US 0 Brazil 4

What happened?  You practice and practice for three years to play six games, you develop a strategy, player rotations, you make sure they’re comfortable with both, and then on the eve of the World Cup you blow it all up and you bring out the atrocious game plan that was implemented against North Korea.  You switch to a formation the team has not played, you play with marking backs, you see it’s not working yet you fail to make any adjustments at all at halftime.  Silly me, I was worried that he was going to bring that awful game plan out against Brazil, mark Cristiane and Marta with a slow footed Cat back there sweeping . . . this was my nightmare.  Never in my wildest dreams or nightmares did I think the coach of the US National Team would do what he did, that he would bench the goalkeeper who has gotten him this undefeated record that keeps getting quoted over and over again, a goalkeeper who has played brilliantly throughout the tournament (minus one careless touch), a goalkeeper who today, in 2007, is the most athletic, quickest, savviest goalkeeper in the player pool and the only goalkeeper with which the defense, today, in 2007, is familiar, the goalkeeper who got the team to the semifinals of this tournament.  Never, in my wildest dreams or nightmares did I think the coach of the US National Team would bench this goalkeeper.  It is unheard of, it is unprecedented, it is simply the most inexplicably horrendous decision I have ever seen in sports. 

I have tried to figure out why, I have sat down with rabid soccer fanatics at my place of employment who don’t really follow the women’s game to see if someone with a more dispassionate perspective could figure it out, and I have uncharacteristically actually read some of what was written by established media sources in the aftermath of the game. I have yet to find anything that makes any sense of this at all.  How in the world could the coach of the US National Team have thought this was going to work?  How in the world can he not see that Briana Scurry’s reflexes, mobility, range and vertical jumping ability aren’t anywhere near what they were?  How in the world could he be so out of touch with exactly what an emotional team he is coaching, such that he did not even contemplate what benching one of the best, most consistent players on said team would do to everyone else?  How could Greg Ryan not know what every other person on planet Earth knew?  That the decision he made was going to be disastrous.  How could he not know?  I don’t have an answer – I wish I did.

Regarding Hope and her post game comments.  Well – as you can see by my comments, I agree with her 1000%.  There’s no question that she’s right.  There’s no question that for reasons I don’t think anyone understands, Coach Ryan based his decision on who the best goalkeeper was 4-8 years ago rather than who is unquestionably the best goalkeeper today.  I just wish Hope had let the pundits be the ones to say it.  I’m here saying it, the folks who are actually paid and who someone has decided are the real experts are saying it, Foudy and DiCicco hinted at it (they love Bri, they’re both close to her personally, they weren’t going to say it outright).  She should have left it to everyone else – we had you covered Hope, it was taken care of.  That said – who cares about her comments.  The shrill commentary questioning her spot with the national team because of those comments is ludicrous.  This happens in men’s sports all the time, apologies are made, everything’s fine.  If anything other than that happens in this case, if there are any negative ramifications for Hope because some reporter who should know better stuck a microphone in her face, then the entire program needs to re-evaluate who it is and what it’s doing.

All right – regarding what actually happened on the field.  From that first ball Bri mishandled about 5 minutes into the game, it was obvious the team was in trouble.  Bri and Hope are stylistically incredibly different keepers.  Bri is more a stay at home keeper who is not very good with her feet.  Hope roams all over the place and is exceptional with her feet.  This was going to be a huge adjustment for the defense and defensive midfield and this was going to be a huge adjustment on set pieces.  With the decision being made two days before the game, there was simply no time for the rest of the team to adjust.  I think they knew that, the whole vibe of the team, all the body language said to me yesterday “we don’t have a chance” – that was especially true after the second goal scored. 

Offensively, well, Greg Ryan gutted the midfield earlier this summer.  Reading that article on Fifa.com, Ryan expressed views that indicated that he didn’t see the value in “pretty” play and that direct play was more effective for this team.  His comments in that article made it very clear that he does not value midfielders, midfield play and that he does not have a very sophisticated handle on the offensive side of the game.  Point being, against a technical side like Brazil, Team USA ran into the same problem they had against North Korea.  There was no one setting offense, there was no one connecting the forwards with the rest of the team.  As we have seen all tournament long, if the US was going to do anything offensively, it was going to have to be a forward getting the ball and creating for another forward, a set piece, or an individual making a move taking on defenders – a concerted and orchestrated US attack has simply been absent.  And yesterday, playing a 5 woman midfield (even though Elaine dropped back into the defense quite a bit) the forwards, and therefore the offense, never got on track.

I’ll try not to go on too much in my player comments – after Boxx went off, it all broke down and I don’t have a lot to say about individual play after that point.

Formation – (4-3-3, back-front, right-left)

GK – Scurry; Def – Rampone, Whitehill, Markgraf, Lopez; Mid – Osborne, Chalupny, Boxx with Chalupny up and Boxx and Osborne back; Forward – O’Reilly, Wambach, Lilly; Lloyd in for Lopez; Ellerston in for O’Reilly (because when you’re down 3-0, what you really want to do is make sure you’re playing good defense . . . oy); Dalmy in for Markgraf.

Players

Scurry – I don’t want to pile on, I really don’t . . . but it’s 2007 and she’s 36 years old.  Even having her on the roster was questionable.  Putting her in the semifinal?  It was insane.  Her range is limited, her ability off her line is questionable, her ups are gone, her reflexes and athleticism are greatly diminished, she didn’t even appear to have her usual killer demeanor out there.  She is simply not a national team caliber keeper anymore and I have to wonder what in the world Greg Ryan was watching in that Brazil game over the summer if he couldn’t see it even then.  He can’t really be that horrible a judge of talent, can he?  From that first misplayed ball about 5 minutes in, it was apparent she was not put in a situation in which she could succeed.  First goal, yeah, Osborne put it right past her.  But where was the communication – Bri was right there in position, why didn’t she call Osborne off.  Again, this is a ball Hope would have played differently, she would have come off her line to get it, Bri makes that play on her line.  Osborne had no clue, she’s not played with Bri (in any meaningful fashion), and she put it in.  Second goal, put right past Bri on the near post – should have been saved, it wasn’t that good a shot and was easily within even an average keeper’s range.  The other two goals, US was playing a player down and the defense got beat on them both.  No clue what Hope could or would have done with them, but you can’t blame the keeper in that situation.  Those goals were scored on the defense.  All this said, let me say this in Briana Scurry’s defense – it’s not her job to quit.  It’s the coach’s job to know when she’s done.  She got called on for this game and she did her best.  It’s the coach’s job to know that her best is no longer good enough. 

As for Ryan’s explanation of the goalkeeper switch, it’s complete and utter crap.  As for Tony DiCicco and Julie Foudy talking about Briana’s ballstopping ability and reflexes in the present tense, that is also complete and utter crap.  It’s 2007, it’s time for everyone, from fans, to commentators, to players (both former and present) and for the love of god, coaches, to forget about 1999.  Without question, the most brilliant game of Briana Scurry’s career was in WWC 1999 against Brazil – it was the most dominant goalkeeper performance I have ever seen and there is no way in the world the US would have won that game had she not been exceptional.  But here’s the thing . . . it was EIGHT YEARS AGO.  It was eight years ago . . .

Now, what is truly disturbing me about this from a Bri standpoint is the comments I’m hearing and reading about Bri’s legacy.  I asked my rabid soccer fan friends about this yesterday as well.  And I find it befuddling that people think this is going to tarnish her legacy.  Come on, this was a ridiculous decision by a coach who has been so clearly in over his head from the moment he got to China.  It doesn’t reflect on Bri or her storied spot in the history of the US National Team program at all.  Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.  It’s just a shame she’s been put in the position she has.  Hope’s not the only one who deserved better than this from the head coach, Bri did too. 

Rampone – Of the defenders, I thought her game was the most solid.  Her speed was generally good enough, I only remember one time in the first half where she got completely beat.  She got forward fairly aggressively in the early going.  Second half, playing a man down, the whole US team was chasing.  I think when Tina came in and was marking Marta there were some communication problems and some issues with defenders not helping Tina out with the double team.  I don’t have much else. 

Whitehill – Speed was an issue.  For speed not to be an issue, they needed to be better organized than they were and they needed to have better communication/more familiarity with the goal keeper than they did.  She got beat 1 v. 1 and she was late to the double team in the second half.  She did have some nice free kicks.  I would have liked to have seen her take Bri’s goal kicks.  Those balls were barely making it three quarters of the way to the midfield stripe in the second half and if Cat had been taking them maybe the forwards would have had a chance to get involved.  As has been discussed ad nauseum in other forums, the US is playing direct.  If the kicks from the back aren’t getting at the very least to the midfield stripe, then playing direct has absolutely no chance of working. 

Markgraf – Lost Marta at a pretty key moment in the first half.  She was using her speed well and was actually one of the better players on the pitch in the second half . . .until she went down.  I’m just relieved it was an ankle, it looked worse than that to me when she first stumbled.  I still think she needs a midfielder to dump the ball off to instead of taking long kicks.  Her long kicks are only very rarely on target and I think the offense would be better served if she had a short pass outlet in the midfield she could consistently send the ball to. 

Lopez – Speed, or the lack thereof, was a problem here as well.  I knew that the Brazilians would pick on her, which is probably why the US played Markgraf next to her in this one.  She really didn’t make much of an impression.  Like Cat, in order for Stephanie to be effective against an opponent like this, the defense has got to be organized and double teams from the central defense have got to be plentiful.  The defensive shape in the first half simply wasn’t there. This is the first game where she looked a little overwhelmed to me. 

Ellerston – Having her mark Marta actually looked like an idea with some potential.  It looked pretty good for awhile.  When the samba queens started dancing though, her teammates didn’t have her back.  Just because you’ve got your speedster marking, doesn’t mean you just leave her out there on her own.  Double team, whenever Tina and Marta got anywhere near the box, there should have been a second defender closing and it simply didn’t happen.  Marta’s arguably the best player on the planet, covering her 1 v. 1 and washing your hands of it was never going to work.  To me, this is the strategy that they should have been working on though.  Team USA isn’t playing through the midfield anyway, so stick Tina in there at the start of the game, have her mark Marta, let the defense keep its shape and have the other d-midfielder and Chalupny play an aggressive high line.  Now THAT would have been an interesting adjustment to make for the Brazil match rather than changing the goalkeeper.  It would have had a relatively low impact on the rest of the team, and if it wasn’t working, you could change it at the half. 

Dalmy – Nothin’, I’ve got nothing’.  I was so disgusted at that point I could barely think straight. 

Regarding the defense as a whole – they were off.  It’s unrealistic to think they wouldn’t be.  Again, the reason why you don't see a voluntary goalkeeper switch this late in a tournament is that you derail your defense as well.  This more than anything is why I think people should be calling for Ryan’s head.  What he did is simply not done in soccer.  It’s not because other coaches aren’t as imaginative and creative as Ryan, it’s because it is fundamentally unsound.  If he can’t grasp a concept as simple as not changing the goalkeeper who got ya there, then he has no business coaching at any level, let alone with the US National Team.

Osborne – Big mistake.  From the angle she had on that ball, as far behind it as she was, not sure why she thought putting a head on it was going to be a good idea.  She was too far away to get any angle on it other than straight back, and she was in front of goal.  Back off.  Instinct takes over, I guess.  You have to wonder if she’d been more familiar with Bri, or felt more confident with the new keeper in goal, if she would have played that differently.  That said, she had a relatively solid outing in the first half.  I didn’t think she looked too rattled or devastated after the own goal.  She was still chasing and mopping up a lot of what was coming through the center of the field.  Even in the second half, the Brazilian attack was coming up the flanks.  It was a relatively solid outing, one with a huge and unfortunate mistake.

Chalupny – She was active.  I thought she was playing some nice defense throughout the midfield.  The US was actually disrupting the Brazilians quite well during the first half.  Despite the fact the US was down 2 goals, they actually made Brazil look pretty pedestrian until Boxx went off.  On offense, she was running into the box on occasion and had a great chance early on.  I still think that with a true playmaking midfielder in there she’d shine more brightly, but she had a fairly solid outing in this one.

Boxx – That ref was itching to send her off.  About five minutes before she got the second yellow she collided with a Brazilian player.  You could see the wheels spinning in the ref’s head even then – I thought she was going to boot her at that point.  What I didn’t see, is what Foudy was talking about.  I didn’t see the ref give Boxx a warning at that point.  She did it with Lloyd later on, so she knows all about warning players for questionable plays, but I just didn’t see her have any dialogue with Boxx.  Anyway, I saw that coming – yeah, it was a bad call, but you could tell from watching the ref on the earlier play, that it was coming.  And it’s a shame because Boxx was actually having a pretty good game.  She was sending some balls forward on the ground and switching the point of the attack a little and she was defending well.  She was a key part of disrupting the Brazilians throughout the midfield and she’s got the size and savvy to deal with Daniela and keep her off some of the US’s smaller offensive players.  Solid outing – it’s a shame the ref handled things the way she did. 

O’Reilly – I could actually do all of the forwards right here.  I don’t have much on any of them.  In the first half, play was predominantly in the middle third of the field or in the US end.  The forwards didn’t have a ton of touches.  In the second half, the forwards were even more marginalized.  Heather’s most notable plays, in my mind at least, were on defense.  She spent a tremendous amount of this game in the US half of the field defending.  She was doubling back and escorting Brazilian players back until they passed off or until she handed said player off to Rampone.  I think she had a fairly significant role in disrupting the Brazilian attack in the first half.  Offensively, it was a disappointing outing.  The comparison that’s generally made with Heather is with Mia – she’s that type of player.  In a game like this, the Mia-type player has got to go back into the midfield and make something happen.  Heather was going back in the midfield playing defense, but she wasn’t going back there to get the ball for herself, Abby and Lil.  When it all breaks down, you’re playing with three forwards and the coach decides not to put a playmaking midfielder on the pitch, if one of the forwards doesn’t go back and get the ball, then there won’t be any offense.  And the US really didn’t have much of an offense in this one. 

Wambach – Hardly any touches in the attacking third.  There was no one focused on getting the forwards the ball.  Maybe because the game plan seemed so focused on defending Brazil rather than attacking them, the players felt the same way.  But there just didn’t seem to be any offensive strategy at all in this game . . . in this whole tournament actually.  I have no idea what they were even trying to do on offense.  I haven’t had any idea what they’ve been trying to do on offense all tournament.  Was it really just pass the ball to Abby or let Chalupny and Lilly take on players 1 v. 1?  Is this the strategy the National Team of the United States was employing?  Can anyone figure out what was supposed to happen here?  Anyway, without some sort of offensive strategy, without Boxx and Solo in the game to actually get the long balls forward with some accuracy, with Cat chasing on defense and unable to send her long balls forward, without all of that, with the “strategy” the US has been implementing this tournament, there wasn’t much of a chance for Abby to get involved.

Lilly – I wasn’t thrilled with the veteran leadership on the pitch yesterday or after the game (a friend of mine emailed me asking why the veterans on the team didn’t sit down with Hope and make sure she didn’t get herself in trouble on the way through the mix zone – I had no answer for him), and that failure has to be Lil’s.  After the second goal scored, Team USA looked and played like a defeated team.  Ryan looked like he was sitting on the bench contemplating whether he’d be fired before or after they touched down in the US.  And no one looked like they had a plan on how the US could steal a goal back.  If ever the team needed a Carla Overbeck moment, it was in this game, and unfortunately, no one delivered one.  And that was disappointing.  As for her game, same comments as O’Reilly.  Go back and get the ball – didn’t happen.  She did have a couple of chances in the first half, but she never seemed terribly dangerous or involved.  At the outset of the second half, Lil appeared to be playing from the midfield, but she wasn’t connecting any better with the forwards than anyone else was.  And that’s it – this one won’t go on her Hall of Fame highlight reel and I won’t be shocked if this one, and the ugliness of all that preceded and followed it, sends her into retirement.

Lloyd – I’ll say this for her, she came in there and was trying.  Very active, very high workrate, looked like she was trying to be everywhere all at once trying to make something happen.  There wasn’t a lot of planning behind what she was doing though and she wasn’t getting a lot of help from anyone else on the field.  She got a little feisty on defense a few times, and got the warning from the ref that Boxx should have gotten.  I don’t have much else.  If there’s a next coach in the not too distant future, I hope that coach sees fit to have her in there with a traditional attacking midfielder.  I’d love to see her on the field with an Aly Wagner (or Aly Wagner type) to let her use that finishing touch more effectively.

 

One of my rabid soccer fan buddies came into my office yesterday, sat down, stared at me and said “this is the ugliest day in the history of US Soccer.”  He’s only very casually aware that the women’s team even exists, and this was his take on it.  It’s all over the mainstream press.  More has been written about this than has been written about the US Women’s National team in the past 4 years (OK, maybe an exaggeration, but not much of one).  And I’m still sitting here numb because I still can’t comprehend what just happened.  I can’t figure out how a coach managed to take a supremely talented group of women who he has had in residency preparing for these 6 games for two years and find a way to make them look confused and unprepared.  I can’t figure out why a coach would be so determined to make himself the story rather than to just let his team play. 

As a fan, all you ever want is for your team to put itself in the best position to win.  At the end of the day, you want to know that your team put its best foot forward and either was or wasn’t good enough.  What I think is so upsetting about this, and is why followers of this team were upset before the team even took the pitch yesterday, is that we know that the US coach didn’t put his best team on the field.  He didn’t put the team on the field that for the last three years has been getting ready for this moment.  And now, why I sit here still numb and thoroughly disgusted, is that we’ll never know what could have happened if he had.


Beulah