2014 WC Group D

Leroux expects more welcoming homecoming this time around in Vancouver

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Things are different this time around for Sydney Leroux.

Last time she played at BC Place in Vancouver – not far from where she grew up, in the suburb of Surrey – for 2012 Olympic qualifying, Leroux was taunted by Canada fans. Over a year later, after taking some grief in Toronto after scoring in the United States’ victory over the hosts in a friendly, Leroux said that she was subject to racial slurs at that qualifying tournament in Vancouver (the claims were never proven).

In a still-growing women’s soccer rivalry between the United States and Canada – one ignited by a controversial, 4-3 extra-time victory by the U.S. in the 2012 Olympic semifinals – Leroux has been soccer’s public enemy No. 1 in Canada. She played briefly for Canada at the youth level before deciding to pursue her dream to play for the world’s most storied program, the United States. London was the team’s third consecutive gold medal.

[KASSOUF: USA expecting Nigeria to ‘fight for their lives’ on Tuesday]

So Leroux took off for Arizona at age 14, leaving behind her mom and the life she knew in Canada to make it with the United States. (Leroux’s father, Ray Chadwick, is a former professional baseball player who is an American citizen, which makes Leroux eligible to play for the United States.)

This homecoming appears to be much different than the last, Leroux says.

“To be honest, that is totally in the past,” she said Monday underneath the stands of BC Place. “And the amount of people who have come up to me while walking the streets of Vancouver and even Canadian fans, being like, ‘Congratulations, we’re proud of you, we’re coming to the game, we’re rooting for you guys’ – it’s been really cool. So I really don’t have anything bad to say.”

[MORE: Nigeria team open about religion, but players can’t be openly gay]

Claims of any racist behavior by Canadian fans have never been proven. Leroux did not file any complaint with the Canadian Soccer Association at the time, instead voicing her opinion after scoring in that June 2, 2013 win for the United States.

“When you chant racial slurs, taunt me and talk about my family don’t be mad when I shush you and show pride in what I represent. .america,” Leroux tweeted after scoring in Toronto and raising the U.S. badge on her jersey to the sold-out crowd.

U.S. Soccer said in a statement following that Leroux tweet that the player “has endured abuse both verbally and in social media,” since switching her international allegiance from Canada to the U.S. in 2008.

Canada fans have in the past often referred to Leroux as “Judas” for making the switch and she is subject to boos, but Vancouver has had a decidedly American feel to it over the past few days. A sellout crowd of 51,000 fans is expected at BC Place for Tuesday’s USA-Nigeria game, and the crowd will be predominantly American. Ninety-five percent of all ticket sales at the 2015 Women’s World Cup have been to U.S. or Canadian citizens, according to a World Cup National Organizing Committee spokesman.

[MORE: What to watch on Tuesday at the Women’s World Cup]

Leroux said a few weeks ago in New York that she expected some kind of backlash while in Canada, but the host country has been refreshingly welcoming. “I’ve worked very hard to get where I am and I hope that people understand when I come to Canada that that was the best decision for me and my family to make when I made the decision.” The expected pro-U.S. crowd should make for a friendlier environment this time around.

“I don’t think that it’s been like that this time around,” midfielder Lauren Holiday said of the team’s support for Leroux. “I think that Canada has been very welcoming and we’ve had some great fans.

Nigeria must win the game to have any chance of advancing to the knockout stage of the tournament, while a win for the U.S. will guarantee that the Americans win Group D, dubbed the Group of Death. That could make for a wide-open match.

“[Nigeria] gives space, but they close it very, very quickly,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said Tuesday.

Leroux says she has about 50 people coming between family and friends, including friends from her days in Sereno, Ariz. For Leroux, that makes Vancouver feel like home again.

“I love Vancouver more than any city in the world,” she said. “Obviously, my mom still lives here, my family still lives here, so this city is very dear to my heart.”

The Americans’ hope is that the city remains endearing to them, on Tuesday and again on July 5, when they hope to be in the World Cup final.

US coach Ellis won’t respond to Sundhage’s comments, other distractions

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The message is clear from United States women – and especially from their coach: They aren’t distracted.

“For me, all I do is focus on my players and my team and our preparation,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said Wednesday. “That’s really kind of where my mind is at, so I think I’ve made it pretty clear that distractions don’t really creep into my mind when I’m trying to prepare my players and my team for the game.”

Ellis’ message is the same one that she has echoed for weeks as the amount of media attention on the world’s No. 2 team has increased ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, but the subject was different on Wednesday.

[KASSOUF: Women’s World Cup notebook – Morgan makes big return]

Sitting in front of an overflow media crowd of Swedes and Americans packed into a room unfit for the size of the eager crowd, the first two questions to Ellis revolved around Sweden coach Pia Sundhage’s comments in a New York Times article published on Tuesday.

Sundhage coached the United States from 2008-2012, winning two Olympic gold medals and leading the team to the 2011 World Cup final. On Friday, she will sit on the opposite bench to coach her native Sweden against the United States in a crucial match for the Swedes, who twice blew leads on Monday in a 3-3 draw with Nigeria.

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

Sundhage was quoted in the Times piece as saying U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd was a “challenge” to coach because she is so “delicate.” Sundhage said Abby Wambach would be a substitute if she were still coaching the team and she noted that goalkeeper Hope Solo was a challenge herself, “especially when it comes to trouble.”

Ellis, who frequently discusses keeping herself and her players in a “bubble” to shield them from media distractions, said she was briefed on the article by her press officer. She says she did not talk to the team about the article.

The latest distraction comes days after an ESPN report yielding new details on Hope Solo’s domestic violence arrest in June 2014. Solo is alleged to have assaulted her half-sister, Teresa Obert, and teenage nephew in a confrontation. The case was dismissed on procedural grounds in January, but Obert and the prosecution are appealing the decision, bringing the subject back into the spotlight on Sunday, the day before the United States opened the World Cup against Australia. The Americans won 3-1 and Solo made several game-changing saves. Asked after the match if she was distracted, she said she is “perfectly focused.”

Ellis was peppered with questions about Solo on Sunday. She also said then that she was briefed on that report but hadn’t paid attention to it. Ellis reiterated that message on Wednesday about the quotes from Sundhage, under whom Ellis was an assistant coach at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

“We’re an incredibly professional group and the only focus for us is 3 points and our preparation to try to advance,” Ellis said Wednesday.

Lloyd told SI’s Grant Wahl that she “plans to respond on the field” on Friday.

U.S. defender Lori Chalupny, who was part of Sundhage’s 2008 Olympic team, was succinct in response to an inquiry about the report.

“I think when you’re in the World Cup, there’s no extra motivation needed,” she said.

Bubble or not, expect the U.S. to be extra fired up on Friday against their old coach.

Women’s World Cup notebook: Sweden up next for United States

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The United States women held a light training session in southern Winnipeg on Tuesday, the morning after defeating Australia, 3-1 in their 2015 Women’s World Cup opener.

The 10 field players who started the match were given the morning off from training, while Monday’s reserves and the three goalkeepers participated in about a one-hour long session.

Monday’s performance by the United States was shaky despite the victory. Australia dominated the opening 20 minutes and would have gone ahead early were it not for two world-class saves by U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo.

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

Several players and U.S. coach Jill Ellis admitted the performance was sub-par in the opening minutes, citing nerves among other things. They believe all of that is out of their collective system now, however.

“All those things that you see in the first game, we got out of our system,” midfielder Tobin Heath said Tuesday.

Ellis said before Monday’s match that she wanted the team to build into its peak throughout the tournament. (“I’m so damn literal, aren’t I,” she quipped when asked a follow-up on that following her team’s underwhelming start to the match against Australia.)

Morgan gets back into full swing

Alex Morgan trained Tuesday after seeing her first minutes of game action in almost two months on Monday. She entered the match in the 79th minute on Monday and looked as eager as any player who hasn’t played for club or country since April 11 might be expected to be, showing confidence and having a go at goal almost right away.

“We’re so excited to have Alex back,” Heath said. “Obviously a world-class player and someone we’re going to need this tournament. It’s awesome to see how quickly she’s gotten back into the group. The way she’s taken care of herself over this time has just shown. She’s been able to jump in so seamlessly with us now. So in that way, we’re really fortunate to have her back healthy and we’re all excited to just have her on the team and on the field.”

[ MORE: U.S. tops Australia  |  Three things learned  |  Not at their best ]

Morgan’s introduction to the match was a dramatic one. She began warming up not long after halftime. Ellis said that given Morgan’s knee injury – a bone bruise in her left knee – the U.S. staff wanted to allow the 25-year-old forward extra time to warm-up. Morgan was personally accompanied by U.S. fitness coach Dawn Scott while warming up.

And after the long warm-up, Morgan had an extended wait to check into the game. She stood at the midfield line for an inordinate amount of time. There was no stoppage in play for over five minutes until Megan Rapinoe scored the United States’ third goal.

“I was waiting for the ball to go out of play for like five minutes,” Morgan said postgame, laughing as she replayed the dramatic wait in her head. “It took a while. I was hoping that someone would maybe kick the ball out of play a little quicker than that. But that’s OK, I think that we were playing well. We were keeping the ball really well and when I got in, I was just happy to help the team in whatever way that was. And that was to keep the 3-1 lead and not to (give up) another goal.”

Morgan said after the game that she feels “really good.”

Sweden up next for the U.S.

Sweden looked like the worst of the four teams in Group D on Tuesday. The Swedes scored twice in the first half on corner kicks that were a result of poor marking and goalkeeping by Nigeria, but they never settled into the game, failing to find any rhythm in the midfield. Sweden blew the 2-0 lead and then again conceded late while leading 3-2 to draw Nigeria, 3-3.

After the match, Pia Sundhage was quick to point out on multiple occasions that players didn’t follow her game plan. Sweden wanted to prevent 1-v-1 opportunities for Nigeria, since the Super Falcons are so dangerous off the dribble. But all three goals saw Nigeria either 1-v-1 or in behind Sweden’s defense.

[ MORE: Nigeria rallies to draw Sweden in wild opening match ]

Sundhage said before the game that Nigeria was a mystery of a team, since they are so hard to scout. So was she surprised by anything?

“Not really, because I was prepared and we prepared the team quite well,” she said. “As I said in the beginning, we just – if we would have been able to follow the game plan, we would have done even better. Now, yeah, scoring three goals was nice. But this was not – I saw another game in front of me. But then again, it is the first game and people out there are a little bit nervous. At the end of the day we have a second game and a third game as well, so we will do better.”

Midfielder Lisa Dahlqvist was a particular culprit, in Sundhage’s eyes.

“Lisa Dahlqvist, she was 100 percent ready to go, it was more of the gameplan, the fact that she should work really hard to make space for (Caroline) Seger and give a lot of battles. So I didn’t expect her to play 45 or 50 or 65 or something like that, so we prepared Linda Sembrant to jump in and take over her position, role”

Sundhage was complimentary of defender Nilla Fischer, which was interesting given Fischer was culpable on all three Nigeria goals (she did score one on the other end).

Next up for Sundhage and Sweden is the United States on Friday. This will be the fifth time the two teams have met in a World Cup and the fourth straight edition in which they have met in group play. The two rivals can’t seem to shake each other, and this time, there is the added wrinkle that Sundhage coached the Americans to two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup final from 2008 to 2012. While guiding the U.S. at the 2011 World Cup, Sundhage lost to Sweden in the group stage.

A New York Times piece released on Tuesday revealed what are being made out to be controversial quotes from Sundhage about her former team. She called U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd a “challenge” to coach because she is so “delicate.” Sundhage said Abby Wambach would be a substitute if she were still coaching the team and she noted that goalkeeper Hope Solo was a challenge, “especially when it comes to trouble.”

To some extent – and part of this is Sundhage’s English being her second language – this is just how Sundhage speaks. She’s honest but hardly confrontational.

Asked by a Swedish journalist on Monday to ensure that Sweden wouldn’t follow the same fate as 2007, when a tie against Nigeria in the opening match eventually led to Sweden missing out on the knockout stage, Sundhage laughed.

“I can ensure you one thing: I will do my very best to make sure that I boost the team and we come together as a group and at least try as hard as we can to win against United States of America,” she said.

Nigeria-Australia could be a goal-fest

Nigeria-Sweden was the best match of the tournament through one round of play. It is clear that the Super Falcons love to attack, and they have more organization than ever in doing so.

[MORE: Australian FA website blasts U.S. performance]

Australia was similarly impressive against the United States and could have had a different result had Solo not bailed out the Americans twice early. Both Nigeria and Australia showed a propensity to attack and a slight lack of desire to defend, which could make Friday’s match-up another thriller.

“You’ve got two very similar teams, haven’t you?” Australia coach Alen Stajcic said. “You’ve got two teams that like to attack, two teams that like to go at each other.”

Nigeria coach Edwin Okon refused to over-hype the importance of Friday’s match, the potential loser of which could be doomed in the Group of Death. Every match is a must-win match, he says.

Women’s World Cup Day 3 — Has Africa arrived?

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Heading into Monday’s action, the continent of Africa was 4-25-3 in World Cup play, the last two of those victories (including Nigeria beating Canada in 2011) coming after both teams involved in the match had already been eliminated.

The reasons for the slow growth of African women’s soccer has to do with some of the socioeconomic and cultural reasons I mentioned Sunday. And if it has been difficult for men’s teams from Africa to find their footing on the world stage, you can imagine how hard it is to get funding, respect, common decency, etc., for their women’s teams.

[RESULTS: Japan edges Switzerland  |  Cameroon routs Ecuador]

But, if history has taught us anything, it’s that talent finds a way to shine through barriers. Yes, Nigeria did not advance in 2011, but they only conceded two goals in the tournament, while Equatorial Guinea and Genoveva (Ayo) Anonma went home 0-3, but certainly not outclassed the way African teams had been in the past.

Perhaps you can write down Monday, June 8, 2015, as the date when African women’s soccer finally arrived on the world stage. For the first time in 16 years, the continent got four points in a World Cup, and not only did Cameroon and Nigeria do it within hours of each other, they did it impressively. Admittedly, Ecuador was poor and eventually down to 10 women, but Cameroon was rampant almost from the opening kickoff in a 6-0 rout (no other African victory at the World Cup had ever been by more than two goals).

[KASSOUF: USA gets by Australia  |  Solo saves the day  |  Room to improve]

Meanwhile, Nigeria came from two goals down to draw 3-3 with Sweden, but – despite the reaction of the world as the result being a surprise – likely deserved all three, recording more possession, twice as many shots, and much better chances with a front four of Asisat Oshoala, Ngozi Okobi, Francisca Ordega (of the NWSL’s Spirit), and Desire Oparanozie making Sweden look ordinary. And “ordinary” is being generous.

In 1999, Nigeria beat North Korea and Denmark and came from three goals down against Brazil in the quarterfinals only to have Sissi win it in overtime on a golden goal. Had Nigeria won that game, it would have played the U.S. in the semifinals. So somewhere Mercy Akide (now coaching in Virginia and married to Nigerian sportswriter Colin Udoh) and the other foremothers of the current African generation had big smiles Monday night.

There’s obviously much of the tournament to go, but Cameroon has likely qualified for the second round already with 3 points and its goal differential. Nigeria would have liked 3 points with the U.S. and Australia remaining, but will be far from a pushover for either. And don’t be shocked if the Ivory Coast – who actually looked decent going forward against Germany – finds a way to beat Thailand and join them in the knockout stages.

What else did we learn Monday?

1) Asisat Oshoala might be a household name soon

She doesn’t turn 21 until October, but has already been the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year thanks to her dominance at Liverpool and was voted the best player in Africa last season after winning the Golden Boot at the 2014 U-20 World Cup as Nigeria lost to Germany in extra time in the final. She has pace, strength, size, and skill, and Sweden had no answer for her. Ngozi Okobi may also get some looks from Europe if she continues to torture defenses like she did Monday.

2) However, Nigeria does have a goalkeeping issue

Precious Dede has played for Nigeria in almost every big match they have played since 2003, but shaky doesn’t begin to describe how she looked in the first half against Sweden set pieces (of which they scored on two corners). Edwin Okon does have 23-year-old Ibubeleye Whyte as a back-up and she did post a clean sheet in the African finals last year (against Cameroon). However, she only has six career caps, and it would be asking a lot to put her up against the Abby Wambachs of the world in the air. But Nigeria has to figure that out or all their hard work and young skill won’t help them advance.

3) Meanwhile, Sweden has a defense problem

Pia Sundhage was so scared by Nigeria’s speed that she replaced BOTH center backs (Nilla Fischer and Emma Berglund) while leading in the second half. It didn’t work. Replacement Linda Sembrant (who also scored Sweden’s third goal) stepped way too early, allowing Ordega to tie the game in the 87th minute. Sweden allowed only one goal in 10 games of UEFA qualifying, but that is deceiving because they were in a turrible (as Charles Barkley would say) group, and one certainly devoid of the speed they saw Monday (with apologies to Scotland’s Jane Ross). With the U.S. and Australia coming up, things won’t get easier on that front, so Pia will have to do something, or Sweden could be facing an extremely embarrassing first-round exit if they’re not careful.

4) Gaelle Enganamouit may not be too far behind Asisat Oshoala

The 23-year-old who plays in Sweden looked the part of a world-class striker in picking up her hat trick, even if the competition was dreadful (if I had another bullet point, I could muse about how far South America has fallen behind Africa in women’s soccer because the gap looked pretty significant on Monday, and no team from South America other than Brazil has ever won a match at the World Cup). Japan and Switzerland both looked very good in their opener on Monday and both will pose many more problems for their defense, but it would be surprising to see them get beaten as badly as they beat Ecuador Monday.

5) You can’t qualify for the World Cup from Europe anymore if you’re not good

This may be Switzerland’s first World Cup (and they’ve never even qualified for the Euros), but their roster is loaded with players from the top European leagues (including 11 from the Bundesliga). Rightfully so, Ramona Bachmann will get a lot of the press after Monday’s game (and boy does she wish she has that chance in stoppage time back), it’s great to see her finally healthy and that obviously makes the Swiss a much tougher out in this tournament. But veterans Martina Moser and Vanessa Bernauer (both of whom play in Germany) more than held their own in the middle against the defending world champs. Alas, they got no points for their troubles, but given the weak group they’re in, there is reason to take a lot of positives out of the 1-0 loss.

Top Ten Players of the 2014 World Cup’s Group Stage

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It’s quite a task selecting the best 10 performances from 32 teams playing three games each, but in the hard world of being employed to rank world footballers, I stand ready.

It’s especially hard not to just latch onto incredible moments and insert a player on the list. Robin van Persie’s headed goal against Spain still amazes me, but was he the driving force behind the Netherlands’ surprising group stage? Certain teams got by on defending, so does that mean one defender can rise above the rest?

[ RELATED: Complete bracket for Round of 16, more ]

Oh, shoot. Let’s just do this thing. The Top Ten players from the 2014 group stage were:

10. Gervinho, Ivory Coast – No, Les Elephants were not able to charge out of their group stage funk, but that was no fault of the electric Gervinho, who challenged back lines and midfields alike.

9. Arjen Robben, Netherlands – He’s a menace, and his motor never stops going (even during his full-energy dives). Robben drove the Dutch into the knockout rounds.

8. Enner Valencia, Ecuador – The bright spot in a disappointing tournament for La Tri, the ‘other’ Valencia has been linked with a number of Premier League sides including Newcastle United.

7. Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico – You watched the Brazil/Mexico match, right? Can you believe El Tri had coaches who didn’t suit this guy up?

source: AP6. James Rodriguez, Colombia – Absurdly-gifted and just as productive, James is one of the main reasons Colombia could emerge from the loaded CONMEBOL quadrant and into the semifinals.

5. Karim Benzema, France – If this guy played in England, he would be one of the most popular players for American audiences. He’s big, talented and hard-charging.

4. David Luiz, Brazil – So PSG is going to team Luiz up with Thiago Silva? Champions League, beware.

3. Neymar, Brazil – If there’s been more stress placed on a younger player by a host nation, we’ve yet to find him. Coming into his own during this tournament.

2. Thomas Muller, Germany – All he does is score goals, and that bullet against the United States was bordering on impossibly well-placed.

1. Lionel Messi, Argentina – Any more questions about the Atomic Ant on the international stage? He was Argentina in the group stage.

Honorable mention: Wayne Rooney, England; Yeltsin Tejeda and Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica; Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, United States; Daley Blind, Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay, Netherlands; Blaise Matuidi, France; Xherdan Shaqiri and Diego Benaglio, Switzerland; Andre Ayew, Ghana; Juan Cuadrado, Colombia; Merhdad Pooladi, Iran; Serey Die, Ivory Coast; David Ospina and Jackson Martinez, Colombia; Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, Belgium; Ivan Perisic, Croatia; Claudio Bravo and Alexis Sanchez, Chile; Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria; Oribe Peralta, Mexico; Diego Godin and Luis Suarez, Uruguay; Islam Slimani, Algeria; Keisuke Honda, Japan; Mesut Ozil and Mats Hummels, Germany.