Friday, August 15, 2008

The GBU: Canada - United States soccer

Photo: Natasha Kai celebrates her game-winning goal against Canada with teammate Amy Rodriguez (left). [Photo from the New York Daily News].

I've already posted a more thorough recap of this morning's Canada-U.S. Olympic soccer match over at Out of Left Field, but I figured I'd do a quick GBU breakdown here.

The Score: United States 2, Canada 1 in extra time.

How I Saw It: On the tube.

The Good:

-Karina LeBlanc: LeBlanc has been the backup keeper to Erin McLeod for quite some time now, but she showed no rust when called upon after McLeod was injured early on. LeBlanc made several tremendous saves for Canada, including at least two on breakaways and one diving one-handed stop right in front of the goal line. Given the amount of quality chances the Americans had, LeBlanc was a huge reason that the Canadians were even able to take the game to extra time. She only allowed one goal, which came on a six-yard Natasha Kai header that was unstoppable by any mortal keeper.

-Christine Sinclair: Canada's captain showed her considerable leadership skills, single-handedly pulling the red-and-white squad back into the game by manufacturing a stunning goal out of an empty void larger than my stomach when I haven't eaten in a couple days. Her goal came off the first shot and the first chance Canada had, and there really wasn't anything there: she had a live-ball shot at the net from about 25 yards out, but nine times out of 10 those amount to nothing. Sinclair got all of it including the remainder, though, and unleashed an absolute rocket that U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo could only wave goodbye at. Without her goal, this wouldn't have been much of a contest.

The Bad:

-Natasha Kai: Note that this is not bad from an objective standpoint, but bad from a Canadian fan's perspective. As such, Kai belongs here for her amazing play. She came off the bench at the start of the extra time, and promptly displayed some blinding speed to sneak through the Canadian defence and head home the winning goal. That's a more sudden impact than anything Dirty Harry appeared in. Besides, the dance [New York Daily News] she performed as a goal celebration was also pretty impressive (and according to the awesome Dan Steinberg, it's just one of her many choreographed celebrations [DC Sports Bog, or Beijing Sports Smog as it's known these days]). Now I know what Tunison sees in her...

-Amy Rodriguez: Similar to Kai, Rodriguez turned in a performance that was good from every standpoint except a Canadian one. Playing as the lone American striker for most of the match, Rodriguez was a constant threat. Particularly impressive was where she got trapped deep in the Canadian zone, but raced back to steal the ball from a lackadaisical Candace Chapman before Chapman even knew she was there, creating a quality American scoring chance.

The Ugly:

-The thunderstorm: The stupid storm not only soaked the pitch and postponed the match for over an hour, it also may have cost the Canadians the match. The humidity it created was likely a primary factor in why the Canadians appeared so out of gas at the end of the match. Sure, humidity affects both sides, but the Americans scored right at the start of extra time off a great play by a sub: from there on in, they only had to defend, which takes far less energy. This combined with the next entry to really hurt the Canadians.

-The Canadian injuries: Losing Erin McLeod early on was a big blow. As previously mentioned, Karina LeBlanc did a fantastic job in relief and McLeod couldn't have stopped Kai's goal, but that forced Even Pellerud to spend one of his three substitutions early on on a player who didn't have to do a lot of running. Things got worse later on, when he had to bring off Melissa Tancredi in favour of Brittany Timko at halftime (I'm assuming that she re-aggravated her earlier injury and wasn't pulled due to performance), and then had to bring Timko off after she got injured towards the end of the game. Thus, all three of his subs had to be used to cover injuries, which makes it difficult to adjust tactics that aren't working or bring in fresh legs to try and generate some offense. At the end, all but one Canadian outfield player (the spot filled by Tancredi/Timko/Jonelle Filigno) had played a full 120 minutes. In the heat and humidity just after a thunderstorm, plus the natural smog and pollution levels in China, it's no wonder that the Canadians ran out of energy at the end.

-The Canadian tactics: All of the above entries in the last two categories were problems, but not as significant as Pellerud's refusal to adapt his system when it was clear that it wasn't working. Canada spent most of the match sending long balls forward up the middle, losing the aerial battles for said long balls to the American central defenders, and then chasing back to try and regroup. There wasn't enough lateral support between the three strikers or enough vertical support between the forwards and the midfielders. It would have made much more sense to test the American defence on the ground or at the flanks after the long balls failed, but both areas were only lightly probed. In the second half, Pellerud switched from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2 with the addition of Timko, but he refused to attack on the wings and had both strikers (Sinclair and Kara Lang) play in a straight line in the middle of the park. If you run into a brick wall, don't keep bashing your head against it.

Angela Hucles' finishing: This entry is actually a positive for the Canadians, but it fits better under "Ugly" than "Good". Hucles did score the first goal of the game for the Americans, but she missed at least three other wide-open chances. I'm guessing there's a good reason that she's a midfielder and not a striker. As the CBC's Jason de Vos said, "Hucles has had four glorious opportunities today and has only managed to score on one of them."

Scott Russell's knowledge of Canadian soccer history:
I don't want to bash Russell too hard, because it must be incredibly difficult to serve as a multi-sport studio host and be expected to know everything about every sport. With that said, one of his halftime comments was just embarrassing for the state of Canadian women's soccer knowledge in this country. The good part was that he found a cool stat: today's match was apparently Christine Sinclair's 131th cap, which tied her for the all-time lead. The bad part was that he said it tied her with "Charmaine Cooper." That's Charmaine Hooper, Scott, and you really should know who she is if you're talking about Canadian women's soccer.

- My recap of the game [Out of Left Field].
- Jeff Blair's terrific game story, which includes the revelation that Kai's dance was supposedly based on an Eddie Murphy sketch about an ice-cream truck [The Globe and Mail].
- Lindsey Dolich has a good piece on the match, complete with ratings for the American players [ESPN Soccernet].

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