U.S. women, Mexican men luck out in draw; Honduras makes history
The U.S. women landed a favorable draw in the Olympic quarterfinal matchups
Meanwhile, the Mexican men can look to enjoy a wide-open path to the semifinals
The Honduran men qualified for the Olympic knockout stage for the first time ever
NEWCASTLE, England -- Four thoughts on women's and men's Olympic soccer now that the quarterfinal matchups are set*:
* One side of women's bracket: USA-New Zealand, Great Britain-Canada. Other side: Brazil-Japan, France-Sweden.
* One side of men's bracket: Brazil-Honduras, Great Britain-South Korea. Other side: Mexico-Senegal, Japan-Egypt.
The U.S. women won their group and got a favorable draw. On paper, the four most-talented remaining teams other than the U.S. are all on the other side of the bracket. That's not to knock Great Britain, which played well and thrived on vocal home support in beating Brazil 1-0 to win their group. But it's fair to say that the U.S. now has no business not reaching the final. How great would it be if we end up seeing a U.S.-Britain semifinal at Manchester United's Old Trafford -- which you'd think would have a chance of selling out for the occasion? My original medal picks: 1. USA 2. Japan 3. Brazil. My revised picks: 1. USA 2. Japan 3. France.
The Mexican men have a huge opening. With medal favorites Spain and Uruguay already eliminated, one side of the men's bracket is wide open, which means a team that isn't viewed as a traditional world power is guaranteed to make the final. A Mexico-Japan semifinal would be a fascinating game between two of the world's most upwardly mobile soccer nations, but I'd give a slight edge to Mexico, which has improved as the tournament has gone on. Mexico's success at the Under-17 and Under-20 level means we shouldn't be surprised by a deep run at the Olympics. My original medal picks: 1. Brazil 2. Spain 3. Great Britain. My revised picks: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Great Britain.
Japan's women's coach got what he deserved. In a rather stunning admission, World Cup-winning coach Norio Sasaki said he had told his players not to score in their 0-0 tie against South Africa in their final group game. The idea, Sasaki said, was to finish second in the group so that his team would be able to stay in Cardiff for the quarterfinals instead of having to travel to Glasgow had Japan won the group. The admission raised questions of whether Japan might face sanctions like the eight Olympic badminton players who were disqualified for trying to lose. In the end, FIFA decided not to punish the Japanese, and you can certainly argue that the situation isn't exactly like the badminton scandal. (If the Japanese had been trying to kick the ball in their own net, that would have been a similar scandal.) But Sasaki's decision does leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who had seen a purity in the Japanese team, and he did get punished in one way when Japan surprisingly drew a quarterfinal against Marta and Brazil instead of Great Britain.
The Honduran men are making MLS and CONCACAF look good. In a historic achievement, Honduras qualified for the Olympic knockout stage for the first time ever, tying Japan 0-0 to finish second in Group D ahead of Morocco and Spain. Stateside soccer fans who are bummed out about the U.S. men's failure to qualify can latch onto the Hondurans, whose finest hour (so far) was a 1-0 win over Spain in which the winning goal came from the combination of Andy Najar (D.C. United), Roger Espinoza (Kansas City) and scorer Jerry Bengtson (New England). While we're at it, raise a glass to CONCACAF, the only confederation which had all of its teams (men's and women's) advance to the knockout rounds. Honduras's reward? The chance to meet gold-medal favorite Brazil in the men's quarters on Saturday.