When a team defines itself by resiliency, method has license to become madness. The how of the accomplishment becomes far less important than the accomplishment itself. Resiliency, at least in sports, often involves adapting to new, stiffer challenges. Craft your team in this image, and the times you look vulnerable become part of your greatness.
That’s where we are with the United States’ women’s national team. After last night’s 1-0 victory in Vancouver, a win made possible by Abby Wambach’s 183rd international goal, the U.S. is through to the knockout rounds of the Women’s World Cup. As starting left back Meghan Klingenberg noted on Twitter, finishing first in Group D, as the team did with two wins and a draw, was the only goal, for now:
But for a team focused on claiming its first world title in 16 years, you can’t help but think beyond the group stage. The U.S. will play its Round of 16 match on Monday, with its opponent to be determined by Wednesday’s final group stage games. Until then, all fans, opponents, and, in truth, players have to reassess the team’s potential on 10 days’ worth of results.
The U.S. left for Canada 2015 with certain assumptions about its strengths. Should anything that’s happened over the last 10 days change theses views?
On one hand, you have the small sample size argument. Something truly profound has to happen over a mere 270 minutes to make you change your mind about a team. Add in the squad rotation we’ve seen because of Canada’s turf, and you can’t rely on the group stage’s results. There’s just not enough to go on.
You have to expand your view, look at the results in the context of what we knew about the teams before June 6, and ask if the world’s changed. And, if it hasn’t changed, what has a successful but imperfect group stage told us about the U.S.’s strengths and weaknesses?
Let’s look at all four levels of the field:
Pre-tournament perception: Strength
In-tournament reality: Neither strength nor weakness
We covered this after game two, so I won’t rehash the whole thing. Long story short: There’s a lot of evidence beyond Canada 2015 that suggests the forward corps’ biggest names – Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach – are not performing up to their reputations (which, in fairness, would be very hard to do). The only forwards who’ve consistently performed over the last 18 months are Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez. Neither of them played on Tuesday.
What we got against Nigeria, however, was further confirmation on that big three – a series of mixed messages that allow us to siphon out both good and bad assessments.
Abby Wambach was U.S. Soccer’s player of the match, but it was the third corner kick that had been converted against Nigeria this tournament. As we highlighted before the match, the Super Falcons’ defending from corners was consistently poor, leaving a certain era of inevitability around a Wambach goal. In other facets of the game, Wambach alternated between productive (providing her typical connection between midfield and attack) and lethargic (unable to help on counters, and at times not pursuing defenders and deep midfielders when Nigeria was in possession).
And then there’s turf, which Wambach claims is costing her goals:
The turf isn’t the problem. Abby’s just 35. It happens. She’s not as explosive as she used to be, so opportunities that used to be hit with world-class precision now sometimes bounce meekly at the goalkeeper. Aging sucks.
As for Alex Morgan, the movement and awareness was amazing. She put herself in positions that Wambach, Leroux and Press just don’t, and if she remains healthy, her instincts alone will create space behind her for the likes of Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, and Carli Lloyd.
But for a player that hadn’t started a competitive game since April 11, the rust was thick:
It’s not hard to see how Morgan can (and, perhaps, is likely to) improve.
As for Sydney Leroux, she made an instant impact, drawing a second yellow card from a Nigerian defender to end most of the Super Falcons’ hopes of finding an equalizer:
But there were also glimpses of her limitations. Leroux’s skill level remains a concern, and overrunning the ball on this potential late breakaway wasted what could have been a good scoring chance:
I’m going to keep coming back to this refrain: The U.S. forward corps is less a robust attacking juggernaut than a set of very specific tools to mix and match as needed. The depth is still enviable, but there is not Célia Šašić or Lotta Schelin in this group. Any world domination is will likely be less about individual brilliance and more a product of the team’s broader improvement.
Pre-tournament perception: Weakness, if a relative one
In-tournament reality: Solid, but problematic
Nobody seems to like the lack of creativity from the U.S.’s midfield; specifically, from Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday. But it’s been nearly a generation of players since the U.S. has needed creators from the middle of the park. Instead, the Americans have relied on playmakers wide, or from forwards dropping into midfield, or pure speed over the top. That the approach remains unchanged makes it slightly unfair to judge Lloyd and Holiday on a hypothetical standard.
At this point, it’s almost become cliché to harp on the midfield problems in terms of alternative approaches. Of course the U.S. could do something different, and it’s really easy to make a hypothetical case for another approach (I think I did this yesterday with the forwards), but there is no universal law that says a two-women midfield can’t work. Instead, we should focus on what Lloyd and Holiday are being asked to do, whether they’re doing that, and how the U.S. staff might be accounting for its formation’s shortcomings elsewhere.
At its most basic, it appears Lloyd and Holiday need to be able to a.) provide solidity in the defensive phase, and b.) take advantage of opportunities to contribute in attack, be it with goals (largely Lloyd) or chances created (largely Holiday).
On Tuesday, each were there in various forms.
In the first half, the midfield defense looked shaky …
… at times allowing Nigeria to generate the same chances we saw the Super Falcons leverage against Sweden.
Come the second half, however, Nigeria had gone quiet, and although the late addition of veteran Shannon Boxx seemed to introduce some uncertainty, the U.S. avoided more moments like this:
(Note: I mis-ID’d the fullback there, mixing up left and right. That’s Klingenberg, not Krieger)
As far as creating chances, Tuesday was the first night we saw moments of influence from Holiday, who’d had a very quiet tournament, to this point. But from early moments of anticipation …
… to mid-first half splashes of danger …
Holiday showed the all-around skills that make her talents some of the more enviable in the game. Had there not been that layer of rust on Morgan …
… Holiday may have had some reward for her work. The promise yesterday’s performance makes for the next round, though, should be reward enough.
As for the other parts of the midfield, Jill Ellis has started three different players on the flank opposite Megan Rapinoe. Last night was Tobin Heath’s turn. Of the three, Christen Press, a natural forward, was most influential, scoring a goal while cutting in from her wide right position.
But nobody’s been persuasive. If anything, the calls for Heather O’Reilly resonate more.
(Trigger warning: Don’t look at this image if you have a heart.)
Rapinoe, however, has made up for O’Reilly’s absence. She’s been the U.S.’s best player, serving as a focal point when play builds down her side (more on this below) and providing important distribution as the team switches from her overloaded flank to the opposite, vacated flank (again, check below). Without her, the U.S.’s desire to absolve Lloyd and Holiday from being creators wouldn’t work. With her, it’s a reasonable (if limited) approach.
It’s also indicative of why the U.S. can still succeed. Despite stoic tactics, an antiquated setup and a forward group that’s transcending its renown in a bad way, the U.S. has five players who may be performing better than anybody else in the tournament at their positions: Rapinoe, Krieger, center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, and goalkeeper Hope Solo. If you have enough players who can consistently foil other team’s plans, you have a way to win games, or, at least, keep teams off the score sheet.
Pre-tournament perception: One all-star, one question, and four players who’ll need to pass tests
In-tournament reality: Two world-beaters, one force going forward, and another player coming into her own
Thus far, the U.S. has had the best central defensive pairing in the tournament, though (again) it’s only been 270 minutes. But given how little time Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston have played together, this 270 minutes may be particularly important. Injected into the starting lineup this spring, the 23-year-old Johnston’s given us little time to assess her fit within the U.S’s best XI. All indications have been positive, but to this point, but they’ve also been few.
That trend’s not only continued this tournament, it’s taken a turn upward. Johnston, Sauerbrunn, and Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan all have a claim to being this tournament’s best central defender thus far, but it’s Johnston’s performance that may prove the most important in crowning a champion. If the U.S.’s attack continues to under-perform, the team’s going to have to win lower-scoring games, like Tuesday’s. That means Sauerburnn, Johnston, and Solo need to be near-perfect – keeping opponents off the scoresheet until some shoddy set-piece defending can get Wambach on the board.
To this point, Johnston has been near-perfect, even if moments like these still happen:
Sauerbrunn’s also been near-perfect, even if moments like these look weird:
But Sauerbrunn is also doing things like this, highlighting her unparalleled ability to read and react to play developing in front of her:
To this point, the U.S. has allowed one goal in three games – a play against Australia where confusion during a set piece highlights some lack of organization. Perhaps Sauerbrunn and Johnston could have done better on that one, but it’s also the only blemish in an otherwise perfect partnership.
As for the fullbacks, consider what Sauerbrunn’s intelligence meant to Meghan Klingenberg on Tuesday:
That, however, hasn’t been a pattern with the U.S. left back. Often operating in support of Rapinoe, Klingenberg’s skills have come in handy. As the team continues to lean left, Klingenberg often finds herself playing short balls that promote possession, as she would if she was still in midfield.
Consider her passing chart from Tuesday compared to her teammate on the opposite flank, Ali Krieger:
Steady, accurate passing, mostly up the flank, with a thick cluster of play coming just inside her own half, where she’s either playing up to somebody like Rapinoe or inside to people like Lloyd and Holiday.
Krieger has a different mandate. Often when she’s getting the ball, she’s got an open flank in front of her, the result of play leaning heavily the other way. She’s being put in positions to try more dangerous passes as the U.S. tries to take advantage of what amounts to a point of transition. Whereas Klingenberg played one ball into the 18-yard box, Krieger played five.
How effective she’s been is the question. Here are her graphs from games one (vs. Australia, left) and two (vs. Sweden, right):
In hindsight, I may have underestimated how much trouble Australia gave the U.S. Or, maybe the U.S.’s performance was just heavily weighted toward its second-half surge. Regardless, Krieger’s Sweden passing looks a lot more like how the U.S. is trying to play. Even then, there’s a lot more red (incomplete passes) than green on balls into the penalty area.
Six attempts, six red lines, though one did come from about 70 yards away. Is all this the U.S.’s hit-and-hope policy? Even when they’re switching away from overloads, they’re still relying on speculative crosses to do damage?
Regardless, Krieger is something teams have to account for. Either the team is building through Rapinoe, allowing Lloyd to get forward to become a third scoring threat, or they’re creating a point of transition on the other flank, usually proceeded by a quick switch of play. That balance not only helps keeps a defense honest, but it augments the thin midfield, allowing the right-sided player to pinch in and help Lloyd and Holiday.
And while that all sounds like the type of “nice on paper” logic that doesn’t matter without results, there are very few fullbacks in the world that present a credible threat in this situation. When Germany used a similar approach against Norway, it had to use Simone Laudehr, a midfielder, to provide a threat. The U.S. has Krieger, often a flank onto herself.
Pre-tournament perception: Potentially dominant, but OMG what a distraction
In-tournament reality: Dominant, not a distraction.
The fewer words said about Hope Solo the better. Ever since Outside the Lines rehashed the story, soccer fans have been subjected to a new series of op-eds, none of which further the core issue. The only views offering anything new amount to meta-analysis – media criticism of something that’s slowly turning into a purely media-centric phenomenon. If you’re still using the National Football League as a parallel to the women’s soccer world, log off. You’re stuck in 2014, already a very problematic time.
On the field, Solo has been as advertised, which is amazing considering she operates in the same spotlight as her attacking teammates. But as we saw against Australia, Solo’s range on reflex saves might be unparalleled. And as we were reminded last night, her athleticism coming off her line can quickly change likely goals into “routine” stops:
Until the off-the-field story actually moves (and is not merely recycled), the news is on the field. And on the field, Solo’s been the tip of the tournament’s most formidable defensive triangle: her, Sauerbrunn, and Johnston. Even if Johnston regresses and Sauerbrunn can’t carry the back four on her own, there will be another line of defense, one that’s proven to be one of the more formidable in the world. And now that the U.S. is moving away from Pia Sundhage’s willingness to trade goals, clean sheets may become even more common for the best goalkeeper in the world.