It pays to be an in­ter­na­tional spy

Los Angeles Times - - WOMEN’S WORLD CUP - KEVIN BAX­TER ON SOC­CER kevin.bax­ter@latimes.com

ED­MON­TON, Canada— Nige­rian Coach Ed­win Okon re­peat­edly bragged he hadn’t both­ered study­ing any video of his team’s op­po­nents in this Women’s World Cup.

U.S. Coach Jill El­lis, on the other hand, dis­patched a small army of scouts across Canada to gather in­for­ma­tion on coun­tries the Amer­i­cans might play.

It should come as no sur­prise that Nige­ria didn’t win a game be­fore be­ing bounced fromthe tour­na­ment in group play last­week, while the un­beaten U.S. won the group and will play Colom­bia in the sec­ond round Mon­day.

Given the growth and new­found par­ity in women’s soc­cer, know­ing your op­po­nent has be­come al­most as im­por­tant as know­ing your own game­plan.

“Scout­ing’s a big part of it,” El­lis said. “We have five scouts at the tour­na­ment. And now we’re just re­view­ing the in­for­ma­tion that they have and then strate­giz­ing and putting to­gether a game­plan.”

Andthat’s for a team the U.S. has seen twice in the last four years. So imag­ine the crash course Cameroon Coach Enow Ngachu faced in pre­par­ing for Satur­day’s knock­out game with China. Not only have the two coun­tries’ teams never met in per­son, but Cameroon rarely plays out­side of Africa. So China’s well-or­ga­nized, com­pact and dis­ci­plined style was prob­a­bly new to Cameroon— and­was likely one rea­son why China won, 1-0.

“China, they have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence,” Ngachu said. “We’re just here to learn.”

Cameroon is among a group of coun­tries that gained valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence in the World Cup, which ex­panded its field from16 to 24 teams this year. Amongthe other to de­but were Thai­land, Ivory Coast and Ecuador, teams many of their com­peti­tors knew very lit­tle about.

Ivory Coast, for ex­am­ple, played only once in the 71⁄ months pre­ced­ing the World Cup, while Cameroon and Ecuador played just seven games com­bined.

The U.S., on the other hand, played 10 times in four coun­tries on two con­ti­nents in the first five months of the year. And eight of those games were against World Cup qual­i­fiers.

To find out about teams coaches aren’t fa­mil­iar with, though, coun­tries that once may have been ri­vals have had to quickly be­come friends.

For video­tape of Thai­land, for ex­am­ple, a teamthat has played just one match out­side Asia in the last year, a coach could con­tact a col­league in South Korea or China. Andin re­turn, those coaches might ask for footage of Canada, Mexico or Ecuador.

“Theworld is get­ting smaller in terms of a lot of live stream­ing of games these days,” El­lis said. “Ev­ery team here had to go through their qual­i­fy­ing. So there is that avail­abil­ity.

“But it’s chal­leng­ing to not know your op­po­nent some­times.”

Some coaches ap­par­ently pre­fer it that­way.

“I have not watched any­body. I only con­cen­trate onmy team,” Nige­ria’s Okon said. “I’ve said it be­fore nowthat I haven’t watched any of the tapes.”

As a re­sult, per­haps, three of the six goals Okon’s team al­lowed in group play came off set pieces Nige­ria was un­pre­pared to de­fend.

There should be few sim­i­lar sur­prises in the rest of the tour­na­ment.

For starters, nine of the16 teams that made the sec­ond round were play­ing in at least their sixth World Cup, mak­ing for a lot of fa­mil­iar­ity. And those who haven’t been this far be­fore were un­doubt­edly watched closely dur­ing group play.

That’s where Hao stud­ied Cameroon.

“Cameroon did ex­cep­tion­ally well in the group stage,” said Hao, whowas not on the bench Satur­day af­ter be­ing sus­pended one match for interfering with a New Zealand player at­tempt­ing a throw-in dur­ing the fi­nal group game. “But af­ter our anal­y­sis, we found that they have a big hole on de­fense.

“We watched all three of their games in group play. Sowe [had] a pretty good game­plan.”

And it worked. But if the U.S. beats Colom­bia on Mon­day, Hao might want to try some­thing dif­fer­ent for his team’s next game, which­would be against the Amer­i­cans.

That’s be­cause El­lis was in the sta­dium Satur­day, scout­ing China in per­son.

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