Women’s World Cup: Team Of The Tournament

In the days before the final (and third place match), there is little to write about, and I am not quite ready to risk predictions today. Instead I am going to pick a team of the tournament (which I think will remain the same even after the final two matches.)  I went with a 4-3-3 even though no team actually used that formation.

Agree?  Disagree?  Want to give your own team of the tournament?  Please leave comments.

Team of the Tournament

Hope Solo

Ali Krieger – Christie Rampone – Faye White – Sonia Bompastor

Camille Abily – Homare Sawa – Louisa Necib

Genoveva Añonma – Abby Wambach – Marta

Super Sub: Megan Rapinoe

Alternates:

Precious Dede, Ali Riley, Lauren Cheney, Lotta Schelin, Cristiane, Kerstin Garefrekes, Maribel Domínguez, Heather O’Reilly, Aya Miyama

Goalkeeper:  Hope Solo is the best in the world, and in my opinion the best there ever was.  She saved the Americans time and time again, never more so than in the quarterfinal match against Brazil.  Her only competition, and this is a distant second, is Precious Dede of Nigeria, who let in a grand total of only two goals the entire tournament–one to France and one to Germany.  Not a bad showing.

Right Back:  This was actually the hardest position for me to pick, because there were so many good candidates.  Ali Krieger was the class of the tournament, but not far behind her was Ali Riley of New Zealand who was the brightest spot of a developing team. (and who is also generally excellent for the Western New York Flash.)  Special mention to Equatoguinean right back Bruna, she of the now infamous Hand of Oh My God!  It is not that Bruna was a class above everyone else consistently (hence she did not make my alternates bench), but her man-marking of Marta was a class for most of the match.  She shadowed Marta so effectively, that she kept the Brazilian quiet until the very end.  How effective was it?  When Marta went to talk to her coach, Bruna followed her, (and since Bruna speaks Portuguese, it prevented any kind of communication.)

Center Backs:  I admit the choices here were somewhat sentimental.  It was hard to choose center backs because unlike the outside backs, center backs tend to get singled out more for their few mistakes than the (many more) times they successfully stop the attack.  The center back takes more abuse from the goalkeeper than anyone else because they are always at the back (unlike the full backs who charge down the flanks).  Center back is not a glamorous position, but it is an extremely important one.  Being a center back requires intelligence and leadership.  The center backs keep the shape of the defense, and it is no surprise that center backs make the best captains.  With that in mind, my center backs were Christie Rampone and Faye White, two very successful veterans.  Few could argue with my choice of Rampone, who has been a rock at the back, but White is tougher to justify.  Overlook the missed penalty kick that will probably haunt her forever.  The truth is that England’s defense was very good, and White, as captain, was responsible for that.  England just came up short against a far superior team, and even that superior team only won because of the roulette wheel that is penalty kicks not because they broke down White’s defense (and she was hobbled by the end of that match.)

Left Back:  Right back offered too many good choices, but there is only one choice for left back: Sonia Bompastor.  She was the only good part of France’s defense, and her charges down the left were a terror to all teams that opposed her.  She was also the only person to truly beat Hope Solo on goal, a goal that made Solo furious.  Bompastor is the best left back in the women’s game.

Right Midfield: This was another really tough position.  Camille Abily scored only one goal this tournament.  Nevertheless, her contributions were tremendous to an excellent French side.  It was very hard to decide between Abily, Heather O’Reilly, and Kerstin Garefrekes, but in my opinion, Abily just ekes out O’Reilly.  O’Reilly was very important to the US side; when she sat out with an injury, the US lost.  Garefrekes was  one of the few bright spots of an imploding Germany.  Blame Silvia Neid and Birgit Prinz, but Garefrekes was blameless.

Central Midfield:  Homare Sawa.  Because Japan are such a great team, and each player makes the others better, it is very difficult to separately honor any of the Japanese players individually, and I have done them a disservice by not including more on this list.  One Japanese player stands head and shoulder above everyone though: Sawa.  She is the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual engine behind her team’s machine, and she is the player of the tournament.  She is the only player in the tournament thus far to score a hat trick, and her assist for Karina Maruyama’s goal gave Japan its most important win ever.  Alas, there is only one choice, because there are so many good contenders.  Lauren Cheney deserves some appreciation; when she is at center, she is one of the most creative US players.  (The problem was that she often started on the left and then moved into center, which is why she is not more competitive on this team.)  Had Germany done better, Simon Laudehr would be on my list somewhere.  Give a little love for the veterans Formiga and Kelly White who are playing in their last tournament; if there were a lifetime achievement award, both would get it.  Finally,some mention should go to Kim Kulig of Germany and Nilla Fischer of Sweden, who proved that when the starting center midfielder is not playing, a team can go south very quickly (especially when the opponent is Japan.)

Left Midfield:  This is cheating a little bit I suppose.  Louisa Necib was an attacking midfielder for most of the tournament, but she is one of the breakout stars of this tournament, and I had to include her.  Therefore I am moving her to left with the understanding that at some point in the second half Megan Rapinoe, another break out star, will come in for her.  Necib is one of the most graceful players out there, and was repeatedly compared to her countryman Zinedine Zidane who is also of Algerian heritage, as was repeated ad nauseam.  Hopefully she will not get crushed under the weight of that comparison because Necib has talent, creativity, and ball striking ability to spare.  Rapinoe lost her starting spot, but rather than sulk a la Prinz she became the best substitute of the tournament.  She was responsible for both Abby Wambach’s tying goal against Brazil, and Alex Morgan’s beautiful chip goal against France, and she scored a goal of her own against Colombia (Born in the USA!.)  Another great player is Aya Miyama whose mastered the art of the set piece.  How the Japanese produce such consistently good players in that department is beyond me.

Right Wing:  One of the other major breakout stars of this tournament was Genoveva Añonma.  She only scored two goals, a brace against Australia, but they were her team’s only goals.  That pretty much describes Equatorial Guinea.  Añonma kept that team afloat.  She was their everything.  Even though Equatorial Guinea was eliminated, Añonma announced herself as one of the world’s attackers.

Center Forward: Abby Wambach.  It’s hard to remember now that coming into the tournament, Abby Wambach could not score a goal to save her life.  This was exacerbated in the match against Colombia where attempt after attempt refused to go in no matter how well she struck the ball or how fortuitous the opportunity.  It was not until after her should-have-been-illegal, off-the-shoulder goal against Sweden that the floodgates opened.  It’s not  that Wambach scored so many goals though as much as when she scored: the tying goal against Brazil and the winner against France.  Wambach’s ability to carry her team is second only to Sawa.  There is no one else who could be the center forward.  There are however, honorable mentions.  Maribel Domínguez and Lotta Schelin, although not high scorers carried their teams.  Domínguez is a particularly poignant case.  If she were ten years younger, Mexico would be a force in the foreseeable future.  Hopefully the team will be able to live in the house Domínguez built, but unfortunately Marigol has to move on.  Special mention must also be given to Christine Sinclair who kept Canada in contention against Germany and then played through a broken nose.  Canada deserved better than its finish and so did Sinclair. Because they didn’t, Sinclair missed out on the team.

Left Wing: Marta.  The best player in the world and possibly of all time.  Brazil exited early but that is the fault of federation and coach, not of Marta who scored four goals, two in spectacular fashion that only Marta could pull off.  That is not to mention her the other parts of her game: (1) her assists, and (2) by virtue of being Marta, she kept opposing defenders occupied long enough for her teammates to score.

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Women’s All Time XI (Take Two)

Now that I am getting more views on this blog (thank you all so much for reading; I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it), I want to ask a question that did not receive any responses the last time I asked it.  Who you would put on a greatest ever women’s team?

One of the most enjoyable things about following sports is those endless pub debates about who is the greatest ever.  It’s completely meaningless, but so much fun.  On SI.com, Jonathan Wilson just published the last part of his Greatest Ever Team Tournament (Ajax ’72 over Barcelona ’11 3-2 in the finals–probably a fair result), and although I have expressed some reservations about it, I think these kinds of debate that Wilson has engaged in is a fundamental cornerstone of a successful fan culture. Sometimes the arguments can be very persuasive and other times less so.  Even when the results are less convincing, the effort reveals a passion and energy that is admirable.  Even in sports I don’t normally follow (cricket, Australian rules football, hurling), I try to find out who the greatest ever is when those sports cross my path–even if I don’t know or care about such basic things as the rules.

That is why I am a bit surprised that I have not been able to find this kind of debate among followers of women’s football.  I think it will make the fan culture a richer experience.  So for the sake of the growth of the women’s game, I am hoping to start a trend.  Please leave your own selections below in the comments section, and tell your friends too.

Now a caveat: I am no expert on women’s football.  There are experts, lots of them, but I am not one of them.  My knowledge is particularly woeful outside of the USWNT.  I so adamantly state my non-expertise is because I need to explain why my list has only a few non-Americans.  In fact, this list is probably closer to being an All-Time American Women’s XI with some foreign influence.  Not only is it mostly American women, but specifically American women who played on the 1999 World Cup winning side.

I have no excuses for this other than it is what I know.  There are not many books on the modern history of women’s football, and YouTube can only take you so far.  News on foreign women’s leagues and tournaments is hard to come by, and I am holding out judgment on the current crop of American women.  So take this with a grain of salt, and please join in if you can.

My Starting XI: 

Solo

Chastain-Markgraf-Overbeck-Fawcett

Lilly-Akers-Sun

Hamm-Prinz-Marta

Now this is probably an awful list, but having said that let me explain why I made the selections I made.

Goalkeeper:  Hope Solo is currently the best goalkeeper in the world.  Is she the best ever, I don’t know, but I suspect yes.  This was not an easy choice.  Briana Scurry was a great goalkeeper for the US, with the 1999 penalty shootout as the highlight of her career.  But she also had a few lows: the 2007 semifinals, of course, but she also fell out of form after 1999, lost her starting place, and had to get back into shape.    The other goalkeeper I considered was Nadine Angerer because it is very hard to side against the only keeper ever to go an entire World Cup without letting in a goal.  Still, I believe that Solo is the best bar none; aside from her talent, she has that insanity that great keepers have.

Defenders:  Of all the choices, these are the ones I am most uneasy about, first because all four are Americans (granted, multiple title-winning Americans), and second because all of them were on the 1999 team.  Three of them were on the 1991 team, although Brandi Chastain was not a starter.  All of these four defenders were at the top of the women’s game for around a decade and a half.  (Plus Chastain gave women’s football its single most iconic moment.  What is often overlooked is that although Chastain took the final winning kick, Overbeck and Fawcett converted the first two kicks.)  Markgraf, although only on one World Cup winning squad, won two Olympic gold medals.  I am confident that they are four of the best defenders ever even if not the absolute four best.

Midfielders:  I am on shaky ground with the midfield because Michelle Akers and Sun Wen were really forwards.  I could have used more orthodox midfielders such as Kelly Smith of England (who also played at forward), Shannon Boxx or Julie Foudy of the US, or Sissi of Brazil, but if that were the case, I would have to leave out players who I believe to be better.

Kristine Lilly is a legend of the game.  She is the most capped player, male or female, in history and probably will remain so.  She won two World Cup titles, two Olympic titles in her long, long career.  She was one of the best midfielders in the game bar none.  Michelle Akers is one of the greatest players of all time; only Marta can also lay claim to that title.  Akers was always the strongest, fastest, most monomaniacal player on the field the commentator during the 1991 final gave her what he believed to be the ultimate compliment, “she plays like a man.”)  She was heads and shoulders above her peers, and when her team underperformed she put them on her back and carried them to victory.  No wonder that FIFA named her Player of the Century.  Akers was not the only player named Player of Century.  Akers was honored by FIFA’s technical committee, but Sun Wen of China won the honor by an Internet vote.  What Akers was for the US, Sun was for China.  She was their best player, and one the greats.  She won the 1999 Golden Ball and co-won the 1999 Golden Boot.  China has never been able to replace her, and the Chinese women’s program has sank into mediocrity.

Forwards:  I debated excluding Mia Hamm.  Hamm was one of the all time great, and the sport’s first superstar, but she was also not of the strongest fortitude and tended to vanish in big moments.  Nevertheless, any list that did not have international football’s most prolific scorer (again man or woman) would be worth even less than nothing.  Before her problems this World Cup, Birgit Prinz was an icon.  All she did was score goal after goal for club and country.  Prinz was a feared name in the 00’s and led every team she was on to success, including two consecutive World Cup wins for Germany in 2003 and 2007.  It is a shame what happened at the 2011 World Cup, but that should not diminish her legacy.  Finally the last person on the list has to be Marta, arguably the greatest individual player of all time.  Now tied for Prinz as the record World Cup scorer (and a ridiculous record of 14 goals in 14 matches), Marta has a simply unmatched technique and she can do thing other women simply cannot.  She has been compared to Pele and Messi although comparisons to Garrincha and Maradona would not be that far off either.  Marta is something of a tragic figure.  Opponents cannot stop her, but her own national federation, though its disdain and apathy for the women’s game, has all but ensured that Marta, when she retires, will do so without a world title.

So am I completely off?  Am I right on target?  Who would you put on your starting XI?

If You Love Something, Destroy It

Listening to World Football Daily lately has gotten me depressed.  For one thing, I cannot think of anyone in the media who wants Bob Bradley gone.  Rather, they ardently defend him.  Nor do I hear any reporters taking the USSF and Sunil Gulati to task.  Moreover, the way the members of the media treat the fans has been beyond patronizing. There appears to be this belief that fans have never played, don’t watch games, and don’t read.  Only they know what they’re talking about.

I get that no respectable coach will take on the US job because it would be a tremendous salary cut.  I also get that the US does not have the talent to compete on the world’s biggest stage.  I get that the biggest stumbling block for the growth of US Soccer is not Bob Bradley but Sunil Gulati.  And I also understand that despite my complaining and that of my fellow fans, Bob Bradley is here through 2014.  (And I also understand that the US is doomed to an early exit in Brazil, but no one mentions that.)

But the condescension is too much.  Why are US fans so upset?  Because they are watching a program that took years to get to mediocre start to crumble.  Because they are tired of watching an inept team led by a lackadaisical manager.  Because you only don’t fix something when it’s not broken.

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Watching the Women’s World Cup, I am reminded (thanks to ESPN) of the 2007 debacle, which I realize ties into my feelings on Bob Bradley.  If you read this blog, you probably already know what I am talking about, but if you don’t, it’s a doozy.  In 2007, the US Women’s National Team went to China with an excellent record (granted from friendlies and minor tournaments), a number one ranking, and an expectation that they would reclaim the title that they lost to Germany four years before.  They had already recaptured the Olympics and gotten rid of national team coach (and former star player) April Heinrichs.  She was replaced by Greg Ryan who had previous been an assistant coach for the USWNT.  Although there was no Mia, no Julie, no Joy, and no Brandi (the first three because of retirements and the latter because of exile), the new generation seemed to be coming into its own.

The 2007 World Cup was not an easy one for the USWNT.  They drew their first match with North Korea, and then beat Sweden and Nigeria to win the group.  They beat England 3-0 in the quarterfinals.  Then Ryan made one of the great tactical blunders in USWNT history.  For the next match against Brazil, he replaced top goalkeeper Hope Solo with former US #1 goalkeeper Briana Scurry.  Scurry was the keeper throughout the famous 1999 World Cup win.  Her talent was never in doubt, but honestly, time and a younger rival had caught up.

A keeper is different from other positions.  A good keeper is the general of her half and the last line of defense.  Watch any match and you will see the keeper screaming at his or her defenders.  Good keepers tend to be somewhat crazy and very outspoken.  There is a different kind of rapport between a keeper and the team, because, unlike every other player, the keeper is a fixture.  Even replacing a bad keeper can have consequences.*

There is an argument to be made that benching Solo for Scurry is not the sole reason why the US lost.  There is even an argument to be made that scapegoating Greg Ryan masked the real problems with the USWNT and the US women’s program in general.  However, whether solely responsible or not, the switch in the keeper had dire consequences for the US.  Early in the match the US blundered with an own goal, and from there it went from bad to worse to catastrophic.  (This is, of course, the perception of a US fan.  If you are a fan of Brazil, or just the game itself, what you saw was the ascendancy of history’s finest female player.) That 4-0 defeat is to-date the worst loss the USWNT has ever suffered.

Solo, being a goalkeeper and afflicted by goalkeeper insanity, looked both miserable and furious on the bench.  After the match, she let loose to the media, saying that had she been in goal, she would have saved those goals from Brazil.  The truth is, she was probably right.  The entire team, who were all very fond of Scurry, excommunicated Solo, so much so that she had to fly back to the US alone.  Needless to say, the third-place match was played with Scurry in goal.

The USSF was unimpressed with both the team’s performance and the media fallout.  Greg Ryan’s contact was not renewed.  The happy coda to the story is that Pia Sundhage was hired, she brought Solo back from exile, and the US defended its Olympic title over Brazil (Solo being the star of the match.)

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The point of that foray down Repressed Memory Lane, believe it or not, was not actually about the USWNT.  Rather it is about the contrast in the USSF’s reaction to Ryan and to Bradley.  With the women, a 3rd place finish was not good enough, which is shocking.  Keep in mind that (a) although sometimes the best team does not win, by that time the US was not the world’s best anymore; (b) Ryan’s record was very good; (c) Ryan, like Bradley, fit the profile of a Gulati-preferred coach; (d) knockout tournaments are unpredictable; and (e) in the last three men’s World Cup, where there is far more pressure to succeed, no coach who led his team to the semifinals or beyond was sacked (although France should have fired its 2006 coach.)

When she was first hired, Sundhage was only given a one-year contract.  If the team did not perform well (i.e. win) at the Olympics, she too would have been gone.  (After the team won the gold medal, Gulati got down on one knee and begged her to stay.)

The point of this extended story is that the USSF and Gulati have shown that they are not afraid to cut loose a coach with good results if those results don’t meet expectations.  Therefore, it is a wonder that they have so mismanaged the Bradley situation.  Once again, I understand that there are other factors, not the least of which is that a top women’s coach is paid far less than a top men’s coach.  And of course there is always the issue of control, and how much the USSF is willing to give (little).  But given how openly disappointed Gulati was with the USMNT results in South Africa, it is a wonder that Jürgen Klinsmann was the only other candidate considered.

No special feature by a Goal.com hack, or Grant Wahl, or Sean Wheelock, and no browbeating by Kenny Hassan will convince me that retaining Bradley was the right choice, even if now it is too late.  But in the long run, Bradley is not the main problem.  What I have realized more and more is that as long as Sunil Gulati is in charge, football in the United States will either stagnate or regress.

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So it got me thinking if there is a way to change things.  There is, but it is not a pleasant solution.  In fact, it is anarchic and nihilistic.  But otherwise, I got nothing. Maybe you have a better idea.

The only way to get rid of Bradley and Gulati is boycott.  Boycott the US Men’s National Team.  Don’t buy their kits.  Don’t go their matches.  Don’t even watch their matches.  Cheer for another country (I hear Mexico is on the rise.)  Stop supporting MLS.  Find a European team, or an African team, or a South American team to support instead (you probably already have at least one; we all do.)  Boycott all things US until the USSF is on its knees, and begging for the fans to tell them what to do.  Without the fans, USSF cannot exist.  Be willing to sacrifice all the gains US Soccer has made since the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Now I am not recommending this course of action.  It’s like killing a mosquito with a bazooka.  Sure, you’ll get the sucker, but you’ll destroy most everything else around it.  Nevertheless, I have felt very disappointed of late, and somewhat helpless, which is not a feeling I like.  And worse, I feel like I’m being talked down to, by the grand pooh-bahs of the football media, which really pisses me off.

The one hope in all of this.   Landon Donovan**, the great and mighty majesty of American Soccer himself, is not particularly pleased with Bob Bradley.  No doubt the backtracking will begin soon if it hasn’t already, but perhaps this is the crack in the facade.

Hope spring eternal.  Especially for the hopeless.

 

Footnotes:

* Consider the England men’s national team in South Africa last year.  England has been woefully lacking in good keepers of late, and at the World Cup they paid for it.  The US equalized only because England’s goalkeeper Robert Green made a blunder to end all blunder.  National team manager Fabio Capello punished him by benching him in favor of a keeper so prone to error, his nickname is “Calamity” James.  Needless to say, England’s form for the rest of the tournament was woeful even when they won.

** I wonder what Donovan and Clint Dempsey think of one another.  They each have what the other desperately craves.  Dempsey has succeeded in Europe, at least in that he is a big fish in a small pond and helped lead his team to the final of a European competition.  Even if Dempsey only plays for Fulham, playing the in EPL has a real cachet attached to it, whereas Donovan failed in Europe several times and could not get a permanent move to Everton even when he did play well.  On the other hand Donovan has the name recognition and the respect of the average American sports fan, even those who only watch the World Cup and nothing else.  I imagine that drives Dempsey crazy, and is at least partially behind his ludicrous belief that he should be playing Champions League football.