ON THE TRAIN TO TIANJIN, China -- Four women’s soccer thoughts on the day after the U.S.’s 2-0 Olympic opener loss to Norway:
• The U.S. is looking at a nasty quarterfinal showdown. The Americans’ uninspired defeat shouldn’t keep them from reaching the knockout rounds (which they’d have to be truly terrible to miss, considering eight of the 12 teams here survive the first round), but if the U.S. finishes second behind Norway in Group G it will almost surely meet tournament favorites Germany or Brazil in the quarters. This Olympics had looked like the all-time sweetheart draw for the U.S., which by winning its easy-on-paper group (Norway, Japan, New Zealand) would almost surely have avoided meeting Brazil and Germany until the gold-medal game. Now all that’s out the window.
• Boy, the U.S. reverted to bad soccer quickly last night. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the U.S.’s reversion to ugly long-ball “attacks” against Norway was more troubling than giving up the two goals themselves. The Americans have talked big all year about their new possession-oriented short-passing game (i.e., real soccer, real skills), but as soon as they went down against Norway they started booming balls downfield again. Here are my notes from one five-minute stretch in the first half: Lloyd weak 40-yard shot. (****?); O’Reilly long-ball to no one; Tarpley long-ball to no one. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage had admitted to me that she was concerned about whether her players would revert to their bad old habits if they fell behind in a game, and that’s exactly what happened.
• Not having Abby Wambach was a killer. I had a debate with my pal Beau Dure from USA Today in the mixed zone after the game. Beau thought Wambach wouldn’t have made any difference in the score of the game, but I disagreed: Natasha Kai wasn’t able to convert some good chances in front of the goal, chances that Wambach might have pounced on, and surprise starter Angela Hucles wasn’t a factor up front. Second-half sub Amy Rodriguez unbalanced the Norwegian defense on a couple occasions and deserves a start on Saturday against Japan, but nobody in this U.S. offense has Wambach’s fearsome presence. Without her this U.S. team looks like a middle-of-the-pack outfit, a damning indictment of a U.S. development system that isn’t producing game-changers on the world stage anymore.
• Should Sundhage’s coaching future be decided by this tournament? Wambach’s injury has left Sundhage in a tough spot. The U.S. coach has a one-year contract for a reason: her future will almost certainly be determined by how the Americans fare in these Olympics. But would it really be the best thing for the U.S. women’s program to bring in a third head coach in three years? Sundhage has the right ideas--the U.S. needs to start playing good soccer and value skills in addition to raw athleticism. What’s more, she appears to have the players’ respect and brings a valuable outsider’s perspective to U.S. Soccer as the team’s first non-American head coach. She’s not faultless, of course: after nine months of preparation the U.S. players admitted they weren’t ready for the first 10 minutes of the Norway game, and part of the blame for that has to go on Sundhage. Still, should a freak injury to Wambach be the main factor that determines the coach’s fate? I’m not so sure, and I’d like to hear the name of any coaching candidate that would be a better option moving forward.
What do you think? Do the U.S. women have a chance to come back and win a medal in this tournament? What would you do with Sundhage if you were U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati? Post your comments below, and check back for my next Olympic dispatch from China.