Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Two Seminal Moments

A lot has already been written about the Women's World Cup Final.  And there were many, many occasions worthy of reflection.

But, for me, the Final, and really the whole tournament, can be summed up in two stunning moments. Both took place in the first 15 minutes of the game in which the U.S. thrashed Japan 5-2 in the most comprehensive and mind boggling domination of any opponent in a World Cup Final.

The first was Carli Lloyd's first goal on a set piece in the third minute (I know, I probably don't have to tell you which goal was which). That goal was the final nail in the coffin of my and everyone else's criticisms of Jill Ellis as a coach. It was the perfect call at the perfect time and it worked to perfection as well.

It was also a little bit of deja vu for me, as it was very reminiscent of a corner that University High pulled off against my Charleston Catholic team several years back (immediately after which one of our defenders exclaimed: "Wow! That was sweet!"). That the University team was trained by the fellow coach that I most admired perhaps colors my appreciation for Ellis' decision. Or informs it.

For most of the pre-match hype commentators had been pointing to the superior height of the Americans and the importance of it capitalizing on that advantage on set pieces.

So what does Ellis do? Have the team spend a lot of time practicing set pieces played on the ground not in the air. On the corner Lloyd, the U.S.'s best offensive header of the ball, started her run at least 25 yards from goal, arriving in the 18 yard box as Megan Rapinoe took the kick, and steaming toward the penalty spot well ahead of her defender.

To be sure, the play needed the perfect ball by Rapinoe, a largely uncongested area in front of the keeper, and a deft touch (outside of the left foot) by Lloyd to succeed. But the area in which the ball was played was uncontested because of the attention being paid to Julie Johnston at the near post, because of Japan's overwhelming concern to guard against headers off of set pieces.

All credit to Ellis for seeing the possibilities in playing completely against form in making that call. Whether the other adjustments that she made during the tournament were fortuitous or planned (inserting Morgan Brian in the line-up due to Lauren Holiday's suspension, moving to a 4-5-1 formation -- stop insisting it's a 4-3-3 Tony DiCicco it's not! -- when Holiday was eligible again) really isn't important to me. What is that she was willing to adapt and learn. That's every bit as important for coaches as for players and the fact that she was willing to change and experiment on the biggest of stages is admirable.

And oh by the way, if you don't think that was the plan, the Americans' second set piece, won by Tobin Heath with some fine work down the right flank, resulted in a second free kick by Holiday (yeah, I was wrong about her too) played on the ground to Johnston, whose wonderful back-heel pass left Lloyd again in front of goal with the ball at her feet.

Random thought: did you notice the calls for a foul from Alex Morgan and Johnston on the second goal? I missed it while watching live, but it's clear that a Japanese player (number 19, Saori Ariyoshi) handled the ball after Johnston's flick on. If the referee saw it and didn't stop play, kudos to her. If she missed it, then it was a foreshadowing of a non-call in the second half when she missed almost the identical play.

The second seminal moment was Lloyd's third goal in 15 minutes, the one that secured the game, her hat trick, and her legacy. That audacious chip may some day be a more iconic moment in women's soccer than Brandi Chastain's penalty kick in 1999 (except for that whole Chastain taking off her shirt thing).

Everyone was still buzzing about Holiday's goal when Lloyd won the ball in midfield off of the Japanese kickoff and then suddenly it was, "Wait. What? Did that just happen?" for about 20 million people.

I saw this comment somewhere on-line after the Final, which is kind of tired but so appropriate here: "It's Carli Lloyd's world and we're just living in it."  She was a beast, she was in the zone, she put the team on her shoulders, choose whatever cliché you want. They all fit.

It took guts for Lloyd to step up and take the penalty kicks against Columbia and Germany. But it took great vision, presence, and a lot of chutzpah to even think to attempt that 60 yard chip. In the Final of the World Cup. The fact that she even thought to try it is astonishing -- particularly against a team that is renowned for its discipline. The fact that it actually went in? Inconceivable.

But it had to go in. Because really, her story, the team's story, our story, this story couldn't have ended any other way.

(photo from bbc.co.uk)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Let's Not Get Ahead of Ourselves Here

Yes, the U.S. dominated top ranked (for now) Germany in defeating it 2-0 in the World Cup semifinal.

Yes, Japan looked pedestrian, and more than a little lucky, in downing England 2-1 in the other semifinal.

Yes, the U.S. seems to be peaking, as coach Jill Ellis has repeatedly said was the goal, at the right time.

But don't forget 2011.

After Abby Wambach's goal at the death against Brazil in the quarterfinals in 2011 eventually led to an American win on penalty kicks, the U.S. cruised 3-1 over France in the semis. It appeared that the U.S. was truly a team of destiny.

But then it lost to Japan 3-1 in the Final in penalty kicks. After extra time ended with a dramatic Japanese goal by eventual Golden Boot winner Homare Sawa. And, perhaps even more egregious, it squandered a seemingly safe 1-0 lead with nine minutes left in regulation after some Keystone Cops defending that allowed Japan to equalize when it had barely threatened the entire game.

While the U.S. defense is much stouter this time around, surely 2011 was a lesson that the Japanese are every bit as tough and resilient as are the Americans. And Japan is not without skill - its players may be the most technically adept of any at the tournament.

I've witnessed some crazy talk on Fox Sports over the last few days. 3-0 U.S. seems to be a standard prediction. Is that within the realm of possibility? Yes. Is it likely given what we know about Japan and the way it's played the last five years? No. Is it likely given the Americans' continuing inability to score in the run-of-play (two goals in the three elimination matches in this tournament)? No.

A friend suggested after the Germany game that he and I needed to continue to trash-talk the U.S. (and particularly its coach) since it seemed to result in better and better performances. And while I'm certainly prepared to do whatever I can to help the cause, Jill Ellis says she doesn't read the papers or on-line articles so I'm not sure it will make any difference other than pure superstition (to which I am admittedly not immune).

It seems that every elimination game has had at least one penalty kick. And my fear is that, as technical as the Japanese are, they won't give one away.

But they did against England. 

And they just may again tomorrow.

Has she got one more in her? (photo from kansascity.com)