Women’s World Cup — what we learned on Day 12

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There were two big reasons the French women’s national team was able to gain a substantial following in the 2011 World Cup in their home country. One was their play, of course, they could knock the ball around with the best of them and were arguably the best technical squad in Germany before being unceremoniously dumped by the physical United States in the semifinals.

The other, however, might have been what happened the previous summer. The French men’s team, 1998 world champions (which they won at home), were among the names people threw out there as a sleeper in South Africa. They had plenty of talent, after all, names everyone had seen each weekend in the biggest European leagues and even the Champions League.

[ MORE: Complete Round of 16 matchups for Women’s World Cup ]

But what followed was perhaps the biggest meltdown in World Cup history. After an opening draw with Uruguay (who as it turned out went all the way to the semifinals), coach Raymond Domenech flat out lost control of his team. They lost to Mexico and were eliminated before they even took the field for their final match, returning to France disgraced.

A year later, the French women, playing beautiful team soccer, were impressing the world and many of those people (at least those who would give it a chance) who were so turned off 12 months before.

Fast-forward four years and France – to the horror of the French fans – had a potential fiasco on its hands in Canada. France was on the wrong end of perhaps the biggest upset in women’s soccer history against Colombia. Worse, the winning goal came after an obvious display of petulance by one of their most beloved players. Louisa Necib, apparently upset that teammate Jessica Houara was going to take a throw-in, threw the ball at her legs with enough force behind it to ricochet off her legs and back to Necib.

There were some things working in head coach Philippe Bergeroo’s favor that Domenech didn’t have, the most prominent being a forgiving group format in which 16 of 24 teams advanced. But still, Bergeroo had some work to do to get his team on the same page. The first question was answered when the lineups were announced. Necib would sit, replaced by youngster Amel Majri, who had only seven caps before Wednesday (although she does start for Lyon).

[ MORE: Complete Round of 16 matchups for Women’s World Cup ]

Still, as the game kicked off, we wondered: Might France be capable of imploding like its men’s team had done?

We only had to doubt them for 34 seconds. Elodie Thomis got to the end line almost off the opening kickoff, her cross got loose and Marie-Laure Delie headed it home. By the 13th minute, France led Mexico 3-0 on its way to a 5-0 pummeling.

And as it turned out, France ended the group stage where it expected to, on top of Group F. Les Bleues even lead the tournament in possession, and recorded an outrageous 56-8 shot differential in the process (in the loss to Colombia, they still outshot them, 21-3). They even got a favorable knockout-round draw against Korea Republic. After that, it will be Germany (probably), of course, and a very tall order. But maybe as a man who spent his share of time in France (most of which didn’t go so well), Thomas Paine once wrote, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Maybe France needed that adversity to come together and make its mark on the world stage. Only time will tell.

– Ray Curren

[MORE: Complete coverage of 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup]

What else did we learn from Wednesday from Groups E and F?

Brazil rolling right along: If you put together a montage of group highlights there is a good chance it would not include anything from Brazil. Even Marta’s goal to take the all-time World Cup lead was from the penalty spot and did not get a whole lot of attention. But in a group filled with teams featuring incredible, attacking midfielders, Brazil rolled through without conceding a goal. Now comes the hard part, and Australia will be a tough out in the Round of 16, with Japan likely after that. At the last World Cup, Brazil showed an almost frightening inability to see out a United States team they were better than. Time will tell how good this version is and, if in position again, if they can close out tough matches.

– Dan Lauletta

England looked great. Then it didn’t: It’s still hard to keep up with Mark Sampson’s substitution and tactical patterns. England basically conceded the opener against France and only goalkeeper Karen Bardsley and Fara Williams started all three group stage matches. Still, his team responded Wednesday, with Karen Carney getting a fortuitous rebound and Williams burying a penalty to give England a 2-0 lead at the half over Colombia, all of which gave you great confidence they could beat Norway in the Round of 16 and maybe be a big factor in the weaker half of the bracket. Then they were outplayed in the second half and had to hold on for a 2-1 win. So who knows? At least Lianne Sanderson was able to get on the field (the last field player on her team to do so).

– Curren

Oh those chances: One of the best parts about this World Cup is that multiple teams that left their lots in the group stage are capable of giving the best teams in the world a run for it. It will not make Spain feel too much better that they are one of them after three matches worth of squandered chances left them 0-2-1. Many players were in tears after losing 2-1 to Korea Republic. And the match ended in particularly painful fashion. Sonia Bermudez hit the crossbar with a free kick that would have lifted Spain into a tie with Costa Rica so tight a drawing of lots would have been needed to decide who moved on. But with some more refined play in the final third Spain easily could have been moving on possibly even as group winners.

– Lauletta

Mexico continues to struggle: Let’s be honest, in a country that took its women’s soccer seriously, Leo Cuellar would be out of a job at this tournament as Mexico continues to sink not only in the world, but in CONCACAF, where they are now behind not just the U.S. and Canada but Costa Rica as well, with teams like Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti closer to Mexico than Mexico is to the top two. Yes, they were unlucky not to beat Colombia in the opener, but with a chance to go out fighting (and a chance to advance with a win at the start of the day), they showed nothing, and unlike Costa Rica, they don’t seem to have too many young players at the moment to build around. Even Cecilia Santiago struggled at this tournament.

– Curren

Korea pull it out late: As Korea Republic looked headed for the exits at halftime Wednesday night, one of the prevailing feelings had to be, “how could that team that took it to the United States a week before the World Cup finish the World Cup with only one point.” But then the Koreans dug in, attacked Spain as if their lives were at stake, scored twice in the second half, and held on for their first ever win at the World Cup. Their midfield play, when it is working, is truly something to behold and they seem to be following in the footsteps of their Asian sisters from Japan.

– Lauletta

Colombia is trending upward, but… Look, Colombia exceeded just about everyone’s expectations with four points and that upset of France is one they can hang their collective hats on pretty much forever. They are entertaining to watch and to see both Yoreli Rincon and Lady Andrade make a transformation from villain (at the previous international tournaments) to hero has been remarkable. With that being said, they have a tall, tall order against the United States in the second round, especially without goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda, who needlessly picked up a second yellow card late in Wednesday’s game. Anything can happen, but they’ve only put six shots on frame in three matches and scored on four. I think the percentages, fatigue, and the talent gap are due to end their run on Monday. But kudos nonetheless.

– Curren

Ticas offer hope: Costa Rica was so tough at World Cup qualifying and they showed it again on their first trip to the World Cup. They stole a stoppage time point from Korea Republic in their middle match and hung with an albeit not full strength Brazil team for most of 90 minutes. For Costa Rica they will leave Canada in the same boat as teams like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Thailand, and even Colombia (who are still in the tournament). If they can get their national federation behind them, the sky is the limit. Last year wthereas a huge one throughout Costa Rica soccer so maybe the Ticas can find some support in that wave.

– Lauletta

Barcelona sign Neto in goalkeeper swap with Valencia

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Brazilian goalkeeper Neto will sign a four-year contract with the Spanish champions.

The transfer completes a swap a day after Barcelona sold Jasper Cillessen to Valencia.

Barcelona says it is paying 26 million euros ($29.5 million) plus possibly another 9 million euros ($10.2 million) in variables for Neto. Valencia paid Barcelona 35 million euros ($40 million) for Cillessen.

Neto will replace Cillessen, who played as a backup for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Champions League and the Spanish league and only regularly started in the Copa del Rey.

The 29-year-old Neto helped Valencia qualify for the Champions League with a fourth-place finish for the past two seasons in Spain. He also played in Italy at Juventus as a backup to Gianluigi Buffon and at Fiorentina after starting at Brazilian club Paranaense.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

USMNT v. Panama: Three things we learned

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It wasn’t always pretty, but the U.S. Men’s National Team eked out a 1-0 win over Panama in Kansas City, Kan. on Wednesday night to win its group. Jozy Altidore scored the game’s only goal in stunning fashion, finishing an overhead kick to put Panama away and set up a quarterfinal bout with Curacao on Sunday evening.

Here are three of the biggest takeaways from Wednesday’s win:

[READ: All the latest USMNT news here]


Jozy Altidore is still the best we’ve got

Many U.S. Men’s National Team fans have called for the forced retirements of Altidore and Michael Bradley, among many others, after the debacle that was the last World Cup cycle.

Until tonight, Altidore wasn’t in the USMNT picture, in part due to Dave Sarachan using younger players and Altidore continuing to suffer a series of muscle injuries since October 2017. And yet, if tonight’s game showed anything in Altidore’s 83 minutes on the pitch, it’s that he’s still the best option for the USMNT up top. While Gregg Berhalter clearly prefers Gyasi Zardes right now based on their previous work history together in Columbus, Zardes doesn’t have the strength or skill that Altidore does. It’s hard to imagine Zardes executing an overhead kick and it going in as sweetly as Altidore did.

What does this mean going forward? Regardless of if Zardes starts the rest of the way, Berhalter knows that he has Altidore always around who can give the U.S. a goal, especially on home soil and when fit. But it also lays the marker down for Zardes, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent and the other up and coming strikers that this is the level they need to meet, and beat, if they want to break into the starting lineup under Berhalter.

There’s speed to burn on the wings

It may not have had a huge impact on Wednesday, but in bringing Tyler Boyd and Christian Pulisic off the bench, Berhalter showed exactly why he’s brought so many speedy skill players along the wings.

While Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis couldn’t figure out the final pass or final touch in the box to score a goal, just their presence for 65-70 minutes tired out the backline, and the introductions of Pulisic and Boyd could have really unlocked the Panama defense. While it didn’t totally work on Wednesday, it could in the later stages of the tournament, especially in a potential rematch with either Panama or Jamaica in the semifinals and Mexico in the finals.

With Lewis and Morris likely available off the bench, that adds a new piece opponents have to worry about, both in terms of speed and dribbling ability.

Few impressed in a chance to earn a starting spot

It’s been nearly two years since the debacle in Trinidad and Tobago, and yet aside from maybe Matt Miazga or Nick Lima, there have been very few players who have done much to impress and prove they’re better than the previous cycle’s players. That continued on Wednesday with an MLS-heavy lineup. Wil Trapp, a midfielder with so much promise a few years ago, appears to have stalled. He had multiple turnovers and certainly didn’t look as sharp as Michael Bradley.

While Lewis and Morris have plenty of pace, their final pass was woeful and they didn’t do themselves any favors. Djordje Mihailovic was never going to push Pulisic out of the starting lineup, but Mihailovic didn’t exactly do enough to say that he should be the first man off the bench either, or to push Pulisic into a wing role with Mihailovic in the middle.

Aside from Matt Miazga and Omar Gonzalez in the middle, along with Altidore up top, no one in the lineup really did enough through the first 65 minutes to warrant another start in the tournament. It’s yet another disappointment as young players get chance after chance to prove they belong as starters, only to waste the opportunity, enabling the veterans to keep their role. More players need to keep pushing for those spots, whether through club form or national team performances. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the same situation as before.

 

USMNT remains perfect, tops Panama to win group (video)

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In his first start since the U.S. Men’s National Team’s infamous defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, Jozy Altidore showcased his strength, speed and technical ability to help lead the U.S. to victory.

Altidore’s outstanding bicycle kick goal proved to be the difference in a sometimes dour game as the USMNT topped Panama, 1-0, Wednesday evening at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. The win kept the U.S. perfect through the Gold Cup group stage with no goals allowed, and it has somewhat erased the memory of the USMNT’s horrible run-up to the tournament, with defeats to Jamaica and Venezuela now firmly in the rear-view mirror.

[MUST-SEE GOAL: Jozy Altidore]

With the win, both teams head to Philadelphia for the quarterfinals this Sunday. Panama plays the undercard matchup against Jamaica while the USMNT faces Curacao.

Coming off two wins to open the Gold Cup, Berhalter decided to use a completely changed starting lineup, featuring ten players from MLS teams along with Chelsea loanee Matt Miazga. Although there was some familiarity of the players on the field, it was at times a very poor match, with the USMNT struggling badly in the final third and even turning the ball over at midfield or leading the attack.

Despite winning the possession battle, 62-38, the USMNT didn’t do much with it. Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis, both of whom were subbed out, struggled on their crosses after beating a defender. The pair provided energy and hard running defensively but it didn’t lead to many chances. Altidore had the best of the first half when he was played into the box, but his strike from the right just went wide of the net.

In the 65th minute, Berhalter tried to inject some life in the game with the introduction of Christian Pulisic. It turned out a goal could come just after, but without the intervention of Pulisic.

Djordje Mihailovic drilled the corner kick to the far post where it was met by the head of Matt Miazga who sent it back towards goal. A missed clearance from Panama popped the ball up in the air above the back post, allowing Altidore the time he needed to lift off the ground and bicycle kick it in for the game’s only goal.

Berhalter later brought on both Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes off the bench to try and score an insurance goal, but Panama’s defense held strong and the U.S. failed to threaten the rest of the way. However, the U.S. backline kept a third-consecutive clean sheet and key players such as Michael Bradley got the entire game off to rest before likely returning to the lineup this weekend.

 

 

Must-See Goal: Jozy Altidore puts USMNT in front with Bicycle Kick

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Jozy Altidore put his stamp on the game and gave U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter more to speak about with one fell swing.

Altidore finished off a corner kick in spectacular fashion, executing a perfect bicycle kick to put the USMNT up 1-0 in the 66th minute. The goal came one minute after the entrance of Christian Pulisic, which perhaps was on the mind of the Panama defense.

It was Altidore’s second-straight game vs. Panama with a goal. His last two were in October 2017, when the U.S. pummeled Panama, 4-0. Of course, a few days later, a tired USMNT failed to win at Trinidad and Tobago.