US 5 Australia 4

Greetings and salutations soccer fans!  It’s been awhile. It’s good to see the team back in action.  I have not enjoyed being limited to reading about their exploits since the regime change occurred. I’ve wanted to see it for myself.  As for that regime change, am I the only one who wants to run singing across a mountainside like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (the hills are alive, with the sound of passing . . . la-lalala!!!!!!!!).  It’s not that I didn’t just love the Greg Ryan years, but I’m just sayin’. . .  this one felt good.  No, the game wasn’t perfect by any stretch. I do have some very serious concerns with a few things, but you can see there’s a plan and there’s actual coaching happening.  It’s been a really long time since we’ve seen anything like that with this team. 

OK, a few less esoteric comments.  First, I’m really concerned with the defense through the midfield.  Individually, I think the midfielders made some nice takeaways and challenges and won their share of 50-50 balls.  But with the midfield so spread out and without Shannon Boxx playing in a withdrawn position, there was an incredible amount of space and through balls and attackers with the ball at their feet were getting to the defense unchecked way too often.  In theory I like the offense offense offense mentality, but in practice, and with two starting defenders who aren’t especially fleet of foot, and a third starting defender coming off an ACL injury, this could be a disastrous strategy against a fast or highly organized team.  Team USA has got to tighten up its shape on defense, its organization and coverage when wings move forward, and its challenges around the edges of the box.  The offensive minded wing players and sparsely populated center of the field worked in the olden days because Carla Overbeck had the US defense on a string. There was no sign that this defense even approaches that level of organization, that most of the folks on the field instinctually knew when to get back and when to cover, or that anyone was reading the Australian attack as it was developing such that the through balls and the 1 v. 1 attacks were being anticipated in any meaningful fashion. 

Second, the goalkeeper situation has me terrified.  That this fiction that Briana Scurry remains an elite goalkeeper is being perpetuated is absolutely ridiculous. She’s not better than Hope right now, period.  She’s not a backup, period.  She is a huge distraction, period.  We have been down this road before with disastrous results, period.  It’s time to send her home and start counting the days until her Hall of Fame ceremony, period.  USA Softball had the courage to cut Lisa Fernandez, USA Soccer should do the same to Briana Scurry, period.  Maybe if I repeat it over and over again I can telepathically affect something here . . . it worked for Dorothy . . . then again, she had some nice ruby slippers to help her out . . .. We shouldn’t still be talking about this. 

Third, just a general comment – I love what Pia is trying to do with this team.  I like that they’re playing together, that they’re developing an orchestrated attack, that they scored on 3 of 4 shots on goal in the first half.  It’s an efficient and organized attack that doesn’t stilt creativity, but instead encourages it.  It is sophisticated, attractive, offensive minded soccer where all 10 field players can manufacture goals.  This team looks confident, poised and like they know they can win, even when it seems that the wheels are falling off.  My fear is that there’s just not enough time to turn this team into a finished product before the Olympics.  My fear is that if they don’t win gold they’ll overreact and blow it all up again.  My fear is that they won’t give Pia the time she needs to get done what she’s trying to get done.  And I’m fearful, because I don’t know that this team is going to beat Germany or Brazil right now.  I don’t know that it’s even remotely rational to expect that.  What I want to find out is if this team, with this coaching staff, can beat Brazil or Germany in 3 years at the next WWC.  I hope we get the chance.

Formation (4-4-2, back-front, right-left):  GK – Solo; D – Mitts, Rampone, Whitehill, Cox; M – White, Lloyd, Boxx, Tarpley; F – Wambach, Kai.  Scurry in for Solo; Hucles in for White; Buehler in for Mitts; O’Reilly in for Tarpley; Cheney in for Kai.

Players

Solo – I really don’t have much here.  There really wasn’t much for her to do.  I think she made one or two stops, I don’t remember any notable goal kicks or punts.  A lot was getting back to the defense in the first half, but not much was getting back to Hope.  There was the one questionable decision when she got caught at the top of the box, but honestly, I’m kind of glad it happened.  It provides a great contrast to what happened when Scurry was caught in the same situation and why I believe that the goalkeeper “contest” isn’t really one.  Hope is a roaming keeper – I think sweeper keeper is the pithy little rhyme folks like to use when discussing her.  The defense is accustomed to this, the defense is accustomed to Hope.  Thus, when she comes out, defenders are sprinting behind her and Christie Rampone was in position to make a fantastic stop.  This didn’t happen when Scurry came out – Scurry is generally at her best when she stays on her line, it’s always been that way.  So, when she cane out, the defense was caught flat footed. No one could get back to fall in behind her because no one was anticipating that they would have to.  The chemistry between Hope and the defense is far superior to that between Scurry and the defense.  As for the own goal – it happened in front of Solo – she had no chance to make a play and the ball just hit off the defender.  Stuff like that just happens though – Hope had no chance on it and Cat wasn’t doing anything catastrophically stupid so you just eat that one and move on, which is exactly what the team did. 

Mitts – Considering this was her second game back from her ACL injury she looked great.  She seemed to have her speed back, she was getting forward on offense, and was getting back reasonably well on defense.  I do think her offensive game was much better than her defensive one though.  She made some great overlapping runs and was dangerous wide right for most of the first half.  Her instincts regarding when to get back, when a double team is needed and her ability to see plays develop is still lacking.  She is still chasing plays on defense quite often.  A defender chasing is one who has been beat. Her athleticism generally saves her, but I’d rather see her anticipating more.  At the start of the game I thought she was having some trouble possessing the ball as well.  She was doing better in the attacking half of the field on this count than she was in the defensive end, but it’s obvious she needs to get played in.  The only other concern I have is the toughness factor – the physical part of the game is such a huge part of what she provides.  Coming off her knee injury, understandably, she’s not making the kind of tackles and providing the kind of enforcing style of defense she generally plays.  It’s understandable that that’s not going to be there, but since it’s not there, she’s got to show that on the defensive end, she can compensate.  All that said – second game back from an ACL.  I get it, she looked fantastic taking that into account.  The Olympics are looming though, and there isn’t much time left to revel in feel good/injury comeback stories.  That’s really my only point here. 

Rampone – Even with the own goal, she’s easily my defender of the match.  Her save off the line when Solo got caught at the top of the box was brilliant if for no other reason than she read that developing and got herself back in position to make the stop.  She showed great speed, good anticipation, made some nice 1 v. 1 stops and made some nice runs up through the center of the field to participate in the offense.  The only knock on her game is some of the lack of organization by the defense and by the midfielders when they were defending.  She’s the central defender in charge, she’s the one who gets hit with this.  Obviously, some folks are struggling with the new defensive shape/strategy.  As the central defender and captain, it’s Rampone’s job to help them.  One game really isn’t enough to get a good read on whether she’s doing that or not, but if this one is any evidence, she probably needs to get more vocal and more worried about what her teammates are doing.  In the role she now has, she has to do more than just be the best defender on the pitch.  Overall though, she had a great individual game. 

Whitehill – This wasn’t my most favorite Cat Whitehill outing.  She just didn’t seem to be anticipating well this game.  Usually, reading the game and making the strategically sound decisions is a strength, but she was chasing at times and simply absent at others.  She should have been present on the double team on the outside more often and at times I felt Cox and Rampone were covering when she got out of position.  She’s not the fastest of defenders so when she’s not making all the right strategic decisions, she can’t use speed to make up for it.  I usually like to see Cat surrounded by two speedy defenders, and I wonder if some of the scrambling that Rampone had to do in support of Cat wouldn’t have been alleviated if those two just switched sides.  That would have nestled Cat between two speedy defenders and Cox would have some speed to help her out as she was holding attackers out wide.  The strength of Cat’s game in this one was in the attacking third.  No question, she delivers a fantastic free kick and it’s fitting that the game winner started on the foot of the hometown girl.  That said, Cat is a defender and I am a little concerned with the state of her defending after this one and it’s something I’ll be looking forward to watching when the team here in Washington next week.  I’ll also be curious to see if Kate Markgraf gets some playing time in the central defense as well.

Cox – She is as fundamentally sound a defender as there is in the player pool.  She’s not the fastest wing player in the world, but she’s very self aware as far as her abilities are concerned and that keeps her from getting into much trouble.  She pushes players to the outside instead of going for takeaways.  She knows she doesn’t have the speed to catch up if she whiffs.  By keeping players to her outside, she cuts off the attackers’ angles even if they pull a little ahead of her.  Similarly, she’s good at tying up attackers while waiting for the double team to arrive.  Just as with Cat, I prefer it when she’s playing next to someone relatively speedy so that the double team arrives before anyone can turn the corner on her and/or fire in a ball off the endline.  I think she was a great weapon on offense in this one as well.  She’s got a great cross into the box off the flank, she’s got good offensive instincts and was combining well with the midfield and forwards the entire game.  The cross on the first goal is a great example of this.  A beautiful cross into the box found Boxx’s head which is what set up Tarpley’s goal.  Solid outing, and as it has since she arrived on the scene, the speed does concern me.  As Team USA hasn’t really been hurt on this count too much yet, you’d think my concern would be waning, but I’m a worrier . . . what can I say. 

White – She started really well.  Seemed really focused on staying wide/keeping the offensive shape.  She sent some nice balls up to the forwards and was combining nicely with her linemates.  That little chip shot she sent in early was a great idea, even if it didn’t score.  Then she kind of fell off the page for me.  I’d see her running around, but not doing a whole lot that was productive.  I think she’s trying to find her place and I would imagine that Sundhage is trying to find out if there is one for her.  I’m not sure she has great instincts for where she needs to be defensively in this system.  I’d see Mitts go forward and get integrated into the offense, but I wouldn’t see White fall back.  Sure, White needs to follow the play forward on offense, but when the ball was turned over, White was deeper than the wing defender at that point and was the one who should have been scurrying back as the wing took her place trying to make a defensive play in the midfield.  I didn’t see that happening – White would try to make the play in the midfield, the ball would get through and there just weren’t any numbers back on defense and Mitts was left scampering back, way too late to help.  And I really don’t mean to pick on White here, because I think everyone was having trouble with the defensive shape/team defense through the midfield, but I’m not sure White was providing a whole lot else, so this is where the discussion goes today.  I’ll be perfectly honest here, I would have rather seen Heather O’Reilly playing on this flank in this one.  Roster decisions have to be made though, so I get why I didn’t, but I didn’t see just a ton in this one that made me want to see her in the starting lineup next week.  Not a bad outing, just didn’t show me much of anything. In a system and a game where every other midfielder and forward was heard from offensively, her silence was deafening.

Lloyd – I loved that I saw a whole lot more passing and finesse from her in this one.  I don’t think there’s been any question that she’s a fantastic finisher, that she’s got a great and really hard shot, and that she can find teammates from distance, but regarding the more nuanced decision-making and shorter tactical passing, the jury was still out. I think the verdict’s in now though.  She was combining well with the midfield and forwards, she showed a deft touch on the ball in the short passing game, she showed great instincts and tactical sophistication during the build up of the attack.  I’d like to see her play with her head up a little more, I think she missed some passes/through balls at times because she doesn’t, but that should come with time.  I guess my only critique was that I didn’t just love her corners.  The only time while watching this game that I thought to myself that they missed Kristine Lilly was on corner kicks.  I’m not sure if she’s trying to put them in the box or whether she’s trying to put them in the goal – I’m not sure if she’s sure what she’s trying to do.  Her kicks had me wondering if maybe someone like Cat Whitehill shouldn’t be taking them – at least the ones from the right side.  But aside from that, I thought this was a strong outing and I expect to see her become a fixture in the starting lineup.

Boxx – She more than anyone, looked to be trying to find her way in the first half.  I’m not sure she knows what her role is, but her second half was much better and more active than her first, so I have faith she’s in the process of figuring it out.  I just didn’t see much of her in the first half.  She was winning balls and playing solid 1 v. 1 defense through the midfield but strategically, her absence deep in the defensive end is one of the reasons why Australia was able to march up the center of the field.  It’s easier to get by Boxx when she’s even with the rest of the offense – she used to function as  speed bump before an attacker hit the defensive line, I don’t think she knows how to do that in this system, or even if she’s supposed to try.  That said, I thought she had a much more dynamic second half.  She was providing quite a bit of support to the offense, peppering the ball around to both sides of the field, and she was making some of her signature strong/physical defensive plays.  While a whole lot of Aussie goals were scored in the second half, I didn’t feel like they were marching up the field completely unmarked/unchecked like they were for much of the first.  Solid outing – once the lineup gets set and they all have some time to figure out who goes where when, I think her game will improve and she’ll be more integrated into play on both sides of the ball.  It’s tough to take much of an evaluative look at her game today though because I don’t have a baseline of how she’s looked in this system.  As we see more games this year, I think I’ll get a better handle on what’s going on here.

Tarpley – Player of the match, no question.  Her active performance on the flank could be why I was so underwhelmed by White’s.  She was great offensively, she sent balls into the box, she spread the field, she made her off the ball runs and followed plays to get herself into position to score some very opportunistic goals.  She was very efficient with her chances and seemed to be a part of just about every offensive chance the US had all day long.  Just a fantastic game – I don’t have much to say when someone plays this well. 

Kai – OK – I really was going to try to get through this without too much bashing of the previous coaching staff – but after seeing Kai’s game yesterday, it’s impossible for me to not say just a little something.  My issue with Kai has always been her lack of sophistication.  No question, she is an extremely athletically gifted player.  She just played with the sophistication of your average high school player.  She never passed.  She’d dribble over the endline, smack the ball right into a defender’s legs, boot the ball over goal or just give it right up.  She’d do anything but pass, she was the great abyss from which no ball would emerge.  Three years with the National Team and she was still playing like this, didn’t advance her game one iota, which left one to wonder whether she was simply uncoachable or whether the coaching staff just wasn’t coaching her.  I think we have our answer.  For the first time ever, I saw Kai looking to pass the ball. She didn’t dribble over the endline, she crossed the ball into the box.  She didn’t dribble straight into a defender and turn the ball over, she left the ball off for a teammate.  She didn’t take an ill advised shot that she skied 20 feet over the goal, she passed inside and let Abby take a better chance.  All the things we didn’t see over the past three years, all the development that should have taken place but didn’t, has started.  The thing that makes me crazy, is that this supremely talented player, this potentially program changing player, is three years behind where she should be because of the offensive incompetence of the prior coaching staff. 

This was easily the best game Kai has played in a National Team uniform and since she is playing with a tactical sophistication light years from what it was the last time we saw her play, it’s apparent that she has a very steep learning curve.  It kills me that this learning curve is still on the upswing.  Because if she’d gotten the attention and been given the tools three years ago that she apparently has now, she might be the most dangerous player in the world.  All that said, and even with the wonderful game she had yesterday, I think there are still moments where she has the right thought, she knows what she should do, but the execution is lacking.  There are still a few too many turnovers at inopportune moments.  And she’s another one who needs to learn to play with her head up and on a swivel.  However, if she continues to improve at the rate she seems to be improving, the US attack could be lethal in another 6 months.  Nice game – for the first time, I can honestly say that I want to see much more of her in the future. 

Wambach – Same ol’ same ol’.  Great in the air, great on the ground, came back into the midfield and made some plays (both offensively and defensively), made some key defensive plays on set pieces late in the game, made some key offensive plays in the box late in the game, positioned herself wonderfully on several US scoring chances, showed some 1 v. 1 skills/a desire to take on defenders with her feet (this is not news to the fans of the old Washington Freedom – she used to do that all the time in the WUSA – just didn’t have the opportunity to show that part of her game with the Nats during the Ryan years) . . . and . . . uhhhhh . . . am I leaving anything out?  I did like that because the offense is so balanced now, Abby’s not taking the same amount of abuse she has in the past and she gets more realistic scoring opportunities.  Typically great game from Abby.  I think she’s now the player who I officially take for granted. 

Scurry – I’m done with this – I don’t want to pile on and I’ve already said it.  It’s just not there anymore, not the reflexes, not the range, not the decision making, not the chemistry with her defense, not even the confidence which has been the hallmark of her career.  Barnhart should be getting these opportunities – she’s the backup/competition for Solo at this point and needs to get played in.  This should just be over by now.

Buehler . . . Buehler . . . Buehler (I know, I know, not even a little original) – I don’t have much.  She was getting up and down the wing fairly well and her decision making when to get forward and when to get back was solid.  She’s a fairly physical wing defender.  I didn’t really see her running with anyone so I am completely blank/opinionless on her game speed.  I don’t have much else – I remember her from that U-19 team that brought Tarpley and O’Reilly to the fore a few years back and I really liked her back then, but I need another game or two to even pretend to come up with anything more. 

O’Reilly – I don’t have much here either – not a whole lot on any of the subs actually.  I didn’t think she was nearly as active as Tarpley on that flank when she came in.  She just didn’t do anything really notable on either side of the ball that I can recall.  Not sure whether I just lost her, or whether she just didn’t have time to get a whole lot done.  I hope to see her on that right flank in the not too distant future – this game’s starting lineup with as explosive an offensive player as Heather O added to the mix could make for an even more ridiculous final goal tally. 

Cheney – I got nothin’.  Maybe I had somethin’ when I was watching, but I got nothin’ now.  Sorry – someone always gets lost, she might have been it. 

Hucles – Wonderful goal – one time and into the goal. No settling and changing feet, just one time off Abby’s head and boom, she got the game winner.  That’s the kind of impact you want from your late game offensive subs.  I thought Hucles was very active the entire time she was in there.  She wasn’t staying very wide, but when she moved inside she was combining well with her teammates and she made some nice defensive plays in the center of the field.  She looked as at ease out there as she has in awhile and I think her familiarity with Sundhage probably plays into that.  Tactically, she just looked like she knew where she should be without having to think about it too much.  Strong outing.  With her versatility and experience, I won’t be surprised if she makes the Olympic roster.

And that is it sports fans.  This was an immensely entertaining match.  Australia played a great game and it is a shame that they won’t be in Beijing.  But this being a US-centric match report, I have to say watching the new US offensive style was a joy.  It’s refreshing to see the National Team play a match that actually resembled soccer more than kickball.  Lori Walker, who I must admit is my favorite game analyst, had the line of the night and I’m going to repeat it here.  As she was talking about the offensive “strategy” of the previous three years she mentioned that it seemed that the idea was to boot the ball up to Abby and hope that she could score.  However, “hope is not a plan.”   That sums up the previous three years far more succinctly than I ever could.  They’re not just hoping anymore though – they’re manufacturing goals as efficiently as I have ever seen.  And as always, I’m already looking forward to the next one.
 

Beulah