US soar to render group stage meaningless

Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge I, quarter-final
Ireland 1 (Audrey O’Flynn) USA 3 (Shannon Taylor 2, Rachel Dawson)

Group ranking counted for little. That was the message as Ireland were one of the two group winners to crash out of the newly introduced quarter-final phase of the Champions Challenge.

Indeed, only one of the sides – Scotland – that would ordinarily be battling out for the medal positions held their form as Spain and the USA, with one normal time win between them, contest the semi-finals on Saturday.

Having flagged his concerns pre-tournament, this comprehensive 3-1 defeat to the USA was tough to take, the morale boosting results of the past three games not being converted into a tangible pay-day in the world ranking standings.

The US, employing a high press, squeezed the life out of the Irish in the first half, capitalising twice through Shannon Taylor before Rachel Dawson moved them well clear early in the second half.

Audrey O’Flynn got one back but Ireland could never get any real momentum going, their performance pock-marked by four sin-binnings while two mis-trapped corners might have changed the complexion.

But it was a rough day for the Irish who stuggled with their outletting once more, often times resorting to big bashes due to the scarce options and seeing the ball returned in kind.

In the 14th minute, Melissa Gonzalez burst into the circle, pulled back into the path of Michelle Kasold and her sweet pass picked out Taylor on the back post for a simple finish. It was a sweetly worked move and showed a fluidity largely absent in the first phase of the competition.

With umpires requested to crack down on breaking down play offences, Alex Speers took an early trip to the bin and was soon followed by Caroline Nichols.

The Americans scarcely broke stride and Taylor shovelled in her second of the day after Paige Selenski did all the hard yards down the left-wing.

Aine Connery was next to go but, restored to 11, Emma Smyth managed to find room for the first Irish shot of the game in the 27th minute, banging the ball into Amy Tran-Swensen’s outer sideboard.

Michelle Vittesse took a yellow for a deliberate foul on Shirley McCay but they suffered little and another intricately crafted move early in the second half increased the margin once more.

Katie Reinprecht pulled the ball from the left apex of the circle all the way to the opposite end of the scoring zone for the unmarked Dawson to pick her spot and duly place home.

It could have been four when Reinprecht was pushed over but Emma Gray brilliantly tipped Kayla Bashore-Smedley’s penalty stroke. Another green card, this time for Lizzie Colvin, was dished out before Ireland found some form.

O’Flynn’s first drag clattered the post but her second was a low tracer, zooming in on Tran-Swensen’s bottom left corner in the 49th minute.

Two corners could have given Ireland an even better foothold but neither were trapped and the visitors looked more likely to increase the scoring. Sinead McCarthy and Bashoe-Smedley added to the list transgressors and Ireland were out of the main competition.

Murmurs of discontent with the tournament format have been circling since last week but such a mood was elevated in the day’s first game when Spain, yet to win a game in normal time, made it through to the last four with victory over South Africa.

And, speaking about the situation, Muller remained vehement in his opposition to the new structure as all the good work of the group stages was rendered meaningless.

“It is flawed. In essence, all the form you get from the pool games is cancelled out and, certainly, in international hockey, you don’t want a competition which evens the playing field like this.

“Teams try and create that uneven field by winning matches and getting to semi-finals. It doesn’t make sense to me and I guarantee it won’t stay on. There’s too much resistance to it. Not a single coach here wants it and no one would have complained if they had kept the old format.”

As for the game itself, Muller conceded his side were outdone by a better team, a frustrating day out for the girls in green, as any rub of the green did not work in their favour.

“When you don’t have the momentum, those decisions go against you. They didn’t contribute to the outcome of the match but they certainly contributed to us not getting going. We had points in the match when we could have changed things. We miss-stopped two penalty corners at key times and it was all part of not being able to generate momentum.”

It means Ireland play Azerbaijan on Friday (6pm) in the first series of classification matches while the US go on to play Scotland again in the semis. It is a short turnaround time after the day’s frustrations but one which Muller hopes to build from.

Ireland: E Gray, M Harvey, C Sargent, E Smyth, E Clarke, A Speers, S McCay, J McDonnell, J O’Halloran, S McCarthy, N Symmons
Subs: L Jacob, A Connery, A O’Flynn, C Watkins, L Colvin
USA: A Tran-Swensen, R Dawson, K Reinprecht, K O’Donnell, M Kasold, C Nichols, P Selenski, C Laubach, K Falgowski, K Bashore-Smedley, LCrandall
Subs: M Gonzalez, M Vittesse, M Cesan, S Taylor, J Reinprecht

Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge quarter-finals: Scotland 3 (A Wylie, H Cram, A Bell) Azerbaijan 2 (K Aliyeva, E Jhoi); Japan 1 (A Mitsuhashi)India 0; Spain 3 (R Huertas, B Malda, P Sanchez) South Africa 2 (S Damons, P Coetzee) on golden goal extra-time; Ireland 1 (Audrey O’Flynn) USA 3 (Shannon Taylor 2, Rachel Dawson)

Friday’s schedule:
Electric Ireland Champion’s Challenge I (both a Belfield):
South Africa vs India, 3.30pm; Azerbaijan vs Ireland, 6pm
UCD 4 Nations Cup (both at Belfield): France vs China, 12.30pm; Ireland vs Pakistan,8pm

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