soccer friendlies

Right Side, Strong Side

When I became a U.S. Women’s National Team fan in 2011 and more so in 2012, it was because I fell in love with the personalities of the players on the team. As you may know, they got my attention after their dramatic 2011 Women’s World Cup Semifinal win against Brazil on penalties. I watched the rest of that World Cup and realized how amazing these women were at their craft. It was a year later when I got to know them as more than just athletes though. I watched videos, read articles, books, and interviews, followed twitter accounts, and in turn learned so much about these incredible role models. They had a strong core group of players lead by Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone. They had young rising talent in Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux. They also had several players in the middle of the pack who brought special elements to the team. Some were around for years, while others made their way into the lineup over the last cycle (the 4 years between World Cups). One of those players was Heather O’Reilly, who I quickly learned was known to the Women’s Soccer world as HAO (pronounced Hey-Oh) (O’Reilly’s initials which stand for Heather Ann O’Reilly).

The New Brunswick, New Jersey native made her USWNT debut in 2002 while still in high school. She played alongside 1999 Women’s World Cup heroes Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, and Brianna Scurry. Then she began her storied college career at women’s soccer powerhouse, the University of North Carolina under legendary head coach, Anson Dorrance. At UNC, she was a part of 3 National Championship winning teams and also made the USWNT roster for the 2004 Olympic Games, where she helped the team to Olympic Gold. After college, she continued with her USWNT career and played professionally once women’s leagues were again formed in the U.S. by joining Sky Blue FC in the WPS and the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City in the NWSL. HAO currently plays for FC Kansas City. As a member of the USWNT, O’Reilly played in 230 matches, scored 46 goals, assisted on 54 goals, won 3 Olympic Gold Medals (2004, 2008, 2012) and 1 World Cup Championship (2015), out-performed everyone on the beep test multiple times, and displayed a limitless amount of game faces. HAO has been nothing short of incredible. Tonight she will play her final game as a member of the USWNT. She isn’t retiring from the game of soccer by any means, just from international play. Nonetheless she will be missed tremendously on the world’s stage.

With the additions of many new faces to the USWNT in the past year, HAO’s playing time dwindled. I’m guessing it may have played a role in her decision. Despite that and the fact that she was named an alternate for the 2016 Olympic Games, I didn’t see this one coming. It hurts a lot more than the rest. She’s only 31, which is on the older player range, but still not as old as some. HAO was also a part of the USWNT for so long. She was a part of that core group I began following when I became a fan and part of a special duo that most fans of the team know and love.

As a midfielder, HAO played along the right side of the field. Somewhere along the way, which I believe began around the 2011 Women’s World Cup, she formed an in-game connection with right outside back Ali Krieger and the phrase “right side, strong side” began. I’m not sure who coined the phrase. It might have been an announcer, a fan, or even the pair themselves, but it became known among the USWNT community that #9 and #11 in the game equals right side, strong side. They might have coined the phrase themselves because they use it too. Hopefully HAO and Kriegs take the field tonight and play one last time dominating the right side of the pitch. Either way it will surely be an emotional night for HAO’s family, friends, teammates, coaches, and fans who watched her perform for the red, white, and blue. She’s the true definition of world class and represented U.S. Soccer in the best way possible. Thanks HAO for all you’ve done both on and off the field. Right side, strong side forever!

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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?