Fans of women’s soccer enjoyed back-to-back games in four days between the top two national sides. Could it get any better?
It could, for supporters of either team. Both games between the FIFA top-ranked U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) and the second-ranked Germans ended in a draw.
The October 23 friendly in rain-soaked East Hartford, CT, saw the USWNT strike first with an Abby Wambach diving header off a deflected cross. The goal brought Wambach within 10 of Mia Hamm's national team record of 158. Dzsenifer Marozsan equalized early in the second half, when Christie Rampone lost her footing on the wet field and allowed the German an uncontested break on the American goal.
The USWNT regained the advantage mid-way through the second half. Alex Morgan, so dangerous stringing feeds through the box, found Tobin Heath with a low reverse diagonal. Heath's one-touch guided the ball into the net for what appeared to be the likely game winner.
Marozsan spoiled the American victory party with her second goal on an 85th-minute monster strike from outside the 18. Keeper Hope Solo, who denied several other German opportunities on the night, had no chance with this shot as it streaked inside the left post.
The American/German scoring toggle was a continuation of the first game, played October 20th in Chicago's Toyota Park. Despite a more raucous, wide-open match, that match ended 1-1. Wambach converted another beautiful Morgan low cross in only the second minute, and 12 minutes later Germany's Anja Mittag found space to lift a perfect chip over Solo.
(Two games in four days? Maybe women really are smarter. When they fly over an ocean for a friendly, they play more than once. How come men never thought of that?)
At least one win certainly would have made the affair more to the American fans' liking. However, the results were not terrible, considering the Americans are winding down from the Olympics with a gold-medal, fan appreciation victory tour of friendlies while the Germans are ramping up for next summer's Euro Championships.
Results aside, for fans of the USWNT, there are a couple nagging concerns hanging perhaps not as dark as the clouds dumping rain on Connecticut Tuesday night, but always present just the same.
One is the question of whether there will be a domestic professional women's league next year.
The USWNT players seem to be holding tight for the moment, and U.S. Soccer efforts to help start a domestic league continue. At present, nothing solid other than intent by U.S. Soccer and interest by potential team locations has been communicated to the public. If more firmly rooted plans are not announced by the end of the year, it is a good bet many of the women from the national side will have their individual plans in place to head overseas.
The other is the small matter of the next coach.
After Pia Sundhage’s departure for her native Sweden in September, U.S. Soccer is taking its time naming a replacement. Finding the hands that can competently hold the reigns of world's top team is no small chore.
Jillian Ellis, development director for U.S. women’s national teams, served in an interim capacity for both games against the Germans. According to Ellis, U.S. Soccer is not considering her for the position, despite her extensive coaching experience at UCLA and with national youth teams.
Her post-game comments on October 20 certainly did not indicate she was viewing the friendlies as an audition.
“It was fun because it was entertaining,” Ellis said, according to the U.S. Soccer quote sheet. “I really don’t feel pressured. It’s really about the players getting out there and having fun with it. I enjoyed it very much. I thought they played very hard.”
The USWNT needs a strong coach. The women play with a wild maverick quality even under a disciplined leader like Sundhage in games that matter. Against the Germans in these friendlies, especially the first, that quality was left unbridled.
The team rarely demonstrated patience or any semblance of creative build-up in Chicago, instead opting for longer balls played straight up field. Megan Rapinoe, when interviewed before the second match, noted the lack of patience in the first. She would know, as she more than contributed her share to the rush.
Rapinoe played with more control in East Hartford and deftly contributed to the possession that culminated with Wambach's goal.
These players can correct themselves after the fact. They did not get to the top of the FIFA rankings without knowing a thing or two about the game, or themselves. But to replicate their Olympic results in the 2015 World Cup, they know they need not just a coach but the right coach.
A slow, deliberate style could never be forced successfully on this group of national players. It just is not in their DNA. The next coach will have to walk the same fine line Sundhage so successfully had done. He or she will need to tame the mavericks, but just a little.