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.

 

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.

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.

The Lionel Messi Award For Excellence In the Field Of Being Lionel Messi Goes To Lionel Messi

Are you shocked?  If you are then you clearly have never watched football in your life.  (Welcome, Stranger!  Make yourself at home.)  I don’t think I have ever been less surprised by anything ever except perhaps the revelation that Britney Spears did not in fact save herself for marriage.  Seriously people, if you want real European drama–fun drama, not Oh-my-God-the-Euro-is-collapsing! drama–watch Eurovision.  Every year the winner will surprise you, which is how this year’s competition ended up in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Back to football.  I think the surprise is that Messi won with only 47.88% of the vote.  Clearly he’s slipping.  I mean the man wins La Liga, the Champions League, and the Club World Cup, and all he gets is a meaningless gold-ish statuette and the chance to be serenaded by James Blunt.  Cristiano Ronaldo received 21.6%, and Xavi, the perpetual bronze medalist in this FIFA-sponsored charade, a mere 9.23%.  From these results one can learn the following about this year’s World Player of the Year voting: 30.83% of the voters were Portuguese, Madridistas, or related to Xavi.

I had no doubt that Messi would win the award and in as much as individual awards matter, he completely deserved it.  Messi is the legend of our time, and only churls dispute that.  Nevertheless, I would have given the award to Xavi.  I’ve said this before, but individual awards in a team sport is the height of ridiculousness.  The winner of the Golden Ball should be Barcelona not Messi.  Xavi more than anyone represents the whole of Barcelona.  He is the heart of the team, the engine of the club, the conductor of its orchestra, the knitter of its intricate patterns, [add your cliché here].  This is the third time in a row that the man has finished third.  He is finally respected and appreciated; there will not be anymore headlines like Daily Mail‘s now infamous “The best players of the world (and Xavi)” from 2008.  Nevertheless, he will never win because his football is cerebral rather than sexy.  Xavi is great enough to be widely admired, but not spectacular enough to be celebrated.

Almost as surprising as Lionel Messi’s award was the Coach of Year, which went to Pep Guardiola (just under 42% of the vote).  Neither of the other two finalists, Sir Alex of Manchester and The Special One of Porto London Milan Eyepoke Madrid, got anywhere near Cristiano Ronaldo’s second place percentage, but both topped Xavi’s meager total.  I can kinda sorta see why Ferguson got votes; he won the Premier League–granted it was over mediocre opposition, and then he got his ass handed to him by the Blaugrana.  But Mourinho, that one is baffling–or it would be if I didn’t understand how these awards are actually chosen.  What exactly did Mourinho win last year?  The Copa del Rey.  That’s it.  In eight matches against Barcelona, he won once.  The title he won was the least consequential of the three he chased.  Tactically he got it wrong over and over again, and frankly cheapened Madrid at every turn acting more like a child than a coach.  There are so many better candidates than Mourinho.  Why not give some consideration to Mancini who won the FA Cup (which is slightly more important than the Copa del Rey)?  Or Allegri who won Serie A?  Or Villas Boas who won a treble with Porto?  Mourinho’s inclusion is just further proof that if you hog the media spotlight and are proclaimed by idiotic pundits as the greatest ever, then you will always be considered for the FIFA awards, season be damned.  Ask Wesley Sneijder about that.

I suspect that Messi and Guardiola would gladly give up their awards in a heartbeat to be leading La Liga right now.  Or at the very least to have won at Espanyol this weekend rather than disappointingly draw.  I wonder though if Cristiano Ronaldo would have given up Madrid’s 5-1 win at Granada to win the Player of the Year award, especially now that Karim Benzema is usurping his place as the Golden Boy of the Bernabeu.

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The most fascinating awards for are the awards for the women’s game, which is why I am going to talk about them later.  I would like to try and close out this post with something thoughtful.  Whether I am successful or not, you be the judge.  But first, frivolity!

If you are looking for an in-depth discussion of this year’s Puskas Award, you’ve come to the wrong blog.  Neymar won it, and truth be told O Fauxhawk did produce something magical.  Great goals however, are spectacular in their own way, but they are an aesthetic judgment, in no way objective.  And goals are really a team effort, even if it looks like one person is doing it all.  Enjoy the art, admire the dance, but don’t pretend that a goal’s greatness can be quantified or voted upon.

The Fair Play Award went to the Japanese Football Association, because apparently this award is now given to nations that have endured tremendous and unthinkable tragedy.  To wit, last year’s winner was the Haiti U-17 Women’s Team.  Thank you FIFA; your meaningless trinket has completely smoothed over the pain and damage from an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that ruined the lives of an unfathomable number of people.

Men’s all-star team of the year (there’s no women’s team, because that would mean FIFA would have to pay attention to the women) is as follows: Iker Casillas, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi.  Putting aside the fact that there are no left backs on this team, something is clearly wrong with it.  I know.  Here is the real team of the year:  Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Segio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro.  See what I did there?  I named an actual team that performed at the very highest level rather than a collection of names, some of which were very dubiously included.  Wayne Rooney ended his season well, but it was far from an annus mirabilis.  In fact, I’d wager it was a year he would like to forget.

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In as much as Messi and Guardiola were obviously going to win, so too was Norio Sasake of Japan the coach of Japan’s World Cup champions the Nadeshiko.  He earned around 45% of the vote.  His closest competitors,  Pia Sundhage of the USWNT (runners-up) and Bruno Bini of France (semifinalists) won 15.83% and 10.28% of the votes respectively.

It is hard to argue with any of the three finalists especially Sasake who from any angle deserves recognition for Japan’s accomplishments.  But one has to wonder if FIFA focused too much on the international game.  In World Cup years, everything at club level is generally overlooked in favor of World Cup heroics (exception: last year’s awards where Messi and Mourinho won rather than Xavi/Villa/Iniesta, and Vincente del Bosque).  This is all the more true in the women’s game where the muckamucks only watch the international play, i.e. the World Cup.  Maybe the Olympics too–we’ll know they watch the Olympics if at next year’s awards all three finalists are managers of the top performing Olympic teams.  The problem is that in non-World Cup years, FIFA pretends that everything else doesn’t exist.  This ignorance of the women’s game is how Silvia Neid won the award last year.  Neid has been one of the most illustrious coaches in the history of the modern women’s game, but she did almost nothing of note in 2010.  She won because she was one of the few names the voters knew, and they knew Germany won the last two World Cups.  Completely ignoring club play, last year the only nominated coaches were international coaches, one of which was the German U-20 Women’s coach (who was nominated this year despite coaching in one competitive match.  At least she won it.)

This disrespect would be unthinkable in the men’s game.  It’s flat-out pernicious, and it gives the message that women’s club football is unimportant.  That attitude has some dire consequences.  Santos of Brazil recently disbanded its women’s team, the most successful women’s club team in South America’s short history, along with its futsal team to help pay Neymar’s exorbitant salary (an extremely shortsighted move, given that Neymar is soon for Europe.  The Club World Cup saw to that.)  Santos no doubt was aided in this massacre by a lack of interest in the women’s team; a lack of interest that was no doubt fed by Brazil’s quarterfinal exit in the World Cup.

Because this was a World Cup year, no one would question that three national team coaches were the three finalists.  Unlike in the men’s international game where style and creativity have slowly and painfully drained away, the women’s game still has beauty and striking contrasts.  The women’s international game is still important because it is still the highest level of competition.  Nevertheless, it is scandalous that the awards completely ignored what happened at the club level.  Lyon ended the German domination of the Champions League, the Western New York Flash eked out a WPS championship over a very talented Philadelphia Independence, and International Athletic Club Kobe Leonessa won the L-League in Japan.

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Finally, we come to the women’s Player of the Year.  I predicted after the World Cup final that Homare Sawa would win the award to go along with her World Cup championship, her Golden Boot, her Golden Ball, and her L-League title (the L-League came after I made the prediction).  Sawa has attained a level of stardom in Japan unknown to any female player not named Mia Hamm.  She’s a superstar there, and justifiably so.  On the biggest stage, at the biggest moment, Sawa almost singlehandedly dragged her team  to victory when defeat looked all but certain.  She is near the end of her very long career, and 2011 was the ultimate valedictory.  Sawa’s most important contribution: she gave Japan steel.  The knock against Japan for a long time has been that despite all the great technique, the team lacked the killer instinct.  It is easy to imagine that had there been no Sawa Japan would not have made it past Germany in the quarterfinals.  She didn’t score the winning goal, but she set it up.  Against Sweden and the United States, it was Sawa who saved Japan, scoring crucial goals, never letting up the pressure.  Sawa represents the complete opposite of what a Japanese woman is supposed to be, and yet she is being celebrated as a national hero.  There is something both heroic and poetic about her and her accomplishments.  (And she makes a very classy figure in her kimono.  Does this woman look like a killer to you?)  Has there been as effective a talisman in the game since Michelle Akers?   I am hard-pressed to think of another.   Forget the female Messi, who is the male Sawa?

If anyone deserved to break the 50% mark in the voting (or unanimity), it should have been Sawa.  Yet, of the five big awards (men’s and women’s player, men’s and women’s coach, Puskas Award), only Sawa did not break 40%.  In fact, she garnered only 28.51% of the votes.  Second place went to Marta with 17.28% of the vote and third place to Abby Wambach with 13.26%.  All three finalists were clearly their team’s leaders.  When things looked bad, all three of them at one point or another during the tournament completely changed her team’s momentum by doing something spectacular and jaw-dropping.  Both the final between the US and Japan and the quarterfinal between the US and Brazil featured spectacular play and dramatic heroics from all three women.  All three of these women were integral to their clubs’ success, and in Wambach’s case, she held magicJack above water as she both played and coached.  (One person who was not considered, but should have been was Christine Sinclair whose own dramatics this year should have overcome Canada’s poor showing.)

Nevertheless, despite how similar the three women were in importance to their respective teams, the voting should not have been as close as it was.  Here are the full tallies.  Some of the contenders were deserving, some were head scratchers (at least Birgit Prinz was not on the list; legend that she is, her inclusion would have turned this award into a farce).  I cannot wait to see who voted for whom.

I confess, I was afraid that Marta would win this award.  I have gone on record many times as an unabashed Marta enthusiast.  She is the best player in the world and perhaps ever.  I also made no secret how unimpressed I was with the way the crowds treated her at the World Cup, making her the scapegoat for her teammates’ behavior in the quarterfinals largely because they know who Marta is.  One can debate whether she deserved to win five Player of the Year titles in a row, but one cannot argue with her abilities (for the record, she looked rather pissed off when she didn’t win this year, which shows how great a competitor she is).  Nevertheless, I was terrified Marta would get this year’s award because of what it would represent.  Had Marta won, it would mean that the Player of the Year Award was not being judged by accomplishments but rather by reputation.  Around the world, voters know who Marta is and probably Wambach to a lesser extent.  Had won of those two won, it would have revealed a depressing ignorance of the women’s game, even at the highest level.  It would mean that the voters didn’t watch the World Cup.  For now at least, we have been spared that indignity.  (Not that this is unique to the women’s game.  Messi’s win last year was extremely controversial, especially in the Netherlands and non-Catalan Spain).

Sawa’s win felt like a victory for women’s football, even if the margin of victory was somewhat less than thrilling.  It makes me worry less about the game, especially in light of the WPS’s problems, which I have not yet written about on this blog.  To wit: although there will be a season this summer, there will only be five teams in the league.  There are ominous sign of collapse.  Vero Boquete, arguably Philadelphia’s and Spain’s best player, went to Russia for the European season; who knows if she will be back with the Independence when the WPS season starts.  Even more disturbing is the news that Marta and Abby Wambach may not return, which is akin to a death-blow.  There are other great players, but how many other names does WPS have?  Can Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo carry the league?  They may have to; God help us all.

Music listened to while writing this post  Glazunov: Symphony No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 16, “In Memory of Liszt”; Symphony No. 3 in D Major;  Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 48; Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 55.

Bob Bradley Is Gone Now

Well, it’s official, Bob Bradley has been sacked.  After the Gold Cup, it seemed like he would be around forever, or at least until the US exited early from the 2014 World Cup.  For once Sunil Gualti and the USSF did the right thing, although the larger issues–thoroughly average players, mismanagement of US soccer at all levels, Sunil Gulati and the USSF in general–still remain.

Why did the sack finally happen?  Well, I cannot be certain.  On ESPN, they seem to be sure that this is part of Gulati’s plan to “brand” US Soccer, hence the need for a name (foreign) coach.   (Please God, not Marcello Lippi.)  Others seem to believe it will be a US-based coach such as Sigi Schmid.  And of course there will be the inevitable will-he-won’t-he dance with Jurgen Klinsmann.  I am far from convinced that Klinsmann is the right guy, but for a number of American fans, he is the great white hope.  We’ll probably find out tomorrow who the next coach will be.  Watch this space.

The announcement took everybody by surprise.  Everybody.  I wonder if even Bradley had an inkling.  It makes sense to get rid of him now so a new coach can experiment with and improve a US team gone horribly stale.  The World Cup cycle is still in its infancy, so this is the best chance (only chance) for effective change.  Argentina certainly felt that way by firing–oh excuse me, Argentina doesn’t fire coaches–by allowing Batista to quit.  And inevitably there is moaning from the media who for inexplicable reasons loved Bradley dearly and gave him a free pass he did not merit.  Leander Schaerlaeckens of ESPN liked him so much he wrote two different pieces today defending Bradley–and implicitly blaming us, the stupid American fans, for not appreciating him.  To get Schaerlaeckens on your side, just give him the time of day.  He’s easy.  (It probably also helps that Bradley’s brother Jeff is the head soccer writer for ESPN The Magazine.)

I accept that a lot of US fans took poorly to Bradley from the start, and the relationship went from bad to worse.  I also accept that Bradley’s results with the national team were solid, and maybe even progress.  I even accept that Americans tend to have inflated expectations of the National Team.  I accept also that the 2009 Confederations Cup was a good result, but I counter with the fact that the Confederations Cup is an exhibition and not a real tournament.  Finally, I accept what Bradley’s defenders trumpet again and again, he did not have quality players to work with (by blaming the players though, Bradley’s defenders implicitly agree that the results were not acceptable.)

But Bradley was mediocre.  Thoroughly, utterly, undeniably mediocre.  It’s not his fault; Bradley is a product of the system he developed in, specifically the United States college system.  One need not be a former player to be a great coach, but a coach in the international game should not be provincial, and that is the inevitable result of being a product of the American college system.  Both Bradley’s career and his results, no matter how hard he worked, never really showed that he was a participant in the international dialogue.  One hopes that Bradley’s departure signals the end of the American college system era.  It should be required that whoever coaches the National Team from hereon in should already be a participant in the larger world football dialogue.  Hopefully the USSF is going in this direction; perhaps the fact that the u-20 and u-23 sides also need new coaches is no coincidence.

In the end what undid Bradley was his loyalty.  Bradley had his pet players, players.  Although they underperformed time and again, he stubbornly called them up while ignoring others who may have deserved a second or even first chance.  His pet players were players he knew and trusted, and his excuse for leaving out other players–that they didn’t play enough minutes for their clubs–rang hollow when some of his favorites also barely got off the bench.

No one exemplifies this favoritism more than Bradley’s son Michael.  Michael Bradley is a decent player, aggressive and competitive, but lacking in technique.  His pass leave much to be desire.  He is also dull, lifeless, abrasive, and robotic in interviews, which really hurts his image, but I suspect he doesn’t care.  (He probably should.)  At the World Cup, Michael Bradley was the best US player, or at least the most consistent.  After the World Cup he moved to Aston Villa on loan and barely got off the bench.  Villa opted not to extend his contract and Michael Bradley had to go back to Borussia Mönchengladbach (a club he effectively trashed after leaving) with his tail between his legs.  His club future is uncertain.

It’s not that Michael Bradley is a bad player, but prior to the Gold Cup he failed all the criteria that his father requires for his non-favored players.  As a result Michael Bradley, fairly or no, has come to symbolize his father’s favoritism/nepotism.  Michael Bradley had a poor Gold Cup, and gave the doubters all the more ammunition.  I suspect that Michael Bradley is going to be the player who suffers most from the regime change, at least among the starters.  He, more than any other player, symbolizes the Bob Bradley era.

Which brings us to the Gold Cup, the final nail in the coffin of Bob Bradley’s National Team career.  The US underperformed, although not necessarily on paper.  In ordinary circumstances making the final and losing to Mexico would be a disappointing but  acceptable result.*  What happened though is that the US lost in the Gold Cup group stag for the first time ever (to powerhouse Panama), looked terrible in the  group stage wins (to Canada and Guadeloupe), and lost the final in horrific fashion.  It’s not that the US lost a 2-0 lead that grates, nor is it that the US lost 4-2, nor even that the US was by far the lesser team.  It’s that the US lost its 2-0 lead almost immediately after earning it.  The US looked tactically stale, completely lost, and the using favorite players (especially Jonathan Bornstein) came back to haunt Bradley.  At this pace, Mexico will dominate the US for the next decade at least.

It looked like it would never get any better so long as Bob Bradley was in charge.

I have nothing against Bob Bradley as a person.  I have never referred to him derisively as “Coach Sweatpants” like some of my fellow fans.  I don’t take pleasure in his sacking, and I wish him well.  He gave all he could to the US Men’s National Team, and for that he deserves credit.  Nevertheless, all he could give was never going to be enough.  It was clear for some time.

The life of a football coach is unfair.  No credit for a win, blame for a loss.  But no one is forced to coach.  Angry fans, pressure from the football administration, criticism from the media, and the sword of Damocles are all part and parcel of the job, especially for international team coaches.  It’s Bob Bradley’s time to go.  Thank you for the nearly 5 years of loyal service, enjoy the gold watch, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Footnotes:

Bradley’s US team made four finals, but lost three of them, two of them to Mexico in the Gold Cup finals.  The one final the US won was also a Gold Cup.  The other was the 2009 Confederations Cup final to Brazil, in which, like with the 2011 Gold Cup, the US blew a 2-0 lead.  Against lesser teams, the US falls behind and catches up.  Against better teams, the US loses the lead.  This too is blamed on Bradley.

One Style To Rule Them All

Today on Goal.com I found this gem.  The great American international Claudio Reyna, who is now the USSF youth technical director believes that “the United States needs to find a national identity in style of play and implement it at all levels.”

“You first have to build a vision or else you are driving with no lights on,” Reyna told Goal.com’s J.R. Eskilson exclusively. “You have to have that; it’s a must. All the leading nations have one style.”

Reyna cited Spain, which has conquered all in the past handful of years with its distinct tiki-taka, and the Netherlands, with its reliance on Total Football. He also mentioned Germany, which under Jurgen Klinsmann shifted from an efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit to a smooth-flowing counter-attacking team.

Currently, no clear style has been identified to contain the diversity of styles and ethnic backgrounds in the United States.

“It is still relatively general, but we are looking for teams to trying to keep possession and play better, to create offensive teams and players,” Reyna said. “We want to reward teams here [at the Development Academy Finals Week] for playing well, so a style of play is very important to that. And clearly the national team is always the leader in that as the reference point on how we want to play.”

Were this the only article I have ever read about Reyna, I would question whether he is actually the man for the job.  Fortunately, it is not, and from other articles I have read, he does seem to have a grasp of what it takes to properly run a youth development program.

Having said that, I am still troubled by this emphasis on national style, and ambivalent about Reyna’s project.

The dirty secret about national styles is that they don’t start at the national level.  Developing a national style is a bottom-up not top-down process.  National styles grow from the club level; the successful style is imported to the national team.  Spain’s World Cup winning side could very well have been called Barcelona and Friends.  Barcelona’s Tiki-taka is an evolution of the Total Football imported to Catalonia by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.  Total Football was Ajax’s style before it became associated with the Netherlands.*

Notably absent from Reyna’s list of national styles is the infamous Italian catenaccio.  It’s not that Italy uses the specific tactics that made up catenaccio, but that term has come to embody the Italian defensive style (complete with fouling and diving.)  Furthermore, Reyna does not give proper credit to Germany’s “efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit,” which, maligned as it may have been, was a very effective national style that brought World and European titles.

America actually has a national style, although it is not particularly aesthetically pleasing.  It is direct, explosive, makes up for a lack of refined technique with unmatched athleticism and physical preparation, and is wrapped up with a never-say-die attitude (this is the same for the US women’s.)  Reyna rejects this style but ignoring that it exists.  He doesn’t want an American style, so much as he wants a certain kind of style, one with attacking flair and creativity in the midfield.  In other words, he wants US teams to thrill the connoisseurs (and the Jonathan Wilsons of the world.)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad goal.  I personally would love to see it, and I know I am not alone.  Nevertheless, that kind of style does not just develop because Claudio Reyna has a vision (especially in the current days when the international game has become so focused on defense.)  The Ajax team of the early 1970’s basically grew up together and had Cruyff, the greatest player Europe has ever produced.  Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) current success was about two decades in the making, with the development of peerless youth academy in which the players were taught to play a specific style.

The other dirty secret about national styles is that they change fairly regularly.  Tiki-taka is in the ascendency, but eventually Spain will have to find something else.  England does not just play the long ball anymore, Italy has had good attacking sides, and Germany, despite popular belief, was not just brutally efficient robots until Klinsmann and Jogi Löw came along.**  The South American sides too have changed over time, none more so than Brazil.  Sure the players have individual flair, but jogo bonito is long gone.  Save for 1982 and 1986, since the great 1970 team, Brazil’s World Cup squads have been far more pragmatic than thrilling.

I find the claim that Americans are too diverse for a national style to be an absolute cop-out.  Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have quite a lot of diversity (i.e. immigrants), and yet they are able to blend together.  The problem is not that America is too varied, it’s that Americans are having trouble training and of developing young talent.  There are a bunch of reasons for that.  First, the goal for coaches at the youth level is to win not to develop.  Second, the college system is fine for people who do not want to play professionally, but unlike the farce that is college basketball, college soccer is not a serviceable finishing school, not when players in the rest of the world spend all day learning the game either in the academies or in the streets.  (This also goes for women’s football.)  Finally, USSF has not made appropriate inroads into minority communities, particularly the Latino immigrant communities.  One can gripe about being unable to integrate styles of different ethnic groups, but that is an excuse for failure rather than a legitimate stumbling block.

I would also question what the MLS clubs are doing to train the next generation.  In many successful national sides, the core of the squad is made up of key players from the same side.  Which MLS team is going to be like Ajax, or Benfica, or Barcelona, or Bayern Munich?  (Which one can afford it?  Probably none.)  The American style that Reyna wants is far more likely to develop out of an MLS club rather than a USSF boardroom.

National identity is lovely, but it is also an organic process.  Style comes after substance.  The whole system needs to be rethought, from the senior national teams to youth development.  It’s not about style, it’s about fundamentals.  If a national style is the ultimate goal rather than development of successive generations of complete players, then Reyna and the USSF cannot see the forest for the trees.

 

Footnotes:

* The fact that Reyna believes the Netherlands still play Total Football is a very troubling statement from someone who should know better.  The Dutch have not played Total Football since the 1970’s.  At the very least the 2010 World Cup should have permanently demolished that myth.

** The 1974 World Cup winning West German side has been unfairly maligned.  At the time, West Germany were not seen as a bunch of solid robotic players, but rather almost an equal to Holland in terms of exciting play.  Since then West Germany have become an afterthought in the story of Holland’s 1974 rise and fall, the joyless and tactically-dull beneficiaries of beautiful Holland’s inevitable implosion.