Analysis / Women's World Cup

Optimism after US finishes top of Group D at the Women’s World Cup

After an entertaining game of soccer on Tuesday night, the US clinched the top spot in the Group of Death at the Women’s World Cup against a talented Nigerian side that showed an impressive amount of organization in the back. A surprise lineup, one which fans had been clamoring for, took the field for the US to start the game.

Wambach and Morgan — together again

When Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan both start a game together as the tandem up top, the US is 32-1-6. That’s right, only one loss in their entire history together. That’s an impressive statistic in any sport but in this sport — at this level — it’s simply incredible. While Morgan’s lack of playing time in the CONCACAF qualifiers and friendlies due to a string injuries leading up to the tournament means her finishing abilities may still be a bit rusty, she showed signs of the brilliance on and off the ball that has made her a superstar.

Strong start

The first 15 minutes of Tuesday’s game was the most inspired soccer the US have played so far this tournament. Their quick and creative combination play, consisting of one and two touches penetrating the Nigerian defense with purpose, was a breath of fresh air after the way they played against Sweden.

After a dangerous free kick by Holiday was cleared by the Nigerians, it looked like the U.S. would take the early lead. Meghan Klingenberg quickly controlled a long clearance before playing a perfectly timed long ball over the top of a pulling Nigerian defense to Wambach, who then headed a beautifully weighted ball to the onrushing Julie Johnston. While her one-time volley into the back of the net sent the American crowd into a frenzy, the assistant referee made the bold, yet correct, offside call, as Johnston had indeed been ever so slightly ahead of the ball when it came off Wambach’s head. And by “slightly” I mean, if she cut her hair as short as Wambach’s, she may have been onside.

US struggles to adapt to offside trap

Had this offside call been one of a few during the game, it would have been easier to swallow. But by the end of the game, the US had amassed 7 of these infractions. This was due in part to an impressive pulling trap by the Nigerians, which the Americans were unable to adapt to.

The defensive strategy was well-conceived as a tactic against Wambach in particular, but most impressive was how organized the Nigerians were in implementing it. The defensive trap requires a back line to play as a cohesive unit, and that requires excellent communication. If the defense is pulling up while there is no pressure on an opposing player with the ball at her feet — and enough time and space to look up for attackers holding with this line — the offensive players will be all alone on the keeper. This was exactly what happened on the called-back Johnston goal. It wasn’t Wambach’s run, which at first glance appeared to be offside, it was the ball played forward to Johnston who was all alone with Wambach and the goalkeeper that resulted in the unfortunate call. So much for the “green referees” as that was as close a call as they come.

The dangerous counterattacking abilities of Nigeria became all too apparent in the 25th minute when striker Asisat Oshoala ran onto a beautifully played through ball, splitting the US central defenders to set up a one-on-one opportunity with goalkeeper Hope Solo. Johnston’s ability to recover on the play and get a boot in to deflect the shot on goal was perhaps the young defender’s greatest moment of the tournament, although she has been chalking up such moments on a regular basis.

There were very few breakdowns defensively against an increasingly well composed Nigerian side. Traditionally depending primarily on a relentless attack that was a requirement in reaction to giving up so many goals due to a porous and disorganized defense, Nigeria continues to improve their overall game.

In addition to their improved defense, the Nigerian’s composure on the ball resulted in the team maintaining 43 percent of possession. One has to wonder how much more successful many of these underfunded women’s national programs would be at the international level if they were provided the level of funding and training opportunities that top tier teams around the world are afforded on a regular basis. This question may be partially answered next year following an 18-month Brazilian Women’s National Team residency camp that will culminate in their participation in the Olympic games in Rio.

Wambach gets a goal

The most prolific goal-scorer in women’s soccer history finally finished on a far post volley thanks to a well-placed corner kick by Megan Rapinoe in the 45th minute. Wambach’s 14th World Cup goal was the first by an American forward this tournament and is hopefully the shot in the arm both she and the continuing rotation of attackers need to get the job done in the Round of 16. While scoring just a single goal against an offensively explosive Nigerian side isn’t ideal, the fact that the Americans could keep a clean sheet against such a potent attack is impressive.

Veterans shore up the back

As the pace of play slowed, along with the level of creativity on and off the ball, in the second half, two longtime veterans for the U.S. made their way onto the pitch as substitutes. First was the true holding midfielder in Shannon Boxx for Rapinoe, who carries a yellow card from the Australia game and so was likely pulled as a security measure to prevent her from possibly getting a second yellow which would force her to sit out the next match. At this point the Nigerians, frustrated in both their inability to generate many dangerous scoring opportunities, were accumulating some fouls that appeared rather benign in both intent and magnitude yet nevertheless resulted in yellow cards. After receiving her first yellow card in the 38th minute then a second in the 69th, This culminated in the sending off of Sarah Nnodim in the 69th minute, forcing Nigeria to play down a player for the rest of the match.

In the 80th minute, and to a roar from the crowd, Captain America, Christie Rampone, finally took the field for the first time in the tournament. At 39, the oldest player to ever appear in a Women’s World Cup, Rampone is still the third fastest player on the US team. The only player on the current roster from the legendary 1999 Women’s World Cup team also makes Rampone the only player on the squad to know what it is like to win a world championship. Still, after playing as a central defender for the better part of two decades, one had to do a double-take seeing her inserted as an outside back. She was, however, outstanding in her new role, shutting down her marks just as they received the ball, or forcing them into the sideline or a double team, just like the pro she continues to be.

With this defensive line in place for the last ten minutes of the game, a breach by a short-handed team would have been a small miracle. Looking ahead to the knockout rounds, while the US offense is still not firing on all cylinders by any means, if the defense continues to play as they have, backstopped by the regular on-field heroics of Hope Solo in goal, a championship is not out of reach.

By winning Group D, and thus paving a much easier road to the latter rounds, some timely goals and quality defense can provide optimism for the Americans to make a real run at the big prize.

One Comment

  1. I have another angle as to the effectiveness of Nigeria’s offside trap. While I agree it was organized, I believe we shot ourselves in the foot on most occasions. I would say there were a good 4-5 times where we made perfectly timed runs forward from a deeper position (Morgan is the one I recall doing this most often)only to have to slow down because the first touch of the woman with the ball was negative or overly cautious, Lloyd and Holiday being the two biggest culprits of this. If those two are playing there normal games, we would have been through way more often than we were last night.
    I’ll add that I think the play of Lloyd and Holiday will be our ultimate downfall if they do not get back on track. I would love to see a breakdown of not only the direction of their passes but also the direction of their first touches. The feeling I get is that the vast majority of these two items would be backwards or side to side. On top of that, I think you would find even their forward passes were not leading their teammates to go forward but were aimed directly at them or slightly behind. The effect of this overly cautious play has been an offense that looks like it’s wading through molasses.
    Conversely, I’d like to see Johnston’s passing chart. She seemed to be the go to person to initiate the attack and I thought her passes were much more positive and gave the receiver an opportunity to take an aggressive first touch that often put the first defender behind them. Johnston’s defense has understandably been the focus of the media but I believe her importance to the team in this World Cup offensively has been just as impressive.
    I also have to point out how integral Alex Morgan is to the success of this team. Until she got some minutes last night I forgot what a dynamic player she can be and how she raises the level of the others around her. She finds her space and doesn’t get in the way of her strike partner but she also stays connected enough to combine with them. She’s looking to attack aggressively each time she receives the ball and has a knack for putting the ball in just the right space to keep possession. She also won a crazy amount of head balls last night. I hope she can remain healthy the rest of the tournament because her inclusion in the line up, along with Lloyd and Holiday getting out of their funk, are needed for us to regain the cup.

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