Posted by: mdegeorge | July 18, 2011

A weekend basking in the Beautiful Game

Each summer weekend seems to have its own unique flavor. I don’t mean like the beach or vacation or barbeque or any of those things with which average people while away these balmy months. I mean in terms of sports.

It seems each week has its own unusual blockbuster event, usually a sport sufficiently far from the mainstream consciousness as to make its sudden reappearance all the more momentous. These highlights are a pittance for fans consigned to the endless weekday stream of nothing but baseball games that blur eventually together and the maddeningly hollow lockout talk.

This weekend’s variety was without doubt soccer, no mean feat for a retreat that also featured the Open Championship and the Tour de France. For those of us connoisseurs of the Beautiful game, there was no shortage of matches to peak our interests.

So, briefly, here’s a sketch of my weekend – mind you, scheduled around two desk shifts and all those other social commitments and obligations. (Ratings out of 5)

Saturday, 11:30 a.m., Sweden vs. France, Women’s World Cup Third-Place Game: Watching consolation matches usually isn’t high on my priority list. But there was still an appeal to this match. Something about the regality of Les Blues against the gold of the Scandinavians just screams international soccer. Plus I could watch Louisa Necib play all day for the amazing athleticism and control on the ball she brings to the table. It’s a shame when she gets withdrawn in the 32nd minute, the second of two rapid-fire substitutions that include the replacement of goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz and leave France down one goal and two starters. That still leaves Sonia Bompastor and her ability to bomb past her defenders (see what I did there?) on the flank all day. She also draws what could have been the turning point in the match when a tussle with Josefine Oqvist has the Swedish forward deservingly sent off.  But even down to ten players, there’s no stopping the great piece of skill by Swedish sub Marie Hammarstrom, whose able to put a great touch on the ball at the edge of the 18-yard-box, evade a defender and lash a left-footed shot into the roof of the net for the bronze medal. Off to a great start.

Rating  1/2

Saturday, 6:15 p.m., Argentina vs. Uruguay, Copa America quarterfinals: After surfing the dial unsuccessfully for baseball once the 4 p.m. games ended, my interest was piqued first by video of this unbelievable double save from Uruguay’s Fernando Muslera. What I missed: one of the most eventful individual three-quarter hours in football history by Diego Perez, who managed a yellow-card-given, red-card-worthy two-footed tackle on Javier Mascherano, his first international goal in his 65th appearance and a red card for a second bookable offense; a picture-perfect goal by Gonzalo Higuain off the most sublime cross you may ever see off the foot of Lionel Messi; two yellows for Argentina skipper Mascherano; and a goal for each side called back on offsides despite what was largely one-way traffic by the cavalcade of Argentine stars (Video here). Then comes Muslera’s stunning double save, the first on a deflected free kick from Carlos Tevez and the second on Higuain at point-blank range. With shots 18-8 inArgentina’s favor, the tie heads to a shootout. Conversions by Messi, Diego Forlan, Nicolas Burdisso and Luis Suarez set the stage for Muslera to stop Tevez’s kick before Andreas Scotti, Walter Gargano and Martin Caceres bury kicks past a largely helpless Sergio Romero to send the hosts out of the continental championship. Great soccer theater.


Saturday, 10 p.m., Real Madrid vs. Los Angeles Galaxy, World Football Challenge (friendly): The great thing about seeing a club like Real Madrid is that they’re so deep. It’s a chance to see some great young talent – all of whom are not only playing for a job, but because it’s possible this is the closest they ever get to playing for the senior side – mixed in with the veterans. Having Real Madrid at about 1/4 strength and the Galaxy in midseason form almost makes it an even match, and these are matches that serve a distinct purpose for both sides while raising the profile of the sport in the States. Plus as deadline nears and then passes, it’s always good to see someone else getting the snot beat out of them. The pair of goals set up in the first half by Kaka of this 4-1 drubbing come courtesy of Jose Callejon and Joselu, two guys who have a total of one senior team cap and probably not many more in the offing thanks to the cavernously-deep squad Madrid fields. At least they get to show their skills against the overmatched and at times befuddled LA Defense. Halftime sees the withdrawal of Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel and the introduction for Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema (just doesn’t seem fair, does it?). Ronaldo fakes a few defenders out of their respective jocks en route to a stunning goal yet rude introduction for Brian Perk all of seven minutes into the frame. A still laboring, though less so than in recent weeks, David Beckham is subbed out early in the second half after what he described as an “emotional” meeting with is former team. Newly-signed left back Fabio Coentrao finally gets rewarded for running roughshod all over the Galaxy by setting up Benzema’s fourth. Adam Cristman does eventually pull back a goal against Adan (Iker Casillas was long showered and ready for the hotel). It has fun atmosphere to it. Real Madrid could have put up double digits had they pressed, but Jose Mourinho is able to work out a bunch of his young squad players while the Galaxy get their bench players a run and the fans a show. Worthwhile stuff.


Sunday, 2:45 p.m., USA vs. Japan, Women’s World Cup Final: This is the one for all the proverbial marbles. The show that the mass media machine, with ESPN in the engine room, has co-opted ends in Frankfurt in the way no media mogul had the guts to script. Team USA squanders chance after chance in the first half, peppering away shots that don’t seem to find the goal, though Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe  get acquainted with the woodwork. An injury to Lauren Cheney brings supersub Alex Morgan on, and the 22-year-old finally gets the breakthrough on the umpteenth chance in the 69th minute that appears to have sealed the destiny of the Americans and the end of a 12-year drought. But they’re pegged back by an attacking spell by the Japanese, as Aya Miyama pounces on a mix-up in the USA defense to knot things in the 80th. The Americans are lucky to survive several other waves of pressure, but make it to extra time and take the lead again when Wambach blasts yet another header nearly through the back of the net. The Americans are almost home-free, comfortable enough to withdraw Rapinoe for Tobin Heath, before the woman at the heart of the Japanese engine room, captain Homare Sawa, capitalizes as Ali Krieger and Rachel Buehler again have a breakdown that falls to Sawa in the 117th to blast past a helpless Hope Solo. The Americans earn a free-kick through Morgan at the edge of the penalty era in the 120+1st minute that sees last defender Azusa Iwashimizu sent off for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, but the chance comes to nothing off the boot of Carli Lloyd and the man advantage lasts only a few more seconds until extra time expires. The penalty kick continues to deliver twists and turns. Shannon Boxx’s opener is poor and kicked away by Ayumi Kaihori. Miyami scores before a hyper-charged Lloyd Roberto Baggio’s one over the bar, but Solo denies Yuki Nagasato to reopen the door for the Americans. But the sub Heath rather questionably steps up to the spot, and her attempt is beaten back by the keeper, making the Americans 0-3 and all but ending matters. A further glimmer of hope (pun slightly intended) is lost when Mizuho Sakaguchi’s attempt goes off Solo’s paw but finds a way in anyway, and though Wambach coolly slots home with a “how is this a big deal” air, defender Saki Kumagai finishes the deed for the Japanese. It’s a great story for the tsunami-ravaged country, though a deflating defeat for the U.S. For the neutral, it would have been utterly amazing and enthralling.

Rating:     1/2

Sunday, 3 p.m., Brazil vs. Paraguay, Copa America quarterfinal: Admittedly a bit gun-shy and emotionally drained after what literally was a heart-thumping game for the American ladies. But two finalists in the last World Cup are still worth me getting it together for, plus I was a bit enamored with myself that I finally found Univision on the dial. What I missed was apparently Brazil having the better of play, outshooting Paraguay 16-4 and 8-1 in shots on goal. I missed this near brawl in the 102nd minute that led to straight red cards for Brazil’s Lucas Leiva, who’d only been introduced three minutes earlier for Paulo Henrique, and Paraguay’s Antolin Alcaraz. I get to things just in time for penalties, of which I tweet that Justo Villar, that Paraguayan keeper, could shift the balance in the underdogs favor a la Muslera a night before. It doesn’t look as though the keepers matter at first though. Elano starts affairs for Brazil by firing way high – I mean high enough to let Carli Lloyd have a laugh on the day – and Diego Barreto firing wide. When a player finally finds the net, it’s Brazil defender Thiago Silva finding the mitts of Villar. A goal finally comes from Paraguay’s Marcelo Estigarribia before Brazil defender Andre Santos skies a third straight miss for Brazil, albeit not at the same stratospheric trajectory as Elano’s missile. (Quick aside, with a lineup that started Pato, Robinho, and Neymar and a bench that includes Dani Alves, why are all these defenders shooting?) Cristian Riveros converts for a second for Paraguay before the herky-jerky approach of Fred fools no one as he misses the cage. Brazil goes 0-for-4 and goes home with Argentina, the third unlikely penalty shootout elimination in just over 24 hours (video here). You’d almost feel bad if it wasn’t Brazil. And you’ll feel great if this happens.

Rating:    1/2

Sunday, 7 p.m., Philadelphia Union at New England Revolution, MLS: Saving the best for last. Well, not quite. Or not close. Either way, still a tolerable game and a far cry from the dull scoreless draw the Union played out last week at San Jose. The game starts out fairly open, and the first major chance is converted when a loose ball in the cage falls to Carlos Ruiz, who gets his boot up about chest-high to poke the Keon Daniel feed past Matt Reis. The second goal looks quite similar, as another Carlos – this time Valdes – latches onto a ball off the head of Sebastien Le Toux left unattended in the box to slot home his first career MLS goal. Things get contentious in the second half as Benny Feilhaber picks up his second yellow of the match after a hard tackle on Ruiz, which sparks a collection of players exchanging pleasantries that I assume were more than just restaurant recommendations in the Greater Boston area. The floundering Revolution, whose fan club stages a walk out during the match, is without midfield engine Shalrie Joseph and lacks anything resembling a punch, even before being reduced by a man. The game is appropriately finished off by Sheanon Williams, another of the team’s unheralded yet excellent defenders, who latches onto a through ball after a lung-busting run to notch his first career MLS goal and seal the Union’s ascension back to first place in the Eastern Conference. It’s hardly the worst MLS game I’ve seen and serves as a perfect step down from the soccer-laden weekend back to the real world.



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