It was one of the forefathers of women’s soccer, Anson Dorrance, who loved to talk about the importance of 50-50 balls, those times when neither team had possession of the ball and it was all about heart, effort, or whatever cliche you wanted to brandish. In Dorrance’s mind, the team that won more of those 50-50s would have more of the ball and therefore have a much better chance to win, he reasoned.
Dorrance has had his share of detractors over the years, mostly about style of play, but he did coach the United States to its first World Cup title in 1991 and has won 21 NCAA national titles at North Carolina, a record that will never be touched in Division I. Heck, no one will get close to half that number.
Coaches don’t talk about 50-50 balls as much these days, it comes off as kind of archaic, but there are still times, even at the highest level, when a big match rides on who comes out of a random scrum in the middle of the field.
And so in the 80th minute of a massive World Cup round-of-16 game, it turned out that the fortunes of two national programs turned on a ball that it looked like Brazil should come away with just inside its own half. There were three yellow jerseys and just one Australian to start, but when they corral it quickly, Kyah Simon sneaked in and poked the ball with her toe.
Then it was teammate Katrina Gorry’s turn. She stuck her 4-foot-whatever body in there, fought through a couple of those yellow shirts, and not only came out with the ball, but drilled an inch-perfect through ball to Lisa De Vanna, who had enough faith in her teammate to start her run before Gorry actually had the ball. De Vanna’s shot was spilled by Luciana, but Simon ran all the way in to be first to the rebound. Australia had a winning goal, and that was it.
From there all the narratives followed. Brazil was outc-oached, they will never be able to win a big tournament, Marta should retire, and all the other hot takes out of a match that Brazil put three times as many shots on target (6-2) as their opponents.
Which should take nothing away from Australia, of course. The Matildas matched them stride for stride and had a little extra at the end of the match when they needed it most to make the quarterfinals for the third straight time at a World Cup. And the couple of people that tabbed them as a sleeper to make the final will most certainly grow in numbers before that quarterfinal match.
But Brazil will be left to wonder, maybe for a long time, what would have happened if they just won that darn 50-50 ball in the 80th minute.
What else did we learn Sunday?
1) Brazil was solid, but they probably weren’t a contender in Canada
Marta is five-time World Player of the Year for a reason, and she will always be underrated in my mind because of who she is and where she came from. But she was not a big factor in Canada, and certainly wasn’t today as Brazil failed to generate many chances (although they hit a post and Formiga was inches away from a wonderful goal in the first half). The young defense held up extremely well in front of poor Luciana, who was probably hurt by the fact she had so little to do in the group stages. This game does not mean Brazil were poor, they could have easily won this match and maybe squeezed into the finals on the weaker side of the bracket. But they weren’t as good as Germany, France, or even the United States. And that’s a little concerning hosting the Olympics next year. They are young and that should help.
2) Those gutty, gritty Aussies
I’ll be honest, I thought they might finish last in Group D entering the tournament, but take nothing away from their performance not just in this game, but the entire World Cup. Caitlin Foord has recaptured the form she had four years ago running up and down the wing, youngsters like Sam Kerr and Steph Catley are older and wiser (as De Vanna seems to be as well), and Alen Stajcic has pressed all the right buttons so far in his impressive midfield with Gorry and Elise Kellond-Knight (who just happened to be FIFA’s Woman of the Match on Sunday) really standing out but others contributing as well. They certainly won’t be heavy underdogs in their quarterfinal.
3) Hi there, France
Sports are often riddled with the cliche of needing experience to win titles and you have to lose a couple before you can win one. If you subscribe to that, this is probably France’s time. It’s been four years since France burst onto the scene in Germany, and they certainly didn’t appear flustered by much on Sunday. Outside backs Jessica Houara and Laure Boulleau got forward at will (which is kind of what I think Jill Ellis wants to see, even though it doesn’t come as often for the U.S. as it did Sunday for France) and Korea Republic was done in eight minutes.
Interestingly, my rudimentary research shows the last time Korea Republic conceded more than twice in a competitive match was Sept. 5, 2011, when it lost 3-2 to North Korea (evidently recovered from those lightning strikes in Germany), some 30 matches ago, so France was impressive. And that France-Germany game should be one for the ages.
4) Tough ending for Ji Soyun
At least people know Marta, this was Ji Soyun’s chance to make a name for herself (even though she is one of the best players in the world). And yet she couldn’t play in the biggest game in her career, apparently because of a hamstring. She’s only 24, so hopefully we’ll see her again four years from now in France.
5) Canada’s time?
They have plenty of flaws, but in a fairly even side of the bracket, they have an in-form Erin McLeod and Kadeisha Buchanan, which are two things that none of the other teams have. Buchanan may be battling an injury, and goals may be hard to come by, but you’re telling me Canada would be a huge underdog – at home – against Norway (or England)? And by the semifinals, the whole nation (if they weren’t already) will be behind them. So I say Canada to the finals. Just don’t ask me how right now.