algarve cup

Road To Rio: CONCACAF Qualifiers

Last year I chronicled the United States Women’s National Team’s 2015 Women’s World Cup journey from qualifiers in the fall of 2014 to July 5, 2015 where “The Gals” dominated Japan in a 5-2 victory to secure the U.S.’s first World Cup victory in 16 years. Fortunately for the USWNT, there’s another major tournament this summer, the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unlike in men’s soccer where the U-23 national teams compete in the games, the women send their senior national teams to battle for Olympic gold. You see, in soccer, the Olympics aren’t as important as the World Cup, which is the reason the men only send their U-23 squads. Of course, the men in general have more tournaments to compete in, and like in most sports, men have more opportunities financially and physically (but hopefully that begins to change). Nonetheless, women’s soccer has and will be a bright spot for the United States in the Olympics this summer as the U.S. punched their ticket to Rio Friday night with a 5-0 win against Trinidad & Tobago.

Like I said, the Olympics aren’t as big of a deal as the World Cup so I’m not going to hype this summer tournament like I did last year. Before the U.S. women won the World Cup, they hadn’t won it since 1999, whereas the U.S. has won gold at the past 3 Olympic games. However, that being said, no women’s team has ever won a World Cup and then won gold at the Olympics the following year. If the U.S. wins gold in Rio, they will be the first team to do it. So if you’re looking for any story lines, there’s that.

Since the World Cup victory though, the roster has changed greatly for the USWNT. Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Lauren Holiday, and Abby Wambach have all retired. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez will be skipping the Olympics this summer due to the births of their first and second children, respectively. Then there’s Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe whose Olympic roster statuses are in question due to injury. Through 2015 Rampone dealt with nagging knee and back injuries that paved way for defender Julie Johnston to take center stage in Canada last summer. Since December, she has been out with a bone bruise in her left knee. Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL during training in December before a match between the USA and Trinidad & Tobago that was ultimately cancelled because of poor field conditions at Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium. Rapinoe had surgery back in December and has been in rehab mode since to hopefully be well enough to earn a spot on the Rio 2016 roster and play in the games. In total though, 8 out of 23 players from the WWC roster are either out for the Olympics or in question. The Olympics has a catch though. Only 18 players are allowed on the official roster (with 3 alternates available). Despite the smaller roster number, U.S. Coach Jill Ellis brought a few new players into the mix during January camp. She also opted for many fresh faces to compete in the qualifying tournament in favor of active and healthy veterans Heather O’Reilly and Whitney Engen (both part of the World Cup winning team) and there’s a few you should watch out for leading up to the Olympics.

17 year old Mallory Pugh earned her first senior national team call-up during January camp and was subsequently named to the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament roster. She got her first cap when the USA played the Republic of Ireland in a friendly on January 23rd in front of 23,000+ at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. She entered the game in the 58th minute for Alex Morgan who earned her 100th cap that day. In a passing of the torch moment, the future UCLA Bruin became the youngest player to debut for the USWNT since 2005. She also scored a goal during the 83rd minute to put the USA up 5-0. During qualifying, Pugh played in all 5 matches and settled into the level of play. Her speed and play-making ability sparked the U.S. offensive attack on several occasions. She even earned 3 assists throughout the tournament. By the end of the tournament, Pugh played as a starter. If she makes the Olympic roster, she’ll definitely be a name to watch out for in Rio.

Lindsey Horan is another name to pay attention to as time progresses. Horan, only 21 years of age, opted to forego college at women’s soccer powerhouse, UNC, to play professionally for the past 3 years in France for Paris-Saint Germain. She saw time with the USWNT during camps in the past and earned her first cap back in 2013 at the Algarve Cup. Playing her whole life as a forward, Horan has recently stepped into the defensive center mid spot left vacant by retiree Lauren Holiday. At first with Holiday’s, retirement I was a little concerned because of the tough shoes to fill, but I’ve been incredibly impressed with Horan’s play. She’s created a chemistry on the pitch with fellow center-mid Morgan Brian, who played her way into a starting role during the World Cup last summer. She’s also maintained possession, created offense, and quarterbacked the best team in the world throughout her time on the field. Not to mention, her 5’9 frame and goal-scoring/heading capabilities create an offense threat on the attack and set pieces. At this point I would be shocked if Horan didn’t make the Olympic roster because she seems to have the defensive center mid position on lock and as recent camp call-up Rose Lavelle would say, she’s “The Great Horan”.

Massachusetts born Stephanie McCaffrey and Samantha Mewis were also two new additions to the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament roster. Both players saw limited time during tournament play but made an impact on the national team leading up to Olympic qualifying. McCaffrey earned her first cap in October during the Victory Tour where she also notched her first goal during the final minute of stoppage time in the match against Brazil in Orlando. For the national team, most of McCaffrey’s appearances have been as a forward/mid on the wings, predominantly the right side. She makes great runs and expands the width of the offense, while aiding in the attack. Mewis has played a center mid role in her recent national team appearances. It seems like she’s been in a competition for that center mid field role along with Lindsey Horan and Morgan Brian. At 6’0 tall, Mewis has a height advantage much like Horan when it comes to set pieces, but Horan has been crushing any competition she has for the position, including Mewis. Unlike her fellow “masshole”, Steph McCaffrey, Mewis’s first cap came in December 2014, but during qualifying last week, she finally scored her first goal against Puerto Rico.

Defenders Jaelene Hinkle and Emily Sonnett made the qualifying tournament roster as well. Like McCaffrey and Mewis, both saw limited action in the tournament since the USWNT already has a strong defensive core with Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg getting much of the defensive playing time. Both players did earn starts in the match against Puerto Rico, which saw a much different back line than in prior matches. Hinkle, an outside back, earned her first cap during the Victory Tour and has been a call-up ever since. With Chalupny retiring, the USWNT seems to be looking to fill a void left by the former outside back, which is where Hinkle fits into the mix. Sonnett also earned her first cap during the Victory Tour and was recently drafted first overall in the 2016 NWSL Draft to the Portland Thorns. It seems the center back made the Olympic qualifying roster in favor of Whitney Engen who has been in the national team system for a while and was on the 2015 WWC roster. She has a ways to go before she replaces Johnston and Sauerbrunn, but she gained experience during the tournament and played solid throughout.

Lastly, the  new additions to the tournament roster wouldn’t have been complete without the familiar face of Crystal Dunn. As the final cut from the 2015 WWC roster, the UNC grad seems to have finally guaranteed her place on the national team. Dunn’s ride on the team so far has been bumpy. She received her first cap in 2013 and primarily played in the outside back position. She experienced some injuries during 2014 which slightly set her back and was left off the World Cup roster in favor of several veterans. Her response was one of the most inspiring efforts of the past year. Instead of defense, she played in the forward position for her NWSL team, the Washington Spirit, during the 2015 season and lead the league in scoring with 15 goals earning her the 2015 NWSL Golden Boot and MVP awards. Dunn was called up to the national team as a mid/forward during the Victory Tour in September and had a goal and 2 assists in her first game back after being left off the World Cup roster. Since being left off the roster, Dunn has appeared in every match the USWNT has played since September and has scored 10 goals and 4 assists in that time. During qualifying, Dunn recorded a five goal performance against Puerto Rico becoming the third player to achieve that mark on the USWNT and winning her the Golden Boot Award for the tournament. As you can see, she’s back with fire and she’s here to stay. Like Horan, there’s no question in my mind about Dunn making the Olympic roster, so keep your eye out for her and an abundance of puns using her last name.

With the mix of old and new at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament the USWNT not only guaranteed their spot at the Olympics but also won in the final 2-0 yesterday against a gritty Canadian team, who will also appear in Rio. The goals came from former PSG teammates Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath during the second half of play. Becky Sauerbrunn also received her 100th cap by playing in the match.

Unlike last year, I won’t be summarizing each match leading up to Rio, but I will be posting here and there with news and developments on the team, especially once the roster is released. In the following months USWNT fans can look forward to the She Believes Cup, which will take the place of the USWNT’s typical beginning of March trip to the Algarve Cup in Portugal. It starts next week. The She Believes Cup takes place Stateside and will feature matches against three of the world’s top ten teams, Germany (March 9th), France (March 6th), and England (March 3rd). It should be a great test for the USWNT leading up to Rio. Both France and Germany will be at the Olympics as well (England cannot compete in the Olympics because England competes under the name of Great Britain during the games which also includes Scotland and Wales, two countries with separate national women’s soccer teams). The USWNT also has a friendly scheduled for April 6th. The Olympic roster is expected to be announced in May. I’m sure there will be matches between then and the Olympics, which take place August 3-20, as well. The Road to Rio should be fun, new, and exciting so follow the World Champs on their journey to see if they can win the gold once again and become the first women’s national team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back to back.

Advertisements

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: 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: 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?

The Countdown Continues: Road to the Women’s World Cup – Brasilia Tournament Recap

Last weekend the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) finished up the Brasilia Tournament by advancing to the title game versus Brazil. The game ended with a 0-0 draw giving Brazil the tournament win because of the points they acquired during the group stage. I’m sure from the previous matches the outcome of the tournament wasn’t something the team was particularly hoping for.

Their first match on December 10th against China PR ended in a 1-1 draw (could’ve been better). They lost their second match 2-3 against a highly ranked Brazil squad featuring five time FIFA Player of the Year, Marta (not their best effort). Finally, they finished group play with a 7-0 win against Argentina (more like it but no offense to Argentina, they were the weakest team in the tournament).

With less than 6 months to go, the Women’s World Cup is quickly approaching which means preparation time is slowly dwindling. The most recent world rankings released saw the USWNT drop to the number two slot as the German Women’s National Team took over the first spot previously occcupied by the United States. As a fan, I’m not happy about that. Since I’ve been following the women’s game and this team (roughly since the last world cup but more intently since the 2012 Olympics), the USWNT has been number one. To see that happen so close to the World Cup and to also see a sub-par performance in this most recent tournament makes some nerves start to set in.

I want these girls to get it done this June. After watching the last World Cup end in such heartbreak with such an incredible road to the final, I just wanna see this team walk away victorious. But there’s no need to re-hash what I’ve already stated in the last post I made about this team. There’s still time and I have all the faith in the world that these ladies can get it done. In the coming months there will be camps, friendlies (two overseas in February against two highly ranked teams, France and England), the Algarve Cup, and time to put in the work to achieve World Cup glory.

I’ll probably say this every time I write about these girls until the World Cup but I can’t wait for June to see what they can do. I will be updating continually until then and through the World Cup so I encourage you to stick along for the ride. Maybe it’ll make you want to watch some games and get into a sport I, myself, never thought I’d get into. I’ll say it now that the USWNT may just be the best national team this country has to offer. They make soccer, or should I say football, a beautiful game especially when they play at their best.

 

The Countdown Continues: 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Draw

Today was the draw for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, which begins June 6th. The results of the draw are as follows:

Group A – Canada, China PR, New Zealand, Netherlands

Group B – Germany, Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Norway, Thailand

Group C – Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador

Group D – USA, Australia, Sweden, Nigeria

Group E – Brazil, Korea Republic, Spain, Costa Rica

Group F – France, England, Colombia, Mexico

So what does that mean for my favorite ladies in the red, white, and blue? Supposedly Group D is the toughest group in the competition with 3 of the top 10 teams in the world as part of it. Those three teams being the USA (#1), Sweden (#5), and Australia (#10). Nigeria is also the top African nation out of those that qualified for the Women’s World Cup (#35 in the world).

The media can say whatever they want about making it sound insanely tough for the USA just to build up a good storyline about the “group of death”, but the truth is the USWNT is the best in the world so there’s no reason to worry. Whatever group the USA was placed in would have been a challenge because every team in the world knows they’re one of the best. They’re no underdog. It’s theirs to lose. However, to be the best in the world, you have to play against the best in the world and win against the best in world. So in this way, the script for the USWNT in the 2015 Women’s World Cup group stage cannot be written any better. They have to bring their A game throughout the entire competition. Maybe it will allow them to be better prepared for games in the Round of 16, Quarterfinals, Semifinals, and Finals assuming they make it to those stages.

Sweden will most likely be their toughest test in group play and it’s not like they haven’t faced them in the group stage before. Actually they’ve faced them in the group stage during the last 4 Women’s World Cups and have a 3-1 record against them. The loss came in 2011 where Sweden ended up winning the group. So it’s not out of the norm despite the hype.

The Women’s World Cup is still 6 months away and there’s a lot of soccer and preparation to take place until then. The USWNT plays in a tournament in Brazil beginning this Wednesday December 10, 2014 where they will kick-off against China PR. They’ll also play two more games against #6 ranked Brazil and Argentina. The final of the tournament is December 21st. In February the team will travel overseas for friendlies against England and France. Then, in March the team will compete in the annual Algarve Cup tournament which takes place in the Algarve region of Portugal. There may even be a few more yet to be announced friendlies that happen before the World Cup begins on June 6th. There’s plenty of time to prepare and I have no doubt when June 8th rolls around (the first match vs. Australia) they’ll be ready to begin their quest to rightfully be called the best women’s football team in the world. It’s gold or bust.