Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


HOPE SOLO: YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT, YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY WRONG

The U.S. women, hoping to become the first team to win an Olympic gold medal a year after capturing a World Cup crown, were upset in the quarterfinals by Sweden in Brasilia on penalty kicks, 4-3, following a 1-1 draw.

The Americans had medaled in every Olympic tournament since women’s soccer was introduced to the Games in 1996, but with the loss they were sent home without even seeing Rio de Janeiro, host city of the XXVIII Olympiad and site of soccer’s semifinals and finals.

After the match, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo created a storm by calling the triumphant Swedes “cowards.”  Her remarks:

“I thought that we played a courageous game.  I thought we had many opportunities on goal.  I think we showed a lot of heart.  We came back from a goal down.  I’m very proud of this team.  But I also think we played a bunch of cowards.  The best team did not win today.  I strongly believe that.  I think you saw American heart.  You saw us give everything we had today.”

Asked what she meant by “cowards,” Solo responded, “Sweden dropped off.  They didn’t want to open play.  They didn’t want to pass the ball.  They didn’t want to play great soccer.  It was a combative game, a physical game.  Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their game plan was.  They dropped into a 50.  They didn’t try and press.  They didn’t want to open the game.  And they tried to counter with long balls.  We had that style of play when Pia (Sundhage, now the Sweden coach) was our coach.  I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament.  I think it was very cowardly.  But they won.  They’re moving on, and we’re going home.” [August 11]

Comment:  Hope Solo has been a polarizing figure her entire international career.  Many thought she should have been dropped from the U.S. squad following a 2014 family dust-up that led to two charges of domestic violence against Solo that have yet to be resolved.  Or after a 2012 domestic violence incident involving her ex-football player husband in which Solo was injured.  Solo also drew chants of “Zika” from the crowd at the USA’s Olympic opener after tweeting before the Olympics photos of a bed covered with bug repellant containers and another of her wearing mosquito netting.  (A P.R. faux pas in a country that earlier in her career considered Solo soccer’s reigning beauty queen.)  But now she’s gone from being a loose cannon to a disgrace.

That said, she’s absolutely correct in her assessment of what was a humbling defeat for the U.S.  The Americans did out-play Sweden, and Sweden did play a negative game, putting nine players behind the ball to neutralize world-class attackers Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan while hoping against hope (no pun intended) that it could produce a counterattack goal, which it did on the hour through Stina Blackstenius to open the scoring.  After the U.S. equalized through Morgan with 13 minutes left, Sweden played overtime aiming to hold on and get to PKs.

But if that’s cowardly, then Italy (the men) has been cowardly for about a century.  The Italians have prized defense, it’s in their DNA.  They are compact, cynically sophisticated and punishing on the tackle.  On the other end they have made an art form of the counterattack.  And all it’s gotten them is four World Cup championships.  It makes Solo’s rip job simply bizarre, because no player with more than 200 caps and 100 shutouts can possibly be that naive.  Or maybe it was just Hope being Hope yet again.

The U.S. went to Brazil ranked No. 1 in the world; Sweden was ranked sixth and obviously the underdog going into this match.  Sundhage, as the former U.S. coach, knows some of the American players better than they know themselves.  Her tactics were correct and they worked.

Sundhage, who had her own issues with Solo back when she was U.S. boss, also got in the last word regarding “cowards.”  “I don’t give a crap,” she snapped.  “I’m going to Rio, she’s going home.”



AMERICA: GIVE THE REST OF THE WORLD A BREAK

The defending champion United States stormed into the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic women’s soccer tournament, crushing Trinidad & Tobago, 5-0, in Houston in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifiers.

Canada defeated Costa Rica, 3-1, in its semifinal earlier in the day to secure the region’s other berth in Rio and set up a tournament championship match with the U.S. on February 21.

Forward Alex Morgan posted a hat trick against the Socca Princesses, eight days after she scored two goals–the first one in the 12th second–in the Americans’ group-opening 5-0 rout of Costa Rica in Frisco, Tex.  Three days after the Costa Rica win, reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd scored off a rebound of her own penalty kick in the 86th minute to allow the U.S. to squeeze past a bunkered-in Mexico, 1-0, and earn a spot in the semifinals.  The Americans then won the group by pounding Puerto Rico, 10-0, on a night when young forward Crystal Dunn tied a U.S. women’s record with five goals.

The U.S., 17-0-1 all-time in Olympic qualifying, is seeking its fourth consecutive CONCACAF title against Canada, a team that is 3-46-6 all-time against it southern neighbor.  [February 19]

Comment:  Consider this the first time an American has suggested that the rest of the soccer-playing world deserves a break on the playing field at the expense of the United States.

That is, now that women’s soccer is a firmly established Olympic sport, it should be changed to a competition for players 22 and younger, with three over-age players per team.  Just like the men.

Men’s soccer has had a roller coaster history in the Olympics.  Its start was pretty ragged:  scores from the very first modern Olympiad, Athens in 1896, have been lost, and the 1904 St. Louis Olympic tournament was a five-match affair involving club teams from Canada and the U.S.  By Paris ’24, however, the event had grown into something of a world football championship, and after Uruguay dazzled in winning consecutive gold medals, FIFA was compelled to create its World Cup in 1930 so both amateurs and professionals could compete.

With the end of World War II came a long, dark period in which communist bloc countries, with their state-supported “amateur” athletes, dominated Olympic soccer.  Hungary, for one, claimed three golds.  It wasn’t until the 1984 Los Angeles Games that the International Olympic Committee allowed limited professionalism in soccer, and finally the other shoe dropped when the ’92 Barcelona tournament was transformed into an under-23 competition for players regardless of whether they are amateurs or professionals.

The IOC had resisted such a move because it feared a loss of interest in its cash cow event if it made it an age-specific competition.  Such an event couldn’t possibly draw 1.4 million spectators, like it did at Los Angeles ’84.  But there’s nothing in sports like the Olympics.  And the three-overage player allowance gave Olympic spectators the chance to see old hands like Rivaldo, Ryan Giggs, Diego Simeone, Ronaldinho and Ivan Zamorano.  It’s worked.  Fans appear to have accepted an under-23 world championship–as long as it’s wrapped in the Olympic flag.

Now, the women–with the considerable pressure that FIFA could apply–would do well to follow suit.  The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was played in 1991 in China; the first women’s Olympic tournament at Atlanta ’96.  Since then we’ve had two competing women’s world soccer championships played on consecutive years followed by two off years, one a stand-alone event involving 24 nations and one half that big that’s buried among some two dozen other Olympic sporting events.  Throw in the Algarve Cup, a prestigious 12-nation invitational tournament played every spring in Portugal, and the number of women’s “world soccer championships” is too many.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada demonstrated that there is a pipeline of nations challenging the established powers.  Last year it was Colombia, Switzerland and Costa Rica, and in years past it was France and England and Canada.  The women’s Olympic tournament, as a U-23 affair, could expedite that trend by giving the next wave of young standouts a major stage with something precious–an Olympic medal–as an incentive.

So, is this a major concession on the part of an American who’s seen his women’s national team win four of the first five Olympic golds (and lose a fifth to Norway because of a non-handball call in overtime on the deciding goal) to go along with three FIFA World Cup titles?  No.  The U.S., due to recent retirements, injuries and pregnancies, blew its way through CONCACAF to an Olympic berth this week with a 20-member team that averaged 24 years of age.  The U.S. would be quite prepared for a world championship for under-23s.

A similar concession by an American regarding men’s soccer?  Check back in, oh, say, 2116.



THE VERY QUIET ANNUAL WOMEN’S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

The U.S. National Women’s Team awoke in the second half to score three goals and cruise past Switzerland, 3-0, in an Algarve Cup match at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and take over first place in Group “B” with a 2-0-0 record.   Alex Morgan opened the scoring in the 54th minute, Amy Rodriguez doubled the lead with a brilliant finish off a goalmouth scramble in the 72nd and Abby Wambach, aided by a poor Swiss back pass, sealed the victory nine minutes from time.

The Americans will play Iceland three days later in Lagos their its final group match.  The two best group winners will meet in the first-place game; Brazil leads Group “A” (1-0-1) and France tops Group “C” (2-0-0).  [March 6]

Comment:  This 22nd Algarve Cup underscores how far women’s soccer has come . . . and how far it has to go in comparison to the men’s game.

Held in the tourist-friendly southernmost region of Portugal, it’s the biggest annual tournament in women’s soccer.  Nine of this year’s 12 national teams have qualified for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.  With the exception of host Portugal (No. 42), every team is in the top 20 in FIFA’s latest Women’s World Rankings.  How tough is the competition?  The U.S. won two Women’s World Cups before it won the first of its nine Algarve Cups.  And Fox Sports is televising it live.

Yet despite the prestige and world-class quality of this event, attendance puts the Algarve Cup on a par with a decent NCAA Division I women’s match.  The U.S.-Switzerland game at Vila Real de Santo Antonio’s Estadio Municipal drew a crowd generously listed as 500; the USA’s 2-1 win over Norway at the same site two days earlier also attracted “500.”  Not all five of the Algarve Cup venues have bothered to report turnstile counts, but through the first two rounds of group play the biggest turnout was 769 for Sweden’s 4-2 upset of top-ranked Germany.  Denmark appears to be a particularly hard sell:  133 patrons watched the Danes lose to Japan, 2-1, at Stadium Bela Vista in Parchal, and another 45 returned to see them get thumped by France, 4-1.  How seriously are the Portuguese organizers taking all this?  The U.S.-Iceland match cannot be televised due to inadequate lighting at Municipal Stadium in Lagos.

This is not unusual.  The local Portuguese have a history of being completely indifferent to this showcase of women’s international soccer.  Most matches have been played before crowds in the dozens–a stark reminder that outstanding women’s soccer doesn’t always draw.  A women’s Olympic soccer gold-medal match?  Sure.  And the 2015 Women’s World Cup final on July 5 in Vancouver will fill the 55,000-seat BC Place.  As for last year’s Algarve Cup final at Estadio Algarve in Faro, 600 bothered to show up for Germany’s 3-0 rout of defending world champion Japan.

Imagine, then, a men’s Algarve Cup, an annual tournament involving the world’s 12 best national teams–virtually a combination of the European Championship and Copa America.  To the critics of the expansion of the men’s World Cup over the years, this would be a Hyper-World Cup with none of the long-shots and no-hopers from Africa, Asia and CONCACAF (apologies to the U.S. and Mexico) that those critics dismiss as mere fodder.  Play it in Portugal, where the national team is currently ranked seventh worldwide, and you’ve got No. 1 Germany, No. 2 Argentina, No. 3 Colombia, No. 4 Belgium, No. 5 Holland, No. 6 Brazil, No. 8 France, No. 9 Uruguay, No. 10 Spain, No. 11 Switzerland and No. 12 Italy.  Not bad.  And chances are it would out-draw the Algarve Cup.

 

 



ABBY THE GREAT — BUT HOW GREAT?

Abby Wambach became the most prolific goal-scorer–male or female–in international soccer history when she scored four goals against South Korea in a friendly at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, as the U.S. rolled to a 5-0 victory.

All of Wambach’s goals were scored in the first half.  Her third, which came in the 29th minute, gave her 159 for her career and put her past former U.S. teammate Mia Hamm.

The 33-year old scored the record-setter with a trademark diving header off a corner kick by midfielder Megan Rapinoe.  A bench-clearing celebration followed as the crowd of 18,961 roared.  She exited the match to another long ovation 13 minutes into the second half.

Wambach also passed Hamm in another category:  The two had been tied at 38 career multi-goal games.

Wambach got even with Hamm with goals in the 10th and 19th minutes, both set up by Lauren Cheney.  She capped her historic evening in first-half added-on time on a selfless pass by Alex Morgan.

At the moment, Wambach stands alone at 160 career international goals, followed by Hamm at 158.  Among the men, Ali Daei of Iran (1993-2006) is on top with 109 goals in 149 appearances.  Among European/South American males, Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (1945-56) remains No. 1 with 84 in 85 matches, nearly a goal-per-game average.  [June 20]

Comment:  So who’s better, Abby Wambach or Mia Hamm, who retired in 2004 after 275 international appearances?

Hamm, of course, was an attacking midfielder, not a pure striker with the 5-foot-11 Wambach’s aerial ability in the penalty area.  Hamm probably passed up several more goals, as her  career assist total–144–suggests.  (Wambach has 62; second on the U.S. list is the retired Kristine Lilly, 105).  And while Wambach’s sheer drive, power and talent with her back to the goal are tremendous, Hamm could do it all in the attacking half, embarrassing a generation of would-be defenders in the process.  In another country, Holland, among men, this would be a comparison between strike master Marco Van Basten and one of the most complete players of all time, Johan Cruyff.  (For the record, Van Basten scored 37 goals in 73 games for the Dutch, Cruyff, 33 goals in 48 before his premature international retirement.)

And from a cultural standpoint, Hamm, thanks to her considerable skills, her two World Cup winner’s medals, her two Olympic gold medals, her two FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year awards and the marketing geniuses at Nike and Gatorade, remains the best-known American female soccer player in the U.S.–despite Wambach having won a FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year award of her own last year.   Heck, among this country’s millions of non-soccer fans, Hamm may be the best-known soccer player, period, with all due respect to David Beckham and Pele.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s a wash.  When Hamm made her U.S. debut in 1987, she was 15, and the women’s game was only beginning to be taken seriously in the U.S., Scandinavia, pockets of western Europe and the Far East–while it was frowned upon in macho Latin America, Africa and most of Asia.  The first FIFA Women’s World Cup, won by the U.S., was four years away.  The first women’s Olympic tournament, won by the U.S. at the Atlanta Games, was another five years away.  It all seems like ages ago, and with the women’s game evolving at breakneck speed, the threats to U.S. hegemony aren’t just China, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Japan of Hamm’s day but Brazil, France, England, Canada, Australia and North Korea, while early powers like Italy and Denmark and Nigeria and New Zealand have faded into the second tier.   Wambach’s is a different world, one a whole lot more crowded–crowded with better teams with better defenders.



WOMEN’S PRO SOCCER LEAGUE NO. 3: SMARTER IS BETTER

A new eight-team women’s pro soccer league will kick off next spring, two years after the demise of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11) and a decade after the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) folded.

The league will have teams in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, western New York and Washington DC.

It reportedly has a handshake agreement with one national sponsor; television coverage is a question mark.  [November 21]

Comment:  After Women’s Professional Soccer went under last January, the reaction in this space was, please don’t come back with another women’s pro soccer league unless there’s a new, inventive approach behind the effort.  Otherwise, the notion of a high-profile women’s pro circuit might be killed off for the foreseeable future.  (To see the original admonishment, go to May 28.)

Thankfully, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the powers that be have chosen not to exercise that classic example of insanity, in which the patient, happily doing the same thing over and over, expects a different result.

In this incarnation, the league will get considerable support from the U.S., Mexican and Canadian soccer federations, whose national team players will benefit from the week-in, week-out competition the league will provide from March-April to September-October.  In a women’s sports sense, the outside help recalls the launch of the WNBA, which would not have been possible without all of its original teams being owned by NBA franchises.

While the clubs in this currently unnamed league will be privately owned, the U.S. Soccer Federation will not only pay the salaries of up to 24 of the league’s American players but fund the league’s front office as well.   The Mexican and Canadian soccer federations, with an eye toward the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, will pay the salaries of some of their players who play in the league.  As a result, each club will be off the hook for the salaries of up to seven of its most valuable players.

Most of the players will be semipros, and gone will be high-priced talent from beyond North America, like Brazil’s Marta and Japan’s Homare Sawa, but  U.S. mainstays like Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe won’t be faced with the prospect of plying their trade in leagues overseas.

As USSF President Sunil Gulati put it, “What we need is a sustainable model:  less hype, better performance.  The hype will come if we have the performance.”

Major League Soccer wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without turning sports management on its ear with the single-entity concept.  Give League Jane Doe credit for trying to turn it on its other ear.



A RARE CALL … FOR A REASON

FIFA has announced that it will look into statements made by Canadian team members the previous day following their dramatic 4-3 overtime loss to the United States in the women’s Olympic semifinal at Manchester’s Old Trafford.

The U.S. scored the winner on a looping header by forward Alex Morgan three minutes into added on time, making the Americans a perfect five-for-five in women’s gold-medal game appearances.  What raised the ire of the Canadians in particular was a sequence that began in the 79th minute with Canada clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Norwegian referee Christine Pedersen whistled Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball in her penalty area beyond the allowable six seconds.  On the ensuing indirect free kick from inside the top of the Canadian penalty area, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd sent a shot into the Canadian wall that was ruled to have been handled by defender Marie-Eve Nault.  American striker Abby Wambach converted the resulting penalty kick to send the match to overtime.

Among the Canadian quotes:

From captain and forward Christine Sinclair, whose brilliant hat trick went for naught:  “We feel like it was taken from us.  It’s a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started.”

From coach John Herdman, who also took issue with a non-call on a possible U.S. handball in the box:  “The ref will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replays.  She’s got to live with that.  We’ll move on from this–I wonder if she’ll be able to.”

And from Sinclair’s strike mate, Melissa Tancredi:  “[Pedersen] could have done a better job–a way better job.  This is the semifinals.  We’re supposed to be professionals and they should act like one too.  I feel robbed.  That’s all I can say.  I said to her, ‘I hope you can sleep tonight and put on your American jersey because that’s who you played for today.'”   [August 7]

Comment:   The six-second call on goalkeeper McLeod has been called everything from “unusual” to “bizarre.”  But it was justified.

McLeod took her time in playing the ball after gaining possession several times during the game.  It was so obvious that at the end of halftime a linesman told her to speed things up, but McLeod didn’t take it “like a real warning,” in her words, because it didn’t come from Pedersen.

Bad mistake.  McLeod was at it again in the 58th and 61st minutes, prompting Wambach to start loudly counting out the seconds as soon as the Canada ‘keeper picked up a ball.  By the 79th minute, with McLeod holding the ball for as long as 10 seconds, Wambach had cowed Pedersen into a decision.

“I got to 10 seconds right next to the referee,” said Wambach, “and at 10 seconds, she blew the whistle.”

It was indeed a rare call.  So much so that after the whistle, NBC play-by-play man Arlo White mistakenly thought that McLeod had been caught taking more than four steps with the ball–the 1985 restriction on goalkeepers to prevent time-wasting that was replaced in 1998 by the six-second rule (he quickly corrected himself.)   But there’s a reason why it’s rare at the highest levels of soccer.

The six-second rule is the only part of the Laws of the Game that doesn’t leave time-wasting–and the indirect free kick that goes with it–to the discretion of the referee.  Six seconds is six seconds.  It’s a rule that’s been fudged by ‘keepers for the past 14 years, along with the rule that’s supposed to keep ‘keepers glued to their goal line during a penalty kick.  But any goalkeeper who repeatedly flirts with nine and 10 and 11 and 12 seconds in a first division or international match is asking for it.  And any ‘keeper who calls attention to herself by doing it repeatedly while trying to protect a slim 1-0 first-half lead in an Olympic medal-qualification match is downright dumb.



SECOND GUESSING THAT SECOND GOAL

A dogged Japan stunned the favored U.S. in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final before a sellout crowd of 48,817 in Frankfurt, coming back twice to get even at 2-2 before winning a penalty-kick tiebreaker, 3-1.  Aya Miyama and Golden Boot winner Homare Sawa cancelled out strikes by Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, and Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two saves in the shootout. 

The triumph lifted a Japanese nation still recovering from a devastating earthquake in March.  Sawa’s goal came just three minutes from the end of extra time and prevented the U.S. from capturing a record-third women’s world championship.  [July 17]

Comment:  A free-flowing sport such as soccer presents countless what-might-have-been moments:  the through-ball hit too hard, the off-target shot deflected in off a defender’s ankle, the caution that should have been a sending off, ad nauseum.  U.S.-Japan presented a truckload, particularly the USA’s two shots off the woodwork and at least two other precious chances in the first half.

Those goals denied will get much of the attention as American fans sift through the embers, but the spotlight deserves to be trained on the 80th minute and the goal by Miyama that leveled the score at 1-1 and ultimately sent the game into overtime. 

A cross from the left set up a clash in the middle of the goalie box between substitute forward Karina Maruyama and Rachel Buehler, and the U.S. center back, on the ground, seemed to have diffused the situation by poking the ball on to the right.  Right back Ali Krieger, however, inadvertently sent the ball back into the middle, where Miyama pounced on it and beat goalkeeper Hope Solo from five yards.

There were no Japanese players anywhere near the right side of the U.S. penalty area.  If Krieger had simply dummied the ball and left it to trickle toward the touchline, Krieger herself might have caught up with it or the ball would have been retrieved by speedy midfielder Heather O’Reilly, who was tracking back.

A second guess, perhaps, in a sport too full of potential turning points for second guesses.  But as a famous American sportscaster not covering soccer said on the air recently, “Not a second guess, just a thought . . . .”