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!

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 -- Carli 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, Carli Lloyd sent 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.

Live from Montreal (Take 2): Canada versus Netherlands

This game, on my birthday, I was joined by my awesome daughter, who agreed to join me for Part II of my World Cup extravaganza, as a birthday present. See, I told you she was awesome.

Canada entered the game atop Group A with 4 points; The Netherlands and China were tied with 3 points each; and New Zealand had one. A win for Canada would have guaranteed them a top finish in the group and ideally, a relatively weaker opponent for the Round of 16 (one of the third place finishers). There was a lot at stake for both teams.

The game opened at a feverish pitch. If there had been any doubt that both teams understood the importance of the match, such doubts were rapidly cast aside. Game on!

Much like the USA Sweden game, both teams played their best soccer of the tournament. There was a lot of possession and controlled ball movement. The Netherlands seemed a bit more organized, but it was Canada who drew first blood: about ten minutes in, Ashley Lawrence pounced on the rebound form a Sophie Schmidt shot. Unsurprisingly, the 99% of the stadium full of Canadians and Canada supporters went wild -- Canada 1-0! Lawrence continued to pound on the goal, going just a tad wide, but looking pretty determined.

Strong play from both teams continued, but Canada couldn't seem to break through the Dutch midfield. Both teams were putting pressure on the ball, but the Dutch seemed to be coping with it better, although they were unable to put the ball in the net, thanks to strong work by Erin McLeod (more on that later) and a solid backline. There was one speed mismatch on Canada's left flank -- The Netherlands Lieke Martens just outpaced Canada's Belanger leading to some exciting, but ultimately unproductive, play in front of the goal.

And so, the teams went into half time with a 1-0 game.

The second half brought more of the same, and for a long time, it appeared that Canada was going to win the group with a hotly fought 1-0 victory. So here's a question for the soccer savvy of you out there (that means you Jim) -- when you are up 1-0, poised to clinch your group, and you're in the 74th minute, why oh why do you pull your keeper practically up to midfield to take free kicks? Admittedly, nothing happened directly off these plays, but I really wanted Erin McLeod closer to her box -- yeah, she needs to be engaged, but does she need to be engaged quite so close to midfield? Each time, it scared the living daylights out of me. And then, it happened again in the 83rd minute or so. And while I won't lay blame for what came next at the feet of this decision, it was reasonably soon thereafter that the Netherlands drove the tying goal into the net with a great shot -- the Dutch player Kristin Van Der Ven broke through, McLeod came out and dove a split second too soon, resulting in the ball skimming just above her outstretched hands.


Around now I wanted to know what was happening in the China/New Zealand game. A New Zealand win or a tie would leave Canada in the top spot. Around the 90th minute, the woman next to me pulled up the score to reveal that they were, in fact, tied. So, at the end of the night, Canada remained atop Group A, but only barely.

Onward to Vancouver.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Live from Montreal

If today is Saturday (well, technically now it's Sunday), this must be Montreal. Uneventful travel between Winnipeg and Montreal (yeay -- no customs or immigration -- my first intra-Canadian flight) and two great games last night!

Brazil versus Spain

One might have thought that since this was Spain's first World Cup that it would be a walk in the park or a dance down the field for the flashy Brazilians, but no - it was a terrific match! Brazil was not yet Brazil. Let me explain what I mean by that. Brazil does not support its women's team between the summer Olympics and the World Cup (read this for more details), so they come together just in time to get ready for World Cup. This means that while other teams have been playing together for years, the Brazilian team has been playing together for weeks or a few months at best. As a result, I frequently find that they get surprisingly better and better as the touranment progresses. The Brazil team that everyone knows from exciting elimination round games is not the same one that plays in the group stage -- that's not to say they aren't still pretty darned good.

In any case, Spain played a terrific game, putting a lot of pressure on the Brazilian midfield, forcing turnovers, and stripping the ball with amazing regularity. They created plenty of opportunities in front of the goal as well. I don't expect teams to look speedy next to the Brazilians, but Spain did. Right before the half, Brazil snuck one in on a complicated set of moves that included one of the most spectacular saves of the tournament (or perhaps that I'd ever seen -- it was certainly up there with Klingenberg's goalline header). Alves (Brazil) had beaten Spain's keeper and laid a ball off toward the goal (from within the box). In an heroic sprint, Jimenez (Spain) slid into the goal and kicked the ball away before it had crossed the line. It was breathtaking, but sadly, she didn't clear it far enough and Alves was still there, and she finished it with confidence. Truly, a heartbreaker.

The second half was more of the same -- end to end ball, Spain pressuring relentlessly, Brazil only sporadically looking like the Brazil I expect we'll see in the elimination round. Spain had a few more close calls, but they simply couldn't buy a goal -- shots wide, shots into the post. It was frustrating -- Spain deserved to tie it up, but alas, final score: Brazil 1, Spain 0.

Next up: Korea versus Costa Rica

Well, Costa Rica is another one of those first-time teams, but they don't act like it. They are perhaps the Cinderella team of the World Cup (in contention with Columbia who pulled a surprise upset over the French!). Korea are reasonable World Cup veterans and they look it. The crowd, which had been heavily pro-Brazil for the first game, was torn in this one. There was a large Korean contingent, well-organized, and vocal in their support, but the Costa Rican women just won the crowd over, and I think by the end, most of those with no prior allegiances were cheering for the tenacious Las Ticas.

It was clear from the beginning that Korea was not going to walk all over the spunky Ticas. The Ticas were quick, quick, quick (no wonder they tied Spain) and they had some ball skills that would have caught the eye of any Brazil fan. So, while Korea was playing a tight controlled passing game, Costa Rica was playing a fast, direct, strip-the-ball and run kind of game. It was exciting! It didn't take long to remember the Costa Rican goalie (the USA played Costa Rica in the Concacaf title match). She is tremendously skilled, but likes to come out of the goal -- a lot -- and it scares the daylights out of the fans (and perhaps her teammates?). I thought she looked young, but she's 27; I still expect to see her become a truly great goalie.

Anyway, the two teams had styles in marked contrast, and it looked like Costa Rica's was more effective, especially in the 17th minute, when Melissa Herrera squirted a ball in the goal that the referee pretty much missed. A Korean player knocked the ball back out of the goal, but thanks to the WWC's first use of goal line technology, the goal was recognized. Korea looked a bit shell shocked and both Costa Rica and the fans went wild.

The jubilation didn't last for long though -- only a few minutes later, a penalty in the box gave Korea an opportunity to tie it up on a PK, which they did. I think this took a bit of wind out of the gleeful Ticas, and only six minutes later, Korea, scored on a picture perfect textbook cross and head by Kang Yumi (cross) and Jeon Gaeul (header). Now the TIcas were down one. What was interesting is that right at the point where Korea went down, they broke form from their tight controlled game and started some long balls. This seems to have changed the tenor of the game just long enough for them to put the second goal in. This somewhat new game continued for the rest of the half, which ended at 2-1 Korea.

The second half was every bit as intense as the first -- full length back and forth, pressure on players all over the field and again, the speed of the Costa Rican team -- it was a great game. It looked like Costa Rica was going to end up with their first World Cup loss until the 89th minute, when Karla Villalobos snuck behind the defensive line and put one in! It was wild! Final score: 2-2.

Next up for Costa Rica, Brazil -- expect a great game. And at the same time, Korea versus Spain -- likely another great game.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Live from Winnipeg .. Again

The moral today is that playing better soccer doesn't guarantee a better result.

Nigeria versus Australia

Nigeria was coming off a surprising tie against Sweden while Australia was coming off a disappointing 3-1 loss to the USA. Both teams seemed to have upped their game for match two. I was particularly impressed by Nigeria. As they had done against Sweden, they were aggressively attacking the ball and putting a lot of pressure on the other team from the opening whistle. At the same time, they appeared to be playing with more control and a better tactical game. Their style is more fluid than many teams -- passes are almost always to space, not directly to players. When this worked, it was a thing of beauty, reminding me a bit of Brazil; when it didn't work, it led to a lot of turnovers, and this was the ultimate undoing of team Nigeria. In contrast, I didn't see a lot of consistency in Australia's play and was rather surprised at the game's end to see the possession statistics at 51% for Australia and 49% for Nigeria.

It was an end to end game that felt pretty closely matched in my eyes. Australia ended up scoring two goals, both on defensive errors from the Nigerian squad. In contrast, it felt like Nigeria had more and better scoring opportunities, but they could not convert on them, leading to the 2-0 final score. I was disappointed -- I thought Nigeria deserved to win.

The exciting part about this match is that this is such a dramatically different Nigerian team from years past. In past cups, the Nigerian team has been aggressive to the point of dangerous and not nearly so organized and precise. This team was full of finesse, constructive aggression and creative play. I predict Nigeria to be a force to be reckoned with on Tuesday.

USA versus Sweden

We all knew this was going to be a good match, which was a repeat from the last game of group play in 2011. [I watched that game sitting behind a group of drunk Swedish fans, which was no fun at all. This time we were in a pro-USA section at the corner of the field at the top of the stadium.]

Both teams opened with play that was vastly superior to what we saw on Monday. Both teams possessed the ball well, made good passes and had dangerous forays into the box. As a result, it was more like an exciting game of chess than a high-scoring game of football. In fact, both teams were very hungry for goals, and both teams were ultimately starved. This high-quality chess match produced a 0-0 outcome. The USA threw every forward it had at the Swedes, but could not put the ball in the net. The starting forward line was Leroux and Press -- youthful and speedy. Next up it was Leroux and Rodriguez, with Press at wing-half. Next up, Wambach and Rodriguez (strike partners from 2011), with Leroux moving to wing-half. Finally, Alex Morgan and Wambach, with Rodriguez moving to wing-mid. None of those duo's were successful, although all had opportunities.

In the midfield, Holiday seemed a more critical force in the game, but once again, I sensed an absence of Carli Lloyd's presence at midfield. We need her. She had a few brilliant plays and a nasty head collision in the box that could have been a game winner, but she wasn't the active presence we need in the midfield.

I am, however, optimistic, that the USA forwards will be able to penetrate the Nigerian back line, but it won't be an easy game. I hate to make predictions, because I am somewhat superstitious, but I say that USA tops Nigeria, and Sweden tops Australia.

In other news ...

We spent Thursday evening in the hotel bar watching Canada play to a frustrating 0-0 tie with New Zealand. In some ways, this game was reminiscent of the USA/Sweden game, but in others it was vastly different. Neither Canada nor New Zealand were as controlled and successful at possessing the ball as the USA and Sweden were, but at the same time, Canada, in particular, had a number of opportunities that could have made it a Canada win. So, Canada goes into its last game of group play (on Monday in Montreal, where Teagan and I will be in attendance) with 4 points to China's 3, Netherlands 3, and New Zealand's 1.

I dread the last games of group play in group B. This is the group I named the Group of Injustice: Veterans Germany and Norway against newcomers Thailand and Cote D'Ivoire. If you recall Germany thrashed Cote D'Ivoire 10-0, while Norway schooled Thailand 4-0. Then Germany and Norway played to a tie. Thus, Norway and Germany enter the last game each with four points. It is safe to assume that both will win their final games, which will leave them tied for points after three games. Then it comes down to goal differential. This is downright cruel -- what it means is that both Norway and Germany need to run up the score as much as possible against the World Cup newbies. I predict these games will be painful to watch. I do wish there were some way to have avoided such inequality in the play -- while I understand that the two strong teams have to do what they have to do, it's going to be most uncomfortable.

And now, we're off to Montreal for Brazil v Spain, and Costa Rica v Korea.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Live from Winnipeg ...

[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!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

2015 Women's World Cup: Game 1 Canada versus China

Someone suggested that I blog the Women's World Cup since I'll be spending the next month in Canada flying hither and yon watching a lot of soccer.  I can't wait!

I enjoyed today's world cup opener in the comfort of my own home (and successfully made dinner in exactly 15 minutes during halftime).  Even before the game started though, I got worried -- it seems that Audi decided to advertise during the WWC (good), however, they appear to be too lazy to actually put together a new ad, so they featured an ad with a bunch of men's soccer and proclaimed themselves a partner of the MLS.  Really?  A commercial during the WOMEN'S world cup and you can't be bothered to film a new commercial?  Sheesh.

Canada were heavy favorites going into the match, but China did not seem to have gotten the message. They opened up with a lot of pressure on the ball and prevented Canada from developing any kind of rhythm in the game. I got distracted by the tiny black pellets being flung in the air from the artificial turf.  For those of you who have never played on turf, let me try to describe it.  Let's see - it sucks.  The field is hard and you end up just that much sorer after; your shoes and clothes get covered in tiny rubber pellets (made from old tires from what I understand); and the field radiates heat -- a lot of it.  And did I mention how nicely the turf tears up your legs.  If you've been burying your head in the turf for the past year, you might not know that the men have NEVER had to play a World Cup on turf, but what do you expect from an organization whose (former) leader thought that the way to increase the popularity of women's soccer was to have the women wear tighter shorts. (Reminds me of the uniforms in a League of Their Own -- I guess some things haven't changed since the 40's.)

Anyway, back to the game.  Watching Christine Sinclair move the ball really is a thing of beauty. She had a couple of plays early in the game, but became largely invisible for a disturbingly long time in the first half.

As I said earlier, China did a fabulous job putting pressure on the ball.  They were also terrific at getting every player back on defense.  The first really close call of the game (and perhaps the closest non-goal I've ever witnessed) came from China in the 22nd minute -- the shot hit two goal posts, but thanks to goal line technology, we know that the ball never entirely crossed the plane of the goal line, so no goal!

Approaching half time, China had only 32% possession, but had done a good job containing Canada and threatening on the counter attack. Many of us are still curious about the Chinese strategy of  making a sub in the 42nd minute.  Why not wait until half time?  Inquiring minds want to know!

The second half was a bit different -- Canada put together a number of threatening combinations, but China's goaltender was incredibly solid.  There weren't spectular saves, but there were many good solid saves.  So, it was with some sadness that I watched the 92nd minute as China took down a player in the box and got called for a penalty.  It was the right call, but a somewhat unfortunate way for the game to end. Given Canada's intensity in the second half, particularly in those last 15 minutes, I'd say the win was earned, but it was a bitter defeat for China.  I'm looking forward to their next game.

Final score: Canada 1, China 0