christie rampone

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

USWNT: 2015 WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS

“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 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.”
-Me from a blog post dated 3/11/15

Four years ago, I sat in my basement on July 17, 2011 and watched the USWNT lose to Japan on penalty kicks. After that match as I watched players walk around the pitch in devastation and disbelief, I proclaimed that this team would win the next World Cup for sure. Almost four years later on July 5, 2015, I sat in basement with a USWNT jersey on my back and watched the USWNT beat Japan 5-2 to win the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup (it feels so good to be right!). Yes, I’ve been hyping this team since I started this blog. I’ve been following them so closely for the last 2 1/2-3 years and now…WORLD CHAMPS! THREE STARS ABOVE THE CREST! THEY DID IT!

I could not be more happy and proud of these women. They’re incredible humans on and off the pitch. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their inspiration. True story. It’s difficult to really recap the game and try to analyze it like I always do because I don’t feel like talking about stats or what they did well or could’ve done better. They didn’t need to do anything better. They got it done. They won the World Cup. Since I was so amped every time they put the ball in the net though, I guess I should at least recap the goals.

Last night was the Carli Lloyd show. She comes up in big games as I stated back on March 11th. She scored the goals in the last two Olympic gold medal matches but, last night she was on another level. For a team that was all about defense and not conceding goals, only allowing 1 in their first 6 matches, they could have fooled me. The offense came alive last night early in a large part due to the absolute beast that is Carli Lloyd. On a beautiful set piece corner in the 3rd minute, Megan Rapinoe sent a low ball into the box that made its way through defenders and to Lloyd’s foot as she put the ball into the back netting. Two minutes later Lloyd struck again. It was off a set piece free kick taken by Lauren Holiday. Lloyd found herself in the right place at the right time as she tapped in a ball that was headed forward by Julie Johnston off the Holiday cross. Holiday, herself, found the back of the net in the 14th minute. She volleyed in a shot from an attempted Japanese clear. Then Lloyd recorded the first ever Women’s World Cup Final hat trick two minutes later from just beyond the midline when she chipped Japanese goalkeeper, Ayumi Kaihori, who was off her line. 16 minutes into the game and the U.S. were up 4-0. They were going to win. There was no doubt in my mind at the start of the match, but after the first 16 minutes, it was certain. I think the goals caused the team to let off a bit on the defensive end. In a way, they kind of lost focus as the emotion from going up by so many goals so early took hold. Japan broke their shutout streak in the 28th minute. Before the Japanese goal, the defense went 540 minutes without conceding a goal. They were seconds away from breaking Germany’s 2007 shutout streak record, which also stands at 540 minutes.

In the second half, Japan recorded another goal. It was an own goal by Julie Johnston when she tried to clear a Japanese free kick. The ball found its way to the net to make the score 4-2. There wasn’t anything to worry about though. Two minutes later Tobin Heath one-timed a Morgan Brian pass into the net to put the U.S. up by three once again, which is how the score stayed until the final whistle blew after 90 minutes plus 3 minutes of stoppage time.

After the U.S. beat Germany Tuesday night, it was pretty much written in the cards that they would win last night. As fate would have it, nothing stopped them. They won the World Cup. There’s a new legacy. 1999 was great, but now it’s all about 2015. The 15ers earned that third star that will be above the USWNT crest forever. It was incredible to follow this journey that began almost four years ago. Women’s soccer truly changed my life.

It feels like a new chapter begins today. Even though the Olympics is next summer, a new World Cup cycle begins. Players will retire. The team will change. I will change. A lot can happen in four years and I can’t wait to see what the future holds. But until then, it’s time to celebrate a championship four years in the making. To perfectly quote the band Queen, “WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD!”

The USWNT lifts the World Cup trophy after defeating Japan 5-2 to win the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Final at BC Place.

The USWNT lifts the World Cup trophy after defeating Japan 5-2 to win the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final at BC Place.

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

Before the game last night, I knew I would be feeling some kind of emotion when it was over. It would either be pure elation or some sort of numbness. Honestly, a part of me felt like if any team in this tournament could beat the USWNT, it would be Germany. Germany had been playing awesome. The U.S.A. had been average with glimpses of awesome. For the first time during this tournament, I was unsure of the outcome. Needless to say, I shouldn’t have been so worried because last night when the USWNT played the number one team in the world, Germany, at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Quebec, they won 2-0. The win secured their spot in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final on Sunday at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. Hell yes. They made it. One more win to go for World Cup glory.

The game last night was a roller coaster of sorts, but the USWNT was on top of the hills most often. The match started out in Germany’s favor for about the first few minutes or so. Germany controlled the play and attempted to create scoring opportunities. The unstoppable defense of the USWNT was able to thwart away any chances though. After that short spurt of German momentum, the red, white, and blue took over the possession and got chances in their attacking third. The chances they had were some of their best of the entire tournament too. Julie Johnston almost headed home a Megan Rapinoe corner kick in the 7th minute. Alex Morgan split two defenders and had a chance at the first goal in the 15th minute, but Germany’s goalkeeper Nadine Angerer came up with a huge stop on her shot. For the entire first half, the USWNT disallowed Germany to do what they’ve been so good at doing since their opening match, dictating the game through their skilled play and scoring ability. Again, however, the U.S. was unable to convert their chances and went to the locker rooms tied 0-0.

The break seemed to disrupt the flow of the game for the USWNT. After the teams took the field for the second half, Germany controlled early again. This time it seemed they had control for longer than they had in the first half. In fact, it seemed they were on the verge of breaking through the defensive wall, also known as the USWNT back line, but just when they had it cracked, momentum swung the other way. In the 59th minute, German forward Alexandra Popp broke through the back line and U.S. defender Julie Johnston hauled her down inside the 18 yard box, which drew a yellow card and a Germany penalty kick. Celia Sasic attempted the kick for Germany against U.S.A. goalkeeper, Hope Solo. Sasic missed the net. Had she not, Germany would have taken the lead because Solo dove to her left in the opposite direction of Sasic’s shot. Ten minutes later, a Germany defender was called for taking down Alex Morgan inside the penalty area and a PK was awarded to the USWNT. Carli Lloyd, who converted a penalty in the Round of 16, took the kick for the U.S. She scored. 1-0 U.S.A. They then took control for the last 20 minutes of the match. In the 75th minute, Kelley O’Hara, who started the quarterfinal in place of Rapinoe, came on for Tobin Heath. The switch was an important one because 9 minutes later O’Hara put up the insurance goal when she tapped in a Carli Lloyd pass from the endline. It was O’Hara’s first ever international goal (what a time to put up your first goal right?!). With only 6 minutes plus stoppage time left after the goal, the World Cup final was in their grasp. They closed out the game and earned the right to play for the trophy.

In an interesting strategic decision for this #1 versus #2 showdown, the USWNT came out in a 4-3-3 formation in favor of the standard 4-4-2 they had played in their other 5 matches. It proved to be a great tactical move. It opened up the midfield for the U.S., which allowed space for the midfielders to create opportunities going forward. The game also saw Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday back in the lineup after missing the quarterfinal for yellow card accumulation. Rapinoe played on the left side of Alex Morgan at the top of the 4-3-3. Holiday played the midfield along with Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd.

The USWNT back line of Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg continued their shutout streak, which is currently at 513 minutes. Hope Solo received her 5th consecutive shutout, 10th in World Cup play, and 89th overall in her career. The back line has proved time and time again to be the biggest difference maker for the USWNT in the 2015 Women’s World Cup. If the U.S.A. is destined to win Sunday night, the defense will be a guaranteed factor.

As I sit here, now, writing this, I can’t help but feel overjoyed for this team. I can’t believe how far they’ve come since Germany in 2011. I can’t believe how far the women’s game has come since then as well. If they win the World Cup, more progress will be made for soccer in America and for women’s soccer in America. We can only hope that the progress will impact women’s soccer in a more permanent way than in the past. This World Cup journey four years in the making is quickly coming to a close. One game remains for the USWNT. It’s the biggest one of all. It’s the Women’s World Cup final. See you Sunday night in Vancouver. It’s time. Let’s get it!

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

Last evening at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, Ontario the USWNT continued their World Cup journey with a quarterfinals match-up against China PR. From the get-go the match was in the USA’s favor. They created more chances and had better possession early in the match. Within the first few minutes, Amy Rodriguez, who started the match in favor of Abby Wambach, slipped through the China defense with the ball and took a shot that went just wide. Despite the heavy U.S. attack, they again failed to score in the first half. Before the team took the field for the second half, Wambach, who stood at the center of the huddle, had some inspiring words for her teammates, “First 10 minutes, we get a fucking goal!” (And no it wasn’t bleeped when she initially said it.) The USWNT did just that.

In the 51st minute, Julie Johnston sent a soaring cross from near the right center of the field after receiving the ball on a free kick from Meghan Klingenberg. Carli Lloyd, playing in her 200th cap, beat her defender and headed the cross into the back of the net to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. From there the U.S. continued their strong play from the first half. The defense put up another strong showing which limited China from ever having a great chance to score. So far in 5 matches, the defense has allowed only 1 goal and has gone through 423 consecutive scoreless minutes. Later in the 73rd minute, the U.S. just missed the chance to go up 2-0 when a strong strike from just outside the box by right back Ali Krieger hit the crossbar. Overall, the USA proved to be too much for China though. They held on to their lead to win the match and move on to the semifinals against the number one team in the world, Germany.

Along with the insertion of Rodriguez at the forward spot, the lineup saw a few other changes from the previous matches. Since both Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were unavailable for the match due to yellow card suspensions, Kelley O’Hara started her first 2015 Women’s World Cup match in the midfield on the right side and Morgan Brian started in the defensive center midfield position. The game also saw longtime veteran Heather O’Reilly get her first 2015 Women’s World Cup action by subbing in for Alex Morgan in the 81st minute (right side, strong side!).

The last time the USWNT met China in a World Cup match it was an extremely positive outcome. It was in the 1999 World Cup final. The USA beat China on penalty kicks to win the World Cup. It was a win that inspired a nation and boosted the rise of women’s soccer in this country. Most of the players on the current USWNT roster have memories of that match and were inspired by it to reach their greatest soccer goals. The team hopes to do the same for a new generation in about a week. But first, Germany.

The German squad is pure offensive, attacking power. They’ve already posted 20 goals in this tournament. Forwards Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag have combined for 11 of the 20 goals scored. It’s not just the forwards who make Germany so strong either. Midfielders like Lena Goessling, Dzsenifer Marozsan, and Simone Laudehr can both score and create scoring opportunities for their teammates. They have a strong goalkeeper in Nadine Angerer, 2013 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, who came up with the deciding save in penalty kicks against France yesterday afternoon to send Germany to the semifinals. There’s also plenty of other talented players willing to step in and step up when called upon. They’re not ranked as the best team in the world for nothing.

They will be the toughest test for the USWNT thus far and maybe in the entire tournament. It will be a match between the best offense of the World Cup (Germany) versus the best defense of the World Cup (United States). Winning against them will require an incredible performance from the entire U.S. team. However, it has been said that defense wins championships. We’ll just have to see if this defense can play to the challenge that is the German Women’s National Team. We’ll also have to see if the offense can manage to put some goals in the net. One thing is certain. The USWNT is one game away from playing for the ultimate prize that has eluded them for 16 years. They won’t go down without a fight. So prepare for battle Germany because Tuesday night…it’s on!

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

Last evening at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, AB the first match of the Knockout Stage for the USWNT in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup took place. The U.S.A. came away with a 2-0 victory against Colombia allowing them to move on to the quarterfinals on Friday night in Ottawa, ON. As heavy favorites to hoist the trophy at the end of the tournament, it was expected that the #2 FIFA ranked American women would have a dominant all-around performance against the #28 ranked Colombian women, just as fellow favorites (#1 ranked) Germany and (#4 ranked) France did against their opponents the previous day. Although the team did manage to keep a clean slate and put up two goals of their own, their performance was less than convincing compared to the other international powerhouses.

Head coach Jill Ellis stuck with the same lineup as featured in the Nigeria match, opting to switch sides for midfielders Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe (Heath switched from left to right and Rapinoe from right to left). In the first half, the U.S. attack started a bit stronger than in previous matches as they managed to get a few scoring opportunities early. In the 4th minute Heath sent in a shot from about 8 yards out that was tipped away by Colombia’s goalkeeper, Catalina Perez. The rebound was knocked in the net by Abby Wambach, who was called offside shortly after which disallowed the apparent U.S. goal. As the half went on, frustration set in for the Americans. Colombia seemed to take charge at times possessing the ball to try to gain opportunities. Also, the U.S. attack seemed to dwindle. At half time, the teams entered the locker rooms in 0-0 deadlock with an energy that seemed to favor Colombia.

The momentum switched shortly after the second half began though. In the 47th minute a through ball made it’s way to the feet of a sprinting Alex Morgan who was in the clear for a sure goal scoring opportunity. As she reached the top of the 18, Colombia’s Perez made a tackle that took Morgan down causing the referee to hand out a red card to the keeper and award the U.S. with a penalty kick for the take down in the box. Although the U.S. failed to score on the penalty (Wambach’s shot went wide), the red card which caused Perez to be removed from play took a toll on the game. Six minutes later the USWNT made their first dent on the scoreboard when Ali Krieger found Morgan just outside the right of the box. Morgan made a few touches to get inside and took a shot that deflected in off new goalkeeper, Stefany Castaño, near post. Later, in the 66th minute, Rapinoe was fouled inside the box and another penalty kick was awarded to the U.S. This time Carli Lloyd took the shot and converted putting the USWNT up 2-0. From there the game was controlled by the U.S.A. Colombia seemed to lose their flow that they had during the first half and the Americans came away with the win.

Of note, Rapinoe and center midfielder Lauren Holiday will be unavailable for the USWNT’s next match on Friday as both received their second yellow cards in the tournament thus far. It’s funny how that worked out considering Rapinoe and Holiday were the only two players on the team to receive yellow cards in previous matches. Also of note, the strong defensive effort by the U.S. back line continued through this match as they limited Colombia to only 2 shots on goal. The USWNT’s defense has consistently proved through four of the possible seven games in this tournament that it is the strongest aspect of their team’s play. The same cannot be said for the offense, which has been inconsistent since the beginning of this year.

Through the first four World Cup matches the USWNT has scored only 6 goals, the least amount ever to be scored through four games by a U.S. team in Women’s World Cup competition. Granted, the competition has gotten a lot tougher through the years, but the U.S. women’s soccer program is expected to be the best in the world. Their success at the international level has proved it. It’s time to stop making excuses and start providing the dangerous attack that we know so well from the USWNT. I have heard since the start of this World Cup year about how the U.S. needs to “peak at the right time”. I’ve talked about it on this blog. I’ve been expecting it each match. But right now, we’re three games from the World Cup Final and I have yet to see these talented soccer players reach or even be near that level they keep referencing. I guess frustration has set in for me. It’s because I believe in this team so much and I know what they’re capable of. I also think I just enjoy seeing them create opportunities and score goals. It makes matches so much more exciting to watch. I feel like that dominance hasn’t been a part of their games recently and I miss it. One thing is for sure though. Friday is a new opportunity. To win this tournament, each game needs to be taken one at a time. It’s win and move on. Lose and go home. So far, the USWNT has done the former. I guess that’s all that really matters and only time will tell what happens next on this World Cup journey.

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

Last night, the United States Women’s National Team played Nigeria in their final match of the Group Stage at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In front of 52,193 spectators at a sold out BC Place in Vancouver, BC, the red, white, and blue (or white, black, and volt) sealed first place in Group D with a 1-0 over the Super Eagles. The U.S. limited the dangerously quick Nigerian attack to only 7 shots, 2 shots on goal through the duration of the match. Their ball possession was better than it had been in the first two matches. They also seemed to be creating a few more scoring chances, but they had trouble finishing, which stuck with the recurring theme of the last few months. Their lone goal in the match came from, surprisingly, the foot (not the head) of Abby Wambach when she directed a Megan Rapinoe corner kick into the back netting right before the end of the first half (45th minute).

This game saw a few lineup changes from the first two games. The most notable one being that Alex Morgan started at forward alongside Abby Wambach. It was Morgan’s first World Cup start. Even though she was sidelined with an injury since April and played 23 minutes plus stoppage time through the first two matches, she made a noticeable impact on the game. Morgan has a natural instinct to find and create opportunities. She has great chemistry with Wambach and she has incredible finishing capability. She was denied on a few scoring chances by Nigeria’s keeper Precious Dede, including one golden opportunity off a well placed low cross by right outside back Ali Krieger in the 62nd minute. She was an offensive threat until she was subbed out in the 66th minute. Although she didn’t make an impact on the score sheet last night, it was evident why she is an essential piece to the USWNT and their offensive attack. To be successful in this tournament, they will need her.

Another change from the last two matches was that center midfielders, Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday, swapped roles. Holiday who sat back in a defensive central midfielder position played in a more attacking role versus Nigeria, while Lloyd, who took charge of the attacking role against Australia and Sweden, played the defensive position. The change seemed to help Holiday who played better than she had in the first two matches.

Once again the USWNT back line kept up their solid play and continued to be a strong asset to the team. All four defenders as well as goalkeeper Hope Solo have played every minute of the tournament so far. The former starting center back, Christie Rampone, also saw action during this match. She entered the game in the 80th minute for Tobin Heath making her the oldest player to ever appear in a World Cup match. She played at the left outside back position while Meghan Klingenberg stepped into the left midfield spot.

With last night’s win, the U.S. will play in the Round of 16 on Monday in Edmonton, AB against the third place winner from either group B, E, or F, which will be determined after play finishes today. From now on, every game for the USWNT becomes a lot more interesting. They enter the Knockout Stage of the tournament meaning each match is win and move on or lose and go home. Also unlike the Group Stage where games can end in a tie, the Knockout Stage will feature extra time, which is another 30 minutes added on to the game if the game is tied after 90 plus stoppage time. If the match is still tied after 120 minutes plus stoppage time, it will go to a best of five shootout where a winner will inevitably be determined (if there’s still a tie after five players from each team shoot, then the shootout goes to sudden death). The matches from here on out become more intense and exciting than ever (plus nerve-racking for fans). Stars will shine, goals will be scored, shots will be saved, tears will be shed, and at the end of it all the last team remaining will crowned champions of the world. The pressure is on for the USWNT and it should be a fun ride.

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

On Friday night in front of a packed house at Winnipeg Stadium in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the #2 ranked USWNT matched up against #5 ranked Sweden and former coach, Pia Sundhage. It was quite the battle, but ended in a 0-0 draw giving each team 1 point in their second match of the group stage (Sweden had 1 in the first game, U.S.A. had 3). The game (like one of the Fox announcers said) was a chess match. It was patient, strategic, and well-played by both sides who were unwilling to budge. Both teams had their fare share of possession and chances, the best being off a Sweden corner kick late in the game. For the U.S.A. what stood out the most in this match was the play of the backline. Defenders, Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, and Ali Krieger, were relentless defending the Swedish attack and proved to be the biggest difference makers for the American side. Megan Rapinoe continued her solid play from Monday night by creating chances and keeping possession on the left flank. In the first half, the game started slow with a back-and-forth settled attack for both sides that didn’t really result in any close chances. Towards the end of the first half though, the U.S. attack was sparked by the undeniable chemistry from Rapinoe and Krieger, even though both play on opposite sides of the pitch. From the left, Rapinoe switched the play by finding Krieger on the right flank, who had space to push the ball forward and send crosses to the box. Despite the effort though, none of their opportunities were converted.

In the second half, the game’s intensity picked up as the scoring chances became more frequent and more dangerous for both teams. As mentioned, the best chance overall came from Sweden in the 77th minute. They were awarded a corner kick that was sent to the middle of the box and headed down by a Swedish attacker to the feet of Sweden’s Caroline Seger. She took a left-footed shot that curled to the far post which was covered by Klingenberg, who headed the ball away. The header hit the underside of the crossbar before it bounced away for a U.S. clearance. If Klingenberg did not make the stop, it would have been a sure goal for Sweden as the diving Hope Solo wouldn’t have got a finger on the ball. It was the play of the game for sure. It was also one of several times the USWNT’s backline came up huge. Julie Johnston, who started her first World Cup match Monday night, played with confidence as she thwarted away any attack that came at her. She also maintained possession well and tried to make plays to ignite the U.S. offense. Two-time NWSL Defender of the Year, Becky Sauerbrunn, who played almost every minute of the every match for the USWNT since the beginning of 2015, made a couple huge plays in the U.S. defensive end. Being a centerback, her play often goes unnoticed by many media personnel and fans alike. However, she is one of the most integral pieces of the USWNT. In a tournament like this though, her efforts will surely not go unrecognized for long as the games will get tougher and she will get called upon to make strong defensive plays to stop opposing attacks.

Of note, Morgan Brian made her first World Cup start as she was selected to play in place of Abby Wambach. Also of note, for the last two matches the play of the U.S. central midfielders, Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday (Cheney) has been average at best. For the USWNT to succeed as the tournament progresses, these two will need to get better (Yep, I’m calling you out Cheney and Carlos!).

The U.S.A. currently sits atop Group D with 4 points and one match left to play in the Group Stage against Nigeria on Tuesday night in Vancouver. Right now, they have a pretty good shot at qualifying for the Round of 16, but they’ll still need to put in a strong effort against a fast Nigerian team. In the meantime, there’s another 3 days of agonizing waiting until women’s football’s finest take the pitch again. Another battle begins Tuesday at 8:00 ET on Fox as the USWNT continues their journey to settle the score. I hope you’ll be watching.

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.

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.)