Tuesday’s Column: Men’s game could learn from the women

i-1daf3aa223a37d47ac909d167d06f8de-abbyWCfinal.jpgHead scratcher: Abby Wambach and the rest of the U.S. women’s team were left to rue what could have been after Sunday’s World Cup final loss to Japan (AP Photo).

You could talk about the jillion wasted first half chances the U.S. women missed in the first half of a World Cup final they would eventually lose to Japan.

You could talk about the coaching wisdom of having defensive players (Shannon Boxx?) step up first for the penalty kicks rather than strikers to put the pressure on the opponent in a pressure-filled situation.

You could talk about the fact the rest of the world has made significant progress in the women’s game while the U.S. has in large measure appeared to tread water.

You could, but I chose not to in today’s column.

For me the Women’s World Cup was a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the men’s games I’ve seen recently (and don’t even get me started on the disappointing showings of the likes of Brazil and Argentina at Copa America).

Read the column here.

Look ahead to next year’s Olympics and the prospects for the USWNT here

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Sunday Soccer brunch: Destiny awaits U.S. women at World Cup

Pregame is at 11 a.m. on ESPN and kickoff is around 11:45 a.m.

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* Preview

*Here’s the latest from the WNT blog.

Earlier:

*U.S. grooves on unfamiliar spotlight ahead of World Cup final.

*The shadow of 1999 (and the Megan Rapinoe YouTube video).

* Japan’s strength is its system, not stars.

*Has women’s international soccer come of age on the World Cup stage?

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Has women’s international soccer come of age on the World Cup stage?

i-e0f2cc71ae2d06592996ac58e20b5f02-japansupport.jpgRising sun: Japan, a nation that is a sentimental favorite of many soccer fans because of the recent disasters the nation has endured and a former lightweight in the sport, is now a legitimate World Cup contender displacing such former powers as China (AP Photo).

Associated Press National Writer Nancy Armour explores the new world of international women’s soccer that can be summed up in one word – parity:

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — It wasn’t long ago that you could predict the lineup for the final four at the Women’s World Cup even before the tournament began.

The Americans were a given. The Germans, too. Brazil’s been there to the bitter end in recent years, and Sweden or Norway were never a bad bet. This year? Not many predicted Japan playing in its first final and France making the semis.

“It’s amazing to see a team like France, a team like Japan in the final. Germany knocked out. Brazil knocked out,” U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said Thursday. “It’s amazing to have that (parity) — and that we are still right there, at the top.”

Yes, the Americans are the lone constant in this topsy-turvy tournament.

The world’s top-ranked team, the U.S. is trying to become the first country to win three World Cup titles when it faces Japan on Sunday. This may be the Americans’ first appearance in the final since 1999, the last time they won it all, but they’ve won two Olympic gold medals in the interim and had a two year-plus winning streak going until November.

“It is a great opportunity for us,” Japan coach Norio Sasaki said after the Nadeshiko beat
Sweden 3-1 in the semifinals, their second big upset of the tournament. “It is going to be a huge opportunity for us and a big platform.”

For all of women’s football, really.

Back when Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, and Kristine Lilly spearheaded the U.S., the World Cup often wasn’t a fair fight. Some of the scores in the group stage were laughable, and the gap between the elite and the second tier was more like a chasm. In the first World Cup, in 1991, the Americans routed Taiwan (7-0) and Brazil (5-0) while Sweden romped to an 8-0 win over Japan.

Four years later, eventual champion Norway won one game 7-0 (Canada) and another 8-0 (Nigeria). Even four years ago, Germany gave an 11-0 thrashing of Argentina.

But unlike softball or women’s ice hockey, where the rest of the world has failed to keep pace with the one or two dominant teams or had no interest in doing so, countries all over the world have been pouring money and resources into their women’s football teams. The results could be seen clearly in Germany as, slowly but surely, the gap between good and great narrows.

There were few routs in the tournament, the 4-0 wins by Japan over Mexico and France over Canada the most lopsided of the matches. There were 19 draws or one-goal victories in the first 30 games, and the scoring average is down to just 2.63 per game from 3.81 in 1991 and ’95.

“France is obviously a bit of a surprise but, when we played them, we gave them a lot of
respect in the locker room,” said Abby Wambach, whose header in the 79th minute broke what had been a tense tie with France, which reached the semifinals in its second World Cup appearance.

“All of us were talking about what pretty soccer they played, how exciting it was to watch
their front four or five players. Not that we want to play like anybody else, but it was
exciting to see.

“This game has come a long way, a long way since ’99.”

And should continue to do so.

Colombia and Equatorial Guinea made their World Cup debuts in Germany. Though each exited after the first round, neither embarrassed themselves. The Americans had to win a playoff just to get a spot in Germany after being humbled by Mexico in qualifying, El Tri’s first victory over its neighbor to the north in 25 tries.

“Sometimes, it’s frustrating for us. If we don’t smash every team or win every game, it’s
like, ‘What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer? What’s wrong with the women’s side?’” Rapinoe said. “We see it as a good thing. I don’t want to beat every team five-nil. I would rather lose a few games and have the games be much more equal.”

At least the Americans made it to Germany.

China, a traditional powerhouse, failed to qualify for this World Cup. Italy, one of Europe’s strongest teams, went undefeated in winning its qualifying group and it still wasn’t good enough to get the Azzurre a trip to Germany. As for the Germans, not only did they bow out in the quarterfinals here, they won’t be going to next summer’s London Olympics.

Sweden, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist, got one of UEFA’s two spots. The other went to France, which has never appeared in an Olympic Games.

“The growth of soccer has been amazing,” said U.S. captain Christie Rampone, the lone holdover from the 1999 squad. “It’s just amazing to see Japan in the final and the growth of soccer and support behind it. All these teams putting more effort and time and training. … All these games are tight. You can see the pressure’s out there. There’s great goalkeepers, great attacking players, great defense.

“You don’t see blowouts,” she added, “which is great for the sport.”

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U.S. – France FIFA Women’s World Cup semifinal preview

i-a92a964c66242f37b32e0926c3fa5833-limberingup.jpgFit to be champions? The U.S. team stays limber on the eve of the Women’s World Cup semifinal showdown Wednesday against France (AP Photo).

The game kicks off at 9 a.m. Wednesday on ESPN and is preceded by a 30-minute pre-game show.

Incidentally, ESPN said today that the U.S.-Brazil quarterfinal was seen by 3.89 million viewers, making it the third most-viewed Women’s World Cup match ever in the U.S.

Associated Press National Writer Nancy Armour has the preview of a game and team that has caught the imagination of the American public:

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany (AP) — The Americans feel just fine, thank you, not tired a bit. The high they were on after that epic Brazil game? That’s so yesterday.

The U.S. women are one game away from reaching their first World Cup final since 1999 — the last time they won soccer’s biggest prize — and the only thing on their minds now is beating France.

“Losing is not an option,” Abby Wambach said Tuesday. “We want to win this thing, and France is standing in our way right now.”

The Americans are the top-ranked team in the world and defending Olympic gold medalists, yet they were almost afterthoughts when the tournament began two weeks ago. Two-time defending champion Germany was considered the heavy favorite, sure to get a boost playing on home soil. Then there was Brazil, runner-up at the last three major tournaments and led by Marta, FIFA’s player of the year five years running.

And the U.S.? They had to win a playoff with Italy just to get here, and they’d been
uncharacteristically inconsistent with three losses in a five-month span.

But the Germans are now spectators, stunned by Japan in the quarterfinals. Brazil is gone, too, losing to the Americans in a penalty shootout in one of the most exciting games ever at the World Cup, men’s or women’s. And the U.S.? They’re still playing, and they go into Wednesday night’s semifinal with more than a touch of swagger.

“We have what it takes,” Wambach said. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”

The biggest uncertainty for the Americans isn’t their fitness, it’s their backline. Rachel
Buehler has started all but one game the last two years, and her bruising style of defense — she isn’t called the “Buehldozer” for nothing — has been vital. But she’s suspended for the semifinal after getting a red card for taking down Marta in the box in the 65th minute Sunday.

While U.S. coach Pia Sundhage wouldn’t say who will play in Buehler’s place, Becky Sauerbrunn was working with the starters during training Tuesday.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play with her (with the WPS’ magicJack) so we’re very connected that way,” said Christie Rampone, the U.S. captain and its other central defender. “Becky and I feel confident together. We’ll watch some film on France today, see what little tactics they have, what little tendencies they have with their forwards, communicate with each other and we’ll be fine.”

i-23ee63647a9f1726e93169ea07338290-hopesolo.jpgSolo star: A determined U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, one of the stars of the American victory over Brazil, trains Tuesday in Germany.

They will have to be because, much like Brazil, France has creativity and flair.

Playmaker Louisa Necib, she of the silken touch and deft passes, has been likened to Zinedine Zidane, the highest compliment a French player can get. Her control of the midfield is masterful, the driving force behind France’s quick, fluid offense. Les Bleues often appear seamless — no surprise considering 10 of the 21 players are teammates at Olympique Lyonnais, which won this year’s women’s Champions League final.

“For us, it’s very important to be patient,” Sundhage said. “We need to pick up the rhythm and dictate the tempo, and we need the midfield to get more involved. I don’t want to make it a stretch game. Or make it a (physical) fight.”

But France has struggled against bigger, more physical teams in the past, and they don’t come much stronger than the Americans.

“It’s true we’ve had one additional day” of rest, French coach Bruno Bini said. “I think it’s
quite fair because the American team is in better shape.”

While the Americans have their quickest turnaround of the tournament, getting just two days rest between games, France hasn’t played since Saturday. But Les Bleues had an emotional doozy, too, beating England 4-3 on penalties after scoring in the 88th minute to tie it 1-1.

“It’s very easy after a victory to be in shape again, especially when you’ve already seen
yourself packing to go home,” Bini said. “After that, it is very easy to get highly motivated
for this match.”

Unlike the Americans, who have reached the semifinals at each of the six World Cups, this is the first trip for Les Bleues. And they have never beaten the Americans, going 0-11-1 in their previous meetings. The U.S. has scored 38 goals in the 12 games to just eight for France.

Of course, Mexico had never beaten the Americans, either, and look what happened in regional qualifying.

But the “bumpy road,” as Sundhage likes to call it, has made the Americans stronger, their success even sweeter. Their grit and determination is one of the reasons they’ve become such a huge hit back home, with Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and folks who’ve never seen a soccer game before all rallying behind them.

Should the U.S. beat France, it would face either Japan or Sweden in Sunday’s final, with a chance to become the first team to win three World Cup titles.

“I always think it’s important for a team to go through adversity. Then you realize how much it hurts,” said Torrance’s Shannon Boxx (South High). “We watched some of the games day before (Brazil). You saw the faces of the teams that didn’t win and you don’t want to feel that way. I think that’s a huge motivator right there.”

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Instant Classic: Wambach of Hermosa Beach leads never say die U.S. to heart-stopping famous World Cup victory

i-942849e24aa75a5fa8afdb857371535f-wambachwcgoal.jpgHead and shoulders above the rest: U.S. forward Abby Wambach scores the latest goal in a game in Women’s World Cup history and sends the quarterfinal against Brazil to penalty kicks in Germany (AP Photo).

It was quite simply, one of the most enthralling, drama-filled, soccer games I’ve ever seen.

Striker Abby Wambach, a Hermosa Beach resident, scored an equalizer deep into stoppage time of extra time and a 10-player U.S. went on to win on penalty kicks today over Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals.

ESPN2 will show a replay of the game beginning at 9 o’clock tonight.

Torrance’s Shannon Boxx also played a pivotal role in the game.

It’s twelve years to the day since the U.S. won the 1999 Women’s World Cup in Pasadena on a Brandi Chastain penalty kick.

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Saturday Soccer: Galaxy, Chivas USA & more

*Staff Writer Phil Collin has the Galaxy-Fire preview.

*Here is a game preview from a Chicago perspective.

*Check out a new way to get to the game.

*Relive the game between these two teams earlier this season.

*Chivas USA are in Kansas City where they will renew Sporting acquaintances with Omar Bravo.

You remember the last time the teams met.

Lastly, the U.S. women and Hope Solo meet Marta and Brazil Sunday in a Women’s World Cup quarterfinal.

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American meatballs lose to stylish Swedes in World Cup

i-89e746097b3fc0700085aeee44f466f3-swedensalute.jpgSwedish salute: The victorious Swedes salute their fans after beating the U.S. 2-1 today at the Women’s World Cup in Germany (AP Photo).

Needing only a draw to avoid meeting dangerous Marta and Brazil in the quarterfinals, the U.S. instead went out and lost 2-1 today to Sweden in Wolfsburg.

That’s loss No. 4 for the U.S. since November for those of you keeping count at home.

Game story.

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USWNT transformed under Coach Pia Sundhage

i-b99e2e477c808a20f3ef9cdb36c25c4f-USWNTwolfsburg.jpgWorld Cup summer: The USWNT trains in cool and rainy Wolfsburg today before Wednesday’s game against Sweden (AP Photos).

Ahead of Wednesday’s third and final World Cup group game against Sweden (live at 11:45 a.m. on ESPN) – with the top spot in the group and the likely added incentive of avoiding Marta and the Brazilians at stake – AP Sports Writer Nancy Armour dissects the USWNT journey under Coach Pia Sundhage:

WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Pia Sundhage came into the first meeting with her new team, pulled out her guitar and began playing the Bob Dylan classic, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

“Admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone,” she sang. “If your time to you is worth savin’ then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.

With that, Sundhage let the Americans know she’d be a coach unlike any other they’d had.

That’s definitely been true — and it goes beyond Sundhage’s performing skills and foreign passport. She has built players up with constructive criticism rather than breaking them down by yelling and screaming. She has modified the style of play that had brought the U.S. success for so many years so the Americans can stay at the top of the game as the rest of the world improves.

Most importantly, she found a way to heal the bitterness and hard feelings that threatened to destroy the Americans following their ugly exit from the 2007 World Cup just a few months before she took over.

“She was everything we needed,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose criticism of then-coach Greg Ryan was the flashpoint for the World Cup turmoil. “At that point in time, it almost didn’t matter who came in because we needed somebody to lead us and we needed somebody to believe in. Our team was broken, we were down and out, there were a lot of fires to be put out, and she happened to be perfect person because she could lead us.”

With a spot in the quarterfinals already secured, the U.S. women wrap up group play Wednesday against Sundhage’s native Sweden at the Women’s World Cup.

Though Sundhage is nonplussed at the prospect of facing her home country (“For me, it’s not Sweden. It’s just a team.”) the game will put the spotlight squarely on the woman whose intelligence, confidence and unflinching optimism has transformed a fractured team into Olympic gold medalists and, just maybe, World Cup champions for a third time.

“Everything that we had hoped for in making the decision to hire her, she’s lived up to,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said.

i-ddee06fa24b21286143326591e8fe9c1-piagrilled.jpgCool under fire: USMNT Coach Pia Sundhage is grilled by Swedish media – only a handful of U.S.-based reporters are in Germany – ahead of Wednesday’s World Cup group finale against her homeland.

Sundhage is considered one of the greatest players the women’s game has ever had, scoring 71 goals in a 22-year international career. She, not Mia Hamm or Birgit Prinz or Marta, is still the face of women’s soccer in Sweden, which she led to the title at the first European Women’s Championship in 1984 and the bronze medal at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. She remains so celebrated in Sweden that her name was floated as a possible coach of the men’s team after it failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

She was considered for the U.S. job when Ryan was hired in 2005, but didn’t have enough head coaching experience. Though Sundhage coached the Boston Breakers in 2003 before the WUSA folded, most of her experience was with Sweden’s youth teams.

When the Americans were in the market for a coach again two years later, Sundhage’s name topped the list.

“She still didn’t have a lot of experience as a head coach at the top level. But she obviously had a great understanding of the game,” Gulati said. “We asked her if she couldn’t be the head coach of the women’s national team if she’d be willing to take another role. She was quite firm in her answer, which was no. That both surprised and impressed me, frankly. Because she hadn’t been a head coach at that level, but was very confident in her ability and thought the time was right for her.”

Though Sundhage had told Gulati she wanted to retool the U.S. style, that would have to wait. The Beijing Olympics were just eight months away when she was hired in November 2007, and the tournament is second only to the World Cup in importance in the women’s game.

First, though, Sundhage had to address the tensions still simmering from the World Cup.

“There was a lot that went on in the ’07 World Cup,” Carli Lloyd said. “We needed something, we kind of needed to start fresh.”

The Americans were favorites to win in China, carrying a 51-game unbeaten streak into the semifinals against Brazil. But Ryan made the surprise decision to start Briana Scurry against Brazil instead of Solo, who hadn’t conceded a goal in nearly 300 minutes and had started all but four of the Americans’ 19 games that season.

The move was a disaster, a 4-0 loss that was the worst defeat in U.S. history. Afterward, Solo ripped Ryan’s decision, saying, “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that.”

Ryan dismissed Solo from the team, not allowing her on the bench for the third-place game. She even had to fly home from China on her own.

The Americans managed to win the bronze medal, but the damage was done. A month later, Ryan was essentially fired, told his contract would not be renewed when it expired in December.

“I don’t expect them to forget what happened — and I got different kinds of stories of what happened — but I expect them to forgive,” Sundhage said. “When I came, I said, ‘We need goalkeepers.’ So we had three goalkeepers. Then we said, ‘I want to win, do you want to win? Yes. Then you have to do this together. It will be impossible if you have something in the group that’s not 100 percent. You have to do it together and be respectful.’ We moved on.”

Sundhage did not force her players to be nice to each other, that’s not her way. But she asked questions and listened to the answers, not judging one way or the other. That air of civility extended to practices and team meetings, where Sundhage refused to be negative or harsh, choosing instead to focus on what her team was doing well.

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For Solo, right, the unconditional support was rejuvenating.

“I don’t know if I could have made it back in ’08 without her,” Solo said. “Every day after training, Pia would walk up to me and she’d be like, ‘Hope, how you doing today?’ I faked it. I was like, ‘I’m fine.’ Next day, same thing, ‘I’m fine.’ I remember one breakthrough day, I was like, ‘I’m OK Pia.’ She was like, ‘It’s kind of tough, huh? Hang in there.’”

“I knew she asked me every day because she saw I was struggling,” Solo said. “She wasn’t pushing me to talk. But she put her hand out and was ready to help me through it when I was ready. It was nice. I needed somebody with that patience.”

Solo’s presence was critical for the Americans in Beijing, particularly after the U.S. lost
leading scorer Abby Wambach to a broken leg in the final warm-up game. She came up with one big stop after another in the gold-medal game against old nemesis Brazil before Lloyd scored in the sixth minute of extra time for the 1-0 victory.

It was the second straight gold medal for the Americans, and third overall.

With the Olympics over, Sundhage was free to reshape the team. She brought in new and younger players. And she began replacing the physical, forward-based attack the U.S. had used for years with a more European, possession-oriented game where plays are created through the midfield. Teams around the world were improving, and the Americans needed to be less predictable.

“I was always saying the States played a little too direct,” Sundhage said. “They’ve been
very, very successful, don’t get me wrong. So I wanted to change that, but it couldn’t be too big of a change. With a successful team, you can’t change too much.”

The style she envisions is similar to the one perfected by Barcelona. When it works, it can frustrate opponents like nothing else.

But getting accustomed to it brought its own frustrations.

“It’s sometimes gotten the best of us because we have some players, like myself, who are old school and like to get the ball more, (play) a physically direct style. And when things aren’t going well, I like to go back to what I know,” said Wambach, whose 118 career goals are third-most by a U.S. player. “Sometimes it gets the best of us, and we’ve seen that a couple times this year with some of the losses.”

After going more than two years without a loss, the Americans dropped three in a five-month span starting with a shocking upset by Mexico in November in regional World Cup qualifying. The defeat was the first to Mexico in their 26 games, and forced the world’s No. 1 team to win a two-game playoff with Italy just to get to Germany.

Since the tournament began, however, the Americans seem to have regained the mojo that made them the world’s most dominant team for the better part of two decades. Five different players have scored, and only Japan (six) has more goals. Their practices are filled with laughter and smiles, and they’re confident enough to choreograph celebrations for when they score.

“This feels different than any other world championship that I’ve been in. The swagger factor, the confidence factor,” Wambach said. “I’m not going to sit here and say in our future we don’t have 10 minutes of time where we struggle. But I think that there’s this belief in each other.”

And that, defender Christie Rampone said, is a credit to Sundhage.

“We had a bumpy road to make it to begin with,” Sundhage said. “But if you stay humble and if you enjoy and look at the game in a positive way and you have high expectations — which we all have on this team — we can deal with that. It’s like life, its ups and downs. Put it together, come together and play together. I think that’s the best way to enjoy the game.”

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