EDMONTON, Alberta — Australia coach Alen Stajcic was blunt in his assessment of Saturday’s 1-0 quarterfinal loss to world champion Japan.
“Today I thought the better team won,” he said
On a stifling afternoon in Edmonton, the Australians’ best World Cup ever came to a halt at precisely the same point each of their last two did—at the quarterfinals. Only this time around they emerged second in the deepest of six groups and then won a knockout match for the first time when they beat Brazil, 1-0 in the round of 16 in Moncton. (There had been no round of 16 until this tournament.)
But on this day, Japan proved its mettle with sharp, crisp passes that controlled the middle of the park and far and away the lion’s share of chances on goal.
“I thought Japan kept the ball and had a lot more patience,” Stajcic continued. “Especially in the first 20 minutes of the match. We spent a lot of energy chasing the ball in that period. They definitely had more composure and patience and probably better decision making on the ball than we did.”
To Stajcic, the match leveled off some after the first 20 minutes but there was little doubt Japan remained in charge much of the way. Lisa De Vanna put in her usual, workhorse effort but it was only good for 67 minutes. De Vanna spent most of her time on the right flank but every so often swapped to the left with Samantha Kerr heading right.
“We knew that their right fullback pushed very high so we wanted to conserve energy and just have Sam and Lisa rotate roles there a couple of times and cause them a few different problems as well—which we did,” Stajcic said.
Indeed, Australia’s best chances came at the expense of Japan’s right side, with Saori Ariyoshi pushed high as anticipated. De Vanna created one with a blistering run down the flank and Kerr later took on Azusa Iwashimizu and played her into a yellow card and free kick after the Japanese center back made a rare giveaway. Both chances fizzled away harmlessly. Australia’s other big chance of the opening half came on a through ball to Kyah Simon. On that play, Iwashimizu hustled over to deny Simon a clean chance.
Japan were hardly clinical in front of goal either, but as the time ticked towards 90 minutes, the Matildas began conceding easy corner kicks and finally ran out of defending when they could not clear one out, leading to the only goal on the day. But Stajcic said the issue was not defending—his side kept remarkable defensive shape for much of the day—but when they had the ball.
“We lost a little juice chasing the ball around (in the first 20 minutes), and you always have to defend against Japan,” Stajcic said. “But it was when we won the ball that’s where the problem occurred when we just gave it straight back.”
Stajcic has been full-time coach for Australia less than a year even though he originally took over as interim manager in April 2014. And the team is young, something the coach continuously mentioned throughout his post-match comments. Among starting defenders, only Laura Alleway was born at the turn of the 1990s and when Caitlin Foord joins Sky Blue FC, she still won’t be able to drink legally in the United States. The same goes for Alanna Kennedy, who plays for the Perth Glory and had an excellent match on Saturday. (De Vanna’s sub, Larissa Crummer, was not yet born when Japan’s Homare Sawa first played in the World Cup 20 years ago.)
“The better we get as a team and the more mature we get as a team we’ll learn to keep the ball a little bit better,” Stajcic said. “Japan were better at that aspect of the game. And even though they scored off a set piece and a scrappy sort of goal they were probably better at more aspects of the game than we were.”
Stajcic had the team full-time from the end of the league season in Australia. There were several moments during this World Cup where their continuity was apparent. But on this day they met their match against a side that just might be the new world standard for continuity in women’s soccer.
“We set about doing that,” Stajcic said when asked if he would like Australia to emulate Japan, “but it’s a long process. It doesn’t take over night. We’ve been (together) for what five months? These Japanese girls have been together for five, six, ten years. They’ve already won a World Cup, Asian Cup, silver medal at the Olympics. You can tell. Their chemistry is fantastic. They’re technically superb.
“We’ll get there.”