprus Cup. The credit for this new consistency in reaching the semi-finals of major competitions must go to Bruno Bini, who has been coach of the French women’s national team since February 2007.
Notably, France won neither semifinal.  Moreover, I would argue that the teams achieved those two fourth place finishes despite Bini not because of him.  If anything, France is largely made up of players from Lyon, and I would think that Bini’s spot should have gone to Lyon’s manager (according to Wikipedia, it is Patrice Lair, who placed fourth in the voting).  But that would mean paying attention to women’s club football.  Notably, the person who placed 5th in the voting was Germany’s Silvia Neid, whose team did not even qualify for the Olympics.  Le sigh.
Another person sadly overlooked was John Herdman (6th).  This was a man who took a shattered Big Red from last place at the World Cup to third at the Olympics–almost to the final round, barely losing the sport’s best ever match. Probably Herdman’s and Sinclair’s omissions had less to do with merit and more to do with the way they bitterly (and not completely unfairly) complained about the refereeing after their semifinal loss to the US.  Probably the fact that Canada is Jan Brady to the US’s Marsha had something to do with it too.
Men’s Coach of the Year
Vicente del Bosque won the award he should have gotten two years ago for the World Cup.  This year it was for the Euro, the first time a nation won two in a row, and the first time any nation ever won three major tournaments in a row.  Really though the award was for the 4-0 annihilation of Italy, as before that magical match Spain’s performance was yeoman-like at best.  No matter how you slice it, he accomplished something bigger than any other coach, certainly a bigger accomplishment than that of the two runners-up, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.  Why those two men were nominated given that neither the Champions League?  I have no idea.  Mourinho didn’t even show up to the ceremony because he knew he wasn’t going to win.  For anyone else, I could respect that decision, but the Surly One such a bad sport at everything he does, that it is hard not to call him a sore loser in this case too.  Here is the truth about Mourinho–he is incredibly insecure because he knows his wins had less to do with his coaching abilities and more to do with major financial backing of rich clubs and some very lucky breaks.  Now he is self-destructing at Real Madrid as I predicted he would.  Madrid is too big a club with too proud a tradition of winning and too many big names to put up with his insecurity-driven ego.
FIFA XI
If I were a suspicious person, I would think that FIFA was sending a message to everyone, the English especially: “Be like Spain.”  Not only were all three coach finalists and all three Ballon d’Or finalists either Spanish or plying their trade in La Liga (or both), all 11 players of the World XI play for either Real Madrid (Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo), Barcelona, (Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves), or Atletico Madrid (Radamel Falcao).  Whether or not those are the most deserving 11 is some matter of debate (but the answer is “no”), but FIFA has firmly jumped on the Spain bandwagon is not getting off yet.
Ballon d’Or
Five months ago, I was unsure who would win this award.  It was pretty clear that it would be either Messi (best player in the world, possibly ever, who smashed all sorts of scoring records this year), Cristiano Ronaldo (second best in the world, won La Liga), or Iniesta (hero of the Euro).  In fact, I leaned toward Iniesta, who really deserves major recognition.  As of December 2012, I knew it would be Messi.  And all because of a sort-of meaningless statistic–91 goals in a calendar year.
To be fair, Messi was probably going to win all along.  No asks who is the “next Maradona” anymore because of Messi, sub-par World Cup be damned.  The real question is about where his place in history is (the summit) rather than where he is in the hierarchy of today’s players.  Sometimes I like to imagine that Cristiano Ronaldo goes home at night and screams his own name in front of a mirror with a picture Messi taped to it.  He so desperately wants to be the best, and that will forever be a frustrated ambition despite the best efforts of Marca, AS, and certain British tabloid jingoists who cannot fathom that this generation’s great player will never have played in the Premier League.
And yet Messi’s win, while not as baffling as that of two years ago, is still somewhat confusing because it raises a fundamental question about the Ballon d’Or.  What exactly are the criteria for the winner?  Is it for the most accomplished player of the season or the best player in the world.  If the latter, then Messi should win it for the next five years or so.  If the former, then certainly Iniesta would have a better claim to it, since international play trumps club play according to FIFA.  Yet Messi won the votes of a majority of the first place votes of captains, coaches, and journalists–the three groups that vote for the Ballon d’Or.  It was his record-breaking fourth title, which means that Messi has now won more titles than the following players:  Di Stefano, Ronaldo (both), Platini, Zidane, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer (Pele and Maradona were ineligible).  Certainly there is a very solid argument that he is a better player than all of them, but it makes the next few years kind of predictable, especially if Barcelona does to Europe what it is doing to La Liga this year.
And this is why the Ballon d’Or is such a ridiculous spectacle.  I hope that next year Messi take his sartorial sensibilities to its logical conclusion and goes for full-out clown outfit complete with make-up, red horn nose, and oversize shoes.  I cannot imagine a better mascot for the FIFA Oscars.

Good Bye Pia

Yesterday was Pia Sundhage’s last day as the manager of the United States Women’s National Team.   The USWNT sent her out in style with a 6-2 win over Australia.  There are many reasons to laud her tenure as coach, but this is what I believe to be the most important: a capacity crowd came to watch and to send Pia Sundhage off with gratitude, admiration, and love.

Thank you Pia, for giving us our team back.  We will miss you.

Assessing Pia Sundhage

Pia Sundhage, the coach of the US Women’s National Team, announced today that she is stepping down.  Then it was announced that she would take over as head coach of Sweden’s Women’s National Team where she was once a star player.  This is not exactly a surprise; it has long been known that Sundhage wanted to return to her native Sweden to coach.  That she waited until the end of her contract–that she was successful enough to be able to wait until the end of her contract–makes her departure nice and neat.  Sundhage was able to leave on her own terms, and as a winner with an 89-6-10 record, a World Cup silver medal, and two Olympics gold medals.  The US is firmly fixed atop the FIFA world rankings, and no one argues that this is a suspect position.  Sundhage has done a terrific job, and to my mind her success is at least equal to that of Anson Dorrance or Tony DiCicco, despite not having won the World Cup.  What must be recognized about Sundhage’s tenure is that the US was the most successful team of the last five years even though the world has caught up and in some respects surpassed the US.  We are a long way from the days in which only Norway could rival the US.

Coaching of the USWNT may not be not as stressful as coaching of the Brazil men’s team (with its 200 million critics), but the USWNT job comes with equally high expectations.  A victim of its own success, a USWNT that posts any result less than total victory is considered a failure; each team lives in the shadow of 1999.  And the coach is always the first to get blamed. Despite her success, Sundhage has not had the smoothest of tenures, and no doubt there were times that US Soccer was close to giving her the axe.  Had she not previously coached the USWNT to gold at the 2008 Olympics (beating Brazil), it is quite possible that she might have lost her job in 2010.  The US lost the Gold Cup that year for the first time (a shocking semifinal defeat to Mexico), and barely qualified for the World Cup as a result.

Sundhage’s tactical and personnel decisions were often called into question, really until after her team won its second consecutive Olympic gold.  In fairness, there is a truth to this second guessing.  While the rest of the world was inspired by the technical superiority of Spain and Barcelona, the US stubbornly clung to the same power game that it played two decades ago.  The US players do not lack technical ability or creativity (think Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan), but Sundhage, who was practically wedded to a 4-4-2 formation, clearly felt more akin to the English kick-and-run, bully style than the more aesthetically pleasing Spanish one.

Sundhage’s team selections were often times equally frustrating.  New talent was hard to break in; Sundhage stood by the same players throughout her tenure.  Now the old guard–Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone–are on the verge of retirement and whoever comes next has a lot to do.  We all have our favorites who were left out (Yael Averbuch is mine), and angry fans called for Sundhage’s head when certain players started.  Amy Rodriguez came in for particularly rough (and often unfair) criticism.

On the other hand, no one can fault the way Sundhage (wo)man-managed her players.  She was famously mellow and every more famously sung and played guitar.  Sundhage got the best out of players, sometimes by leaving them out of the starting lineup.  During the World Cup both Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan began as substitutes, and after amazing performances, both assured their starting places in the Olympics.  After the World Cup, Carli Lloyd lost her starting place (an injury to Boxx brought her back to the starting XI in the Olympics), and Lloyd scored both goals in the gold medal victory over Japan.   And most importantly, when Mount St. Solo inevitably erupted, Sundhage managed to keep the team intact.

There are two types of legacies, one is the deeds performed during one’s tenure, and the other, far rarer, is what has been set up for the future.  Very few coaches are future thinkers, especially at the international level–Rinus Michels certainly, Luis Aragones arguably, Pia Sundhage not at all.  Sundhage’s successor will need to majorly restructure the team lest the 2012 gold medal be the last hurrah.  The US is the last vestige of an Ancien Régime that has been otherwise supplanted.  Despite the fact that players like Morgan, Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, and Sydney Leroux have all become fixtures during Sundhage’s watch, one would hardly call her a visionary.

But for deeds performed, Sundhage’s wild success is undeniable.  Beyond her tournament victories though, Sundhage greatest legacy may be the one that she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for.  From 1999 until 2008, the USWNT program had been regressing, hit by one loss after another: (1) the retirement of Michelle Akers; (2) the loss of the Olympic gold in 2000; (3) 3rd place at the 2003 World Cup; (4) the end of the WUSA; (5) the retirement of Mia Hamm and the core of the 1999 team; (6) the controversial tenure of April Heinrichs; and finally (7) the humiliation to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup.  The only bright spot was the 2004 Olympic, and even then the US was lucky to have won.  Sundhage took a team on a nearly decade-long decline back to the top of the world.

Thank you, Pia Sundhage, and good luck to you and Sweden at next year’s Euro.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 6: Golden Girls

For the fourth time in five Olympics, the United States Women’s National Team won the Olympic gold medal, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land.  But the US defeat of Japan leaves one question unresolved.  Have Nadeshiko done enough to be bumped up to first class for the plane trip home or will their federation continue to treat them like second-class citizens?

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The Olympic semifinals, final, and bronze match were the best of all possible match-ups.  Each semifinal pitted two teams with similar styles against each other.  On one side of the bracket, the United States and Canada, two very physical team knocked the stuffing out of each other for 120 minutes.  On the other side, France and Japan fought an intense, technical battle that was akin to a footballing game of chicken–the side that blinked in their high stakes game of perfection lost.  Unsurprisingly, the US and Japan, the two top-ranked teams at the tournament came out victorious.

In contrast to the semifinals, the final and bronze medal match pitted teams of opposing styles against one another, and the results were no less enthralling.  Both matches were grudge matches of a sort.  At the World Cup, we all remember the incredible final between the US and Japan.  However, in the group stages of that tournament Canada played France and was beaten badly (4-0).  That match did three things–it (1) eliminated Canada from the tournament; (2) announced France to the world as a potential title challenger and future world power; and (3) effectively ended the reign of Canada’s coach Carolina Morace.  Morace had done wonders for Canada’s level of play, but her contentious relationship with the Canadian footballing authority had severe ramifications for the World Cup.  After the match against France, Morace was out and John Herdman was in.  Canada abandoned the more technical game it had been trying to play and returned to a more physical style.  The Olympics result seems to validate that change.

Canada desperately needed the bronze medal.  The loss to the US in the semifinals was heartbreaking because they were so close to both the final and to finally beating their bogie team.  Canada had never before been in the top three of either the World Cup or the Olympics (they were 4th in the 2003 World Cup, losing the final match to, shock surprise, the US).  And the World Cup in 2015 will be held in Canada, which means the expectations on the team will triple–at least.  The bronze medal was a way to redeem the tournament and to motivate for 2015.

France too had something to prove.  Les Bleus want to be seen as world beaters, but they have yet to beat any of the top teams when it counts.  They also have the loss of the 3rd place match in the World Cup hanging over their heads.  By all rights, the French should have beaten Sweden, not just because they are a more talented side, but because Sweden were a woman down.  That France beat Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals last week is an indication that France are in fact better.  Did France choke at the World Cup?  I don’t think so, but they certainly were not at their best.  Maybe they were moping over their loss to the US (in their minds an inferior team) while Sweden really wanted a medal.

For the vast majority of the 90 minutes in Coventry, France were the better side.  They had better ball possession, they were better passers, they had more shots on goal.  Yet a goal from Diane Matheson just before the end of second half stoppage time (literally, there were about 10 seconds of the match left) made all the difference.  This is an example of why football is a game maddeningly resistant to statistics.  On paper, everything pointed to a French victory, but in the end the Canadians were draped in bronze.  This is apparently the first time since 1936 that a Canadian team won a medal in widely played team sport at the Summer Olympics.

For good measure, the awe-inspiring Christine Sinclair was the tournament’s top scorer.  One hopes that Sinclair will be seriously considered for player of the year at the FIFA Oscars in December.  This match was her much earned redemption.  But Sinclair as Player of the Year would require the voters and nominators to actually know something about women’s football, and I don’t have that much faith in them.

As for the French, I wonder where they go from here.  I also wonder if they keep their coach.  Bruno Bini has done an excellent job of pulling the French close to the ranks of the elite, but I have my doubts that he is the right person to take them to the next level.  What is Carolina Morace doing these days?

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Oh, Carli Lloyd, all is forgiven.  For the second Olympics in a row, Lloyd scored all the US goals in the final, therefore winning the gold medal both times for team and country.  In 2008, Lloyd scored the only goal in the match between the US and Brazil.  This year she scored both US goals in the 2-1 victory over Japan.  Carli Lloyd is not everyone’s favorite player, and probably unfairly maligned at times, but she comes through in a major way during the Olympics.

The final was a match of exceptionally high quality, as good an advertisement for the game as any.  The two best teams in the world (absent Germany is the third member of the triumvirate) play completely different styles, which makes their matches all the more interesting and intense.  This was a narrower 2-1 than the score suggested.  Japan could have had more goals had luck been with them.  The US could have had more goals had they been a little luckier.  There were some questionable calls (the Tobin Heath handball that apparently wasn’t), but that’s football.  But there was also moments of brilliance, especially Hope Solo’s incredible saves.  This was a match with two teams who deeply respect each other playing their absolute best.

The traditional rival of the United States had been Norway, the only team to beat the Americans in the Olympics.  Norway and the USA play a similar muscular style, but the history of animosity between the two national teams led to some intense clashes.  Now Norway’s time has passed, and they will continue to fade as the new challengers to the US rise.  Japan do not have as long a history with the US, but I believe they are the rivals of the future.  Norway’s decline is abetted by the rise of more women’s teams in Europe.  In contrast, the more teams that Asia develops, the strong it will make Japan on the world stage.  Unlike the US/Norway rivalry, which was made compelling by the mutual animosity that arose from the battle for early supremacy in the women’s game, the nascent rivalry between the US and Japan will be made compelling by the contrast in styles and the quality of the matches.

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 Over the past year, the US and Japan have battled back and forth for the title of best women’s team in the world.  I’m not sure that the Olympics settled the debate, but the gold medal does make a strong argument for the US.  As I have argued before, the USWNT are not chokers or big game bottlers.  They are arguably the best team in the world, and at this Olympics they proved it.

I am going to make a not-so-bold pronouncement.  There is no women’s football program in the world as successful as that of the United States.  Since the beginning in the 1991, the US has never come in less than third in the World Cup, and has never gotten less than silver in the Olympics.  Two World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals.  That is unmatched success, especially when compared with the other teams who have won any of those two titles: Germany (2003 and 2007 World Cup), Norway (1995 World Cup, 2000 Olympics), and Japan (2011 World Cup).  No women’s nation has repeatedly replenished its talent as successfully as the US has, from Michelle Akers to Alex Morgan.  Norway and China faded, Brazil does not seem interested in replacing Marta, Japan is a relatively new arrival at the top, and Germany suffers through dramatic peaks and valleys.  In all this time, the US has remained at the top of the game.

I know I say this a lot, but it is worth repeating over and over again.  The women’s international game is far more interesting than the men’s international game.  Spain aside, the men simply do not bring to the international game what they do to the club game.  In contrast, every elimination round match in the women’s Olympic tournament and many of the group stage matches were exceptional in their level of intensity and excitement.  I don’t care if O Fauxhawk and Brazil win their first gold medal, and I haven’t cared all tournament.  In contrast, I deeply cared about the entire women’s tournament, about how all the teams do, and about how they will be received by their countrymen and women.

As much as I trash English football, I must admit that the venues in Great Britain are unmatched in terms of history and tradition.  It was great to see women play at Hampden Park, Old Trafford, ans St. James’ Park.  And of course Wembly Stadium.  That over 80,000 spectators crammed into Wembly to watch a women’s football match is a great credit to the sport.  I cannot recall any Olympic women’s football tournament getting this kind of attention before.  Perhaps this is the moment when the world finally embraces the sport.

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Because I read the forums at BigScocer, I know there are a lot of people who dislike Pia Sundhage and her style of management.  When asked about whether he would renew her contract, Sunil Gulati, the head of the United States Soccer Federation, was evasive and somewhat cool to the idea.  It also, of course, depends of whether Sundhage wants to stay.

But it is unquestionable that Sundhage’s tenure has been a rousing success.  The facts speak for themselves.  Before she arrived, the USWNT were at the lowest point in the program’s history (at least since the start of tournament play).  Before Sundhage took over, the US were eliminated by Brazil in that match with that goal at the 2007 World Cup having suffered the program’s worst defeat ever (4-0).  In the three major tournaments Sundhage coached, the US finished first, second, and first.  For the majority of her tenure, the US have ranked first in the FIFA rankings.  She is the first coach in the women’s game to win two Olympic gold medals.  She took a broken team at war with itself and turned it into an irresistible force.

I hope that US fans recognize what Pia Sundhage has done with the team and appreciate that.  For my money, she is just as successful as Anson Dorrance or Tony DiCicco.

The US women have now won four of the five Olympic tournaments.  That’s quite a record, and only the US basketball teams can compete.  Each Olympic victory has had its own special feel.  The 1996 was about the team announcing itself to the nation.  2004 was the swan song of the Fab Five (Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, and Kristine Lilly). 2008 was the rebuilding year, moving on from the humiliation, turmoil, and disaster of the previous year’s World Cup.  2012 is something difference, and more complex.  This is the first major tournament since 1991 in which the US won all of its matches (penalty kicks are officially draws).  It may also be the turning point.  Japan and Canada pushed the US to the limit and although the US survived, this may be the sign that the time has come to adapt.  2012 should about closing the book on the past and looking at the best way to live in the future.

Astoundingly, there may be a future after all for women’s football in the United States.  A new professional league has been announced.   Maybe, just maybe, this time it will work?

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Anyway, this has been a lot of fun.  I love writing about women’s football, and hopefully I will not have to wait until 2015 before I can write again.  I hope you have enjoyed these posts too, and will continue to read this blog.  Thank you.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 5: OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!

The semifinals of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament reinforced a very simple message: if you have heart problems, don’t follow the US Women’s National Team.

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It’s not easy to think of titles for these posts, you know.  My goal is to capture the importance of the matches as well as adding a spark of cleverness.  I like to think that I have a 15.6% success rate (not that I’m counting).  So it should come as no surprise that I spent last night thinking about how to title this post.  My initial idea was to title this post “Rematch” because every single possible final combination had taken place already either in the groups stages of this tournament or last year’s World Cup–or in case of US v. France, both.  I was also thinking about a Canadian bacon joke, but it’s been done.  And if Canada won, I was thinking about “Blame Canada” or “(Don’t) Blame Canada.”  Nothing really clicked.

And then came the US v. Canada match at Old Trafford, one of football’s greatest locations.  Football, bloody hell.

Both semifinals were excellent.  The men’s international game can only dream of having something this good any more.  But it’s churlish to compare the men and women.  Today is about the women’s game, and what a day we got.

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On any other day, the match between Japan and France would have been the talk of the tournament.  Japan and France are the two most technical teams in the game.  Possession, short passing, artistry (so much as it can exist in football).  The teams last met in an Olympic warmup match that France won.  Perhaps this is the reason why some idiots predicted France to beat Japan.  To be fair, France are one of the top teams in the world.  However, they seem to be one rung on the ladder below the world’s Big Three–US, Germany, and Japan.

There are two important things one has to know about Japan, which France did not realize, and which would behoove the US to remember in the final: (1) Japan play much better in real competition than in friendlies; and (2) Japan, for all their technical skill, prefer winning to maintaining stylistic ideology.  That is how Japan were able to get to a 2-0 lead against France; Nadeshiko gave Les Bleus enough rope to hang themselves.  Which is not to say that France played badly, they most certainly did not, especially in the second half.  Certainly they gave Japan more than one moment of fright.  To say nothing of France’s 75th minute goal by Eugnie Le Sommer, which completely changed the attitude of the match.  And of course there was the penalty kick, the one that Elise Bussaglia missed.  Had she made it, it is entirely possible that France would have won.  But this is entirely in the realm of the theoretical.  Les Blues went toe-to-toe against the world champion, stared them down, but in the end the challengers blinked.  Japan were able to exploit France’s own mistakes (lousy set piece defending and sloppy goalkeeping by Sarah Bouhaddi), for goals from Yuki Ogimi and Mizuho Sakaguchi.

France took the loss with their usual bonhomie and good sportsmanship.  “Today was even more disappointing than the World Cup,” said coach Bruno Bini. “In the last 20 minutes we played very well and were even better than Japan. They barely reached our side of the pitch.”  This is why France lose against superior teams when it counts.  It’s the same reason why Arsenal again and again.  A moral victory is not a win.  This is the French mentality in a nutshell: we played better and we deserved to win, why doesn’t the official scoreline recognize our superiority?  Bini is clearly an acolyte of Arsene Wenger.  (And by the way, a football match is 90 minutes, so if you played better for only 20, then that is 350% longer that Japan were the better side.)

In contrast, Japan take nothing for granted.  If playing “better”does not work (and I am not convinced that France played better), then they change their game plan and play smarter.  That is why France lost in the last two major semifinals and why Japan will play for their second straight world title.

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Stop me if you heard this one before.  It’s a women’s soccer match.  The US is facing a team with one of the best players in the world.  Victory is by no means certain, and the specter of defeat is staring the US in the face.  Suddenly in the final minute of overtime stoppage time, a US star heads the ball into the back of the net (the latest goal the tournament had ever seen to that point), and saves the US chances.  The US win and move on.

Just over a year after Abby Wambach saved the US against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals sending the match to penalties (which the US won), Alex Morgan scored the winning goal in a 4-3 victory over Canada in a brilliant, wonderful, contentious, controversial match.  Already people are calling this the greatest women’s Olympic match of all time or even the greatest women’s match of all time.  I will go one farther, this is one of the greatest football matches, men’s or women’s, ever played, right up there with Italy/West Germany 1970 (also 4-3) and Italy/Brazil 1982.  It was non-stop action for 120+ minutes and was (mercifully) won without penalties.

If you are a fan of the US Women’s National Team, you have seen quite a few (perhaps too many) tight matches that were all terrific but exceedingly nerve-wracking.  There was the 1999 World Cup final of course, and then the two matches at last year’s World Cup that went to penalties–the quarterfinal against Brazil that I alluded to above and the final against Japan.  The last two Olympic finals were also very tight and tense.

I have mentioned my admiration of Canada’s Christine Sinclair many times, and today she was at her finest.  A hat trick against the US.  I cannot remember the last time when anyone did that; I think it was over a decade ago.  But Sinclair, she just took her team on her back and forced them to be great.  Canada’s play this tournament has mitigated (if not erased) the awfulness of the 2011 World Cup.  But today Canada were at a new level, one that I don’t think the world has ever seen from them before.  Their win over Great Britain was no fluke; Canada are in the upper echelon of women’s football, and woe be unto anyone who does not take them seriously (including their own federation.  Dear Canadian football authorities, treat the women like queens; your men’s team will never be that successful).

But no matter how good Canada were, they had a major obstacle in front of them, and that is the US.  The fact that the US and Canada are neighbors, and the fact that the US got a big head start in achieving football success has to gate the Canadians.  But more than that, what really bothers the Canadians is their pitiful record against the US.  Big Red have not beaten the US in 11 years and the USWNT’s record against Canada in that time is something like 22-0-4.  It gets even more pathetic when you include the Michelle Akers/Mia Hamm days (official FIFA head-to-head, the US leads with 42 wins, 4 draws, and 3 losses).  The Canadian players have been squeezed into the role of plain, younger sister to the USWNT’s superstar athlete/scholar/prom queen.  It’s like A League of Their Own but without Madonna or the bittersweet/uplifting/tearjerker ending.

Because Sinclair was so on today however, the US team had to work that much harder, and the first line of counterattack was my favoritestplayerofalltimeMarryMe! Megan Rapinoe.  Rapinoe scored the first two goals to counter Sinclair’s, the first of which was an amazing shot from a corner kick.  It was almost Roberto Carlos-like.  The second, well, my Rapinoe-love keeps on growing, so words cannot describe it.

The match went something like this Canada 1-0 US; Canada 1-1 US; Canada 2-1 US; Canada 2-2 US; Canada 3-2 US.  At this point the controversy happened.  The referee Christiana Pederson awarded an indirect free kick to the US for a call against Erin McLeod, the Canadian goalkeeper.  Apparently McLeod held the ball too long (over six seconds).  I have never seen that before, and it is a rare call that almost no referee makes, although Pederson was technically correct according to the Laws of the Game.  There is a question about whether Pederson warned McLeod ahead of time.  Rapinoe took the kick, and the ball hit Canadian player Marie-Eve Nault in the hand which resulted in a penalty.  Abby Wambach converted.  By this point the game was nearing the 80th minute, and without a doubt, it was the turning point of the game.  Canada did not score again, and Alex Morgan got her 123rd minute Header of Glory.  The Canadians, as you can imagine, are not happy about it.

I don’t want to devote too much time to the call, other than to say that I pretty much agree with everything Ray Curren wrote at AllWhiteKit.  In any football match there are at least 20 bad calls, some which have more of an effect than others.  But a football match is 90+ minutes, or in this case 120+.  The team of the receiving end of the questionable call has to take some responsibility for not doing enough in the rest of the match.  As Curren points out, although Canada had a heck of a game, the US were still the better side.  When refs make bad calls (such as the 2010 World Cup US goal against Slovakia that was taken away), it is natural for the angry fan to suspect them.  In my admittedly short time watching the game however, there are only two matches where the referee’s interference clearly made a difference and the referee was himself suspect–South Korea’s matches against Italy and Spain in the 2002 World Cup.  The only reason I still hold onto to the belief that those matches were fixed is because one of the referees was Byron Moreno.  Beyond that, calling a referee’s ethics into question is the worst thing that can happen for the game.  And besides which, Pederson is Norwegian.  As a Norwegian, one can imagine that the USWNT is the last team she would have tried to help.

What is most a shame about the controversy is that it takes away from the fact that this was by any standard an unbelievable match, possibly the best in the women’s game ever.  Old Trafford was lucky to host it.  One hopes that the match will be remembered for the exceptionally high quality of play and excitement rather than questionable officiating.

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So now it is on to the final (and the bronze medal match.  Go Canada!).  I have learned my lesson from the World Cup; no predictions.  I will say though that the US and Japan are the two teams at the top of the women’s game, and they have earned their places in the final.  As a US supporter, I am hoping for some redemption.  The US has beaten Japan in recent friendlies, but as I have said earlier in this post, you can never go by friendlies and Japan find a way to win.  No one knows that better than the US.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 4: Changing Of The Guard

With the first knockout round of the Olympics women’s football tournament upon us, the time has come to say good-bye to some of the greatest players in the world.  Among those we will no longer see in London: Marta, Kelly Smith, Lotta Schelin, and Ali Riley.

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There is no deserve in football.  I cannot say this enough.  One of the great things about the game, and conversely one of the terrible things about the game, is that on any given day a minnow can take down a whale.  Or a team that everyone loves for their outrageous skill and aesthetic abilities can lose to a team that is less talented and awful to watch but organized.  In 2010, New Zealand (the men) were mediocre to put it kindly, yet they were the only side not to be defeated in the course of the World Cup.  No result in written in the stars.

The Olympic quarterfinals were always going to be difficult.  Six of the seven top-ranked teams in the world competed today, and no victory was assured.  Even the US could not count on success.   New Zealand have improved by leaps and bounds, and at this rate it will not be long before they claim their first major scalp at either the Olympics or the World Cup.  The US however, were not to be that first scalp.  The score was 2-0, on goals from Abby Wambach (of course) and Sydney Leroux.  It is important to recognize two things about the match: (1) the US were the far superior team; and (2) the US squandered multiple opportunities, which has become a concerning trend of late.  Since the match with France, the US seems to have taken the foot off the gas a bit.  Perhaps that was necessary to make it this far, but the next two game are clutch, and opportunities cannot be wasted.  Wasting opportunities is how a team ends up placing second at the World Cup.

All credit to New Zealand.  The win against Cameroon was their first at a major international tournament, and it was great to see them in the elimination rounds.  I’m not kidding when I say they are everyone’s second or third team.  The 10,000 people at St. James’ Park (a very low number for that venue) adopted the Football Ferns.  Hopefully next time the USWNT will make it a little less difficult to root against by not wearing the colors of Sunderland into Newcastle United’s home stadium.

The match that did get a good turnout was Great Britain v. Canada.  Canada have had a really rough time lately in international tournaments.  At the World Cup, they were shambolic in a group with Germany, France, and Nigeria.  No wins, one goal.  In this tournament too, the draw was stacked against them, but Big Red persevered, which is a reassuring sign that the next World Cup (in Canada) will not be a humiliation.

The 2-0 defeat of Great Britain will be a tough one to take for the host nation.  Following GB’s (heavily attended) defeat of Brazil, it looked like women’s football was finally about to make inroads into Great Britain.  A GB v. USA semifinal at Old Trafford would have sold out.  Now who knows if it will be well attended.  At last year’s World Cup in Germany, attendances remained strong even after the host nation was eliminated, but I don’t think that will be the case at these Olympics.

Canada earned the win, and the result was fair.  One might suggest that this was an upset, but despite the fact that GB were undefeated and had not let in a goal all tournament, Canada are the higher ranked side.  It is easy to forget that there is immense talent in the Canadian side, because of the recent group stage woes and because Canada are constantly overshadowed by the US.  But they are not a team to be trifled with, and they still have Christine Sinclair.

On the other side of the draw, the question about whether Brazil’s 5-0 defeat of Cameroon was an omen or a fluke has been definitively answered, and it was the latter.  Once again, tactical ineptitude and lack of preparation caught out Brazil.  This may have been the Samba Queens’ last best hope for a title as the current generation ages out, and the new one does not look particularly strong.  Brazil may have dominated large swaths of today’s game, but that was because Japan tried a counterattacking strategy rather than a possession-based one.  Brazil may have been the more talented side, but when Brazil go down a goal, the players lose their collective heads–exactly what happened to the men’s team two years ago in South Africa.  One gets the sense that Brazil feel that they are due the win simply because they are Brazil.  (Repeat after me: There is deserve in football.)  But it doesn’t work like that.  Brazil’s overarching problems are not the team’s fault, but at this point we in the rest of the world are close to throwing up our hands and saying, “Too bad; they could have been great.”

I cannot say I am particularly thrilled with the conduct of Japan either–not so much for throwing the match against South Africa, but rather by talking about it and cheating the South African players out of any post-match pride.  Fan don’t forget things like that, and we will see if the British public (they ones who show up) will hold that against the Japanese players who had built up such good will following their response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.  Bad show, Nadeshiko, bad show.

The only team that stands between Japan and the final is France, who beat Sweden.  Like the US, Canada, and Japan, France scored two goals.  Unlike the other three, France allowed in a goal (scored by Nilla Fischer).  Also unlike the other three, this was an upset both in rankings and in actuality.  Sweden once again proved to be the bridesmaid, and I cannot see that ending any time soon.  France meanwhile have set up a semifinal against Japan for the title of “Which side can be meaninglessly compared to Barcelona more.”  France won a friendly against Japan just prior to the Olympics, but Japan have shown that they are remarkably crafty, first with the draw against South Africa and then with the strategy change against unsuspecting Brazil.  Also, friendlies are horrible determinations of future performance.

Nevertheless, I am holding to my original prediction of US v. France in the final.  My quarterfinal track record was 3/4, and my group stage predictions were nearly spot on.  We’ll see how well I do, from hereon in.