Freedom 1 Courage 1
Well - it was good finally to see the team at home again. But I have to say, I canít help but be a little discouraged . . . and that discouragement doesnít have as much to do with the teamís play as it does with the fact that I spent the entire game looking at the back of Anne Makinenís head. Now, thereís nothing wrong with the back of her head, the back of her head is perfectly lovely . . . hereís the problem though, if Iím sitting behind the bench and Iím lookiní at the back of her head that means sheís not playing and thatís darn discouraging. Unless sheís got some sort of undisclosed injury then her benching is beyond my comprehension. She was consistently one of the best players on the field for the Freedom at the start of the season then she goes to play for her country and somehow loses her place in the lineup . . . I donít get it, especially since the biggest problem the Freedom seems to be having is pushing the ball forward through the midfield. Possession remains strong for the Freedom, but possession is taking place almost exclusively in the Freedom half of the field (far too much in the Freedom third). The entire team plays backward - they look back before they look forward and that results in the Freedom attacking after the opposition has 9 or 10 players behind the ball - there is absolutely no quick attack and almost no counterattack at all without Anne Mak on the field - the few times they did push forward quickly and got over the midfield stripe they would invariably turn around and pass back (or pass to Lindsey who would put it 15-20 yards wide - not one single offensive minded bone in that kidís body - sheís defending great through the midfield, but without Anne Mak on the field she has to make offensive decisions and trust me when I say nobody wants that). Anyway, point being, with the Finn sitting on the bench, the Freedom essentially play with 2 defensive midfielders. In my opinion, the issue should not be Gerardo or Makinen - the issue should be Gerardo or Stoecker (and if you pick Gerardo, then move Stoeck back to the central D and let her play alongside Grubb and bench one of the other defenders). OK - so thatís my Anne Mak diatribe - and if she is hurt, then get well soon Anne Mak, because the Freedom are a much much better team with her on the field than with her on the bench screaming at the ref because of all the bad calls (am I the only one who gets the feeling that unless someone takes out a billy club and starts beating Abby over the head with it sheís not going to get a whole bunch of foul calls going her way . . . itís unbelievable what the officials allow folks to do to her . . . and am I the only one who thinks the ref really really wanted to give a Little a yellow card, but that he was getting confused as to who was doing what and didnít know who to give it to so he just kept calling foul after foul after foul on both of them. . . but I digress). OK - I am lacking direction even more than usual so Iíll get to the players.
Freedom - (4-3-3 back-front, right-left) GK - Mullinix; D - Skylar, Zimny, Grubb, Barr; M - Gerardo, Stoecker, Pu Wei; F - Jaqui Little, Wambach, Bai Jie. Milburn in for Bai Jie; Cook in for Gerardo and still, Iím lookiní at the back of the Finnís head.
Courage - (4-3-3, although it looked more like a 4-4-2 at times - back-front, right-left) GK - Luckinbill; D - Burt, Baxter, Wilson, Slaton; M - Roberts, Riise, Fettig (I could have them mixed up a bit but I think thatís right - all three of them play central so itís tough to figure out who started where); F - Yankowski, Fotopolous, Lehn. Barnes in for Yankowski, James in for Baxter (she got her bell rung - Abby definitely has the harder head - hope Baxter was OK - she did not look good as she staggered off the field), OíHanley in for Lehn, and Iím just a sap but it made me smile to see Carla Overbeck in uniform warming up before the game.
Players - Most of the individual Freedom performances were good. However, not pushing the ball forward through the midfield just seems to be a teamwide epidemic.
Mullinix - she looked pretty rusty but it was a good game for her to get her sea legs back. There wasnít a whole lot that was really dangerous coming at her but there was a good deal of activity so she was busy and engaged throughout. Her kicking was at times a little shaky - Iím not sure whether it was deliberate or not but she was booting some low line drives that werenít making it very far - she may be trying to send up more manageable balls, but if sheís going to pull back her kicking she needs to pull it back a bit more productively (i.e., aim at someone - she had a couple she put to either Stoeck or Abby and that may have been what she was trying to do . . . or she might have just muffed a bunch of kicks - who knows). Defensively she looked good. As for the goal - well, she can only go in so many directions at once - great combination play on the part of the Courage, they drew her to her right, they put it to her left and then one more pass and slotted it in right to Siriís right . . . three touches and she was moving with all of them and by that third touch they were just ahead of her and goal for Hege and the Courage. Overall, a solid performance considering this was her first start of the season.
S. Little - some of them were fouls, some of them were not - it seemed that if your name was Little or if you were over 5í10" then you were the one who fouled in the second half. Other than that, it was a fairly solid performance. She dealt with Slaton flying up the left flank fairly well - I think all of our defenders would appreciate it if someone would challenge the wing defenders before they get a full head of steam going and cross the center line. There was one play she managed to run with Slaton for about 40 yards and get the ball out. Thatís as much speed as Iíve seen from Skylar. She continues to be a scrappy little player and is good taking the ball up herself, even if passing the ball forward through the midfield remains a problem for her and the entire team.
Zimny - a solid performance - welcome to the WUSA Casey. She did seem to have a little bit of rust at the start but by the second half that seemed to be gone. She had one play in the second half that indicated that sheís a very mature defender and didnít look like a rookie in her first game at all. She was facing Lehn 1 v. 1 - Lehn was dribbling right at her, doing all sorts of tricky little moves, Zimny was right with her, eye on the ball, she slipped, fell, got up and when Lehn finally tried to cut in, Zimny got the ball from her and smashed it out. I liked that she wasnít intimidated by the Norwegian Nat Teamer, didnít get flustered by the slip, and didnít get faked out by Lehnís footwork . . . sometimes itís in the little plays that you can learn the most about defenders and I liked what I saw in this one.
Grubb - best player on the field for the Freedom in this one. Itís hard not to give that award to Abby every game, but Grubb was just everywhere all at once in this one so Iím giving it to her. Every single time I thought the Freedom was in trouble, Grubb would just pop in, make the play and clear the ball - it seems effortless and is no doubt underappreciated by just about everyone (case in point: Siri got "Hyundai hero of the game" rather than Grubb who I thought was far more deserving) but I tell ya, she gets my player of the game in this one. As always, I must say I LOVE this girl and Iím very glad she plays for my team.
Barr - I donít have a lot here. She had a couple of Emmy Knucklehead moments, but overall a fairly solid outing. I do love that speed . . . wish weíd been able to use it a bit more on offense in this one, but when you push forward as slowly as we pushed forward, itís tough to get a lot of offense out of the back. Why make the run, if no one is going to protect you from the offside call with a through ball - and no one was putting balls through. There are all sorts of ramifications of passing back and passing back and passing back - everyone is just sitting in the back waiting for someone to find a pass that pleases her - so in the meantime, no one is making runs forward up the flank unless she happens to have the ball - so the Freedom doesnít have numbers up and the attack takes about 5 years to develop and the opposing defense is always totally prepared for what they see. So, basically, Emmy doesnít get forward and we have no service in from the flank and it makes our attack a bit more one dimensional and makes it easier for the defense to key in on Abby and Jaqui.
Gerardo - I continue to not get the fascination with Gerardo. She plays good defense - no question - but if Iím not mistaken, Lindsey Stoecker is our defensive midfielder . . . so the Freedom needs someone to play attacking mid and Gerardo simply does not do that well, she has never done that well and I donít understand why sheís put in that position for the third week in a row. Sheís either a finisher or a defender - putting her in a position where she needs to distribute the ball isnít playing to her strengths at all and is leaving the Freedom with a very slow developing attack and putting way too much pressure on the forwards to manufacture goals on their own while being covered by many many people (anyone elseís heart stop while Abby was on the ground holding her knee writhing in pain . . . and when she got up limping . . . and continued to limp for the next 10 minutes or so? The Freedom has got to develop a game plan in which it is not so easy to pummel Abby and Jaqui, especially since, as we saw in this one, and have seen in other games as well, theyíre not getting calls from the ref).
Stoecker - her defense is great . . . maybe she should be playing on defense. She definitely needs to play, after watching her the last 3 games though, Iím thinking more and more she needs to play on defense because she has absolutely no offensive instincts and that played out much much more in this one than it has previously. Her shot selection is terrible and the shot itself is almost as bad. Lindsey Stoecker aiming the ball at the goal from about 35 yards out and hitting it 10-15 yards wide or over the goal is something I can live my whole life and never see again. She did it several times in this one simply because she has absolutely no idea what else to do with the ball when she gets forward. Solution? Donít put her forward, put her in the back with Grubb, get Anne Mak the heck back in the lineup and letís watch the Freedom turn some of that great possession in its own half of the field into legitimate scoring chances in the attacking third. In this one there was little going on in the attacking third that wasnít created by Abby or Jaqui (mostly Abby), and the solution to this problem might be as simple as moving Stoeck back on defense and getting the teamís attacking middie in the game.
Pu Wei - Well - I like her game better when Anne Mak is in there (yes, I like everyoneís game better when Anne Mak is in there). Sheís not quite the offensive organizer that Anne Mak is in there and I like Pu Wei better when she can be a bit more creative and a bit more selfish - that is, I like it better when Anne Mak is there to pass to her and organize and push the ball forward quickly. With all the passing back and passing back and passing back eventually what has to happen is that someone just has to boot the ball forward because the other team will push forward to pressure the ball and try to get the turnover deep in the Freedom third and when that does happen, the midfield is bypassed - so Pu Wei isnít getting as many touches on the ball as she does when the team is able to play that possession game and push forward quickly all at the same time. Ya know, I realize we lost that game, but they looked as good in that Atlanta game as they have all season. Without Abby, they couldnít net one, but they were pushing forward quickly and possessing the ball beautifully. Why we donít want to do that with Abby on the field is a mystery to me. Anyway, this was about Pu Wei, wasnít it . . . ultimately a pretty quiet performance and far from as effective as I think she can be.
Jaqui Little - she had a great game. She and Abby have developed a tremendous chemistry together up top. Unfortunately I think the midfield in this one was having some trouble getting the ball up to Abby and Jaqui. Both of them were holding up their runs waiting for the ball the whole game. I do think Jaqui needs to put those through balls in to Abby a bit quicker - just needs to pop them through a step earlier than she does. Everyone is waiting too long to push the ball up, even the forwards - everyone seems to think the only way to advance the ball is to dribble it forward . . . into traffic. The whole team needs to watch some tape of teams passing forward and the whole team needs to practice finding seams - itís really not that hard - Iím sitting at ground level and Iím seeing them, Mia was obviously seeing them as she was up and buzzing in the coachesí ears throughout the game. Speed of play is just way too slow in the attacking third. Overall though, I like what I saw and she and Abby combined nicely on the goal (although, it looked more like a missed shot to me than an actual assist on Jaquiís part but that might have just been my angle - whatever, numbers up and very opportunistic regardless of the intent - good stuff).
Abby Wambach - once again, a tremendous performance - especially since the Courageís defensive game plan seemed to be "pummel Abby" and the ref seemed to have absolutely no problem with that. Now, I could sit here and talk about her offense, and gush about her goal, and talk about how sheís such a surprisingly technical player and how she was the only one creating any chances and how much speed sheís got and on and on and on - but I do that every week and will probably resume doing that in the next one of these. This week, however, I want to do something different - I want talk about her defense. I donít know why I havenít mentioned it, but she is incredible defending in the box - both on set pieces and simply tracking back. She has made many a timely save on corners and in this one she made a brilliant one running back and heading an especially scary ball back out of the box. Iím not sure she saved a goal, but she certainly saved a shot on goal on that one. This kid just does everything well . . . and Iím beginning to suspect sheís a little bit taller than her listed 5í10" . . . if sheís not, then sheís just the biggest 5í10" out there. Oh - and just one note on the competitive spirit of this one - this game was a tie and after the game she looked like someone ran over her puppy - I like that, I like that the tie bothers her and that having an individual strong performance wasnít enough (people were congratulating her - from Mia to the coaches to Bai Jie and she just looked like she didnít want to hear it and would trade the congratulations for a win in a second) . . . donít get me wrong, I donít want her to kill herself over a tied game, but I definitely like that she wasnít satisfied with this result.
Bai Jie - I didnít think this was a great game for her. Iím glad she seemed to be passing a bit more in this one though. She has kind of been developing into a black hole from which no ball emerges over the past few weeks and I have been quite annoyed by it. So that was a development about which I was quite pleased. Again, I think once Anne Mak is in there and can spread that ball around a bit Bai Jie will look much better. Anne Mak was really just becoming the beacon for everyone - sheís who you could look for and pass to when you were in trouble - no one else has emerged in that role in her absence, hence the endless back passing and some players getting too few meaningful touches. I donít have much else here - I think I lost her a bit in this one.
Miburn - she didnít help much, but she didnít hurt either, so that was good. She brought in some good energy though. Sheís another one who needs someone in there who can play the ball faster. Milburnís speed of play isnít good so she would definitely benefit from a good playmaker in there so she could just get herself in position to be a target. Not a bad performance though, just didnít see that she improved things a whole lot.
Cook - uhhhhh - Cook in the game and still, Anne Mak sits on the bench . . . Címon, someone please tell me Anneís hurt and the Freedom just arenít putting it on the injury report (my newspaper was drenched Saturday morning and I threw it out without opening it, so maybe I missed the "Anneís Hurt" article). Have I mentioned how well Michelle French has been playing this year?
Courage - as usual, this will be painfully thin - I was contemplating the back of Anneís head a lot - and frankly in the second half, watching the Freedom bench reacting to the foul calls was extremely entertaining - Jimmy G turning bright red from yelling at the 4th official so much - Mia, Anne Mak and Dawn Greathouse were up and screaming at the ref a lot - especially on one call on Skylar - Mia and Anne Mak were right in his face that time and Dawn had their backs . . . and Dave Vanole kicked the bench - I kid you not, the guy slammed his foot into the metal bench - heh heh - so anyway I was distracted - and Iím running out of steam - not a good combination so this will be relatively short.
Luckinbill - well, there really werenít just a ton of dangerous chances for her to save. She looks solid though. Sheís got a very nice defense playing in front of her. Kicking game was solid . . . I donít have much - sheís a very nice-solid keeper. On the goal, Jaqui drew her to her and Abby wound up with the ball and put it home - not just a ton she could do - ball moves faster than the keeper - thatís how Siri got caught as well. Overall a nice solid keeper playing a nice solid game.
Burt - I continue to like her a lot. She was one of my favorite discoveries last year and sheís still out there doing a great job. Sheís rock solid defensively and gets up in the attack wonderfully. She even cuts in and tries to playmake at times. Good stuff - she looks like sheís playing with a lot more confidence this year as well.
Baxter - sheís doing a great job in the central D. Sheís just a big mean defender. She and Abby were matched up and going toe to toe quite a bit and Abbyís got some speed on her but she didnít back down. That collision that knocked Baxter out of the game shows she doesnít back down - she definitely got the worst of that one. Thatís about all Iíve got - sheís a nice strong central defender, reads the game well, has that "big, mean" thing going for her, and since defending was the best part of her game last year as a defensive mid, the move to the central D was a good choice.
Staci Wilson - Iíve seen Carolina a couple of times now and to me, sheís the weak link on this defense. Much of the day Slaton was playing her position and Wilsonís as well. Wilson is scrappy, thereís no denying that, but sheís tiny and tiny doesnít work well in the central D. Watching her the few times she got caught guarding Abby was kind of amusing - Abby can just sit there and hold the ball and pay those little defenders no mind - Wilson was right on her and Abby just put an arm up like she was fending off a child. And I donít think Wilsonís as fast as she used to be - if she is, then sheís just making all of her reads really late - like I said, Slaton was getting to where Wilson needed to be before Wilson did. If Carla comes back with any game at all (and even I realize thatís an "if") then itís pretty obvious who is going to sit. Again, not a bad game, but it seemed to me that Slaton carried way too much of Wilsonís load and thatís a position where the Courage can upgrade.
Slaton - you know what I said about Jen Grubb above - well, copy it and put it down here. Best player on the field for the Courage today - everywhere all at once and playing two positions. And the 1 v. 1 matchups with Abby were wonderful - not quite the epic matchup that the College Cup game was, but there were a couple of times they matched up and got tangled together - running stride for stride, pushing and tugging on each other trying to get the ball. Youíve got to take the time to appreciate these little matchups when they occur - itís what makes the game fun. Offensively - well, the Freedom seemed to not want to challenge Slaton (or Burt for that matter) until she got to the midfield stripe and very simply, you canít give Danielle Slaton that kind of time or space. Most of the time sheíd find a good pass (a forward pass, I say pointedly) well before anyone decided to pressure her - a couple of times she just kept on running - one time she got all the way up the left flank before Skylar got to her (to Skylarís credit, she ran with Slaton awhile and booted the ball out, but that doesnít make Slatonís run any less fantastic). So overall, fantastic game and Slaton is as advertised.
Roberts - well this started out as the Tiffany Roberts Foul-A-Thon, but then it seemed you had to be named Little or over 5í10" to get anything called against you so she managed to stay out of too much trouble (just watched the Atl-SJ game - not a terribly proud day for officials anywhere, eh? Can we say "let the game get WAY out of control," boys and girls?). Thatís pretty much what TR does though - sheís small to be the enforcer, but thatís who she is on this team so she fouls. Sheís got better speed than a lot of defensive mids and doesnít have a ton of distribution responsibilities so sheís free to harass folks throughout the midfield like a little gnat and sheís fairly effective. She has trouble connecting passes at times, but she basically has a limited role over there and she performs it fairly well. The Freedom midfield wasnít doing just a ton of stuff offensively in this one so she didnít have a real busy game, but she was disruptive and managed to be solid enough.
Fettig - Ya know - Iíve seen all of New Yorkís games except for this weekís and Iíve got to ask the question - just what the heck was Pat Farmer thinking? Fettig is better than anything New York has got running around its midfield. She did a tremendous job today. Getting forward into the attack - getting back on defense, very tough player - thereís really not anything to dislike about her game. Sheís just a nice solid player in the league and the Courage got a real nice gift - they should send Pat Farmer a fruit basket or something.
Riise - she looked slimmed down on TV, but man, seeing her in person sheís almost unrecognizable - just what the other teams in the league needed (and Team USA for that matter), Hege Riise found a way to get better. She looks faster, she looks fitter, and she looks just a good as usual. I really didnít think this was a dominating Hege Riise game though - she was solid enough, but they didnít look quite as organized and she didnít have quite as many touches as Iím accustomed to seeing. Part of the fewer touches is simply that Fettig is better offensively in the mid than Baxter was last year and takes care of some of it and part of it is that Yankowski and Lehn were both playing a little too deep in the midfield and were just bringing the ball up themselves and I imagine part of it is that this simply wasnít as good a game as Carolina can play. As for the goal, itís the type Hege sets up more often than the type that she scores - she saw Siri was leaning/preparing for a shot from the right (Siriís left) so Hege neatly tucked it in to the left of her (Siriís right) - very ably and professionally done. One thing that had me scratching my head a little bit was that Hege wasnít taking free kicks from about 30-35 yards out - while Slaton is awfully good at those, Hegeís got about 10-12 years taking those things on her and there are just some things with which you shouldnít tamper.
Lehn - she was solid enough - I think I lost her the first half because she was on the other side of the field, so I donít have a bunch here. She didnít seem really comfortable playing forward in this one - at times it looked a lot more like Carolina was playing a 4-4-2 than a 4-3-3 because at different times both Yankowski and Lehn were playing deep in the midfield. I think Carolina was having some issues of its own getting numbers forward - the ball would get forward, but it would just be Fotop up there with Yankowski running up at the last second to help out. My understanding is that Lehnís more natural position is in the midfield, so I imagine Prinzís arrival will let her go back and team up with Hege in the midfield (heck, maybe they can move TR back and get Wilson outta there - it would be a shame if Fettig had to go to the bench - maybe Fettig can move back - I just think Wilson is the weak link in the starting lineup and since someone has to go to the bench when Prinz arrives and since two of todayís starting forwards are midfielders and two of todayís starting midfielders can play on D, Iím thinkiní you Staci Wilson fans better enjoy her now because she might not be getting a ton of playing time in the future).
Fotop - ya know, she was out there, she was running around . . . But the Carolina attack just didnít look real dangerous today. Like I said, Carolina was having some attacking issues in this one - just didnít look as composed and organized as usual and since Fotop is a target player who sits up top waiting for the ball, that lack of organization impacts her game most. She looks quite fit though and was moving well. She still doesnít play tremendously well away from goal, then again as deep as Lehn and Yankowski were playing at times, she really needed to do just what she did which was to sit up top and wait for the ball. So, a solid game, just not a lot of opportunities.
Yankowski - well, Iím always real hit or miss with this one. Sheís another one who was solid enough, I suppose, but I was a tad underwhelmed. Maybe itís residue from the Wendy Gebauer Kim Yankowski hype from last year, but I see a nice player here, nothing more. She runs around a lot, in this one it seemed to be without a ton of direction. She did do one thing I liked - she started pressuring Freedom defenders a bit (Fotop did too) - Iím telliní ya, that endless Freedom back passing which commonly puts the ball all the way back to Siri about 4-5 passes later is going to kill them at some point. Thatís about it - I didnít lose her, thereís just not a ton to say about her - I noticed she was running around a lot, but didnít notice much else.
Barnes - she did a good job of staying forward - I thought she brought a bit of life to the Courage attack. Courage looked much more dangerous in the second half and she was a big part of that. Donít have a lot more to say than that. I saw her play at West Virginia a couple of times and think sheís got a ton of potential. I look forward to seeing how she develops.
James - just came in when Baxter staggered off. Iíve got nothiní.
OíHanley - not much here either - when she came in I figured Carolina was going for the tie. They got it, so just a fine sub, I suppose.
Well - thatís about it - as always I ran totally ran out of steam there at the end. Now, Iím typing some of this as I watch a tape of the CRay-Beat game. This is how you back pass - when youíre in trouble - or once or twice. What you donít do, is you donít take a ball in the attacking third of the field and pass back and pass back and pass back until the ball is back to the keeper, and you donít make the back pass the featured play of your offense - very simply, your team will not win many games playing like that and you will get your forwards killed like that - it will be 2 or 3 v. 8 or 9 every time down the field. And I fully expect for teams to get wise to what the Freedom are doing and theyíll start sending forwards or middies to put lots of pressure on the defenders back passing - turnovers will result as will very quick counter attacks - they need to solve this problem soon - not only are they attacking into 9-10 players, but theyíre setting themselves up to get nailed.
I still like a lot of what the Freedom is doing though, I just think that not only has the ball stopped moving forward, but the teamís progress has as well. Simply stringing together 5 or 6 passes is not enough if all of those passes are in the teamís defensive half/third - they have got to be able to push that ball forward quickly and the decisionmaking has got to get better if they are going to consistently mount a dangerous attack and be a team thatís in the thick of things in August. The good news is, and I donít think I have been terribly subtle on this point, I think a lot of the answer is simply putting our favorite Finn back in the game - I wouldnít expect a basketball team to play without its point guard and I donít expect the Freedom to continue to play without its playmaker - not if they want to win consistently, at any rate. Looks like next week is the only game we donít get to watch here in DC (either live or on TV) so hopefully by the time we see them again Anne Mak will be reintegrated into the offense and we can see what this team can do with all of its pieces in place (Steffi will be here by then, wonít she - ooooo, we will have all sorts of fun things to talk about next time . . . ).
Epilogue - A Prayer to the Soccer Gods
Oí mighty Soccer Gods, please, I beseech you . . . How about a game without rain or without cold temps - ya think you could manage that so we can get some folks in the stands and see a third season?