Olympic Hockey: U.S. and Canada are on “a different planet”

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BEIJING (AP) — Immediately after one of Finland’s most lopsided losses in international women’s hockey history, general manager Tuula Puputti marveled with envy at the depth of talent Canada has assembled.

She began by referencing Canada’s top line centered by captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who has drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby for scoring two gold-medal clinching goals. Then there’s a second line anchored by Sarah Fillier, the 21-year-old Princeton captain, who already has scored four times in her Olympic debut.

Puputti, however, didn’t stop there.

“Who wouldn’t want to have their third and fourth lines on their teams as well?” the former goalie said, incredulously. “It’s plenty to choose.”

Plenty harder to contain.

Whatever faint hope there was of the rest of the world closing the gap on the Canadian and U.S. women’s hockey teams is quickly being dashed three days into the Beijing Games.

MORE WOMEN’S HOCKEY COVERAGE: 2022 Olympics quarterfinals schedule, how to watch

Canada outclassed its first two Group A opponents with a pair of 11-1 victories, beginning with Switzerland on Thursday and the Finns on Saturday. And Finland, the defending Olympic and world championship bronze medalist, hardly fared much better against the United States in 5-2 loss on Thursday night.

The defending Olympic champion Americans play the Russian team later Saturday.

In Group B play, Haruka Toko had a goal and two assists, and Japan improved to 2-0 with a 6-2 victory over Denmark (0-2). The Czech Republic is off to a 2-0 start in its Olympic women’s hockey debut after Tereza Vanisova scored twice in a 3-1 win over Sweden (0-2).

For Puputti, very little has changed her mind in the two months since she called Canada the tournament favorite.

“Today it wasn’t our best game, and they came out very strong,” she said.

After Minnamari “Minttu” Tuominen provided Finland brief life by scoring from the left point to cut the deficit to 2-1 with 1:33 remaining, Canada responded with a five-goal second period.

Barring a drastic turn of events, the likelihood of the U.S. facing Canada in the gold-medal game for the sixth time in seven Olympic tournaments appears inevitable. The only exception was the 2006 Torino Games, when Sweden beat the U.S. in the semifinals before losing to Canada.

“I really believe Canada and the U.S. are playing on a different planet right now,” said Czech coach Tomas Pacina. “It’s a very mature hockey, very high-end hockey, very close to men’s hockey.”

Canada’s up-tempo transition attack and heavy emphasis on the forecheck was readily apparent against the Finns. Fillier opened the scoring 61 seconds in by snapping in a shot from the right circle, and Sarah Nurse scored 11 minutes later off Sanni Rantala’s giveaway.

The rout was on when Brianne Jenner and Laura Stacey scored 2:08 apart to put Canada up 7-1 with 3:25 left in the second period, when each of their pass attempts deflected in off Finland defenders.

“Not every game is going to look like that,” said Jenner, who scored three goals and added an assist. “But we’re confident with this group, no matter what the score is.”

Canada didn’t skip a beat despite missing second-line winger Melodie Daoust, who is listed as day to day after sustaining an upper-body injury against the Swiss. Jamie Lee Rattray filled Daoust’s spot and finished with a goal and two assists.

“It speaks to how versatile everyone’s game is,” Fillier said. “It’s the best 23 players in Canada. So, wherever you put anyone it’s going to click.”

The 11 goals scored were the most by the Canadian women against Finland in Olympic or world championship play. The 10-goal margin of defeat represented the Finns’ second worst behind an 11-0 loss to the U.S. at the 2012 world championships.

And to think, many outside of North America were pointing to the 2019 world championships as a potential turning point. That’s when the tournament host Finns stunned Canada with a 4-2 win in the semifinals and got within a disallowed overtime goal of beating the United States in an eventual 2-1 shootout loss.

The difference, Puputti said, is Finland doesn’t have a talent pool deep enough to draw upon to replace the players who have since retired. Another key factor is the U.S. and Canada having the resources to centralize their teams in one place during the four-month lead-up to the Olympics.

Other nations, by comparison, squeeze in a limited number of weeklong camps to fit around their players’ pro or college schedules. Finland was hampered further by losing practice time because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I think you can see that they have been together a lot,” Finland captain Jenni Hiirikoski said, before being asked to compare Canada and the U.S. after facing both in three days.

“Canada is maybe a little more driving straight to the net. U.S. is maybe trying to make plays a little more,” Hiirikoski said. “But tough teams. Good teams. They are really good.”

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Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”