Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Still Wondering About Next Generation

Dear Carla,

For a long time, I have been wondering about the next generation of U.S. women’s national team players. Well, here they are, and I’m still wondering.

Let’s say up front that I was and still am a big supporter of Mia Hamm, Carla Overbeck, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain and anyone else that played from 1996-1999. One of their greatest qualities was their leadership ability. Another was their sense of where they came from.

I’m sure you’ve read countless stories about the early days, the time when training camps were few and far between, travel was sketchy, accommodations were Spartan and morale was sky-high. There was a sense that everything they got, they earned. Nothing was handed to them. They had to fight for the simplest things – like uniforms or more than $10 a day per diem.

So I wonder sometimes about the new players. Do they truly get it? I don’t know, and I can only guess at the answer. I think Kate Markgraf, Christie Rampone, Cat Whitehill and Abby Wambach get it. Certainly Lilly gets it, so does Briana Scurry. The rest have just heard stories, and I’m not sure they truly know the history, responsibility and obligations associated with being on that team.

Something in the North Korea draw struck me as interesting. During the stoppage when Wambach was injured, Kristine Lilly pulled the team together and was very animated in her pep talk. Then the U.S. gave up two quick goals.

I am not -- and never will -- questioning Lilly's leadership abililty. I've seen for too long what a positive effect she has on a team whenever she opens her mouth. However, you have to wonder why the team did not respond to her, and in fact, did the opposite. I think their might be a softness in the group that didn't exist in the old days.

I hope they prove me wrong, and I’ll be quick to admit it when they do.

When I think of more, I’ll write.
You know who.

USA 2, North Korea 2

Dear Tony,

Not so good. The U.S. women's national team struggled to a 2-2 draw with North Korea, a team that should have been beaten yet appeared superior in virtually every aspect of the match.

Credit to the players for scratching out a draw and getting a point. But they appeared under-prepared for the North Koreans. Yes, I know, it's easy to second-guess while watching in your living room, but here goes.

A 4-3-3 is a bad idea when playing a quick, technical, balanced team. Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Lori Chalupny were over-matched and out-numbered in midfield all game. Chalupny was the most effective of the three, simply because she is the fittest and fastest of the midfielders. Her ability to chase is better than the other two. And chasing is what they were doing. The U.S. lost control of midfield early and never seemed to own it for any sustained period of time. Abby Wambach's goal was the only example of the forwards and midfielders working together. Heather O'Reilly's opportunistic finish to tie the game was a result of horrible defending and poor clearance, possibly the only time North Korea failed defensively.

And I never understood the point of three forwards if, for one, you can't build an attack and play the ball to them where they need it, or two, if they are going to constantly have to chase back into midfield to help. Three forwards are great if you are pressuring the other team's backs into submission, or creating a situation where passes are coming from midfield. Additionally, the North Koreans were able to own every second ball in midfield, simply because of numbers.

And during the run-up to the World Cup, coach Greg Ryan said the strength of the team was scoring off re-starts. Great. Being efficient on re-starts is a valuable tool. But only if the other team fouls you.

So for whatever reason, the U.S. dug themselves a hole. Friday they have to start climbing out of it.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

Monday, September 10, 2007

Their Glorious Leader

Dear Aaron,

Whenever a World Cup rolls around, I always look forward to seeing the different styles of play. Each nation takes a unique approach to the game. Sometimes the differences are slight, but nonetheless different.

Usually, a nation's approach can be traced to their history and culture. Now that the Women's World Cup is here, let's take a look at some of the teams. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about North Korea, aka the Democratic Republic of Korea, an inaccurate moniker if I heard heard one. So, we'll start with them.

The North Koreas are all about teamwork. Every player is technically strong, they move the ball as a group, the defend as a group, and individual flair is pretty much non-existent. They seem to have taken advice from Major Frank Burns, The MASH doctor who said, "Individuality is fine as long as we are all doing it together."

Anyway, North Korea, in my opinion, will never win anything outside of Asia for that very reason. Without someone able to step up and take over in the big moment of the big game, you won't be successful at the World Cup level. For all I know, stepping up and taking charge might be against the law. That little guy, the dictator of North Korea, Whatshisname Kim, probably doesn't like it. And North Korea is competing for him, or at least that's what they say. Every press conference in 2003 began with the translator explaining that the team is trying to please "Our Glorious Leader."

And that's another competitive problem. If the players aren't able to play for themselves and for each other, they won't be at their best.

The U.S. will struggle a bit. There will be nerves and that strange mixture of adrenaline and expectation that will come to a head at kickoff. But adrenaline and expectation are better than fear and dread.

Bottom line: USA 3, North Korea 1. Kristine Lilly will not let this team lose the opener.

When I think of more, I'll write.

You Know Who