Friday, July 8, 2011

Previewing the WWC knockout stage: Marta invades

For all the style points the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team accrued over its first two sleek Group C wins, they rolled back nearly all of them in 90 lackluster minutes against Sweden in Wolfsburg on Wednesday. Luckily for the U.S., there was always going to be another game to play. Unfortunately, that game is now against Brazil.

Starting tomorrow, the Women’s World Cup enters the venerable knockout stage. After three group games apiece, eight teams will be pared down to four by the end of Sunday, sending a fresh crop toward the 2011 Women’s World Cup final in Frankfurt. While the U.S. faces Brazil on Sunday, three other matchups take place this weekend: Germany-Japan, Sweden-Australia and England-France. Here’s a sneak peek at all four.

I am indeed making predictions today. I'll stand by them only if you understand that I'll be admonishing myself for my stupidity far earlier than you are.

- USA vs. Brazil: The U.S. is a two-time World Cup champion, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist and the No.1-ranked team in the world. It is surprising, then, that they have such a difficult task in front of them so soon after the group phase. Blame the Swedes.

The U.S. defeated Colombia and North Korea a combined 5-0 in the first two group games, and there was talk that with Abby Wambach and a selection of up-and-comers, this might be the perfect melding of feisty youth and guileful veterans, a must for title hopefuls. On Wednesday, Sweden dealt the U.S. a 2-1 defeat to win the group with a perfect record. It was Sweden’s second win over the U.S. this year and refocused the U.S. supporters' thoughts from parades to survival.

The leviathan known as Brazil awaited the loser, and now the U.S. must deal with the challenge posed by the irrepressible Marta, the five-time reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. These teams share a comically deep history. The U.S.’s worst loss in its history was a 4-0 dusting by Brazil in the semifinals of the last World Cup. Brazil’s most lopsided defeat was a 6-0 loss to the U.S. in the 1999 World Cup.

For reasons that escape Brandi Chastain, the U.S. has owned Brazil in the Olympics but can't seem to hop over the Brazilians in World Cup play since that beating in '99. Beats me, but it does inform my prediction.

I'd expect an open, fluid match. Much like their male counterparts, Brazil plays the Joga Bonito with aplomb, flipping acrobatic passes over defenders and juggling through traffic with an ease that belies its difficulty. The U.S. knows this and will likely attempt to keep pace if challenged by an early goal. Fat chance.

Call me a pessimist if you must, but the U.S. has some unanswered questions that Marta is eager to exploit with her cronies. The U.S. has never finished lower than third, but they've not won a World Cup since Chastain’s infamous shirt twirl in 1999. I’d expect that drought to extend another four years. Blame the Swedes.
Prediction: Brazil 3, USA 2

- Germany vs. Japan: If there’s such a thing as a mid-tournament favorite, Germany is mine. The hosts are the two-time defending champs and strike a terrifying figure in this tournament. The Germans took all nine points from their group, polishing it off with an all-too-easy 4-2 win over title hopeful France on the last day of the group.

In Germany, a soccer country starved for titles, signs erected this month in Berlin read, “Third place is for men," and, "Boys, we will avenge you.” It is a reference to the 2010 World Cup in which the German men finished third. Further, it is a nod to the women’s team, which has won the last two World Cups and the last five European Championships. If the men’s team carries most of the support, it is the women’s team that carries home the titles.

This may or may not be Germany’s strongest women’s team, but they have the backing of an interested country. A full 14.1 million German viewers watched Germany’s World Cup opener, a record in that country. Whatever Japanese fans make the trek are sure to be shouted down.

It is hard to get a handle on the Japanese. They are ranked No. 4 in the most recent world rankings and dazzled in a 4-0 win over Mexico led by Homare Sawa’s three goals on only four shots. But a 2-0 defeat to England in the final group game puts Japan and its pass-heavy system in an uncomfortable place.

Simply put, if the Japanese back line isn’t sliced to ribbons, it’ll be a good day.
Prediction: Germany 3, Japan 1

- Sweden vs. Australia: This is the matchup the U.S. could have had. Sweden will gladly take the honors instead.

It’s not that the Australians are pushovers. Far from it, in fact. But they are not Brazil. The Swedes are riding a wave of optimism after a well-deserved group-clinching win over the U.S., while Australia is the lowest-ranked team left alive and carries in an unhealthy 1-7 all-time record against Sweden. Australia had to come from behind for a shock 2-1 win over 1995 champs Norway to sneak into the knockout stage. Don’t expect the organized Swedish back line to suffer the same fate.
Prediction: Sweden 2, Australia 0

England vs. France: A rematch of the Battle of Agincourt almost 600 years in the making (yes, I went there). It may be painting an obvious face on this match, but these sides share very little respect for one another. England’s industrious offense will run up against a Les Bleus back line licking its wounds after being whipped up in the German tornado. England has shown improvement in each game, progressing from a draw to one and then two-goal margins of victory.

France may not have the better World Cup record this year, but they have a decided edge in skill. With Louisa Necib, dubbed the female Zinedine Zidane by the French sporting press, England will struggle to find the grit to outgun their French nemeses.
Prediction: France 1, England 0

- Will Parchman


Will said...

Boom, down goes Germany.

Greg Seltzer said...

Crazy. When a team like Germany loses to a team like Japan, they essentially beat themselves. Germany should not be losing to Japan.


Chevis said...

I know that this is trivial, but I can't help myself. "Joga Bonito" means "play beautifully" so you can't really play the joga bonito...