Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.

 

 



HISTORIC, OR ANOTHER OF THOSE OCCASIONAL SPIKES ON THE GRAPH?

The U.S. National Team upset Italy, 1-0, in a friendly at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris to post its first victory over the Italians in 78 years.  Clint Dempsey rolled a shot from the top of the penalty area past the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in the 55th minute and the Americans, behind some stout defending, held on for their fourth consecutive win under new coach Juergen Klinsman.  [February 29]

Comment I:  The triumph was described in many quarters as historic, and given the fact that the U.S. went into the match with a 0-7-3 record against the Azzurri and had been out-scored, 32-4, over those 10 matches, the feat was indeed historic.  Italian commentators no doubt shrugged it off as an aberration.  Dempsey’s goal, they no doubt pointed out, came against the run of play–decidedly.  Italy out-shot the U.S., 19-4, and would have had more had the pesky Sebastian Giovinco and mates not been flagged for offside nine times (to the USA’s zero), mostly on hopeful balls lofted over the U.S. back line.  Italy also had the edge in corner kicks, 8-2, and Buffon was forced to make only one save to U.S. ‘keeper Tim Howard’s seven, which included a clutch kick-save in the fourth minute.  This also wasn’t a full-strength Italian squad; neither could it be said of the U.S., but while the Americans remain sorely lacking in depth, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli could trot out a starting lineup heavy on players from Juventus, at the moment Serie A’s second-place club.   Moreover, all would agree that a better look at reality came in the teams’ last meeting, at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, a competitive match in which Italy took the U.S. to school in a 3-1 win that left the Americans’ hopes in that tournament on life support.

So was this upset truly meaningful?  If so, the U.S. in recent years has enough such moments to fill a history book, starting with the 2-0 win over Mexico in the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals, and followed on a semi-regular basis by England 2-0 at U.S. Cup ’93,  Colombia 2-1 at the 1994 World Cup, Argentina 3-0 at the 1995 Copa America, Brazil 1-0 at the 1998 Gold Cup semifinals, Germany 2-0 at the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup, Portugal 3-2 at the 2002 World Cup, and the biggest of all, World-Cup-champion-to-be Spain 2-0 at the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals. 

The best way to describe what happened in Genoa is to suggest that the U.S. further cemented its reputation as a team capable of anything at anytime, an erratic opponent who’s a no-win proposition for the world powers.  Why should they relish facing an opponent they’re expected to beat when, on the odd day, they’ll fall victim to grit, fitness and just enough skill to get the job done?  At the same time, this giant killer can’t get past the mid-level teams on a consistent basis, as it demonstrated in its 1-0 loss to Belgium in Brussels in September, Klinsmann’s third match in charge.

What may have been most noteworthy about Italy 0, U.S. 1 is that Klinsmann stuck his neck out and agreed to have the game scheduled at all.  He rolled the dice in Genoa and won with a conservative 4-5-1.  His 4-4-2 may come and go, depending on the opposition and the circumstances, but it’s clear that he intends, as he’s said, to pull the Americans out of their “comfort zone” and tap into the bravura and blue-collar characteristics that made the U.S. job so appealing to the German in the first place.  In sum, Klinsmann with nothing to lose, the fellow hired to be the anti-Bob Bradley.

Comment II:  Klinsmann’s boldness crossed a line when he substituted a spent Jozy Altidore with Terrence Boyd. a striker who has yet to work his way from the Borussia Dortmund reserves into the club’s first team.  Boyd was clearly a fish out of water, and it can be gently said that he was lucky not to be shown a yellow card for a high foot a few minutes into his 11-minute cameo.  A 21-year-old kid making his debut against Italy in a one-goal game?  There are limits.

Comment III:  It’s been nearly 20 years since Nike took over for adidas as the national teams’ outfitter, and it still hasn’t gotten it right.  The same company that has repeatedly ruined Brazil’s classic jersey–and those of the countless other national teams and prominent clubs it has come to sponsor–dressed the U.S. for its Italy match in something that could best be described as a bad version of Arsenal in navy blue.  In fact, it simply looked like the Americans had their sleeves ripped off, revealing their white long underwear.  Fortunately, the U.S. played better than it looked, sartorially speaking.  

Comment IV:  On one day, the U.S. National Women’s Team routed Denmark, 5-0, in Portugal in its Algarve Cup opener; the U.S. National Under-23 Team blanked Mexico’s U-23s, 2-0, in Dallas in an Olympic qualifying tune-up; and the U.S. National Team shocked Italy, 1-0, in a friendly in Genoa.  Oh, and the Mexican National Team bowed to Colombia, 2-0, in a friendly in Miami.

It won’t take away the sting of a day like June 25 last year, when Mexico thumped the U.S., 4-2, at the CONCACAF Gold Cup final … but for American fans, it doesn’t hurt.