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After watching the U.S. women's soccer team suffer the worst defeat in its illustrious history, two of the retired stars who helped build it into the world's predominant soccer power expressed dismay at the program's direction and blasted the leadership of coach Greg Ryan.
For Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, Brazil's 4-0 thrashing of the U.S. in the World Cup semifinals Thursday was a sign that the American program has deteriorated in the three years since they appeared in their final international competition – a gold-medal effort at the 2004 Athens Olympics thanks to a narrow victory over the Brazilians.
Chastain and Foudy each told Yahoo! Sports that Ryan had failed his players on tactical and motivational levels and said they expected him to lose his job as a result.
"People say this is a step back, but I think Greg Ryan has put us three steps back – all the way to the starting gate," said Chastain, the 1999 World Cup hero who watched Thursday's loss from her home in Northern California. "He lacks the ability to communicate and is not in tune with his players, and he's obviously not a tactician or he wouldn't have made the decisions he did.
"This will define Greg Ryan. He did not prepare his players to play in this World Cup the way they needed to be prepared. He was like a general who sent his soldiers into battle with no plan, and it showed. If they don't fire him, there should be a nationwide protest against U.S. Soccer because it would mean that they just don't care."
Foudy, the longtime U.S. captain turned ESPN analyst, echoed Chastain's sentiments after having broadcast the game from Hangzhou, China.
"There was no flow to this team," Foudy said. "I think that's because all three lines (forward, midfield, defense) practiced separately; they would all go off with their separate coaches, rather than work together. What Coach Ryan did tactically made no sense, and there were a lot of decisions he made that I think many people would question.
"Take nothing away from that (51-game unbeaten streak); it's very tremendous what he's done, especially with everyone gunning for them. But when you look at a coach, you look at the progress over three years, how they played at the World Cup and the decisions that were made that impacted their performance.
"There are so many talented players out there, and you wonder, 'Is this program building? Is it growing? Is that the best soccer we can produce? Is this the direction we want to go in?' I don't think it is."
Chastain, 39, conceded that she is not unbiased when it comes to Ryan, a former U.S. assistant under predecessor April Heinrichs, with whom the veteran defender had clashed. Shortly after being named Heinrichs' permanent successor in June of 2005, Ryan flew to San Jose and informed Chastain he would no longer consider her for national team participation.
"I'm saying all these things with a wounded heart, and possibly a wounded ego, and I'm not afraid to admit that," Chastain said. "I am truly saddened for the players. I know how desperately they wanted to win, and there wasn't a player out there that didn't give her all. Brazil was a great opponent, the kind that you hope you get at this stage because then you know what you are worth and how good you are. It is a learning experience, and it is moments like this that give you your bite, your resolve, your grit.
"I am not neutral, but I am neutral when it comes to where I wish our national team stands in the grand scheme of things. We have to be better, develop skills, tactics, confidence, mental composure – all the hard stuff. I don't want to be a backstabber, but I want better."
Both Foudy and Chastain were critical of the timing of Ryan's abrupt and controversial decision two days before the game to replace goalkeeper Hope Solo with veteran Briana Scurry for the Brazil game. Yet each ex-player ripped Solo for the angry comments she made following the defeat.
"I was sick when I saw those quotes," Foudy said. "Why go after Bri? It wasn't her decision; it was Greg Ryan's. That's just not right. Not once did she mention the team. I can't tolerate that."
Chastain agreed. "To be fair to Greg, the goalkeeper change didn't really bother me, because I know Bri and trust her so much in that context," she said. "The thing I didn't like about it was the timing, how he sprang it on the girls, and how it had to have affected their mood. When I saw the Brazilian players walking off the bus at the stadium (on television) dancing and high-fiving and smiling, and our players were all tensed up, I knew this would be a tough deal."
Foudy and Chastain also criticized Ryan's stratetgic moves, from implementing an overall style that favored direct attacks and physical play at the expense of possession and passing, to the curious substitutions he made in the second half of Thursday's game. Both said the way he coached against Brazil reminded them of Heinrichs' stubborn refusal to change tactics in the team's previous World Cup defeat, a 3-0 loss to Germany in the '03 semifinals.
"There's been so much talk about not being able to hold the ball or possess, and I read quotes from coach Ryan saying that if you try to play possession in the modern game you just get killed," Foudy said. "Then I see Brazil, North Korea or Germany, and they seem to be doing pretty well with that style. You have to be able to take a team apart on the ground, but in that first half everything was combative and out of rhythm and without flow. I had the feeling that they were just trying to go in and disrupt Brazil, rather than going out and playing soccer."
Both Foudy and Chastain said that, even after midfielder Shannon Boxx's ejection for a second yellow card late in the first half with the U.S. already down 2-0, they had hopes of a comeback, only to be baffled by Ryan's moves.
"You see some of the sub patterns, and you say, 'What the hell?' " Foudy said. "You take out one of your fastest players (Heather O'Reilly) and put in a marking back (Tina Ellertson) to man-mark (Brazil star striker) Marta? If you're going to make the bold move of changing the keepers but then go ultra-conservative when you're down 2-0, as if you're in a bunker mentality, what are you doing?"
Chastain, who pushed for Heinrichs' dismissal, criticized U.S. Soccer officials for having "settled" when it came to naming a successor.
"I blame (past president) Dr. Bob Contigulia for choosing Greg as our next leader and (current president) Sunil Gulati for not seeing this coming," she said. "All presidents and leaders need to foresee what is happening in their world, and this was a terrible, terrible mistake – embarrassing and totally unnecessary.
"He (Ryan) was the fifth choice of five people, and it's too bad that we settled – or that we don't value the program enough, or women's soccer in general, to do what it takes to get the best person for the job. Clearly, to the federation, it's not priority No. 1, and from an outsider's perspective that's tough."