We’re NOT #GrowingTheGame but Futsal Can Help

If you’re at all connected in anyway with youth sports you have likely seen or heard the #GrowTheGame or #GrowingTheGame expression… a lot over the past few years. It’s a rallying cry for administrators, coaches and sport enthusiasts alike to raise awareness for a sport and promote exemplary people and/or initiatives within the sport contributing to its growth. In Canadian youth soccer it seems we’re really fond of this hashtag catch phrase but are we living up to our word? Who is responsible for overseeing its progress? And how is progress achievable?

Are We #GrowingTheGame?

In short, No! But we can! Let’s first start by dispelling this crazy notion that we are before examining how we actually can. Two years ago I undertook an impromptu study on youth soccer participation rates in Canada (Kellough, 2015a) using Statistics Canada population census data and registered youth soccer players in Canada from FIFA in 2006 and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) in 2011. I was able to determine that not only was there no national growth in the game during this five year period, there was in fact a statistically insignificant contraction of growth in the game.

On May 6, 2017 at Canada Soccer’s Annual General Meeting, they released their 2016 Canada Soccer Annual Report titled “Think Globally Act Locally.” Once again they published data on registered youth soccer players in Canada that could be compared against StatsCan 2016 Census data, a continuation on from my previous work. Hoping that the minor contraction in registered youth soccer players and thus participation rates observed between 2006 – 2011 was merely a blip, I was sadly disappointed to see it proven not so. Table 1 shows a breakdown of registered youth soccer players and a participation rate of the total youth population by province as well as nationally.

GrowingTheGame - Table 1

Participation trends revealed follow that shown from the previous study based on 2006 and 2011 data, participation on the East and West coast is among the highest while the prairies are lowest with Manitoba’s the lowest of all provinces by a startling measure. Manitoba’s youth soccer participation rate is in fact so low that Saskatchewan, the second lowest ranking province in the country, has double their normalized participation rate and P.E.I. astoundingly almost 5 times that of Manitoba! The folks in Manitoba and at the CSA ought to have a long, hard look at these numbers and ask some tough questions of themselves. Now if we compare these provincial and national numbers to 2006 and 2011 data the picture is desperately grim.

GrowingTheGame - Table 2

Nunavut will be excluded from the following discussion as this is its first appearance with records kept and thus it has no rate of change to be established at this time. Remarkably, 8 out of 12 provinces and territories show an average decline of 1.25% in participation rates between 2011 – 2016. Only 4 jurisdictions have experienced an increase in participation rates averaging 1.24%  and this value is largely brought up by significant gains in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The result is a national participation rate decline of almost ¾ of a percentage point between 2011 – 2016.

While provincial records for 2006 were unavailable, we see that nationally the participation rate further declines to almost one full percentage point over the period of 2006 – 2016. Table 3 gives us a better picture of what exactly this means.

GrowingTheGame - Table 3

A 0.78% decline in our national participation rates from 2006 – 2016 equates to a loss of 44,512 youth soccer players or a decline of 6.22% in registered youth soccer players from 2006. That’s the equivalent of a small Canadian city, a staggering loss for a single decade! With only four jurisdictions in the whole of Canada showing gains in youth soccer participation and an overall loss of almost 45,000 youth players over the past decade, we most certainly are NOT #GrowingTheGame.

The quandary with this statistically significant decline in youth soccer registrations and participation rates is that it comes during arguably the most progressive decade in Canadian soccer history. So did we get it wrong? Is our chosen path over the past decade the wrong way forward? No. I don’t believe the observed declines are the direct result of any of the policies and initiatives implemented over the past decade rather, they are more likely linked to the policies and initiatives that have not been implemented.

While some, particularly within governing bodies, suggest that the soccer community as a whole represent the game and thus are responsible for its growth, both common sense and science show that growth is inherently organic when the right conditions exist. In the world of youth sport, these conditions are created through sound player-centric policy and the appropriate collection and allocation of material and human resources, none of which the broader soccer community (i.e. players and parents) have any control over. Therefore the onus is on the decision makers of our national, provincial and leagues governing bodies to create the necessary conditions conducive for real growth of the grassroots base.

Over the past decade there has been unprecedented cooperation between the CSA and its provincial member associations. From this cooperation, the CSA driven initiative Long Term Player Development (LTPD) was born. The CSA is now following this up with its Club Charter program, in draft form at least, it’s primarily composed of cosmetic standards for the branding and operations of clubs while reinforcing the commitment to the LTPD initiative. “These are great and necessary initiatives to improve the experience for our participants but do not address the root problem with soccer in Canada – growth. Canada has no cultural connection to the game of soccer, we don’t get excited about soccer like we do hockey” (Kellough, 2015a). “If Canada is to succeed at soccer, as it has in other sports, our growth and development models must be culturally driven and technically sound” (Kellough, 2015b). If we truly want to live up to the #GrowingTheGame moniker, the solution may very well be found in futsal.

Futsal as the Catalyst for Cultural Change

It’s simply not debatable, the best footballing (soccer) nations, developing the best players have a cultural connection to the game much the same way Canada does with hockey. If we are truly serious about wishing to join this group of nations one day, we too must establish a cultural connection to soccer. Doing so is the only way for Canada to achieve growth and technical development in the game and the most basic, affordable and organic way to do this is through Futsal.

While I believe it is imperative we develop an affordable national futsal infrastructure framework (Kellough, 2015b), the time component to complete this is simply too long to remain idle for the interim. We need to take immediate measures that will provide immediate benefits, get kids playing the game right now. But where? The only thing more ubiquitous than hockey rinks in Canada is schools!

futsal-school-4Canada Soccer and it’s provincial member associations should advocate to have futsal included in the lunch hour intramural and after school sports programs in every middle and high school across this country. But here’s the catch. That’s as far as their involvement goes! These are school run programs, not sanctioned programs for the hierarchy of governing body’s to capitalize on and syphon player fees! Supervision should be the extent of adult involvement here, particularly during the middle school years which coincide with the golden age of learning and player development. Clubs, private enterprise and certified coaches need not apply unless they are happy to be a pro bono babysitter. These need to be non-structured free-play programs, open to all at no cost… the last frontier of affordable soccer in Canada! These programs may, for many possibly, be their first introduction to what will hopefully become a lifelong passion or for experienced players, an opportunity to fall back in love with the game. Youth sports have become a big business in North America and with so many competing interests, the notion of “pickup”, “free-play” in the park has become extinct in Canada. We have scheduled, structured and coached creativity, independent thought and fun almost completely out of youth sports.

Indeed there is little incentive to provide youth programming of any kind that doesn’t generate revenue, sadly this is the world we live in. That said, there is plenty of opportunity for both cash strapped schools and soccer’s governing bodies to “cash in” on futsal while still making it a much cheaper alternative to the currently skyrocketing costs to play soccer even at the recreational level. As awareness and participation in futsal grows, largely in part because of the implementation of school based programs, opportunity to add to the paltry eleven sanctioned leagues recognized by Futsal Canada will grow. Sanctioning of course means money in the coffers of governing bodies; however, schools undoubtedly have a much greater potential to pad their ailing pocket books by renting out gymnasium time in the evenings to both sanctioned and unsanctioned adult and youth futsal leagues.

A big part of the appeal of futsal is that it can be played in the ubiquity of small spaces with few people comparatively to its big brother – soccer. Less is more! I know from many, many years as a player, coach and administrator that team viability is a significant problem facing many clubs and leagues in youth soccer, particularly in the older age groups. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for teams of 8-12 committed players to disband due to insufficient roster sizes. Many of these players don’t find other teams to play with and end up leaving the game meanwhile, that same group of players could easily form a futsal team and remain connected to the game.

The affordability and infrastructure availability of this plan makes for a viable first phase to building a cultural connection with soccer in Canada. However, despite being public schools, one cannot simply gather some friends or strangers for a pickup game of futsal in the local school gym. This is why it remains essential that we develop a national futsal infrastructure framework to complement the growth of futsal in structured and unstructured environments thus developing the cultural connection to the game of soccer that is essential to actually #GrowTheGame.

“Our collective cultural passion for hockey is aided by our international success but is rooted in the accessibility of the game at the most basic grassroots level. The vast majority of Canadians love of hockey does not stem from time playing in structured youth leagues at exorbitant costs of $5,000 – $20,000 per season. The average Canadian relates to hockey from the time they spent playing on Canada’s infinite supply of frozen water with their buddies at a cost even the most financially challenged can afford. And when the lakes, ponds and rivers are melted, we are constantly reminded of our hockey loving culture every time we pass by the endless supply of outdoor rinks and arenas in EVERY urban and rural community across Canada. I’ve been told youth hockey is not without its issues but at least the most basic grassroots need – accessibility – is not one of them” (Kellough, 2015b).

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The Blame Game Isn’t Working Anymore

It’s been almost 10 years since the greatest paradigm shift in youth sports was first introduced in Canada – Long Term Player Development (LTPD) also referred to as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD). Aimed at building better athletes through greater emphasis on technical proficiency and a reduced emphasis on competitive results in the pre-teen development stages, LTPD was a major shift in the way society thought and was always going to be hotly debated.

Few argued that change in the way we developed and retained athletes in our youth sporting systems needed change. With the exception of a handful of sports, Canada has long been considered a poor to mediocre sporting nation and seldom viewed as a competitive threat, especially in the team sport of soccer. The reasons for this may well be infinite but the one that many touting LTPD preached routinely in Canada’s soccer circles was the suggestion that some studies show as many as 70% of youth stop playing organized sports around the age of 13. While recognizing there are many reasons for this, not the least of which included increased school and life responsibilities and changing interests, a lack of fun and skill development was often cited as large contributors for the participation drop off.

Armed with these studies and ‘facts,’ LTPD was generally sold to the youth soccer community at the expense of volunteer coaches. The rhetoric labelled many as unqualified, “win at all costs” coaches and singled them out as a primary cause for lack of player development and loss of interest in youth soccer across Canada. This of course isn’t without merit. Indeed the majority of coaches were in fact unqualified volunteer parents by virtue that despite it’s huge registration numbers, soccer in Canada was and still is considered a summer recreational activity. It is however unfortunate that it took the demonizing of these people for the administrators and power brokers of the game to actually focus attention on coach education and make a serious effort to help these volunteers receive the proper education and qualifications needed to better serve the youth to which they have dedicated their personal time. With coach education a significant part of the LTPD paradigm, we are seeing a record number of coaches be given much better tools to serve their youth than those my coaches had when I came through the youth soccer system some 30 years ago.

Having been fully implemented across the majority of Canada for the better part of 5 years now, LTPD, despite the grumblings of a minority that will never fully cease, is generally accepted as the way forward for soccer in Canada. The LTPD paradigm leaves plenty of room for interpretation and variation between clubs, associations and leagues while enforcing consistency in it’s core values across the nation. We are starting to get our first glimpses at the youth being produced through this system with varying degrees of success across the country. For those clubs where LTDP implementation has gone well it’s business as usual.  But where perhaps it hasn’t gone as well, there are signs appearing of a situation analogous to what we see in business and politics routinely. The implementation or sale of a new paradigm is often framed or supported by a couple of key central arguments to keep people focused and remind them of its purpose. However when an argument becomes irrelevant or is no longer effectively focusing an audience, it must be refreshed in order to breath new life into the paradigm it supports.

In a minority of soccer circles there are signs that the demonizing of parents is replacing that which coaches use to be subjected. After all, with coach education and the installation of provincially or nationally certified club head coaches a major plank of LTPD, it would hardly lend credence to the paradigm to continue exclusively faulting unqualified coaching for a lack of or perceived lack of player development. In essence that would be an admission of failure of the model and that is never going to happen this early into its lifecycle.

Unfortunately, there are some clubs and coaches that fault parents for a perceived lack of development in their children or for negativity within the club atmosphere. Citing examples of coaching from the sidelines, after practice / game criticism of players, clique’s complaining about coaches and other players, etc. Sound like you? Why not, most parents, myself included, are guilty of one or more of these actions at some point in their children’s sporting development. But to suggest these actions even in moderation as a cause for slow or nonexistent development or to suggest the opinions of a few can adversely affect an entire club of several hundred, many of whom you will never interact with? One needs to give their head a shake. I suspect or at least hope these coaches and clubs are referring to extreme examples like those featured in the documentary “Trophy Kid.”

Trophy Kid follows four extreme examples of parents that place an abnormal amount of pressure on their children to develop in their chosen sport that it affects the athletes negatively in their player development and/or personal welfare and happiness. Sadly these people do exist and they most certainly have the ability to affect their own children’s development and growth; however, they represent such an extraordinary minority that to even suggest there are enough of these parents to hinder an entire team, club program or sport is utterly asinine. It’s unfortunate because the documentary attempts to shed light on a valid issue in youth sports but it chooses such extreme examples that it comes off contrived and insulting to the point it actually does a disservice to the issue.  Parents who think they might be on the cusp of being problematic to their children, team or club will view this and think their behavior is angelic by comparison.

So previously poor coaching was to blame, we took measures to correct that and problems still exist. Now it is poor parenting that is the problem, so some are putting a great deal of time and energy into parent education. What happens when that is no longer the pressing issue and we are still seeing problems? What then? Who do we blame next? The coaches again? The player’s commitment? The clubs, associations, leagues governance?

 

When does the blame game stop and everyone from the top down involved in soccer start being accountable for their own actions?

 

When does the player admit they haven’t put their best effort forth? When does the parent admit that maybe they don’t know what’s best and they ought to just enjoy watching their child play? When does the coach or Technical Director admit development isn’t a one size fits all solution and that maybe they can’t be all things to all people? When does the club administration work with its membership and admit that they can do things better? When does the league, provincial or national association implement tough standards and hold members to account?

Having been entrenched in discussions with people from various soccer circles across Canada and around the world since the inception of LTPD to its present form, I can say that great progress has been made but I now humbly ask all to stop looking for the next scapegoat and start looking in the mirror! We have had issues with player development and retention in youth soccer in Canada and despite a much needed and well intentioned paradigm shift, until we ALL stop playing the blame game and finally accept accountability for our own decisions those problems aren’t going away anytime soon.

FIFA: Reform Not Disbandment Needed

SEPP BLATTER RESIGNS!

It’s big, it’s huge, it’s quite possibly the sporting story of 2015! Do not be surprised if the FIFA corruption scandal and subsequent Blatter resignation ranks the top sports story of 2015 come the new year! In it’s wake, seemingly everyone has something to say about it. Worldwide, views are mixed, everything from anger, fear, relief, joy, paranoia and all emotions in between have been and will continue to be plastered all over the various media platforms.

In the aftermath of Blatter’s resignation one of the many reports I read was a Forbes article titled: “Sepp Blatter Resigning From FIFA Will Boost Value Of World Cup“. It’s final paragraph read as follows:

“Long term, the best way to minimize the sport’s corruption is to dismantle FIFA. There is no reason soccer needs a huge, global governing body. Getting rid of the layers of bureaucracy will make it easier to weed out the bad guys.”

Needlesstosay, I disagreed with this statement and echoed what the vast majority of people worldwide are saying, FIFA needs reform, not disbandment. I’ve often said unless you have solutions or alternatives to offer the public record, your opinions and criticism is just background noise. So right or wrong, plausible or not, putting my money where my mouth is, here’s my take on possible measures to help reform FIFA.

FIFA Mission Statement
“FIFA’s mission is develop football everywhere and for all, to touch the world through its inspiring tournaments and to build a better future through the power of the game.”

It’s important to acknowledge and understand FIFA’s mission statement before dissecting that which is bad and offering alternatives because it is their mission that many believe the organization has lost sight of throughout this corruption scandal. It’s also important because all measures I suggest can be directly related back to this mission statement.

Mandatory Time Limits
Perhaps the most obvious first step that everyone is calling for – Time Limits in office. It’s common fact that government and organizational structures that see little or no personnel change over an extended period of time can lose sight of their mission goals, fail to evolve with its dynamic membership and develop a sense of entitlement. Limiting the Executive Committee (ExCo) terms to a maximum of eight years or two consecutive terms would foster fresh ideas, beliefs and outlooks that would provide a modern governance structure with the ability to thrive and adapt to the changes both in the game and its surrounding world.

Equitable Distribution of Funds
Currently FIFA distributes funds equitably among all 209 member associations. Some feel aggrieved that a country of 300,000,000 with over a hundred thousand registered players should get the same funding as say a small island nation of 1,000,000 and perhaps only a couple thousand registered players. I wholeheartedly disagree. This is one of the few things FIFA is doing very well and equitable funding must remain intact. Going back to FIFA’s mission, their goal is to develop the game everywhere and for all; this funding is the only financial source for many of these members to make that happen.

That said, we know that in many instances this money is not being directed appropriately to promote and grow the game in some member nations. Thus this money ought to come with a few strings attached, namely that it is directly provided to the national member association for the sole use of promoting and growing the game of football within its own borders. A set of acceptable expenses this money could be used for would be developed and an audit of all provided funds would be required to ensure compliance. Acceptable expenses may include the establishment or maintenance of national domestic leagues, development and implementation of training centres and or national curriculums or coach education just to name a few worthy causes. Non-compliance would result in funding being revoked until the people(s) responsible for the misappropriation of funds are identified and removed from office.

FIFA Congress
Reform never comes without controversy and this talking point might spark the height of it all. Currently, FIFA uses the 1 member, 1 vote rule by which all 209 member associations have a voice at FIFA. We have seen this system regularly used or more appropriately abused by confederations forcing their members to vote as a “block” to reflect the view of the confederation rather than the views of the association. This is in fact largely how Sepp Blatter has remained in power for so long.

I propose that having a voice at FIFA is a privilege not a right. A privilege that is earned through responsible promotion and growth of the game nationally. Let’s be clear, this would not impact FIFA’s equitable funds distribution to all 209 members. As per FIFA’s mission, football must be developed everywhere and for all but national associations can’t do that without financial support. FIFA funding to help develop the game should be a right to all while having a voice to help steer its direction ought to be an earned privilege.

Arbitrarily speaking, what if the top 100 ranked associations or perhaps the top ⅔ of ranked associations had voting rights. Acknowledging the grave fallacies of the FIFA ranking system, perhaps an entirely different system gets devised to determine voting status, at this point it’s irrelevant because it’s the message here that’s most important. The message is that associations must use all their resources, including those provided by FIFA, wisely and responsibly to improve the state of game within their borders and to improve their standing among FIFA members.

A dynamic, incentive driven congress elevates everyone’s desire to do better and with that comes real progress. The lucky nations to hold voting rights can’t become complacent with the status quo, they must continually strive to be better to maintain that voting membership. Likewise for the nations falling short, they will work hard to gain that voice and that distinction for if they do not, how valuable is that voice? An environment of equal say and equal pay does little to drive innovation and progress rather it leaves us with what we have now, an “old boys club.”

FIFA Executive Committee (ExCo)
As outlined in the FIFA Statutes, the current 25 member ExCo consists of the president, elected by the congress; 1 female member, elected by congress; 8 vice presidents, 1 appointed from each regional confederation with Europe given two additional for a total of 3 VP’s; and 15 members, with each confederation ranging in members from 0 for the OFC up to 5 for UEFA which are appointed by their respective regional confederation.

The role of the FIFA ExCo includes determining the dates, locations and format of tournaments, appointing FIFA delegates to the IFAB and electing and dismissing the General Secretary on the proposal of the FIFA President. (Art. 30 and 31 of the Statutes). This does not require a bloated 25 member board.

I would trim the ExCo to 19 members: 1 president elected by congress, 6 vice presidents, one elected by each regional confederation; and 12 members, with two elected from each regional confederation. This would provide equal representation worldwide regardless of confederation size. Some will immediately pounce and cry foul as this system would significantly reduce UEFA’s influence while increasing that of CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and the OFC in the FIFA ExCo. I don’t see this as a problem because realistically the single greatest responsibility of the ExCo is determining the location of events since general dates and formats are largely consistent and rarely up for review. Also with strict rules and bidding processes on events already in place intended to equitably distribute hosting privileges of FIFA events, the decision making process for ExCo members is made lighter through regulation.

Gender Equality
You may have noticed my proposed ExCo system eliminated the lone, symbolic female member. This is because I propose of the three members appointed by each confederation, 1 VP and 2 regular, at least one must be female. This would result in a jump from 1 female member to a minimum of 6 female members or a minimum of 32% representation within the FIFA ExCo. With the exploding growth of the female game, it is imperative to have a greater female representation involved in the decision making processes designed to grow the game.

Secretary General
Currently the Secretary General is installed by the ExCo; however, only the President may propose the appointment or dismissal of the Secretary General. As the right hand to the president, the Secretary General is closest to the president and likely the second most familiar with FIFA affairs at any given time, essentially making them the second most powerful member of the organization.

I propose the power of nomination and election of Secretary General be removed from the president and the ExCo and be placed into the hands of the congress. Anyone would be free to run for the termed position but like the president must be voted in by congress.

Under the current system, if the President is absent or unavailable, the longest-serving vice-president available shall deputise. I believe this person should be the Secretary General in the interim until a new president is elected. With the introduction of term lengths, it’s likely there will no longer be a “longest-serving” vice president. The easiest and most fair way to fill the void is with the only other high ranking FIFA official elected by congress to step in. It makes further sense given the close proximity of their work under the past president and their intimate knowledge of the current organizational affairs.

Conclusion
The aforementioned points are but a few suggestions that could help make significant changes within FIFA for the betterment of the organization and its mission mandated growth of the game. There are likely hundreds, maybe thousands of complimentary or better possible changes available. The state of the organization is such that literally anything, regardless of how profound or simple it may be, would all but guarantee improvement in perhaps the worst run yet most necessary sporting body in the world.

The final paragraph of that Forbes article should have read:
“Long term, the best way to minimize the sport’s corruption is not to dismantle FIFA rather reform it. The only truly global sport needs a dynamic global governing body. Getting rid of the layers of bureaucracy will make it easier to weed out the bad guys.”

 

FIFA WWC Winnipeg Recap – June 15th, 2015

Winnipeg saw everything from the sublime to the surreal today. From utter dominance to a circus sideshow complete with inept officiating, a pitch invader and the Chinese manager being sent to the stands, there was something for everyone. Unfortunately at the end of the night it came at New Zealand’s expense who now exit the competition controversially but hey, this is FIFA, what else would you expect?

Germany vs Thailand

There was never any question that the #1 ranked Germany would beat the #29 ranked Thailand. The only real question was by how much? Having advanced to the knockout stage from their group before this match even kicked off, this was little more than a training exercise for the Germans.

From the opening whistle it was all Germany. They controlled the possession and the tempo of the match, initiating wave after wave of attack on Thailand. Through the first 20 minutes the only time Thailand got the ball across half was on a couple of goal kicks only to lose possession immediately. The Thai goalkeeper deserves praise for an admirable performance, for much of the game she looked to be the only Thai player on the field and made a number of great saves to maintain Thailand’s dignity on the scoreboard.

Germany finally broke through the wall in the 23rd minute with a great header from a corner kick finding the back of the net. Never shifting out of first gear but utilizing a wide range of attacks through the middle, down the flanks and in the air Germany took only the single goal into the half-time break. It looked as if the Germans used the first half as an extended pregame warm-up and the best was yet to come.

Half Time: Germany 1 – Thailand 0

The second started much like the first with Germany taking immediate control and never relinquishing it. For ten minutes the Thai goalkeeper was peppered with shots, had it not been for her, the German’s would easily be approaching a double digit scoreline by that point.

Finally the German Air Force was released scoring headers in the 56th and 58th minutes, from a cross and corner kick respectively. In the 73rd minute they put in their 4th and final goal of the match. Again, initiated from a cross down the right flank and worked across the goal for an easy open net tap in.

The stats don’t lie Germany had 36 shots of which 16 were on target. This compares to Thailand’s 2 shots, none of which were on target. Factor 14-2 corner kicks and 65%-35% possession for the Germans and you begin to get a picture of just how dominant they were. It’s either a miracle or mercy that Germany only won 4-0.

Some might argue there’s little joy in watching a team get dominated to that extent but for those who eat, sleep and breath the game, it’s not about the result or the emotional response it elicits rather it’s about admiration and respect for the quality of technical and tactical play on the pitch. Germany put on a world class, sublime performance unmatched by any other in this tournament to date. Their play is always controlled and silky smooth while others are erratic and sometimes chaotic displaying everything from the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

Having had the pleasure of watching #2 ranked and tournament favorites in many circles, the USA play twice I am left wondering who can possibly match this German side. Can we not simply crown Germany the champions now? Because if the USA is second best in the world, they have a long way to go before coming close to matching the quality of this German side.

 

New Zealand vs China

And now on to the surreal. This was a huge match for both sides, New Zealand needing a win to advance while China only needed the draw. An army of Chinese supporters in red set the pre-match mood in full voice taking over the north stand of Winnipeg Stadium, territory the American Outlaws occupied for the two match days prior.

China started very strong creating a great scoring chance off a header in the opening five minutes but by the 12th minute they had dropped into a defensive formation looking to play on the counter attack much like they did against Canada. On the counter, China lacked directness and were much too slow getting forward, they wasted a couple of great opportunities when they finally did penetrate New Zealand’s final third.

By the 25th minute New Zealand was taking control of the match, creating opportunities and despite wasting a few they found the back of the net from a corner kick for the opening goal of the match in the 27th minute.

China managed to regain composure and make it a tight, back and forth affair until the 40th minute when the surreal began. The official awarded a Penalty Kick to China for a New Zealand handball but replays clearly show there was absolutely no contact with the players hand. China converted and leveled 1-1. New Zealand was the better team in the half and would be disappointed by their misfortune having lost their lead going into the break.

Half Time: New Zealand 1 – China 1

Perhaps fueled by misfortune, New Zealand started the second half strong putting pressure on the Chinese force them to defend deep in their half.

Once again, after absorbing the opening 10 minutes of pressure the Chinese regain composure and enjoy a spell as the better team leading to a 60th minute goal to take the lead 2-1.

The Kiwi’s fully aware of what they needed for advancement pulled up their socks and immediately answered back with goal of their own drawing level 2-2 in the 63rd minute. From that point on, New Zealand took firm control of the match. They did well in possession and recovered quickly when out of it and utilized the flanks of the pitch very well to penetrate the Chinese final third in waves of attack. It was clear the Chinese were happy with a draw and got all eleven players behind the ball, centrally packing the 18 yard box. They were content to allow New Zealand acres of space on the flanks while crowding out the middle; a dangerous game management tactic given the height advantage and superior aerial ability of the Kiwi’s.

The final ten minutes saw the good, the bad and the ugly. The good, at either end of the pitch, both teams were denied great scoring opportunities by equally great defensive efforts. The bad (although most had a good laugh at it), a pitch invader jumped onto the field from the north stand and had a decent run out, feinting 4-5 security personnel before being caught. I was hoping for a bone crunching tackle but I guess Canadian’s are just too polite and the pitch invader was delicately restrained and escorted away. The ugly, the Chinese employed every time wasting tactic in the book from fake injuries, rehabbing on field, to delayed restarts on throw-ins and kicks. It all finally culminated in a disgraceful display when the Chinese manager was sent to the stands for knocking the ball away from a New Zealand player and then obstructing and bumping her while her attempted a throw-in. To top it off, the Chinese manager waved and prompted the crowd for applause as if he’d done something noble! I hope FIFA takes a good look at this and extends his stay in the stands for the next game at minimum.

Like I said, this day in Winnipeg had it all from the sublime German’s to the surreal antics of the Chinese and officiating. In the end, China claims 2nd place in Group A and advances to the knockout stage while New Zealand’s tournament comes to a sad an undeserving end.

 

FIFA WWC Winnipeg Recap – June 12th, 2015

This post is three days late but better late than never as the saying goes. With the first game jitters out of the way, Winnipeg’s second round of group D matches were always going to be important, perhaps the make or break match for many teams in this World Cup, if not mathematically than in spirit and momentum. Of course the highlight not just of the day but perhaps one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament would be the USA vs Sweden with current Swedish coach Pia Sundhage facing her former team, the United States which she led from 2008 to 2012. As expected, the build up to this match was made more intriguing with Sundhage’s comments about her former players stating the somewhat obvious and often echoed. Sundhage maintained that Hope Solo was one of the most challenging players Sundhage has ever coached, “especially when it comes to trouble,” and that Abby Wambach, now 35, would not be a starter if Sundhage still coached the team. Nothing dishonest nor offensive in these words but a well timed psychological first strike. Current American WNT coach, Jill Ellis, and several USA players downplayed the comments suggesting they represent neither a distraction nor motivation. But when the USA starting XI was announced and Wambach was named to the substitutes bench, one would have to think Sundhage and the Swedes would build confidence from that and take it as a damaging first blow even before the first kick of a ball.

Australia vs. Nigeria

With opening round loss for Australia and a draw for Nigeria, one would expect these teams with everything to play for to put it all out on the line in this match. On the contrary, it was a rather subdued opening with neither team able to take early control of the match. Australia were noticeably less intense with their pressing game than they showed days before against the USA, perhaps an attempt to avoid the same mistake and prevent early burnout?

Ironically, the Nigerian too were noticeably less direct and explosive on the counter attack then they previously showed against Sweden. It was a rather uneventful opening 25 minutes with a few half chances for both sides; the best opportunity coming from a close range Australian free kick but neither side very threatening.

Finally in the 28th minute the Australian’s broke the deadlock. Originating from great pass out of their defensive third, De Vanna made a beautiful run through the middle before being taken down near the top of the eighteen but K. P. Simon was there to pick up the lose ball and send it across the goalkeeper into the far corner.

The remainder of the half continued to be fairly even with both teams missing opportunities. The Australian’s missed an open net opportunity in the 33rd minute after taking too many touches on the ball, something they were guilty of at times against the USA. Australia took the 1-0 lead into half-time but it could as easily have been reversed or a draw.

Half Time: Australia 1 – Nigeria 0

When the teams emerged for the second half, Nigeria began looking more like the team that played Sweden days earlier. Playing their direct brand of football, they were more successful penetrating the Aussie’s final third and creating chances for themselves in the opening 20 minutes of the half but a stingy Aussie defense did well to absorb the pressure.

Once again seemingly out of nowhere, Australia struck again in the 68th minute with their first real opportunity of the half. A cross from the right flank skipped through the 18 to Kerr who did well to lob it over the flat Nigeria defense caught ball watching to you guessed it, K. P. Simon for her second of the match.

After that, the Australian’s confidence grew, they managed their energy reserves better and they saw out the match for the 2-0 win. Despite the scoreline, this was a statistically even and rather uneventful match, not what many expected given what was on the line for both teams. With Nigeria sitting last in their group and the USA up next in their final group match, advancement is looking very unlikely.

 

USA vs Sweden

Another USA match brought another ruckus capacity crowd in Winnipeg. Coming off a less then impressive opening round win against Australia, the question on everyone’s mind was if the USA could ignite its misfiring offense, even going so far as to sit Abby Wambach.

Through the opening 5 minutes, both teams came out of the gate looking better then they had in their first round matches. Sweden did well to utilize the width of the pitch which allowed them to penetrate the USA final third often but through 20 minutes and after a few half chances for each side, neither team dominated or took control of the match. The Swedes were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty kick for a very clear “hand to ball” motion for Sydeny Leroux in the penalty area.

The USA was able to pick up the tempo, they enjoyed a prolonged period with more of the ball and were able to push Sweden back forcing them to defend deeper in their half. Sweden remained a serious threat on the counter attack and despite having less of the ball they certainly looked capable of threatening when they did.

The final 5 – 10 minutes of the half saw a return to balance. The teams more or less shared equal possession of the ball and despite not testing Hope Solo, chances created and shots were very close. The USA played a more forward, direct style of play while the Swedes generally took their time to build-up their attacks. Both teams enjoyed periods of dominance but neither team could go into the break with the confidence of know they dominated their opponent; the 0-0 draw meant is was still anyone’s match.

Half Time: USA 0 – Sweden 0

The USA open the second half with a great scoring opportunity. the Swedes adopted a higher more intense press which began to open up the match. After enjoying the better part of the opening 15 minutes, the plucky Swedes just wouldn’t go away and enjoyed a period of betterment of their own in what had become a back and forth affair.

The 68th minute introduction of Wambach had a moment of magic written all over it. After being dubbed a super-sub in the lead up to the match and failing to to crack the starting XI of a World Cup match for only the second time since 2003 could Wambach prove the naysayers wrong and kick start an otherwise rather mundane USA offense.

From the onset of her introduction, Wambach had plenty to say to the referee as she often does and missed a couple of signature headers but still the ebb and flow of the match continued. It wasn’t until the 77th minute when Sweden missed the best goal scoring chance of the match. Sara Seger got on the end of a Swedish corner and send the ball on target, Solo was well beaten with no chance at making the save but the shot was admirably headed onto the cross bar by an American defender spoiling what presented itself the best goal scoring chance of the night.

In the final minutes of the match, Sweden continued to press and recover well while attacking in waves despite failing to test Solo. The sense was that if there was a goal to be had on the night, it was Sweden’s. In the 89th minute Wambach looking to earn her side a PK went down rather theatrically in the penalty area but the referee was have none of it. Wambach is perhaps luck not to have received a caution herself for the dive.

 

The final whistle blew and the 0-0 draw was in the books. Sweden will be much happier with the point, it keeps them running for advancement and sets up a great final group stage match Australia. The USA will once again be asking questions of their offense. A sound performance defensively, Hope Solo wasn’t tested like she was against the Australian’s but going forward there must be concern among the Americans and their fans as to where the goals are going to come from. There is no question they will easily advance from their group but unless they pick up there offensive play deep progression through the knockout stage is anything but a given.

FIFA WWC Winnipeg Recap – June 8th, 2015

Today the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off its first round of matches in Winnipeg and it did not disappoint. Pulling up to Investors Group Field, pardon me, Winnipeg Stadium as re-branded by FIFA, the excitement was thick in the air. I’ve been to many events at the stadium before but none with an atmosphere quite like this. It was literally a party everywhere you looked. The costumes, noise makers, singing and dancing, it all signaled that something big was about to happen and it made you feel proud and honored to be a part of it.

wpid-img_20150608_220713.jpgSweden vs. Nigeria

This was your classic “Technical vs Physical” battle. Nigeria opened the first five minutes very strong, controlling the tempo and playing very direct. Nigeria were the strong underdog but I guess they never got the memo because they certainly weren’t playing the role through 20 minutes.

Sweden’s best early chances came from a few corner kicks and in the 20th minute against the run of play they were very fortunate to open the scoring with a deflection off a Nigerian player that counted as an own goal (OG).

Oshoala (#8) of Nigeria had a very strong game to that point and you knew she would put her stamp on the game before its end. Either initiating the attack or the receiving focal point of it, Oshoala was a constant in Nigeria’s relentless attack. Playing direct, long-balls and splitting through balls into the attacking third over and over, the Swedish defenders had there hands full all night long with the directness of the Nigerian attack.

But again, it was Sweden to capitalize off yet another corner kick putting them comfortably up 2-0 in the 31st minute. A lead they carried into half time despite Nigeria creating better and more frequent scoring chances from open play.

Half Time: Sweden 2 – Nigeria 0

When the teams emerged for the second half, Nigeria picked up where they left off at the end of the first and scored quickly in the 50th minute to get themselves back into the game. Immediately following their first goal, Oshoala for Nigeria tied it up with another well worked goal in the 53rd minute.

Sweden did well to recover from blowing a 2-0 lead and settled into their more technical passing and possession game which saw them take the lead again in the 60th minute, 3-2. The build up and finish of Sweden’s third goal was superb, easily their best open play attack of the match. Feeling more relaxed, the Swedes took control of the games tempo and held possession for long periods of time. Unfortunately they never really penetrated the Nigerian final third or looked very threatening in attack after their third goal. It was almost as if Sweden were content to hold the lead and see out the match. This of course is seldom a good plan against a powerful team playing as direct and quick to counter as Nigeria.

Once again the Swedes paid the price when yet another Nigerian attack was unleash in behind the Swedish defense, an attack that the Nigerians utilized from the opening minute of the match yet the Swedes somehow failed to adapt to and just like that in the 87th minute, Nigeria get the crucial leveling goal. Having come from behind twice, the underdog Nigerians were very happy with the draw but you get the sense they could have and should have walked away with the 3 points. This certainly did not look like a match between the 5th (Sweden) vs 33rd (Nigeria) ranked teams.

 

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USA vs Australia

With the stadium at full capacity and voice, this game was always meant to be the show piece match of the day. It did surprise but did not disappoint!

The Australian’s came out determined in the opening 10 minutes. Playing a high intensity pressing game, Australia was able to recover the ball quickly and often when out of possession. Their build-up play was equally impressive, carving through the American defense to create some great early opportunities. The question from the beginning was always whether or not they could maintain this frenetic pace for 90 minutes.

But with their first chance on goal, the USA scored at 10 minutes with a shot from distance, a reminder to the Australian’s that with the level of quality on the American team, they don’t need many chances to make you pay.

Australia responded well, they continued their high tempo, high intensity play, recovering balls quickly and penetrating well in attack but taking too many touches in and around the 18 yard box cost them a few scoring chances. However, their persistence paid off when Australia scored the leveling goal at 27 minutes from a beautifully worked setup and finish. The one touch ball movement from the Australian’s was very impressive and defensively they did well to limit the few chances that the USA did have to shots from distance.

Going into half time Australia would fancy their chances for a result having responded so well coming from behind and creating better scoring opportunities MORE frequently than the USA.

Half Time: USA 1 – Australia 1

The opening 10 minutes of the second half proved a back and forth stalemate until the USA took the lead again in the 61st minute, 2-1. Could Australia answer back again?

Over the following 15 minutes Australia had noticeably lost the jump in their step and the tenacious pressing game they showed in the first half simply wasn’t there anymore. The USA was doing a great job forcing Australia to defend deeper in their own half and eliminated the Australian attacks through the middle, forcing their build-up and attack to the wings.

The Australians were looking very tired with the Americans penetrating the final third with ease and were rewarded in the 76th minute with a fine goal, 3-1.

Exhausted but resilient, the Australians fashioned a few chances for themselves in the final 10 minutes but again, too many touches led to squandered opportunities. At 3-1 down in the final 10 minutes, any opportunity with the ball at your feet in or around the 18 yard box is a green light to shoot but the Aussie’s wasted too many of these chances throughout the game.

The 3-1 final score was a stark reminder that football is truly a game of two halves. Australia the better team in the first and perhaps a little unlucky not to take a lead into the break but the USA won the war of attrition in the end. After absorbing all that the Australian’s could throw at them, the Americans fitness and composure lead to a dominating second half and a well earned opening group stage win.