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Kendall Fletcher Blog: On a memorable Women's World Cup

From the close scores of the first round games to the last PK taken in the final, the 2011 Women’s World Cup was filled with excitement, surprises, heartbreaks, handballs, comebacks, controversies and most importantly, world class soccer!

As a spectator I was entertained, as a player I was motivated, as a coach I was inspired and as an American I was proud and heartbroken.  So, as I sit down to write my thoughts on what has just transpired over the past three weeks, I find that in order to do so coherently I must put on my different hats one at a time and answer from the perspective of each.

I was glued to the TV.  I was entertained by each team that stepped on to the field.  Of course going into a tournament like this you have your thoughts on what you think is going to happen, but after watching the first round games — none of which were decided by more than a goal except the USA/North Korea game — I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next.  New Zealand, Columbia, and Equatorial Guinea all had their moments of brilliance that as a spectator made you think, well just maybe!

And then you couldn’t have written a script filled with more excitement than the quarterfinal round.  France coming back to beat England in PK’s, Japan ousting Germany, the host and former world champions in overtime…are you kidding me!  Not to mention the drama that was packed into the Brazil/U.S. game.  It was enough to make even a 26 year old grow a few gray hairs, not to mention the semi-finals and final that followed suit.  As a spectator I was on an emotional roller coaster, I can only imagine that for the players it was the ride of their lives!  A ride that one day I hope I have the opportunity to take!

As a player, for me, since I watched my first World Cup as a 14 year old during the 1999 World Cup, it has always been about motivation.  The ’99 World Cup ignited my passion to want to play on the national team and every four years when the tournament comes around as I watch the teams play, it continues to motivate me as a player.

This year was no different.

The players have changed from people I wanted to be like when I grew up, to my peers who I play with and against in WPS. But the way they play the games still pushes me to want to get better and better.  This World Cup in particular however, I was so much more invested in the games as I knew players personally on almost every team.  It was so much fun to cheer each of them on and see them express what makes them such talented and unique players.

One of the most important qualities to becoming a world class player is to become a student of the game.  There was so much value to be found in this World Cup in terms of watching the style that teams played and the skill of individual players.  I was so impressed with the dynamic attack of the French team and equally impressed with the way the US team was able to absorb that attack as a defensive unit and find a way to win.  The Japanese worked their game plan to a T throughout the entire tournament as they kept possession and took advantage of their opportunities when they could.  As a player the level of play at the world cup has motivated me to work to take my game to the next level and it also provided me with an opportunity to be a student of the game which is invaluable both from a playing perspective and from a coaching perspective.

For me this was the first World Cup I watched from the perspective of an aspiring coach — analyzing decisions the coaches were making with their line-ups, formations, substitutions.  Asking myself what I would do, what changes I would make.  Listening and thinking about how each coach handled their team and how they motivated their players.  It was interesting to hear that the French coach would read his team poetry before games and that he left out what many considered to be France’s No. 1 goalkeeper because she didn’t mesh well with the team.  On the one hand, France was the breakout team of the tournament.  I thought they played some of the best soccer and at times made their opponents look silly.  On the other hand I would say by far their goalkeepers were their weakest link.

From an outsider’s perspective you could say the coach made a mistake by not bringing their “best” goalkeeper.  However, hindsight is 20/20 and its hard to say whether having that player in the team would have been better or not.  Yes, maybe she would have been a better keeper, but then again if she didn’t fit into the team, maybe having her on the team would have caused team chemistry issues, causing the team not to perform at the standard they did. It’s a very difficult decision for a coach to make.  Do you pick your “best” players or do you pick players that mesh well together.  Does talent trump chemistry, or does chemistry trump talent?

One of my favorite lines in the movie “Miracle,” about the U.S. Men Winning the Olympic Gold Medal for ice hockey against all odds in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, is when the coach, Herb Brooks, ignores the advice of all his “talent scouts” and when the head of the selection committee confronts him about cutting some of the best players. Herb says, “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right players.”  From a coaching standpoint there is much wisdom in that, especially going into a tournament where team chemistry can be the difference in winning and losing.

I was also very impressed with the Australian squad this year.  Although they had some shaky moments, I thought they played some very good soccer and were very dangerous in their attack. However, I was very surprised with how much their line-ups changed throughout the tournament.  They never had the same line up for more than one game and it wasn’t just a player or two different, it was as many as five or six.  Sometimes it was different players and sometimes it was the same player in different positions.  The outcome was mixed.  On one side, Australia Head Coach Tom Sermanni used all of his players.  They all had minutes and many of them had starts.  On the other hand, did their team ever truly find their rhythm or did all the changes cause them to have to find themselves again in each game?  I think it is very important to make changes and allow players to get minutes and try new lineups, but the time for that is well before a tournament of this level starts.

There needs to be a consistency to your squad during the World Cup so that as they move through the tournament they grow as an “11” and build on what they did well and what they need to improve on.  One or two changes may need to happen but by making five or six changes you almost force your team to start over at square one in building their momentum in a tournament.

Take Japan for example. Its starting line-up was one of the most consistent of the tournament as the team started almost the exact same 11 for all seven games. At the end of it they were the ones holding up the World Cup!  It takes a player and a team more than a game or two to settle in, but if you can build on that and make adjustments as you go, players start to work out their nerves and issues before settling down.  If you are constantly changing, or never allow players to get a game or two to settle in as a whole unit, you are left trying to do that each game, which can lead to break downs that can be the margin of defeat.  Australia played well, but they never seemed to settle into the tournament.

As an American, I was so proud of the effort our girls put forward.  There was so much talk about the U.S. team coming in to the World Cup and whether their bumpy road leading up to the tournament was pre-tournament jitters that they were working out or an indication of what was to come in the weeks to follow.  But as group play began I thought the U.S. worked their way into the tournament very well.  They didn’t jump out to a roaring start, but got the job done and made it through to the quarterfinals.  And when faced with a difficult opponent like Brazil, and extremely questionable calls from the refs, our girls stepped up in a big way.  They didn’t give up, and they did what true competitors do when things aren’t going their way.

They found a way to win, and they did it TOGETHER.

This was the last piece the U.S. team needed in order to find their stride.  It was something the U.S. girls were missing a little bit during the last year, but to see them come together like that, on the field right on time was amazing.  Nothing brings a team together like adversity, and I think it showed in the next two rounds with the grit they displayed in the France game to defend off a very threatening French attack and again in the final, when I thought we played our best game of the tournament and went at Japan like no other team was able to do in the tournament.  It was heartbreaking to have to watch us lose in PK’s as it is one of the most cruel deciders in all of sports, but you can’t take anything away from the talent, heart, and determination our girls showed as soccer players and as Americans.


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