By Tim Grainey
This week, the Roundup has some thoughts on the recently completed Olympic Women’s Soccer Tournament at the London Games.
U.S. Wins Fourth Gold Medal in Five Olympics
The U.S. Women’s National Team left London as Olympic Champions for the third consecutive time, having won Gold Medals in 1996, 2004, 2008 and now 2012 (they finished with Silver in Sydney in 2000). The Americans were particularly tested in their semifinal against Canada and again in the final against Japan. Against Canada in a wonderful match for the 26,630 at Manchester United’s Old Trafford Stadium and a large television audience in both countries, the plucky Americans fought back three times from deficits against their neighbors to the North. For Canada, Christine Sinclair was scintillating, scoring three times, and the Maple Leafs played a ball control game the likes of which was a dream just a few years ago; the side for many years preferred a long ball style and struggled to string three passes together. Canada exposed the U.S.’s backline and caught Amy LePeilbet and Kelly O’Hara out badly at times. The Americans’ winner came late into the three minutes of injury time in the second overtime period from an Alex Morgan header.
Carli Lloyd scored both goals against Japan in the 2-1 final, avenging the Americans’ lost to Japan in penalty kicks for the Women’s World Cup title last summer. Lloyd also scored the winner for the U.S. against Brazil in the final four years ago in Beijing.
The American’s attacking juggernaut of Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux (as a substitute) with midfield support from Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd, cannot be matched in the women’s game today. The team simply has the firepower to offset any of their defensive struggles through injuries or suspensions.
Canada took the Bronze Medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. Their 2-2 draw to Sweden ensured that they captured a quarterfinal spot with the best third place record and their 2-0 win over Great Britain was a tremendous tactical victory for John Herdman’s side. Canada played with confidence and though they didn’t create a lot of chances, Rutgers University’s Jonelle Filigno’s early strike--a volleyed, curling thing of beauty in the 12th minute--gave Canada an ideal start and then Christine Sinclair scored a second fourteen minutes later. Sinclair topped all goal scorers in the tournament with six.
Canada’s 4-3 defeat to the U.S. just before penalty kicks was a harsh ending as the Canadians played the eventual champions even for much of the game, taking the lead on three occasions—all from Sinclair tallies. A tired side still defeated France with a late goal by Diane Matheson, who played collegiately at Princeton. France dominated for large parts of the game—particularly with shot attempts (18-4 and shots on goal 4-1) but two of France’s shots hit the woodwork and Desiree Scott made a goal line clearance on Corine Franco’s shot in the 71st minute. It was just over a year ago when France defeated the Canadians 4-0 in their second group game and Canada then crashed out against Nigeria and left the World Cup pointless for the first time in their history and dead last among the 16 teams. Head Coach Carolina Morace—seemingly always with some agenda that was opaque to many--was replaced by John Herdman last fall. Herdman, originally from England, came to Canada after coaching New Zealand’s women’s national team the past several years. What a tremendous credit to him and the players this tournament became and Canada is definitely on track for another final four berth when they host the next Women’s World Cup at home in three short years.
Is the Tanc Finished?
Melissa (Tanc) Tancredi has indicated that she will retire from the national team after the London games to pursue more schooling. Only 30 years of age, she has 88 caps and 22 goals after the 3rd place match with France and played at the University of Notre Dame and with St. Louis Athletica in WPS. Her four goals at the Olympics is testament to how well she has fit into John Herdman’s system. She has said that she feels she understands her role in his playing scheme better than ever before. For Tancredi, her Canadian teammates and her coach, here’s hoping she decides to stick it out a few more years through the next World Cup on home soil. If not, we will miss her energy, commitment and timely goals
U.S. Coaching Leadership. What Next?
If head coach Pia Sundhage does return to Sweden this winter as rumored, since her U.S. contract is expiring this year--either for a role as their national team head coach (replacing the very successful Thomas Dennerby) or in another role with the Swedish federation--who are the candidates to take over the position for the United States?
The potent American side needs refreshing with more young players given substantial time ahead of World Cup 2015, in order to replace the expected retirements of such long-time stalwarts as Christie Rampone (266 caps), Shannon Boxx (170 caps), Heather Mitts (127 caps) and possibly Carli Lloyd (141 caps). (It may be premature to write off Carli Lloyd after her performance throughout the games but particularly against Japan. Her uncanny ability over the years to rally the team with crucial goals is vital and would be welcome again in 2015.) If just those four do retire, that eliminates over 700 international games worth of experience. A new coach may decide to make more squad changes affecting other experienced heads. The names mentioned in speculation begin with those currently involved with the U.S. Soccer National Team program, include:
Examining this list, assuming Heinrichs and Ellis stay in their technical positions at U.S. Soccer, the continuity of which is important for future talent identification, Montoya should be the top candidate with his professional coaching resume and time spent as an assistant at Stanford. It’s not his fault that the Gold Pride owners were in over their heads financially and operationally and that his club folded soon after capturing the championship. U.S. Soccer though may follow the idea that “protocol” would deem that there is a hierarchy working from the U-23 coach downward and Montoya would be third in line. There are very few candidates around with an understanding of professional soccer and since all the National Team players are professional, even though we are between professional leagues, an emphasis should be placed on professional coaching experience.
Another name to consider is Mark Krikorian. He coached in WUSA and originally brought Pia Sundhage into the league as his assistant in Philadelphia. He has been involved with U.S. National Teams programs in the past and has built a powerhouse at Florida State University. He has a wonderful eye for talent and a deep knowledge of the international game.
Other domestic possibilities include: Aaron Lines, a native of New Zealand, who has won three league titles in a row (W-League, WPS and WPSL Elite with the Western New York/Buffalo Flash). Lines has a knack for finding quality players and is very good at molding winning teams. Charlie Naimo’s Pali Blues lost the W-League title this year on penalty kicks, but every year he rebuilds his roster with incredible talent and has won two W-League titles in the past. He also was a successful General Manager at Los Angeles Sol in 2009, when Marta was in the side. He has developed young players and coached seasoned internationals as well.
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Some international talent could be brought in as Sundhage was after the 2007 World Cup: Sweden’s Thomas Dennerby has been at the helm through two World Cups and could use a new challenge. Dennerby is a fluent English speaker. Brazilian National Team coach Jorge Barcellos coached in WPS and is well respected, though his English needs considerable work. Even Pellerud’s stint in Trinidad and Tobago is near completion. He turned a moribund program in Canada completely around, taking them within 15 minutes of a World Cup final in 2003. The U.S. certainly does not need such surgical repair as Canada did at the time but he is well thought of within the international game and a master at public relations. He also won a World Cup in 1995 at the helm of a very good Norwegian side.
No offense to any candidate but if indeed Pia Sundhage is leaving, this is an opportunity to broaden the coaching philosophy of the squad, much as the style of play changed from previous coach Greg Ryan to Pia Sundhage. The point is, beyond those currently connected to U.S. Soccer, there are other candidates--here and abroad—that should receive consideration, with the goal to build on Sundhage’s legacy of success (2 Olympic Games medals and a Women’s World Cup second place finish) while bringing new ideas and new energy to the program.
“I Don’t Want to Go to Glasgow--Did Japan’s Coach Cheat?”
Japanese Women’s National Team coach Norio Sasaki admitted after his team’s surprising 0-0 deadlock against South Africa was part of his game plan for their final first round match at the Olympics. Before the game, he told his team not to score so that they would finish second in their group to Sweden, as long as the Scandinavians tied or defeated Canada. The Canadians fought back from 2-0 down behind Melissa Tancredi’s two goals to tie the Swedes and guarantee themselves (with four points) a quarterfinal berth as one of the two best, third placed sides. As a result of the two drawn games, Sweden surprisingly won the group and had to travel to Glasgow while Japan got to stay in Cardiff, Wales ahead of their quarterfinal match with Brazil. Sasaki explained, “It was a different way of playing compared to the usual game, but the players were on the same page as me. I feel sorry we couldn’t show a respectable game, but it’s my responsibility, not the players, why the game was like that. It was important for us not to move to Glasgow.”
Sasaki’s motive is disturbing, particularly from a coach and a team that gave last summer’s Women’s World Cup such stylistic play and pure joy, including unfolding a large banner after every game to thank the fans for their support of their country after their tsunami crisis.
Brazil lost to Great Britain the same day to finish second in their group and thus met Japan in Cardiff, rather than playing themselves in Glasgow. Did Brazil tail off their play as well? In this case, Brazil just weren’t in sync as the tournament progressed and came up against a supercharged Great Britain squad inspired by a Wembley Stadium crowd of 70,584. It’s annoying though that the question was broached and threw doubt on a landmark event for the game in the British Isles.
Sasaki was not reprimanded but how is what he did any different from the eight women badminton players who were expelled from these Olympics for purposely losing so they could receive a more favorable draw in the next stages of the event? Four of the badminton players were from South Korea, along with two from China and two from Indonesia. The players dumped serves and made simple errors and the longest rally was four strokes. One of the players, Yu Yang of China, explained that they “were only trying to save energy for the knockout rounds;” but so too was Sasaki, by avoiding the dreaded trip to Glasgow.
So what can be done? FIFA has long held all final group matches at the same time, to avoid the infamous 1-0 Germany-Austria insipid match that conveniently meant both teams advanced while knocking Tunisia out of the Men’s World Cup in 1982. But with the three groups staggered in terms of start times, what can be done to prevent this situation in the future—randomly allocate knockout round games to cities after the group stage is completed? That adds a tremendous logistical burden onto FIFA, the teams and fans; no one would know in advance where or who they would be playing in a few days based on their first round group placings.
It was even a little unnerving to see Canada and Sweden essentially waste all of the injury time in controlling the ball but with no clear efforts to attack the goal after Melissa Tancredi’s tying goal. Canada clearly had the momentum at that point. Canada could have scored and sent Sweden down to third place, but I’ll give the Canadians a pass—they had a tremendous fight back to earn a quarterfinal spot and Coach Herdman would have been pilloried if Canada surged ahead in attack and left themselves exposed at the back to the speedy Swedish forwards Lotta Schelin and Sofia Jakobsson.
Interestingly, one Swedish journalist who covers the women’s game closely, who wished to remain anonymous, told me after the game that he felt Sweden was holding back. This reporter suspected that, “Sweden wanted to come second in the group” (thus avoiding France who finished second to the U.S. in Group G), and “did not work so hard in the second half.” Guess they weren’t happy that they ended up having to go to Glasgow and play France (where they lost 2-1).
Japan shouldn’t be exonerated in their case however. Sasaki’s action was not sporting and cynicism has now fully introduced itself into the women’s game, which has largely been immune to much of these shenanigans. FIFA needs to be concerned. Would Sasaki have gotten off so easy if South Africa weren’t eliminated and a tie gave them a quarterfinal spot at the expense of another team? That team would have caused a ruckus in the media and within FIFA and then Sasaki probably would have been censured as his directive altered the quarterfinals lineup. That he just manipulated some groups placement and travel itineraries doesn’t make it “okay” and this needs to be prevented in the future “for the good of the game.”
In Powell We Hope—That She Is Gone
Great Britain lost to Canada 2-0 in the quarterfinals at the Olympics in a game that Great Britain never looked close to winning. Many of the players have spent time in the U.S. and added a lot to pro teams here (i.e., Eniola Aluko, Anita Asante, Karen Carney, Alex Scott and Kelly Smith, while Karen Bardsley was raised in California and played at Cal-State Fullerton). The team did a superb job in raising the profile of the sport in England by defeating Brazil 1-0 at Wembley Stadium in front of 70,584. The always thoughtful Eniola Aluko, who was a star in WPS, said after the Canada game: “People are now recognizing that women’s football is great football, beautiful football, and that to me is a legacy and we’re part of that legacy. I’m proud that 70,000 people turned up to a game, when three or four years ago, people might have laughed at that prospect.”
Crashing out in the quarterfinals must have been stunning to the players, but it’s a tremendous opportunity for the English F.A. to FINALLY drum Hope Powell out of a job that she has held for 14 years. Other than a championship final spot at 2009 Euros—where they lost 6-2 to Germany--the team has always underperformed at major events and a quarterfinals spot at the last two World Cups and this Olympics is no longer good enough. Powell is contentious with players and the media. She tactically blew the quarterfinal loss to France last summer at the World Cup on penalty kicks by her flawed use of substitutes. Against Canada, countryman John Herdman schooled her with a game plan that was flawless. She looked confused and sullen—typical fare from Powell. There’s been conjecture at times that the team quits on her but I don’t think that is the case. I do think she promotes an atmosphere where fear is a persistent motivator and I believe that she’s been out of her depth coaching-wise since the middle of the last decade. The English FA, so long blissfully happy if women’s soccer stayed in the background, has invested heavily in the semiprofessional FA WSL league as a way to keep top players at home and further develop the national team. They must now remove the biggest obstacle to further growth and send Hope Powell packing.
A number of quality candidates would be interested in that job, particularly some of the names we discussed above in conjunction with Pia Sundhage’s possible departure as U.S. National Team Coach, like Sweden’s Thomas Dennerby or Even Pellerud. Native born Emma Hayes, who coached collegiately in the U.S. and at the WPS Chicago Red Stars and this week was named as head coach of Chelsea Ladies, would be such a positive influence on the English national teams program. Smart, engaging and concerned about her players, she would propel the program into the elite in Europe. But first, Hope Powell must leave.
70,000 Wembley Attendance For a First Round Match
Some writers made a point of noting that 80% of the 18,090 crowd for the opening doubleheader in Glasgow, including the U.S.-France and Korea DPR-Colombia games, were given free tickets. What is important is that people were there. Our sport still struggles for revenue generation in North America but acceptance is still a goal in many countries—including Great Britain. Coming back to that wonderful 70,000-plus crowd at Wembley Stadium for the Brazil vs. Great Britain match, all credit to FIFA for staging a preliminary round game in London at historic Wembley before the semifinals—given that Great Britain was an outside shot to make the semifinals. The 80,203 crowd for the U.S.-Japan final was an Olympic Games record and significant because a huge crowd came to see two world class teams that didn’t involve Great Britain or any European side. It provides hope that in four years time, Brazil’s next women’s Olympic team will attract similar crowds with more of a lasting effect on their domestic games. The Brazilian women’s team attracted a sold out crowd to Rio’s Maracana for the Pan American Games in 2007 but the women’s game remains an afterthought in the county where 25% of their Olympic roster plays abroad. Former U.S. international Kate Margraf, announcing Brazil’s quarterfinal defeat to Japan (0-2) in which they always looked jaded, said that she felt that Brazil’s eternal struggles for federation funding and support might have taken its toll on their play. The brilliance that we enjoyed since the 2004 Olympics, where they lost to the U.S. in overtime in the Gold Medal game, was missing for long periods of this tournament. Brazil even resorted to a long ball game as they chased a 1-0 deficit throughout most of the second half against the Japanese.
FIFA has always worried that the Olympic Games could supplant the World Cup on the men’s side, so they created a U-23 tournament with 3 overage players. Interestingly, the World Cup host is probably the most apathetic nation towards the Olympic Soccer Tournament. With the women, FIFA has allowed full national teams to compete and the Olympics continue to boost the game between Women’s World Cups. It was the sellout crowds in Athens Georgia at the 1996 Olympic Games that really began the massive changes in the perception of the sport in the United States and paved the way for the 1999 Women’s World Cup to draw 40 million television viewers for the final, still the largest audience ever to watch soccer in the country. In 1996, 140,000 turned out for the semifinal doubleheader and finals as the U.S. won the first Olympic Gold medal. Those astounding crowds allowed U.S. Soccer administrators and the local organizing committee to convince FIFA to hold the 1999 World Cup as a national event in large stadiums, rather than a low key (and inexpensive) non-event on the east coast. The first professional women’s league effort also started after 1996; Jen Rottenberg was stymied by federation rules but Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks was one of the people she had brought into her group. Hendricks was the key driver behind the WUSA, which started after 1999, and later was an owner in WPS.
NBC’s Soccer Network, How Times have Changed
NBC covered the women’s soccer games well at the Olympics; some viewers could even access a dedicated channel for men’s and women’s soccer and all the games were available online. NBC also now carries MLS games and other than the “limited commercial interruptions”—which caused viewers to miss Japan’s second goal against Brazil 2-0 in the quarterfinals (really, we still aren’t past that after all these years?) did an outstanding job of their coverage. It was so different from the Atlanta, Georgia Olympics of 1996. Despite the 140,000 for the last U.S. semifinal and final, other than an occasional score mention or brief highlight, NBC kept the team out of its broadcasts; prioritizing other sports that they felt would drive ratings and ignored a tremendous moment in the sport’s history. U.S. Soccer President at the time, Alan Rothenberg, referred to NBC’s coverage as “a disgrace,” adding, “NBC stinks, plain and simple.” NBC learned the hard way three years later when ABC covered the Women’s World Cup extensively and reaped the reward of a landmark event for women’s sports in this country.
Tim Grainey is a regular contributor to Soccer365. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham was released earlier this month. Get your copy today.
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