US 2 Brazil 1
We freakiní won!And with that, Kristine Lilly made all the yapping that preceded and will follow this game moot because yes, they freakiní won. And all the talk of playing pretty and who "deserved" to win and who had the run of play just doesnít matter because there is one, and only one, way to measure who won a soccer match - and thatís who scores the most goals. And thatís what Team USA did. When I think real hard, Iím still not sure how they managed that and maybe thatís why Iím not going to think real hard about this one - Iím just going to enjoy it. As a sports fan, there is nothing better than watching an intense sporting event which completely and totally engages you for a couple of hours and for a very finite period of time, this one event, an event that really has absolutely no impact on the viewerís reality at all, becomes the only important thing in the world. And this game, all 120 gut wrenching minutes, delivered on that - what more could a sports fan want. If you want artistry, check out gymnastics and diving; if you want to see "the beautiful game" then check out Fox Sports World, Iím sure theyíve got something on; but if you want to see an exciting, at times agonizing game where "your" team guts out a 120 minute match and somehow finds a way to win despite never finding any offensive rhythm and facing attackers younger, faster and more skillful on the ball than they were, then this was your game.
As for the game - well, the offense never really got humming, the defense did an admirable job in the face of very speedy technical players, and the ref decided very early in the game that she was going to allow brutality to rule the day. This would have been a much different game if she had simply pulled a card when the Brazilian deliberately kicked Kristine Lilly in the head and stepped on her arm while climbing off her, this would have been a much different game if the ref had pulled a card when the Brazilian defender wrapped her arms around Abbyís midsection, twisted her around and pulled her to the ground. Then again, after seeing the phenom that is Marta, Team USA is probably very fortunate that this wasnít a different game. That Brazil was more concentrated on taking out the legs of the US players than they were on getting the ball to Martaís feet very well might have been their undoing. One day Canada and Brazil will get it - theyíll get that theyíve moved past the stage where their best option against the US is to foul. Theyíll figure out what watching Marta for 3-5 minutes would make clear to even the most casual observer - they are now good enough to face Team USA on their own terms - play their own game and make Team USA chase rather than taking cheap shots in attempt to disrupt them. As aggravating as all the physical play was, what they did played precisely into Team USAís hands. The uglier this game looked, the better it was going to be for the US because Brazil is very simply the faster more technical side. And that doesnít even begin to touch on how derailed the Brazilians get by bad calls or non-calls. They knew they were getting away with a lot they shouldn't have, they had to figure the non calls would go in the US's favor at times too. Yet they gave up a goal while arguing the Chastain handball - yeah, a horrible no call, but was that really any worse a call than the indirect kick in the US box - the difference in the situations was how each side reacted. The Brazilians slowed and looked to the ref for the call, the US packed the box and played on, no time for whining and incredulous looks. Ultimately, that might have been the difference and ultimately, in so many games that Team USA and Brazil play, that so often seems to be the difference. There is always that moment where they lose their composure, all the US has to do is wait for it. If Brazil figures that out, it might be a long time before the US takes another game from them - before anyone does actually.
All right - I didnít watch this one for formations, I didnít watch this one to figure out who should be starting and who should be benched and exactly who it was that was going to be responsible for my heart attack and new crop of gray hair. I watched this one to see if the team could win gold and hoping that they would. . . and they did. Point being, largely positive comments - there are no style points in soccer, no judgesí scores, no woulda shoulda couldas about balls that might maybe in a perfect world have gone in - just a final score and Team USA wound up on the right side of that. And really, for now, none of the rest of it matters.
Formation- 4-4-2, back-front, right-left
GK - Scurry; Def - Rampone, Fawcett, Markgraf, Chastain; DMid - Boxx; Mid - Foudy, Lilly; AMid - Tarpley; F - Wambach, Hamm. Reddick in for Chastain; OíReilly in for Tarpley. Foudy played much of the game in the central midfield playing quite defensively alongside Boxx - but I didnít notice that Lil or Tarpley really moved up and played as forwards - it almost looked like a 4-2-2-2 at times but the camera really never pulled back far enough at the right angle to get a good read on what was going on there. Might simply have been a reaction to the presence of Marta who at one time or another smoked each and every one of Team USAís defenders - no one on the field could cover her 1 v. 1. When Heather O came in though, it looked like Mia slipped back into the midfield, but honestly, Mia was so far off the page at that point anyway, I canít really be sure if thatís what was going on.
Players -Iíll wrap in some comments about the semifinal as well
Scurry - Coming into this game, I felt sheíd give up one . . . but I knew she wouldnít give up more than that. And sure enough - with the help of those stalwart defenders Post and Cross Bar thatís what happened. Bri had some incredible saves - one off her finger tips, came out more aggressively than usual and was just rock solid most of the game. That she couldnít quite wrap her hands around the one that scored? Well, she was already down, your reach is only so far and it was a little too much. With the Braziliansí ability to turn the corner on that endline on Rampone and Fawcett, Bri was seeing a lot of balls being fired into the box - one was bound to get through. My complaint and something that the coaching staff had remedied and for reasons that elude me returned to its faulty state, was Briís kicking game - it went from weak, to bad, to atrocious. The punts were fine, the goal kicks and plays with her feet during the run of play were terrible. Kate in the Germany game and Cat in the second half of the final should without question have been taking those goal kicks or they should have been short kicks to Joy. The delay call earlier in the tournament wasnít because of the set up for a defender to take the kicks, it was because Bri put an arm around Cat and acted like they were taking a nice mid-evening stroll - not only was that a delay, but Iím sure the ref felt Bri was trying to show her up (probably not Briís intent, but címon, folks, that was pretty bad - funny, but bad). Anyway - if Iím not mistaken, one of those goals scored in the semi or final, I forget which, I think started from a short kick by Bri. If it wasnít a goal, it was one of the near misses. But in the end, Briana Scurry is one of the heroes in this story - sheís had some of the best games of her career against this Brazilian team (the WWC í99 game against Brazil, for me, was without question, her finest hour) and this was an appropriate swan song for her. For those of you who didnít catch it, at half time of the womenís basketball final this morning, Bri confirmed that while sheís not retiring just yet, she definitely will not play on to the next WWC - this was it. Itís unfortunate that everyone so focused on the 91ers has not included her in that group - I realize I have been one of Briís harsher critics over the years, but minus Silke Rottenberg no goalkeeper in the history of the womenís game has had her staying power and her dominance. A few treacly, music set media moments for Bri would have been a nice touch during the past 3 weeks as she has surely contributed as much to the program as the 91ers. And just by being, she has shown a group of little girls that is chronically underrepresented in womenís and girlís soccer in this country that you donít have to have a ponytail to play this game at the highest level.
Rampone - Ya know - she really was doing every single thing right in this one - kept the attacker to her outside, pushed her out as far as she could, didnít make stupid fouls in the box, but when a playerís just faster than you are, she can go to the outside, curl around and get a ball off. How long have we watched Kristine Lilly torture right backs like that - well, now itís Martaís turn. The US defense largely did a good job of double teaming though so the Brazilians had to get through two defenders most of the game. There actually seemed to be good communication on the backline in this one and even better communication against Germany. I really donít have much else - it was a solid performance for Rampone. As she is one of the faster more athletic players on the team, what this game showed is that to stop teams like Brazil, Team USA is going to have to rely less on individual defending and more on team defending with a stress on communication, organization and double teams. All of the defenders got beat at some point in this one, but for most of the day, they made Brazil take tough shots from less than optimal angles and at times a little more rushed than they would have liked. Anyway - a couple of solid games for Rampone - itís a shame that one of the lasting impressions of her this tournament will be her getting beat on the German goal because she really was solid under a lot of pressure in both games.
Fawcett - A very solid performance. Like Rampone, Marta blew by her a time or two, but like Iíve said, Marta blew by everyone. Sheís been playing a little deeper - probably a concession to slightly diminished speed and the need to be on her toes for the double team against this opponent. When she and Christie teamed up on the right, they were pretty effective, it was really when Joy couldnít get back and Rampone was alone near the endline with the attacker that they had some problems. I tend to knock Joy for miscommunications and problems with organization, but I thought in this one and in the Germany game, the backline teamed well and that she and Kate especially were working well together. I really donít have much else for Joy - she and Kate finally seem to be working well together in the central D and sheís retiring . . . one of lifeís little ironies I suppose - then again, maybe a sign that she and Kate just needed a little more time to get it together and they would have been fine all these years. Who knows. Anyway - solid game.
Markgraf - An excellent game - two excellent games in fact. Double teaming was great, organization was great, distance serving far far better than anything we have ever seen from her on the wing, 1 v. 1 defending was solid, and in the semifinal she did an outstanding defensive job on Birgit Prinz - Germany simply couldnít get the ball to Prinz - Boxx and Kate are responsible for that. Iíve said it before and Iíll probably say it again, but it is mind boggling that she has ever played anywhere other than the central defense. Iíve already gone on about that though, and Iím not going to repeat myself. Her play speaks for itself and Kate was a defensive star in both the semi and the final.
Chastain - In the opening moments of the semifinal a US player went streaking across a wide open defensive half of the field, I was astounded at how fast this player was moving and how she got to the attacker in time to make a beautiful defensive play . . . this player, who was moving faster than I have ever seen her move, was Brandi Chastain. Was she perfect defensively, no, and when she was removed in each contest, it was time for her to sit. But especially in the semi, she provided a strong attacking presence and a surprisingly spry, swift and savvy defensive presence. In that Germany game she went back and made some incredible defensive stops and takeaways and I really didnít notice that she was being picked on during the first half. Iíll confess I was surprised, but happily so. She was able to make some very showy defensive stops that came on the end of long runs I didnít think she still had left in her, and she helped to create Lilís goal in the semi. Her having completely fresh legs for the medal round was probably a very good thing - it looked like she was wearing down a bit at the start of the second half in the final so thatís about exactly what she had left in her. Anyway, a fairly fitting finale for her (and I think sheís the only one who doesnít realize that it was just that . . . hopefully, she figures it out before someoneís hand is forced and sheíll be able to leave the stage as gracefully as her compadres will).
Reddick - I thought she had just a fantastic outing against Germany and was rock solid against Brazil. I would have preferred her taking all the goal kicks there were to take once she entered the game but for some reason those short kicks by Bri which led to scary Brazilian attacks didnít seem to bother the coaching staff (or Bri) enough for anyone to do anything about it. She did well getting forward while at the same time she played a very smart defensive game - she was ahead of the plays more often than not, provided good support on the double team. Sheís not played a lot of wing defender this year but I thought she filled in admirably at the end of these games. She took some nice deep free kicks as well. The Germany game was a long ball fest by both teams at times and she can actually connect some of those passes over distance. Anyway, these two games were more like the Cat of the WWC and it was easily the best two game stretch sheís had all year.
Boxx - She was part of a fantastic defensive effort on Prinz in the semifinal and she had a solid effort against Brazil. It looked like Boxx and Foudy were playing alongside each other for most of the Brazil game - it frees Boxx up to concentrate on defending when Foudy falls back and plays centrally. Boxx did switch the point of attack a few times, but honestly, there wasnít just a ton of that going on in either of the last two marathon matches. To the extent there was a concerted organized attack it was largely going on in front of Boxx - there werenít a ton of short passes and pounding the ball through the middle against Brazil - probably a recognition that 1) Team USA was having a heck of a time clearing the ball earlier in the tournament so they werenít taking any chances; 2) Brazil is much better with the ball at their feet so they werenít taking chances with turnovers deep in the midfield; 3) Brazil is faster than Team USA so Boxx wasnít making many runs forward through the midfield for fear of getting caught too far forward. So Boxxís offensive role was limited to longer passes and set pieces. But defensively and winning balls, she was rock solid. Against Brazil she was doing a nice job stepping into passing lanes at times as well. With all of the physical play that was being let go, she probably could have played a little rougher, especially when the little players (Lil) were getting kicked in the head. Overall, though, a rock solid performance against Brazil and an excellent defensive job shadowing Prinz around the midfield and into the defensive third against Germany.
Foudy - She came out and had a much better performance against Brazil than I thought she would - no signs of injury. It was an improvement over the Germany game - maybe itís because she was playing pinched in and in a largely defensive role. The central midfield was fairly packed and forced the Brazilians to the outside. Marta was making her runs up the right, right central - it was rare when the Brazilian attack was unleashed right up the middle - they had a tough time getting right in front of goal. Their best chances up the middle came from counters on short clearances. Foudyís defense was part of that - while it didnít look like a third forward was up there against Brazil, Foudy was playing a role similar to the one she played against Japan. I mentioned at the outset that it almost seemed they were playing the Atlanta version of the 4-2-2-2 - I doubt it was deliberate and Foudy probably fell back as a result of circumstance (fast technical Brazilian attack), but it did remind me of that ugly yet fairly effective style the Beat used to play. As physical a game as it was, thatís not a bad template to follow. As for her positioning on the Brazil goal - well, I didn't really enjoy seeing Pretinha unmarked in the box and Foudy was right there staring right at her, but then again, I'm sure there were players behind her and if she had cheated off them, the ball might have been sent in. Hindsight is 20-20 on this one, the play was a shot not a pass and the open player in front of Bri should have been covered for the rebound, but there was no way to be sure that's how it was going to go down - that player on the right (was it Marta again?) who shot was occupying 3 defenders, a choice had to be made regarding who was going to be left open. I really donít have a lot else about her play in this one - it was fairly solid. Her real impact is of course the impact she has on the mind set of her colleagues. They remained composed in the face of a lot of no calls and a lot of bad calls. Sometimes thereís no explaining the leadership factor but I think most of us can agree that Brazil was the more athletic and probably the more individually gifted team in this one (especially since Mia was a non-factor throughout the entire game), but Team USA won anyway - maybe thereís something to having a less talented but more veteran presence on the field.
Lilly - I have no clue who the player of the tournament was (if itís not Marta, then someoneís not paying attention) or if the Olys even give an MVP award, but for my money, Team USAís MVP is Kristine Lilly. After the Brazil group game, I was ready to buy her a walker and a rocking chair and put her out to pasture. And all she did was come back and play some of the best soccer of her career - and thatís one heck of a career to be besting. She carried this team through the Japan game, they go out in the quarters if not for the effort she put out in that one; she was running harder throughout the entire Germany game than any 3 of her teammates combined and she shook off some very hard fouls throughout the final (they obviously recognized the tear she was on and seemed determined to stop it) and just like in 1999, she managed to make a huge game deciding play by simply doing her job and flawlessly executing a set piece theyíve probably done a thousand times in practice. Abby gets the glory, Abbyís picture is plastered everywhere, even Brandi/Tarp are getting a ton of press for the handball goal . . . but none of it happens if Kristine Lilly doesnít put a perfect driven ball right on Abbyís head. Earlier, they missed Abby, laid her out and nearly got her killed by leading her too far (sheís crazy, youíve gotta know sheís going to dive for anything) - but Lilís ball? Absolutely perfect - she did exactly what she was supposed to do . . . again. I made the comment to a friend before the game that Lil wasnít playing the best sheís played in 5 years for silver - and very quietly, and somehow, under the radar once again, she simply would not let this team lose. How much longer will she play? who knows? who even cares after all this. Because when itís all said and done, she can pull out the tapes of the medal round of the 2004 Olympics, pop them in the VCR and reminisce about the time she took her team on her shoulders and for three games carried them to Olympic gold.
Tarpley - How many times have I said it, Iím like a broken record with it . . . Play the whistle, always play the whistle . . . and thatís precisely what Tarpley did and she scored a beautiful goal. The Brazilians stopped - well, they slowed significantly looking for a call, Tarpley paid no attention to any of it. Great maturity, great poise. The style of this game really didnít go to her strengths. There wasnít a lot of patience through the midfield, there was a lot of long service in both the final and the semi. There were a few stretches where the offense was able to string together some passes in the attacking third, but the Brazilians did a pretty good job of preventing the US from getting into their offense. She stood in pretty strong with some of the physical play, which I thought would be a problem for her. Got a few takeaways, managed to step into the passing lanes at times. There just wasnít a ton of combination play through the midfield, usually it was a long ball, or Lil or a wing bringing the ball up the flanks rather than playing through the middle where Tarpley was camped out. The US was pressuring the Brazilian defense early and Tarpley was part of that effort, but as the game wore on they backed off that pressure a bit and defended further up the field. I really donít have much else - I continue to love the energy she brings to the field, while at the same time she showed herself to be a very mature and poised competitor. Definitely a youngster to watch in the future.
Hamm - Somewhere around the 62-65th minute of the quarterfinal against Japan, the camera caught Mia bent over with her hands on her knees. She was spent, she was done, she needed to find the bench. She didnít and my fear of dead legs for the remainder of the tournament kind of played out. Mia was a non-factor for most of the semi and for all of the final. She made a comment after the final that the youngsters carried her through the last two games - that wasnít false modesty, that was simply the truth. All that said, Mia came through when they needed her to. It wasnít quite the immaculate possession that everyone is pretending it was - Abby did spring Mia free with a picture perfect pass which Mia sent in to the youngster, Heather O, but I guess clogging up the symbolism of the Mia to Heather torch passing goal with a third player carrying a lot of the load doesnít make for as good headlines. And you know, itís probably right and just that the only thing everyone is going to remember about Miaís performance in these last two games, and the lasting image of her on the International stage is that she got the assist on the game winning goal against Germany that sent Team USA to the Olympic final. A fitting send off, and a fitting last image for what has been an incredible career.
Wambach - Before the game, there was a third player (along with Lil and Bri) who I felt would not let this team lose - and that was Abby. The Brazilian coach all but called her a talentless thuglike hack in his post game comments after the group game. You had to know she wanted to feed that back to him - and feed it back to him she did. It took a little longer than I would have liked and sheís lucky she didnít ram her head into something (or someone) immobile with that diving attempt that led her way too far late in the game, but dang, gotta love the late game heroics by the big girl. Perfect pass by Lil, perfect header by Abby - you canít execute a corner kick any better than that. And this had all the symbolism of the Mia to Heather game winner in the preceding game - you canít script this stuff any better. As for the rest of her game, she spent it with Brazilians beating her to a pulp. Like Iíve already mentioned the forwards were pressuring early, but they really werenít forcing a ton of turnovers and started playing a tad deeper earlier on. Abby was getting forward with the ball well, but all too often she was the only one forward - Mia was just absent a lot of the time - there was one instance very late in the Germany game where Abby made a beautiful run forward and turned to pass the ball into the box and no one was there. Aly was getting railed on by Walker for not being fast enough to get to the ball, but you know, all that wide open space was where Mia was supposed to be, not Aly - Mia didnít make her run - dead legs. Itís why a lot of Abbyís efforts were wasted and why Abby was getting caught forward with the ball and losing it to Brazilian defenders, she simply had no help. Tarpley got there sometimes, Mia was there occasionally, but the US succumbed to some familiar problems in the attack for much of this one. But Team USA has experience with the ugly games and they rely on Abby heavily when the offense gets a little discombobulated and as she has all year long, Abby came through in the end. Excellent tournament for Abby, and nice exclamation point on what has been a heck of a couple of years for her.
OíReilly - Oh my goodness, Iím still in pain over the muffed shot on the empty net against Germany. And yeah, Iím still smiling that she got the game winner just a few minutes later. This kid has world class striker written all over her - yeah, thereís the speed, yeah, thereís the good ball skills, but what tells me that sheís got that undefinable "it": that sheís 19 years old and screaming at Mia for the ball . . . that sheís 19 years old in the Olympics against the #1 team in the world, she just missed a gimme goal and sheís still calling for the ball from the #1 goals scorer in the history of the game because she knows that she is the one who can score . . . Thatís what it takes - you can have all the talent in the world, but if youíre a striker without at least a little bit of that cocky, gimme the damn ball attitude youíll never realize your potential. Sheís got it though - Tarpley can be the sane, smart and poised one and OíReilly can be the one yapping for the ball on every possession because thereís no one she canít score on - assuming good health, this is going to be a fun tandem to watch for years to come.
And thatís it - thatís a lot more talking about this game then needed doing. Sometimes there is no explanation, sometimes a result defies explanation, sometimes you throw up your hands and ask why do you even want an explanation. For me, the 2004 Olympics was one of those times. I am not going to ask why, I am simply going to happily accept it and figure that the soccer gods have a sense of the cyclic nature of the universe and simply wanted this first cycle to be complete. Whatever it was, whatever the reason, whatever it looked like, they "freakiní won" and maybe I should have taken my lead from Kristine Lilly and simply left it at that.