Categorized | Senior Nat'l Team

Women’s National Team Finally Plays at Home

Posted on 29 May 2008 by Merrill

The U.S. Women opened the 2008 season on foreign soil, taking three tournaments without suffering a defeat. For compensation, they returned home for a domestic series, three games in 13 days. Playing under coach Pia Sundhage for the first time in the U.S., they won all three, not without close calls and excitement, giving Sundhage a 13-0-1 record as the team works its way to the August Olympics.

The sequence also gave U.S. fans the first chance to see the team in its latest incarnation. While the action was located in North Carolina, Alabama and D.C., fans across the country were finally able to see the team, and make some more detailed evaluation of how things are going, when the middle match was televised.

The last of the series was against Canada, the team that had produced the only scratch on the U.S.’ 2008 record. The two teams had played to an overtime 1-1 draw in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico less than a month before they met at RFK Stadium. Then both teams had already qualified for the Olympics and the match was simply for the title: which the U.S. ended up winning 6-5 in a penalty kick shootout.

The return was nothing like that hard fought draw in Mexico. Canada collapsed completely in the second half, allowing five goals to go with the single U.S. tally in the first half. Canada took only two shots for the entire match, none on target. The U.S. simply ripped them to pieces from start to finish.

Although the string for Canada, rated 9th by FIFA, will be played out in China, it does look as though the time for the Canadian federation to retire Even Pellerud as coach is at hand. The team is simply not making progress in its aim of matching up with the U.S. Canada’s record against its southern neighbor reached 3-35-4 after the blowout. When a team with Christine Sinclair and Kara Lang can only take two shots in a match against their most important opponent, something, or someone, needs to go.

Nothing like that is true for Australia. Coach Tom Sermani – who like Sundhage was first an assistant coach in WUSA and then moved up to a head-coaching slot in the final season, Sermani with the New York Power and Sundhage with the Boston Breakers – has turned Australia into an interesting an dangerous opponent. Under Sermani, they overcame their boring past in the 2007 World Cup, making it into the quarterfinals and pushing Brazil to the limit before they went down. Australia soccer decided to abandon Oceania, where they were virtually guaranteed qualification for all major tournaments, and to compete in the Asian group. The competition is much stiffer there and Australia failed to qualify for this years’ big show. Compared to Canada, however, they certainly appear to have deserved a place.

Both of their matches of the just concluded series on U.S. soil were nail-biters for U.S. fans, requiring last gasp goals to win each of them, 3-2 in the first, 5-4 in the second. Displaying their reputation as a never-say-die team, they scrapped back late in the first match with goals in the 86th and 88th minute to tie it up 2-2, only to have Carli Lloyd score late in extra-time. It took the U.S. even longer in extra-time in the second match to get the winner: Angela Hucles scored a brilliant goal at, officially, 94+ which followed three consecutive second half Australian goals to knot the match at 4-4 which made it look as if the Mathilda’s could earn, at last, a result.

What can U.S. fans learn about their team from these three matches one of which was televised?

The team really has undergone a huge re-orientation in style in the less than six months that Sundhage has been in charge. This is now an attacking team. Greg Ryan was a defense first coach – Sundhage is not. The ball is played on the ground and to feet. It is no longer just Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly. Everyone except the center backs – and when Cat Whitehill is on the field she too is included – are in the attack.

Sundhage wants the team to be the classiest attacking team in the world. She doesn’t think they are there yet but then the full display is not due for another three months. After the Canada match: “I’m thrilled. We talked about changing up the rhythm in the attack. My dream is to take this game to the next level and I think we can do it. We’re halfway there. The way we played today, there were so many good things I could stand here for an hour just talking about how good it was. And still it could be better.”

I don’t recall how many games Ryan’s team went without giving up a goal. His assistant Bret Hall’s defensive practices were the centerpiece of training. The aim was to be so integrated at the back that no one could score. The offensive aim was to win the ball high up the field and get the ball to Wambach as swiftly as possible.

The present team gave up six goals in the past three games and perhaps could have surrendered more had Canada made better use of its world-class players. Is Sundhage worried? “We have to work on that [giving up so many goals], including possession just outside our box and the pressure on the ball has to get better. It’s not a big deal, and we just have to work on it.”

There was one significant shift in structure against Australia and Canada. The team had been alternating its mid-field structure previously: for one half of a match, Lindsay Tarpley would be pulled inside along with Carlie Lloyd and Shannon Boxx leaving the team without a wing on the left to match Heather O’Reilly on the right; for the other 45 minutes, Tobin Heath would replace Tarpley and split wide left. Sundhage stopped that alternation in these matches. She went with a left wing.

But she also put Tarpley out there, an assignment she had not had for quite some time, and perhaps rarely on the left side. Tarpley of course responded: she ended up with 3 goals in the 3 matches. I would guess that that will be a fixture from here on giving the team a major presence ton the left to match that of O’Reilly on the right.

Further, it became obvious from being able to watch the one game that Sundhage had pushed Lloyd further back into a tandem with Boxx: the team is now playing what used to be called ‘wind-shield wipers’ at the defensive mid-field. Ryan used that organization quite a lot in the past WC with Leslie Osborne replacing Lloyd. But he gave it a purely defensive twist.

Sundhage is playing a much more contemporary brand of pairing two central mid-fielders. They are both supposed to attack, although not simultaneously. Boxx is notably getting into the box in the run of play much more than she has been used to. Perhaps it is the matter of obtaining greater coordination between the two, plus not having Tarpley in the central mix, tjat is what Sundhage was talking about when she made light of the defensive problems.

Otherwise she is quite pleased with how they are playing. “The way they play in both attacking and defending is international high class. Certain things that Lloyd does are very unique, but at the same time don’t forget about Shannon Boxx. I like to play these two at the same time, and they’re doing very well.”

The roster for the Olympics is getting near settled. “We’ll pick out 18 in June. Overall, I feel we have the core of the team and I’m pretty happy about that.” Since the Olympics allow a roster of only 18 and since the squad currently contains about 27, there is some cutting to do.

But not only is the core set but there seem to be only a few peripheral matters to settle. I was not impressed by Briana Scurry in the second half of the middle match. It wasn’t that she gave up the three goals – it is just that she did not seem commanding in the box. On the other hand, Nicole Barnhart is having a quickie arthroscopic surgery on a knee: she is supposed to be back soon.

Heather Mitts made an impressive return in these three matches. I would guess that her play has earned her a spot on the small roster, putting Rachel Buehler on the bubble.

I would also have to guess, given her limited playing time, that Leslie Osborne is likely to be dropped for the Olympics with Angela Hucles remaining. I have never been a Hucles’ fan but I must admit that her last second goal against Australia in the second match was fantastic. Some of the credit has to go to Wambach for the flick which worked. Girls teams even early in their soccer playing days like to play that flick much more than males. I’m not sure that I have ever seen it work but this time there was not only a runner but a perfectly placed flick followed by a super shot. While Osborne got the final goal against Canada, that may not have been enough to secure her a trip to China.

The women will take a break of a couple of weeks, reassemble at the Home Depot Center for a two-week camp and then set off, perhaps with the full Olympic roster, for the Peace Queen Cup in South Korea. It should be a good test: they have drawn Australia once again, Brazil, coming out on the world stage for the first time this year, and Italy, always a physical opponent, in group play. It will be a really good warm-up for the Olympics.

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