U.S. women make their own luck to reach World Cup final

You need a little luck in the World Cup. That’s what you heard from Germany … Germany’s men, anyway, after the World Cup final last year.

Germany’s women, on the other hand, were not so lucky against the USA in the World Cup semifinal tonight. A couple of close officiating decisions went against them. Playing the USA so soon after dragging themselves to a grueling win over France is less than ideal.

So can you take anything away from the U.S. women tonight?

No. Not a damn thing. They earned this.

I joked on Twitter tonight that the USA had the advantage in rest because Germany just played 120 minutes against France, while this U.S. women’s team hasn’t played all tournament. Maybe not in the Ellis era.

They did it with a radical change. We all saw how the USA was playing to this point — even when Abby Wambach wasn’t playing, the team was still playing Abby ball. In this game, they went with two holding mids and one forward, winning the midfield battles rather than relying on their outstanding defense to clean everything up. They suddenly started playing the type of soccer everyone had hoped to see, with dazzling possession that made ESPN’s Kate Markgraf marvel at German defenders being spun in circles.

See Meghan Klingenberg strip the ball away, make a simple move and play calmly to a teammate. See Lauren Holiday win a tackle and play cleanly to a teammate. See Carli Lloyd come up with the ball and race up the field. See Alex Morgan take a sharp pass from Tobin Heath and force a stellar save from Nadine Angerer. It was marvelous.

So yeah — Julie Johnston could’ve and probably should’ve seen red for the foul that led to the penalty kick. Celia Sasic took a very un-German-like penalty kick, perhaps because Hope Solo psyched her out like a poker player staring down someone trying to bluff with a pair of 3s. And Alex Morgan launched herself over the top of the box and drew contact along the way to draw a dubious penalty kick for the first U.S. goal.

But consider this:

– Hope Solo didn’t make a save after the eighth minute. Germany’s offense was so rattled by the U.S. defense’s mastery and Morgan Brian’s shrewd midfield destruction that a couple of people in the third row end-zone seating may have touched the ball more than Solo.

– The USA would’ve been up 2-0 at the half if not for Angerer’s brilliance.

– The second U.S. goal was brilliant, even if it came against a clearly downtrodden German defense.

A 1-0 deficit shouldn’t have deflated Germany so badly. They were being outplayed by France but came back and won it. In this game, though, Germany wasn’t even close to finding its way. After the goal, they looked like Michael Scott following GPS directions into a lake.

The knockout draw has favored the USA, sure. The group stage didn’t. The USA may have looked sluggish and pedestrian in winning the Group of Death, but they had to beat three legit opponents. They weren’t merrily blasting 10 goals past Ivory Coast to fine-tune their offense.

On the Keeper Notes podcast a week ago, I said it’d be a shame in a way if the USA somehow powered its way past to the World Cup final playing the way it was — stubbornly sticking with Wambach as its offensive centerpiece, sticking with Holiday as a miscast lone defensive midfielder, playing unimaginative soccer as if they were pounding their way through some 2004 Victory Tour friendly rather than building up to face teams that had caught up, tactically and technically. What would we learn as a soccer nation if we could win the World Cup doing things in such backwards fashion?

After the China game, where Ellis was forced to change things up, I didn’t feel quite so strongly about it.

Now? I don’t know how they suddenly changed gears, changed personnel and changed styles, but they did it. And they deserve it.

If you had told me a week ago the USA would beat Germany 2-0 in the semifinals, I would’ve said it must have been all luck. Instead, it was a little luck. And a lot good, inspiring soccer.

This result is big for U.S. women’s soccer. The way they did it was even bigger. And it’s reasonable to think they can do it again and regain the World Cup after 16 years.

U.S. women in the World Cup semifinals: Decisions, decisions

Jill Ellis made three lineup changes for Friday’s quarterfinal win against China, two out of necessity. The result: Still just a 1-0 win against a team that had little attacking punch, but the team looked better and felt better.

And it was the kind of performance U.S. fans had wanted to see. Amy Rodriguez was buzzing around making things difficult for China, Alex Morgan was a looming threat, and Carli Lloyd was unleashed. Not that the trio was perfect — A-Rod shanked a great chance like a beginning golfer, Morgan didn’t quite have the scoring touch, and Lloyd had a few giveaways. But this was not the lumbering attack we had seen in the past. Abby Wambach gave some inspiration from the bench and was ready to go if needed.

Then two players stepped up in surprising roles. The versatile Kelley O’Hara was a menace on the flanks, and young Morgan Brian looked like a composed veteran in a holding midfield role.

So now what? What happens when the USA takes a giant leap up in competition from a young, easily rattled Chinese team to a ruthlessly efficient German team that absorbed a couple of hours of French pressure and fought back to win?


Rodriguez: Did the German defense look a step slow against France? If so, they could be tailor-made for the speedy A-Rod. Then again, Sydney Leroux has some wheels, too.

Morgan: You just sense that it’s coming, don’t you? She made pivotal plays against Colombia and has the potential to create something magical.

Wambach: She may have another clutch goal left on her head or in her feet. She’d be perfect to bring in against a tired German defense in the second half.

Megan Rapinoe: Has to play. She’s the most creative winger the USA has.

Lloyd: Has to play in the same role she played last night. Don’t forget who scored the winning goals in the last two Olympics, and she scored again last night.

Brian: Clearly the best option at holding mid now. Lori Chalupny can play there at club level, but she hasn’t been tested there at international level in a long, long time.

Lauren Holiday: Unfortunate. She was miscast as a holding mid for months, and now it might be too late to get her back on the field in another role such as attacking mid or second forward. But we would’ve said the same about O’Hara before last night, right?

Tobin Heath: Just isn’t turning those nifty moves into anything concrete right now.

O’Hara: Maybe the best option on the right flank? Her pressure, passing and willingness to test China with an occasional medium-range bomb were outstanding last night.

Christen Press: Can she bring the same tempo-changing ability as A-Rod?

The defense isn’t in question — Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger have been so outstanding that we often forget Hope Solo is even playing.

So those five are sure starters, and I’d add Rapinoe, Lloyd and Brian to that list. Everything else is up for grabs.

Here’s one reasonable lineup that builds on last night’s success:

football formations

And here’s one that’s a little wilder:

football formations

But I’m not sure Ellis needs to do anything that drastic. She has already shown the flexibility for which I was pleading at SoccerWire. They did not play “Whack it to Wambach” for 90 minutes last night.

And as a result, I’ve gone from thinking Germany is a sure bet to thinking we may see an epic on Tuesday.

On the Women’s World Cup and Hope Solo, in that order

What a World Cup we’ve seen so far!

Stunning upsets: Nigeria tying Sweden, Norway tying Germany (this isn’t 1995), and Colombia over France.

– Moments of brilliance: Colombian keeper Sandra Sepulveda, the sequence leading to Karla Villalobos’ equalizer for Costa Rica against South Korea, and this free kick from Norway’s Maren Mjelde that couldn’t have been placed any better if she stood at the post with a stepladder:

– Overwhelming media coverage: Fox has gone all out to demonstrate that the next several men’s and women’s World Cups will be in good hands. Former rights-holder ESPN is also ramped up, matching or even surpassing their coverage from 2011, when they sent people like me to Germany to ride the rails and cover as many games as possible.

But we’re only talking about Hope Solo, right? So says Nancy Armour at USA TODAY, and I’m sure she’s not alone.

Most of my small band of Twitter followers would disagree. I’d say you could exclude the MMA folks in that band of Twitter followers, but actually, you can’t:

But let’s go beyond the anecdotal and look at Google trends: On Friday, the top trend was Women’s World Cup at 500,000. Hope Solo was at 100,000, tied for fourth with Alex Morgan. Gotta get injury updates.

Ratings? They’re good. (TV ratings, that is. U.S. player ratings, not so much.)

So I hope this is just taken as the polite, constructive criticism I’m intending. And frankly, my old paper is doing a terrific job covering both Hope Solo AND the Cup. Which makes Armour’s piece that much stranger.

More interesting stuff from the Cup:

– Abby Wambach is blaming artificial turf for the lack of U.S. offense, particularly her own missed chances. Maybe that’s better than Stephen A. Smith joking about Germany failing to stop Norway’s free kick because the players worried about their hair.

Stories like that are why I love Twitter:


(Laura also has a blog with some pointed insights on the Cup, Solo, etc. That includes a Google Map of women’s teams in the USA.)

On a more serious note — if Wambach isn’t comfortable playing on turf, should she be playing at all in this tournament? If I’m Jill Ellis, I read that and think, “OK, thanks — I’ll go with someone else.”

– But if I’m Jill Ellis, I take Jeff Carlisle’s advice on fixing the offense. Play a dadgum winger on the wing rather than letting Tobin Heath, who can inject some skill and creativity into the attack, rot on the bench. Get Lauren Holiday out of defensive midfield before a good team runs her ragged in the semifinals.

– And finally, on Hope Solo: Look, we all know her version of events is always going to be a little skewed to make her look better. She’s pretty good at spinning — even today, some people look back at the 2007 Women’s World Cup and think she’s the victim, just as she’s claiming she’s the “victim” here in a domestic dispute that most likely has plenty of blame to spread around too all parties involved.

But simply based on the facts, Sunil Gulati simply demolished Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Even after the Outside the Lines report on Solo’s family fracas and her apparently obnoxious behavior afterwards, we still don’t know how much we can trust her accusers. Is U.S. Soccer supposed to bench her now? Why? Because a senator finds it easier to make Solo a scapegoat than to tackle the circumstances that lead families to fight?

Yeesh. When’s the next game?

Hope Solo and the timing of bad news: Q-and-EG

Questions and educated guesses on the Hope Solo situation:

Q. Why did ESPN air a piece on Hope Solo, with extensive comments from a family member with whom she fought, the day before the USA was due to play its first World Cup game?

EG: Because Solo has been receiving a lot of favorable press and sympathetic interviews that have allowed her to give her side of the story, painting herself as “a victim of domestic violence” who suffered a concussion in the scuffle with family members a year ago. She was on Good Morning America, and she was in a glowing ESPN magazine feature.

So the main trigger was Solo’s recent series of interviews, which Deadspin called “Hope Solo’s Redemption Tour.” Deadspin concluded that said tour is … well …

And Solo’s half-sister, Teresa Obert, felt the same way about Solo’s redemption tour and decided not to keep silent.

That’s one aspect of it. The other aspect, which we don’t fully know, is how long veteran reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada was chasing after the depositions and other records that were part of the broadcast.

Could ESPN have aired this piece a month ago? Probably not. Not enough new info.

Q. What’s the big deal? Each side says the other is lying, and we can’t tell which is which.

EG. Or maybe they’re both lying. Or maybe everyone’s guilty of some sort of abhorrent behavior. Look at the depositions in the ESPN story and see what you think.

Q. Weren’t the charges dismissed?

EG. Not exactly. Prosecutors are re-filing charges and will be back in court July 13.

Q. Back up a second — did Solo say “concussed”?

EG. Yep. Do you remember anyone reporting a Hope Solo concussion last summer? She missed a Seattle Reign game after the incident, but injury wasn’t the given reason.

Q. Wasn’t the media wrong for the whole way they handled Solo’s marriage to Jerramy Stevens?

EG. Ah yes — the accusation from the ESPN magazine story: “UNLIKE WHAT HAS been widely reported in the media, the Stevens and Solo love story did not begin two months before they wed but in fact sprang to life in college …”

Compare that with Solo’s memoir epilogue, released after the 2012 Olympics: “Adrian was beyond committed, a steady support system for me through these difficult times. Somewhere in the past year, there had been a significant shift in our relationship, and our full commitment to each other became clear and ironclad. We decided to start looking for a home, one where we could build our life together.”

Look, relationships are complicated, and we shouldn’t be so judgmental. But I think we can forgive anyone who read Hope’s memoir in September for being a little surprised when she turned up with Stevens a couple of months later. The fact that Stevens and Solo knew each other in college doesn’t erase pages from her memoir in which she talks about her future with another man a couple of months before marrying another.

Q. I still think ESPN just did this because they don’t have Women’s World Cup rights.

EG. ESPN also ran the sympathetic feature with the revisionist history on Solo’s relationships. (Disclaimer: I’ve written for ESPN. And Fox, which is showing the Cup this time. And, most recently, Fox News Latino.)

Q. Why does any of this matter?

EG. To a large degree, it doesn’t. The U.S. team has made peace with the fact that Solo is going to do her own thing. Solo is on the team not because she’s everyone’s best friend. She’s on the team because she has been the best big-game goalkeeper in the world over the past 10 years.

But when the media stop questioning stuff that clearly merits questioning, we’ve lost our way. Then, to give one not-so-hypothetical example, Solo can say a bunch of fans are racist without any serious repercussions or even anyone giving the other side.

Q. Why did the family skip some opportunities to tell itself when the case was first active? Not just to the media. To the court.

EG. That’s a good question, and I wish Outside the Lines had tackled it. (I didn’t see the full TV piece, so perhaps it was asked there.)

Q. How will this affect the U.S. team?

EG. It won’t.

Q. How will this affect Solo’s future endorsements?

EG. It’ll complicate them.

Q. What scares you about the whole situation on a personal level?

EG. The way so many people make excuses for her rather than accepting the fact that she’s a deeply flawed human being. The fight with her family, frankly, seems a little less disturbing than her attitude toward the police. (Unless the police were lying, but what’s their incentive to do that?)

She also does a lot of good, absolutely — if you’ve ever seen her with kids, you know that. No one’s saying you can’t be her fan.

But here’s a basic fact of life: Make a claim of being a victim, and you’d better be able to back it up. Especially when we see other indications to the contrary.

Root for her on Monday if you like. That’s up to you. But if you’re looking for victims to whom you send your sympathy, you might want to choose some with where the facts are clearer and their own roles in the situation are cleaner.

But all those are just educated guesses. Not “answers.” Please don’t accuse me of telling you how to think. Just tossing out a few things to think about.


Quick Breakers-Spirit thoughts

Take the internationals off two of the top teams in the NWSL, and what do you get? A Breakers team trying to shut down Crystal Dunn by any legal means necessary and sneak one on the counterattack.

And to Boston’s credit, it more or less worked. Sure, the Spirit outshot the Breakers 16-8, and Boston’s Jami Kranich made eight saves to Kelsey Wys’ one. But Kranich didn’t really have to stand on her head in this one. Her best save may have been on Christine Nairn’s 45-yard on-target effort, though she gave up a rebound that could’ve been dangerous. Kranich could’ve done nothing to stop Amanda Da Costa’s blast from the top of the box, and Wys was wrong-footed by Maddy Evans’ deflected strike a couple of minutes later.

Final: 1-1

Boston coach Tom Durkin said he wished Nairn and Dunn had been in Canada for the World Cup. A lot of people around the NWSL surely feel the same way.

The Spirit played attractive soccer, using the wings effectively and enjoying a lot of possession. But by the end, they were whacking the ball in Dunn’s general direction, hoping she could beat four defenders and score. She often beat three, but not the fourth.

So the lingering question here is the Spirit attack. Three chances wound up at Joanna Lohman’s feet, which seems like an unusual fluke of circumstances. Dunn had six shots; Nairn had five. Shouldn’t someone else be in there?

Granted, the Breakers had much less going up front. Morgan Marlborough and Stephanie McCaffrey were credited with zero shots. But the defense held, and the midfielders got a few shots.

Both teams are in good shape to move through the next few weeks without the internationals in play. It’s going to look a little different after that.