Analysis

US Women control own destiny after standoff with Sweden

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The most anticipated rivalry in the Women’s World Cup “Group of Death,” Friday’s scoreless draw between the US and Sweden, was a standoff between two talented teams playing conservatively for the majority of the match. After a surprising draw against Nigeria in Sweden’s first game, the U.S. women were in a perfect position to take complete control of Group D after fighting off a feisty Australian team for a well-deserved victory in their opener. What followed was a disappointing and uninspired 0-0 draw.

For the first 60 minutes, the US looked like a team without a game plan, let alone a system of play, against a tactically superior Swedish side. While Christen Press and Sydney Leroux have shown spurts of individual brilliance during the friendly matches leading up to the World Cup, it was obvious throughout their entire pairing up top against Sweden that their lack of experience together in these roles made for an ineffective attack. This surprisingly new combination of strikers against a highly organized and disciplined Swedish defense made for a battle to sustain possession without much purpose between two teams who know one another inside and out.

Nigeria had identified the weakness of the Swedish backline in the first match of the group. While being well-organized in the back, the Swede’s don’t possess the kind of speed or athleticism to match up with Nigeria or the likes of a Press, Leroux, Morgan, or Rodriguez up top for the US. The US women’s tactical plan to thus play low pressure defense with two forwards dropping into their own half while Sweden knocked the ball around looking to penetrate the US midfield seemed an odd choice after witnessing how effective Nigeria was in exploiting this same defense with high pressure and quick counters behind the slower Swede’s. Granted, even with the speedsters the US had up top, any chance to quickly counter with a ball behind a high defensive Swedish back four was eliminated by the frustrating inefficiency of the speed of play from the midfield after they did regain possession.

Rapinoe

Rapinoe again displayed her unique and increasingly elite talents, demonstrating a technical ability that allows her to see the field and create opportunities that no one else on the US team. nor are few others in the world, is capable of. The US left side, with Meghan Klingenberg making runs out of the back to support Rapinoe, has provided the majority of the team’s offense. This was a bit less effective against the Swedes as former US coach, and current Sweden coach, Pia Sundhage knew exactly who to focus her attention on defensively, especially with a right side that continues to struggle both offensively and defensively. The times Rapinoe switched fields with a singular pass to Krieger, who excels as an attacker on this right side, were the few times the US generated any kind of offensive threat from that side of the field.

One factor to keep in mind is that if Raponoe gets one more yellow card through the quarterfinals she will have to sit out the next game. Nigeria will be physical and Rapinoe doesn’t back down from a challenge.

Midfield too slow in transition

Play through the midfield was painfully slow for the US. Lloyd and Holiday were solid defensively, partly due to the team’s bunkering mentality, but the two and three touches they were taking after regaining possession, before switching fields or even turning up field to look for a penetrating pass, eliminated the ability to consistently generate much offense. The US simply played into the strengths of the slower, but better organized, Swedes.

The entrance of Amy Rodriguez into the game as a true target player with elite speed immediately paid dividends as she provided dangerous options for combinations in the attacking third. Moving Leroux to outside mid was an eye-opener as she is possibly the team’s best option in that role, especially if Alex Morgan can regain her form up top. Leroux is fierce, fast, gets back defensively, and runs at players in the final third. While she doesn’t possess Rapinoe’s creative flare, she is perhaps the most dangerous player in that position we have seen so far. She also combined much better with Krieger and Rodriguez, each seeming to fill their respective roles more effectively than has been apparent with Press or Morgan Brian as the outside right midfielder. Not using either Tobin Heath or Heather O’Reilly is still a head-scratcher but hopefully some lessons were learned about both the ineffectiveness of Friday’s starting lineup and the results that came following the personnel changes.

Wambach off the bench

Even though Abby Wambach may have lost a step or two and appeared to be a bit rusty in the first game against Australia, her presence on the field brings a higher level of intensity that ignites her teammates and can electrify an entire stadium. Bringing her off the bench after having her on the field for the entire 90-minutes in the first game was definitely the right move. Whether she is making decoy runs or being targeted directly with a cross or quick counterattacking ball, she still demands the attention of one, if not two, defenders, which opens up space offensively. Any time a ball is in the air anywhere inside the box, one can feel the goose bumps in anticipation knowing that the greatest header of the ball in women’s history always has the potential to finish another beauty. She is the team’s vocal leader on the field and while she can’t bring that for an entire game anymore, having her come off the bench must deflate and strike fear in an opponent just as their legs are growing heavy with fatigue.

Klingenberg’s game-saver

The greatest play of the game, however, came off the head of the most vertically challenged player in the 77th minute when Meghan Klingenberg cleared a ball that was on a direct path to the back of the net off the goal line. Reminiscent of when another former Tarheel in Kristine Lilly held her position on the left post so famously during the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, Klingenberg pinched in slightly off the post after a weak corner kick clearance before using every bit of her 5-2 frame and 26″ vertical jump to save the day for the Americans. Klingenberg’s comments after the game also echoed those of her Tarheel predecessor 16 years ago: Both commented modestly that they were “just doing their job.” Klingenberg’s effort should not have been a surprise as she is quickly making a name for herself as one of the most exciting young Americans now emerging from the U-20 Women’s World Cup 2008 Championship team.

The other possible game saving play for the Americans came on the “No-Call” inside the penalty box when Leroux’s elbow moved purposely in front of a Swedish shot in the 22nd minute. While the same infraction might have seemed apparent later in the game when a shot appeared to glance off of a Swedish defender’s arm, a closer look showed the shot hitting the Swede’s inner shoulder as she tried to move away from the ball. The American’s were incredibly lucky becasue this “missed call” would have resulted in a red card for Leroux, a penalty kick for Sweden, the American’s playing with only 10 players for the rest of the game,while and also losing Leroux for Tuesday’s next game against Nigeria.

The US central defense, led by newcomer Julie Johnston and the always solid Becky Sauerbrunn, was superb even while “99er” Christie Rampone — who former US boss and current Swedish head coach Pia Sundhage recently described as “the greatest captain she’s ever seen”  — remained on the bench. It’s too bad there couldn’t be a way to get the leadership of Rampone on the field regularly as neither Lloyd nor Rapinoe lead vocally or have been able to fill that void. Such leadership is critical in achieving success when facing teams like Germany, Japan, and France, teams that have surpassed the US technically and tactically in their player-centric development systems.

Optimism remains

However, we should be optimistic that, while after the first two games the US plainly have not reached their full potential, they still find themselves at the top of the group with four points. While head coach Jill Ellis continues shifting lineups without players clearly being comfortable in an established system of play, perhaps the late attacking onslaught with the entrance of Rodriguez and move of Leroux to outside right midfield may be just the combination that will give the team a fighting chance. Nigeria will be a big test and it is vital that the US come out of this “Group of Death” on top to ensure a much easier road to the semifinals where anything is possible.

The game against Nigeria will be the polar opposite of Friday’s tactical standoff against Sweden —  as well-organized as Sweden was, Nigeria will go all out up and down the field with an unrelenting attack throughout the entire game. Their lack of depth — and the US women’s good fortune to be facing them in their last game of the group stage —  is most definitely to the American’s advantage. Look for Lloyd and Holiday to be tested defensively and challenged physically while Solo will have to once again be called upon to make some huge saves.

The US defenders will match-up better than Sweden’s did against Nigeria but Johnston’s speed — and Sauerbrunn’s solid presence as the only true defender on the field — will still be vital in determining the outcome. The weak-side of the defense has been exploited the entire tournament so it will be up to Solo to better direct traffic accordingly and make sure those threats are neutralized before they become dangerous. If she is truly the greatest female goalkeeper in the world, her communication and organization of the defense must improve in order to minimize the need to make jaw dropping saves from wide open attackers.

The Americans control their own destiny at this point but as it now stands, any one of the teams in this competitive group have a chance to either win it or move on to the next round. The US will have its work cut out for them going into Tuesday’s game without the luxury of being able to coast into the next round after the tie with Sweden.

11 Comments

  1. Rapino has been the worst. Literally the worst. Selfish, slow, ballhogging, and totally devoid of ideas. Watching her play has been MURDER.

    • for as good as she is suppose to be…………she is slow on the ball, plays with her head down, doesn’t pass to where the ball is suppose to go….yup, a ball hog. How many times did she get busted when we were throwing numbers with 5 minutes left? That whole “let your best players do what they want” crap has hurt this team……and it starts with Rapinoe.

      • John Ling says:

        I think just about all of the offensive problems start and end with Rapinoe, to be honest. I think she’s a good player; but I also think defenses have gotten better and she hasn’t adjusted.
        .
        Way too often she passes up the opportunity to make a good pass, because she thinks something great is right around the corner. She could get away with that in the past, but between her aging (and therefore slowing down) and other countries’ programs getting better, that’s just not viable any longer. She has to start hitting the open passes rather than trying to dribble through three defenders.

    • I dunno. Two goals in the first game and making an entire team gameplan against you is hardly grounds for murder. My 2 cents.

      • I tend to agree. Does she hold the ball too much at times? Yes. But she’s clearly the most technical player on the team, a good passer, and hits a nice free kick. I wouldn’t blame her for any offensive woes.

  2. Thanks for the write up Jami.
    .
    Appreciate seeing a similar yet differing perspective regarding the USWNT. I do tend to agree with the above comments regarding Rapinoe.
    .
    I think she is a big part of the problem….and no it is not the turf, as has been speculated amidst some of the players.
    .
    The team is devoid of ideas and whether or not that is the fault of Rapinoe is certainly arguable…. maybe she is frustrated and feeling she has to do more (lack of manager’s tactical sophistication or teams training)….. but from my POV 3500 miles away…one part of the bog down is her consistently being on the ball and not pulling her midfielders into the build up.
    .
    I think Tobin Heath needs to play more. Hopefully Alex Morgan is fit enough to give 90 once knock out rounds begin…wish Wambach wasn’t playing anymore (thank you for your services) and all in all I see a team with players content to play the old kick and chase US Soccer and that is simply not good enough in the world’s game for the men and certainly not for the women now. They can bruise their way to quarters or semis but he road ends there….
    .
    I am UNsurprised by this brand of game we are playing…it is passé- needs to go.
    .
    The women’s game is in the rest of the world’s hands now and we better figure out a legitimate means of ID talent… helping that talent grow through the ‘professional’ years which are ‘nearly’ dead years for girls and developing a system of play that doesn’t include banging bodies and beating the other teams with raw pace and power. I am greatly concerned.

  3. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    I would disagree on Rapinoe. Leroux and Press were so slow to get in the box or show for the ball that Rapinoe has to play the dribble came to allow for buildup. Add in the fact that neither Holiday or Lloyd are showing for her and you have woman on an island.

    • John Ling says:

      I think as a bench player, Wambach can be useful – either to look for a late goal, or to help protect a late lead by clearing balls in the box on set pieces.
      .
      And I disagree strongly with you on Rapinoe. I’ve seen a lot of instances where she had an open, simple pass and chose to keep the ball – typically spinning toward the middle of the field, only to find nothing there. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes trying the spectacular in place of the ordinary. But most of the time, the safe play that maintains possession seems to be there, and she’s opting not to use it.

  4. Excellent article, Jami! I look forward to reading more of your analyses on the USWNT

  5. Rapinoe has had her good and bad moments but I am most disappointed in Lloyd’s performance thus far. She has been virtually invisible for huge chunks of both matches and when she does get involved she turns it over or launches the ball way off target. She does not seem focused to me at all.
    Jami, very nice work.

  6. I think they need Heather O’Reilly back on the right flank. Her speed and work ethic would serve the U.S well. She works well with Krieger. Put HAO in, and if not at least Heath!! Both two great players wasting away on the bench.

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