Fans of both America’s men’s and women’s soccer teams will be on pins and needles this weekend. The U.S. men takes on Mexico in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. USA suffered a serious wobble, losing 2-1 to Panama in the group stages, but they snuffed out a dangerous-looking Jamaica team in the quarterfinals and then gained revenge on Panama in the semis, outlasting a valiant but overmatched side. Mexico, however, figures to be the sternest test yet.
USA has pretty much dominated Mexico in the past 10 years, beginning with its victory in the Round of 16 in World Cup 2002. The only wins Mexico has been able to get against us have been in Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, plus one in the 2009 Gold Cup final when the U.S. sent a second-string team. In America or on neutral ground, USA’s psychological advantage was almost complete. Yet now Mexico has a player who scares the crap out of USA’s fans. He is Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who played at Cowboys Stadium in Mexico’s tournament opener a few weeks ago, and whom I mentioned in my write-up of the game. Chicharito can create his own shot, but he’s even more effective without the ball, nipping between defenders into places where his teammates can get him the ball to shoot. He’s only 5’9”, but he’s such a great leaper that he’s a threat to head the ball on goal, as well as shoot with either foot. He jumped straight from Mexico’s Primera División to the English Premier League last year and immediately started scoring left and right, something no player has ever been able to do. He’s not afraid of big games, either. All this makes him eminently capable of sticking a dagger in USA, and our defense will have to take care. Also, some people think he looks like Bruno Mars. Here’s a highlight reel of his goals.
If you’re wondering why he’s nicknamed “Little Pea,” it’s derived from his father, Javier Hernández Sr. The elder Hernández was also a player in Mexico, and was nicknamed “Chícharo” for his green eyes. The son does not have green eyes, but he is Chícharo’s son, so he is Chicharito. The rest of the Mexican team is at less than full-strength, missing five players (including starting goalkeeper Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa) who tested positive for a banned substance. This led to an embarrassing debacle, with the team blaming tainted meat and the Mexican government undercutting their own team by saying they didn’t allow the stimulant to be used in meat. El Tricolor will still be plenty dangerous, with wing players Andrés Guardado and Giovani dos Santos running up the sidelines and sending in crosses for Chicharito.
As big a prize as the Gold Cup is for USA’s men, the women will be competing for an even bigger prize when the Women’s World Cup kicks off this Sunday in Germany. My soccer expertise on the women’s side isn’t nearly as deep as it is on the men’s side, but I thought I’d run a preview of the 16-team competition. If you’re keen on keeping up with women’s soccer blogs while the tournament goes on, I recommend the pleasingly wonky All White Kit and From a Left Wing, which engages wider issues through soccer. Click on the players’ names for highlight reels.
Group A: Everyone seems to think this is the Group of Death. Germany is the two-time defending champions, favored to repeat, and the host country to boot, and ticket sales are reportedly brisk, so the home crowd should be amped. All-time WWC goal-scorer Birgit Prinz will look to add to her total, with Inka Grings an able deputy to her. The team is solid back to front, with steel-nerved Nadine Angerer in goal, Kim Kulig bossing the midfield, and Alexandra Popp pinging in goals from the left-back position. However, they’ll encounter major resistance from France, with marauding fullback Sonia Bompastor and midfield playmaker Camille Abily. The French are dealing with a goalkeeper controversy, as Céline Deville and Bérangère Sapowicz have both made compelling cases to start. Canada is blessed with goal-scoring machine Christine Sinclair (115 goals in 151 games!), and they’ll need her to be on form — and tiny winger Diana Matheson to supply her — if they’re to break their track record of underachieving at major tournaments. As for Nigeria, they’ve notched some impressive wins in pre-tournament friendlies, but unfortunately they made the wrong sort of headlines when their coach boasted of purging lesbians from the squad. Let’s hope this doesn’t overshadow the play of charges like 6-foot midfield enforcer Perpetua Nkwocha and playmaker Stella Mbachu.
Group B: Hard as this may be to believe, the country that gave us Bend It Like Beckham has had a difficult time giving proper due to England’s women’s team. However, England’s run in the 2009 European Championships, where they got all the way to the final before being smoked by Germany, managed to turn some heads across the pond. Their friendly victory over USA last April will only give them more hope. Kelly Smith scores the goals for them, with Rachel Yankey and Alex Scott running down the flanks and Faye White marshalling the defense. In addition, coach Hope Powell is regarded as possibly the women’s game’s finest coaching mind. Mexico and Japan may be on opposite sides of the world, but their women’s soccer teams are remarkably similar, full of shortish players with great technical skills to offset their lack of size or speed. Japanese captain Homare Sawa does everything in central midfield, while Aya Miyama offers a threat from free kicks, but Mexico has finisher Maribel “Marigol” Domínguez and a 16-year-old starting goalkeeper named Cecilia Santiago who has stopped shots and exuded confidence well beyond her years. And just as people in last year’s men’s World Cup underestimated the Kiwis, New Zealand’s women’s team shouldn’t be discounted, featuring dangerous left back Ali Riley and box-to-box midfielder Hayley Moorwood. Even if the New Zealanders don’t get out of the group stages, this tournament should be a valuable experience for such a young team.
Group C: This looks familiar. USA has been drawn in the same group with Sweden and North Korea in the last three World Cups. The Americans have the best goalkeeper in the tourney in Hope Solo. Strikers Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez make an effective power-speed combination, but some feel that USA’s offense might be more dangerous if Wambach (who’s recovering from an injury) were replaced with a faster forward like Alex Morgan or Lauren Cheney. Whoever’s up front will get good service from Carli Lloyd in the middle and Heather O’Reilly and Megan Rapinoe on the wings. USA coach Pia Sundhage will be trying to defeat her native country Sweden, led by inspirational midfielder Caroline Seger and target forward Lotta Schelin. The latter’s superb finishing and imagination have often been compared with male compatriot Zlatan Ibrahimović. As usual, nobody knows anything about North Korea; even though the Americans and Swedes faced them four years ago, the North Koreans are trotting out an entirely new crop of players. With an average age of 20, this is by far the youngest team here, with 25-year-old all-around offensive talent Kim Kyong-hwa qualifying as a crusty veteran. Rounding out the group is Colombia, with free-scoring 17-year-old Yoreli Rincón looking like a future superstar. Still, this is their first World Cup, and the competition here will probably be too stiff for them.
Group D: Brazil reached the finals of Olympics 2008, World Cup 2007, and Olympics 2004, and lost every one of them. Since this is Brazil, the feeling around the soccer world is that they’re due for a breakthrough to their first major title. With a player like Marta on their team, it’s no wonder; the pint-sized striker (known in the Brazilian press as “Pelé in Skirts”) is the best offensive talent here, and capable of destroying teams by herself, though her strike partner Cristiane can certainly score the killer goal as well. Australia is currently in transition between veterans and youth, and will rely on speedy striker Lisa De Vanna to score. They’ll be dangerous if youngsters like Samantha Kerr and Kyah Simon can step up. Norway isn’t as good as they were during their powerhouse days in the 1990s, but they still have a stingy defense that will make them difficult to beat. In addition, battering ram-like striker Cecilie Pedersen can bully defenses into giving up goals. Lastly, there’s Equatorial Guinea, which like Colombia is playing in its first-ever World Cup. This should be a happy story, but two of their players have had to withdraw under a cloud of allegations that they were actually men. They’ll still have Spanish-born striker Jade Boho, while goalkeeper Miriam Paixão Silva should stay busy keeping the ball out of the net.
All in all, this should be a fascinating tournament. We’ll see if the rest of the world has closed the gap on the established superpowers. Hope to have more from the tournament later on.