US 1 Japan 0

Much better. The ball was on the ground, this is all I ask . . . I am pleased.  This was just a much more composed, poised performance by the entire team.  I would have liked to see them make good on one or two more of the chances they had, but the team patiently got some great chances, the forward was earning corners rather than taking ill advised shots, the midfielders were putting the ball through and taking smarter shots and the wing defenders were really getting involved in the offense.  They managed to do much better on all fronts. 


And as far as preliminary comments go, I don’t have much else.  Everything I complained about in the last one, was, by varying degrees, improved in this one.  And most importantly, Team USA was no longer playing the ball to a player who wasn’t there.  I think since I eviscerated just about everyone in the last one, I’ll handle the rest of my comments in the player section. So just one word about Japan and I’m moving on. 


And that word is: Sawa.  My goodness – Chastain kept commenting on how good Japan would be if they had a forward like Wambach.  All I could think is how good Team USA would be if they had a midfielder like Sawa.  Her awareness on the field is stunning.  She always knows where everyone is.  She has tremendous foot skills, she has a heck of a good shot, and her passing is always spot on.  Just the quintessential attacking midfielder.  For those of you excited about the new professional league, keep your fingers crossed that Sawa comes over to play and keep your toes crossed she comes over to play for your team.


Formation – (4-4-2 that played more like a 4-5-1, back-front, right-left): GK – Solo; D – Mitts, Rampone, Markgraf, Cox; M – O’Reilly, Boxx, Lloyd, Tarpley; F – Rodriguez, Hucles (who was really playing in the midfield most of the game).  Buehler in for Cox, Heath in for Tarpley and Kai in for Rodriguez.




Solo – Great game.  She made good decisions, played the ball well with her feet and made some great saves.  Japan made some good runs at goal and there was some trouble defensively on the left side, but Solo was as cool as could be and calmly and without any drama made all the saves she should.  The most notable save was a great touch over the bar on a rocket shot from Sawa.  Not a lot of female goalkeepers would have made that save and it’s one of the things that makes her so valuable to this team.  Her kicking was good – nice strong balls down the field mixed in with short passes to her defenders. And nice time wasting at the end for the most part.  She was very good wasting time on the goal kicks, but there were a few instances where she had the ball in her hands and instead of taking some time she whipped it forward like Team USA was the side that was down a goal.  That’s probably all I can come up with on the negative column for her.  And yes, I know that if that’s all I can come up with to nitpick, Hope Solo’s had an awfully nice game. 


Mitts – As nice an offensive performance as I’ve seen from her since . . . well . . . maybe since ever.  She was making smart well-timed runs forward and runs inside.  By making effective runs wide she was a huge part of the US keeping their offensive shape and creating some space in the middle of the field for the midfielders.  She was also connecting on passes into and through the middle of the field.  She and Heather O’Reilly had nearly flawless timing as far as switching and coverage was concerned.  When I saw Mitts plowing through the middle of the field and started to get concerned about a quick Japanese counter, I’d look up and O’Reilly had slipped back and was manning her spot on the backline.  Defensively?  Now that’s the Mitts I want to see.  The tackling was back.  It wasn’t stupidly brutal, but she did go in and make some nice hard tackles and she went up really strong on some 50-50 balls on the defensive end.  When players go up against Mitts, she generally makes sure they know it, and in this one, that tougher side of her game made a reappearance.  Strong game from Mitts.


Rampone – The whole team was significantly more composed.  So, I’ve got to give her some credit for that.  If she’s going to get the blame when the team is a panicky mess of goo, she’s got to get some credit when they pull themselves together and play with some composure.  Defensively, she was solid in her own space.  I thought she was defending well with her feet and in the air.  I guess my critique is that as the central defender one of your jobs is to provide support to other defenders.  I didn’t see a lot of double teaming from her.  I realize Cox was the one struggling and Markgraf was over there helping out, but it just didn’t seem that the defensive shift was really organized.  When that ball came off Cox’s side, and Cox and Markgraf were then behind the play, it just seemed to be a bit of a scramble and some really dangerous times for Solo rather than it being a more organized shift where they were waiting for the ball.  So I guess I had some defensive shape problems there, but ultimately the weak link there defensively was Cox, not Rampone.  At some point, a bit more of an adjustment by the defense in the way they were defending those attacks would have been a good idea.  My other concern with Rampone: sometimes, that ball needs to be cleared.  No cute touches, just get behind the ball and get it the heck out of there.  Her judgment on when to just clear the ball has been a little shaky in this tournament.  I don’t like mindless long balls setting up the attack.  But when playing a team that is a far more technical side than your own, there are times when you’ve just got to clear the dang ball.  But, overall, it was a solid outing. Just tighten up those clearances in the next one. 


Markgraf – It looked like she was having trouble, but that’s just because she was trying to deal with the many many attacks coming up Cox’s wing.  She was running out there to double team and to try to clean up when attackers made it past Cox, so it looked like she was scrambling a bit, but she was making some nice takeaways and when she couldn’t do that, she was forcing runners into her teammates.  She was doing some nice defending in her own space through the middle of the field and was aggressively pushing forward.  My big complaint with Kate – the long ball.  Those early balls out of the back over the midfield were largely off her foot.  After how horribly that worked in the first game I was stunned when I saw Kate doing it again at the outset of this one.  That said, after about 15-20 minutes, that stopped.  Hopefully next time, we won’t see it at all.  Like just about everyone else, Kate had a solid outing.


Cox – She has a whole lot of trouble defending technical players running right at her with the ball at their feet.  Chastain went into a nice long explanation about how most players are right footed and that’s why the Japanese attack was coming right at Cox all day . . . uhhh, OK, sure, that’s true, most players are right footed.  But please, Japan saw a weakness and kept going back to it.  Cox simply couldn’t handle the quick players with good foot skills.  Markgraf was out there trying to help but when the Team USA defense looked shaky through the middle, a lot of the reason is that the attack had just come up Cox’s side and Kate had to go out there to assist her which left the center of the field undermanned.  Just a rough defensive outing for her.  Offensively, well, like Kate she was shooting some long balls up there in the early going.  Those balls were ill advised.  What she did well, at least on one occasion, was get forward to assist the attack.  That cross of hers is probably one of the reasons why she’s on this roster.  She just has a beautiful cross off the flank.  That’s always been my favorite part of her game.  And in this one, she sent it in for a score.  Tarpley led her with a beautiful ball, she ran it down and crossed it into the box.  A tremendous ball that Lloyd put in the back of the net.  So, a bit of a struggle defensively, but she came through offensively with the assist on the game winning goal.  I think she’ll be fine in there against New Zealand, but I hope Chalupny is back in time for the knockout round if the US is up against a quick technical side.


Buehler – I was kind of relieved to see her in there.  She has better defensive foot skills than Cox and was defending the players taking her on 1 v. 1 much more effectively.  She made some clean takeaways and she was holding the player for the double team.  Not a lot of players got around her and into the center of the field.  Didn’t really get a feel for her speed or offensive capabilities, but she was very effective as a late game sub to stabilize the defense and put the game away.  Nice outing.


O’Reilly – She was taking on defenders well.  She made some nice runs with the ball through the right side of the field.  She was making some nice passes, keeping the ball down and slotting some balls inside.  She had a great workrate and was really helping on defense in this one.  She won some balls in the midfield, but what really impressed me was how well she was working with Mitts.  Mitts made a lot of noise on offense in this one. That she and O’Reilly were so in sync made that possible.  Solid outing – I’m looking for her to make some more noise on the offensive end in the next one.


Boxx – Mitts isn’t the only one who got her mojo back.  Early in the game, Boxx had a nice hard tackle, and looked more like herself than she has all year.  She just looked like she was playing with more confidence today.  She was patiently spreading the ball around, switching fields and she was making a lot of these passes on the ground, thus, fewer turnovers than against Norway.  She did take a shot or two over distance, but they were smarter shots from distance.  It wasn’t a “let’s just blast it in there because I can’t think of anything else to do,” it was taking a shot from distance after several passes and the defense was clear. The patient passing makes it difficult for the defense to bunch in the box.  The defense has to follow the ball and if it follows the ball outside, Boxx and Lloyd have opportunities to make quick shots on the inside.  Boxx didn’t score but she definitely took some shots worth taking.  Nice all around outing – improved toughness defensively, smarter and more team oriented offensively.  I look for further improvement in the next one and a complete return to form by the knockout round.


Lloyd – Much better.  She passed it on the ground.  She put balls through on the ground so Rodriguez and O’Reilly could go chase them down.  She was much more composed on the ball.  She wasn’t rushing shots and making knuckleheaded decisions.  Like Mitts and Boxx, she too had some nice hard tackles and went up strong for some 50-50 balls.  And of course, she did score the game winning goal.  Her shot selection was so much smarter than it was in the previous game.  Yes, this was a shot from distance, but it wasn’t a rushed or ill advised shot like many of the ones against Norway.  She was the target on this one and it came at the end of a nice build up and with the defense flushed out wide and out of her way.  Tarpley left a nice ball off for Cox who sent a beautiful cross in through the box to a waiting Lloyd who sent a nice hard, solid shot home.  She had the angle, the defense was spread, it was a patient built up attack. Very well done.  And that’s about all I’ve got.  I’d still like to see her make an effort to get the flanks more involved.  She was better in this game, but you could contrast her with Sawa and she just doesn’t play with the same kind of awareness and sophistication.  That field awareness and some work on her technical ability is where I’d like to see her take her game next.  But that’s for the future, as for this one, a very nice outing. 


Tarpley – She’s a player who does the small things.  Others get to do the big ones, but that’s because she makes good on the small.  That little ball to Cox – just a small thing, just put the ball forward to lead Cox down the sideline.  A perfectly paced and placed little ball, that led to the game winning goal.  The little things – those are the things that were completely ignored in the game against Norway, and I love that looking at that one play, you can see how invaluable the execution of those things is.  I think that’s where the team misses the Lillys and the Foudys sometimes – not for the big things they did, but because they did the little things that made all the rest of it work.  Tarpley seems to be the keeper of that particular flame on this team right now (Chalupny too when she plays).  Just wanted to take a moment to appreciate it – and hope that one of her teammates will do a little thing for her at some point during this tournament so she’ll get the recognition from the masses that she deserves. 


Heath – She ran around a bit.  Looked like she was adding something a bit more constructive than she did in the last one – I clapped for her a couple of times and shouted some encouragement – I didn’t have any nice moments like that with her against Norway.  I still am at a loss here though – and I realize I’m in the minority on that count, but this still looks like a developmental pick to me.  I kept pleading with her to prove me wrong and make me look stupid and she would have a nice touch or two and then do nothing with the ball or turn it over.  But, to be fair, I don’t think she was in there enough for me to really have much of an opinion one way or another.  Just continue to color me perplexed as far as she’s concerned.  Maybe I’ll have something more constructive to say later on. 


Rodriguez – She is a wow player.  Everything she does makes you go wow.  She has tremendous technical skill on the ball – and I don’t mean ridiculous “dancing” like what Heath was doing and will almost always result in a turnover at this level. I’m talking that it looks like the ball is attached to her foot as she negotiates traffic and otherwise traverses the field.  Not many US born players have the kind of skill on the ball she does.  They think they do, and at the collegiate level they appear to be head and shoulders above the rest, but to make the moves and cuts and travel through defenders with the ball at her feet the way she can at the international level?  It’s not often you see it in a Team USA uniform.  And she uses this talent wisely.  Against Norway, Kai was constantly taking ill advised shots, turning the ball over, running right into defenders and going over the endline with the ball.  Rodriguez on the other hand, even at her young age, is much savvier than that.  She had nowhere to go, so instead of doing any of the aforementioned, she simply earned corner, after corner, after corner, after corner.  When caught up top all alone, surrounded by defenders, with passing lanes completely clogged and no angle at goal, the best choice is to find a way to get some sort of set piece, usually a corner (if you can’t bait the other team into fouling).  Well done – repeatedly well done.  This one right here is going to be a superstar, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.  I look for Team USA to continue to get the ball to her in the next one and at some point, she’s going to get one to go in – when one goes in, I have a feeling more are going to follow.


Hucles – She seemed like she was playing in the midfield a lot in this one.  I think she was a lot more effective there.  She was putting some nice balls through to the flanks and to Rodriguez.  She was making some nice takeaways and pressuring the Japanese defenders well when they had the ball.  The only problem with Hucles falling back behind Rodriguez as often as she did, is that far too often, there was no one making a back post run.  A flank can make that run, but usually, when you have a 4-4-2, the forward off the ball is going to be trying to do that.  Rodriguez looked up to find herself alone far too often.  All of the corners earned were great, but someone has got to run forward with her and give her another option.  Hucles playing deep also limits the passing options for the midfielders.  When Rodriguez is the only one pushing forward, she’s the only target and the entire defense can focus on her.  She needs Hucles to be more of a running mate to be more dangerous.  So, a relatively solid outing, but I’m just not sure how well it’s working having her play up top.


Kai – I really liked the workrate when she came in.  Rodriguez was completely gassed and needed to come out.  Kai entered the game and was immediately pressuring and harassing the Japanese defenders every time they had the ball.  A few balls were put through to her and she made some nice runs forward.  I really don’t have anything else.  I wouldn’t mind seeing her in there with Rodriguez at some point.  With both of them in there, the opposition’s defense is going to have to make a choice or be spread really thin.


And that’s more about that than I intended to write.  I’ve struggled with this one and put it down several times today simply because this was just a professional, workmanlike performance.  Nothing was terrible, nothing was fantastic, it was just a nice solid game and a nice solid win.  There’s not a lot for me to say after a relatively fundamentally sound one like this was.  I did enjoy that this was a perfect recovery game.  After an effort like the last one, it was heartening to see such a calm performance.  No one was trying to atone for mistakes past, no one was overdoing and everyone looked like they’d taken some special confidence booster before they hit the field.  Well done, and, as always, I’m looking forward to the next one.