[Posting includes the 2 Group D games from Winnipeg on June 8 as well as my recap from the two Group B matches from Sunday, June 7. It also contains a bunch of travelogue.]
Reporting to you live from Winnipeg (or more accurately the air between Winnipeg and Vancouver). It was a win for Team USA; it wasn't a pretty win, but a win is 3 points, pretty or not! But, I digress. The story starts much earlier.
Monday, June 8, started my summer Women's World Cup travel extravaganza, and what a start it was! I had a Boston to Toronto flight scheduled with a tight-but-doable one hour and eleven minute layover before my flight to Winnipeg. Becks, my soccer and travel buddy, was meeting me in Toronto. It all sounded so good ... until my flight out of Boston was delayed. I didn't stress when they posted the 9:50 departure for the 9:25 flight. But when I woke up after falling asleep before takeoff and discovered we were still about #5 for takeoff, I started to worry.
We hit the ground in Toronto at 11:52; boarding for Winnipeg started at 11:55. That's when I really started to panic. I explained to the guy next to me that I was going to be that jerky customer who needed to dash forward as quickly as posible because my connecting flight was boarding. He was gracious and the moment we stopped, I had leapt out and was about 5 rows ahead of where I was. Of course, I didn't mention where I was sitting -- row 33 -- the very last row on the plane. So 5 rows was good, but it was at least another ten minutes before I was off the plane.
Next up: clear customs. Once again, I was that passenger saying, "Excuse me, I hate to ask, but my flight is boarding, do you mind if I go ahead?" Practically everyone was incredibly generous and kind. One grumpy business man insisted that I was in the wrong place, because he'd seen "connecting flights" on the way to customs. I was pretty sure that those were only for International connections (for which you don't have to clear customs). I get through customs and then make my way through the 3 dimensional maze that is the Toronto airport. I kid you not: down from customs; through the baggage claim and immigrations exit (where they didn't even take the travel card I had had to fill out and get stamped); up an elevator to security; through security and down an escalator to the gates. Now, picture me with my large carry-on backpack (enough for 2 weeks of travel including a black tie event and a keynote plus some large number of soccer games), my tiny travel backpack, and my gimpy right hip racing through the airport. At security, I once again threw myself on the mercy of my fellow passengers who were, once again, totally awesome. The security person was not so awesome -- I missed the signs that said I had to take my laptop out (after all, my boarding pass said TSA-pre), so in what can only be described as slow motion animation, she had to swipe the laptop, put the bag through again, and make me stand in people's way while she did it. She was the only truly unhelpful person I encountered. And of course, while going through security, I heard them call my name at the gate.
Down the escalator and I found a friendly Air Canada agent (the Air Canada folks were all truly, truly helpful) and I asked if she could phone the gate to tell them I was on my way. Instead, she directed me to one of those little cars and I got a ride to my gate (which was, of course, at the far end of the concourse). As I approach the gate, I see the gate agent, and wonder of wonder, Becks -- who hadn't boarded the plane, because she was doing her best to make sure they waited for me. I can't imagine a more sincere expression of friendship than not getting on that plane. I feel very lucky!
Now, here is the greatest irony of all -- it turns out that I was about to board the exact same airplane on which I had flown to Toronto. Yup, while I had navigated the Toronto airport, customs, and security at breakneck speed, my plane had leisurely wandered from my international arrival gate to my domestic departure one. It seems that while I was racing through the airport, the gate agent was also tracking me, "She's not through security yet ... Oh wait! There she is!." Additionally Becks could see me come down the escalator, but then I disappeared (to get my car).
It's rather difficult to describe my physical state when I finally got on that plane, found space for my bag, and collapsed in my seat (next to the hung over fellow who dashed to the bathroom during takeoff, because I think he was, um, taking care of the effects of the night before). I had been propelled through the airport on pure adrenaline; I was hot, exhausted, and spent. I turned the air on full blast and promptly fell asleep to let my body get back to normal. By the time we landed in Winnipeg, I had pretty much recovered.
Well, it's not like we suddenly became leisurely tourists though. It was about 2:15 and the first game started at 3:00. Fotunately Winnipeg airport is quite small and our hotel was close to the airport. We grabbed a cab, stopped at the hotel, dumped our bags, got back in the taxi and high-tailed it to the game. We arrived at about 5 minutes in and were in our seats just as ... oh wait, now we're on to:
Sweden versus Nigeria
The US placed into what has been nicknamed, The Group of Death, which seems to happen with alarming regularity. The US is ranked #2 (behind Germany), Sweden is ranked #5, Nigeria is ranked #33, and Austrailia is ranked #10. Sweden were pretty heavy favorites going into the opening match.
The two teams have reasonably different styles: Nigeria is lightning fast and physical; Sweden is organized and fluid. Just as we arrived, Sweden scored their first goal. Nigeria responded with repeated attacks into Swedens' box, but they weren't able to finish any of them. The crowd was pretty pro-Nigeria -- most of the USA fans bitterly remembered the final US game of the group stage of the 2011 Women's World Cup, where Sweden took down the US to finish first in the group. In an effort to avoid a replay, I think we all wanted Nigeria to win. Sweden scored again in the first half and the two teams went off at half time with a score of 2-0.
Early in the second half, Becks went out to forage for food (neither of us had had much in the way of meals given the travel schedule we'd had) and in a span of about 10 minutes, Nigeria scored two spectacular goals. It was a brand new game!! The rest of the half was some of the most thrilling soccer I've seen -- end to end play, Nigeria pushing hard, some lapses in defense on both side, and a highly energized crowd (assisted by the Nigerian band who played the entire game). Sweden scored one more and it looked like it was going to be a 3-2 game, much to the American fan's disappointment. And then ... in the 87th minute, Nigeria tied it up at 3-3, which would be how the game would end.
Wow! A terrific match to watch and perhaps the best outcome for which the US could have hoped. All they needed to do was beat Australia to take control of the group ...
USA versus Australia
I repeat, pretty or ugly, a win is a win, and a win was what the US needed.
Both teams opened up playing a lot of "kick and run" -- long balls that didn't quite reach their intended receiver and neither team exhibiting much in the way of control or rhythm on the field. It was worrisome. Then the Aussies started attacking. And they attacked well. Hope Solo had a couple of spectacular saves early that were awesome in their athleticism, but worrisome in their boding of the future. The American fans breathed a huge sign of relief in the twelfth minute when speedy and crafty Megan Rapinoe nailed one from distance and got a perfect re-direction off an Australian player. Goal! USA 1- Australia 0. That didn't last nearly long enough though -- later in the half, Australia retaliated with a blast from De Vanna (formerly of the Boston Breakers) at about 8 yards out. Goal! It was 1-1 game.
The 1-1 score stood into halftime. Australia looked good -- they were pounding the American back line, who were letting De Vanna and others in the box just a few times too often. They were shutting down US forwards Wambach and Leroux pretty effectively. The US seemed to be playing from nerves -- there was no rhythm and very little control. Lloyd in the midfield seemed to bring some calm and stability to the field, but she wasn't enough. She and Rapinoe seemed to be the only two US players consistently playing their own game rather than responding to the Aussies. It wasn't looking pretty.
The second half started without any subs, and the stop and start, long-ball game seemed to have returned. And then things changed: the US put together a beautiful 1-2-3: Rapinoe sending Leroux up the left side. Leroux taking on her player and placing the ball at the feet of Christen Press right in front of the goal, and Press finishing decisively. It was a textbook play, executed brilliantly. USA 2-1!
Only then, after their second goal, did we see the real US team emerge. Suddenly they were holding the ball, batting it around the midfield, playing with a calm that had been entirely lacking in the first half. As the Aussies became more frantic, needing to first win the ball so they could take shots on goal, the US took advantage of errors. And Rapinoe came through in a big way again -- nailing team USA's third goal in the 78th minute from about 15 yards out. It was gorgeous! The second half also saw some substitutions: shortly after the go-ahead goal, Morgan for Leroux. Then Tobin Heath for Christen Press. And finally, with about five minutes left, Morgan Brian for a Megan Rapinoe who was, along with Hope Solo, the star of the game. The US held the 3-1 lead until the game's end.
Had the US lost, I probably would have done a great deal of whining about the officiating. Although they won, I have to voice my complaints anyway. There were some calls that appeared to be really terrible, and it seemed that a lot of them went against the US. In a tournament where yellow cards accumulate for the first 5 games (until the semi-finals), and where two yellow cards result in a 1-game suspension, giving yellow cards is a big deal. The US got two of them, neither of which seemed warranted from this fan's perspective. Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe each left the match with a card -- a most uncomfortable position for team USA moving forward.
Sunday Group B Competition
If Group D is the Group of Death, then Group B should be The Group of Injustice, pitting #1 Germany and #11 Norway against #29 Thailand and #67 Cote D'Ivoire, the latter two making their debut appearances in the world cup. Anyone who follows the game would predict that Germany and Norway will go 2-0 against their other opponents and the Germany-Norway game will determine the winner and runner up in the group. Furthermore, when these two powerhouses meet these two debutantes, it's a great opportunity to generate some goal differential and contenders for the Golden Boot award (most number of goals scored in the tournament by a single player). All of this appeared to play out on Sunday.
First up: Norway versus Thailand
I have to confess to having been distracted by laundry during parts of this game, but the game was reasonably predictable: Norway attacking and Thailand defending. But defend valiantly, they did! They also counter attacked a few times, and when they did, you could see the potential there. This may be their first big tournament, but they will be back and they will be better. They (tried to) play a precise, technical passing game. When they succeeded, they appeared threatening, but they weren't consistent enough to make a difference. Final score: Norway 4-0.
Second up: Germany versus Cote D'Ivoire
You knew it was going to be a lopsided game before it started, but you didn't realize how lopsided until the third minute when Germany scored a picture perfect goal and made it very clear that there were going to be a lot of those to follow. It was going to be a long day for Cote D'Ivoire. That said, Cote D'Ivoire did show some beautiful play -- they were speedy and connected on several nice sets of passes, but nothing that could slice through the organized German defense. And somehow, when they got to midfield, it always seemed that Germany outnumbered them about 4:1, although I'm fairly confident each team had only 11 players on the field. Watching Germany play, particularly in the box, is a thing of beauty. You can just see the build up to the goal and KNOW that it's going in. this happened over and over again to the tune of 5-0 at halftime and 10-0 for a final score.
I awarded the Cote D'Ivoire goalie the "Best Goalie Uniform" of the tournament for her hot pink attire, but if you're going to wear hot pink, you better be red-hot in goal, and I think she feel short there. Her timing seemed to be a bit off, and there were just a few too many balls that were bobbled instead of caught.
Welcome to the World Cup!