Hope Solo and Marta at center stage once again

[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP] A rematch of the 2008 Olympic final will eliminate either the United States or Brazil at the quarterfinal stage of the Women's World Cup. American keeper Hope Solo and Brazilian bombshell Marta are again among the major players for Sunday's showdown.

Three years ago, when the USA beat Brazil to win the Olympic gold medal, goalkeeper Hope Solo took the headlines for all the right reasons by stoning Marta and Co. repeatedly.

Solo might need a repeat performance if the USA is to prevail in the next showdown, a Women’s World Cup quarterfinal Sunday in Dresden. Brazil has scored seven goals and conceded none while beating Australia, Norway and Equatorial Guinea to top Group D; the Americans finished second in Group C as a consequence of losing to Sweden, 2-1, after beating North Korea, 2-0, and Colombia, 3-0.

That loss to Sweden is the first-ever for the USA in World Cup group play, but the Americans proved in 2008 that a group loss is far from disaster. They lost their Olympic opener to Norway, 2-0, then rallied to win five straight, including a 1-0 overtime defeat of Brazil in the gold-medal match.

Regardless of how well they play defensively this time around against the potent and polished Brazilians, the Americans can no longer regard scoring chances as cheap trinkets rejected in the hopes a shinier, fancier one is offered. Before and after surrendering a penalty kick and deflected free kick by which Sweden took a 2-0 lead, the Americans squandered viable, bonafide opportunities. They finished with a 20-9 advantage in shots.

“In order to play in the final we need to step up and be sharper with our chances,” said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage after the loss to Sweden. “We start with Brazil. That will motivate the players more and this is a big chance.”

The return of buzzsaw Heather O’Reilly, who sat out the Sweden game with a groin injury, is a problem for Brazil, which despite three shutouts isn’t regarded as a defensive fortress and can be soft on the flanks. The heart and courage of Abby Wambach, who played through the pain of an Achilles' tendon injury to last the full 90 minutes and scored the only USA goal against Sweden, is a critical element that may limit head coach Pia Sundage’s options if she starts and comes up limping early in the match.

The press has focused on her squandered goalscoring chances, but her value is much greater. Wambach set up Lauren Cheney for a headed goal against North Korea with a chip from the left wing, and her harassment of Colombia’s defenders yielded a superb O’Reilly strike for the first goal. She’s also cactus-tough.

“I'm not coming off the field,” said Wambach, who scored the 119th goal of her U.S. career against Sweden after netting just once this year. “Unless Pia decides she wants off me off the field, I'll have to have something seriously wrong with me to not play. This is the world championship, this is what we all live for.”

Wambach also missed the 2008 Olympics because of a broken leg suffered in a friendly against Brazil three weeks before the Olympics.

Brazil hopes it can dominate as it did in the 2007 WWC semifinal that triggered Solo’s banishment from the team for several months. Then-head coach Greg Ryan benched Solo for the semifinal, and replacement Briana Scurry’s shaky performance in a crushing 4-0 defeat prompted Solo to complain bitterly in an infamous post-match interview. When Sundhage took over later that year, Solo returned.

After a tepid showing in its Group D opener against Australia – which rallied to win its next two games and is matched against Sweden in the quarterfinals – Brazil got its attack in gear to hit its next two opponents with three goals apiece. Marta, Cristiane and Rosana have each scored twice as Brazil utilized an approach as opportunistic as it is flambouyant.

The Brazilians didn’t need to bomb forward against Norway; they eased their nerves with a Marta goal midway through the first half, then punched out their opponents with a rapid-fire, double-dose of goals two minutes apart just after halftime.

Marta opened the scoring when she chased down a long ball played out of the back by Erika, who appeared to trip an opponent while stripping her of the ball. Defender Nora Berge had position on Marta as they chased the pass, but a shove by Marta sent her tumbling headlong to the turf, and the Brazilian danced past another challenge before finishing crisply with a low, left-footed shot.

On another day, either Erika’s tackle or Marta’s jostle of Berge could have been ruled a foul. But that aggression, mixed with the flair and skill and brazen confidence seemingly inherent in all Brazilian teams, is a major reason the South American nation has joined Germany and the USA as the undisputed heavyweights in women’s soccer. Yet Brazil has yet to win a Women’s World Cup or Olympic gold medal.

Marta set up Rosana for the second goal against Norway right after the second-half kickoff, and tallied again herself two minutes later when a series of defensive bungles unraveled Norway’s back line. Those relentless surges were reminiscent of Brazil’s rampant showing in the 2007 semifinal rout of the USA, when a controversial goalkeeping change was only one of myriad mishaps.

Scurry should have handled at least one and perhaps two of the four Brazilian shots that wound up in the net, but a goal headed into her own net by Leslie Osbourne off a corner kick opened the scoring in the 20th minute, and Shannon Boxx’s dismissal in first-half stoppage time effectively sealed the outcome.

Marta dazzled while scoring the second and third goals, but in the final against Germany, she failed to convert a penalty kick and her temper boiled over as Brazil disintegrated in a bitter 2-0 defeat. For all her brilliance, she can be rattled.

Redemption seemed Brazil’s destiny a year later at the Olympics, but instead Solo stymied Marta and her mates long enough for the Americans to strike early in overtime. Amy Rodriguez, who’d squandered a breakway chance late in regulation, laid off a ball that Carli Lloyd drilled into the net from the edge of the penalty area. (Among the U.S. goals in this competition is a strike by Megan Rapinoe from similar range, and a long-range missile from O’Reilly.)

Most of the principals in those last two showdowns are available for Sunday, and while all of the Americans admire and respect Brazil, fear is not an option. Captain Christie Rampone believes they can clean up the defensive miscues that arose against Sweden, when a penalty-area foul by Amy LePeilbet and clumsy tackle by Rachel Buehler resulted in the two goals. More crispness in midfield and more patience in attack have been cited by Sundhage as key elements to success.

Of course, Brazil is capable of forcing even very good teams into bad mistakes, but that dynamic can work both ways. “Brazil's a great team with great individual players,” said Solo. “Of course they have the best individual player [Marta] but there are holes. You can find holes in their defense and their midfield and there’s space to play.

“If we come to play and play as a team we can come out on top. If we play well we can really take it to Brazil."

9 comments about "Hope Solo and Marta at center stage once again".
  1. Ruthanne Salido, July 8, 2011 at 10:41 a.m.

    I think it's disrespectful of you to refer to Marta as a "bombshell." She's the best female striker in the world, but "bombshell" reduces her to just another good-looking woman. Surely, a creative writer like you, or your editor, could have come up with a better way to describe her in your lead.

  2. beautiful game, July 8, 2011 at 11:25 a.m.

    "...buzzsaw Heather O’Reilly." What relationship is there between a quality soccer player like H.O. and calling her a 'buzzsaw' which means lack of quality...buzzing around fails to express the qualities of a player.

  3. David Huff, July 8, 2011 at 12:43 p.m.

    @IW, I think "buzzsaw" is also capable of being interpeted as a player who is capable of cutting through opposing defense and scoring frequently. You know, like the way a buzzsaw will cut through wood?

  4. James Froehlich, July 8, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.

    Interesting that the premier player for Brazil is a creative field player and the premier player for the US is a goalkeeper. Keep up the great work US Soccer! You have now succeeded in bringing what used to be a skillful women's team down to the same level of physicality as the men. Yahooooo!

  5. David Huff, July 8, 2011 at 3:03 p.m.

    Fyi, and Coach Pia left Natasha Kai out? Could we have used her speed and toughness against Sweden and last year against Mexico? As to Kai's Fall 2009 shoulder surgery, suffice to say that she has recovered as this recap from her match with her new Philadelphia team against Sky Blue FC on 7/7/11 indicates:

    "Tasha Kai got a rare WPS hat trick as the Philadelphia Independence defeated Sky Blue FC 4-3 on Wednesday evening. And to make it a perfect evening for Kai, her mother and brother were in attendance to see her performance.

    The Independence temporarily take over first place, although it must be said that they have played two more matches than Western New York. Sky Blue remains in 4th place, tied with the Boston Breakers.

    Kai's hat track was only the second ever in WPS play. The first was almost two years ago, on July 12, 2009, when Cristiane scored a hat trick for the Chicago Red Stars against FC Gold Pride. Kai's is the first hat trick that did not include a penalty kick."

  6. jordao jordao, July 9, 2011 at 1:26 a.m.

    You wrote a great, balanced article, with creative adjectives and descriptions of some awesome players. Don't listen to the whining, eternally complaining naysayers.

  7. jordao jordao, July 9, 2011 at 1:30 a.m.

    @ruthanne: garota-bomba é boa coisa no Brasil! No disrespect at all! She loves it, learn culture.

  8. Bill Richter, July 9, 2011 at 4:26 p.m.

    @James: You failed to understand the point of the title. Ridge didn't use the names of the premier players in the title, he used the names of the players that would probably be involved in the biggest matchup of the game. Had you bothered to actually read past the title sentence, you would have read that he referred to them as "Among the major players".

  9. Bill Richter, July 9, 2011 at 4:29 p.m.

    @Ruthanne: I believe he was referring to Marta's ability to shell the opponents' goal with hard-to-stop shots that usually result in Brazil's utter domination of the game. I don't think anyone believes Marta is a "bombshell" by the definition you used.

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