france women’s national team

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.

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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: 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?