Saturday, April 5, 2008

Un Juego Grande

The promotion of the Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament here in Ciudad Juarez has been impressive. Of course, Mexicans love soccer and without many major events in this city, it seems the fans have embraced the tournament and their team. The buzz and media coverage for the USA-Mexico clash and the overall awareness for the tournament has been excellent with the Mexican media in as big of a frenzy as they could be for women's soccer. A sample of a few translated headlines from today's papers:

"A jewel waiting to be polished" referring to the Mexican WNT.
"With their sights set on the USA" as Mexico focuses on the big game.
"It's in their blood" for a feature on Mexican midfielder Monica Vergara and her family.
"USA shows dominance" about the Americans victory over Jamaica.
"Their objective is the top" as Mexico tries to win this tournament.
"They have their destiny IN THEIR HANDS"...'nuff said.

With the sell-out crowed at Estadio Olimpico Benito Juarez expected to arrive early and be in full voice for the entire game, the USA is in for a wild night (as they saw during the Mexico-Jamaica match when the frenzied crowd spurred Mexico to a dominating victory). No matter the result, the fans will certainly will be treated to an exciting, emotional and attack filled match.

Para Los Ninos

While the the vast majority of the fans at the stadium tomorrow night will be cheering for Mexico, the U.S. team found a few fans at the private school where about half the team trained today. While most of the kids sheepishly predicted a Mexico victory when asked by the U.S. players, one contemplative young man paused for a moment before saying, "ummm...2-2 tie." A future politician, perhaps? Still, the kids were excited to meet the U.S. players, even knowing a few of them by name. One young man asked, "Is Tarpley here?" The U.S. middie was at the pool workout instead, which disappointed the muchacho, who when asked why Tarpley was his favorite player responded, "Because she's blond!"

Big Phil

He's 6-foot-6, but he's not as gigantic as he looks above. The only portable goals at the USA's training today were smaller than regulation, which meant Phil Wheddon, the USA's super-sized goalkeeper coach, made for an imposing figure in the net. He's hard enough to score on in a regulation size goal, but this was ridiculous. Speaking of Phil, congrats to the USA's long-time asst. coach who was recently named head coach of the Syracuse University Women's Soccer Program. He will begin full-time work with the Orange as soon as his commitment is up with U.S. Soccer. Phil was the WNT's GK coach for the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup and the 2004 Olympics, before joining Bruce Arena's MNT staff for the run up to and through the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. We got Phil back for the run to the 2007 WWC and hopefully, if all goes will here in Mexico, for the 2008 Olympics. Go Orange!

Short Turnaround

After a bit of an odd game last night against Jamaica (who plays an offside trap against the USA and for the most part actually makes it work?), the players have just one day to rest and recuperate before facing Mexico for the Group A title tomorrow afternoon. Mexico played last Wednesday, so they've had three days of rest to prepare for the clash with the USA. The Mexican team was at the USA's game last night and when they left mid-way through the second half, it elicited one of the loudest ovations of the night as the fans serenaded them with chats of "Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!" as they exited the stadium. While the Mexican fans were surely cheering for the Jamaicans last night, it was good-natured and it seemed like they were just warming up for Sunday's clash, which will be played under the hot sun at 1:30 p.m. MT. For those a bit confused about the game times here in Juarez. When the USA arrived, Juarez was on Pacific Time. Early Sunday morning, Juarez changes to daylight savings time (Mexico "springs forward" later than the USA apparently), meaning the kickoff times for the USA's next three matches will be Mountain Time. We don't want you missing any of the game if you are a MatchTracker devotee. This morning, the players who played heavy minutes headed to a local pool for a workout while the rest of the team will train on the field.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Feliz Cumpleaños Stephanie!

Today was the 22nd birthday of U.S. defender Stephanie Cox. While birthdays are the road are commonplace for the U.S. WNT players who spend most of the year on the road, this one was a bit special. Cox (whose maiden name is Lopez) is of Mexican descent (her grandfather was born in the state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located) and the U.S. team decided to celebrate with cake and a piñata! The U.S. support staff did an awesome job of obtaining the piñata (kudos to team videographer Noey Jouglet for suggesting it) and stuffing it full of candy, while the hotel staff hoisted it into proper bashing position as well as bob it up and down, making it extremely difficult to get a good smack at it. Cox took the first swings and knocked the head off the brightly colored paper-mache bull, but not much candy came out. Kacey White took the next at bat and looked as if she was playing for her hometown Texas Rangers (she swung and missed a lot), but once she made good contact, managed to knock a limb off. Natasha Kai batted clean up and busted the thing wide open, spilling candy all over the ground as the U.S. players scrambled to get their favorite pieces. Cox nèe Lopez has been a popular interview subject for the Mexican media who are more used to seeing Mexican-Americans playing for Mexico than American-Mexicans playing for the USA. We may have some video of the piñata party later on in the trip.

Estadio Olimpico Benito Juarez

The U.S. team got its first up close look at the game field at the Estadio Olimpico Benito Juarez, running through a brisk 45-minute session in the last training before opening the tournament tomorrow. See below for some footage of the training. While old, the stadium (named after a president of Mexico elected 1858) certainly has charm and atmosphere. The field is wide and the surface is in good shape. We thought the stadium held 17,000 fans and that there were about 14,000 at the Mexico-Jamaica game on Wednesday, but we found out that the number was actually closer to 21,000 (wow!) as the stadium holds 24,000. We think it just might be packed for the USA-Mexico game on Sunday. But first, Jamaica beckons...and in the word's of perhaps Jamaica's most famous's time for the U.S. team to play with, "One Love, One Heart, Let's get together and feel all right."

Playin' in a Rock and Roll Band

The U.S. team has been basically hotel-bound so far during their stay in Ciudad Juarez as there is little to see or do close to the team hotel, not to mention that the focus has been on preparing for the qualifying games. That combination has meant one thing: MANY hours playing the Rock Band video game. In case you're not familiar, it comes with a quasi-drum set, a guitar like the one from the Guitar Hero video game and a mic. Three "players/musicians" try to perform songs -- a drummer, a singer and a lead guitarist -- to win fans, applause and good scores. Quite a few players have tried their hand on all the instruments and with the lead vocals. We heard Kate Markgraf belting out the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and one of MANY songs performed by Heather O'Reilly was Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." She is from New Jersey, after all. Above is Lindsay Tarpley on the skins and O'Reilly rockin' the mic.

The Penguin Returns

Three U.S. players made the FIFA All-Star Team at the 2006 Under-20 Women's World Championship in Russia. One was midfielder Amanda Poach, who missed all of last college season at Santa Clara while recovering from a torn ACL, but was the USA's linchpin in midfield during the WC. Four members of the U.S. team in Mexico for Olympic Qualifying played on that U-20 team and were surprised to look down at their CONCACAF team delegation credentials to see a picture of...that's right, Poach. Nicknamed "The Penguin" due to her unique running style (if you've seen her play, you know what we're talking about), we always knew she was destined for stardom, but we didn't know it would be through having her image (we think it's from a U-20 qualifying game against Canada) printed on every single credential at Olympic qualifying. See Poach on the credential above. No, not on the left...that's U.S. equipment manager Andrew Dessert looking like he just got booked at the local police station. That's Poach (#7) on the right.

Hot in Juarez

Props go out to CONCACAF and the local organizers for doing a bang up job of promoting this tournament here in Juarez. There is conspicuous signage and billboards around the city advertising the tournament and the media coverage has been excellent. The awesome crowd last night for the Mexico-Jamaica game surely played a big part in Mexico's dominating victory and the USA-Mexico match on Sunday afternoon - the USA's first-ever meeting with Mexico in Mexico - is surely shaping up to be a special game. We'll have to wait and see how many U.S. fans will make the trip over the border to support their team, but they will have to be in full throat to match the enthusiasm of the Mexican fans. Needless to say, Mexico's 8-1 win was big news with the local media, producing one headline that read "MASACRE TRICOLOR" which pretty much says it all. Since Mexico's men failed to qualify for the Olympics, the women's team has generated some additional interest as the fans and media want to see if the women can do something the men could not, a story that would certainly be unique for Mexican soccer.

Just FYI...

Some were wondering why midfielder Angie Wonzuk didn't make the Olympic qualifying roster, and while of course those decisions are up to head coach Pia Sundhage and her staff, we will report that Wozzy was a bit injured (back) and wasn't quite ready to go full out in important matches. After some good rehab over the next few weeks, she should be ready to compete for a spot on the active roster for the USA's first domestic match of the year against Australia in Cary, N.C. on April 27. As far as Heather Mitts...she is so very close to being able to hit the field in a real match, but perhaps still needs to get her her game fitness and sharpness back, as well as working out the kinks in some sore muscles. Coming back from an ACL injury is not an easy task, but she's handled her rehab extremely well and she too should be ready for selection come the end of the month.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Mexico Rolls

We just found out that the final score of the Mexico-Jamaica game was 8-1, meaning the USA has its work cut out to keep pace with the Mexicans in Group A. Not bad by Jamaica to play a 3-1 second half with 10 players. See above for a pic of Evelyn Lopez, who captained Mexico tonight, with the USA's Stephanie Lopez (from a match in 2007). That's two Lopez' for the price of one, although our Lopez is now a married Stephanie Cox.

Goals, Goals, Goals

The U.S. team just got back from watching part of the Mexico-Jamaica game. The highlight? The awesome crowd. There had to be at least 14,000 fans packed into Estadio Olimpic Benito Juarez and they were rockin' in their support for the home team. The lowlight? Jamaica letting in some soft goals after an ok first 15 minutes. The poor Jamaican goalkeeper made a series of solid and brave saves on crosses before misjudging a few crosses. The U.S. team left at halftime with Mexico leading, 5-0, much to delight of the home crowd. To quote an old Mexican gentleman overwhelmed by his team's success, to the U.S. team: "You are going to have your hands full with Mexico!" He could be right, as Mexico certainly looked sharp, especially bolstered by the home crowd. In the first match, Canada had little trouble with Trinidad & Tobago, winning 6-0. And no, Christine Sinclair didn't get five of them. Canada spread it around as six different players scored.

Opening Day

The 2008 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament opens today, but the USA, of course, does not play until Friday. Today Mexico will face Jamaica and Canada takes on Trinidad & Tobago. The U.S. will take in part of the JAM-MEX game, getting a preview of their two Group A opponents. The USA held a split training this morning with the forwards and a few midfielders training from 10:30-11:30 while the defenders and a few more midfielders trained from 11:30-12:30. The goalkeepers had to do both trainings after which they both looked like Pig Pen from the Charlie Brown cartoons after diving around in the dirt for a few hours. Both groups stopped at Starbucks on the way back from training and the iced coffee drinks surely hit the spot. The USA is scheduled to train for an hour in the stadium at some point tomorrow before opening the competition on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. PT. Fans can follow the match as it happens on's MatchTracker.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools!

There were quite a few April Fools jokes hatched today by and to the U.S. players, but some we can't print here. One we can involved Cat Whitehill and her beloved North Carolina Tar Heels. Making the story even more spicy, it was two Heels who perpetrated the farce. During warm-up for training Heather O'Reilly and Tobin Heath purposed jogged past Whitehill and O'Reilly said something to the effect of, "Yeah, can you believe that? What are the Heels going to do without him?" Of course, Whitehill perked up and asked exactly what they were referring too..."You didn't hear!?" said O'Reilly, "Tyler Hansbrough sprained his ankle in practice!" referring to UNC's powerful big man who as a consensus All-American put North Carolina on his back and led them to the Final Four. "It's a high ankle sprain," said O'Reilly in her best deadpan. "Pretty bad. He might not be able to play in the Final Four." For Whitehill, this information is tantamount to a major catastrophe. They had her hook, line and sinker. Fearing that the "bad news" might actually impact her mental state, leading to a poor training, the two Heels filled her in about 20 minutes later. Tyler's ankles are fine and so are the Heels. April Fools for sure! (The WNT Blog is picking the Bruins, though).

Not a (Blog or Goal) Post for the Squeamish

If you don't mind a good scar story, read on. If you're a bit squeamish when it comes to ripped flesh, perhaps it's best to skip this one. You see, last time U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo was in Mexico, she was playing with the U.S. Under-21 National Team, and had a little accident involving a free-kick, a power dive, a goalpost and a hook. Perhaps the worst part about this story is that the ball went in and the USA lost 1-0, but for more (graphic) details, we'll let Hope tell the story.

Carli Coyote

We can laugh at this because Carli Lloyd is fine, but the U.S. midfielder took a spill of epic proportions today at training. We mentioned below about the poor quality of the field...well Carli has seen the dirt up close and personal. Known as one of the most skillful players on the U.S. team, her excellent touch could do nothing to prevent her toe apparently catching a big 'ole divot while running full speed at goal during a shooting drill. Picture famed cartoon character Wile Coyote getting duped yet again by the Road Runner and falling headfirst into a patch of dirt. As Lloyd hit the ground, there was actual skidding involved for about three yards, which caused a huge cloud of dust to fly up before she finally came to rest at the top of the penalty area. The entire team went silent for a moment before realizing that Lloyd was ok, followed by every player bursting into fits of laughter. Poor Carli did get a nice raspberry on the side of her hip, but was no worse for wear as she got up and dusted herself off.

Dusty and Dark

The USA's late afternoon practice today revealed that the training field is, well, not ideal. With just a bit more grass than dirt, and pocked with small rocks, the field is quite hard and just a little bit dangerous. But that didn't stop the team from having an intense training session that ended with about 15 minutes of 11 v. 11 in near darkness as the flood lights didn't do much flooding. (See Angela Hucles and Lindsay Tarpley warming down above). It reminded some of the players of club practices "back in the day" that took place in dusky light on bumpy fields. Nostalgia aside, there could be some sore feet tomorrow. Needless to say, the goalkeepers ended up quite dirty at the end of the training but it always seems that the GKs like getting dirty? Long story short, as they say, if you can play on a field like this, you can play on anything.

First Training in Juarez

The U.S. team hit the field this morning at a local country club (that happens to have a soccer field attached) for an on-field weight workout that also included speed and agility work. There were no balls used, except the mini-plastic football the players were tossing around before and after training and the medicine balls for ab work. The players rotated through 10 stations in some hot heat, getting an excellent workout before the team begins to taper for its first game on April 4. The team will train this afternoon as well. It should be a bit cooler and the soccer balls will be utilized.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Welcome to Mexico

The U.S. team has arrived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The team flew from Los Angeles to Phoenix to El Paso, Texas, then hopped a bus for a 45-minute ride that took the team over the border with a police escort and to their hotel. Some confusion as to what time it actually was in Juarez (El Paso is MT, Juarez is currently PT, but changes to MT in a few days) caused the players to have to wait a while for the team dinner, but not one seemed to mind as Heather O'Reilly and Natasha Kai kept everyone entertained with a spirited game of charades. It was a pretty easy day of travel, although with the Los Angeles flight a bit delayed, the team had to hustle to its gate in Phoenix, only to find out that the flight to El Paso had been delayed as well (probably to get all the U.S. team gear on board...whoops! Sorry). The team got a nice reception in El Paso with a few reporters, photographers, fans and the local ABC affiliate, and you can feel a bit of a buzz here in Juarez as there is prominent signage along the main road to the hotel hyping the games. As this will be Mexico's first-ever game against the USA in Mexico, the media is certainly intrigued by the match. But first, Mexico must face Jamaica on April 2 followed by the USA-Jamaica game on April 4.

En route to Mexico...

The team is currently in the airport waiting for it's journey to Olympic qualifying to begin. (See above as Cat Whitehill and Lindsay Tarpley patiently wait for the delayed flight). The U.S. team is flying into El Paso, Texas, and will cross there as Ciudad Juarez sits right on the U.S.-Mexico border. Hopefully, some U.S. soccer fans will make the trek from Texas to give the American team some vocal support. We heard the U.S. team might stop for dinner in El Paso tonight (Tex Mex? Steaks?) before heading to the hotel to get settled. The mid-day flight gave the team a chance to sleep in and relax a bit after a hard training camp, but they will hit the field tomorrow for their first training in Mexico. The tournament opens on April 2 as Mexico plays Jamaica in the USA's Group A, but the Americans won't play until April 4, giving the U.S. coaching staff a chance to watch their two group foes before facing them in the tournament.