Tune into Copa America 2015: Soccer's Biggest Dog Fight

Copa American is a quadrennial international men’s soccer tournament. The winner of each Copa can lay claim to being South America’s best soccer team for the next four years. Here to tell us all about the tournament and to get us prepared for the semifinals tonight and tomorrow and the final match on Saturday, is my old friend and soccer teammate, Salvador Baldino. Salvador is a life-long soccer (or as he calls it, football) fan. He was Princeton High School’s varsity soccer goalie in the early 2000s and has remained an integral part of youth soccer in the Central Jersey area. An Italian-Argentinian-American, Salvador’s passion for the game is as plentiful and diverse as his rooting interests.

Al-Jazeera owns BeIN Sport, the television station with the rights to the this years Copa America. If you don’t pay the extra $10 a month for BeIN, do it. Chile-Mexico, 3-3, Colombia-Brazil 1-0, Argentina- Paraguay 2-2 were some of the brightest and nastiest matches we saw in the first round. Free-flowing, care-free, physical, bloody and in one instance, sexually harassing (WTF Gonzalo Jara), styles of football are coming together right now in Chile. The pressure of the World Cup has been lifted a year ago and now we see teams trying to win or go on their respective vacations away from the beautiful game for a couple weeks.

Neymar, Brazil’s brightest star, is already on vacation, suspended for the remainder of the tournament for a post game skirmish with Colombia’s Carlos Bacca. Neymar’s carelessness went a bit too far as did Arturo Vidal (DUI) and Gonzalo Jara (borderline sexually violating Edison Cavani). South American soccer is a beautiful combination of international football superstars and street thuggery.

The 12 team tournament has culminated into the semi-finals which begin Monday. Chile, hosts and favorites vs Peru, the tournament dark horses. Chile had to overcome the defensive shackles of Uruguay to get there. Unlikely hero/defender Mauricio Isla scored the lone goal of the contest in the 81st minute to move along the host nation. Peru took care of lowly Bolivia in the other quarter final by a score of 3-1. All the goals coming from Guerrero (which means “warrior” in spanish).

The other semi final is not what we all hoped for. Fans across the Americas hoped for that this semifinal would be Brazil vs Argentina as soon as the Copa draw was announced 6 months ago. Instead, thanks to an upset of Brazil by Paraguay, it will be Paraguay who faces Argentina.

Argentina dominated Colombia in their quarter final match but were not able to beat them in regular time. David Ospina, Colombia’s Goalkeeper, stole the show, stopping Messi, Aguero, Tevez and the rest of the Albi-Celeste’s point blank shots. There is no overtime in the Copa America, matches ending in a tie in the Knockout stage go directly to a shootout, unless there is a tie in the final, then there will be OT then followed by the spot kicks.

Brazil continued their “average at best” performance and lost to Paraguay in a shoot-out for the second Copa in a row. Paraguay boasts a stout defense and veteran offensive skill players like Lucars Barrios and Nelson Haido Valdez.

Clearly Chile has the easier road to the final. Argentina will look to avoid any further suspensions on their way to the final. Star players Messi, Aguero, and Mascherano have each already received one yellow. One more and they will miss the final.

The four semi finalists have one interesting thing in common, all have Argentinian coaches, who all bring their own attacking flair and different hairstyles. Gareca, Peru’s coach, wins the hair award, still rocking the long hair at age 57. Ramon Diaz, Paraguays coach, formely of River Plate, has the slicked back mafioso look. Gerardo Martino, of Argentina has the classic history teacher look while Chilean coach Jorge Sampaoli has the bald as a cue ball look.

Peru with nothing to lose will challenge Chile who has all the pressure tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET on BeIN Sports. My prediction: Chile wins that one 2-0.

Argentina are displaying their best defensive football since… shit, who knows? — but their trade-mark offense is sputtering, doing everything but putting the ball in the net. Argentina should beat Paraguay on paper but this is football. Still, I say Argentina wins 1-0. This match happens Tuesday, June 30, 7:30 p.m on BeIN Sports.

The final dog fight will happen on the 4th of July at 4 p.m. ET on BeIN Sports. Unlike the rest of the Knockout round games, if the final is tied after regulation, the two teams will play overtime before heading to a shootout. While all of America celebrates the declaration that began its history’s greatest dog fight, we football fans will be watching another great one in South America.

How to watch the World Cup quarterfinals: England vs. Canada

Every once in a while, something almost random offers up a result so perfect that it’s hard to believe it just happened that way. The quarterfinal match-ups in the 2015 women’s World Cup are that kind of event. The four games between eight teams will be played over two days. Within those four games exists every possible type of plot: regional, historical, and cultural rivalries. In this post, we’ll preview England vs. Canada, Saturday, June 27, 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

What’s the plot?

The last of the four quarterfinal matchups, this one puts the cherry on the amazingly coincidental but seemingly purposeful way the remaining countries got paired up. Politically speaking, this is everything you could want out of a matchup. It’s a game between colony and colonizer, two English speaking countries with a half cordial, half competitive relationship. Canada is the host country, so they’re under the most pressure to win this game and guarantee that their country will get to see them play two more times — ideally for them, once in the semifinals and once in the finals, but even if they lose the semis, they would play in the third place game. England is left to play spoiler. The situation was perfectly flipped in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (Quick note: due to the vagaries of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, England competes in the Olympics as part of the larger Great Britain team. In the World Cup, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the component parts of Great Britain, all compete separately.) In those Olympics, the pressure was on Great Britain when the two teams met, also in the quarterfinals, and Canada was playing the role of spoiler. Spoil they did. Canada beat Great Britain 2-0 and eliminated them from the tournament.

England will be looking to return the favor to Canada today. They’ll have a good shot at it. Although Canada is undefeated and England has lost a game, England has still looked like the better side. Their one loss was to France in the group stage, which does not look so bad considering France’s heroic performance in their loss to Germany yesterday. Canada, on the other hand, tied New Zealand and the Netherlands and barely edged Switzerland and China. Canada has not scored more than one goal per game during the entire tournament and they’ve got to be feeling nervous today. England is coming off a great come-from-behind victory over Norway and will be riding a wave of good feelings as they approach this game.

Who are the characters?

Christine Sinclair – A legend of women’s soccer, third only to Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm in career goals scored. Like Wambach, she’s hunting for her first World Cup title and (also like Wambach) although she’s not what she once was as a player, she’s still capable of unleashing hell on an opposing defense for short periods of time.

Ashley Lawrence – At just 20 years old, Lawrence seems to be the future of Canadian soccer and if her performance in this World Cup so far is any indication, the future is bright. Lawrence has started each game in a midfield position, where her speed and tenacity have paid off. She scored the goal in Canada’s third Group Stage game that sent them through to the Knockout Round.

John Herdman – Canada’s coach is a 39 year-old from English who will be facing his native country in today’s game. This is a position he’s probably quite comfortable with, having coached the New Zealand women’s national team for five years before accepting his current role with Canada.

Mark Sampson – England’s coach, Mark Sampson, is a man on the move. His rise from head coach of a non-affiliated women’s professional team in England to head coach of the national team can only be described as meteoric. He was not around for the 2012 game between these teams but you can bet he’s acutely aware of it and has been using it to motivate his team to victory today.

Karen Carney – Nicknamed “the Wizard” Carney is key to England’s attack. She also has a back injury. This is not a good combination but so far, so good for Carney and England. She was held out of their first Group stage game and used cautiously ever since. My guess is that the kid gloves come off in this game. If Carney needs to play 90 or even 120 minutes, she’ll find a way.

Fran Kirby – As a former defender, I rarely root for forwards, but Kirby is an exception. Aside from the tear-jerking story of her mother who died of an aneurism while with Kirby at a soccer event when Kirby was 14, Kirby’s simply a joy to watch play. She’s relentlessly fast, pursues the ball like a demon, and is very skilled without ever looking overly fancy.

— Bonus note — one thing I found interesting was that both featured England players have openly talked about their struggles with depression and feeling as though they haven’t wanted to play soccer at times in their careers. This is probably true for more athletes than we’d imagine and it’s refreshing to see it spoken about so matter-of-factly.

Who’s going to win?

England has never made it past this stage of the World Cup. Today will be the day they finally do it. Why? Even in as low-scoring a sport as soccer, you’ve got to score to win (thanks Yogi Berra) and Canada has struggled mightily to score. Three goals in four games just isn’t enough. With six goals against arguably tougher competition, England looks like the better bet to advance. Sorry Canada!

How to watch the World Cup quarterfinals: Japan vs. Australia

Every once in a while, something almost random offers up a result so perfect that it’s hard to believe it just happened that way. The quarterfinal match-ups in the 2015 women’s World Cup are that kind of event. The four games between eight teams will be played over two days. Within those four games exists every possible type of plot: regional, historical, and cultural rivalries. In this post, we’ll preview Japan vs. Australia, Saturday, June 27, 4 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

What’s the plot?

The battle of the Pacific! Two island nations, one big with vast stretches of unoccupied land, one small and packed with people. With these two teams meeting up in the quarterfinals, the Pacific nations are guaranteed one place in the tournament’s final four.

Japan is the distinct overdog in this game. They’re the defending World Champions, having beaten the United States in the World Cup finals four years ago. They were extremely impressive in their last game, knocking off a promising Dutch team with a dazzling show of technical ability. The goal that Mizuho Sakaguchi scored to go up 2-0 in that game was perhaps the best combination of coordinated team play and a deadly finish that this tournament has had so far.

Japan seems to be peaking at the right time, and in the weaker side of the bracket, with only England or Canada looming, if Japan can get through Australia, they’re a safe bet to reach their second straight World Cup finals.

Getting through Australia is no easy task. Australia scored the upset of the tournament (at least in the Knockout Round — Colombia over France in the Group Stage remains more shocking) when they eliminated Brazil with a 1-0 victory. Kyah Simon scored the goal by knocked in a rebound on a play she initiated in midfield with a canny tackle.

Simon, who also scored both goals in a 2011 World Cup game that propelled Australia into the quarterfinals of that tournament, and the whole Australian team seem to have a flair for the dramatic. In a tournament that’s quickly shedding teams, Australia, ranked 10th in the world by FIFA, is the closest thing we have left to an underdog.

Who are the characters?

Kyah Simon – In addition to her dramatic scoring exploits, Simon is a culturally groundbreaking athlete. She became the first woman with indigenous Australian blood to score for Australia’s national team.

Lisa De Vanna – De Vanna is a firecracker of a striker. She’s brash, fiery, and never happier than when she’s running herself and any defenders nearby into the ground. Earlier in her career, she specialized in coming into games as a substitute and making an immediate impact. These days, she’s the captain, starting every match and playing all 90 minutes in every game but one.

Aya Miyami – The current captain of the Japanese team, Aya Miyami, is a wizard in the midfield. She seems to have eyes in the back of her head and is able to pass to open players, seemingly by sonar or telepathy. She’ll take most of the team’s free kicks and other set pieces.

Homare Sawa – Homare Sawa used to be Aya Miyami, although her legend is still so big that it’s probably more accurate to say that Aya Miyami is the new Homare Sawa. Sawa is the same type of player as Miyami which partially explains coach Norio Sasaki’s seemingly strange choice to drop her from the team during the lead up to the World Cup — he wanted to make clear the transition from Sawa to Miyami in the midfield. Sawa was added back to the team right before the tournament and has been successful so far playing beside Miyama or coming in off the bench.

Norio Sasaki – Winning a World Cup as a coach, like Norio Sasaki did in 2011, gives you quite a bit of cachet. Doing it in the aftermath of the triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor disaster, makes you a celebrity for life. Sasaki is definitely that. Despite comparing himself to Steven Spielberg and his curious Sawa machinations, Sasaki still seems to have his finger on the pulse of his team.

Who’s going to win?

This game is an interesting battle of speed, strength, and spunk against technical skill and coordination. The longer Australia can keep this game scoreless, the better of a chance they’ll have. If they defend long enough and hard enough, maybe a single strike of brilliance from one of their strikers will be enough. More likely though will be Japan dancing around the Australian defense until they find a soft spot to surgically score through. Japan will probably win.

How to watch the World Cup quarterfinals: USA vs. China

Every once in a while, something almost random offers up a result so perfect that it’s hard to believe it just happened that way. The quarterfinal match-ups in the 2015 women’s World Cup are that kind of event. The four games between eight teams will be played over two days. Within those four games exists every possible type of plot: regional, historical, and cultural rivalries. In this post, we’ll preview China vs. the United States, Friday, June 26, 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

What’s the plot?

Geopolitically, this is big. Although the conflict between China and the United States has not reached Cold War levels, it’s not hard to see it being characterized in future history classes as a similar period, when trade and investment, research and development, and even sport were used as a replacements for war.

From a soccer perspective, the United States and China should not really be on the same level. The United States is ranked second by FIFA and China, 16th. That could be somewhat deceptive though. The Chinese team has been in a slump over the past decade or so and is only beginning to get good again now. Since rankings are invariably based on an accumulation of past results, it’s possible that the Chinese team today is better than its ranking would suggest. If they are, the U.S. team could be in a spot of trouble. They go into this game weakened by the loss of two of their key midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday to suspension because of accumulated yellow cards. Those two players represent a lot of the creativity and playmaking ability on the roster. The U.S. must find a way to overcome this.

Regardless of ranking, this game has important and subtly foreboding historical echoes for the United States team. Every player on the team but one (Christie Rampone, who played on the team) remembers watching the U.S. women’s national team beat China in 1999 to win the World Cup. They’ve spent their entire careers dreaming of a similar moment and facing questions about why they haven’t been able to create it. Beating China in this World Cup would be a cleansing experience. Losing to them, an unmitigated disaster.

Who are the characters?

Christen Press and Morgan Brian – As the two players most likely to replace Rapinoe and Holiday in the starting lineup, the spotlight will be firmly on Press and Brian. Press has been in and out of the lineup during this tournament as a striker and a midfielder. Brian has been one of the first midfielders off the bench. It remains to be seen exactly where they’ll fit into the midfield when paired with Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath. There isn’t a natural defensive midfielder among them, but my guess is that Press and Heath will play on the outside with Lloyd slightly ahead of Brian in the center. If this is the case, it actually makes this an enormous game for Lloyd. She’ll get to play a game in her natural position of attacking central midfielder. If she plays well enough, perhaps she can convince coach Jill Ellis to keep her there for the rest of the tournament.

Abby Wambach – It’s been a rough tournament so far for Wambach. She’s only scored one goal in four games. She missed a penalty kick last game. She’s been embroiled in all sorts of controversies in the media, from blaming the turf for some of her poor play to accusing the ref of having an anti-American agenda, to the ongoing question of whether she’s still good enough, at 35 to be starting for this team. At this point, she’s almost in a no-win situation. The only thing she can do to win will be winning the World Cup… and that’s not totally up to her.

Jill Ellis – If there’s one person who’s been more on the hot-seat than Wambach, it’s coach Jill Ellis. She’s been criticized for changing the U.S. tactics too much and for not changing them enough. She’s been criticized for not having enough power compared to that which the veteran players seem to wield, and then criticized for not doing enough to help the team win. She’s blamed for not bringing any true defensive midfielders and then for muting some of her offensive midfielders’ brilliance by asking them to play defensive roles.

China – The Chinese team is largely anonymous, at least to American audiences. They’re young, without a single player over 26 years old. Their coach, Hao Wei, is a former professional and international player. He’s the fifth head coach of the Chinese team since 2007 and hopes to bring stability to what has been a chaotic national team picture. I caught one of the team’s early games in this tournament and thought they played very strong, organized, defensive-minded soccer.

Who’s going to win?

The United States. Despite creeping doubts to the contrary running up and down my spine all morning, it would be a real shock if the U.S. lost this game. I could see it going into overtime tied, but I just can’t imagine China being able to successfully park the bus the entire game.

What do we know about the coaches of World Cup 2015?

During the Group Stage of the 2015 women’s World Cup, I researched and wrote a series of posts about each of the coaches of the women’s national soccer teams taking part in the competition. The stories I found were fantastically interesting. The range in experience, age, and attitude among the coaches was far wider than I had expected. Those posts can be found organized by group:

  • Group A – Canada, China, the Netherlands, New Zealand
  • Group B – Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand
  • Group C – Cameroon, Ecuador, Japan, Switzerland
  • Group D – Australia, Nigeria, Sweden, the United States
  • Group E – Brazil, Costa Rica, Korea, Spain
  • Group F – Colombia, England, France, Mexico

With stories comes information and as I gathered information about the coaches, I threw it in a table to create data. I was curious not just about qualitative information about the coaches, who were they, what were their backgrounds, proclivities, etc., but also about who they were, quantitatively, as a group? Were they old? Young? Male? Female? From the country they were coaching? Or hired guns? Had they played soccer when they were younger? Professionally or internationally? How good were they? I found a lot that was interesting. Here are some of the highlights.

  1. Two thirds of the coaches are men. This raw fact can be interpreted in many ways. This could be seen as a good thing. As global sports cultures begin to take women’s sports more seriously, coaching a women’s national team has become a much more desirable job. And, although it’s unfortunate that men are still more able to get desirable jobs in coaching than women, the current imbalance is an overall positive signal about women’s sports. On the other hand, it could be seen as a bad thing. You could interpret the ratio of men to woman coaches as being an expression of paternalism — “it’s very nice (of us men) to let women play and even give them a knowledgeable coach (man) to lead them.”
    In reality, both interpretations are true. The Spanish and Nigerian coaches strike me as being symbolic of everything that’s wrong with men coaching women’s sports. The Spanish coach has been in charge forever, seems to have no pressure to win, and his players don’t like him. The Nigerian coach seems to have been a political choice with no real coaching talent. On the flip side, the Mexican and English coaches are also male but seem to have been put in charge for the right reasons and be doing a good job. The Mexican coach, like the Spanish coach has been around forever, but under his watch the team uses the same facilities as the men’s national team and has improved wildly. The English coach is a standard, fast-rising, up and coming coach who could easily be coaching a top-flight professional men’s team. He’s qualified and driven.
    Of the 16 countries who advanced to the knockout round, 75% of them are male. That’s up slightly from the 66% of overall competitors who were coached by men. It means that male coaches did slightly better than female coaches. We’re working with such small numbers, that the difference between 75% and 66% is only around 1.5 teams/coaches. I’m willing to throw that deviation out and guess that there was no real difference in how well teams coached by men and women did.
  2. Age helps but only a little. The average age of coaches was 47. The male coaches were slightly older, with an average age of 49 as opposed to 43 from the women. There were a few coaches on the edges of the age range worth noting. Of the four coaches in their 60s, all four were male: Leonardo Cuéllar, Philippe Bergeroo, Ignacio Quereda, and Even Pellerud.  There were only two coaches in their 20s, both women from Spanish speaking countries: Amelia Valverde from Costa Rica and Vanessa Arauz from Ecuador. The average age of coaches who advanced to the knockout round was 48 and the average age of those who failed to advance was 44.
  3. Most coaches have played professional or international soccer, but the female coaches are much more likely to have been good to great. Of all the coaches we have information about, almost 60% of them played some professional soccer and 36% of them played internationally. A smaller percentage were either solid players or great players in their day: 45% professionally and 27% internationally. What jumps out about these numbers though is the split between men and women. One half of all the women coaching played professionally and internationally and of those, 75% can be said to have been truly brilliant players. Two of them were actually teammates, Silvia Neid and the Swiss coach, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who both played for Germany. Of the men, only 40% were solid professional players and 13% solid international players. None were brilliant international level players.
  4. Some coaches are hard to research. A handful of the coaches were very difficult to find information about. Some don’t have Wikipedia pages, some have pages with very little information on them. I had to go digging to figure out even basic things about many of the coaches, like previous jobs, whether they had playing careers, and what their stories were. For two coaches, Nuengruethai Sathongwien of Thailand and Edwin Okon of Nigeria, I eventually gave up. I’m not sharing this to complain, but because it’s pretty stunning that information about the coach of a team going to the World Cup finals would be difficult to find. This would be inconceivable in the men’s game, which is obsessed over and covered at a minute level.

View the data in Google docs, here.

Soccer 202: Culture

Have you graduated from our Soccer 101 course? Blown through our Soccer 201 course on positions and logistics? Have your diplomas framed and on your wall? Great! Here’s your next challenge. Soccer 202: Culture is a five part email course with information about many of the more curious aspects of the culture surrounding the world’s favorite sport. Good luck!

  • What do the 20 most common strange soccer terms mean?
  • Why do soccer fans whistle?
  • Why is soccer so liberal?
  • Why do players blame the ball?
  • Playing good vs. playing well

 

Meet the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team

International sports are said to be one window into a country’s character. It’s a lovely idea, but there’s a giant, obvious problem with it — which national team are we talking about? Sometimes, during some eras, in some countries, you might have a style of competition that’s universal across all sports, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, a national basketball team will play differently from a national ice hockey team, and the men’s version of a team will play differently from the women’s. The question becomes, which team and narrative do you want to choose. If the way a national team plays says something about your country, what do you want it to say? If you like the idea of the United States as the world’s sole superpower, root for the men’s or women’s national basketball teams. If you like the picture of the United States as it was in the early 20th century, its potential as a world power still untapped, root for the men’s soccer team. If you want a representation of the United States that is powerful but still struggling to its peak, root for the U.S. men’s ice hockey team. Plus, that way, you get to (sports) hate Canada.

Heading into the 2015 World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team represents the best combination of accuracy and positivity of all United States national teams. This team was a dominant power in the 1990s (check) but has not had a big victory on the world stage since 1999 (check). It is still thought of as the world’s most powerful team (check) but the second and third and fourth strongest countries are breathing on its neck, not materially behind (check). You can root for this team without feeling sheepish because they are so much better than their competition and without feeling hopeless because they have no chance. After sixteen years without a World Cup victory, it’s not selfish to feel like the team deserves a victory and it’s not paranoid to be afraid that they won’t get it. This team is basically perfect to root for.

To help prepare you to root for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, we published short profiles of every player on the 23-person roster. When female athletes take their turn in the spotlight, they often receive coverage that is slanted toward non-game aspects of their stories — marriage, children, sexual preference, perceived lack-of or bountiful sexiness, social media activity, etc. In the hope of balancing things out, just a tiny bit, these previews strove to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.

Goaltenders

The goaltender or goalie is the only player on the field who can use her hands, a goalie’s task is to organize the defense and prevent the other team from scoring however she can. It’s a position for the reckless, the non-conformists, the obsessive, and the very brave. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Hope Solo – Widely considered the best goalie in the world. She’ll be looking to cement that title with a World Cup title.


Ashlyn Harris – The team’s second choice in goal. When Solo was suspended this past winter, Harris played and played well.

Alyssa Naeher – Break glass if needed. Naeher would start at goal for most of the countries in the world. For the U.S., she’s third in the order.

Defenders

Defenders are strong, physical, and extraordinarily reliable. An attacker who makes 17 mistakes and has one success is a hero, a defender who has 17 successes and makes one mistake is the opposite of a hero. Some defenders help out on offense by making runs up the field or by acting as targets for corner kicks and other set pieces. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Megan Klingenberg – An offensive minded left fullback, Klingenberg may be the fastest woman on the team. Watch for her to create offensive chances by moving up the field and playing crosses into the penalty box.

Becky Sauerbrunn –  A true defender’s defender, Sauerbrunn is used to being an ironwoman. Don’t expect her to leave the field during the World Cup.

Julie Johnston – Johnston broke into the starting lineup this winter with a series of strong defensive and offensive performances. She scored three goals in three successive games, all on runs to the near post on set pieces.

Ali Krieger – Krieger career has seemed cursed by a series of major injuries, most recently a concussion. If she can stay healthy, she’ll provide veteran play from her right defensive position.


Kelley O’Hara – O’Hara can play every position on the field and play it well. We could see her as a defensive or midfield sub.

Christie Rampone – The last active U.S. National Team player who played in the 1999 World Cup. Until an injury this winter gave Julie Johnston the opportunity to take over, Rampone was expected to start. She’s still capable of playing quality time if needed. If not, she’ll provide valuable leadership from the bench.

Whitney Engen – A likely mainstay of future teams, Engen is unlikely to play in this World Cup.

Lori Chalupny – Comes off the bench as an outside defender. If Klingenberg or Krieger falter, Chalupny will be the first choice to replace them.

Midfielders

Midfielders run and run and run and then run some more. Asked to play a role in every phase of the game, midfielders are like the connective tissue of a soccer team. It’s also the most varied position. Some midfielders focus on offense, some on defense, some on scoring, and some on passing. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Lauren Holiday – A playmaking midfielder who has been asked to play a holding or defensive midfield role on this team. Look for her to jumpstart the offense anyway with inventive long passes.

Megan Rapinoe – Rapinoe is one of the most technically gifted players in the world. She has amazing vision, precision passing ability, and a penchant for coming through when the team needs her the most.

Carli Lloyd – Lloyd is the hardest working woman in soccer. She’ll run for 90 minutes and more. She’s physically dominant. Lloyd looks to score from outside and possesses the rocket-powered feet to do it.

Christen Press – A gifted striker forced back into the midfield by the USA’s unprecedented logjam at forward. Press thrives at midfield, making long attacking runs from her deeper position.


Shannon Boxx – Boxx was Lloyd before Lloyd was. Now, she’s a veteran who can be counted on to  provide a reasonable facsimile of her old self for short periods.

Morgan Brian – The youngest player on the team, and the only college player, Brian would be the driving force on most teams. For this team, she’s probably going to be the first midfielder off the bench, able to replace any midfielder well.

Tobin Heath – Heath is one of the most talented and creative dribblers in the world. When she gets into the game, watch for her to run at opposing defenders. They’ll need two or three defenders to stop her.

Heather O’Reilly – O’Reilly has a knack for goal scoring. If she sees action in the World Cup, she’ll have a nose for goal.

Forwards

Forwards or strikers care about only one thing in the world, scoring. Even with that singular goal, forwards have a few different ways of going about it. Learn more about the position here and in our Soccer 201 course.

Amy Rodriguez – The forgotten forward, Rodriguez is an all-around proficient striker who can score in every way possible. At 28, she’s perfectly placed to step in if the older Wambach or younger Leroux, Morgan, or Press falter.

Sydney Leroux – Leroux scares the heck out of opposing defenses with her speed and limitless will. Make one wrong move on defense and she’s behind you with the ball in scoring position.

Alex Morgan – This was supposed to have been Morgan’s World Cup but a series of ankle and knee injuries put that in question. If she’s healthy, she should be a prime weapon.

Abby Wambach – Wambach is the GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. But she’s never won a World Cup, and at 35, this will be her last chance. When she’s got it going, she’s still the best striker in the world. The question will be, how much does she have left?

It's time to get serious about the Women's World Cup. The world is.

The Women’s World Cup begins today in Canada with the host nation playing against China at 6 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. If you haven’t been following women’s soccer, now is the time to start. You won’t be the only one. The tournament is receiving an unprecedented amount of coverage and attention. Or should I say, it’s receiving an unprecedented amount of coverage and attention for a women’s sporting event. For reason’s that escape me, when it comes to sports, women always get the short end of the stick. Less money, less attention, less adulation, less of everything. That’s starting to change and this World Cup is proving it in a number of ways:

  • Every game will be televised live on Fox, Fox Sports 1, or Fox Sports 2. This is being viewed by many people as a test run for Fox’ coverage of the next few men’s World Cups, which they bought the rights to. Suffice it to say that they’re throwing every resource they have at the tournament to make it enjoyable and exciting.
  • The next edition of EA Sports’ soccer video game, FIFA 16, (part of the world’s best selling video game series of all time,) will feature women’s soccer teams. This may not sound like much, but playing video games is one of the key ways that I’ve gotten into and learned about sports. Having playable female characters is a big step towards treating soccer like something that is equally male and female. The fact that EA Sports did it without any kind of annoying over-compensating pink girl’s mode makes it even better.
  • One of the great things about the video game is that boys and men who love soccer will end up playing as women, learning about the players, and growing into fans of the teams. As sparse as resources for women who love women’s soccer have been, what’s available for men who follow women’s soccer has been even less. Until this year, a man who wanted to buy a U.S. Women’s National Team jersey had to either buy a youth size or a woman’s size shirt. The women’s jerseys were not made in men’s sizes. The other option a male fan had was to buy a men’s jersey and customize it to have one of the woman player’s names and numbers on the back. This year, for the first time ever, NIKE is selling the women’s jerseys in men’s sizes! You can buy a legit Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, or Sydney Leroux jersey or customize your own.
  • Finally, the sports media has also been taking the tournament more seriously than ever. Deadspin has run an impressive series of World Cup previews. Five Thirty Eight, in true Five Thirty Eight fashion, created and beautifully illustrated a model predicting the likely outcomes of the World Cup, and then had Allison McCann write a survey of the tournament that interpolated the model without relying on it too heavily.

We’ve been taking the Women’s World Cup seriously since this blog started four years ago. This year around, we published short, gender-free profiles of all 23 members of the U.S. Women’s National Team. We’ll be rooting for them and writing about the tournament for the next month. Follow along on Twitter, Facebook, or on email:

Thanks for reading and enjoy the tournament!

 

Meet the U.S. Women's Soccer Team: Hope Solo

The 2015 soccer Women’s World Cup begins on Saturday, June 6 in Canada. The United States team is one of a handful of favorites to win the tournament and they’ve got a great story. Despite decades of excellent play, the team has not won a World Cup championship since 1999. That’s a whole generation of dreams denied and all the reason anyone should need to root for the team this year. To help prepare you to root for team and country, we’re going to run a short profile of every player on the 23-person roster. When female athletes take their turn in the spotlight, they often receive coverage that is slanted toward non-game aspects of their stories — marriage, children, sexual preference, perceived lack-of or bountiful sexiness, social media activity, etc. In the hope of balancing things out, just a tiny bit, these previews will strive to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.

Hope Solo

Position: Goalkeeper

Number: 20

National team experience: 170 appearances, this will be her third World Cup, and she has 83 international shutouts.

What to expect from Hope Solo: Hope Solo enters this World Cup as the best goalie in the world. This is an honorary she’s used to having. She’s been considered the best for at least the last seven years. Solo’s greatness is not obvious during most games. Part of the reason for this is that the U.S. team’s defense as a whole is so strong that she often doesn’t have a lot to do. That’s just a small contributing factor though. Largely her greatness is subtle because she understands the game so well. This means she’s virtually always in the right position. She knows how to use geometry to cut down on the available space an offensive player has to shoot at. When a shot is on the way towards her, she reads it and sets herself up to make the save with as much efficiency as possible. There’s very little wasted movement in her saves. She does have supreme physical abilities and reaction times, so she can wait to leap longer than most goalies. Almost uniquely among all the soccer goalies I’ve seen, Solo seems like she focuses not just on making the save but also on where she is going to direct the ball if she can’t catch it. Solo will play every game for the United States and the team should be able to rely on her to make all the saves she should be expected to make and most of them that she shouldn’t.

Video: Watch how relaxed Solo looks during this whole collection of highlights. Only once do I think she looks like she has to scramble and that’s when a shot deflects off a defender.

Non-gendered personal interest item: Hope Solo has had a long and sometimes sordid history as a celebrity. Perhaps her lowest point was this past fall when she was being compared to Ray Rice because of an assault charge she picked up after a physical altercation with her sister and nephew. By no means is Solo free from guilt about this and other infractions but that comparison was unfair. Ta-Nehisi Coates explained the falseness of the comparison better than I ever could in his article in The Atlantic.

Links: Check out Solo’s US Soccer page and follow her on Twitter. She also has a website on which she just wrote a beautiful birthday tribute to teammate Abby Wambach which I strongly recommend. 

How is the women's World Cup different from the men's?

Dear Sports Fan,

How is the women’s World Cup different from the men’s?

Thanks,
Derek

Dear Derek,

 

One of the beautiful things about soccer is that there are very few differences between the women’s version of the sport and the men’s. This is surprisingly rare in sports. Women’s ice hockey, field hockey, and lacrosse have drastically different rules, which mostly make them less rough and sometimes more difficult to play than the men’s version. The rules for women who want to play baseball are so different that we call the resulting sport by an entirely different name: softball. American football, long played exclusively by men, is only now beginning to be played by women in significant numbers. Ironically, this has led to women’s football being much more identical to its male counterpart than most other sports. The only real difference between men’s and women’s American football is that, like in basketball, women play with a slightly smaller and lighter ball. The Women’s World Cup is identical to the men’s edition (here’s a post on how that works) except for two major differences. Both differences are temporary and are likely to disappear as time passes.

You’ve probably heard about the first difference. The women’s World Cup will be played on artificial turf instead of grass. When this was announced, it was so odious to the majority of players that many of them banded together to sue the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA on charges of gender discrimination. The men’s World Cup never has and never will be played on anything but grass. Any organizer that even dreamed of trying to use turf would get laughed right off the planet. Unfortunately, the lawsuit eventually failed despite reported offers by several companies to install grass fields for free. You can see why many of the World Cup players had a special reason beyond all the obvious corruption-related reasons to celebrate when Sepp Blatter stepped down the other day. Why is playing on turf so bad? Tactically speaking, the ball bounces and rolls differently on turf which changes how the game is played and offers advantages to some teams over others. There’s also the issue of injuries. Playing on turf makes the type of sliding and falling that’s common in soccer a distinctly painful experience. For evidence, we need look no further than a tweet from U.S. national team striker, Sydney Leroux:

https://twitter.com/sydneyleroux/status/323630086249140224/

Of course, there isn’t a single player on any of the World Cup teams that wouldn’t volunteer for that type of injury if it meant winning a World Cup. The bigger issue is the thought that turf contributes to more major injuries as well. If there are a rash of blown out knees and ankles during this World Cup, players, coaches, and fans will be pointing to the turf.

The second difference is that there are fewer teams in the women’s edition of the World Cup. Currently, the men’s World Cup has 32 teams. The 2015 women’s World Cup has 24 teams. This actually represents an expansion of the field for the women’s World Cup, which from its first tournament in 1991 has grown from 12 teams to 16 in 1999 and now to 24. It may seem strange to change the number of teams involved in the World Cup but the same evolution has happened in the men’s edition. It went from 16 to 24 teams in 1982 and then to 32 in 1998. The switch from 16 to 24 teams has a major impact on how the tournament works. Until now, with 12 or 16 teams, the tournament has started with a group stage consisting of groups of four teams each. The top eight teams from the group stage advanced to the single elimination knockout round. With sixteen teams, this meant that the top two teams from each group qualified to be in the final eight. This year, the 24 teams are divided up into six groups of four teams each. Instead of trying to winnow the field straight from 24 to eight, the organizers decided to add an additional knockout stage round in — a round with 16 teams.

Now bear with me for another minute, because here’s where the technical mumbo jumbo actually starts meaning something. With 24 teams in six groups of four each, taking the top two teams from each group only gives us 12 teams. We need 16 for the knockout round. So, the top four third place teams will qualify to the single elimination stage of the tournament. This gives an enormous life-line to teams stuck in difficult groups, of which the United States’ group is thought to be the most difficult. The way the third place teams will be compared to each other is the same as the tie-breakers within the group. The first condition is number of points (three for a win, one for a tie, zero for a loss) during the group stage games. The next is cumulative goal differential (goals scored minus goals given up) during the group stage, and the final way is total goals scored. If teams are tied after that, a coin will be flipped. Yep, your country’s fortunes could be decided by a coin flip.

The weirdest thing about adding four third place teams into the round of sixteen is deciding who they play. Usually, all the first place teams are rewarded by playing a different group’s second place team in the first knockout round. Theoretically this gives the first place teams an easier path to the second round. That will still be true for the winners of groups E and F. The first place teams in groups A, B, C, and D will play the third place team from another group as determined by this insane chart.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 4.08.00 PM

If I were a fan of a country stuck in group E or F, I would be angry that my team had no chance of picking up a relatively easy matchup against a third place team. I don’t know whether groups E and F are intentionally weaker to reflect this advantage or if it was just the (bad) luck of the draw.

Given the indignation about the turf, I don’t expect another women’s World Cup to ever be played on anything but grass. And in another decade or so, I expect the women’s World Cup will move to 32 teams and be identical to the men’s. That is, unless the men’s World Cup keeps expanding also. Only time will tell.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer