Sunday, September 23, 2007

ATH: Women's wins not pretty

U.S. Team Winning Games, Not Style Points
MIKE WOITALLA, New York Sun, September 25, 2007

The United States has taken the Abby Road to the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinals, yet the team's overreliance on booting balls up to its powerful striker, Abby Wambach, hasn't earned Coach Greg Ryan's team many style points.

While Wambach has scored four goals in as many games and notched an assist, the nation with the richest history in the women's game has hardly sparkled in this tournament. And its predictable strategy will be tested severely when it meets Brazil on Thursday, the tournament's only unbeaten and untied team through four games at the finals in China.

In a 2–2 tie with North Korea and a 1-0 win over Nigeria, the U. S. was dominated for long stretches. Meanwhile, Brazil and Germany, which faces Norway in the other semifinal, have provided a more diverse and entertaining brand of soccer.

After Wambach scored twice to down Sweden, 2–0, the Swedish captain and three-time World Cup vet Victoria Svensson said, "I've definitely seen them play better. Six or seven years ago, with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy in the team, they would try to play the ball on the ground a lot more and pull teams apart that way. ... Now they just try to bang it up to Abby."

At this tournament, Foudy serves as ESPN2's color commentator. In the quarterfinals, when Wambach clashed with one of England's defenders to win a corner kick, Foudy said, "That's the beauty, if you can call it beauty, of Abby's game, is that it's a little bit ugly, but it's effective. And you just wear players down."

The comment was made after the 5-foot-11-inch Wambach broke English captain Faye White's nose with an elbow and scored the opening goal by flying through another defender to head it home from four yards.

Shannon Boxx, after England coughed up the ball deep in their territory, struck with a 20-yard shot, and Kristine Lilly tapped the ball into an empty net after keeper Rachel Brown badly misjudged a long through-ball by Cat Whitehill.

For sure, the Americans played efficiently in their 3–0 win over England. But the English weren't a title contender and nor were the Swedes.

Perhaps the U.S.'s solid defense — three shutouts in four games — and more from Wambach will be enough for the team to reclaim the World Cup title it won in 1999 but conceded to Germany in 2003. But even if it wins the title in China, questions must be asked about how women's soccer in America is evolving if it needs to rely on the long-ball and wearing opponents down instead of outplaying them.

Shouldn't U.S. women's soccer be the world's the most successful and most entertaining?

America has had a big headstart in the women's game. The enforcement of Title IX spurred the massive growth of women's college soccer, creating opportunities for young women to play competitively at a scale unmatched anywhere in the world.

The U.S. Soccer Federation's investment in its women's and girls' national team programs is far, far greater than any rival. It fields national teams at the U-21, U-20, U-17, U-16, and U-15 levels, and has a U-14 Girls National Development Program.

To prepare for this Women's World Cup, the U.S. team spent two years in a residency camp and played more preparation games than any other entry. And nowhere do so many girls play the game as they do in America, whose 1.56 million registered girl players are more than the sum total of the 14 nations that rank behind it.

Usually when a team resorts to Route 1 soccer and out-muscling its opponents, the coach's excuse is that he doesn't have the talent to play a possession game. Could it be that despite all of the ambitious grassroots girls soccer programs, the nation still isn't producing enough players so the national team can control the rhythm of the game and win with flair?

When Ryan had to defend his team's playing style, he wasn't about to belittle the talent of his players, but he took a shot at those who believe the game should entertain.

"If you spend all your time trying to look pretty, you're going to end up with big problems the other way," Ryan told FIFA.com.

Not that anyone is asking his team to spend all its time trying to entertain, but soccer has had a long history of teams that look good while they win. How can that be too lofty of a goal of the U.S.? In fact, it should be the aim of the U. S. women's national team.

Ryan's main mission may be to capture the title, but women's soccer has a grander goal in America. A professional women's soccer league is scheduled to launch in 2009. Its previous incarnation came in the form of the Women's United Soccer Association and lasted just three seasons, between 2001 and 2003.

Organizers of the re-launch believe they can succeed this time around by implementing a shrewder financial policy than the WUSA had. But it won't be that simple. To draw crowds week-in, week-out to support pro clubs, the product must be tantalizing.

If the nation's showcase team relies on a gritty kick-and-rush game because it doesn't have the players with the individual skills needed to serve up a more sophisticated style, the future of women's soccer in America doesn't look as bright as it should.

Mr. Woitalla is the executive editor of Soccer America Magazine.

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