Dance of the Samba Queens
HANGZHOU, China -- If World B. Free had been a soccer player (and a South American woman), he would've fit right in the Brazilian national team. It doesn't really matter where they are on the field or what the situation is -- the Brazilians are going to shoot the ball. And there's a pretty good chance it's going in.
Organization? Pah. Discipline? Who needs it? The Brazilians are content to ping the ball around a little, drop in a back-heel here and there, break out a couple of stopovers and then let 'er rip. It's not incredibly sophisticated, but it's working pretty well for them at the World Cup; they've advanced to the semifinals, where they'll play the U.S. on Thursday (8 a.m. ET, ESPN2).
Coming in to the tournament, there were questions about Brazil's preparedness. After finishing second in the 2004 Olympics -- they outplayed the U.S. in the gold-medal game but were beaten in extra time -- the Brazilians didn't play again for two years. (The country's federation isn't exactly supportive of its distaff side.)
Brazil was beaten in Cup qualifying by Argentina -- the team that went on to concede 11 goals to Germany in the tournament opener. But rust has clearly not been an issue; they've won all four of their games in China by a combined score of 13-2.
But that's not to say that they haven't looked beatable. Like ol' World B., the Brazilians aren't noted for their D. They cruised through group play (in what wasn't the toughest group) without conceding a goal, but were careless on occasion in their quarterfinal win over Australia.
A horrible back pass gifted the Matildas their first goal, and some lax defending on a long free kick gave the Aussies their second. But a penalty kick (terrible call, by the way) and two long-range bombs, from Formiga and Christiane, gave Brazil the 3-2 win. In typical Brazilian fashion, they kept attacking right up to the final whistle, allowing Australia two very good chances in the dying minutes when they should have been killing the game off.
The U.S. has more attacking talent than Australia, so it should be able to create plenty of chances. The key will be finishing. That's been the bane of the U.S. team throughout the tournament. Brazil, on the other hand, has been planting bombs from all over the pitch.
Acutely aware of how good the Brazilians are at creating a chance out of nothing -- and putting it on net -- U.S. coach Greg Ryan decided to switch goalkeepers, benching Hope Solo in favor of Briana Scurry. Solo has played exceptionally well in China, save for one terrible blunder against North Korea when she let an easy shot slip through her hands.
Solo is also possibly the most well-rounded keeper in the world. A former striker, she's outstanding with both feet, her distribution is top-notch, she reads the game well, she has no fear about coming off her line, she handles crosses and she's decisive.
But Ryan decided that what he needs against a team that's going to lash shot after shot is good old-fashioned athleticism, and for that he felt Scurry, a 36-year-old who was the mainstay between the sticks for years, is the better option.
Scurry was in goal in the '04 gold-medal game -- she made eight saves, a few of the spectacular variety -- and she shut out a Brazilian side, albeit a side that was missing Marta and Christiane, in June. That contest was a chippy affair, and Ryan expects more of the same. "I expect this game to be very physical," Ryan said. "Our girls will be prepared for it."
"They're not going to let us hold on to the ball for very long," said forward Heather O'Reilly. "We'll get it stripped or get our legs taken out from under us."
The game will be more than just a contrast in styles -- the well-organized U.S. against the frenetic Brazilians. It'll be a contrast in tactics.
"The way they defend is different," said Ryan. "It's going to change the way we attack. They play with a sweeper and two man markers. How does [the U.S.'] 4-3-3 and [Brazil's] 3-5-2 match up? It doesn't it's going to be a very strange mix."
How the outfield players situate themselves will be interesting, but this one could come down to goalkeeping. "I have been playing incredibly well," Scurry said. Ryan had better hope she continues to do just that.
The call: Brazil is going to score. There's really no way around that. But if the Brazilians defend like they did against Australia, they'll pay. U.S. wins 3-2.