Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

25 days and 13 games later: The USA vs Japan

The day arrived!

I had planned to do a boat trip up the Indian Arm this morning with Beth Martens (fellow chuck) and her family (Omar, Katie, and Cassie). I figured it would be a lovely and welcome distraction as we awaited the big game. It was a good plan -- I didn't start to get antsy until about the last 45 minutes of the trip.

But enough preamble -- the environment was everything you could expect -- overrun with Americans, it was almost entirely a pro-American crowd. It was a joyous, festive, albeit nervous atmosphere. And unlike any of the other games, we had a big of a pregame show -- Canadian Maple Leaves, the FIFA banner, mounties, and flags saluting all the teams who played in the tournament.

From the first moment, the USA made it clear -- they were out for redemption -- the heartbreaking PK loss four years ago was a bitter memory and they were out to ensure there was no repeat this year. Japan started with the ball, passed it back, took a long kick, and the USA gained possession and immediately started pushing into the attacking third. And then, two and a half minutes in, Rapinoe sends a beautiful corner kick into the middle and Carly Lloyd runs in and just buries it in the back of the net! The stadium went completely wild!

And then, only two minutes later, it's Holiday taking a penalty from the same side. Julie Johnston flicks it on and again, Lloyd tips it in! USA 2-0 and we haven't even had five minutes of game time! The whole team ran over to hug their bench and the crowd cheered for a good solid minute.

Japan could not seem to muster the long sequence of passes that so characterizes their play -- they would make three or four good passes and then send a long ball to nowhere, kick it out of bounds, or otherwise lose possession. And when they did, the US attacked ... and attacked ... and attacked. In the 14th minute, Tobin Heath launched one into the box. The Japanese defender flicked it high in the air, but still in the box ... and this time, Lauren Holiday raced onto it and volleyed it into the back -- 3-0!!!!!

But perhaps the most stunning play of the game came just at the fifteen minute mark -- Carly stole the ball at midfield, the Japanese goalie is way off her line, and Lloyd sends the ball in from midfield just over the outstretched hand of the Japanese goalie. USA 4-0 and a hattrick for Lloyd in the first fifteen minutes!!!

In the 18th minute, Lloyd almost made it 5-0 off a beautiful cross from Klingenberg. At this point, Japan finally settled down a bit; their possession improved and they began controlling the ball. And when Japan does that, they are dangerous and one makes mistakes at their own peril. Sure enough, a misstep by Julie Johnston in the 27th minute gave Ogimi just the opening she needed to send the ball soaring into the corner of the goal past Solo's outstretched hand. USA 4-1.

This is about the time it's important to remember that in 2011, Japan came from behind not once, but twice, to take the game into overtime and PKs. So, even with a 4-1 lead, it's natural to become a bit nervous.

Perhaps an even more salient reminder of 2011 was the 32nd minute Japan substitution, bringing Homare Sawa into the midfield. Sawa is arguably the soul of the Nadeshiko in the same way that Abby Wambach is for the USA. She's a tad slower than in 2011, but her ability to calm the team down, establish order, give Japan hope, and attack the goal is unmatched. And that's exactly what she did.

In the 39th minute, surprisingly, Japan made its second substitution. This is somewhat unheard of -- using two subs before half time -- but Sasaki (the Japanese coach) clearly needed some tactical changes to avoid being completely thrashed. And that's how they ended the first half: USA 4-1 and Japan having used two of their three subs.

And then it was the second half!

Rookie Morgan Brian, who has played wonderfully as the holding midfielder, had a beautiful shot in the 50th minute that forced the Japanese goalkeeper to make a tipping save. And then in the 52nd minute, the US scored again -- unfortunately, it was an own goal, by Julie Johnston. As mentioned earlier -- the Japanese take advantage of every misstep; a slight defensive glitch gave them a shot on goal that Johnston tried to divert with a header, but instead of diverting it, she sent it into the corner of our own goal, just out of Solo's reach. USA 4-2 -- and those who remember 2011 are started to get a bit twitchy.

And then, just a minute later, a Holiday corner kick goes to the far post, where Morgan Brian is perfectly positioned to set it up into the middle where Heath redirects it into the goal: USA 5-2!

Before the 60th minute, Japan used its last sub, replacing forward Ohno with Iwabuchi, who scored Japan's only goal against Australia. And only moments later, the USA made its first sub: Rapinoe is subbed out to a standing ovation, replaced by Kelley O'Hara.

It's a bit sad to say, but the remaining excitement of the match was the entrance of the team's two senior members: Wambach for Heath in the 79th minute and Rampone for Morgan in the 83rd minute.

And then it was all over ... the USA were world champions and Japan was in tears. There is a lot of genuine respect between the USA and Japanese teams, but it's always difficult to lose and have to stand around waiting to get those silver medals.

And then, there is the golden ball -- to the best player in the tournament -- Carly Lloyd!

And the golden glove for the best goalie -- Hope Solo.

Then the Japanese get their silver medals.

And finally, the new World Champions take possession of the trophy!

It's been a great month. I can't wait for France 2019.

Reporting from beautiful Vancouver, it's the Consolation Match: England versus Germany

England enters the match having never defeated Germany in 20 meetings. Germany enters the match having lost to the USA in the semifinal. And they're off!

The opeining 10-15 minutes saw Germany looking confident and dominating. They had opportunities in the box within minutes of the opening whistle. In contrast, England did not look so good. They were able to keep Germany off the scoreboard, but they just weren't smooth or organized -- they didn't look like the team who had deserved to win over Japan. Until, that is, they settled down. About fifteen minutes into the match, England settled down and we were in for a good tight game. Something about the English play made it seem like they wanted it more.

Germany was more precise and better at putting together the passes and combinations, but England were putting themselves out there in a way Germany wasn't. Nevertheless, the game was end to end and relatively evenly matched, with the Germans looking perhaps a bit stronger. They went into half time 0-0.

The came out of half time with renewed energy and Germany looked particularly dangerous. They threatened the English goal, regularly, but without success; England had fewer opportunities. In the 75th minute we saw perhaps the best opportunity of the game with Jill Scott pulling Nadine Angerer out of the box, but somehow the ball went backwards instead of into the goal. It had looked so promising.

The battle continued and the final whistle blew on a game still tied at 0-0! Into overtime.

The frenzied battle continued throughout the first 15-minute period with neither team successfully creating a threatening attack. Then we went into the second overtime. I did not want to see this game end in PK's. Both teams deserved better.

And then...it happened: Leanne Sanderson (former Boston Breaker) in the box; Tabbe Kemme appeared to have her around around Sanderson as she went down; was it? could it be? Holding in the box? Well, the referee did call it, awarding a PK to the English. The replay we could see on television was interesting. While still standing, it was pretty clear that Sanderson had grabbed Kemme. It was equally clear that Kemme did hold Sanderson, but it was almost as if Sanderson made it happen. I think without the replay, the call was completely valid; with the replay, it was much tougher to decide. I wouldn't say it was the wrong call, but I can't exactly say it was the right call either. I wonder if soccer will ever use instant reply to rule on these things?

Anyway, Fara Williams stepped up to the line and nailed it.

The rest is history. Germany lost a stunning two in a row; England had their best finish ever; this fan was exhausted!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Back in Edmonton: Japan versus England

It was a beautiful day in Edmonton as Japan and England met in the second semifinal match. Many of the Canadian fans had purchased tickets to this game, hoping it would be a Canadian match on Canada Day (the Canadian Fourth of July Equivalent, celebrated on the first of July). But, England squelched that plan, so it was an interesting crowd - a lot of Canadian jerseys, a lot of American jerseys, and many, many fewer English and Japanese jerseys (I wore my Boston Breakers Sameshima jersey). As the people behind me were overhead to say, "No one really cares who wins; they're just here to watch soccer." I was cheering for Japan, because I would like to see another USA / Japan final, with a different outcome than we saw in 2011.

The crowd was a bit larger than I expected (31,000). We only got 19,000 for the USA round of 16 game in Edmonton.

And our seats were quite nice.

Japan got off to a bit of a rough start -- they weren't connecting cleanly on their passes as we've come to expect from them. England, on the other hand, got a decent chance on their opening possession -- a rocket launched just left of the goal. Japan collected themselves somewhat, but I was shocked to see how different the 2015 Japan team was from 2011. In 2011, Japan connected passes like a pinball machine; amassing some ridiculously high pass completion rate. Today, they were missing passes, sending balls into wastelands of space, and simply not looking like Japan. And England was loving it! England seemed to have the speed advantage on both offense and defense. But they too struggled to put together a significant attack.

Then the game started feeling eerily familiar -- in the 31st minute Japan's Ariyoshi was fouled -- the referee called it in the box, awarding Japan a PK. And like last night's foul on the Americans, instant replay showed that the foul was just outside the box. Oops. Japan's captain, Miyama, struck net. Japan 1-0.

And again, eerily similar to the Germany USA match, less than ten minutes later, England's Houghton also drew a foul; Fara Williams nailed it, and we were back to a tie game (which seemed more apppropriate given the tenor of the game). The teams went into halftime at 1-1.

Only somewhat reminiscent of the previous evening's match, second half play continued with Japan dominating the possession game, but England dominating the attacking game. And still, this was not the Japan of yesteryear. The final ten minutes saw subs coming in, play becoming frantic, and when the clock reached 90, and the 4th official showed three minutes of extra time, most of us were anticipating another thirty minute so soccer.

But then -- heartbreak for England. Japan raced towards goal and sent a low cross into the box; while trying to clear the ball, England's Laura Bassett knocked the ball into her own goal. Some of the crowd went wild, but most of us groaned, "No!" This was not how this game should have ended. England's losing the game seemed not quite right, but losing in that particular fashion was simply devastating. If ever I wanted a "do-over" this was it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Third time's a charm: Back in Montreal

This is the big one -- the USA/Germany semi-final. Anticipating a large USA crowd, US Soccer arranged for two FanHQ events -- one the evening before the match and one the day of the match. I couldn't resist checking out the night before party (having spent most of the day enjoying the Montreal Jazz Festival -- I strongly recommend it). It reminded me a bit of a middle school mixer.

There were long lines outside and those of us who had RSVP'd got in quickly. I think the lines were partially to make one feel special -- the place still wasn't full when I left (8:15 from a party with a 7:00 PM start, but there were people still coming). The crowd was quite mixed: many families with kids, a few groups of teen age soccer players, lots of young adults -- most people came in groups. The locale was the bottom floor of the Telus Theatre, but it seemed more like a night club. There was a large dance floor with multiple bars, a raised area at the entrance with a bar and a few (very few) cocktail tables, and a stage where the DJ was set up.

For the first forty five minutes, nothing was actually happening, so people wandered in and tried to figure out what to do. The 14-year-old boy at the table next to me was wandering in circles around his family's table -- I could just tell that he had no idea what to do. But neither did anyone else. So, when in doubt, the adults bought booze. One rowdy teen age group from MA entered and tried to get the party started with some chanting of U - S - A, but it didn't really work.

It turns out that what we were missing was our cheerleader. And it turns out that DJs can double as cheerleaders. At least that's what DJ Spin Easy did. He was actually quite good. He worked on getting the crowd jazzed up and then played music and it basically turned into a dance party. Had I not been nursing a soon-to-be-replaced hip and had I been with a group of dancing friends, it would have been fun. Since I had neither, I headed home early.

And now the game!

Let me just say it was a match worthy of the top two teams in the world. Both teams played well and the outcome was really never quite certain, well perhaps around minute 84 it was, but a tremendous effort by both teams.

The stadium was packed -- the crowd practically all cheering for team USA. I felt a bit sorry for the few German fans. I haven't experienced such an atmosphere since the 2006 Men's World Cup game between USA and Italy in Germany.

There was a lot of speculation about the lineup, and I think many might have been surprised by it -- Carly Lloyd moved up top pairing with Alex Morgan, leaving Holiday and Morgan Brian in the middle and Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe on the wings. Controversial or not -- it worked. Brian was superb -- she worked well with the defense and connected with the offense. It was definitely the best I've seen her play, and it made a tremendous difference to the entire team play.

The opening ten to fifteen minutes saw Germany putting enormous pressure on our back line pretty much at the 18-yard line. However, the defense was, once again, rock solid. Germany dominated in possession, but when the US got the ball and started moving it upfield, their attacks were more threatening. There were at least three solid efforts in those opening minutes, but none found the back of the net. Still, forcing the goalie to make a save within the first two minutes of the game was a good thing.

Megan Rapinoe was having enormous success stripping the ball from her player, and the other Megan (Klingenberg) was both an offensive and defensive force. Germany still dominated in possession, but the USA began to do a better job in the second quarter of the match moving the ball around and possessing. The teams went into halftime 0-0, and it looked like it could stay that way for a very long time.

There were no personnel changes at halftime and the game continued largely as before, albeit perhaps even more balanced. And then things got interesting. Julie Johnston fouled German midfielder Alexandra Popp ... in the box! Ouch -- penalty kick to Germany. The noise when Sasic, the top scorer in this World Cup, missed the PK was earth-shattering. In a bizarre twist of fate, only 9 minutes later, Alex Morgan got fouled in the box by German defender, Annike Krahn. Unlike Sasic, Lloyd placed the ball in the net cleanly -- USA 1-0! Interestingly, she placed it in exactly the same spot she did against Colombia, but Angerer dove the wrong way.

Up 1-0, thus began the longest 22 minutes of a sportsfan's life. Kelly O'Hara came in for Tobin Heath around the 75th minute, and Abby Wambach replaced Megan Rapinoe in the 80th (moving Lloyd back to midfield). While several of our opportunities were lost because no one was crashing the far post, O'Hara fixed that. The first time, she didn't quite get there in time, but in the 84th minute, Carly Lloyd send one zipping across the goal just out of Angerer's reach and O'Hara was there to drill it into the back of the net. USA 2-0!!! The fans went wild.

Germany didn't give up, but the US held fast. In extra time, Sydney Leroux replaced Alex Morgan and the crowd just cheered and cheered waiting for the final whistle.

Once again, our defense was purely spectacular. Germany barely got into the box -- our back line simply would not let them through. In the second half, they tried taking shots from outside the box, but the defenders were sufficiently well positioned that the shots rarely posed a challenge for Solo.

Tremendous effort by team USA! We're off to Edmonton tomorrow for Japan/England, and then off to Vancouver!

And for those of you who were perplexed by the idea of a zamboni-like device for watering the turf, here is our halftime friend!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Live from Ottawa -- It's the Quarter Finals

Posted from the train from Ottawa to Montreal!

Rounding out my World Cup Pentathelon, I hit the fifth of six cities hosting World Cup games late Friday morning, arriving in Ottawa. Becks arrived an hour later and we made it to our hotel, which boasted both a nice workout facility and a fantastic pool. I took to the pool for the exercises that I had not done in a very very long time.

France versus Germany

The USA game was at 7:30, but France was playing Germany at 4:00, so we wandered stadium-wards and found a restaurant/bar with decent food and a good TV and most importantly, a table right in front of the TV. My initial reaction to the game was, "I feel less bad about how the US is playing watching these two." I had been expecting excellence from both sides, but they both started out pretty weak. After the first ten minutes or so, France started putting together a nice controlled game, and, in my opinion, dominated the remaining 80 minutes. They controlled the pace of the game and had the better opportunities. And true to form, in minute 64, Necib found the back of the net -- France 1-0! For the next 20-ish minutes, I was convinced France had it, and then ... a French handball in the box, a penalty kick, and in minute 83 it was a tie game!

Sure enough, that tie persisted until the final whistle, leading to two 15 minute overtimes. The tides started turning a bit in overtime -- both teams were noticeably tired (who wouldn't be), and Germany started keeping better possession. One fifteen minute period... still 1-1. A second fifteen minute perios ... still 1-1. Oh no ... the worst way to end matches ever: a penalty kick shootout. What a terrible, terrible way to determine the outcome of a match.

Each team gets 5 kicks, alternating.
After first kicks, 1-1.
After second kicks, 2-2.
After third kick, 3-3.
(Are you seeing a pattern here?)
After the fourth kick, 4-4.
And after the fifth kick ... 5-4 ...
I was sad; I thought Les Blues deserved to win.

USA v China

We hopped on a bus full of USA fans and headed to the stadium, where we had terrific seats about ten yards off of midfield. The crowd was largely American with several large Chinese contingents, including one behind us.

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but since the women are playing on turf (an entirely separate conversation; FIFA has been so sexist it's not even funny). Anyway, to cool the turf down, they have had these zamboni-like machines water the turf before the game and at half time. Well, it appears that Ottawa didn't warrant one of the zamboni-like machines, so before the game (and at half time), they had two lines of volunteers wielding enormous hoses with which they watered the field. It was adorable.

As you may recall, Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe were out for the quarterfinal thanks to their second yellow cards against Colombia. So, the question on everyone's minds was, "Who plays where?" Coach Elis put Morgan Brian in at holding midfield (freeing Carli Lloyd to wander more), Kelly O'Hara at wing half (moving Tobin Heath to the left), and Amy Rodriguez up top, replacing Abby and giving us some real bursts of speed. From the opening whistle, it was a team quite different from the one we have seen so far in this tournament. The Chinese came out playing a controlled passing game; the USA came out running -- putting pressure on the ball, moving it up the field, connecting passes between the midfield and the forward line. O'Hara and Rodriguez seemed particularly in sync and Brian played significantly better than in her last game. It was exhilarating. Within the first couple of minutes, Rodriguez had a terrific opportunity that she took with the outside of her foot, sending it wide of the goal. After ten or fifteen minutes, the USA seemed to take the pressure off just a touch, but they continued to play well -- connecting all three lines of play and creating dangerous opportunities.

Although both teams were possessing well, the styles of the two teams couldn't be more different. The Chinese move the ball with passes -- usually short quick passes up the field. The USA moves the ball with individual dribbling effort. Both teams could improve by incorporating more of their opponent's tactics. The Chinese could use some dribblers and the Americans would do well to sometimes have their forwards play with their backs to the goal, passing back to the midfield who can then join in the attack. Our midfielders do this well with the back line, but the forwards do not seem to use the midfielders in the same way and I think they would be a bit more dangerous if they incorporated this into their play.

Although the USA seemed to have the game under their control, the scoreboard remained unpleasantly vacant -- 0-0 at halftime.

It seems that Abby Wambach gave the team strict instructions to score within the first ten minutes of the second half, and when Abby says, "Do," the team does. So two minutes into the second half, Julie Johnston set up a perfect play for Carli Lloyd who sent the ball into the back of the net with authority. The crowd went wild!

I was sure that there were more goals to follow, but there were not. Perhaps Abby should have been more clear, "Score a lot of goals; the first within the first ten minutes." There were subs -- Christen Press came in about 2/3 of the way through the match, replacing Kelly O'hara, in the 81st minute, Heather O'Reily came in (yeay! I'd been wearing her pink breaker's shirt to every game), pushing Press up top and replacing Alex Morgan, and in the 86th minute, Abby came in for Rodriguez, who I thought played a great game. It was a bit disheartening that all the cheers were for Abby coming in rather than the good game Rodriguez had.

And that was how we ended the game: 1-0 USA! Not a huge win in terms of number of goals, but a huge win, in terms of A) importance and B) quaity of play. Assuming our defense can continue to deliver, our midfielders remember how to play with the forwards, and our forwards place the ball in the net, I think we can beat Germany. They were not at their best against France, and they had a longer, tougher game. It should be a wonderful match in Montreal!

Japan versus Australia

Sunday, we headed out to a nearby sports bar to watch the next Quarterfinal match on a big screen. It took a solid five minutes for Japan to settle into its rhythm. But settle they did and while Japan played their hallmark short-passing controlled game, Australia did not seem to settle down into any sort of rhythm at all. While Japan created many opportunities, Australia had relatively few -- but those were more likely to be on frame. While Japan attacked with numbers, dribbling and passes, Australia attacked with long flanking runs. It was looking like another match was going to go into overtime until the 87th minute, a mad scramble in front of the goal, including a save that the goalie didn't hold onto, left Iwabuchi, the sub for Japan's striker Ohno, free to send a short ball into the net. It was Japan 1-0, with only a few minutes left. Australia wasn't any more successful in the final minutes than they'd been in the first 86, so the game concluded at 1-0 Japan. In my opinion, the right team won.

Canada versus England

This was England's first time in the Quarter finals and Canada's second, but first time since 2003. For the first ten minutes, I thought Canada had the upper hand -- they were moving the ball well, and Sinclair looked alive, creating opportunities. Tancredi had a beautiful opportunity in those opening minutes, but she sent it over the cross bar. This missed opportunity was going to come back and haunt them -- repeatedly! In the 11th minute, a defensive error by Sesselman, left Australia wide open in front of the goal, and McLeod didn't have a chance to stop the perfectly placed shot by Taylor.

This combination of a mistake and an opposing goal clearly flustered the Canadians. Only three minutes later, Bronze sent a parabolic ball into the net. McLeod immediately gathered her team together, and who knows what she said, but Canada settled down. Down two goals, they had a tough hill to climb.

Shortly after, Tancredi had another great opportunity off a Schmidt free kick, but once again, she put it over the cross bar. As the first half wound down, it looked like it was going to be a 2-0 halftime score, but a cross by Lawrence somehow escaped from the goalie's hands, and Sinclair pounced on the opportunity, sliding it past the keeper and into the net! Huge, huge, huge, huge goal to take the teams into halftime at 2-1 rather than 2-0.

Taylor continued to make McLeod earn her keep, and Tancredi continued to have reasonable opportunities in front of goal that she continued to shoot out of frame. It was frustrating. Canada could have tied it or even won the match, but it simply wasn't meant to be. While there were opportunities and several great opportunities, at the final whistle, it was still 2-1.

It is sad to see Canada leave the tournament -- this is, in many ways, their World Cup, and the crowds were looking forward to more games for them. I predict a pretty light and quiet crowd in Edmonton for the Japan/England semifinal. USA/Germany in Montreal will be quite different!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Live from Edmonton -- Round of 16 -- USA v Colombia

Repeat after me, "A win is a win, no matter how ugly."

While true, it does not bode well moving forward. I (as well as most of the soccer critics in the world) remain deeply concerned about the USA's chances moving forward if they continue to play the way they've been playing.

On the positive side: the US played more posession-oriented ball and looked comfortable knocking the ball around the backfield. And what a backfield: the combination of Krieger, Johnston, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg, and Solo has been nothing short of spectacular. Just rock solid defense. And Sauerbrunn's ability to slide tackle the ball away from an attacking player without commiting a foul is exceptional -- every game she's had at least one of those, and each time it is executed flawlessly -- thank goodness!

Rapinoe continued to be the offensive spark of the US side. Morgan and Wambach continue to look like they actually know each other on the field.

Now the negatives for which the US is being criticized: the midfield is totally ineffective. Holiday seemed to be a bit more involved than I've seen in past games, but her involvement, while important, is often defensive -- switching the side of the attack, interacting with the defenders, etc. I don't see her setting up forwards and being a playmaker. And once again, Carli Lloyd is largely absent. Yes, she stepped up to take a PK and put us up 2-0, but other than one nice shot on goal in the second half, I could have missed her presence on the field.

Well, that's all likely to change on Friday, since among other "interesting" things that happened during this game, both Holiday and Rapinoe earned yellow cards -- their second of the tournament, which means both will sit out the next match (against China). If every cloud has a silver lining, the silver lining is that the USA might be forced into a more dynamic, attacking midfield, and that would be wonderful.

So, let's see -- what actually happened? Well, the game started out well - the USA looked alive, stripped the ball away almost immediately and even got an early goal, called offsides against Wambach (didn't look it to me, but I will admit that I did not have the right angle on the play). But as it was in the opening few minutes, one might have thought that the US was back in form. But alas, it was not meant to be.

As I said earlier, the USA did retain possession - in the back third. But once again, they could not consistently break through the Colombian midfield. And some of the ball skills and fast break quick passes up the field by Colombia were breathtaking. In terms of, "wow" factor, that is, "Wow those women look great!" the Colombians had it and the US did not. Yes, the US had a bit more possession and yes they looked more threatening, but in terms of putting together strings of passes and moving the ball up and down the field, the Colombians had it and the US did not.

Now before going on too long about how awesome the Colombians were, it seemed that the excelled in one other less praise-worthy area -- they seemed to be diving ... a lot. There was some funny play they tried on their corners where one of their players would just dive into the ground -- literally. It wasn't even subtle. I suppose one could imagine she was removing herself from the play, but it looked more like she was trying to get a foul called in the box. But from our vantage point (which was actually quite good), it appeared that any time a US player touched a Colombian player, she was inclined to hit the ground and the ref was inclined to buy it and award the foul. Many of those were right outside the box, which was some cause for concern, but the two yellow cards to Rapinoe and Holiday are clearly the bigger concern. At the same time, it seemed that Colombia got a lot of free reign to push the Americans around. It was disheartening to watch.

Anyway, the teams left for half time at 0-0 - which felt like a defeat for the US and a pretty decent outcome for the Colombians. The crowd was actually quite well-balanced in terms of fan support, which was a welcome change after the lopsidedness of the Nigeria game.

The second half got off to a rather exciting start. Rapinoe set Alex Morgan loose on the left side for a 1v1 with the goalie (that would be the second string goalie, since the first string goalie was sitting this game out having gotten in card trouble). Alex had beaten the goalie, but the goalie tried to stop her, committing a foul, which is an automatic red card. The stadium went wild -- there was no question of what the call on the goalie had to be -- the rules are 100% clear on this -- a foul committed to stop a goal is an automatic red card. So, Colombia was about to lose their 2nd string goalie and play down a player the rest of the game. The only question was whether the foul happened inside or outside of the box. The ref called it inside the box!

Colombia subbed a field player for their third-string goalie, and Wambach stepped up to take the PK -- an assured goal, except ... she missed! This was so not what the USA fans (nor team) had in mind.

OK, even with a Wambach miss, you would think that with 10 players and a 3rd string goalie, the US might have enjoyed a bit of a goalfest. Well, that wasn't meant to be. Fortunately, just a few minutes later, Morgan did succeed in releasing a nice shot on goal that the goalie managed to deflect, but not enough to keep it out of the goal -- she got a light touch on it and redirected it upwards, but it hit the cross bar and fell into the goal. USA 1-0!

OK, now with a lead, that's when you expect the US to relax a little and start putting together some of that talent we keep talking about. Nope -- instead Colombia went on the attack -- and they looked good. But alas, the US back line shut them down ... repeatedly. The fouls started coming faster and more furiously -- on both sides, but usually called against the USA (sorry, that's what it looked like from the stands). But then, Rapinoe broke free and got tripped right in the box. Again, it was a call that left the ref little choice -- this time, Lloyd stepped up to take the kick and placed it perfectly. USA 2-0.

Shortly thereafter, coach Ellis clearly decided to start getting some experience with the lineup that was going to meet China on Friday. First, she pulled Wambach, pushed Holiday up top and placed Morgan Brian in the midfield. Next, Rapinoe came out, replaced by Christen Press. While I had not been impressed with either Press or Brian in the game against Sweden, both seemed to make an immediate and positive impact on the game. Brian is a nice ball handler, albeit somewhat predictable -- she receives the ball and spins. The spin is beautiful, but she needs to mix it up more. Press had some threatening moves and some beautiful sneaky passes to the front line, that would have been spectacular had there been a front line who understood what she was doing.

So that's how we ended the game -- 2-0 and a lot of work between now and Friday when I will complete my pentathalon of Women's World Cup soccer by blogging from Ottawa.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Live from Vancouver, it's the USA versus Nigeria

The US had destiny in its own hands: a win against Nigeria would put the US at the top of Group D and an entry into the Round of 16 against some 3rd place finisher.

The Nigerians had no interest in letting this happen. So, here I am in beautiful downtown Vancouver, where the typical person on the street has no idea what's taking place practically in the middle of their city. Other than the fact that the busses are running REALLY slow, you wouldn't know there was anything exciting about to happen. That is, until you get near the stadium and see the overwhelmingly American crowd sporting face paint, american flags, team jerseys, stars and stripes, and every other piece of "We are USA" screaming clothing imaginable. American fans practically filled BC Place Stadium, leaving only a tiny section for the underrepresented Nigerian team.

The teams who showed up on the field bore little resemblance to the teams I've watched play twice already. The Nigerians were not pressuing the back line -- instead, they staged an enormous midfield defense. And the US, well, they started off looking a bit more like the US that I have been hoping to see -- they controlled the ball, they passed it around and retained possession, and they had forwards breaking through the Nigerian defense on a regular basis. It appears that the Wambach/Morgan combination up top was what we needed. Or perhaps, it was Tobin Heath on a wide wing? Whatever it was, it looked good.

The US almost got out to an early lead with a Julie Johnston shot that was ruled offsides, but not before the 52,000 fans in the stadium went wild. Oops. For the first 10-15 minutes, the US firmly controlled the game -- everything, where the ball was, how quickly it was moving, etc. But then, they seemed to take a nap for about 15 minutes and suddenly Nigeria was controlling the game, braeking through the midfield, and putting our stalwart back line to the test. There were a few too many exciting moments for my aging heart, but the US weathered the storm. Once again, the back line of Sauerbrun and Johnston in the middle with Klingenberg and Krieger on the wings was outstanding. And once again, I found myself asking, Where's Carli?" Holiday seemed to be playing more of a holding midfielder role and she was able to send the ball around quite a bit, but once again, Lloyd seemed absent.

By about minute 30 or 35, the US came out of its lull and started shutting Nigeria down and attacking a bit more. At moments, they were really a thing of beauty - we just needed more of said moments. Wambach and Morgan seemed to be more in sync than any of the other forward pairs we've tried (and by now we've tried many). And then, finally, in minute 45, just seconds before the half ended, it all came together in an all too familiar way -- there was Rapinoe taking the corner kick, connecting with Abby, who buried the ball in the goal. USA 1-0! It was just what we needed coming into half time.

The second half began with a break through run from Morgan, shut down only by a solid save from Nigeria's keeper, Dede. Nigeria became a bit more frantic. Some of the time this resulted in a threatening attack, calling our back line and Solo into action. But frequently, this resulted in some sloppy play, which ultimately led to three yellow cards, two of which went to Sarah Nnodim, which became a red card, leading to Nigeria playing one man down for the last twenty minutes.

And in that ironic twist of fate that always seems to happen in this situation, playing a man down, NIgeria attacked more effectively than ever. The US bolstered its defense with substitutions: Boxx came in for Heath and Rampone came in for Rapinoe. On one hand, they were both good strategic substitutions -- Rampone provided a break for Rapinoe and made us a bit more defensive minded. Boxx provided a better holding instinct in our midfield and freed Lloyd up on the wing. And yet, I had to worry about a US World Cup team trying to sit on a 1-0 lead to ride out the rest of the game. Nigeria wondered too -- they attacked and attacked and attacked, and we repelled and repelled and repelled.

Ultimately, the defense won the 1-0 game - validated by Julie Johnston being recognized as the player of the match. There was some beautiful play by the US; Wambach and Morgan looked good up top, but the next four games are going to tell the tale, and the US, particularly the central midfield, is going to have to step up.

Next up, Edmonton on the 22nd.