2015 fifa women’s world cup

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015: USA v. AUS

BLAST OFF… (I hope you got this as my countdown from the last 3 games)

In the first game of the group stage at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), they cruised to a 3-1 victory over Australia. Although “cruised” might not be the best way to describe it. The game wasn’t smooth sailing. Australia dictated the play for the first 40 minutes or so. They had more chances, shots on goal, possession, and overall control of the game. At the same time though, it seemed that both teams took a while to settle down in their World Cup opener. Australia just had the better of it. The bright spot for the USWNT in the first half was the play of Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo. Solo came up with a few huge saves to keep Australia off the board early and from going ahead late. Rapinoe scored the lone U.S. goal in the first half in the 12th minute when her shot from about 20 yards out deflected off an Australian defender and sailed into the far corner. She also seemed to make something happen every time she got a touch on the ball. She was stellar even at the team’s lowest point. Unfortunately the poor play of the U.S. and dominance of Australia in the first 40 lead to a goal by Australian captain Lisa De Vanna in the 27th minute. The first half ended in a 1-1 tie, but the play finally started to come together at the end for the USWNT.

When the U.S. came out for the second half, they picked up where they left off in the last few minutes of the first. They controlled play. Their passing was in synch. There were less turnovers. They created more chances and capitalized twice. The first of those came in the 61st minute. The play was started by none other than Rapinoe who settled a Solo goal kick, took a few touches and sent a pass to Sydney Leroux on the left side. Leroux took control from there as she had a step on her defender. She took the ball down the left flank and sent a pass near the end line to a wide open Christen Press who kicked a one-time shot into the back netting. The third goal came from the foot of FIFA Player of the Match (well-deserved honor), yes, you guessed it, Megan Rapinoe (Yes, she was involved in all 3 goals). In the 78th minute, she took an intercepted pass from Carli Lloyd down the left flank, made one-touch to beat out her defender, and put a left-footed shot into the far side of the goal. That was it. The U.S. dominated the second half. It was a complete turnaround of their poor start. 3-1 Final. Game. Set. Match.

Of note, star forward, Alex Morgan came on in the 79th minute. Those 11 minutes plus stoppage time were the first she’s seen for the National Team since April 4th (she’s been sidelined with a bone bruise on her left knee). Now the USWNT will look to their Friday night match-up against #5 ranked Sweden, who only took one point away from their first match after a surprise 3-3 tie with #22 ranked Nigeria. They currently sit atop Group D with 3 points.

For me watching this game was kind of a surreal moment. Actually writing this blog post is too. I’ve been talking about this game since it was announced after the draw back in December. I can’t believe that it’s over and the World Cup is finally here. It feels like I’ve been waiting forever. Although four years isn’t forever, it is a pretty long time. A lot changes in four years. It’s the amount of time it takes on average for someone to complete high school or college. We grow, age, change. It really is a long time. So as I watched the game, it was much different than when I last watched the USWNT compete in a World Cup or any major tournament at that (2012 Olympics). One reason for that is that I actually know more players than just those on the USWNT. I’ve watched so much soccer since the Olympics in 2012. I’ve learned about the game. I’ve learned about players from all over the world and I’ve learned about more players from the United States than just those on the National Team. Plus, I really know USWNT better than I did back then. I’ve become a huge fan not only of the them, but also of women’s soccer.

The second reason that watching the game last night was different was that I’ve changed so much in four years. I’ve become a completely different person in so many ways. Part of the reason for my personal growths I owe to women’s soccer and a certain one or two players in particular. Without them/it, I’m not sure where I’d be as a person and in life. I know that’s a pretty heavy statement, but honestly it’s difficult to put into words how much inspiration it has provided me. To kind of quote/paraphrase one of my biggest inspirations, I’m feeling “totally confident, comfortable, and free” with who I am, who I want to become, and what I want to achieve. For that and for many other personal reasons, I am forever grateful for this sport and for those who play it.

The next game for the USWNT is only a few days away. It’ll be interesting to see if any line-up changes are made. With so many games in such a short period of time, line-up changes are imminent for the strength and well-being of the players, especially in this particular tournament since all the games are being played on turf (it changes the game entirely). From last night’s opener, it’s evident that winning a World Cup will be no easy task. It will be a battle every single time the team takes the field from the group stage to the final, if they happen to make it that far. As Coach Jill Ellis stated in a pre-game press conference, she didn’t expect the first game to be their best game. It wasn’t. It was far from it. With each game though, hopefully the team comes together and reaches their highest playing potential. The fun continues Friday night, June 12th at 8 p.m. ET on Fox versus Sweden (and former Coach Pia Sundhage). I can’t wait to see what happens.

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The Countdown Continues: Send Off Series Game 3 USA vs. KOR

ONE….

Yesterday afternoon in front of a sold-out crowd at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey the USWNT faced off in the final match of their send-off series against fellow Women’s World Cup competitor Korea Republic. The game ended in a 0-0 draw as both teams were unable to convert any of their chances. With the World Cup beginning in Canada in less than a week, this match should have been a preview of what to expect when the U.S. takes on Australia in their first game of the group stage on June 8th. It wasn’t. The U.S. might have taken the 2 steps forward, 1 step back approach in this game. Their passes and attempts weren’t connecting as well as usual. Since the end of the Algarve Cup in March, it seemed like everything was coming together. Yesterday it looked like they regressed slightly. That’s not to say this performance was awful. It wasn’t. It might have just been an off day. Everyone has those. It’s better it happens now than in a do or die match during the tournament.

There were some bright spots in the match such as the scoring chances that resulted from an occasional combination play and the defensive effort to stop Korea’s attack. Also Hope Solo made a diving stop during second half stoppage time after not being challenged all that much during the match. The save allowed her to secure another shut-out to add to her growing U.S. record. Overall though, the U.S. attack wasn’t as threatening as it had been the last few games. Korea’s technically sound game may have had something to do with it. They limited the U.S. to only 15 shots, 5 of which were on frame, and 3 corner kicks the entire match. Compared to the 29 shots with 13 on goal and 7 corner kicks in the Mexico match 2 weeks ago, it was a big difference.

This blog post might seem a little less in depth than usual. I credit that to the fact that I was unable to focus on the match and take notes like I typically do. However, that was only because I was fortunate enough to see the match live. I made the trek to New Jersey yesterday afternoon to catch the final send-off match. It was a great atmosphere with the amount of people there to watch the team, but honestly it was boring to watch at times. The play seemed pretty back and forth. There were few real scoring chances. Korea seemed to be on the ground a lot resulting in a bunch of U.S. fouls. I also feel like I missed certain chunks of the second half because I moved my seat to sit with my friend and the people he was with in the supporter’s section (it was so fun standing). It’s a totally different experience for me watching live than watching at home, which I’m sure can be said for anyone watching any sport. Watching on TV, I tend to be more focused on the actual game and the action happening where the ball is. Watching live, I tend to focus on certain players. I look at the bench from time to time. There might be something going on around me. Basically there’s more distraction. I end up noticing less than usual. At the same time, getting to see anything live is always special. It’s kind of a trade-off, but I’m glad I went to the match.

Despite the outcome of the match though, this team will be ready. I know it. There’s nothing to fear or worry about. The World Cup will bring out the best of the best. It’s the greatest tournament that these women will play in. I doubt they will let this opportunity pass them by (especially those that lost in 2011). This is officially my last post of “The Countdown Continues” series I started to countdown til the World Cup. It’s been great recapping and writing about this team in the lead-up to Canada 2015. I can’t wait do the same during the tournament with a 2015 Women’s World Cup blog series. Hopefully there’s spectacular accomplishments and highlights to write about from this incredible group of 23 women on the USWNT. I believe. Do you? See you in 8 days.

FIFA Women's World Cup Trophy. Hopefully it will be in the hands of the USWNT members on July 5th.

FIFA Women’s World Cup Trophy. Hopefully it will be in the hands of the USWNT members on July 5th.

A view of the pitch from my seat at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

A view of the pitch from my seat at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

Thanking the supporters after the match.

Thanking the supporters after the match.

The Countdown Continues: Send Off Series Game 2 USA vs. MEX

TWO….

Finish. It’s what the United States Women’s National Team needed to do to secure a 5-1 win against continental rival Mexico Sunday night at Stub Hub Center in Los Angeles, CA in front of a sold-out crowd of 27,000. After entering the locker room at the half with the score tied 1-1, some may have started to worry. The USWNT controlled most of the game. They had the possession. They had the confidence. They had the playmaking. They had an incredible amount of chances and missed opportunities including a header off the crossbar, a wide open net with Mexican keeper, Cecilia Santiago, out of position and a sequence of blocked shots in the 14th minute that left fans scratching their heads after no goal came from it (it was an unreal effort by Santiago and her defense to not let any shots get through). They stepped off the gas slightly for a few minutes and had a few lapses in decision making. It lead to a Mexican goal off a free kick from a dangerous area left of the 18 yard box. The only U.S. goal came in the 28th minute off a great run from Sydney Leroux who converted a Megan Rapinoe through ball from a sharp left angle. In the first half, the USWNT had almost everything. All they needed to do was finish. When they came back out for the next forty-five, that’s what they did.

The attack started promptly in the opening minute when halftime sub Abby Wambach reached a deflected ball and passed it back to fellow halftime sub Lori Chalupny who sent the ball past a diving Santiago near post for the game’s second tally. In the 58th minute Mexican defender Arianna Romero tried to clear a U.S. corner that deflected off her outstretched hand resulting in a penalty. Wambach converted the ensuing PK to give the U.S. a 3-1 edge. The fourth goal came three minutes later off another great run by Leroux who took a touch around Santiago and sent a shot from the right side into the back netting. 4-1 USA. No big deal. It made the 1-1 score at the half seem laughable, but they weren’t finished yet. In what was the play of the entire match, Tobin Heath, who entered the game for Lauren Holiday at the 62nd minute mark, used a sick, ankle-breaking cut move to leave a Mexican defender in the dust near the end line and sent a cross to the far post where Wambach finished it with her head. It happened in the 72nd minute. Even though the goal was Abby’s for the taking, the move by Heath brought fans to their feet. Heath made the whole play happen. It was an incredible show of talent and skill by the midfielder. 5-1 USA. Finished.

This match was exciting from the start. Despite the halftime score, the USA had the opportunities. In the second half they were able to convert those opportunities. It was a thrilling performance by a talent group of soccer players. I could argue that the USWNT is the most exciting soccer team to watch out of any soccer team in the entire world, men’s and women’s teams combined. I think that’s what captivated me back in 2011. The women’s game was so exciting. Just the other day before the match, I was reflecting on how I like watching  women’s professional soccer now (especially the USWNT) and how I distinctly remember at one point in my life thinking soccer was the only professional major team sport I’d never get into. Of course at the time I think I may have been flicking through the channels on TV and caught a glimpse of men’s game. So in a way, I was partially right. I’m really not into men’s soccer. I just didn’t realize I would/could fall for the women’s game.

As the start of the 2015 Women’s World Cup rapidly approaches (19 days say whaaaat?!), another player from the U.S. squad to watch out for is Sydney Leroux. After a slow start to the year because of an injury and lack of playing time, Leroux made it known in last evening’s match that she’ll be an attacking threat for the United States this summer in Canada. Her speed, tenacity, and skill as a forward make her a weapon for the U.S. Not to mention, she’s half Canadian and will no doubt be the recipient of some taunting by Canadian fans, who consider her a traitor to the nation. Leroux’s mother is Canadian and her father is American which gave her the privilege to play for the U.S. Soccer program through her youth and professional career despite being born in Canada. I’m sure she’ll use whatever harassment she receives next month to motivate her to the fullest because that’s the kind of determined player and person she is. She really is a force to be reckoned with. Then again, the United States is loaded with them. They have everything they need to go all the way to lift the coveted World Cup trophy. All they need to do is finish.

(Link to the Tobin Heath move to set up the 5th goal.)

The Countdown Continues: Send Off Series Game 1 USA vs. IRL

THREE….

Sunday afternoon in front of a sold-out crowd at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, CA the USWNT squared off against Ireland in the first game of a three game send off series before the 2015 Women’s World Cup begins on June 6th (June 8th for the USWNT). They secured a 3-0 victory in a dominant performance over the Irish women with goals from Abby Wambach (2) and Julie Johnston. The team was without forward Alex Morgan who was resting her minor injury, a bone bruise in her left knee. Defender Ali Krieger was back in the lineup after being out for a month with a mild concussion she sustained during the first game of the NWSL season while playing with her club, the Washington Spirit, on April 10th. She was also sporting a trendy headband aimed to help prevent any further head trauma.

Compared to the last friendly a little over a month ago, the team had a slow start as far as finishing goes, but possessed the ball incredibly well in the first half. Christen Press created numerous opportunities for herself to put one in the back of the net. Forwards Wambach  and Amy Rodriguez also had some chances at putting shots in the goal, which Wambach eventually converted. The work of Meghan Klingenberg on the left flank and Krieger on the right flank helped to create scoring opportunities as well. The USWNT played a large portion of the first half in their attacking third. It wasn’t until the 42nd minute that they made a dent in the scoreboard though. An Ireland defender tried to clear a Megan Rapinoe corner kick that hit her own teammate, who was guarding the back post, in the face. The shot to the face subsequently prevented an own goal for Ireland. However, after bouncing off the face of the Irish defender, the ball landed at the feet of Press who delivered a pass to Wambach to finish the play. Wambach put in another goal in the 45th minute when Carli Lloyd sent a cross to her at the far post. In patented Abby fashion, she finished it with a header as the U.S.A. took a 2-0 lead to the locker room.

The second half saw plenty of subs for the USWNT as Lori Chalupny, Morgan Brian, and Sydney Leroux entered at the half for Krieger, Rapinoe, and Rodriguez. Kelley O’Hara, Heather O’Reilly, and Shannon Boxx came on later in the half. About 10 minutes into the second half, defender Julie Johnston flicked home a Lauren Holiday corner kick just inside the near post. It was Johnston’s third international goal and her third in the last three matches. The USWNT failed to convert any more chances in the rest of the time remaining despite some quality opportunities they had. Ireland goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke came up with some stellar saves. Starting U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo did not face any shots in the game nor did she have a single touch on the ball. It was a purely dominant effort by the ladies in red, white, and blue (but mostly different shades of blue with a little white and a trace of red mixed in) especially when it came to possessing the ball and controlling the game.

Of note in the first match of the send off series was that this was the very first time in the history of the game that the players of the USWNT were accompanied on the field by their mothers who flew in courtesy of Fox Sports to surprise the team for Mother’s Day. It was a special moment for the players and their moms and will be a lasting memory for years to come.

As I watched the game today, it felt like the team was a bit off. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say they regressed from where they were a month ago because they controlled the game. The only difference was the beautiful one-two touch passing exhibited during the New Zealand friendly was less evident. The finishing wasn’t there either which continued as a theme from the last match. These two things are minor though. It’s difficult to be perfect every game, but if any team can be near perfection it’s the USWNT. Fortunately they have 2 more games as a group to get to that level. The next one is in a week, May 17th 9:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. PT in Carson, CA (coverage on FoxSports 1), but time is of the essence. 28 days remain until Game 1 of the group stage versus Australia. The players are anxious. The excitement is mounting. The hype is real. Two more to go until the fun begins.

The National Women’s Soccer League

When I started this blog, my very first post was about the NWSL championship last season between FC Kansas City and Seattle Reign FC. As you know, if you’ve been following since then, I’m pretty into women’s soccer, but I’ve never gone in depth about this league I’ve been following for the last 2 years, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Since I started this blog at the end of last season though, I haven’t had the chance. It was the off-season. There have been other soccer things going on (like World Cup stuff with the USWNT..my first soccer love). You get the picture. While I was at Coachella two weeks ago (can’t believe it’s already been that long), the NWSL kicked off (no pun intended) it’s third season with a matchup between the Washington Spirit and the Houston Dash. With the start of a new season, it’s the perfect time to write about the league (since I finally settled down after my epic Coachella weekend of course).

The NWSL began in 2013 as the United States top professional soccer league for women. The Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS) formerly held that title from 2007 until it folded in 2012. When developing the NWSL, the idea was to create a stable professional league for women in the U.S. that could withstand the factors that lead to the downfall of other top women’s pro leagues before it (WPS and the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA, 2000-2003)). With the involvement of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), and the Mexican Football Federation (FMF), the NWSL seemed to start with a better foundation than the other leagues.

At it’s start in 2013 the league was comprised of eight teams, the Boston Breakers, the Chicago Red Stars, FC Kansas City, Portland Thorns FC, Seattle Reign FC, Sky Blue FC, the Washington Spirit, and the Western New York Flash. National team players from the USSF, CSA, and FMF were allocated to all eight teams in an even distribution to prevent teams from being stacked with talent, and thus making the league more competitive and exciting to watch. Also, since players from the United States, Canadian, and Mexican national teams were required to play in the NWSL, their respective national team programs paid their salaries, which allowed for some breathing room in the money department for the league so to speak (it still works this way).

Like other professional sports markets, the NWSL has a draft every year giving teams an opportunity to add top college talent to their squads. USWNT mid-fielder Morgan Brian was number one overall at this year’s draft. She was drafted by the Houston Dash, who was added to the league last year as its first expansion team. There are currently other markets looking to join the NWSL, but I’m guessing with the World Cup this year it was difficult for more expansions to occur in the 2015 season. Also because of the World Cup this summer, the league will be taking a break during the World Cup group stage. Since the league is comprised of players from not only the United States, Canadian, and Mexican national teams, but national teams such as England, Germany, Australia, etc. many of the league’s players will be competing in the tournament (so the NWSL will be missing a bunch of players on their normal rosters). If a national team fails to make it past the group stage, players who play on that respective team will return to their NWSL teams. To compensate for the World Cup break, the league will finish in late September compared to the last week of August as it has done the past two seasons. I’m guessing it may follow a similar format for the Olympics next summer.

Around the time the league began is when I started to really follow women’s soccer, the USWNT in particular (got into it a bit in 2011 during the World Cup but after the 2012 Olympics is when my interest began to peak). When I read about the U.S. allocations in January of 2013 is when I first discovered the league and what they were trying to do. I had no idea which team I would end up rooting for or if I would even be into any team. I mean it obviously wasn’t going to be at the level of skill I was used to watching with the USWNT. After some other circumstances that occurred during that time though (which I may get into at another point), I decided to follow the Washington Spirit. I’ve been following them since.

With the 2015 season beginning a mere two weeks ago, it’s the perfect time to see what the league has to offer. It’s a fresh start. There’s been new off-season additions, trades, and draft prospects added to the rosters. New kits (uniforms for those who don’t speak soccer) have debuted for clubs (the Spirit’s are dope!). Currently the national team players are taking part in some games before they have to report for their respective pre-World Cup camps. At this time, it’s almost like a World Cup preview of players. If you’re wondering how you can watch the NWSL matches, you can check out almost all the games on Youtube (they’re streamed). If a game isn’t on Youtube, that’s probably because it’s being aired on television. Yes, some games air on TV. Tonight the Boston Breakers have their home opener vs. the Houston Dash at 5 p.m., and my beloved Washington Spirit visit Sky Blue FC at 6 p.m. If you’re reading this at another time, considering the Breakers-Dash match is about to start, check out the NWSL website for a list of the league schedule, teams, and other information. The interest for women’s soccer in the United States continues to grow. With the help of the NWSL, hopefully the growth will be lasting.

The Countdown Continues: USWNT23

With 53 days until the official start of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, U.S. Soccer released the official 23 woman roster for the tournament. The list didn’t contain any surprises as all the players on the roster were with the squad for the Algarve Cup in March, the friendlies in February in Europe, and the friendly in St. Louis 2 weeks ago (with a few exceptions for injuries and the incident with Hope Solo). The roster is as follows:

Goalkeepers

Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC), Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), Alyssa Naeher (Boston Breakers)

Defenders

Lori Chalupny (Chicago Red Stars), Whitney Engen (Western NY Flash), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Houston Dash), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)

Midfielders

Shannon Boxx (Chicago Red Stars), Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)

Forwards

Sydney Leroux (Western NY Flash), Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Abby Wambach (unattached)

For keepers Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher and players Whitney Engen, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Morgan Brian, Sydney Leroux, and Christen Press, it will be their first time competing in the tournament. Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath, Lauren Holiday, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Amy Rodriguez were part of the 2011 squad and will be competing in their second consecutive tournament. Lori Chalupny who was left off the 2011 team will also be competing in her second tournament as she was part of the 2007 Women’s World Cup team. It will be the third consecutive World Cup for Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, and Heather O’Reilly, and fourth for veterans Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx. Christie Rampone who was part of the famed 1999 World Cup team will make her fifth consecutive roster appearance. The USWNT begins their 3 game send off series on Sunday May 10th vs. the Republic of Ireland. They follow up with games May 17th vs. Mexico and May 30th vs. Korea Repbulic. Then it all begins. The countdown is coming to a close so stay tuned for more with the final preparations for the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

The Countdown Continues: USA vs. NZL Friendly

On Saturday, April 4th, the USWNT played New Zealand in a friendly match in front of a crowd of 35,817 at the home of the St. Louis Cardinals, Busch Stadium, in St. Louis, MO. The match ended in a 4-0 victory for the women who placed first at the Algarve Cup a little under a month ago. The first goal came at the 14th minute from U.S. defender, Meghan Klingenberg, off a half-volleyed strike from just outside the penalty box after New Zealand attempted to clear an Ali Krieger cross. The 1-0 lead stood at the half after the U.S. controlled the possession and play, but failed to finish a ton of scoring chances. In the second half, the U.S. cracked their lead wide open in a 6 minute span beginning with a curling shot from 16 yards out by defender, Lori Chalupny in the 76th minute. Two minutes later Julie Johnston headed home a Lauren Holiday free kick to put the U.S. up 3-0. Then in the 81st minute after helping to create a New Zealand turnover, Morgan Brian knocked in a through ball from Sydney Leroux into the lower left corner of the net putting away the match for the U.S.

The match was a very impressive effort for the USWNT. At the Algarve it seemed they improved with each game, but were still lacking in making that final pass to create scoring opportunities. This time the scoring chances were there. The only thing missing was the actual scoring. A few shots in the friendly went off the crossbar, post, or missed the net entirely. In particular the finishing from Alex Morgan wasn’t there. It seems she still isn’t back to to her reliable form from the injury she incurred a few months ago. She’s getting there though, believe me. I have no doubt by June she’ll be finishing those chances.

Another note from the friendly was that surprisingly until Morgan Brian scored, the goals came from the U.S. defensive core. Props to the defense on scoring the goals and joining the attack in a game where they weren’t challenged much on the defensive end. It’s good to know the U.S. can get scoring from just about anyone on the pitch.

Megan Rapinoe played in her 100th cap and looked fantastic while doing it. She was endlessly creating on the left side and was a part of some great combination play with Klingenberg and Morgan (in general the combination play was the best I’ve seen from the U.S. women). One of the best missed scoring chances was off of a perfectly placed Megan Rapinoe bending cross that landed for a volley at the feet of Amy Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s shot went off the post, but had she put that away it would have been world class.

For the USWNT, everything finally looks to be coming together. The team is almost there. When they do reach their peak, it’ll hopefully be as planned. The send off series begins next month with three friendly matches before the Women’s World Cup begins in June. This week USWNT Head Coach, Jill Ellis, will be notifying the 23 players who made the world cup roster. The World Cup hype is about to get more real than ever and the pressure is surely mounting for the red, white, and blue. As the pieces fall into place though, this team finally looks like the group that will scratch, claw, compete, and leave it all on the table for that third star.

The Countdown Continues: Algarve Cup 2015 Final Recap

After going 2-0-1 in group play, the United States Women’s National Team faced off against France in the final of the 2015 Algarve Cup in Portugal yesterday. It was a rematch for both teams who played each other about a month ago in Lorient, France when France came out on top with a 2-0 win. The final at the Algarve was just the opposite as the USWNT sailed to a 2-0 victory. The U.S. came out strong and confident maintaining possession much better than they had a month prior. That mentality and play translated to an early goal as Julie Johnston converted a header off of a Lauren Holiday free kick in the 7th minute. It was Johnston’s first of her international career. The early goal allowed for the momentum to be in the USWNT’s favor for much of the first half. Their second goal came right before the break at the 41st minute mark when Christen Press displayed an incredible individual effort by slicing through the French defense and firing a low shot into the back netting from just outside the 18. In the second half France possessed the ball better but the U.S. closed the door on the few opportunities they had including a PK in the 81st minute. It was awarded to France after Meghan Klingenberg was whistled for taking down Marie-Laure Delie in the box. Hope Solo read the kick the whole way. She dove to her right and knocked away one of France’s best opportunities to score. As the clock wound down, France failed to mount a comeback and the USWNT walked away from the tournament as the 2015 Algarve Cup Champions.

Overall I believe this was the best performance of the tournament for the USWNT especially against a formidable opponent like France. The game was intense and physical the whole way through. It was something you’d expect from two top teams. Unfortunately I don’t think France played with the same amount of confidence they did a month ago. It was either that or the U.S. just stopped any early momentum in France’s favor.

In my opinion every player on the pitch did well in the final. Sure there’s always room for improvement and it’s not like they played a perfect match (it can never be perfect), but the effort was there for everyone as this team had one goal in mind (to win the Algarve Cup) and came away with it. Hope Solo put up her strongest game in net so far considering her shaky start exactly a week ago. She was challenged more in this match than she had been during the rest of the tournament, but she passed with flying colors. Julie Johnston, who I think had a decent first match last Wednesday and a sub-par second match on Friday, played a solid defensive game in the final. She came out strong, but scoring that opening goal gave her an abundance of confidence going forward as she played her best match of the tournament.

Defender Becky Sauerbrunn who played her 4th consecutive complete game had an excellent performance. Becky was called upon from the get-go to play a huge role when Christie Rampone, who was getting back to match fitness after an injury suffered in the January camp, and Whitney Engen, who had a hamstring injury, were left out for the entirety of the tournament. In the last year Rampone, Engen, and Sauerbrunn had been rotating as central defenders. In the 4 years since the last Women’s World Cup, Becky Sauerbrunn’s growth as a player has been immense. She was named Defender of the Year in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for the last 2 years (the NWSL has only been in existence for 2 years) and was part of the FC Kansas City squad that came away with the NWSL title this past September. With longtime USWNT centerback Christie Rampone hitting the age of 40 this summer during the World Cup, Sauerbrunn proved she’s ready to step up and be a leader for this team in Canada. She’s a player that this team needs to be successful this summer. With her consistently solid play, she’ll no doubt provide that strong defensive role for her team.

I thought the one weak point of this match for the USWNT was during the final 10 minutes of play and 3 minutes of stoppage time. It seemed as though they sat back much more, gave away possessions, and let France control the play. I know 90 minutes is a long time and there were some tired legs out there, but had France scored in those final minutes, momentum would have shifted. As a longtime hockey fan, I’ve constantly heard how a 2 goal lead is the worst lead in hockey, and I’ve seen why on plenty of occasions. I know soccer is a completely different game (although there are some similarities), but 10 minutes plus stoppage time is enough time to put away 2 goals. Fortunately it seemed like France’s efforts to score were a bit lackluster. In an elimination match in June that’s sure to change. So along with that change, I would also hope the team responds by controlling the play and limiting France’s possession as the clock winds down.

Finally before I wrap this up. I wanted to bring up something I’ve noticed from watching the USWNT play since the coaching change last April when Jill Ellis took over for Tom Sermanni. I mentioned bringing this up in the last blog post after talking about Meghan Klingenberg making a statement for herself to be the starting left back in the World Cup. Both Klingenberg and Press have been getting a lot more minutes within the last year as well as Whitney Engen. Also within the last year Ashlyn Harris has replaced Nicole Barnhart and newly-retired Jill Lloyden as Hope Solo’s back-up. Don’t get me wrong, I believe these players have worked hard to be in those positions, but it seems peculiar that the minutes for these players really started to pick-up since Ellis took over. The thing is though along with Ellis, Tony Gustavsson came in as an assistant coach. Gustavsson coached Klingenberg and Press when they played for Tyresö FF of Sweden (the team folded last year shortly after their appearance in the UEFA Women’s Champion’s League Final) . Klingenberg played there from 2012-2014. Press played from early 2013-2014. Gustavsson was the coach from 2012-2014. He also brought in Engen, Harris, and Ali Krieger in late 2013 to help the squad during their Champion’s League run. He was an assistant with the USWNT in 2012, but at the time Pia Sundhage was the head coach. It seems since the coaching change Gustavsson has definitely had an influence on the team. It might be the case that the playing time for some players, Press and Klingenberg in particular, has increased due to the fact that Gustavsson has some pull on the U.S. bench.

Like I said, Press and Klingenberg are both fantastic players. They’ve gotten better and deserve to play for the USWNT. Ashlyn Harris is an extremely hard worker and it’s rewarding to see her play as the number two goalkeeper for this team after being left off the last World Cup roster because she “needed to develop more” and not making the Olympic roster due to injury. However, it’s just interesting to see how politics may play a slight role in all of it. I guess it happens in every sport. I could be totally wrong too. Maybe Ellis has seen something in all these players for a while now and they’re finally getting their chance to shine.

No matter what the case is though, I hope they’re ready for the World Cup. I hope the whole team is ready from the players to the coaches and everyone in between. Because now that the Algarve Cup is over, a little less than 3 months remain until the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup begins. There’s 4 matches left and the USWNT still hasn’t reached their peak. If the Algarve Cup was any indication though, the team is definitely improving. By June I expect to see a group of players ready to battle at the highest level in one of the greatest tournaments in the world for the ultimate prize. It isn’t easy to become world champions, but I would count on the United States Women’s National Team to put up one hell of a fight to get that crown.

Here are the highlights from yesterday’s final at the Algarve:

Johnston Goal

Press Goal

Solo PK Save

 

 

The Countdown Continues: Algarve Cup 2015 Group Stage Recap

For the past two weeks the United States Women’s National Team has been training and competing in the Algarve region of Portugal for the 2015 Algarve Cup. The yearly event which the USWNT has competed in 20 times (including this year) since its start in 1994 (22 years) provides solid competition against some of the world’s best teams. This year is no different as 9 out of the 12 teams competing have qualified for the 2015 Women’s World Cup (Brazil, China PR, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States) and 6 out of those 9 teams are ranked in the FIFA Top 10 Women’s rankings (Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and the United States). This tournament is one of the last true tests for the USWNT before the World Cup begins in June as only 4 friendlies will remain after the competition finishes (3 of the friendlies are against teams competing in the World Cup).

I’ve been following the tournament pretty closely. So I’m warning you in advance, this is an in depth look at the 3 group matches. Each game is sectioned off in bold.

Game 1

The competition began last Wednesday, March 4th as the U.S. squared off against Norway. The match ended in a 2-1 victory for the red, white, and blue with both goals coming from the feet of midfielder Carli Lloyd. The USWNT went down 1-0 late in the first half with a goal from Norway’s Ada Hegerberg. Lloyd’s first tally came in the 55th minute when she ripped a left footed shot from 18 yards out. The second goal came less than 10 minutes later in the 62nd minute when a Christen Press shot hit a Norway defender’s right arm leading to a hand ball call. Lloyd took the ensuing PK and placed the ball into the top right corner for the go-ahead goal.

Some key things I took from this match were firstly the USWNT debuted their brand new 2015 away kits. The kits were fire. From what I’ve read it seemed like many people were not fans of the new kits initially but I liked them from the first time I saw them back in January where an image was released to the internet prior to the official announcement. I’m not sure if the consensus changed after the debut last week, but I have to say I’m still a huge fan nonetheless. The striped blue fade jerseys with the white stripe down each side looked awesome with the navy with white side stripe shorts. I included a picture at the bottom of this post so you can judge for yourself.

Secondly, Hope Solo made her first start in goal since receiving her 30 day suspension for matters that happened during the January camp. She looked a bit shaky in this match at times, but still ended up with a key save in the 54th minute. As much as I love back-up goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, I feel like this team is incomplete without Solo. In the wake of her suspension there was talk that she might not be allowed to play in the World Cup. Fortunately that looks like it won’t be the case. Sure she needs to be more disciplined outside of soccer and I’m sure she knows that especially in a World Cup year, but regardless, she’s the best goalkeeper in the world. For the U.S. to have a chance at a World Cup title she needs to be in net this summer. It’s as simple as that so I was glad to see her back.

Thirdly, it seemed like the U.S. had trouble finishing their chances. This has actually been a recurring theme as of lately for the team. They needed to be better in the attacking third. It seemed like when they did have chances, the majority came from the attack on the right side of the field in thanks primarily to the work of Carli Lloyd, Ali Krieger, and Christen Press. That may have had something to do with what the lineup looked like for Wednesday’s game (because Friday’s match had more attack from the left).

Lastly, I wanted to touch on some players who I thought were key in the game Wednesday as I mentioned above, Carli Lloyd, Ali Krieger, and Christen Press.

Carli Lloyd who scored both goals and was named Woman of the Match was an absolute beast on Wednesday. She’s a special player. She’s got a rocket of a shot that she can easily use to score from outside the 18 (we saw it Wednesday). She’s a tireless worker on the pitch. She’s a leader for the team and most importantly she seems to raise her game when the team needs it most. She was playing on Wednesday with a noticeable black eye that she apparently received in training and it made her look like an absolute bruiser, which works since she plays a very physical style of soccer. She’s a key piece for this team to be successful at the Women’s World Cup. They’ll need her to be on top of her game and on the pitch as much as possible this summer so hopefully she’ll be up for the challenge. With a mentality like Carli’s though, I have no doubt she will.

Ali Krieger, one of the most underrated players on the USWNT and in my opinion the best right back in the women’s game, was stellar during Wednesday’s match. She played a full 90 and constantly made runs up and down the right side of the field. She joined the attack trying to create scoring chances by sending crosses in from the right. She also got back/sprinted back at times to defend the opposing attack. She did this with ease while also stopping chances from developing and making some important defensive plays. In the opening minutes of the game, she single handedly made one of the key saves of the game when Solo, dealing with some traffic, was unable to get her hands on a cross that came into the box and landed at the feet of a Norway attacker. With Solo off her line, Krieger stepped up and blocked a shot that was surely headed for the back of the net. What was even more incredible in that moment was Krieger’s quick decision to get her arm tucked into her body against her chest. Had her arm/hand been in the air or not against her body the U.S. may have been called for a hand ball in the box. It was an incredible effort by the defender. Like Carli Lloyd, Ali Krieger is another key piece for the USWNT and once again to be successful this summer they’ll need her. There should be no questions about who the right back will be for the starting XI in June because Ali Krieger is nothing but world class.

Christen Press played a key role for the team vs. Norway as well. She looked dynamic out on the pitch creating chances for the team. Her first touch was a thing of beauty. She had a shot go off the post and another that just went wide of the net in the first half. It seemed that there was chemistry developing on the right side between her, Lloyd, and Krieger. From watching Christen Press in the last two years though, the thing I’ve noticed is that at times she can be inconsistent. Her game seemed to drop off a bit in moments where as a forward her team really needed her to step up and score. For example, last year in the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final her play was lacking and she wasn’t the one to step up when her team needed her most. Sure everyone has bad games but to me the best players in any sport are the ones who find a way to win. That’s something I’ve noticed has been missing from Press’ game. Can that change? Sure. There’s no doubt she is a fantastic player and has the ability to change it too, but it will be interesting to see whether or not it will happen come June and what role she will play in the USWNT’s World Cup run. I’m hoping for the best for her and that she rises to the occasion.

Game 2

The second match of group play for the USWNT in the 2015 Algarve Cup came on Friday, March 6th against Switzerland. Once again the U.S. persevered as they cruised to a 3-0 victory leaving them one win away from a spot in the Algarve Cup final. Their first tally came at the 54 minute mark of the second half when forward Alex Morgan directed a Lauren Holiday free-kick into the back of the net. The second goal happened when Amy Rodriguez collected a rebound, turned, and chipped a shot past opposing goalkeeper , Stenia Michel in the 72nd minute. The final goal that allowed the team to get the 3-0 shutout win came when Abby Wambach took advantage of a poor back pass by Switzerland and shot the ball over the head of Michel and into the back of the net. Her goal came in the 81st minute. Of note, Hope Solo had a huge save off a Laura Dickenmann strike in the 60th minute that could have changed the U.S. surge in momentum in Switzerland’s favor.

Important notes from Game 2 are as follows: The team still looked to be having trouble with that final pass/finishing effort, especially early on, but looked a little better with it than on Wednesday. Also different from Wednesday was that in the first half in particular the attack was generated from the left side through the work of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Meghan Klingenberg. They created a number of opportunities for the team early. Klingenberg looked very good at the left back spot, a position occupied by Lori Chalupny in the Norway match until Klingenberg subbed for her at the start of the second half. Klingenberg played a full 90 on Friday and it seems like she’s been making a strong case to be that starting left back for the World Cup. Although, there might be some other reasoning as well which I’ll touch on in the future.

It was Megan Rapinoe’s first game back (other than playing for a couple minutes on Wednesday at the very end) after injuring her knee during the January camp. She’s also a pretty special player and she plays in such a way that mirrors her personality. She’s crafty, creative, and clutch. With her you never know what you’re gonna get whether it be on the pitch or just in general. Because of that, there’s been questions about her consistency on the field, but to me it seems like she always comes out to play in the big games. She’s another important piece to the puzzle for the USWNT and I’m hoping to see her in a prominent role for the World Cup. I mean let’s be honest (or should I say lesbehonest?) without that cross from Pinoe, Abby doesn’t tie the game in the 123rd minute of extra time to send the 2011 quarterfinal to PK’s. She’s clutch.

Alex Morgan, the face of U.S. soccer, who is actually more than just a face demonstrated why that’s the case in this match as she has done time and time again in the past. After playing a relatively quiet first half, she scored the opening goal 9 minutes into the second. That’s the thing about Alex Morgan. She always finds a way. She’s always dangerous, even when she doesn’t get too many touches on the ball. When she does get touches though, she creates opportunities for herself or her teammates to score. In the last two years she hasn’t played as much as she could because of ankle injuries that left her sidelined for months. Even now as she makes her way back from a second ankle injury that kept her out of part of the CONCACAF qualifiers until the matches overseas against France and England, she’s still a threat. She’ll be a main focus this summer for many reasons, but her level of play should be the reason at the top of the list. If the United States does come out on top, she’s sure to be part of the reason. Like Rapinoe, she’s also clutch. But more importantly, she’s one of the best in the game.

Finally, the last thing I took from Friday’s match vs. Switzerland was that around the 65th minute mark Switzerland’s play seemed to drop off, an indication that at this point they’re not as fit to keep up with the USWNT. That being the case, the chances started coming together towards the end of the game for the American women. The last goal in particular was proof that Switzerland was tired. Once the World Cup comes around that will no longer be the case. So it left me wondering, would the outcome have been any different if that didn’t happen? From the past couple matches, I feel like it would. Maybe the U.S. would have still won, but maybe not. Hopefully it will change when June rolls around, but even at this point the USWNT have not reached their peak. Then again, I think everyone wants them to peak in June anyway.

Game 3

On Monday the USWNT took on Iceland in the final game of group play. With a win they would guarantee themselves a spot in the final against France. However that’s not exactly what went down, but they still got that spot in the final. The result of this match-up ended in a 0-0 draw giving the USWNT 7 points out of a possible 9. The 7 points were good enough to get them to the Algarve Cup final though. Unfortunately due to “lighting issues” the game was not broadcast in any form via the television or internet. I followed along on twitter, but it’s not comparable to watching the game so it’s difficult to recap my view on things.

Of note, the lineup in the Monday’s game was a bit different than the lineups that played in the first two games. Ali Krieger, Carli Lloyd, Christen Press, Lauren Holiday, and Julie Johnston who all started the first two games were left out. Lloyd subbed in at the half, while Press and Holiday came in at the 60 minute mark. Krieger and Johnston were given the day off. Between all three matches the lineups were never the same though. The only constants through the tournament so far have been Hope Solo and Becky Sauerbrunn who have played the entirety of each game. Everyone besides defender Crystal Dunn, back-up keeper Ashlyn Harris, and defenders Christie Rampone and Whitney Engen, who were sidelined for injury issues, logged minutes.

Some other things I noted from the game tweets was that the theme of the team not finishing their chances continued through this game as well and was evident by the scoreline. From what I read, it seemed like Iceland sat back, played a tight defense, and waited for counter opportunities similar to what Trinidad & Tobago did back in October during World Cup qualifying where the end result was a 1-0 U.S. victory. Even with the draw though, the U.S. will get a re-match from about a month ago with #3 FIFA ranked France for the title. They’ll play today at 12:00 p.m. ET and the match will be aired on Fox Sports 1 (this is actually the first time the Algarve Cup was broadcast on TV in the United States…pretty cool). We’ll see if the team has improved since their last battle with France that ended in a 2-0 France win. Hopefully they have and it’s an exciting match. I’ll update again tomorrow with a recap of the final and closing thoughts on the Algarve Cup as the USWNT heads into the final stretch of games before taking on Australia June 8th in their opening match at the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Here’s links to the video highlights from each match:

USA vs. NOR March 4, 2105

USA vs. SUI March 6, 2015

USA vs. ISL March 9, 2015

The starting XI debut the new away kits prior to the team's opening match at the 2015 Algarve Cup on March 4th vs. Norway. Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer.

The starting XI debut the new away kits prior to the team’s opening match at the 2015 Algarve Cup on March 4th vs. Norway. Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer.

 

 

The Countdown Continues: European Friendlies

Over the last week and a half the USWNT has been over in Europe training. They also participated in two international friendlies against France and England. As of today there are 110 days until the start of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. But after two less than convincing performances this week, doubts continue to rise about a team long considered a heavy favorite to win this summer’s biggest tournament.

The USWNT played No.3 FIFA-ranked France last Sunday in Lorient in front of a crowd of 15,663. The team failed to put together a strong attack on offense and with some mishaps on defense went down 2-0 shortly into the second half. The France goals came within a minute of each other, as Eugenie Le Sommer headed a cross from Elodie Thomis into the left side of the goal at the 50th minute mark. Then in the 51st minute a bending cross by Jessica Houara found its way to the back netting by bouncing in off the left post. The USWNT had a few chances late in the game, but did not score. Most notably, upon entering the game Abby Wambach was awarded a penalty kick after going down in the box. She failed to convert as France goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi made the diving save to her right. The U.S. ended up falling 2-0 to France.

Besides facing Brazil in December, France will most likely be the best team that the U.S. women face until the World Cup in June. It was a good test for them. It clearly pointed out weaknesses that they need to work on in the coming months. But still with a few less than favorable results in the past few months, the questions keep popping up about the strength of this team and whether or not they’ll be lifting a trophy by the beginning of July.

Yesterday’s match against England provided a slightly better outcome, but still demonstrated that the USWNT has plenty of work to do before June. The red, white, and blue opened the scoring in the 25th minute with a header goal by Alex Morgan off a cross from Lauren Holiday. It was Morgan’s 50th of her international career. The lone goal stood to be the deciding marker of the match in what looked to be a more improved performance by the U.S. squad. England seemed to be holding back for the first half of the game. The second half saw more offensive chances for them though. In the 56th minute, England would have tied the match after a strike from Fran Kirby was knocked off the crossbar by USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris (playing for the suspended Hope Solo which is another story in itself). The rebound of the save found the feet of England’s Jodie Taylor and she placed the ball in the back of the net. However, Taylor was ruled to be offside. From there, England failed to threaten the American defense until stoppage time when U.S. defender Ali Krieger headed a dangerous cross away to solidify the win for the United States.

Although improvements were made from the game against France and the United States seemed to maintain better possession and create more offensive opportunities, the score didn’t indicate such a dominant performance. And really, it wasn’t. After the Morgan goal, the USWNT looked the most comfortable they had been since going overseas. They created plenty of scoring chances in their attacking third until the end of the first half (the attack seemed to slow a bit for the final 45). The midfield looked much better than it did in the match against France. Ali Krieger, who played as a sub in the France match, started the game against England and seemed to be an added improvement in the U.S. defense. But, (and this is a big but) England isn’t France. France created so much more efficient counters on the United States. Their midfield proved to be more dominant than England (and the U.S. for that matter). Their defense handled the offensive attack that the U.S. tried to initiate. Even England’s overall size is smaller compared to France. So it makes sense that the U.S. would have performed a bit better. However, the game could have easily ended in a tie. So the outcome, even though it was a 1-0 win, could have been better for the USWNT, and is a good indication that there is still a lot of work to be done for a team that seemed destined for World Cup glory.

In two weeks the USWNT will begin the Algarve Tournament in Portugal where they face off against Norway (March 4th, 2 p.m. ET), Switzerland (March 6th, 12 p.m. ET), Iceland (March 9th, 1:30 p.m. ET), and another yet to be determined opponent (March 11th, Time TBD). Following the tournament, only 4 friendlies remain until June 8th when the U.S. opens their World Cup group play against Australia. So far, this ride to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup has been rocky, but I still plan on following this team every step of the way and updating on each triumph and downfall. Only time will tell what will happen in June. Will they achieve the greatness they have been searching for since 1999? I still believe. Do you?