A few observations, now that the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals are set:
USA’s women have made things a lot harder for themselves… It wasn’t just that they lost their final group game 2-1 to Sweden. It was the way they lost. When the Americans got down by two goals, they seemed pretty much clueless as to how to go at the Swedish defense. Coach Pia Sundhage’s substitutions didn’t make much sense. Amy LePeilbet had a nightmare game at left-back, even if you discount her role in both of Sweden’s goals. Kelley O’Hara was gruesome to watch as a substitute right wing, losing the ball on seemingly every occasion. Shannon Boxx was overrun in the middle of the field. The whole backline looked slow afoot, troubled by the speed of Swedish striker Josefine Ögqvist. Now, instead of a winnable matchup with Australia, they’ll have to deal with Brazil’s front line of Marta, Cristiane, and Rosana. After watching Marta single-handedly carve up Norway’s defense (the scariest one-woman performance I’ve ever seen in women’s soccer), everyone who takes on Brazil should be afraid. And we’ve got them next.
…but it’s not a hopeless case For one thing, Abby Wambach finally put a ball in the net. With only one goal in the previous 12 games (and she had so many chances in the second game against Colombia), her scoring slump was threatening to become a full-fledged thing. Now, if her scoring touch has returned, that can only be good for USA. The changes seem clear; Stephanie Cox should start at left-back in place of poor LePeilbet, and Alex Morgan should get the nod up front over Amy “Don’t Call Me A-Rod” Rodriguez. After missing the Sweden game, right winger Heather O’Reilly appears good to go for the quarters, which will be a big plus for USA. Brazil operates with an unorthodox three-woman defense in which the defenders — especially sweeper Daiane — get forward a lot. That should create opportunities to catch them out of position. Also, the Australians pressured Brazil’s defenders in possession in the opening game, and those defenders looked distinctly uncomfortable dribbling and passing the ball under duress. (A very un-Brazilian trait, by the way.) Brazil’s other opponents in the group stage were either unwilling or unable to do the same, but USA won’t have that problem. They applied similar pressure to Colombia’s defenders in the group stage and created a number of turnovers en route to a resounding 3-0 win. Both teams will have payback on their minds, Brazil having spanked USA 4-0 in the semis of World Cup 2007 and USA having beaten Brazil in the gold medal match of Olympics 2008.
The Germans are really, really good They’re solid in defense, fast and creative on the attack, and big and physical everywhere. These attributes make them resemble the German men’s team. With the countries that have a history of success in men’s soccer, it’s not unusual to find the women’s teams emulating the style of play adopted by the men. The talk has been of them not finishing enough of their chances (and of all-time leading scorer Birgit Prinz throwing a hissy when she was pulled in the second game), but they still look like the favorites.
Believe in Australia’s youth movement The Matildas started 16-year-old Caitlin Foord, 17-year-old Samantha Kerr, and 20-year-old Kyah Simon and Kim Carroll in an elimination game against Norway. Simon wound up scoring both of Australia’s goals in a 2-1 victory. Ballsy move by coach Tom Sermanni to put all that trust in the kids. It’s still possible that these girls will freeze up now that the knockout stages are here, but the Swedes should be wary all the same.
Canada needs fixing Getting out of a tough group was always going to be tricky, but who would have thought the Big Red would lose every game? The Canadians will always savor Christine Sinclair’s sweet free-kick goal against the Germans, which she scored despite suffering a broken nose a few minutes before. Still, the French took the Canadians apart pretty comprehensively. There needs to be some soul-searching north of the border.
Nobody’s embarrassed themselves Four years ago, Argentina sent their women’s team to the World Cup and watched them give up 11 goals in a single game against the Germans. There hasn’t been a debacle on that level in the group stages. Even the teams that were expected to be cannon fodder (New Zealand, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Colombia) played competitively against the superpowers. The Nigerians even won a game (against a demoralized and eliminated Canadian side) and New Zealand picked up their first-ever World Cup draw in a 2-2 stalemate with Mexico. In fact, the only embarrassment has been Hungarian referee Gyöngi Gaal for somehow missing this handball committed by Equatorial Guinea. The “minnows” have gotten better, which is an encouraging sign for the global state of women’s soccer.
When it comes to goal celebrations, the women are more creative than the men Team salute by USA. Choreographed hip shake by Brazil. Dance in a circle by Sweden. USA’s Megan Rapinoe pets the microphone. Unfortunately, none of these are available on YouTube because the killjoys at FIFA have removed them. Even so, the women are providing even more reason to root for games with lots of goals.
Naked pictures are causing a stir at this year’s tournament (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING LINKS ARE NSFW.) Members of the German under-20 team posed for some pics for German Playboy, and a few weeks later three players from the Women’s World Cup French squad went topless in Der Bild, accompanied by a defiant/desperate slogan “Is this how we should show up before you come to our games?” Female athletes posing for naked pictures is an ethical gray area that I’m happy to stay out of for the moment. Still, I can’t imagine what impact those French players’ actions must be having in a country that’s currently going through the fallout from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.
The Germans know how to host these things Crowds have been robust for these games. The matches that don’t involve the German national team have been drawing 20,000-30,000 fans. The ones that do involve the German women have drawn as many as 80,000 for the opener. The smaller crowds have been housed in the smaller stadia in cities like Wolfsburg, Sinsheim, and Leverkusen. Savvy move; if you put 30,000 fans in a stadium built to hold 100,000, it’ll feel like nobody’s there, but if you put those same 30,000 fans in a stadium built to hold 30,000, the atmosphere will be off the chain. Of course, when the regular German women’s league gets back to business, the crowds will be back in the four-figure range. Still, it’s a nice party.
The quarterfinal match-ups are great for the neutrals We’ve got World War II allies going against each other in England vs. France and Germany vs. Japan. The Sweden vs. Australia match is a total wild card. As for USA vs. Brazil, one of the superpowers of women’s soccer will be going down in the quarters. That should liven up your mornings this weekend.