This tournament started with how every organizer wishes it would, with both hosts getting wins to up the energy and buzz around the whole thing. World Cups and big tournaments are just better when the hosts are relevant and getting the home fans excited. But now both Australia and New Zealand are up against it, for various reasons. We’ll get to the latter’s problems forthwith.
Can the USMNT avoid the knockout? | World Cup reaction
The Aussies’ biggest problem is that they’re just not healthy. Most of their hopes were pinned on having arguably the best striker in the world in Sam Kerr. We don’t even know if she’ll appear at this tournament at all. Her No. 1 deputy, Mary Fowler, couldn’t make the bell for their match against Nigeria either, Midfielder Evie Luik also missed out, which meant that when the chips were down, and the Matildas were down, manager Tony Gustavsson looked at his bench and basically saw a collection of tumbleweeds.
And he needed options, because through two games Australia have looked pretty punchless. Nigeria had no reason to fear anyone getting behind them–Caitlin Foord and stand-in Emily van Egmond (she’s an Egmond she’s an Eg Egmond…) aren’t going to beat anyone for pace, which meant they were pretty easily able to clog the middle without having to drop all that deep. Shunted to the outside, Australia were forced to lob 41 crosses, only 10 of which found an Aussie head. It was impossible to watch cross after cross come in, or Nigeria easily swat away the rare pass behind their line, and not think, “Kerr would have found a way to get on the end of that.”
All of that is giving Nigeria short shrift, as they were brilliant. As they were against Canada. One of the underlying stories of this tournament is the way a couple teams that have been at odds with their manager have banded together when the games started to play exceedingly well. Spain is one, as we know they actively tried to get Jorge Vilda fired, though they haven’t really been put into the fire yet with hanging curveballs against Costa Rica and Zambia. Nigeria is another, but they were put to the test immediately, opening the tournament against Canada and the hosts. Certainly there have been issues with coach Randy Waldrum, particularly how he chooses his roster, but they’ve followed the plan to a T.
They’ve been organized, defending out of a 4-1-4-1 this morning that basically cut off the middle of the field. The Aussies never had their wingers come inside to provide more room for the fullbacks to get forward or to link with the two strikers, and when they did Nigeria was too happy to pounce on the counter out wide in the space vacated. They were dogged, as when Australia threw everything at them they repelled all of it until the 100th minute, by which point the points were already in the bag. They even shrugged off their star player, Asisat Oshoala, starting on the bench (she’s been the source of upheaval in the Nigeria camp too in the past). And then she came on as a sub and scored the killer third goal from a devilish angle after the Aussies got a little goofy in defense.
The result throws Group B into total chaos, much like Group A. Canada and Australia in the last game would appear to be a loser leaves town match, with the caveat that a draw could also send the Aussies out unless Nigeria lose to Ireland. Nigeria have the simple task of beating or drawing with a team that has already been eliminated, but given the spirit Ireland have shown in their first two matches, that won’t be as straightforward as it sounds. Still, all of Australia will be chewing their fingernails down to and past the quick until that match, given that they’re beat up and rolling in after a shock loss, whereas Canada is coming in off a comeback win. The Canadians might not be the force they once were, but they certainly are experienced and have the boost of having claimed a gold medal just two years ago basically through perseverance. They’ll be calling in all sorts of healers and oracles for Kerr and Fowler.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of tension and surprise was the other game in the US’s group, where Portugal pretty much strolled by Vietnam. At least the latter entered the attacking half once or twice, which they didn’t against the Yanks. Portugal probably should have had four or five goals but wonky finishing prevented that. They won’t care much as it’s their first World Cup win, and now they’re sort of on house money to pull the biggest shock in the tournament’s history by winning against the US to send the USWNT home. It won’t happen, but the chance is probably all Portugal would have asked before the tournament started.
Oshoala’s from essentially the touchline at full speed is a world-class finish:
That is delicate.
As covered in the wrap of the USWNT game, he was actually spot on with how the US seemed totally unequipped to deal with what the Netherlands did in the first half. So we’ll skip over to Carli Lloyd, who pegged the US’s ability to get a draw on Lindsey Horan getting “pissed off” and more heart and grit bullshit that belonged on TNT for their hockey coverage.
We know Lloyd likes this kind of stuff from her playing career, and it’s an easy narrative to reach for anyone to watch Horan start jawing with van de Donk after a tough foul and then immediately score. The Dutch’s zonal marking system that allowed Horan to run from everyone’s blindside to a delicious corner from Rose Lavelle is just as easy to blame as any bile Horan had rising.
Yes, the Americans raised their tempo and effort in the second half, and that can’t be discounted. But there’s more to it than “want to.” Getting higher up the field and more determined in a press also has its benefits. The Dutch being out of forward options and their most composed defender having to leave injured are other factors. We can aim higher than this.
To balance that out, it is worth mentioning that Aly Wagner very well may be the game’s best analyst on these shores. Without talking endlessly or in a way that feels like she’s trying to prove how smart she is, she calmly, neatly, and thoroughly tells viewers what they can’t see and teaches them something. She illustrates how teams are playing with and without the ball, what they’re trying to do, and how the opposition is trying to prevent that. As soon as she’s done talking the viewer can see exactly what she’s just referenced. And even as a former player, she is unafraid to criticize the USWNT when they’re either set up wrong or executing poorly. She is a true joy to listen to, and there are a lot of national analysts on every sport who could learn a lot from how she does her job.
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