World Cup spot on the line Saturday for U.S. women

Just to emphasize the importance (or lack thereof) of the two-game series against Italy on the sporting landscape, there is no television coverage of the opening 7:30 a.m. Saturday game.

And no, I have no idea why ESPN shows meaningless USWNT friendlies on TV, but not a crucial World Cup qualifier.

Viewers will have to be content with watching on ESPN3.com.

Incidentally, FIFA released its women’s rankings today and while the U.S. remains No. 1 it lost more than 40 points after its shocking loss to Mexico in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Here are the rankings.

And here’s a game preview from Associated Press Writer Nancy Armour:

As Europe’s fifth-place team, Italy knew it would have to face a squad from the Caribbean or North or Central America for the final spot in next summer’s women’s World Cup. Mexico, perhaps. Or Costa Rica. Maybe even Canada.

Sorry, Azzurre, no such luck.

Thanks to a stunning upset in CONCACAF qualifying, it’s the top-ranked and two-time world champion United States that Italy gets in the two-leg playoff, which begins Saturday in Padova, Italy.

“We’ve got a 10 percent chance of advancing,” Italy coach Pietro Ghedin said.

It’s not that Ghedin doesn’t have confidence in his team. But the Americans are, and have been for two decades now, in a class above most of the rest of the world. The loss to Mexico in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament was only their second since the 2007 World Cup and first since the opening game of the Beijing Olympic tournament, where they rebounded to win the gold medal.

i-08bb68609fea79852e75b7a0bade7b31-piasundhage.jpgThe U.S. has allowed only 26 goals in 60 games since coach Pia Sundhage, left, took over in November 2007 and, before its loss to Mexico, hammered Haiti, Guatemala and Costa Rica by a combined score of 18-0. That’s one less goal than the U.S. men’s team has scored — all year.

“You have to admit that it was a bad game, but also you shouldn’t look into it too much,”
Sundhage said of the Mexico loss. “It’s only one game. We lost, and that will be good for us because we’ll win the next game.”

The playoff is a home-and-home series, with the second leg Nov. 27 at Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire, in Bridgeview, Ill. The winner is determined by total goals,
with away goals counting double if the teams finish tied on aggregate.

The U.S. has won eight of its last 10 games against Italy. Under Sundhage, the Americans are 20-1-2 against European teams.

“This is a World Cup game for us,” Abby Wambach said. “This isn’t the Algarve Cup where we’re training through a tournament. We’re here to win this game, and not just by one goal.”

The U.S. loss to Mexico has been called one of the biggest upsets in the women’s game. If Mexico and other less-successful teams can build on it, it might someday be seen as a
game-changer, the day when the competitive balance in women’s soccer shifted.

The U.S. (1991, ’99), Norway (1995) and two-time defending champion Germany are the only teams that have won the World Cup. The U.S. has won all but one gold medal since the sport made its debut at the 1996 Olympics, with Norway winning in 2000.

In the meantime, knowing the Americans were beaten by a team they’d been 24-0-1 against might at least make them seem a little less invincible.

“I don’t think that helps the Italians’ confidence,” U.S. captain Christie Rampone said. “I
don’t think they were expecting the USA to come onto their turf and have to play us twice to get to the World Cup. If it gives them momentum, great, it gives us even more. It’s one loss, but we’ve grown stronger.

“I think that’s even more intimidating, facing a team that just lost after we’ve been so
successful,” she added. “For us, we’re going in with confidence and it doesn’t really matter what they’re thinking.”

Italy, ranked 11th in the world, was undefeated in winning its qualifying group. But it lost
to France in the playoffs to determine Europe’s first four qualifiers (Germany automatically qualified as host). It then beat Ukraine and Switzerland for the right to play CONCACAF’s third-place team for the last of the 16 spots in the World Cup, which will be played June 26 through July 17.

“We didn’t expect to meet the United States, and we’re well aware that they present a tough obstacle,” Ghedin said. “But we’re not starting off defeated. We’re going to give everything we have on the pitch, all the energy that brought us to this point. This is our last shot.”

As it is for the Americans.

“The one thing we’ve been focusing a lot of attention on is this is an opportunity for us,”
Wambach said. “In a World Cup, when you lose you don’t get another opportunity or a chance. We’re very thankful and grateful for our second chance, and we don’t want to throw the opportunity away.”

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About Nick Green

South Bay-based Los Angeles News Group soccer columnist and blogger Nick Green writes at the 100 Percent Soccer blog at www.insidesocal.com/soccer and craft beer at the Beer Goggles blog at www.insidesocal.com/beer. Cheers!
  • http://www.insidesocal.com/soccer Nick Green

    I understand your point, but what about ESPNU or ESPN Classic?

    For instance, ESPN Classic is showing wrestling – yes, wrestling – at the time the game is on Saturday morning.

    ESPN2 has Sportscenter.

    There isn’t space anywhere on their “family of networks?”

    Really?

  • Eric Maddy

    I suspect you already know “why ESPN shows meaningless USWNT friendlies on TV, but not a crucial World Cup qualifier.”

    Both this Saturday and next, ESPN and ESPN2 have college football commitments, which they’d be unlikely to bail out on for a women’s soccer game on 10 days notice even if they weren’t bound by contract, given that their USWNT ratings don’t approach their CFB ratings.

    Contrast that with a friendly, where ESPN has months of notice and US Soccer can and (I’m just guessing here) will play pretty much when the time slot on ESPN/ESPN2 is free, and your query is pretty much answered.

  • Eric Maddy

    Point taken, to an extent. ESPN2 and ESPNU both have college football commitments at 9 am PT, and the soccer time slot would have to extend to 9:30. They don’t tend to slot live events that they know they’re gonna have to cut away from (though that does happen occasionally with events that are weather-delayed or go overtime.)

    But you’re certainly correct that there’s no reason they couldn’t show it on ESPN Classic.

    (Looks like the situation is the same the following week, with ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU showing football in the 9-noon PT slot, but a “Homecoming” marathon on ESPN Classic — we’ll see if they can manage to bump Rick Reilly for Abby & Co.)

  • kingsnake

    At least wrestling (even pro) is a sport, unlike spelling bees and the endless poker shows Every Stinking Pitch Network always has on …

    1st attempt: bqqnn9
    2nd attempt: rdgudz