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Friday, March 19, 2010

US U17s Shocked

ALAJUELA, Costa Rica - After the USA outscored its opponents, 32-0, in three games in group play, who would have imagined?

The USA won't be going to the 2010 Under-17 Women's World Cup after playing to a 0-0 tie with Canada and then falling on penalty kicks in the semifinals of the CONCACAF U-17 Women's Championship in Alajuela, Costa Rica. It marks the first time the USA has failed to qualify for the finals of a FIFA women's championship.

Canadian goalkeeper Sabrina D amp;rsquo;Angelo was outstanding, saving all seven U.S. shots on goal.

Canada also had its chances. Haillie Price got a swing at a bouncing ball inside the six-yard box that U.S. goalie Bryane Heaberlin deflected off the crossbar and then smothered.

Canada went on to win the shootout, 5-3. The decisive round was the third when Canadian Yazmin Ongtengco hit a poorly struck shot but the ball amazingly spun over but Heaberlin's body and rolled over the goal line. American Clarissa Wedemeyer then hit her shot over the crossbar for the only miss of the shootout.

Since CONCACAF member Trinidad & Tobago will host the U-17 Women’s World Cup in September, just two World Cup berths instead of the usual three were available at this tournament, both going to the winners of the semifinals.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Soccer Helps Overcome Adversity

After the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in early January, no one thought Haiti’s U-17 Women’s National Team would be able to compete at the CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championships in mid-March in Costa Rica. But despite all odds, they are here, and the players from their first opponent – the United States -- are filled with both empathy and admiration.

Before Jan. 12, the opening match for the USA at the CONCACAF Under-17 Women’s Championship was just a game. A vitally important game for sure, but it was just another step in a quest for a berth to the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

That all changed when the ground started shaking in Port-au-Prince.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti produced tragic images streamed across TV sets in America and the world. Even before the quake, Haiti was one of poorest countries in Western Hemisphere, but the pictures were almost unimaginable. An estimated three million people were affected, at least 230,000 people were killed (although the figure continues to grow), 300,000 more were injured and more than 1,000,000 were left homeless. An estimated 250,000 homes and 30,000 businesses collapsed or were severely damaged, among them the headquarters of the Haiti Soccer Federation.

The head coach for Haiti’s U-17 Women’s National Team died when that building fell, along with more than 30 officials of Haiti’s soccer federation.

Amazingly, Haiti was able to gather their U-17s and travel together to the neighboring Dominican Republic to train and prepare for the tournament. The match against the United States on March 10 at Alejandro Morera Soto Stadium in Alajuela, Costa Rica, will be the first international sporting event for Haiti since the disaster.

“Sports have the power to unite people and the fact that Haiti was still able to assemble their team and come to the CONCACAF championships is a testament to the great spirit of their players and administrators,” said U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team head coach Kazbek Tambi. “So many people lost their lives and it’s likely that every player on their team had relatives or friends that passed away. It’s a traumatic situation and the fact that they have mustered the character to come here is pretty amazing.”

The tragedy produced an outpouring of support and aid from around the world. The U.S. U-17s will also do their small part to try to brighten the spirits of the Haitian players. Each U.S. player brought to Costa Rica a small bag or backpack filled with things they thought another 16 or 17-year-old might enjoy as well as some basic items that often might be taken for granted. The U.S. Women’s National Team also donated a few large duffel bags full of used cleats and new Nike casual gear for the U-17s to give to the Haiti players while Nike sent a bushel of new soccer shoes to be passed on to the USA’s Haitian counterparts. Each U.S. player wrote a note of support for the Haitian players and put it inside the bag she brought.

The U.S. is making arrangements to give the gifts to Haiti following the completion of the first round. First, though, there is a soccer game to be played. And while the U.S. players will have the plight of the Haitians on their minds before and after the match, they know that during the 90 minutes on the field, they must focus the task at hand, for their team, for their country and for themselves.

“For them to be here, I think just shows a lot of perseverance, their drive to succeed and their desire to do something positive for their country,” said U.S. captain Morgan Brian. “We have a lot of respect for them and I know I speak for our entire team when I say that I don’t know if we, as individuals, would be able to play if we had to face the tragic circumstances they have in their lives right now.”

For the most part, all of the U.S. players come from comfortable homes in quiet neighborhoods not far from great soccer fields in beautiful sports complexes. For them, it is difficult to imagine what the Haitian players must be going through. But as part of the process of growing into positive young women with an awareness of the world and empathy for those less fortunate, they are trying to.

“I think it’s incredible that they’ve come to play this tournament,” said U.S. midfielder Alex Doll.
“They’ve lost their homes, family members and their friends. It’s just really cool that these girls are able to represent their country and hopefully they can inspire the people of Haiti just a little bit. I know we are inspired by them.”

“We know they will be fighters on the field and that will be a challenge in itself,” added Brian. “After what they’ve been through, a ninety-minute soccer game might not be that tough.”

Haiti’s participation in the tournament is an example of how sports can help overcome adversity. No matter what the result of the USA-Haiti game, it is clear that just by being at the qualifying tournament, Haiti has already won.

“We just think it’s cool that it’s not the full men’s national team that is representing Haiti for the first time since the earthquake, it’s a group of 17-year-old girls,” said Doll. “They are playing for something bigger. We have to believe that when you’ve had so much taken away, to still have one thing you love, and that’s soccer, well, that’s a great thing.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Business As Usual For The USA Women; 7-time Algarve Cup Champions

The Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games may be over but in Europe, the football continues.

Since 1994, the Algarve Cup women's football tournament has earned its place among the most prestigious alongside the Olympics and the Women's World Cup. During the past decade, Pia Sundhage's USA Women's National Team has been the most successful, winning the tournament six times.

This year, Abby Wambach and the WNT-consisting entirely of Women's Professional Soccer based players-were intent on taking the crown away from defending title holders Sweden. The end result: four straight wins to start the 2010 schedule.

The USA started group play on Wednesday, February 24 with a 2-0 victory over Iceland. Goalkeeper Hope Solo, a seasoned veteran between the pipes for many of the WNT's campaigns, stopped two crucial penalties. Iceland was unlucky to allow two goals in as many minutes: an own goal by Sif Atladóttir in the 60th minute and a shot from the Boston Breakers' Lauren Cheney in the 61st.

“I saw that their two center-backs had stepped up," Cheney said on her goal, "but there outside backs held, so I just made a little bent run and Lori found me and I stayed composed. It was just me and the goalie.”

“We've only been here a couple of days so the first game is always tough, but I think we picked up the rhythm as the game went on," said Sundhage after the match. “We need to see more from the center mids. It’s not only about [Shannon] Boxx and Carli, but for the team to find the them. We tried to play that big ball and just passed the center mids. If we can get them more involved in the game, it will change the rhythm and will be a bit more unpredictable if they dicate the tempo."

“I’ve never faced two penalty kicks in one ninety-minute game before," said Solo on her stops. “We had a slow start. We had chances at the begining and didn’t put them away. It took a lot of patience to finally get one goal, then the next one came.

"It wasn’t our best game. We had moments of brilliance, but the ground was hard, really bumpy and we had a hard time getting our first touch. It can get better and it will get better in the next game.”

Abby Wambach of the Washington Freedom was the answer. Already one of the game's most prolific scorers with 101, she made it 103 en route to a 2-1 victory over Norway on Friday, February 26.

Sloppy pitch conditions and a string of changes by new manager Eli Landsem in the 2nd half failed to deter the USA from scoring two minutes into stoppage time. A long delivery pass from center back Cat Whitehill found Cheney, who was credited with the Wambach winner.

“The surface was pretty interesting, it doesn’t really play into either one of our hands, but I think we did well with it today," Wambach said after the match. "On a field like this, you really just want to get it as high as possible as soon as possible. Playing on the ground is hit or miss, but obviously at the end to tuck one in is great for our team.”

Sundhage downplayed the pitch conditions. “It is what it is," she said. "You have to adjust your game and I think we did quite well. That’s one of the reasons we put Cat Whitehill on at center back...We could attack in a different way because of her long balls.”

To wrap up group play, the WNT took on Sweden...and got their revenge with a 2-0 victory. Once again, it was Cheney who took the honors, scoring a brace to send the USA to a date with Germany in the final.

In the 56th minute, a well-delivered through ball by Casey Nogueira (Chicago Red Stars) found Cheney, whose finish was untouchable for any of the Swedish defenders to challenge. Cheney would deliver the hammer with a 20-yard strike, facilitated by Lori Lindsey (Philadelphia Independence).

Sundhage chose to go with a 4-3-3 system for the second half, and it paid off.

Heather Mitts (Philadelphia Independence), Rachel Buehler (FC Gold Pride), Amy LePeilbet (Boston Breakers) and Stephanie Cox (Boston Breakers) neutralized Sweden's dangerous tandem of Kosovare Allanni, Jessica Landstrom and Lotta Schelin with excellent one-on-one defending. Solo was sensational, making two saves and a number of stops to earn her second shutout.

“Sweden is so good at finding that run across the back line and our center backs did a great job of making sure they didn’t get behind them," Boxx said after the game. "In the second half...[the 4-3-3] made them have to go around us. I think that stopped them a lot in their attack.”

Cox was also with the consensus in the Yanks camp who felt it was a gamble well spent. "We came out with a little bit different mentality in the second half to dictate how we wanted to defend and not let their attack dictate to us," she said. "The formation (change) really helped having Boxxy sitting there in the middle and cleaning up balls for us."

Birgit Prinz, Inka Grings, Melanie Behringer and the rest of Silvia Neid's German squad were destined to be the USA's main threat to the Algarve Cup, but it was the Stars and Stripes who struck first blood with two goals in four minutes.

In the 19th minute, it was Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC) who delivered a blistering 22yard strike past keeper Nadine Angerer. Sundhage's ladies made Germany pay for a foul on Cheney in the 22nd minute to make the score 2-0. Buehler wasted no time delivering the subsequents free kick to Sky Blue FC's Heather O'Reilly, setting up an Abby Wambach header.

Grings made it 2-1 with four minutes to go in the first half, but in the 70th minute, Cheney took advantage of a botched save by Angerer to make it 3-1 USA.

Down the finish, Grings-who will certainly end the 2010 Algarve Cup as the tournament's leading scorer-got the brace in the 75th minute thanks to excellent ball handling by Behringer.

With a possible rally by Neid's team forthcoming, it was up to Solo, Buehler and LePeilbet to perform some key sweeping on a pitch compromised by Mother Nature and intense action in the group stage.

Alexandra Popp had a solid chance to bring home the equalizer in the 89th but it was called offside. Another attempt by Celia Okiyino da Mbabi in stoppage time went wide left.

In the end, it was none other than Solo who bailed the USA out of danger and saved the day. A miscommunication between Buehler and LePeilbet almost resulted in an embarrassing own goal for the Yanks.

However, the St. Louis Athletica keeper instinctively dived on the loose
ball to effectively secure the USA their seventh Algarve Cup.

The next match for the USA Women's National Team will be on Sunday, March 28 against Mexico. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. PT at Torero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.