January 22, 2011

US vs. Canada at Four Nations Tournament

They haven't met each other for 18 months, the longest gap since 1993. They were supposed to meet at the CONCACAF Tournament Finals in November. That match never happened. The USWNT fell to Mexico in the semifinals, while Canada defeated Mexico to become CONCACAF champions.

So here we are, 18 full months removed since the last time these two teams met and things have changed over that time. The US defeated Canada twice in July of 2009, both by 1-0 margins with Abby Wambach and Christine Nairn doing the honors of scoring the winning goals. Neither of those two players are at the Four Nations Tournament in China.

Canada is on an 11 game unbeaten streak, with the only two blemishes over that time being ties to Brazil. The USA, on the other hand, have suffered losses in two of their last five games, to Mexico in November and to Sweden on Friday in the Four Nations opening match.

The Canadians have a nice mixture of youth and veterans on their squad and are led by their all-time leading goal scorer Christine Sinclair, who now has 114 career goals after her two on Friday. The US will be without its big gun, Abby Wambach, who has 117 career goals. In fact, the four forwards that the USWNT brought to this tournament have just 28 combined goals.

The eleven players that were in the starting lineup for Canada on Friday average approximately 25.5 years of age. None of those starters were over 30. By contrast, the US started three players over 30 and their average age was close to 28 years old. The exception for the US is at forward, where they are very young in this tournament, including UCLA's Sydney Leroux who earned her first cap on Friday.

Canada showed resilience after falling behind China 2-0 on Friday, scoring the tying goal in the 80th minute and the winner in stoppage. They showed similar fortitude in a 2-2 tie against Brazil in December. After falling behind 2-1 on Marta's penalty kick in the 72nd minute and playing one player down, they managed to tie the match with less than 10 minutes to go.

One common theme in the two recent American losses was that in each match, they quickly gave up a goal after scoring. Against Mexico, they tied the match in the 25th minute, but surrendered a goal only two minutes later. Against Sweden, they scored the opening goal of the match in the 11th minute only to give up an equalizer just five minutes later. Is there a tendency to relax too much after scoring?

The US has dominated this series over its history with a 40-3-4 record. Their last blemish against Canada was a tie back in 2003 and they haven't lost to them since 2001, while competing with a roster made up of college and high school players. There have been close matches, however, with the US winning on penalties in 2008 CONCACAF qualifying and in overtime in the 2008 Olympic quarterfinals.

No matter what happens in this match, it is really just an exhibition, a warmup for bigger things to come. Both coaches are likely to experiment with lineups and up to five substitutions are allowed in each match. But make no mistake about it, the two teams will take this match seriously. Considering the rivalry, the recent direction of the two teams, and the fact that Canada are the newly crowned CONCACAF champions, it should provide for an entertaining and interesting match.