Monday, June 29, 2015

2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Semifinals

Down to the Final Four
The Semifinals are upon us at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup. I got three of my four predictions correct (USA, Japan, England) from before the start of the tournament. However, I had France beating Germany. And they certainly should have beaten Germany in that game, but failed to put the ball into the back of the net despite dominating the pace of the game and getting behind the German defense. Now, a look at the two semifinals.

USA vs Germany - June 30, 2015 in Montreal. Germany are ranked #1 in the FIFA rankings, with USA at #2. They haven't met at the World Cup since 2003 when Germany beat USA in the Semifinals. USA defeated Germany in the 1999 Quarterfinals and 1991 Semifinals. The crowd could reach 50,000 in Montreal's Olympic Stadium, with many expected to be US supporters who just have to travel over the border. However, Germany just dealt with a loud French-Canadian Montreal crowd supporting France. 

France were able to get in behind the German defense in the Quarterfinal, and controlled the pace of the game. Germany were struggling to score until getting a Penalty Kick late in the game. Meanwhile, France had a bunch of of great looks at goal they couldn't capitalize on. The US should use their fastest players to get in behind Germany's defense much like France. And bury those chances they'll get because of it. Alex Morgan should get her chances in this game, while Megan Rapinoe should be rested after missing the match against China with a yellow. Its a 50/50 toss up, but I'm sticking with the USWNT getting it done. 

Japan vs. England - July 1, 2015 in Edmonton. Defending champs Japan got a scare from Australia, but prevailed in the end with a late goal. They are completing 83% of their passes, the best in the competition. England defeated the hosts, capitalizing on mistakes by Canada and holding onto their win with a grit and toughness we haven't seen from any England team in a while. Its the first time England have been in a World Cup semifinal since the men in 1990, and the first time the women have made it this far. It's good to see the Lionesses have such a solid run to captivate the attention of those home in England. 

England should put up a fight, but they can't rely on mistakes to score here. Japan are so technical and pass the ball better than anyone, rarely giving the ball away in a bad position. However, England are the last team to beat Japan at the Women's World Cup which they did in the group stage in 2011. Still, I think Japan will be too experienced and too technical for England to win. England will have to try and make the most of any set pieces they get.

And yes, many have noticed how there's a whole WWII Allies vs Axis theme with USA & England taking on Germany & Japan. Its nice that we can peacefully joke about it now with them all being allies. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

2015 Women's World Cup Quarterfinals

We're into the Final 8 teams at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup after an enjoyable Round of 16. There are some interesting storylines to look forward to as well, such as the United States taking on China in the World Cup for the first time since the famous final in 1999.

First, a ranking of the Final 8.

1. Japan. They aren't blowing teams out on the scoreboard, but that is not the kind of team they are. They completely own the field and control the pace of the game by being the best technical team in the world, which can frustrate and wear others down. They also play with a looseness, handling the pressure well. They also have fun personalities. An example: putting a teddy bear on the bench to represent Kozue Ando, who broke her ankle in the first game. One curious thing is they used a different goalkeeper in each group game. Could that hurt the flow in a close game? Just one example of their technical prowess, Sakaguchi's goal against the Netherlands:

2. Germany. The Germans are as good as always, though they also haven't been truly tested until they face France. Their biggest test was against Norway in the group stage, which ended in a draw. However, they are the #1 ranked team in the world for a reason. So many players can get a goal at any given moment, and they won't allow teams to take a big lead.

3. France. Les Blues suffered their shock defeat to Colombia, as well as some frustrations in the match with Louisa Necib throwing a ball at her teammates legs. Aside from that match though, they've been on top of their game. They have a strong technical ability to rival Japan and may be peaking at the right time.

4. USA. It hasn't been pretty, and there are questions about the formation and where players are being placed. After beating Australia they tied Sweden and followed that up with a 1-0 win over Nigeria. However, Nigeria got a red card yet the US couldn't get another goal. Then against Colombia, they couldn't break them down until Colombia got a red card early in the 2nd half. After a missed penalty kick, the US finally scored and then notched a 2nd with another penalty kick. They still have time to find their mojo though. And the defense has been lights out. Hopefully they move to a 4-3-3 formation.

5. England. They're a tough team to pinpoint, as sometimes they look off and sometimes they look in complete control. Their win over Norway showed that, with a mediocre first half. Then they went down and turned it on after, scoring two goals and dominating the rest of the game. They certainly have skill and some composure, now can they play a full game to the best of their ability?

6. Canada. The host nation haven't been scoring many goals, but they have been pretty stout on defense, not giving up many goals either. Still, they'll need to find their scoring boots if they hope to make it all the way to the final. Having the home fans can only take you so far. They have Christine Sinclair, who is perfectly capable of scoring multiple goals in a game which means Canada are never out of a game.

7. Australia. It's tough to put them at 7, as they've been playing lights out since their loss to the US. They shocked Brazil, sending them home before the Quarterfinals for the first time since 1995. If they can break down Japan, they may become the favorite to topple Canada or England to make the final.

8. China. They had some luck on their side, but they have a defense that doesn't allow much to get past it. Their main issue is scoring multiple goals. Having a great defense is fine, but at some point they'll have to score more than one goal to continue their run. It doesn't seem likely it'll come considering they'd have to upset the USA and if they did, Germany or France.

Germany vs. France. #1 takes on #3 in what should be a highly entertaining match with everything on the line. I picked France to beat them before the tournament, and i'll stick with that. This is really a 50-50 toss up though. France will have confidence, as they defeated Germany in their last meeting. The Germans should be in top form though. It will be interesting to just watch this unfold.

USA vs. China. A rematch of the 1999 Women's World Cup final. This won't be played in the Rose Bowl or with Mia Hamm and Sun Wen. The US have struggled to score since the first game, and it might not get any easier when they face a tough Chinese defense, call it the Great Wall. One bonus is they have faced China a bunch of times and should have a good read on them. The US defense has also been great, while China haven't scored many goals recently either. I imagine the US finds their scoring ability and breaks down China in the 2nd half for a win. First, watch that outstanding moment in 1999 when Brandi Chastain buried her penalty kick to give the US their 2nd Women's World Cup.
Japan vs. Australia. These two teams are familiar with each other from playing in the same confederation and offer different styles of play. Australia are tough and physical, while Japan are highly technical. The Matildas are on a hot streak, but Japan have been going about their business like they always do. I think they'll just have that extra bit of firepower to take down the Aussies and control the flow.

England vs. Canada. Another 50-50 toss up here. Both of these teams can be inconsistent at times, so it will be interesting to see if either can take control of momentum and keep it. England really have nothing to lose, with most of the pressure on Canada. I had them meeting in my predictions, and I chose England. Canada did beat them before the tournament, but it was close and i'll stick with England here. They seemed to have found a high level of confidence that could take them to the Semifinals for the first time.

Monday, June 15, 2015

2015 FIFA Women's World Cup: Final Group Stage Matches

The final round of Group Stage matches for the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup are here, and plenty of teams still have a chance after some surprising results.

Group B kicks things off today, and this one should be simple. Germany should beat Thailand, Norway should beat Ivory Coast. Based on Goal Differential we'll likely see Germany on top with Norway in second. Thailand is still alive for a 3rd place spot in the knockout round, but their goal differential will likely be too far back.

Group A is the tight, interesting one. Canada plays the Netherlands. Netherlands will want a draw at least to get to 4 points, and Canada will want to head into the knockout round with a win. New Zealand need a win, but have struggled to score and they face the tough "Great Wall of Defense" that is China. We'll likely see Canada top the group and China finish second. Netherlands should get 3rd place, and might have enough goal differential to make it to the knockout round.

Tuesday we'll see Group C. defending champs Japan pretty much have locked up the top seed, as they face the weakest team in the tournament, Ecuador. Switzerland should grab 2nd when they face Cameroon, all they need is a draw. Cameroon have been an exciting team and have a great chance to qualify as a top third place team. A draw would guarantee it, which would be nice for these fan favorites.

Group D is still fairly open. USA sits on top with four points, and face a fading Nigeria team. USA still have plenty to prove, and hopefully we'll see a start from Tobin Heath in the midfield. Australia sits in 2nd with 3 points, while Sweden sits in 3rd with 2 points. If Sweden lose, they're finished. I can see them winning this, but Australia are a tough team and a draw is possible. Either way, both teams should make it through, unless Sweden lose of course. Whoever finishes 2nd in group D is guaranteed to face Brazil. Alex Morgan has been playing sporadically, so if USA can get a comfortable lead here it could allow her some extra rest heading into the knockout round.

Wednesday we have Group E. Costa Rica are the talk of the tournament after pulling draws from both Spain & South Korea. They take on Brazil who locked up 1st place, so they could possibly rest starters like Marta, giving Costa Rica a shot at a draw, or maybe even win. South Korea take on Spain, and both need to win. A draw might eliminate both, unless Costa Rica loses, which helps Spain. South Korea lack Goal Differential and definitely need a win.

Group F had the shocker of the tournament, with Colombia beating Spain 2-0 in one of the biggest upsets in Women's World Cup history. That means France is sitting in 3rd and face Mexico, which won't be an easy one, though they should get a result and advance. England take on Colombia for first place. Either way, both of those teams should advance. The 3rd place team here is likely to face the winner of Group D, which seems like it will be the US.

Aside from Ecuador & Ivory Coast, every team has been competitive so far. with most of them still alive for the knockout round. Only Japan & Brazil had qualified entering into this final round of Group matches.

Friday, June 5, 2015

2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Predictions

World Cup fever has taken over again as the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada begins on June 6th...which means time for predictions! I correctly predicted Japan to win the 2011 Women's World Cup over USA in the final, and for Germany to win in 2014 (though craptastically wrong on the rest of the final four). The pressure is on now. The move up from 16 teams to 24 teams means the return of the top four 3rd place finishers moving onto the Round of 16, which was last seen at the 1994 Men's World Cup. It creates some more excitement surrounding those final group games, as more teams will have something to play for besides spoiler. This will also be the first big sports tournament to cross five different timezones, stretching all across Canada.

Previous hosts/winners:
China 1991: USA. Sweden 1995: Norway. USA 1999: USA.
USA 2003: Germany. China 2007: Germany. Germany 2011: Japan.

Group A: 1. Canada, 2. Netherlands, 3. New Zealand, 4. China. This is probably the toughest group to predict, as depending how things go that any team could finish in any spot. Canada obviously has the home field advantage and are in good form lately, though that also creates added pressure. However, Canada has the most experience and should come out on top. 2nd place is a toss up, but the Netherlands have been climbing for a while and should be an exciting team to watch. China was one of the dominant powers of the 1990s and early 2000s before hitting bottom and failing to qualify in 2011. They've worked their way back up to respectability, but might struggle to score goals against a tough group. New Zealand should have more skill, but China faces stiffer competition in qualifying and should be more battle tested. The match between those two will be one to watch.

Group B: 1. Germany, 2. Norway, 3. Thailand, 4. Ivory Coast. The only question in this group will be who takes 3rd. Germany is the clear favorite to come out on top, and is one of the favorites to win the Cup. Norway have seen better days, but they are clearly better than Thailand and Ivory Coast. This is the first time Thailand has appeared at a Men's or Women's World Cup. The battle for 3rd will take place on June 11th, and I'm leaning towards Thailand for their experience playing top teams like Japan & Australia in qualifying. I don't think either Thailand or Ivory Coast will grab a 3rd place spot in the Round of 16 though.

Group C: 1. Japan, 2. Switzerland, 3. Cameroon, 4. Ecuador. Defending champs Japan are in a group with three newcomers and are favorites. However, Switzerland should be able to hang with them and are clearly the second best team in the group. Ecuador has come a long way and won a road playoff match against Trinidad to get to the World Cup, but Cameroon has the experience of playing in the 2012 Olympics which might give them an edge for 3rd place. Japanese star Homare Sawa will appear in her record 6th World Cup, the first person to do it.

Group D: 1. USA, 2. Sweden, 3. Australia, 4. Nigeria. The Group of Death, featuring three teams in the Top 10 of the FIFA Rankings (USA, Sweden, Australia) and the Champions of Africa (Nigeria). Sweden beat the US in the group stage in 2011, but this time I think the flip will happen with USA topping the group. USA also have a bit of a home field advantage with so many Americans traveling up to Canada. Sweden, a World Cup final contender, should take 2nd place. Australia and Nigeria are both good enough to make it to the knockout round, but only one will get that chance barring an upset over USA or Sweden. I want to pick Nigeria, but Australia has a more well rounded team. Young Nigeria should be a team to watch for 2019.

Group E: 1. Brazil, 2. Spain, 3. South Korea, 4. Costa Rica. Group E is one of the more interesting groups. Brazil will be the favorite, though Spain and South Korea are capable of giving them an upset. Still, Brazil should take first. Spain and South Korea are evenly matched, and both should qualify for the knockout round. That game should be a nail biter, South Korea may be more technically gifted, but Spain should have more scoring chances. I'll take the debuting Spain to finish 2nd. Ji So-yun of South Korea was recently named best player of the year in the English Women's League and will be a player to watch, as will Spain's Vero Boquete. Costa Rica did well in qualifying, but were outmatched by the US in the final, and might have some similar issues with this group. They are a team on the rise though.

Group F: 1. France, 2. England, 3. Colombia, 4. Mexico. France eliminated England on Penalty Kicks in the 2011 Quarterfinals. Now they'll open up their 2015 campaign against each other in one of the games to watch. France, who will host in 2019, are a pick for many to win it all. England have been working hard and could do some damage in the knockout round. Mexico are tough to put a finger on. They did well in the 2011 World Cup, were bad in the 2014 Gold Cup, barely qualifying. Then they had a solid performance in the 2015 Cyprus Cup. Mexico are also searching for their first win at a Women's World Cup. Colombia have gained some experience since 2011, so the fight for 3rd will be interesting.

Third Place Rankings: 1. Australia, 2. South Korea, 3. New Zealand, 4. Colombia, 5. Cameroon, 6. Thailand.

Round of 16: Netherlands over Switzerland. USA over South Korea. Germany over New Zealand. France over Spain. Sweden over Brazil. Japan over Colombia. England over Norway. Canada over Australia. Brazil taking on Sweden is the most enticing matchup I have. Sweden have such a well rounded team that it might be hard for Brazil to get through. Nobody is sure yet if they have the team to support Marta, however they have been finally getting more support from their federation ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Quarterfinals: USA over Netherlands. France over Germany. Japan over Sweden. England over Canada. I was going to pick Canada all the way to the Semifinals, but I'm not yet convinced they can do that if a team shuts down star Christine Sinclair. Do they have someone else to step up in a tough knockout round match? They did beat England in a friendly, but just ask Japan about getting beat before a World Cup (they lost some in 2011 before going on to win the whole thing). France finally beat a top team in a big tournament here in a monster matchup with Germany.

Semifinals: USA over France. Japan over England. While France are on the rise, I think their real chance to win the World Cup will be when they host in 2019. England finally make a semifinal, but their luck should run out against Japan. The turf may also help Japan consider their technical game of many short passes.

3rd Place: France over England. FINAL: USA over Japan. I didn't want to pick a rematch of the 2011 final and 2012 Olympic final. But maybe third time is the charm? Japan won't sneak up on anyone, but they should have an easier road this time around if they win the group. The US have had some struggles, but with a healthy mix of veterans and youngsters, plus being so close to home, it could be a golden opportunity to win their first World Cup since Brandi Chastain buried that penalty kick against China in the Rose Bowl in 1999.

I have to say though, while I was pretty confident in picking Japan in 2011 and very confident picking Germany last year, I'm a little less so this time around. Its a wide open final to me. Any of these teams can win: USA, Japan, Germany, France, Brazil, Sweden, Canada, and maybe England or Australia if they're at the top of their game.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Sepp Blatter Resigns From FIFA

Sepp Blatter has resigned from FIFA in a surprising move today, a week after winning re-election. Rumors have it that the FBI has mounting evidence on his involvement in the FIFA corruption scandal. It is doubtful he will show up to the FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada, as Canada would extradite him in a heartbeat. Loretta Lynch has officially defeated Blatter in a Penalty Shootout.

A new election will happen in December, and Luis Figo along with Prince Ali could be favorites to replace him.

The best tweet in response to this came from Megan Rapinoe:
Now we can hopefully have some positive change in FIFA. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is in question and could be taken away. There are already over 1000 migrant workers who have died constructing stadiums for the tiny nation. The 2018 World Cup in Russia might also be in jeopardy.

This comes on the same day as Abby Wambach's birthday. I know she is one happy birthday woman!