Now this looked a little bit more like a game. What bothered me so much, and frankly bored me so much, about the Australia match was that it was more like watching a training session - it all smacked of an artificial set up to me. While Italy was clearly outmatched, they devised a game plan and came out with every intention of executing and keeping it as close as they could for as long as they could. Thatís a performance that I can respect and enjoy. They had a highly organized defense who played nice pressure defense after the ball crossed the midfield stripe (seemed to pretty consistently begin at about the 40 yard line . . . and yes, it is NFL Sunday in Beulahland so youíre just going to have to deal with my talking in terms of yard lines and the like today . . . thatís just where my head is - if I start clamoring for clipping or holding penalties regarding some of those hits/plays on Mia, Iíll step back and try a rewrite - I swear). So anyway - games are by definition more fun to watch than training sessions, so this game was much more fun to watch and a much truer indication of where the team is than the first half of that Australia match. Again, that first half was awfully pretty - prettier than anything we saw in this game - but in that first half they had so much time and space I could have chugged along and brought the ball up through the right side of that midfield.
Well, a paragraph in and I continue to search for a starting point so to heck with the narrative flow and Iíll just jump right in. As is becoming the norm, this was a tale of two halves. A rather lethargic, uninspiring first half and a second half where the speed of play ratcheted up, the workrate of most of the players ratcheted up and the level of play and organization rose to a level that had to be more satisfying for all involved. Ya know, I really donít have a lot to say by way of introductory exposition - looking at the starting lineup this really seemed more a game about looking at players and picking a Gold Cup roster, so Iíll just go right into formation and players.
Formation (4-4-2 back-front; right-left)
GK - Mullinix; Def - Sobrero, Fawcett, Chastain, Slaton; DMid - Fair; Mid - Foudy, Lilly; AMid - Hucles; F - Parlow, MacMillan. Scurry in for Mullinix, Reddick in for Slaton, Roberts in for Sobrero (she came in at DMid and Fair played right wing . . . and actually, Roberts spent more time in the right midfield than DMid - Jules played centrally most of the second half), Hamm in for Mac, Wambach in for Parlow, OíReilly in for Hucles and Mia moves to attacking mid for awhile and then she and OíReilly switched back - very very fluid second half.
Mullinix/Scurry - I have next to nothing on them both. These are not good games to judge a keeper - they each had to make a few stops but neither one of them saw anything that they shouldnít have stopped and that they werenít able to stop fairly cleanly and easily. If any kind of decision is made between these two at this point, itís going to have to be made for reasons other than what was seen in these two games (like what theyíve seen in practice or just a decision regarding the style of keeper they want to have). More wait and see with the keeper situation - it still bothers me that ultimately someone is going to win that #1 keeper spot and they will do so without having to face a top tier opponent . . . thatís a little troublesome. But oh well - no one asked for my help in making the schedule so I guess this is just the way it will have to be.
Sobrero - Italy was playing over the top for quite a bit of the first half. The US D has in recent years had quite a bit of difficulty against teams that go over the top so there were a few strong challenges in the first half. This is where Kateís speed comes in handy - she was able to scramble back to help out a bit. Regarding running up and filling that right side - well, she really didnít do any better with that in this one than in the last, but it wasnít as relevant. She needed to stay back and defend and this is something with which she doesnít have a whole lot of trouble so overall a nice solid outing for Kate . . .although the entire defense has got to get better in these long ball situations. As folks study tape of what the US is doing in this new formation, I imagine theyíre going to try to bypass this midfield whenever possible because from what we saw in the opening 20-25 minutes, unless Joy manages to get her head on those long balls they are likely to become scary situations for the US defense.
Fawcett - I have very little here - nice solid defensive performance. Because she is so good in the air defensively she seemed to have fewer problems than the rest of the D with the long balls Italy flighted in. When Joy didnít get to those, i.e., when they were between her and Kate and on the left, they were far more problematic than they should have been. Like I said, this has been an area of weakness for quite some time and continues to be something to work on. Offensively, gotta love Joy Fawcett in the box. She really has had a bit more of a bounce in her step than many of the other players these last two games and itís fun to see. She just looks like sheís chomping at the bit to get forward so it was nice that she got to put one home - and it was indeed as opportunistic and professional a goal as we saw all game. The kid put it back across the goal mouth and the vet knocked it in . . . well done.
Brandi - very little again. Same comments re Kate and Joy - basically solid defensively, whole unit needs to work on defending against long ball - a little disappointing Brandi isnít able to do as much defensive sky work as Joy is. Considering how good Brandi is with her head offensively and winning balls when she pushes up a bit, itís a bit of a head scratcher why she doesnít take more balls down on defense like Joy. That could be a function of her moving to the middle though - probably doesnít come up as much on the left. So, basically a nice solid performance. And yes, the scissor kick in the 6-7 minute made me laugh . . . yes, the US needs her to be sensible, but hey, letís not carry it too far . . . this is Brandi - thereís always enough time in a game for Brandi to try one of her crazy Bruce Lee moves - itís just not the same when she doesnít . . . .
Slaton - well, I actually thought that more balls were getting flighted in on the right and through the middle than on the left. But it was apparent she wasnít moving as well as she should move. I tell ya - I think sheís in the same kind of denial Mia was here for a bit in 2001 - if sheís got the same injury Mia had, which is what both Anson and Dino said during different games during the WUSA season, it ainít gonna heal itself no matter how much she wants it to. I saw one of her "my kneeís bothering me" games during the WUSA season - it was the 5-2 Freedom thrashing of Carolina. She was on the field, but most definitely not looking like herself. A healthy Danielle Slaton is on the cusp of becoming one of the best defenders in the world - a Danielle Slaton with a knee injury sheís closing her eyes and hoping real hard is going to go away is a dangerous dangerous thing. The US is relying on her being Slaton at her best when the reality is, no matter how hard she works, no matter how hard she tries, until she gets that knee fixed itís going to be a crap shoot which Slaton shows up. Can the Nats afford to be held captive by Slatonís knee? I donít know - thatís not my decision or something I know enough about to have much of an opinion on . . . but I tell you what - if sheís not going to have that surgery, they sure as heck need to get someone else ready for that left side because when the "my knee hurts" Slaton shows up, sheís going to need to be subbed out fast because her mobility is next to nothing (and I got that more from the Carolina-Freedom game than yesterdayís game - she could hardly move at all in that one) - itís as simple as that.
Fair - well, it was a fairly solid game but not nearly as good as against Australia. The faster the speed of play, the more problems she has. Fair needs a lot of time to make passes - she needs to set, square her whole body around to have the oomph to get the ball where she needs to get it with any accuracy at all. And she didnít have that kind of time in this one thus the turnovers were back. See - this is why some players who are great in the WUSA will likely not make it on the International level - speed of play. Itís a whole different world and these two games that we just saw werenít even being played very fast. Watch games against Norway and especially China - those games move at a frenetic pace with which very few players can keep up. Fair is not one of those players - frankly, I think the speed of play in this one was coming awfully close to her upper threshold . . . a theory supported by the increase in the number of turnovers. I also think her height becomes an issue when teams play long ball against the US. There is nothing to stop folks from lofting those balls right up the middle - sheís not going to win a lot of 50-50 balls. Against European teams having a defensive middie who wonít win her share of 50-50 balls could be quite dangerous. As for the second half - showed some versatility moving to the right wing and actually played a pretty solid half. She filled in the space on that right flank better than anyone has in the past two games. Itís still a desolate wasteland of nothingness over there, but she managed a few nice runs and serves into the middle. So, overall nice game, turnovers are back and Iím skeptical about what sheís going to be able to do when the speed of play gets taken up a notch. As with the GK situation, however, weíre not going to get to test this situation against a top tier opponent anytime soon and thatís a little troublesome. Interesting to see how the defensive middie situation develops especially considering what we saw in the second half with . . . .
Julie Foudy playing in the defensive midfield for significant stretches. I tell ya - Foudy should pay me to travel around and talk trash about her - never fails, you can set your watch by it - I rag on Foudy and she comes back and has a nice game . . . well, a nice second half, at any rate. Hereís my thing - I believe in my heart of hearts that that right side in this formation is just a no manís land from whence no good can come. Every good thing Foudy did in this game came while TR was in that right middie spot and Foudy had switched into that defensive midfield role. Ya know, Foudy can play the defense, she is at her best in the center of the field and sheís not a prolific/proficient enough offensive player to play the attacking midfielder - what does that leave - defensive midfielder. Sheís got decent size, sheís a pretty physical defender, strong in the air winning 50-50 balls, and switches the field as well as anyone - knows when to switch the field better than anyone. What this game showed me is that Foudy needs to be in the middle - she needs to be where sheís got a good view of the whole field. Foudy is at her best when she can drive the bus - I think she can do a lot more tactical planning and coordinating the attack from that defensive midfield than she can on the right. I know she managed to do a lot more in the second half in this game than sheís done either on the right or in the attacking midfield role where weíve seen her the past 3 televised games at any rate. Again, interesting to see how this develops. Overall, though, very strong second half, relatively invisible first half and Iím thinkiní her problems of late have been more where sheís been playing than how sheís been playing.
Lilly - I have very little. Nice solid game. Great workrate, great goal from Ms. Foudyís foot to her head. Game wasnít quite so flushed to the left as in the last one which is good. So she wasnít getting as many touches, but she made the most of what she did get. I think she and Mac have spent about 5 minutes playing on the same side of the field the last 6 years though, so the combination between them wasnít terribly successful. But she was making those runs down the left, getting that ball off the endline and sending it in to see what her teammates could do with it. Typical Lilly kind of stuff. And I absolutely loved watching her on those corner kicks. I thought she and that defender were gonna start whaling on each other. The only thing more fun than watching Lil tussling with a defender while waiting for the corner kick is watching when Joy and Lil surround a keeper on corner kicks - too fun - I like this veteran savvy . . . I hope theyíre teaching the youngsters to get inside the heads of the defenders and keepers on corners like this . . . nothing like veteran mind games to keep a match fun. So - overall, nice solid Lilly-like game.
Hucles - well, if Aly was worried about losing her spot in the lineup she can relax now. Clearly, Hucles isnít ready for that attacking midfield role. Frankly, if Aly or Lilly arenít in that role, it needs to be one of the forwards. I just donít think any of the other midfielders have the combination of being aggressive enough offensively and savvy enough tactically (Foudy of course is savvy enough, but sheís not a terribly threatening finisher - she is at her best playing from deep in the midfield figuring out where to put the ball so itís in the back of the net two or three touches later). I kinda thought Hucles was one of the few players who has been able to make that right midfield role work - if you had asked me before the game if I thought sheíd be good in the attacking midfield I would have probably laughed. Sheís just learning to play at this level, I think asking her to play in the attacking midfield was a bit much. Makes me appreciate what Aly does though - itís not an easy position - in this formation, the midfield is really not an easy place to be and theyíre learning it fairly well. I think asking Hucles to learn this position as well as the right side where sheís been playing was asking her to learn one thing to many. As to whether I think this is it for her (I have a feeling hers was one of the slots won or lost yesterday) I have no idea. I hope not - I think if you were going to have a "letís judge Angela" day, it would have been nice to make that determination based on that right side midfield role since thatís where sheís been playing and where sheís best suited. I did think she looked a bit better for the little bit she played in the second half. Again, Foudy was playing much more centrally in the second half and Mia was in there and that took a ton of pressure off of her. Those were her best minutes yesterday. We had two bubble players in two of the 3 or 4 primary offensive positions in the first half and I donít think either one of them helped the otherís cause a whole lot.
Parlow - Rob Stone can trash Abbyís fitness all he wants (uhhh, Rob, Abby Wambach was a 90 minute player all WUSA season long - try actually watching one or two of those games before you trash a player on National television) but at the 14 minute 20 second mark Cindy Parlow was already holding onto her side gasping for air. Sheís playing well lately, fitness is a definite issue. Sheís barely a 45 minute player right now. As for her game - well, she had some nice runs, was actually tracking back very well defensively. Made a couple of great defensive plays in the midfield that had me impressed. She tends to exert herself in spurts - sheís all over the place for about 10 minutes then disappears for 7-10 more. Again, this is a fitness issue. She has been playing well lately, she needs to spend these next two weeks putting herself through two a days. If she ever actually wants to be the player Wendy tries to tell us she is, sheís going to have to be able to put it together for more than 10-15 minutes at a time. Overall though - solid outing in what was a very sluggish and unorganized first half. She did what she could with what she was mired in. Still probably standing above Abby on the depth chart.
Mac - well, if this game was a test for her then she needs a tutor. Not impressed with her at all. Sheís playing a less sophisticated game and making less of an impact out there than the 17 year old . . . by a lot. Sheís a finisher and a set piece specialist and this game indicated thatís all she is . . . but without the finishing part. She doesnít create for herself, she doesnít create for others, she really has trouble staying in any kind of offensive shape at all and she really doesnít play like a player in her late 20s, with six years of National Team service and a 100+ caps should. I realize because of team chemistry issues, Macís more likely than not going to be on the roster, but Iím also beginning to realize sheís just not going to turn that corner Iíve been waiting for her to turn the last 4 or 5 years. She is what she is, finisher, set piece specialist and when you put her out there and give her the kind of responsibility she had in this one, which was essentially to be the centerpiece of the offense and make something happen, sheís going to look lost and not going to get it done. I think itís a mistake if we ever see Mac on that field again without either Mia or Millie out there too. Sheís simply not a tactically sophisticated enough player to handle being the primary offensive option. Her goals are hard hits or on set pieces, period. Again, I know sheíll probably be on the roster and so long as sheís on the field as an afterthought sheíll get her goals, but on my personal depth chart, she just got passed by the 17 year old. That said, I must add one note in her defense. Shannon MacMillan is as right sided and right footed a player as I think there is on this team - why oh why was she playing on the left. I have no doubt part of that trouble finishing was because she was simply on the wrong side of the field. She canít shoot from over there - not even if sheís just a little over there. Yes, being that right sided is a weakness in her game, but itís also something everyone knows and can mitigate by simply playing her on the right.
OK - on to the subs.
Reddick - well, she got beat pretty good and Joy saved her derriere shortly after she got in the game. Her speed kind of lends itself more to the central D than the wing. As does her ability to read the game (which is very very good for one so young). She had some shaky moments but it really wasnít a bad game for her. Not as well as Iíve seen her play, but not bad. Something to keep in mind and wasnít mentioned at all during the telecast is that left back is not generally somewhere that Cat plays. I donít know if Iíve seen her play that position for any amount of time at all. She tends to be right or central. Itís a different position, youíre seeing the field from a different angle and youíve got to be a very strong offensive defender to keep up with what Lilís makiní ya do so that she has the support from the back that she wants. Itís a lot to deal with if youíre not accustomed to it and it took Cat a few minutes to settle in. This is why I think someone needs to start getting prepared to play that left side - if Slatonís going to spend the next 10 months playing chicken with her knee and knee surgery then theyíre going to need someone more prepared to play on that left wing (both defending and prepared to deal with combining with Lil) than Cat was in this one. Maybe that player is Cat, maybe itís as simple as flipping Cat and Kate - maybe Brandi goes back . . . maybe you club Slaton over the head, tie her to the table and make her have the surgery tomorrow and hope for a speedy recovery - who knows - I think they need to start preparing for those bad knee days though because it needs to work better than it did in this one.
Roberts - another unimpressive performance. True she was in the vast wasteland of the right-hand side of the midfield for most of her tour, but she was unable to do anything notable over there. Fair was stuck over there too and made some nice runs in the second half, but TR did next to nothing. And she similarly made no impression at all when she was in the defensive midfield - probably one of the reasons why she and Jules switched in the first place. Sheís another one for whom I think weíve hit her speed of play threshold. Like Iíve said from the start with her, I think she has a very nice niche with the Courage, but I just donít know if it will translate to the International level. Against two very middle tier teams (a designation that seems generous re Australia considering what we saw from them Wednesday) she failed to make me rethink my skepticism.
OíReilly - I thought she was perfectly wonderful. Tenacious and fearless and playing well beyond her years. Hereís just one contrast with what we saw from Mac. OíReilly was just hungry for the goal - she was pressuring the goal, pressuring the defenders on every single play and with that tenacity she got a goal for Joy and got one for herself. Think back to the first half, that nice pass that CP sent in front of goal - the one the GK and defender muffed . . . well, Wendy was right, that was a fantastic pass from CP and Mac wasnít running onto it - she had pulled up instead of crashing into goal as she should have - the only reason why she got a shot in that situation was because the defender and GK screwed up. Then look at OíReilly on Joyís goal - that was just a mess in front of goal, I thought that ball was gone - I thought for sure it was going over the endline for a goal kick but not Heather. Like with every single ball she had even the slightest chance at, she fought between some defenders, got to that one and just put it in front of goal to give someone a half chance . . . which is all Joy needed. I just havenít seen that kind of hunger, workrate or flat out savvy from Mac in quite awhile. Mac shoots a lot from distance, she scores a lot on set pieces, but the combination goals, the goals that come from positioning yourself in front of goal waiting for a misplay/opportunity, the chances that come from taking on players 1 v. 1 - those I just havenít seen from her in awhile . . . and I saw all of that from Ms. OíReilly in this one. This kid is in terrible danger of becoming the newest little Beulah fave, thatís for sure. Ultimately, I donít know if the International game really lends itself to 17 year olds anymore (although, this is a pretty solidly built 17 year old - Tarpley and Chalupny both need to grow into their bodies a bit - theyíre wispy, but Heather appears to be pretty solid/developed - itís just a matter of how much muscle she can put on that solid frame at 17 - and I have absolutely no idea about that). Anyway, great game. Regardless of whether she makes that WWC roster, I sure hope we get to see some more of her on the road to gettiní there.
Abby - Iíve talked about her a bit and really donít have much else to say. She really did very little that was notable in either of these games. She made some nice runs, she tracked back some, but she didnít have a whole lot of opportunities. To be perfectly honest, I think sheís another one who got outplayed by the 17 year old. The only good thing about all of this is that I know Abbyís game - Iíve seen her as much as anyone the past year and what we saw of Abby in this tourney was aberrant. Sheís a better player than this. I hope she gets called up for Gold Cup and that sheís more prepared to play. And if she doesnít get called up for Gold Cup, I hope she takes it as a kick in the butt rather than a defeat and starts preparing herself for the next camp now. I think sheís a fantastic talent who can really be a dynamic scoring force at the National Team level - I think she just has to decide thatís what sheís ready to do. Maybe itís time for another sit down with Jerry Smith . . .
Mia - everything about the team perked up when Mia hit the field. Speed of play picked up, workrate all over picked up offensive opportunities picked up - everything. She takes so many defenders with her, her play is relentless, her energy contagious . . . She just brings so much to the field when she gets out there. It was like watching two different games. It is truly a sign of a great player who not only elevates her own game, but that of those around her and thatís at least part of what we saw in this one. Nice game, and just by playing the game the way she always plays it she made a huge difference out there. Great stuff.
Thatís about it. A pretty unremarkable outing but Iím sure a useful one for April. Going into qualifying these unremarkable but useful outings are a necessity. Even in an unremarkable game, however, there are things to enjoy and make the good fans smile and thatís how I took this one and thatís why I look forward to the next. Next stop: Gold Cup!