Saturday, February 27, 2016

Same Song, Different Verse

So much for transition.

The U.S. Women steamrolled through the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament with relative ease, beating Canada, again, 2-0 in the final with both nations already through to the Olympics in Rio later this year. Assuming, of course, that any female athlete will actually go to Rio with Olympic caliber mosquitoes buzzing around loaded with the Zika virus.

Gone from the lineup that romped over Japan in last year's World Cup final were Lauren Holiday (retired), Megan Rapine (injured), Ali Krieger, and Abby Wambach (retired - although she did not start against Japan). Kelly O'Hara, who was a reserve outside midfielder for the World Cup team, took Krieger's place on the backline, Lindsey Horan slid into midfield, and 17 year-old sensation Mallory Pugh took the third starting spot for the final.

Canada's coach John Herdman (who was quoted after the match as saying "[t]o be honest, I didn't think the U.S. troubled us massively .. They were doable tonight, and we missed a great chance on home soil" ) was apparently the only person in Houston or watching on t.v. that didn't think the Americans dominated the match. The U.S. outshot Canada 11-2, extending their unbeaten streak against our not-so-friendly neighbors to the North to 32 games. 

The only statistic that the Canadians led was fouls (16-14) although that admittedly should have been more one-sided had the Mexican referee (right, Mexican ref in a U.S. soccer title game -- makes sense CONCACAF) felt any compulsion to be the least bit consistent. For example, Carli Lloyd was called for a foul in the first half for leg-whipping a Canadian player. Fair enough. Then in the second half, Lloyd is leg-whipped in the Canadian penalty box and ... Lloyd is called for a foul.

Canada was a power in women's soccer for a brief shining period of time when Christine Sinclair was in her prime. But that time has now passed, and the Canadians have no major trophies to show for it. The stunning comeback by the Americans in the semifinal of the London Olympic tournament was the closest the Canadians will probably get anytime soon (it was so, so close) and probably still sticks in Herdman's craw.

Side note that I don't think I've shared before: C and I actually watched that game, or at least the second half and extra time, in the bar of a golf course in Canmore, Alberta. I went nuts when Wambach's penalty tied the match, then completely bonkers when Alex Morgan's header won it at the death. C felt compelled to advise everyone in attendance that I was a women's soccer coach in the U.S., hoping to save me from a lynching. It worked.

But I digress. This team is different than last year's, with Horan and Morgan Brian (awarded the Golden Ball as best player of the tournament) bossing the midfield and Alex Morgan, Pugh, Crystal Dunn (the Golden Boot winner for most goals of the tournament), and Christen Press providing scoring options. Tobin Heath performed her technical magic on the wing, but this team (possibly because of Rapinoe's absence) relied on width more from Meghan Klingenberg and O'Hara bombing up the wings from their outside back positions than from outside mids, with Heath often tucking inside, where she was when she scored the second fabulous goal against Canada to seal the game.

For me the most exciting part of the tournament, and the U.S.'s performance, was Pugh. Still a high school senior, she became the youngest women in U.S. Women's National Team history to play in an Olympic qualifier. And she was anything but a novelty act. Fast, lively, inventive, she did not appear the least bit awed by the situation. Listed as 5' 4"(perhaps standing on concrete with her cleats on), she struck me as (dare I say it?) a female Messi. She can be that good.

Mallory Pugh (photo from bleacher

And if she is, John Herdman better get used to coming up second best for a long time to come.