2015 WC quarterfinals

Australia coach Stajcic on loss to Japan: ‘Better team won’

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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.”

[MORE: US advances to semifinals  |  Germany edges France on PKs]

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.

[MORE: France midfielder Abily rips FIFA for rigged WWC bracket]

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.”

Holders Japan strike late to beat Australia, advance to Women’s World Cup semifinals

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EDMONTON, Alberta — Second-half substitute Mana Iwabuchi got on the end of a busted corner kick in the 88th minute to send holders Japan back to the semifinals with a 1-0 victory over Australia.

Aya Miyama’s ball into the box was first touched by the Australian defense, but they were unable to clear it out of danger. Defender Azusa Iwashimizu fought through an Australian player while on the ground to keep it alive and sent a pass across the six to Iwabuchi, who had little trouble with the finish. Japan had never been to the final four of the Women’s World Cup before going all the way in 2011. The quarterfinal exit for Australia matches their best showing from 2007 and 2011, but they won a knockout match for the first time this year, beating Brazil in the round of 16.

The first-ever World Cup match between Asian Football Confederation sides saw Japan as the better team through most of the match. They were the better side during a scoreless opening half. Miyama controlled the midfield and even got off a quick shot from distance for the best chance of the half. Australian goalkeeper Lydia Williams parried that one over the top. Miyama was also instrumental in creating a pair of chances for Shinobu Ohno, but both went hopelessly high.

[LAULETTA: Australia coach Stajcic says ‘better team won’ in quarterfinal]

Australia made one solid chance, but Iwashimizu was there to defend Kyah Simon and take away the opportunity. That was about the only time Simon was dangerous in the opening 45 minutes. Australia were otherwise forced wide by solid Japanese defending and poor organizational balls out of the back and defensive midfield.

The second half saw much of the same. A relentless Lisa De Vanna was taken out in the 67th minute and her replacement, Larissa Crummer, was only able to get a touch or two in an attacking position. In the end, Japan were able to control the match through Miyama’s masterful play in midfield and some excellent flank play, particularly from Nahomi Kawasumi.

To their credit, Australia rarely broke defensive shape, and in the end of the play that defeated them was a failed clearance on a corner kick. Alanna Kennedy played a superb match in central defense and Elise Kellond-Knight was good from a defensive standpoint. Not long before the winner, Kellond-Knight hustled back to her own penalty area to knock a sure chance away from Saori Ariyoshi.

Saturday’s win marked the fifth straight at this World Cup by one goal for Japan, setting a record.

Japan will remain in Edmonton to play Canada or England here on Wednesday night.

Three things learned: O’Hara steps up as United States’ high pressure sees off China

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OTTAWA, Ontario – The United States is through to the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup for the seventh time in seven editions of the tournament after defeating China, 1-0 on Friday at Lansdowne Stadium.

Carli Lloyd scored the game’s lone goal in the 51st minute in the first truly convincing performance from the U.S. at this World Cup.

Here are three things we learned:

High-pressure worked – and so did Ellis’ choice to start Kelley O’Hara: Knowing China would sit in and be defensively compact and organized, the United States was always going to have to take the initiative in this match. It may have been an ugly road getting to the quarterfinals, but Friday was finally a performance from the U.S. that displayed the confidence of a team that actually believes it can beat anyone.

The Americans pressed out China’s typically concrete back-four and created opportunities aplenty (finishing those remains both imperative and elusive). Within about 60 seconds, the U.S. was in 1-v-1 against China goalkeeper Wang Fei. Initiative was there from the start, which has been rare for this team all year as its gotten off to slow starts in matches both at and before the World Cup.

“The history of this team, we want to make other teams nervous, and not vice versa,” Lloyd said after the match.

Kelley O’Hara was the catalyst of that electric energy the U.S. brought, a breath of fresh air to a team that was looking for a kick-start. She brought flair and hustle to the field in her first World Cup start, leaving the field after 61 minutes with the battle scar of a bloody, black and blue nose with cotton balls stuffed in her nostrils (she doesn’t think her nose is broken, but hadn’t yet gotten it checked before speaking to reporters).

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

After the match, Ellis lauded O’Hara’s for both her performance on the night and for the work she put in all month.

“Kelley has been phenomenal in practice and I felt that her energy and her willingness to take on [players] and her engine was something that we needed out there,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.

O’Hara’s play was particularly impressive given that she not only hasn’t been playing – she hardly ever plays in that wide midfield position. She was named college soccer’s best player in 2009 while playing forward for Stanford, tallying 26 goals and 13 assists that senior season for one of the best scoring seasons in NCAA history.

But she was asked to play fullback for the United States and played every minute in that position at the 2012 Olympics, where the U.S. won a third-straight gold medal. So with Megan Rapinoe suspended for Friday’s quarterfinal, O’Hara got the nod to start – but as a wide midfielder.

Ellis met with O’Hara on Thursday night, when the 26-year-old O’Hara got word that she would start in a slightly unexpected position. O’Hara’s response? “I was like, sweet, let’s do it.”

O’Hara did acknowledge postgame that the wait for playing time isn’t easy, but she’s remained patient.

“You just have to show up for practice, be professional, work your ass off – sorry, butt – and be ready,” O’Hara said postgame. “Be the best teammate you can be, be the best player you can be and just be as supportive and encouraging for the people who are playing.”

On Friday, it was her teammates encouraging her as she executed everything from nutmegs to diving headers.

Defense still can’t be beaten: The United States’ shutout streak is now at a staggering 423 minutes. The only goal the Americans have given up this tournament came in the 27th minute of the opening game against Australia. The back line is quick to point out that team defending is the key, but those four defenders and goalkeeper Hope Solo have been the reason the U.S. is where it is today.

There was, however, a new addition to that defensive prowess on Friday: 22-year-old Morgan Brian. Filling in for suspended Lauren Holiday, Brian was asked to play a more defensive role to let Lloyd roam higher up the field. Quietly, Brian was superb in clamping down any fleeting attempt China made to come through the middle of the park.

“I thought Morgan was fantastic tonight,” Ellis said. “I thought her touches were good, her rhythm was good, her choices on the ball, her decisions were all very, very good.

“For such a big game and a young player, I thought she did a great job,” Ellis added.

Ellis now has a good problem to figure out: What do you do now that Brian and Lloyd played so well together? First off, Germany is not China. Ellis speaks often of executing a gameplan that is tailored to a given opponent – as every coach should – and that will be true come Tuesday in the semifinals. China sat in and absorbed pressure; Germany won’t do that at all – although the French showed for at least 45 minutes that the Germans are vulnerable. Holiday and Rapinoe are realistically likely to slide right back into the lineup, but there are now options.

Let Lloyd be free: Carli Lloyd got her freedom.

And then she got her goal.

Lloyd struggled all tournament alongside Holiday as the two were asked to play deeper than either of them are ideally comfortable playing. But on Friday, Lloyd had the freedom to get forward that she so desperately desired, and she delivered at a big moment, just as she so consistently does.

The execution was picture-perfect. Lloyd had this to say earlier in the week: “For me, I love to attack. I had a decent shot last game. I need more of that. I need to get the ball and I need to run at players, I need to create stuff. I need to find a way to impact the game, no matter how it’s going.”

After Friday’s victory and her goal, Lloyd was asked what the difference was this time out compared to previous four, more disjointed performances.

“Freedom,” Lloyd said.” Freedom to play. Do what I do best, go at players. As a team we wanted to come out fast and put them under pressure.”

It’s a freedom the U.S. needs to give Lloyd again on Tuesday against Germany, and one that really should never be taken away.

Talking tactics: United States needs changes ahead of Women’s World Cup quarterfinal

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OTTAWA, Ontario – U.S. coach Jill Ellis often tells the story of her message to the team in May 2014, when she took over the position permanently following the controversial firing of Tom Sermanni: “Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you’ll get run over,” she wrote on the blackboard.

It’s clear through four games at this Women’s World Cup that something has to give.

Perhaps it won’t matter in the end that the United States women have been underwhelming at this World Cup. They are through to the quarterfinals, favored against China and three wins from claiming their first World Cup crown in 16 years. But with France or Germany looming for a potential semifinal, the U.S. certainly would not be favored against either team on current form.

[KASSOUF: As Abby goes, so goes the USWNT  |  China seeks glory in quarterfinals]

U.S. players know they haven’t been good enough, but they take solace in the fact that they’ve managed to win ugly.

“At the end of the day, we all know we’re not playing our best football and we’re still finding ways to win,” U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said. “I think that’s the history of this team – no matter if it’s good, bad, we still find a way to get it done.”

There is still a belief – a hope – that things will come together in due time, which is of course quickly running out.

“When it finally does click, we’re going to be very fearsome,” said U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who has been the glue to a defense that hasn’t given up a goal in 333 minutes.

[KASSOUF: Rapinoe a huge loss for U.S. in quarterfinal]

China plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, a highly-organized, defensive system that isn’t easily broken. The United States has struggled against teams which play with more numbers than them in the midfield, most notably against Australia and Colombia and, to some extent, against Nigeria as well.

Such issues, combined with the suspensions of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday from Friday’s matches, have many calling for a change to the formation – or system, as Ellis prefers to call it. That seems highly unlikely, however.

“At this point, it’s not about changing a shape,” Ellis said Thursday. “I’ve said this: A lineup is just an alignment of players. It’s how you play within any shape. It’s really about how mobile we are. It’s really about what we commit to in terms of how we want to play. And again, it’s about selecting the right tools that we think will be beneficial in this match.”

[MORE: US women trying to stay positive  |  Scurry recalls 1999 WWC final]

By the sounds of it, Lloyd will push higher into the attack – her more natural position – and put more of the defensive duties on 22-year-old Morgan Brian, who is best known for her ability to create in the middle of the field. Lloyd said earlier this week that the United States’ deeper line of confrontation makes it harder for her to play the way that she would like to play.

“For me, I love to attack,” she said. “I had a decent shot last game. I need more of that. I need to get the ball and I need to run at players, I need to create stuff. I need to find a way to impact the game, no matter how it’s going.”

Despite an increasing amount of scrutiny for its style of play, the team’s mood remains optimistic – outwardly, anyway.

“In front of you guys, it is about keeping it positive,” Ellis said to journalists on Thursday. “Positive comments for my players, keeping them in a good mindset. But yeah, we met and they understand. They understand that we’ve got to continue to raise our level with each round. It’s not a matter of being satisfied.”

Players have faith in the plan, whatever it may be on Friday.

“We’re just following the direction of our coaches, the coaching plan and doing everything they ask of us,” Lloyd said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got full confidence in everyone and faith in everyone that we’ll eventually find our rhythm. We’re working, we’re grinding, the effort’s there. We just need to put it all together on the field.”

Should it all come together, the U.S. is capable of beating any team in the world. That much has never been in doubt, even before the tournament. The talent is there, but execution needs to match it. Thus far, it hasn’t. Friday is another opportunity to change that.

2015 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal preview: Germany vs. France

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When: Friday, 4 p.m., EDT
Where: Olympic Stadium, Montreal
TV: NBCDeportes.com
Team records: Germany 3-0-1 (def. Sweden 4-1 in second round); France 3-1-0 (def. South Korea 3-0)
Best performance at World Cup: Germany 2003 & 2007 (champion); France 2011 (semifinalist)

Key players:
Germany – Babett Peter: With Saskia Bartusiak suspended thanks to FIFA’s (not so) popular yellow card rule, it’s likely Peter will be the one to take her place in the center of the German defense. It should not affect Germany as much as it would a less deep squad; Peter is 27 and has 91 caps of experience at the international level, and was a starter throughout the 2011 World Cup. She also started and played 90 minutes against Thailand, so she won’t be completely cold here. However, it’s been a while since Peter has featured as a starter for Silvia Neid, and making a change in the backline before such a big match can be tricky. The United States was in a similar position in the 2011 semifinals when Rachel Buehler was suspended (red card), and Becky Sauerbrunn filled in admirably against … France, of course.

[KASSOUF: China seeks ‘re-blooming of Steel Roses vs. U.S.]

France – Marie-Laure Delie: For some reason, Philippe Bergeroo kept Delie on the bench for not one but two matches in the group stage (she did come on as a sub in one), but Delie still leads France in goals (tied with Eugenie Le Sommer) and shots on goal. Germany’s defense has not really been tested in this tournament and with Bartusiak suspended, Delie may be ready to have a big Friday afternoon that could see France win the biggest game in its history.

Under the radar key players:
Germany – Alexandra Popp: Popp has starred everywhere she’s played since she was in Germany’s youth teams, but she hasn’t looked up to the task in this World Cup, most importantly where it matters most, in the final third. She has the size, strength, and left foot to score a key goal or two for Germany and they may need her to take the chances they set up for her in this one (she currently leads the team in shots with 18 but only seven have been on goal, just one has gone in).

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

France – Sarah Bouhaddi: She hasn’t had a whole lot to do, which unfortunately is often the case when France plays, and is not widely considered to be on the same level as the goalkeepers for the other favorites (USA’s Hope Solo and Germany’s Nadine Angerer). It’s not like she isn’t experienced — when she takes the field Friday in Montreal, it will be the 99th international cap for the 28-year-old. This could be her chance to make a name for herself, though, Germany will certainly test her and a couple of big saves in key spots could give France all the confidence they need to put themselves over the top and into the semifinals.

Inside the numbers:
2 — Competitive international losses for Germany dating back to 2008. One, of course, was to Japan in the 2011 World Cup and the other came in the group stage of Euro 2013 when they fell to Norway, a loss they avenged in the final (they, of course, did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics thanks to that 2011 Japan loss). Their record of titles is truly impressive: 2003 and 2007 World Cup champs to go with six straight European titles, and eight of nine (mysteriously, they have never even been to an Olympic gold-medal game). Germany was also undefeated in 2015 World Cup qualifying (it didn’t have to qualify in 2011 as hosts), and qualifying for both the 2009 and 2013 Euros. They just don’t lose very often.

Random stat:
France and Germany have somehow met only three times ever in competitive matches. They were in the same group in 2011 and Germany rolled to a 4-2 win, but the other two were worse: a 3-0 beating that eliminated them in the group stage of Euro 2005 and a 5-1 loss four years later in Finland (they did advance and lost in penalties to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals). That match could possibly be seen as the turning point for the French, until then they had qualified for just a single World Cup and weren’t even in the top echelon of Europe, let alone in Germany’s class. Six years later, here we are.

Breaking it down:
Although the two teams meeting this early is more than likely unfair, it’s hard to imagine a more mouthwatering match between any two teams in the world from a technical and tactical perspective (obviously a US-Canada final would be fascinating culturally, but probably not as compelling on the field). Germany has rolled through everyone, including Sweden in its last game, using high pressure and frightening opponents into mistakes, but they’re mistakes that the unflappable France rarely makes. So does Neid stick with the gameplan and take the chance of getting exposed? And can France crack them open if they do?

Tactically, Neid has a tough call. Dzsenifer Marozsan is on most people’s short list for best players in the world, but she was slightly injured coming into the tournament, and bringing her on in a 4-2-3-1 for Melanie Leupolz creates the dilemma that Jill Ellis has: Marozsan is not a natural holding midfielder and will likely go forward more. That would up Germany up for counters, but that is not really France’s strength, either, although Elodie Thomis could certainly be a one-person assassin with her speed.

Bergeroo has gone to a 4-4-2 for this tournament and while Amandine Henry has been fantastic, it’s a tough ask for her to try to help win the midfield 2 vs. 3 (with Camille Abily likely) against a team with the quality of Germany. If they are unable to, that will make Thomis and Louisa Necib defend for long periods of time, and that could spell doom for France, even though its defense has been excellent and is probably the more experienced of the two. Both teams love to get their outside backs forward in the attack, but against such a formidable opponent, will they be a little more cautious against the dreaded counter?

You excited for this one yet? In the minds of most people that watch a lot of women’s soccer, France is among the elite in the world. But the French would love a statement win to cement its place there, and give it a chance to grab its first world title. Its record in these recent games has not been good. In 2011, it was beaten by the United States 3-1. A year later at the Olympics, it was a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Japan in the semifinals, and in 2013, it was a brutal Euro quarterfinal loss to Denmark in penalties. In none of those matches did they keep a clean sheet, and while they have come so far in a short period of time, France has to feel its time is now.

Alas, even without Bartusiak, I think Germany just has too many weapons and is playing too well right now for this to be France’s time yet. Maybe next year in Brazil.

Prediction: Germany 2-1