Alright semifinal round, top that. Wow, those quarterfinal games were gripping. Three games playing into overtime, with three momentum swinging goals near or at the final whistle and two games needing the PK phase. We had one of the game’s best rivalries in Brazil/USA give us an Instant Classic. We had a huge upset with the 10/1 to advance Japan squad taking out the tournament chalk Germans. We had the arrival of two talented clubs in Sweden and France, ready to make the Big 3 nothing more than an old soccer cliche. Because of how great the USA game was, you almost forget how dramatic and classic the French and Japanese wins were the day before. I really didnt think the soccer could get better than that doubleheader on Saturday. And then USA/Brazil happened. In two consecutive summers, I have nearly blown out a knee celebrating an unlikely, heroic goal to keep an American team alive in World Cup action with Ian Darke singing Incredible and other assorted poetry in the background both times. Well done, Soccer. Well done. So what do you have in store for us today?
USA vs France
Neither team should be here right now. Both should be home, wondering what went wrong. Instead each side got late, dramatic goals, both of which will go down among the classics in international soccer. France scored in the waning minutes of regulation on a screamer from Elise Bussaglia from just outside of the box to force overtime en route to winning on penalty kicks. And, we all saw what the Americans did on Sunday. Abby Wambach’s header, seconds before the final whistle, from the perfect, long ball off the toe of Megan Rapinoe rocked the country out of its sporting, summer slumber and the Yanks have been America’s darling ever since. One club will find out today that all nine of their lives are up.
These are probably the two most talented teams remaining in the field. Both are deep and can score from different vantage points of the pitch. Luckily, the US have Hope. To me, this game comes down to Hope Solo versus the daring shooters of France. The Ladie Blues have upwards of six players that will drill the ball towards the frame once given even the slightest opening. They have powerful legs and they arent shy about showing them off. And, no, that’s not some hidden meaning comment about some of their nude photos prior to this event. Well, maybe just a little. But for real, they will look to test the keeper all day with shots on frame anywhere they can take them. They tried all night against England until finally one banged home to tie the game. Get ready for Gaetane Thinney, Louisa Necib, Marie-Laure Delie, Camile Abily and Bussaglia. They will pepper Solo all game. They are going to shoot and shoot and shoot. Will the world’s best goaltender be up to the challenge? Or will a French kick bend just out of her reach, possibly delivering the decisive goal? I think Solo is going to have to make at least one acrobatic, world class save in each half to keep the Americans in the game. Regardless, we’ll still love her when its all over.
It will be a tough afternoon for American defenders. The Frnech will be a reality check for the Americans. This French team is fast, they will run all day and they love to freelance. Beware the 4-2-3-1 attack of France. Their attacking force have the greenlight to stray anywhere on the field and defenders Sonia Bombpastor and Laure Lapailleur are constantly running up in support. Can the Americans keep up? I tend to think they cant. I really do think this French team is talented. The American backs did a fine job containing Brazil, but France should run them a bit more all over the field. However, the Americans may have some of that futbol magic on their side. I am loathe to pick against them, even though the JCB reverse jinx worked like a charm in the Brazil match. I like both of these teams a lot. So, I am picking a 1-1 draw after regulation. From there, I am all about USA#1
Japan vs Sweden
Weren’t you supposed to be Germany vs USA?
When the pools and knockout bracket were unveiled in advance of the action, everybody was drooling over the possibility of Germany vs USA in this spot. Oops, about that. Sweden upset USA in Group Play, forcing the Americans, as the second place team in the group, to the other side of the bracket. Then the Swedes dispatched the Australians 3-1 in the only decisive win by any side during the quarterfinals. Germany? They were taken down in extra time by a gutty Japanese squad, hell bent on making both history and their earthquake torn nation proud. So, we get Sweden vs Japan with a spot in the World Cup Championship Match on the line. Anyone who says they had these two teams in this game from the jump are soccer geniuses. Except they’re probably also lying, so take those boasts for what they’re worth. Hell, we predicted Australia-Germany in our post for the quarterfinals, meaning we’re neither soccer geniuses or liars. Victory for the JCB! Or not.
Anyway, getting back to this match. What can you say about Japan? I didnt think they had the defensive moxie to stick with Germany. Wrong. They held them to a clean sheet. I figured Celia da Mbabi wold outplay Homare Sawa in a battle of excellent midfielders. Wrong. Not only did da Mbabi have one her worst games of her career, but it was the crafty Sawa who delivered the critical assist on the game winning goal. I didnt think they could muscle up and be physical Germany, the way Nigeria did in the German’s worst outing in group play. Wrong. Actually way wrong on this one. The Japanese took it to the Germans all day. After not drawing a penalty card all group play, Japan mugged their way to four yellows against Germany, throwing the Germans off their game. I didnt think the Japanese were deep enough to hang with Germany. Wrong. Not only did they hang, but it was their side that dug into their bench to find the offense needed in overtime to notch the win with the only goal of the match being delivered by super sub Karina Maruyama. Germany arguably didnt use all their offensive chips, leaving the likes of Birgit Prinz, Fatmire Bajramaj and Alexandre Popp on the bench entirely or, in Popp’s case, for too long to really have an impact once inserted into the lineup. So, kudos to Japan. It was a great gameplan, executed well and they proved they belonged among the best of women’s soccer.
Do they have an encore? I hate to doubt them again, but I dont think so. They played a perfect game against Germany. You cant help but wonder if they blew their wad. Besides, its not like the tournament just got easier for you when Sweden is lining up on the other side of the pitch. Japan overcame their fundamental issues against Germany. They’re small and not the best man markers in the box. Can they hold another potent team to a clean sheet? I doubt it. In fact, Sweden’s strength plays right into Japan’s weakness. They have great offense down the center with the likes of Lotta Schelin and Lisa Dahlkvist, who has terrific pace. They’ve proven to be more varied and cohesive on the offensive attack than Germany, so I expect the Swedes will keep Japan guessing just enough, eventually forcing some critical breakdowns in the scoring area. I love Caroline Seger in the midfield, she’s the true catalyst to this team. I like her game better than da Mbabi’s and I dont think she’ll struggle the way her German counterpart did. Besides, even if she does, Sweden has proven they can win without her, taking the Americans down while she sat on Yellow Card suspension. On the other end, I still dont trust this team to finish their scoring chances. They’ll need more than one finish this go around. Japan may have one of the best passing teams in the world and they are great from box to box. In the World Cup semifinals, look for their issues in both boxes to be their undoing. The Japanese are due for a free kick goal somehow off the foot of Aya Miyama, but Sweden, driven by Seger, will have too much offense as the Swedes advance in a hard fought 2-1 win.
Both matches give us an element of Establishment vs Newcomers with old hats USA and Sweden fending off programs that havent had this kind of success before. Both newcomers are talented underdogs. We see in American football every weekend that an underdog with talent has a tendency to bite hard. Should be a fun afternoon. Enjoy the games.