USWNT learns World Cup fate: Group D with Sweden, Australia, Nigeria

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The Women’s World Cup draw for 2015 was held in Canada’s capital city on Saturday afternoon, and set up a rematch between the United States and its former head coach Pia Sundhage.

The draw very kind to Germany, placing them in an extremely cruise-worthy Group B.

The fortune for the US was another story, with the Yanks being placed in a tough group with Australia, Nigeria and a strong Sweden (led by Sundhage). The United States will open the World Cup with a match against Australia on June 8.

If Canada and the US win their groups, they cannot meet until the World Cup final.

[ USWNT: Holiday wins player of the year award ]

But Groups E and F are the toughest of the bunch.

Colombia was briefly and wrongly drawn with Brazil before it was corrected.

Complete 2015 World Cup draw

Group A: Canada, China, New Zealand, Netherlands

Group B: Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand

Group C: Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador

Group D: United States, Australia, Sweden, Nigeria

Group E: Brazil, Spain, South Korea, Costa Rica

Group F: France, England, Colombia, Mexico

Hamm, Wambach, Morgan lead U.S. Soccer’s all-time women’s best XI (but no Solo, Milbrett)

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Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly were among the icons recognized by U.S. Soccer today, the federation naming its all-time women’s best XI as part of their ongoing centennial celebration. Striving to honor players’ legacies,  longevity and overall performance, and contribution on the field (especially in World Cups), 11 players are chosen by a 56-member panel of media, administrators, and former players, with results leaning heavily toward the team that won the 1999 World Cup.

The top of the team’s 4-3-3 formation features one of the panel’s unanimous selections, with Hamm’s 275-cap, 158-goal career making the two-time World Cup-winner an obvious pick. Abby Wambach, having recently passed Hamm as the program’s all-time leading scorer (163 goals), garnered 52 votes, while Alex Morgan, the team’s youngest player (24), named on 15 ballots.

In midfield, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly each fell one vote short of unanimous selection, while Julie Foudy received 40 votes. Akers concluded her 16-year tenure in 2000 with 105 goals, having been considered the best player in the world for much of her career. Lilly is the most capped player in program history with 352 appearances, while Foudy played in four World Cups and three Summer Olympics.

At the back, Joy Fawcett was the team’s second unanimous selection, the 239-time international having played key roles in the 1995, 1999, and 2003 World Cups. She is joined by current national team captain Christie Rampone and fellow “`99ers” Carla Overbeck and Brandi Chastain. Rampone has featured at eight major tournaments (four World Cups; four Olympics), Overbeck made 168 appearances in her 13-year international career, while Chastain is best known for converting the final penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup final’s shootout.

The goalkeeper on that 1999 team, Briana Scurry, garnered 31 votes, the panel acknowledging a career that also featured two goal medals (1996 and 2004). Her selection over Hope Solo, however, maybe be a slightly controversial one, with some seeing the current U.S. No. 1 as the superior player. Given the criteria U.S. Soccer put forth, however, the selection makes sense. The panel was asked to give extra weight contributions to World Cups, and while Scurry has been part of a world champion, Solo is still waiting for her first World Cup winner’s medal.

A more controversial selection should be Alex Morgan’s, though with only 15 votes, the current star’s selection is more the result of a fractured vote than the product of some broad consensus. Why that consensus didn’t form around Tiffeny Milbrett, however, deserves some consideration. Milbrett’s 15-year international career ended in 2005 after 204 appearances and 100 goals. She made two Olympic teams, four World Cups, led the team in goals during U.S.A. 1999, and won a gold medal in 1999. Morgan has the bigger name now and, in 134 few games, a better goal rate, but honoring Milbrett’s achievements above Morgan’s four-year international career should have been a no-brainer.

But given the nature of these types of honors, it’s no surprise there’s a blemish in the results, particularly the one that acknowledges a player that’s had such a huge effect beyond the field. And perhaps the team leans a little too much toward the `99ers – players who performed in a less competitive international landscape. But with those careers having finished, it’s easier to evaluate their contributions. Players like Solo and Carli Lloyd are still building their legacies.

For a team being selected to celebrate a centennial, landing on the side of history is best. Given the huge influence the 1999 team has had on women’s soccer in the United States, nobody will fault the panel for defaulting to the those legends in selecting the federation’s all-time best XI.

The full team, as grabbed from U.S. Soccer:

Goalkeeper – Briana Scurry 1994-2008 (31 votes)

Defender – Brandi Chastain 1988-2004 (31)
Defender – Joy Biefeld (Fawcett) 1987-2004 (56)
Defender – Carla Werden (Overbeck) 1988-2000 (49)
Defender – Christie Rampone (Pearce) 1997-present (46)

Midfielder – Michelle Akers 1985-2000 (55)
Midfielder – Julie Foudy 1988-2004 (40)
Midfielder – Kristine Lilly 1987-2010 (55)

Forward – Mia Hamm 1987-2004 (56)
Forward – Alex Morgan 2010-present (15)
Forward – Abby Wambach 2001-present (52)

And again, copied from U.S. Soccer, here are all the eligible players and (in parenthesis) their vote totals:

GOALKEEPERS :
Briana Scurry (31), Hope Solo (24), Mary Harvey (1)

DEFENDERS :
Joy Biefeld Fawcett (56), Carla Werden Overbeck (49), Christie Rampone Pearce (46), Brandi Chastain (31), Kate Markgraf Sobrero (9), Lori Chalupny (5), Ali Krieger (2), Rachel Buehler (Van Hollebeke) (1), Linda Hamilton (1), Heather Mitts (1), Cat Reddick Whitehill (1), Stephanie Lopez Cox (0), Lori Henry (0), Amy LePeilbet (0), Kelley O’Hara (0)

MIDFIELDERS :
Michelle Akers (55), Kristine Lilly (55), Julie Foudy (40), Shannon Boxx (13), Carli Lloyd (13), Shannon MacMillan (8), Megan Rapinoe (6), Heather O’Reilly (5), Shannon Higgins (4), Tobin Heath (1), Tiffany Roberts (1), Tisha Venturini (1), Lauren Holiday Cheney (0), Lorrie Fair (0), Angela Hucles (0), Lindsay Tarpley (0), Aly Wagner (0)

FORWARDS :
Mia Hamm (56), Abby Wambach (52), Alex Morgan (15), Carin Gabarra Jennings (13), April Heinrichs (12), Tiffeny Milbrett (10), Cindy Parlow Cone (1), Sydney Leroux (0), Amy Rodriguez (0)

Kinda-ry renewed: U.S. Women will open 2014 in Texas against Canada

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The kinda-ry that exploded in London 2012’s semifinals will be rekindled Jan. 31 in Frisco, Texas when upcoming World Cup hosts Canada visit Toyota Park to open 2014 against the United States Women’s National Team.

Coming off a 10-0-2 year that included a 3-0 win in Toronto over the Canadians (June 2), the U.S. will look to increase their unbeaten run to 36 games – a 20-month run that began March 5, 2012 with a loss to Japan.

Since, the U.S. has won a gold medal, claimed an Algarve Cup, and have defeated Canada three times, including a 4-3, extra time win at Old Trafford in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The controversial semifinal, which featured a hat trick from Christine Sinclair and a 123rd minute winner from Alex Morgan, marks the high point of a regional rivalry that has been decidedly one-sided. Where the U.S. has historically had competitive tensions with China, Norway, Brazil, and Germany, Canada’s all-time record against the U.S. is 3-46-5.

“It’s great to start the year with a game that is going to be a real test for us and a game that is always highly competitive,” said head coach Tom Sermanni said via a U.S. Soccer release announcing the game.  “It’s a friendly game, but one that’s meaningful for both teams, and it’s an excellent first match in a year that will end with World Cup qualifying. In 2014, it will be important to play as many quality opponents as possible.”

Despite their historical record with the U.S., Canada really should provide the quality for which Sermanni hopes. Sinclair, captain for both club and country, is coming off a title-winning season with the NWSL’s Portland Thorns. Attacker Diana Matheson, midfielder Sophie Schmidt, destroyer Desiree Scott, and defender Lauren Sesselman also had standout NWSL seasons. Each player has a key role in a national team that’s ranked seventh in the world.

Making their third appearance at Toyota Park, the U.S. will be expected to extend their dominance over Canada, but if the U.S. replicates last winter’s form, Canada stands a good shot at collecting their fourth-ever victory over their nemeses. Though they defeated Scotland 4-1 and 3-1 in two pre-Algarve Cup friendlies this February, the team was noticeably rusty after a nine-week layoff. Superior to the 20th ranked Scots, Canada should be less forgiving of any U.S. rust

With the States having a two-and-a-half month layoff before kickoff in Frisco, Canada may be able to spring a surprise, provided they can overcome their own hibernation sickness.

United States begins three-match stretch with cruise past Australia (Video)

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Like the rest of her teammates, Australia’s Lisa De Vanna will see her efforts forgotten, the cruel nature of sports’ bottom lines likely to overshadow the multiple tests she gave Hope Solo. With the U.S. goalkeeper responding each time, finishing the match with five saves, the final looks like most other friendlies the U.S. has hosted through a still-undefeated 2013. The 4-0 final was an apt illustration of the divide between the world’s first- and eighth-ranked teams.

Expect more in the weeks to come. Today’s match in San Antonio was the first of a three-game stretch, the U.S. Women’s National Team closing October with friendlies against New Zealand (Oct. 27, 30). The Football Ferns, however, are unlikely to offer as much resistance as the still-overwhelmed Aussies.

Lauren Holiday got the U.S. on the board early, her shot from just inside the penalty area deflecting off an Australian defender on its way past Lydia Williams. Eight minutes later, a nice, controlled left-footed volley from Carli Lloyd saw Holiday’s midfield partner score from roughly the same range, giving the U.S. the 2-0 lead they’d carry through halftime.

Abby Wambach got on the board in the second half, the FIFA World Player of the Year registering her 162nd international goal in the 56th minute. In stoppage time, Christen Press scored her seventh goal in 10 games, giving the U.S. a controlling four-goal win.

That control wasn’t complete, however. The defense was caught out multiple times, occasions where the ever-working De Vanna was able to get on to direct balls from her teammates and past the States’ defense. The two goals the team had in the second half could have possibly been more if it weren’t for a handful of occasions where better execution and finishing would have made this into a truly overwhelming result.

But there are only so many qualms you can have about a four-goal win over quality opposition, and given the point of these matches is to continue improving ahead of 2015 World Cup qualifying, the performance (and its details) was more important than the final score.

And on that performance, here are five things that jumped out:

source: AP
Sky Blue FC forward Lisa De Vanna nearly broke through for Australia on Sunday, often stressing North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn – the U.S.’s starter at right back. (Photo: AP Photo.)

1. Defense gave Australia their chances

We covered De Vanna, somebody whose exceptional work rate can exploit problems in any defense. Thankfully, Lisa De Vanna isn’t the greatest finisher in the world; otherwise, the U.S. would have gotten themselves into a shootout.

In her post-game interview, Hope Solo mentioned how excited she was to be playing behind a defense that was playing more two-way soccer, but the cost of that is sometimes being caught out. Maybe a fullback (Crystal Dunn) finds herself out of position. Maybe your central defenders end up isolated. There are costs to any approach, and if the U.S. truly is changing theirs — moving away from a philosophy that saw a natural central defender deemed an acceptable left back at the last World Cup — they’ll be a period of adjustment. If this is the direction Tom Sermanni’s decided to go, the U.S. will be better off for it, but they may also need Solo to paper over the cracks in the short-term.

Then again, this may have just been a bad day. Maybe we’re reading too much into Hope Solo’s words. Regardless, if the U.S. had been playing Germany, Sweden, or even Canada, the scoreline wouldn’t have been as forgiving.

source: Getty Images
Becky Sauerbrunn started in central defense for the U.S., going 90 minutes in their win at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Photo: Getty Images.)

2. Was this Becky Sauerbrunn’s best game of the Tom Sermanni era?

If the U.S. is going to play out of the back more, getting their defenders more involved in play, then Becky Sauerbrunn may become the central defender most likely to claim the spot next to Christie Rampone (who did not dress today). Though her range of passing was an issue under Pia Sundhage, Sauerbrunn is great playing the short passing game Sermanni may want. Out of all the people vying for the place next to Rampone, she is the most intelligent with the ball – somebody whose presence could allow both Holiday and Lloyd to push on, given Sauerbrunn and Rampone’s comfort with the ball.

All of this was in Sauerbrunn’s repertoire before today’s game, but today was the first time she really asserted herself. Starting next to Whitney Engen, Sauerbrunn was more aggressive in possession than we’re used to seeing her at the international level, flashing the type of game we’re accustomed to seeing with FC Kansas City. There she was voted NWSL Defender of the Year in part because of the command she had over games, using not only her defensive instincts but also her offensive awareness to make an impact.

If that awareness starts to exert itself for the U.S., Sauerbrunn will have an advantage Rachel Buehler and Whitney Engen do not. The player domestic soccer fans have wanted to see get more time since she blossomed in Women’s Professional Soccer? If today’s any indication, she may finally be coming through for the national team.

3. Sydney Leroux out wide, huh?

Sydney Leroux is the best athlete on the team. She can play anywhere, if she wants. Under Pia Sundhage, the natural striker even had a (very brief) spell at right back.

On Sunday, she started wide in a 4-4-2. It’s not her natural position, but it gave her a start she covets, and given the U.S. was extremely thin on wide midfielders coming into this game, a solution like this was necessary.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have much of an impact. At least, we didn’t see her have the kind of impact we often see the Boston Breakers star have in these types of games. Coming off a four-goal performance against Mexico on Sept. 3, Leroux was kept off the scoresheet on Sunday, and while 57 minutes in a role isn’t enough to draw any conclusions, it’s safe to say Leroux’s turn out wide produced mixed results.

source: Getty Images
Alex Morgan didn’t get on the scoresheet on Sunday, but particularly in the second half, she was a constant threat against Australia. (Photo: Getty Images.)

4. Alex Morgan looks healthy

The last time we saw Alex Morgan, she had a near-hip-to-ankle leg brace, trying to protect some injured knee ligaments. It wasn’t anything major, but it was enough to slow her down over the last month of the NWSL season. The last time we saw a healthy Alex Morgan was mid-summer.

At least, until today. Morgan looked back to her normal self, constantly sprinting past the Australian defense to get onto balls lofted down the left side. It’s the U.S.’s stock way to get Morgan involved. Thankfully, she’s back to the point where she can pull it off.

The game also served as a reminder of how much Morgan benefits from playing with Abby Wambach. For Portland in the NWSL, those long balls would often see defenses collapse on her, close own all her options, leaving her with low percentage chances. She led the league in shots and shots on goal but didn’t challenge for the scoring title, largely because, for much of the year, she was stranded up top.

Wambach, however, demands a defense only give so much attention to Morgan, and while that’s not breaking news, it’s interesting to note in light of what happened this past NWSL season. Though Thorns FC has Canadian international Christine Sinclair as a potential partner, for much of the year she was relegated to midfield. Was this game a reminder of how best to use Alex Morgan? If so, 2014 could be a big year for both her and her captain at club level.

5. So does Hope Solo

It seemed like she rushed back from wrist surgery. With the Seattle Reign off to a disastrous start in the NWSL, Hope Solo may have hurried back for a club that desperately needed one of their stars to show up. Between that and persisting questions about the flexibility of her surgically repaired shoulder (from which she hastily returned off to take part in the World Cup), Solo’s health remains an issue.

Today, however, Solo looked fine. Actually, she looked more than fine. As De Vanna streaked through the U.S. defense on multiple occasions, she was left on her own to come up big. Just as she did before her surgeries, just as she’s likely to do through the rest of this cycle, Solo stepped up.

She didn’t hesitate to act. If there was any uncertain about what she could and could not do, it didn’t show. Solo didn’t hesitate to get down on that Alamodome turf.

Maybe it was a confidence thing, Solo looking shy upon returning for Seattle. Maybe there was rust. Or maybe there really were (are) lingering issues. Athletes break down.

Solo, however, looked like the player who’d claimed the title of world’s best goalkeeper. When called upon on Sunday, she was back on that pedestal.

European commitments see United States name 25-woman squad for friendlies against Australia, New Zealand

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Oct. 20 isn’t a reserved date on FIFA’s women’s calendar, and with an increasing number of U.S. players taking advantage of opportunities in Europe, that poses a problem for U.S. Soccer. Four of the current squad (named this afternoon) are playing for Swedish power Tyresö. Two more are in France. Another promising attacker is playing for Bayern Munich. It’s hard to get the band together when their clubs aren’t obligated to release them.

That may be why 25 women were named to Tom Sermanni’s squad for upcoming friendlies against Australia (Oct. 20) and New Zealand (Oct. 27, Oct. 30), though only 18 women will dress for each match. For the Australia game, the squad will be without Tyresö’s players (Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Christen Press), Tobin Heath (Paris Saint-Germain), and Megan Rapinoe (Lyon). Erika Tymrak, with Bayern Munich after earning the NWSL’s Rookie of the Year award, was not named to the squad.

Sermanni’s team will undergo a second shift after the Australia match. College stars Crystal Dunn (North Carolina) and Morgan Brian (Virginia), who will miss their team’s Oct. 20 ACC matchup to be in Texas, will return to their schools after the Australia match. Likewise NWSL fullbacks Leigh Ann Robinson (FC Kansas City) and Stephanie Cox (Seattle Reign FC) will leave the team before the New Zealand games.

For Cox, the callup is her first since returning to the field late in the NWSL season, the 27-year-old sidelined for most of the season as she welcomed her first child. With 82 caps to her credit, the 2008 gold medalist was once a national team mainstay, though he last appearance with the U.S. was in May 2012. Now she’ll compete against Dunn and converted midfielder Kristie Mewis for a place on the depth chart.

source:
Stephanie Cox, pictured here with the LA Sol, returned to action late in the NWSL season after delivering her first child. Though 27-year-old defender has 82 caps with the U.S. national team, she’s been called in for the first time since May 2012. (Source: JMR Photography, via Wiki Commons.)

They’re part of the 10-defender crew named to the U.S. squad, one that’s emblematic of the strange tension between old world scheduling and the new realities of the women’s soccer world. Whereas the U.S. has previously been able to ignore FIFA dates because few (if any) players were playing in Europe, financial opportunities in France, Sweden, England and Germany makes it more likely out-of-window games will create conflicts. In one sense, the U.S. surely has enough depth to give players 22 through 25 a shot in otherwise meaningless matches, but on the other hand, the margin for borderline players like Tymrak, Paris Saint-Germain’s Lindsey Horan, and Bayern’s Amber Brooks diminishes with decreased opportunities. There’ll be deprived of opportunities granted domestic-based players.

With two games scheduled in the October FIFA window, it’s hardly a major concern. It’s unlikely the borderline Europeans were omitted because they wouldn’t be released for the Oct. 20 friendly. After all, the Tyresö and French contingents were still named to the squad despite being unavailable for Australia.

Still, the scheduling is an example of a unique, unprecedented predicament for U.S. Soccer. Their women’s players are becoming subjected to the same pressures as their men’s. National team priorities must be balanced with their professional ambition. While that doesn’t preclude scheduling games outside a FIFA window, it remains to be seen how the practice persists.

Heath, Rapinoe, Press, and Krieger — all key players for Sermanni are already out for Australia. A few more key players go to Europe, and these out-of-window camps will no longer be worth it.

Here’s the full squad:

U.S. Women’s National Team Roster
GOALKEEPERS (4): Nicole Barnhart (FC Kansas City), Adrianna Franch (WNY Flash), Jill Loyden (Sky Blue FC), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
DEFENDERS (10): Rachel Buehler (Portland Thorns FC), Stephanie Cox (Seattle Reign FC), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina), Whitney Engen (Tyresö), Meghan Klingenberg (Tyresö), Ali Krieger (Tyresö), Kristie Mewis (FC Kansas City), Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), Leigh Ann Robinson (FC Kansas City), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Yael Averbuch (Göteborg), Morgan Brian (Virginia), Tobin Heath (Paris Saint-Germain), Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City), Carli Lloyd (WNY Flash), Heather O’Reilly (Boston Breakers), Megan Rapinoe (Lyon)
FORWARDS (4): Sydney Leroux (Boston Breakers), Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), Christen Press (Tyresö), Abby Wambach (WNY Flash)