pia sundhage

Rio 2016: Group Stage

The 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil kicked off on Friday night. Before the opening ceremonies, the United States Women’s National Team began their tournament Wednesday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil against New Zealand. “The Gals” then squared off against number three ranked France Saturday afternoon again in Belo Horizonte and Colombia last evening in Manaus. Through three games the USA women’s soccer team had a record of 2-0-1 earning them 7 points and the top spot in their group, Group G. The first place seed sets them up for a quarterfinals match-up with former Coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden on Friday.

In the first match against New Zealand the U.S. came away with a 2-0 win. The goals came from the feet of Carli Lloyd in the 9th minute and Alex Morgan in the 46th minute. The U.S. wasn’t tested much against New Zealand, but that changed quickly when the team played France in their second Olympic Group Stage match.

The U.S. squeaked away from France with a 1-0 win. The game could have gone either way, but France failed to capitalize on multiple scoring opportunities. It also could have ended in a tie, if not for 2015 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. Lloyd scored off a rebound of a Tobin Heath shot that was saved and hit off the post. France exposed the USWNT back line several times during the match, but U.S. Goalkeeper, Hope Solo, stepped up when needed.

In their third and final group stage match against Colombia last evening, the U.S. succeeded in winning the group but not in the way they would have liked. The game finished in a 2-2 tie with the game tying goal coming from Colombia in the 90th minute. The U.S. fell behind early in the match in the 26th minute when Colombia’s Catalina Usme sent in a free kick that slipped through the five hole of Hope Solo. The U.S. equalized in the 41st minute when Crystal Dunn cleaned up the rebound of a Carli Lloyd shot that was saved and hit off the crossbar. Then shortly into the second half Mallory Pugh beat out several Colombia defenders and kicked the ball through the Colombia defense to the back netting. Her goal came in the 60th minute and put the U.S. up 2-1. Then right before the game went to stoppage time, Catalina Usme again sent in a beautiful free kick from the right side that beat Hope Solo far post. The USWNT failed to hold on for the win and Usme’s brace gave Colombia their first tie against the U.S. after losing their previous 5 meetings. The goals for Dunn and Pugh marked their first ever major tournament goals for the senior national team since both are making their Olympic debuts this summer.

In my opinion, the USWNT is not playing their best soccer. They’re not taking advantage of their scoring chances and their defense doesn’t seem as strong as it was last summer in Canada at the World Cup. Fortunately being as good as they are, they were able to pull out of the group stage with a number one seed. The medal round will be a whole different animal though. If they make it past Sweden on Friday and Brazil beats Australia, the stage will be set for a semi-final between the top ranked team in the world and the host nation. The culture behind the USWNT is a winning mentality. The ladies in the red, white, and blue are going to give it their all to try to win gold for their country. They just need to start peaking to make it a little easier on themselves.

Of note from the group stage, Julie Johnston’s been out with a slight groin injury. Whitney Engen filled in at center back the past two matches. Pugh also took a knock in the first match that kept her out of the France contest. Morgan Brian has seen limited action due to a prior injury. She only played some of the first three matches. Lastly and finally, Megan Rapinoe made her return from being out due to an ACL tear that happened in December. As you can tell, the U.S. has some injury concerns to be aware of going forward too. Hopefully they’ll be able to manage, improve, and secure their third straight Olympic gold.

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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: 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