Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Silk Road: End of the Road

It was a great World Cup, and for once the two best teams met in the final. German thoroughness met and defeated Brazilian flair, but the best part of the event was the soccer itself. Most of the matches were competitive and exciting, and some unexpected skill emerged from teams I hadn’t counted on. And, of course, there was some comedy, some heartbreak and even some tabloid-fare scandal. It’s all done now, so to thrash it all out again would be a tad excessive…but I would like to summarize what I perceived from my hotel room in Guangzhou.
Another terrific WWC from Birgit Prinz and Die Madel. This is a solid team, folks, playing the best women’s soccer in the world, the first team to win back-to-back world cups since the Italian men in the 1930s and the Brazilians in the late fifties/early sixties.
The only thing I can see beating this team is age: look at the list of goalscorers in China. Only one (Melanie Behrenger) is younger then 28. This crew is going to be in their mid- to late-thirties when the women meet again in 2011.
Brazil. I have a hard time picking between the two teams that met in the final: Brazil had such a terrific WWC and Marta emerged as a genuine women’s superstar. Her second goal against the USWNT was perhaps the loveliest bit of individual skill I saw at this year’s finals and perhaps as amazing as I’ve EVER seen on a soccer field.
If this team can continue to play as they did in China – and that isn’t a given, since the curse of Brazil has been to play like geniuses one day and morons the next – they will be a serious threat for the crown if the WWC goes to Peru in 2011.
Marta. Watch this, Just watch it. I can’t say anything you won’t see here. Incredible. Amazing. Brazilian! If I wasn’t married, fat and fiftyish…
The other thing to note watching the Marta clip is the amateurishly poor play by the U.S. defenders (see below). Tina Ellertson (#8) can sorta-kinda be excused; Marta's backheel is lovely and almost impossible to defend. But Cat Whitehill (#4), the U.S. right inside back, is just awful. She gives Marta three yards and then makes some sort of pathetic stab with her foot, freezing herself and, of course, the Brazilian simply goes around her and shoots. Utter crap from the U.S. But SUCH a gorgeous goal..!
North Korea. The North Korean men's team that came to England for the World Cup in 1966 became a legend for their mystery, their work ethic and their unexpected success in beating the fancied Italian team and going on to the second round. The DPRK women did much the same thing this year, with their unexpectedly aggressive draw with the US in the opening game. They lost to the Germans – who didn’t – but they had a great run and it’ll be entertaining to see if they can return or if they repeat the experience of their male counterparts, who disappeared after the ’66WC, never to set foot on the field at the Big Show again

African women's soccer.
Has there ever been two teams that have underperformed at the WWC like Ghana and Nigeria? This year it was the Nigerians turn to win a game, one game, while in 2003 it was Ghana that beat the Matildas. But still, c’mon…over four years, 12 games, two wins. The results seem pretty good evidence that giving the African nations even two places for the finals seems like one too many.

African footy isn’t even that pretty or fun to watch. Let’s hope that the Africans can practice a bit more over the next four years and send someone who can play some attractive soccer in 2011.

Sweden. How have the mighty fallen. The bad goal against Nigeria should have been a giveaway – these gals didn’t have it together this year. By the time they scraped a win against the North Koreans it was too late. Denmark was desperately unlucky – they gave up a late winner to China and then had the bad luck to draw Brazil in their last group game. But the Swedes should have gone through and didn’t. The Swedish FA needs to look at some changes, and soon.

Brianna Scurry. Sorry, Bri, you were a terrific keeper in the 1990's through the early Oughts, but you were rusty, slow and tentative against Brazil when you needed to cut like a razor and pound everything inside the 18-yard-box like the Hammer of God. Not your fault – your coach was to blame for putting you in that spot – but a 2.0GAA over two games isn’t world class. Plus the own goal was your fault, and that set the team back on its heels at the very worst time. Time to hang ‘em up, girl.

China. The Steel Roses looked tired and old in Portland during the WWC in 2004. Here they just looked mediocre. They have one legitimate scoring threat, Li Jie, their midfield lacked any sort of cohesion, and they made some awful errors in the back. They played one great game, against Denmark, looked like worldbeaters against the hapless Kiwis, but the real indicator was the 4-0 pounding they took from Brazil. I have to say that I’m not sure this team would have made it out of the group stage if the WWC had been played anywhere else. China needs to do some woodshedding – this group will not get better with age. For China to have a chance in 2011 they need to find some good young players soon and begin rebuilding.
New Zealand. Sad. Just sad. Sometimes I thing that FIFA is cruel in even sending these makeweight teams. It can’t be easy to get shellacked three straight games in front of the whole world. Australia at least looked like a world cup team. There was no reason to send the Kiwis to China other than FIFA’s greed. There is no reason to have more than one team from “Oceana”.
Argentina. In Latina footy there is an immense divide; Brazil on one side, and everyone else on the other. Argentina is on the other side and might want to start mailing these finals in to avoid embarassment. Their -17 goal differential was even worse than the -14 they posted in 2004. This team is really awful, and the sad fact is that they’re the BEST that latin soccer can produce (Mexico sorta doesn’t count, since it’s crammed with Mexican-American collegians). Their overall -31 GD is the worst in world cup history. Why, FIFA? Why? CONMEBOL, like “Oceana”, has yet to prove that they deserve more than one team in the finals
Greg Ryan. Responsible for perhaps the worst several coaching decisions I’ve seen a USWNT coach make. April Heinrichs had some problems with certain players and was often picked on for not winning the big titles. But I never saw her make the kind of soccer 101 blunders Ryan did, first with his failure to sub out his horses against England in the quarterfinal and then the ultimate headshot, replacing Hope Solo with Scurry against Brazil. He should be done as WNT coach.
For the U.S. Women’s National Team, the WWC 2007 has to be considered a disappointment. After the third place finish in 2003 U.S. Soccer replaced the coach and pretty much rebuilt the team with the design of reclaiming the world title this year. The result? The same third place finish. At least in ’03 the WMT could claim that they had run into the German buzzsaw in the semifinals, the one team that no one could beat. This time they fell to the loser of the final two teams, ugly proof that both Brazil and Germany are technically and tactically superior to the U.S.
I’ve written before that the goal-poaching abilities of Abby Wambach have papered over the weakness of the U.S. midfield, brutally exposed against Brazil and unable to hold the ball for long stretches of the North Korea game. In ’95 and ’99 we heard a lot about Mia Hamm, but the team was more than Mia and a bunch of spear carriers. The 90’s WNT had Tiffany Milbrett alongside Hamm as well as perhaps one of the most brilliant midfields in soccer history, with players like Julie Foudy, Tisha Venturini and the last years of Michelle Akers, once perhaps the greatest striker in U.S. soccer history. This year’s edition really DID seem like Abby Wambach and a bunch of spear-carriers. The U.S. played poorly in every game except the last (3rd place), with blame all around - the defense was slow and out of place, Scurry looked terrible in goal against Brazil and wasn't tested against the Norwegians, the midfiled can neither hold nor pass and Wambach is the only real striker. This team - unlike Germany - is NOT a solid team. In particular by giving up on Hope Solo Ryan has taken American goalkeeping back a big step. Scurry is the past, not the future. The defense looks shaky, the midfield unfinished and Wambach will continue to be marked out of the game by the decent women's teams.
I hope reality is beginning to set in and the USSF is realizing that what seemed like an American women’s game is beginning to become, like the men's, the world’s game. Those durn furriners can play this game, and they’re not cutting the U.S. gals any slack.
I hope and believe that the U.S. women will rebuild and come back strong in 2011. But I also believe that they’ll meet some other great teams there. 2007 was great…here’s hoping 2011 will brings us more of the beautiful game!


Anonymous said...

I guess that if Abby Wambach
trains hard how to dominate the ball, receive and pass
in short spaces, she becomes
the best attacker in the world.

Also the US and Europe commentators fail to appraise the brazilian game in what is collectively their most evident feature.
They do n´t like to defend, they culturally deem defense as inferior to attack, a place of the less-talented. Repeated coaching
warns and training tactics
´won´t change it. And since,
they simple do not use defense tactics WHEN they know the opponent is much weaker. They sure think it´s unnecessary and boring! Like vs.the Matildas in China.And pay the price.
The opposite attitude occurs when they feel the enemy side is strong.
That is how and why europe
and US think they are defensively incapable.

FDChief said...

I don't think the U.S. problems are Wambach's problems: she IS a great striker. The U.S. problems are that for much of the past three years she has been our ONLY real weapon. The Germans realized that, now mark her out of every game and beat us.

And Brazil? The Brazilians - a least when they are "on" - don;t HAVE to worry about defense. You score seven? Fine! They'll score eight. As a goalkeeper (where I used to play) that may frustrate the hell out of me. As a fan, I love it! Watch the 0-0 draws if you like...I'll take brazil anytime.

And I'd gleefully exchange some of that "defensive incapability" for some offensive capability if that meant that the U.S. could be as successful as Brazil internationally. I can agree with yor assessment of Brazil's defense - just disagree with your analysis of the result (I think...)

Anonymous said...

now just for th sake of sport discussion, would like internauts
to post viewpoint on two questions:

1-Marta is not being fully-well-to-maximum-result used by coach in the
yellow team. How/where would you use her down there on the pitch?
2-Marta in WWC china was in practice 35 to 40 pct of her team.Yet the team is unstable somewhat. If she is put into the US team, trains for a month with
the white jersey, how much percent
would she mean in the team? Would it render the US then unbeatable?
Though theoretical,wld appreciate US fans views.