New Zealand gains confidence in loss

BOCHUM, Germany -- For a team that has lost all seven Women's World Cup matches it has played, New Zealand sounds awfully confident.

Japan beat the Ferns, as the New Zealanders are called, 2-1 in front of a half-capacity but enthusiastic crowd of 12,538 on Monday. But New Zealand thinks it has faced the best Group B has to offer, and coach John Herdman doesn't seem to mind calling out group mates England and Mexico.

"The other two teams coming up, they don't have the collective quality of the Japanese," Herdman said. "The English have a style of play that will suit New Zealand. Japan's style doesn't suit any team but Japan."

An incredulous reporter asked Herdman why he thought Japan was so much better than teams that have beaten the United States in recent months.

"I think you go look at the world rankings," Herdman said with a slight smile. "That'll give you some clues."

Indeed, the rankings show Japan fourth, England 10th and Mexico 22nd, just two places ahead of the Ferns. Yet it is Japan's skillful ball possession -- it held the ball 61 percent of the time Monday, according to FIFA's official stats -- that makes it a tough matchup for a rugged New Zealand team boasting a couple of players who honed their games in the demanding U.S. college ranks.

"I don't think the other teams will keep the ball as well as Japan," Herdman said. "We've got the toughest one over today."

Herdman particularly praised teen star Mana Iwabuchi, who entered the game in the 55th minute and eventually wore down the New Zealand defense with constant pressure. In the 68th minute, Kiwi captain Rebecca Smith, a former Duke player, was forced to foul Iwabuchi as she slalomed though the defense.

Aya Miyama, whose previous two World Cup goals were on free kicks, calmly deposited the ball in the upper right corner.

"When we first came out in the second half, I think we fixed a couple of things from the first half that we noticed weren't going as well as what we wanted to," Smith said. "In that second half, we felt we were pretty cohesive. The second goal was pretty unfortunate."

For all its World Cup futility -- appearances in 1991 and 2007 yielded no wins, no ties, one goal scored and 20 conceded -- New Zealand showed some resilience from the start.

Betsy Hassett, who plays college soccer at California, was stripped of the ball at midfield to set up a quick Japanese attack that Yuki Nagasato, who plays in Germany with Turbine Potsdam, converted with a deft chip from the top of the box over onrushing keeper Jenny Bindon in the sixth minute.

Six minutes later, a New Zealand long ball found Ria Percival in the right corner. She crossed to the far post for Amber Hearn (her teammate at New Zealand club Lynn-Avon United), who towered over the Japanese defense and headed the ball home.

That goal was New Zealand's first in the Women's World Cup since 1991, and it left the heavy underdogs tied 1-1 with the group favorite.

"Today we proved that we can play with one of the best teams in the world," said Smith, who plays club ball just a short train ride away in Wolfsburg. "We showed we can hang with a team like that and even have chances to win.

"We are confident going into the next two games. We've played against England and Mexico before, so we know what they're about."

New Zealand plays England on Friday and Mexico on July 5.

The Ferns faced Mexico in March, losing 5-0. But New Zealand showed signs of progress Monday. Defenders Smith, Abby Erceg and Ali Riley (who plays for the Western New York Flash of Women's Professional Soccer) read the game well and came up with timely tackles. Hearn and young substitute Hannah Wilkinson were formidable up front.

"Six points is what we're after in the next two games then," Hearn said.

Who's to tell them otherwise?