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.

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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.