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.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 3: Pride Goeth…

After failing miserably at predicting winners during last year’s World Cup, I have redeemed myself somewhat by correctly predicting all eight quarterfinalists at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.  Not that it was that difficult.

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Each round in the group stages of a football tournament has its own feel.  The first round is about the initial look, and therefore teams tend to be skittish about each other and themselves.  The second round is a chance for redemption from a bad result or a solidification of a good one.  The final round is about resignation, desperation, or domination.

That is not however, a universal truth.  Today’s match between Great Britain and Brazil had very little to do with resignation, desperation, or domination.  Both teams were going to go through to the quarterfinals regardless of the result, and both quarterfinals will be difficult regardless of opponent.  Yet, this match was as Wembly Stadium, one of football’s most storied sites.  Team GB was playing at home in front of 70,000 strong crown.  Just as the Atlanta Olympics put women’s football in the US in the public eye, these Olympics could do the same for women’s football in Britain.  That the opponent was Brazil, spiritual guardian of the Beautiful Game and the nation of Marta, only added to the importance of the match.

Britain v. Brazil was the third of the big three matches (US v. France in Round 1 and Japan v. Sweden in Round 2), and it did not disappoint.  Predicting the future is impossible, but I believe that this was the turning point for Brazil.  They have been found out.  When they cannot rely solely on their superior footballing abilities, they perform very poorly–and the rest of the world is improving quickly.  The side that this Brazil women’s team is most like is the 1982 Brazil World Cup team.  Beautiful but lacking the winning edge.

Great Britain is by no means the most talented squad in the tournament, but they are full of individual talent, most notably Kelly Smith.  They also have a decent coach in Hope Powell.  A GB goal in the second minute rattled Brazil, but the truth is that the Samba Queens were just bettered from start to finish.  GB missed a few chances to widen the score, but they were not made to pay for it (GB is the only team not to give up a goal this tournament thus far).  A 1-0 win for GB.  Readers of this blog know of my dislike for England’s men’s football team, but I have nothing aside from the utmost respect for the English women (and GB is mostly England).  I wish them and especially Kelly Smith good luck in the tournament.  Truth be told, it is far more likely that GB will medal than Brazil will. which is a tragedy for Marta.

In other Group E news, New Zealand finally won a match and have advanced to quarterfinals.  Yes, it was against Cameroon, and yes, the 3-1 victory was aided by a Cameroonian own goal.  But take nothing away from New Zealand; with each tournament the Football Ferns have improved by leaps and bounds.  One can only hope that this tournament is a stepping stone to even better results.  New Zealand are the younger sibling of the Anglophone world, and who doesn’t want to see his kid brother or sister do well?

The way the quarterfinal draw has worked out, it can divided into two halves: the Anglophone and non-Anglophone halves.  In one half Canada play GB and New Zealand take on the United States, while in the other half Sweden meet France (a rematch of the 3rd place match from last year’s World Cup) and Japan stare down Brazil.  If the Anglophone half looks easier to you, you’re not alone.  In fact, the non-Anglophone half fields the four best teams in the world excluding the US and Germany.

Nothing that Sweden or Japan could have done would have made a difference other than swapping opponents.  Both had the same record, 1-2-0, but Sweden had a better goal difference.  Japan have not scored a goal since its first match against Canada.  I am not sure what Sweden’s excuse is, they were up 2-0 against Canada and ended up with a 2-2 draw.  Sweden are the eternal bridesmaid in international tournaments.  Prior to the first World Cup in 1991, they were one of the dominant teams in the world, and had the World Cup started a decade earlier, no doubt they would have won at least one.  (The US coach Pia Sundhage was a member of the Sweden National Team for years.)  But the World Cup began when the US and Norway were in their ascendancy, and Sweden have yet to win a big prize.

Japan at least had a game plan, which was go for a draw.  Japan deliberately fielded a weakened team and intended to come in second so that they did not have to leave Cardiff.  This meant that South Africa actually got a result instead of three straight losses like Cameron and Colombia.  I suppose a draw is a draw, and that is respectable, but given that Japan deliberately played for a draw rather than a win, if I am a South African player do I feel good or bad about the result?

In the final group, the US and France each beat their opponents by a 1-0 score.  France over Colombia, a team that I am completely done with, and the US over North Korea.  The US dominated the first half despite only scoring one goal, and held on for the second as starters were rested.  The real story of the US though has been the ongoing saga of woe that Hope Solo has again created by virtue of lacking an internal editor.  I don’t really want to rehash the scandal; it is everywhere and it’s embarrassing to the team.  I will say though that whatever you feel about the commentating abilities of Brandi Chastain, that does not excuse Solo’s reckless mouth, which has been alienating others since 2007.  Goalkeepers are a crazy breed, and Solo is no exception, but she is veering awfully close from the realm of crazy and into the realm of toxic.

This also reinforces my belief that Twitter is a very bad thing for professional athletes.

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On to the quarterfinals.  At the risk of making myself foolish again, my quarterfinal predictions are: Great Britain, US, France, Japan.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 2: Ho Hum

Day 2 of the Women’s Football tournament at the Olympic brought absolutely no surprise results whatsoever as the United States, Great Britain, and Brazil all stamped their tickets to the quarterfinals.

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Football is the most popular sport in the world.  It is also the most popular sport in Great Britain.  So it beyond galling to hear the attendance figures for the women’s tournament.  The men’s attendance figures have underwhelmed, but there is at least something of a reason for that, it’s a u23 tournament.  But the women’s tournament is the second biggest event in the women’s game.  If the World Cup can attract large crowds, especially in the United States, which is not a footballing nation, then why can’t the London Olympic Games?

In today’s round we saw something that had been absent thus far, a draw.  In a tournament that has been full of high scoring dominations, it was a bit jarring to see a 0-0 draw.  That was the match between Sweden and Japan, a match that should have settled who would be top of the Group F heap, but instead left everything up in the air.  Japan are the better side, they had more opportunities, and they are more talented (Lotte Schelin aside), but unlike at the World Cup, they are no longer the surprise team.  In a way, the horrifying tragedy in Japan freed the team from expectations–just being at the tournament was a triumph.  Now they are the world champions and they have to face those expectations head on.  Add that to the fact that they are the focus of every other major team’s ire (Sweden included), the Japanese federations continues to treat them disrespectfully, and their talisman Homare Sawa is very, very close to the end of her career.  Which is not to say that Japan are falling apart, far from it, but their surprising silk-and-steel approach from last year is no longer stealth.  Canada were not good enough to take advantage of that, but Sweden were. Even stronger sides are potentially lurking around the corner.

Japan and Sweden are still the most likely top two teams from the group to advance, but today’s draw puts them both in an uncertain position with regard to the seeding.  Both teams want the top spot, and now other factors will come into play.  Canada are the major factor.  Canada are, by some distance, the third best team in the group, but they have potential to upset Sweden.  Canada have Christine Sinclair who is coming perilously close to breaking Mia Hamm’s international goal record, and she scored twice today against South Africa in a 3-0 victory.  Sweden will have stop Sinclair, and that is no easy feat.

Japan’s problem is less against South Africa than against the scoreboard.  If Sweden and Japan both win their next matches, then goal difference will determine the top seed.  Right now Sweden have the edge by virtue of their 4-1 shellacking of South Africa (who were saved from complete humiliation by virtue of a stunner of a goal from Portia Modise).  Japan will need to be even more ruthless against Banyana Banyana in order to ensure the theoretically easier draw.  (Not that the draw will be easier in actuality.  The quarterfinal opponents for the top two Group F sides will most likely be Brazil, Great Britain, or France.)

I am not sure if South Africa will be going home with their heads help high or not.  Getting to an international tournament for the first time is a major accomplishment, but this has not been a particularly pleasant tournament for either of the African nations.  In their two matches each, have been outscored by a combined total of 15-1.  Both Cameroon and South Africa are new to the world scene, but given how well Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea acquitted themselves at the World Cup, one wonders if this Olympics has been a positive step for African women’s football, or part of a frustrating sine curve with small peaks and deep valleys.  I can’t imagine that it is about talent.  More likely it is about a lack of support, funding, and infrastructure.

In Group E, Brazil and Great Britain advanced with wins, the latter easily and the former with much difficulty.  In the next match, Britain need to win, while Brazil need only a draw for top seed.  Great Britain have done themselves proud thus far, which is far more than their male counterparts can say.  This time it was a 3-0 victory over hapless Cameroon.  Cameroon were very physical, which seems to be a trait of African teams.  Nigeria are always brutal with challenges, and Equatorial Guinea were also quite rough at the World Cup.  But Britain got the job done, and in style.  Arguably in better style than Brazil did with their 5-0 victory.  When was the last time anyone said that about a British side?

Brazil eked out a 1-0 win over New Zealand with a Cristiane goal in the 86th minute, thereby breaking Kiwi hearts who almost saw the Football Ferns’ greatest ever result.  Unlike the African teams or Colombia, New Zealand are not hapless.  They are extremely well-organized and fielded some talented players (Ali Riley being the foremost example).  Every tournament they get a little bit better.  The problem with New Zealand is that they don’t have enough.  Like the men’s team at the 2010 World Cup, the women’s team they lack the fire power and therefore rely (rather successfully) on defensive prowess.  Unlike the men though, the Ferns have not yet had that one good bit of luck to score an unlikely goal to cement the result.  The next match is the first time in this tournament, and possibly ever, that the Ferns have a real shot to win.  The pressure is on.  They need a win and a good win to ensure that they will get one of the third-place berths.  Right now they are in third in the hunt behind Canada and North Korea–a North Korean loss to the US and a Ferns’ triumph over Cameroon are not unlikely scenarios.

Speaking of the North Koreans, one wonders what they will blame for their humiliation to France.  After all, lightning doesn’t strike twice.  While I am not surprised that the North Koreans lost to France, I am surprised by how they lost.  The North Korean women don’t usually get humiliated.  They are in fact rather good at smothering attacks, and given that they play Japan in continental competition, they know how to play against technical sides.  Given that four of the five French goals came in the final 20 minutes, one wonders if North Korea just gave up or ran out of steam.  Maybe the new Dear Leader told them that in defeat they would win.

Finally, the US beat Colombia 3-0, in a match marred by Lady Andrade’s assault on Abby Wambach (Andrade’s arm just happened to fly into Wambach’s face).  The US dominated almost from beginning to end and were rewarded with goals from Wambach, Carli Lloyd, and my beloved Megan Rapinoe.  It is dangerous to apply group form to later matches, but right now the US look a world above the competition.  Colombia, on the other hand, are far more interesting because of how awful they have been.  The mediocrity of Colombia speaks to a general malaise in South American women’s football.  Only Brazil have risen above the mediocrity, and one wonders if that rise will continue once Marta and the current generation decline and retire.  New South American superstars, Brazilian or otherwise, are not readily apparent.  It is a reminder to all American pessimists that we may complain about the future of  our team, but since 1991, the worse they have done in a major tournament is 3rd place.  We have had 21 years of sustained excellence, and the promise of more to come.  South America’s future is far more bleak.  Football’s greatest continent may have no future in the women’s game.