Sports

Legendary Venues: Madison Square Garden

Next up in the Legendary Venues Series is another New York staple. This venue has been in existence since the 1800’s. It is also widely known as the world’s most famous arena and it is none other than Madison Square Garden.

The Garden, which sits between 7th and 8th Avenues from 31st to 33rd street in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, is actually the fourth structure to bear the name “Madison Square Garden”. The first two existed from 1879-1890 and 1890-1925, respectively. The third which stood from 1925-1968 is now the location for One Worldwide Plaza, which was built after the third Garden was demolished.

Since the current Madison Square Garden opened in 1968, it has held many epic concerts with the biggest names in music history. Up until recently Elton John held the record for most concerts at the Garden with 62 appearances. It was broken by Billy Joel. Since 2014, Joel, the Grammy winning recording artist, has maintained a residency at MSG and has played 44 consecutive shows since beginning his tenure (He will play his 45th on Saturday). Regardless of who holds the record, when a band or an artist can amass a crowd large enough to play at an arena, it’s always an honor to play at the legendary Madison Square Garden.

Besides being a large scale concert venue, Madison Square Garden has also held a multitude of sporting events since opening its doors. It is the home venue of the New York Rangers of the NHL and the New York Knicks of the NBA. It also hosted some of boxing’s biggest fights before Las Vegas boxing became a thing.

Despite all the notable names and greatest concerts to ever grace the stage at MSG, the one that stands out to me (with liking the bands that I like) was LCD Soundsystem’s “final” concert. I say “final” because the band ended up getting back together last year and just released an album at the beginning of the month, which I wrote about after it came out. In that moment in 2011 though, it was a 4 hour long final goodbye of the band’s entire discography. It was all captured and put into the documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits”, which came out the following year. I began liking LCD Soundsystem shortly before the documentary was released so I had no idea about the incredible spectacle that happened, until the documentary came out. As a band from NYC, there was no greater venue to host LCD’s last show than the Garden.

This past February I worked my first show at Madison Square Garden. It was The Lumineers’ first night of their two night stand. Obviously at that point, I never worked a show there, but I had also never actually been in the Garden period. I decided to stay to see the rest of the performance that night after I finished my shift: 1. Because I actually like The Lumineers and 2. Because it was at Madison Square Garden. When I finally was able to find a way down to watch the show (long story), I couldn’t help but take in the fact that I was watching a show at the Garden. Besides watching the actual performance, I admired the familiar circular ceiling that on a regular basis houses a large scoreboard at the center for its sporting events. I looked around the venue, at the crowd, and up at the banners earned by the Knicks and the Rangers. The Lumineers concert was sold out that night and although it probably won’t go down as one of the greatest concerts in the arena’s history, it was definitely a highlight for me in my career of both watching and working music events.

It’s definitely worth a trip to New York City to catch an event at Madison Square Garden, but a concert would be the best event in my opinion (wink wink). Although it’s not the only famous venue in the city, it’s one of legendary status and one of the most well-known in the world. Its history and incredible past performances can attest to that.

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How to Watch Sports

If you frequent my blog on any level, you’d know that most of my posts focus on one concrete subject and involve facts surrounding that subject. The subjects are related to music, television or film entertainment, or women’s soccer because let’s be real, I don’t often write about other sports. What I want to write about this week is more subjective than usual, but it pertains to all sports and specifically watching sports.

There are two ways to watch sports: in-person or on live stream via a television or the internet. If you’ve ever been to a sporting event, you’d know the experience is much different than watching from your couch, bed, a bar, etc. Seeing a game or match play out right in front of you while taking in the sights and sounds is an experience like no other. If you’re at a team sporting event and you’re rooting for the home team, you’re probably not alone. There are most likely thousands of others cheering on the team with you. You can usually be as loud as you want. At some sporting events, they even encourage fans to scream or be loud. You might be able to do that from your home too, but it doesn’t have the same effect.

Another important difference is the view you have. On a live stream of the match you can only see what the camera sees. You might not be getting a view of all the players or the whole field. You don’t get to watch pregame warmups or post-game interactions either. That being said sometimes the camera has a great view and can offer close-ups of plays and athletes you wouldn’t be able to see from your spot in the stands. It might be why some people prefer to watch games or matches from home.

Another reason why some people might prefer to watch from home is weather. Weather conditions can have a huge impact on outdoor sports. It also impacts the spectators. It can be extremely hot or extremely cold. It can snow or rain. It can even cause delays. In outdoor sports, it’s not always a perfect day or night for a game. You have to prepare accordingly if you attend and some people just enjoy the comfort of their own home better.

There’s also the money factor, which rules a lot of things in our lives. It can be expensive to see a live sporting event, especially championships or major tournaments and that’s if you can even get tickets at face value. It can be a big factor in whether someone watches from home or not. Add in your personal schedule and then you’ve got another dilemma. Sometimes people don’t have a choice in how they watch sports.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see many live sporting events. I’ve been to football, basketball, baseball, and hockey games. I’ve attended soccer matches, a golf tournament, and a skateboarding competition. I have my fair share of preferences on the way to watch sports. Sometimes I like watching from home, but sometimes I’m caught up in a sport that I just want to experience live.

On Friday night, I attended my second NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) match. I decided to go because it was the first ever home playoff match for the team I’ve followed since the league’s inception in 2013, the Washington Spirit, and because I had available time in my schedule. I like the complex where the Spirit play. It’s a great venue to watch soccer (venue might be another reason people like to attend or not attend live sports too) and I wanted to make a trip there this season. Plus, it was a playoff match. As any sports fan knows, playoffs are the best and most exciting time of any season.

The weather last weekend was terrible throughout the mid-atlantic region. Thursday through Sunday brought tons of rain. I hate rain when I have to be out in it for an extended period of time. I was bummed when I saw what I would have to deal with at the match. Add in that the Spirit had a disappointing final two weeks of the regular season and I was wondering if I made the right call to attend the match. I already committed though so I knew I had to brave through the elements and whatever outcome the match brought.

Friday night’s semifinal match between the Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars was the best soccer match I’ve ever attended in my time of being a soccer fan. It misted the entire game, but it was cool enough that I was able to comfortably wear a hoodie with a light rain jacket the whole night and stay dry. The Spirit won in extra time when Franny Ordega scored a beautiful goal that resulted from a pure team effort in the 111th minute. Most importantly I saw my favorite soccer player score a goal in-person, in front of my own eyes.

Okay, I get it. You’re thinking it’s not a rare feat to see your favorite soccer player score a goal. It is when your favorite player is a defender though. Defenders just don’t score often. When they do, doves sing, according to Becky Sauerbrunn at least. It’s not a big secret by any means, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it on here before. My favorite soccer player is Ali Krieger. She’s a defender. More specifically, she’s a right outside back for the Spirit and for the USWNT. In her national team career, she’s scored 1 goal and a pretty important PK that lead to one of the biggest surges in women’s soccer since 1999 (I didn’t even see this one on livestream). Since her career with the Spirit began in 2013, she’s scored about 1 goal per season. That’s about 4 professional goals since I started paying attention to her. Out of those 4 goals, I’ve never seen any in-person. I missed 3 of them totally because I wasn’t able to watch those matches. On the goal I did see, I didn’t even realize she was the one who scored until the replay happened. Seeing her put one in the back of the net Friday night was everything. I wasn’t even sure how the sequence was started until I saw the replay later that night (I was both watching and chatting to a friend who also attended). It was beautiful header off a ball into the box by fellow defender and CANWNT player, Shelina Zadorsky, that started from a play beginning with a corner kick taken by Krieger herself. I just remember seeing the ball float in off a kick from about halfway between the goal and mid-field, meet Krieger’s head, and careen into the back netting.

It was one of my favorite live sports moments that I’ve seen in-person in a while. I’ve seen plenty of good ones over the years too like a game winning triple overtime goal and ones that clinched series’ victories. I’ve never seen a team win a championship in front of my eyes however. That’ll be for another time.  This one was special though. It was hard to come by given the situation and I won’t forget it. It made me realize how special it is to see a sporting event live. Standing in the mist or rain or whatever element was worth it, so was the travel distance, the price (it wasn’t too expensive), and the slight traffic. It all was. So I’m urging you. If you’re one of those people who like to watch from home, remember there are some irreplaceable moments in sports and seeing them in front of your own eyes every once in a while is what makes being a sports fan that more special. Put aside your preferences. Make time. Spend the money. It’s worth it to go to a game.

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.)

The Countdown Continues: Send Off Series Game 1 USA vs. IRL

THREE….

Sunday afternoon in front of a sold-out crowd at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, CA the USWNT squared off against Ireland in the first game of a three game send off series before the 2015 Women’s World Cup begins on June 6th (June 8th for the USWNT). They secured a 3-0 victory in a dominant performance over the Irish women with goals from Abby Wambach (2) and Julie Johnston. The team was without forward Alex Morgan who was resting her minor injury, a bone bruise in her left knee. Defender Ali Krieger was back in the lineup after being out for a month with a mild concussion she sustained during the first game of the NWSL season while playing with her club, the Washington Spirit, on April 10th. She was also sporting a trendy headband aimed to help prevent any further head trauma.

Compared to the last friendly a little over a month ago, the team had a slow start as far as finishing goes, but possessed the ball incredibly well in the first half. Christen Press created numerous opportunities for herself to put one in the back of the net. Forwards Wambach  and Amy Rodriguez also had some chances at putting shots in the goal, which Wambach eventually converted. The work of Meghan Klingenberg on the left flank and Krieger on the right flank helped to create scoring opportunities as well. The USWNT played a large portion of the first half in their attacking third. It wasn’t until the 42nd minute that they made a dent in the scoreboard though. An Ireland defender tried to clear a Megan Rapinoe corner kick that hit her own teammate, who was guarding the back post, in the face. The shot to the face subsequently prevented an own goal for Ireland. However, after bouncing off the face of the Irish defender, the ball landed at the feet of Press who delivered a pass to Wambach to finish the play. Wambach put in another goal in the 45th minute when Carli Lloyd sent a cross to her at the far post. In patented Abby fashion, she finished it with a header as the U.S.A. took a 2-0 lead to the locker room.

The second half saw plenty of subs for the USWNT as Lori Chalupny, Morgan Brian, and Sydney Leroux entered at the half for Krieger, Rapinoe, and Rodriguez. Kelley O’Hara, Heather O’Reilly, and Shannon Boxx came on later in the half. About 10 minutes into the second half, defender Julie Johnston flicked home a Lauren Holiday corner kick just inside the near post. It was Johnston’s third international goal and her third in the last three matches. The USWNT failed to convert any more chances in the rest of the time remaining despite some quality opportunities they had. Ireland goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke came up with some stellar saves. Starting U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo did not face any shots in the game nor did she have a single touch on the ball. It was a purely dominant effort by the ladies in red, white, and blue (but mostly different shades of blue with a little white and a trace of red mixed in) especially when it came to possessing the ball and controlling the game.

Of note in the first match of the send off series was that this was the very first time in the history of the game that the players of the USWNT were accompanied on the field by their mothers who flew in courtesy of Fox Sports to surprise the team for Mother’s Day. It was a special moment for the players and their moms and will be a lasting memory for years to come.

As I watched the game today, it felt like the team was a bit off. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say they regressed from where they were a month ago because they controlled the game. The only difference was the beautiful one-two touch passing exhibited during the New Zealand friendly was less evident. The finishing wasn’t there either which continued as a theme from the last match. These two things are minor though. It’s difficult to be perfect every game, but if any team can be near perfection it’s the USWNT. Fortunately they have 2 more games as a group to get to that level. The next one is in a week, May 17th 9:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. PT in Carson, CA (coverage on FoxSports 1), but time is of the essence. 28 days remain until Game 1 of the group stage versus Australia. The players are anxious. The excitement is mounting. The hype is real. Two more to go until the fun begins.