Sunday, August 14, 2016

Rio 2016 Olympics: Women's Soccer Semifinals

There was a dream match on the horizon: Brazil vs USA at the legendary MaracanĂ£ Stadium in the 2016 Olympic semifinals. The two countries played in numerous memorable meetings in the Women's World Cup and Olympics, but not since perhaps the most iconic: the 2011 Women's World Cup Quarterfinals when the shorthanded US tied Brazil late on an Abby Wambach header then beat them in penalty kicks.

It was not to be though, as Sweden upset the 2015 Women's World Cup champion United States in the Quarterfinals, eliminating them in a penalty shootout. Its the earliest ever exit for the USWNT since women's Olympic soccer was added at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.Though it was an upset, its not as shocking as many are making it out to be. First, Sweden have beaten the US 3 times recently, in addition to numerous ties. They know how to play the US, with frustrating defense and a scary counter attack. This of course caused Hope Solo to label them "cowards", though this tactic has been used for decades. Yes she was frustrated, but its out of line to call an opponent "cowards" in the Olympics. 

The United States dominated with 27 shots, but they had trouble finishing. They looked off all tournament, and it never felt like they were headed for gold. Former USA coach Pia Sundhage is now coach of Sweden, and she clearly knows how to game plan against her former team. 

China employed a similar defensive tactic against Germany, though they weren't as successful, with Germany handing them a 1-0 defeat. France continued to be the biggest underachievers in women's soccer, losing to Canada 1-0. Canada also beat France for the Bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics. France have a ton of talent but have yet to make a final in a major women's tournament (Olympics, World Cup, EURO). Canada have been the most impressive team by far, winning all 4 matches and taking down powerful Australia, France and Germany. Brazil and Australia played one of the most exciting 0-0 draws ever, with Brazil taking down Australia after a long penalty shootout. Surprisingly, superstar Marta had a penalty saved, though it didn't matter as Brazil were able to rally in front of a packed crowd.

So the Semifinals are set: Brazil vs Sweden and Canada vs Germany. These are both rematches from the group stage. Brazil dominated Sweden 5-1, and Canada edged Germany 2-1. Sweden may play Brazil similar to how they played the United States, though I still expect Brazil to pull it out in front of a sold out MaracanĂ£. Canada-Germany is a tough one. Canada look much better, but beating Germany twice in one tournament is a tall task. Christine Sinclair didn't play in the last meeting, which could be enough to give Canada another victory. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Rio 2016 Olympics: Lilly King owns Yulia Efimova

Yulia Efimova, self proclaimed "champ"
There's some old school Cold War drama brewing in Rio. Looks like NBC can bring back the term "Must See TV."

Yulia Efimova, a controversial swimmer from Russia who was suspended for doping in 2013 then tested positive for Meldonium in March 2016, held up her finger with a #1 sign after finishing first in her qualifying heat. She was initially banned from the Rio 2016 Olympics, but then the IOC (International Olympic Committee) lifted the ban to allow her to participate. A number of other Russian swimmers were also banned only to have the IOC lift it.

Cameras cut to US swimmer Lilly King wagging her finger at Efimova while watching on a screen. In an interview, King stated, "You’re raising your hand #1 and you’ve been caught for drug cheating. I’m just not a fan." Smackdown! King and Efimova go toe-to-toe in the Women's 100m Breaststroke final Monday night around 9:54pm ET on NBC.

Ireland swimmer Fiona Doyle was left out of the semi-finals, and upset that someone who previously doped was upset that Efimova may have taken the place of someone who was clean. She rightfully had plenty to say, “Cheaters are cheaters. She has tested positive five times and she’s gotten away with it again. It’s like FINA keep going back on their word, and the IOC keep going back on their word."  Doyle continued, “And FINA caved in to (Russian President) Putin, and that’s just not fair on the rest of the athletes who are clean. Who are you supposed to trust now? They have signs all over the village saying we are a clean sport, and it’s not. And I just don’t think that’s fair.

In the Men's 4x100m freestyle, Team USA took gold, giving Michael Phelps his 19th gold medal. France took silver and Australia won bronze. Russia, who were booed by the crowd in Rio, finished 4th after the Aussie's thankfully edged them out. I'm sure they know the word Karma? It would be sweet justice for Efimova to finish 4th or lower tomorrow night as well.

Though we do need to be clear that Russians aren't the only ones who have doped or will continue to do so. However, the widespread state-sponsored cover up by Russia is what bothers people, and the fact that athletes who have been caught are still participating in the Olympics, taking places of athletes who are clean. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

2016 Summer Olympics Prediction: Women's Soccer

Hot on the heels of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil bring us another women's soccer tournament. We won't have a fourth straight USA-Japan major final either, as Japan finished a surprising 3rd behind Australia & China. Only 12 teams can qualify for the Olympics because of the IOC limit on the number of athletes attending. The third place team from the 2015 Women's World Cup will not be there either. England finished 3rd and would've been Europe's #1 qualifier, but they compete as Great Britain at the Olympics, and the four nations don't send their soccer teams together as one.

The Olympic Men's tournament will be taking place as well, though they aren't allowed to use full national teams. Only three players on men's squads can be over the age of 23. I think Brazil will win their first Olympic gold in soccer this year, with the Men doing so. On to the predictions for the Women's tournament.

Group E:
1. Brazil   2. Sweden   3. China   4. South Africa.
This is a group filled with teams that rely on defense. What should give Brazil and Sweden the edge are the fact that they can attack as well. China have improved their attack, even beating the top ranked US 1-0 in a friendly, but might still struggle to score often. They will most likely pose a tough challenge for each team. Sweden had one of their worst World Cup performances ever, and will look to bounce back. I'll give Brazil the edge over them to win the group with that home field advantage. South Africa might be able to hand around, though finishing above 4th will be a struggle.

Group F:
1. Germany   2. Australia   3. Canada   4. Zimbabwe
Poor Zimbabwe. In their first major tournament, they should clearly finish last in the group and struggle. They are an unknown though, so they might be able to give some fits. Australia have been red hot as of late, but Germany should still take the group. Germany aren't unbeatable though, and it wouldn't be a total shock to see Australia or Canada above them. Canada are without their #1 goalkeeper, which is something to watch.

Group G:
1. USA   2. France   3. New Zealand   4. Colombia
Colombia have been getting stronger, and had a strong showing at the World Cup. However, they'll be missing their best player in Yoreli Rincon to injury, which should give New Zealand a slight edge for 3rd place. New Zealand have proven to be a tough opponent, specifically on defense. It might be difficult for either of them to grab one of the two 3rd place spots in the knockout round though. The battle for the top will be between the #1 ranked United States and #3 ranked France. The US doesn't have many weaknesses. France are also a strong side, yet they haven't been able to make it to the final of a major tournament yet. Will they finally take the next step, before hosting the 2019 Women's World Cup?

I'd pick Canada & China to take the two third place spots in the knockout round over New Zealand/Colombia.

Quarterfinals: Canada over Brazil, USA over China. France over Germany. Australia over Sweden.

Semifinals: USA over Canada. France over Australia.

Final: France over USA. Bronze: Australia over Canada. It's probably crazy to pick against the USWNT right now, but all streaks must come to an end at some point. They've won Gold at the Olympics in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012. If France finish second in the group, they'd have to prove themselves against Germany first. If they don't take that next step, then when? They have the Euro 2017 next year and the 2019 Women's World Cup with a home soil boost. The US will probably win, but they may get a stiff challenge from France, Germany or Australia in the final. Brazil & Sweden have an outside shot, with Canada being tough but probably not quite as good as in 2012 when they won bronze.