The long awaited World Cup debut of Spain’s Vero Boquete, by any measure one of the best women’s soccer players of her generation, was a dud Tuesday, unfortunately.
But it’s hard to blame Boquete for Spain’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Costa Rica, most of the credit has to go to Las Ticas and their rookie coach Amelia Valverde, who only took over in January after Carlos Avedissian – the man who led Costa Rica to the World Cup by beating Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago last fall – left to take a position in his native Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately for all her greatness, Boquete was surrounded by Costa Ricans at every turn (as Richard Farley demonstrated on his Twitter feed). And they did it in a very modern, organized way. They didn’t hack her every time she got near the ball or man-mark her all over the field, they collectively knew where she was and cut off her space at every turn (primary credit likely going to holding midfielders Katherine Alvarado and Raquel Rodriguez).
Boquete did get loose a few times and even set up a couple of glorious chances for her teammates, but they were squandered. Unfortunately for Vero, she’s not the type of superstar who beats you with world-class speed or breathtaking individual runs, which doesn’t make her greatness any less extraordinary if you’ve watched her career, but this isn’t basketball or baseball where stars can often shine through whatever the defense throws at them.
And with Brazil and South Korea remaining, a couple more performances like this could see a disappointing short stay to the first World Cup appearance for the Spanish women.
Here are some other things we learned from Tuesday’s play in Groups E and F:
England cannot win the World Cup sitting in: It was not exactly a surprise that England played low pressure in their 1-0 loss against France, but it became clear the No. 6 team in the FIFA World Rankings has no chance to win the World Cup playing that style. The first half-hour saw Mark Sampson’s team concede almost every inch of turf to the French. Once they fell behind by a goal there was no choice but to take some changes but the English still went with low pressure and rarely created anything to offer much trouble to the French defense. The most troubling part is that sitting in created little to no traction on the counterattack. This could be different in their other group matches against Mexico and Colombia, but it won’t cut it once they get to the knockout stage and start seeing more teams like France. The catch-22 is the open secret that the runner-up in the group has a softer entry into the knockout phase than the winner so it is possible that Sampson held some cards in this one and did not pull out all stops to get the result.
Costa Rica is very young, but… Yes, Costa Rica has improved dramatically at youth levels and they are one of the most improved programs in the world, not just in CONCACAF. They started two teenagers in Melissa Herrera and Maria Barrantes, but the backline of Diana Saenz, Carol Sanchez, Wendy Acosta, and Lixy Rodriguez (who set up Costa Rica’s goal) average 26 years old (with Rodriguez being the youngest at 24). Goalkeeper Dinnia Diaz is also 27, while Shirley Cruz, who has led Costa Rica for so long, is now 29. Some credit also has to go to the American college system, which – at least for now – is one of the best training grounds for young women in the world. Several Ticas, including goal-scorer Raquel Rodriguez (Penn State) have played for Division I programs, and have looked organized and disciplined for the last couple of years in CONCACAF, and now have a point at the World Cup as well.
Goalkeeping is an issue around the world: Every time Hope Solo makes a big save we hear the familiar refrain that, altogether now, “no one else in the world makes those saves.” That is usually something of an overstatement, but there is no doubt the United States enjoys a comfort with Solo in goal that many other teams do not have. France is very sound defensively but their keeper, Sarah Bouhaddi, was shaky. She made one extremely poor decision to come off her line and on another occasion somehow gave up a corner kick trying to pass off to a defender. Wind could have played a factor in trying to cut off the lofted ball but on television it never looked like she had a chance to get close. In the Mexico-Colombia match, Mexico scored after a series of punches by Colombian keeper Stefany Castano led two a pair of corners. One of them easily could have been caught cleanly, and both of them at the least could have been cleared beyond the 18. Instead Castano was caught off guard by Veronica Perez’s whipping cross/shot that went in for the goal. On the other side, Colombia nearly scored a goal when Mexico’s keeper Cecilia Santiago went up for a free kick but saw it glide through her hands before she was saved by the post. It feels like before the tournament is over, a goalkeeping miscue will play a role in deciding a result.
Brazil won’t be scared If you want to talk about inexperience in Group E, you have to include Brazil, which somehow has only eight players on its roster with World Cup experience. But in its opener, Brazil overwhelmed South Korea with high pressure and it was the ultimate veteran, 37-year-old Formiga, who took advantage, scoring one (becoming the oldest player in World Cup history to score) and setting up the other in a 2-0 win. Newcomers like center back Rafaelle were strong and physical from the opening kickoff, while Fabiana and Tamires had no trouble marauding down either wing with speed and strength and scaring the daylights out of the South Korean defense. In fact, Marta was able to sit back and let the action come to her for most of the game, rarely taking people on with the ball and content to be a playmaker.
Brazil may not know much about itself until the knockout round There were some worrying moments in the second half when South Korea finally let go of the reigns and started sending numbers into the attack, particularly Ji Soyun – who, like Boquete, was a world-class player making her World Cup debut and could have used a little more support. With Formiga playing in midfield along with Thaisa (just 26 caps coming into the World Cup) and Andressa, who just turned 20, Korea did have some joy moving the ball around in the second half. I already mentioned Rafaelle, who picked up just her fourth cap Tuesday, who was paired with Monica (just 21 caps). If you’re a Brazil supporter, you can look at the glass half-full and say all these players will be able to get much needed experience. However, you can also look at it half-empty and say that rolling past Spain and Costa Rica won’t get Brazil ready for what could be a tricky knockout-round game against a team with some serious offensive weapons like Nigeria (Australia and Sweden are the other two options with the United States as a wild longshot).