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At Women's World Cup, scouting is as important as own game plan

With growth and parity at Women's World Cup, scouting has become as important as a team's own game plan

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 from the tournament in group play last week, 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 game plan.

"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 game plan."

And that'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 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 — and was 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 from 16 to 24 teams this year. Among the other debutantes were Thailand, Ivory Coast and Ecuador, teams many of their competitors knew very little about.

Ivory Coast, for example, played only once in the 7 1/2 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 team that has played just one match outside Asia in the last year, a coach could contact a colleague in South Korea or China. And in return, those coaches might ask for footage of Canada, Mexico or Ecuador.

"The world 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 that way.

"I have not watched anybody. I only concentrate on my team," Nigeria's Okon said. "I've said it before now that 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 the 16 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, who was 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. So we [had] a pretty good game plan."

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, which would be against the Americans.

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

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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