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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Annals of Bad Coaching Decisions: Greg Ryan, U.S. Women's Soccer

In Rocky IV, one of the worst "Rocky" movies and one where Sylvester Stallone got way too full of himself, improbably Soviet (yes, Soviet, and not Russian) fans started rooting for Rocky Balboa after he bloodied the steroid-fed and seemingly invincible Soviet champ Ivan Drago in a title match deep inside the Evil Empire.

Fast forward to today, where the North Korean women's team, a young, spritely bunch, played like attacking, aggressive Americans and the U.S. women's team, not the team per se but its coach, acted like a puppetmaster over such a dominant empire that he refused to believe his team was vulnerable and made the bonehead move of the sports week (which takes a lot given what went on in the NFL over the weekend). The U.S. women's team went into this game ranked Number 1 in the world, with the North Koreans #5. The North Koreans pushed the action in a scoreless first half in rainy conditions, only to have the U.S.'s star striker, Abby Wambach, score at the 50 minute mark to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. To paraphrase from another famous sports movie, the U.S. women started playing "old-time soccer" right after the half. (Okay, so perhaps they didn't put on the foil).

And then a funny thing happened on the way to a victory. Wambach cut her head on a play near the U.S. goal on a set piece a few minutes later and went off -- but was not substituted for. Okay, she's one of the team's stars, but the cut was worse than expected. The U.S. coach didn't substitute for her, which meant that the U.S. played a woman down -- for over 10 minutes. (Ryan said in this article that he was told Wambach only would be off for a few minutes). During that time, the North Korean team smelled blood and played like their lives depended on winning, scoring two goals a few minutes apart. They attacked, they didn't relent, and they pushed hard (okay, so one of the goals resulted as much from so-so goaltending from U.S. goalie Hope Solo -- the ball hit her smack in the hands and then went over her head and into the goal as much as it was a great shot) and they took the lead. It took a heady play by U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly later in the game to tie it at 2, which is the way the game ended.

It was an exciting game, but make no mistake about it, the North Koreans were the aggressors. The U.S. looked like George Foreman on the end of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy, flat, a step slow, lunging at balls, playing without much verve, not looking confident. No, U.S. fans didn't switch sides and root for North Korea, but the team that showed U.S.-like grit and determination wasn't wearing the red-white-and-blue. It was wearing red.

Which is what U.S. fans should be seeing. Greg Ryan blundered for certain. You can't simply give a world class World Cup team a person advantage for 10 minutes and expect to get away with it. Sure, Wambach is a star, but you have derived your team from a country of 300 million people, so the substitutes, after all of the competition, should be pretty good -- and eager to show that they deserve more playing time.

One more thing -- the broadcasting wasn't very good at all. Neither Julie Foudy doing the color commentary nor Heather Mitts doing the analysis in the studio added much this morning. Both are still too close to the U.S. program and players to be objective, and while Foudy was constructive at times, she didn't at all address Greg Ryan's coaching decision regarding Wambach. How could you miss something so obvious -- it was a key part of the game, it had to be addressed, and she whiffed. Also, she commented on the U.S. team's 47-game unbeaten streak and said that it would have been good for this team to have lost before the World Cup so that they would have learned how to bounce back and handle adversity. That's an interesting point, but how far before the World Cup? Two years, two months? There's a huge difference. This team needed to come into the World Cup with full confidence it could beat anyone -- and winning -- not losing -- usually does that.

Let's chalk this one up to a bad day all around. That said, the going won't get any easier for the U.S. team. They now play #3 Sweden, which tied Nigeria today, 1-1.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As if that was bad enough, his decision to bench Hope Solo for Brianna Scurry for the semifinals is proving to be disastrous. As I sit here, it is 3-0 Brazil in the 60th minute. Not Scurry's fault, but why disrupt your team's chemistry right before the biggest game of the year? Couple that with a terrible red card decision from the official and, quite frankly, a superior performance by Brazil, Ryan should expect to be fired before he gets on a plane back to the states.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greg Ryan is a blithering idiot and should be replaced immediately for causing such a needless distration. Was he bribed ????

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is it with US coaches and horrible world cup decisions. Arena made a few terrible tactical decisions last summer that, I believe, lead to a new coach and direction for the MNT, despite all his past successes. And now the women's coach, Ryan, had an even more blunderous WC. I watched the games because I love soccer, and I was in awe as the coach sat back and watched as the N Koreans scored two goals while he sat around and watched. And now tonight he showed an even more outrageous decision to bench a very good keeper and disrupt a team that should've won the entire thing. I put this loss soley on the coaches shoulders, despite the quick feet and nifty moves of the Brazilian ladies. He put them in a hole they couldn't get out of and you could see the effect from the first whistle. I hope the federation has enough gumption to find a new direction for the WNT as they did for the MNT. No amount of wins can make up for such a huge bag of missteps on the worlds largest stage.

2:30 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for visiting the blog, everyone. Here are a few responses:

1. Solo shouldn't have been replaced. She played well leading up to that big game, and Ryan panicked for some reason (yes, she did give up an easy goal against North Korea, but she played well after that).

2. She should have vented privately and not publicly. You can't have that type of dissension on the team, and it seems like she's getting a chance to redeem herself.

3. My guess is that several if not many of her teammates privately thought that Ryan goofed by substituting Scurry for her in the big game.

4. Ryan also made a bad decision in the North Korea game at the time when the opponents scored 2 goals a man up because Abby Wambach was taking too long to get stitched up. Thankfully, the Americans tied it. Had they lost, and he'd still be hearing it.

4:34 PM  
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