US 3 Mexico 0
A nice start. Qualifying has officially begun, this was the most competitive group game the US is going to see and they got through it in unspectacular yet workmanlike fashion. Thatís just how a tournament like this is going to be I think - a series of games against outmatched opponents. This doesnít make for just a ton of excitement, but thereís still plenty to be learned from and enjoyed about these games. Itís in games like this that you get a chance to see how the players are fine tuning their skills and how the coaches are fine tuning the game plan. So while I donít think theyíll be writing any songs about the heroic deeds done in this one, it was a fairly enjoyable first half and there were a couple of second half performances that made that worthwhile as well. Since I found myself focusing on individuals and how theyíve improved or deteriorated in areas that Iíve noted in the past, most of my comments are player specific. So I think Iíll get right to it and probably incorporate some general comments about the game as I go along in order to give those comments a bit of context.
Formation - 4-4-2, back-front, right-left
GK - Scurry; D - Sobrero, Fawcett, Chastain, Reddick; DMid - Foudy; Mid - Roberts, Lilly; AMid - Wagner; F - Hamm, Parlow (although they switched for a large part of the first half); Hucles in for Roberts, MacMillan in for Parlow, OíReilly in for Hamm.
Scurry - Hmmm - well, Iím still thinkiní we need to put together a reading list for her . . . uhhh . . yup, thatís about it. Actually, I guess I can talk about the kicking since she did have to make one clear in the run of play and she managed to make a strong, nice clear out . . . Iím feeling a little less queasy about Bri having to clear the ball in the run of play, but I donít think Iím ever going to feel real good about it. Monica Gonzalez gave us a real good look at what happens when goal kicks go very wrong (how did the US not score off of that - you have got to score off of gifts like that - or at least force the keeper to make a spectacular save) and Iíd really like to not see that kind of thing happen to the US against a top tier opponent. I just canít help but worry that weíre going to see it at some point, though. But to be honest, her kicking looked fine in this one (goal kicks to about the 40 yard line, not great, but not bad - if we had a middie over 5í6" it would be fine, but honestly, we need that ball in the attacking half of the field so CP can come back and fight for it since she is the only non-defender height the US has on the field most of the time). I just need something to worry about, I guess, and as far as Bri is concerned, this is it.
Sobrero - Itís a bird, itís a plane, no . . . itís KATE SOBRERO, WING DEFENDER!!!!!! Heh heh - I know, I know, most of the game she was passing to no one and turning it over and in the second half she looked awkward as could be when she crossed into the attacking half of the field . . . but, there was one play . . . that one moment of beauty in the first half where Kate got the ball, ran down the right flank, tried to cross it, had it batted back to her, she kept on dribbling and said dribbling entailed dribbling around/through others, she got near the endline and she turned and crossed that ball back into the box to a waiting Kristine Lilly who drew the triple team and passed out to a waiting Aly Wagner for the score . . . a goal made possible by: KATE SOBRERO - WING DEFENDER (this is where some sort of theme music plays for her). This is what I was talking about and why I enjoy games like this. Itís just a chance to look at these players and see what theyíve been working on and where they fit in. In the first half of this game Kate was moving forward more assertively than she has to date. Itís clear that sheís working on this part of her game and she is showing significant improvement in the wing part of that wing defender thing sheís playing. The second half, admittedly, was a little troubling - since the right central side of the field was far more active once Hucles entered the match, itís almost like Kate choked a little - there was actually something going on up there and she looked a little afraid of making a mistake. All part of the learning process playing the wing at this level, I suppose. Sheís got to be a little less worried about where sheís going to put that ball though - it makes her pull up and stop moving forward. To be honest, I remember seeing this a little with Christie Pearce in the earlier games in 2000 (and in extra time in the Olympic final - but thereís no need to go there now) - she just seemed to surprise herself when she got forward with lots of space and it was somewhat paralyzing. Well, Kateís doing the same thing and needs to get over it at this point - looks like the wing is where sheís going to be and good decision or bad, Iíd rather just see her make one like she did in the first half (and admittedly, weíre still at the point itís more bad decisions than good - but her ratio of bad offensive decisions v. good is improving), then see her moving forward awkwardly and tentatively as she was in the second. Defensively, I have very little because of the respect she commands. Iíve been noticing teams simply donít attack to the defensive right side and that is indeed a tribute to both Kateís and Joyís talent and ability. All the US speed on defense is right there, Joy and Kate - at times they both raced to give Cat and Brandi a hand. Could be problematic having those two playing on the same side of the field against a more formidable opponent - Maribel Dominguez was giving them all they could handle in this one - more on that in a sec though (and can I just add how nice it was to see Maribel back - sheís missed the last couple of games the US has played against Mexico and I found that disappointing - I think sheís one of the brightest lights theyíve got in their player pool). But, for Kate, a nice performance. I think sheís getting accustomed to that wing. Since being comfortable out there is probably going to be a large part of the battle, these games against lower level opponents will probably be good for her learning curve.
Fawcett - Sheís still got wheels, doesnít she? My goodness, did you catch her running down the ball with Maribel hot on her heels . . . we had separation ladies and gentleman - sheís in a foot race with a young, hungry, and very speedy striker and sheís increasing her lead. I have no idea whether her times during practice have decreased or not, and frankly, I donít care. Game speed, the speed at which this woman moves when sheís got a ball in her sights and an attacker on her heels hasnít diminished one bit. Good stuff. As for the rest of her defending, she helped out on the left quite a bit - very organized double teams are going to be important if Cat and Brandi are going to play next to each other - good in the air . . . but not just tons to do. Because Foudy had a stranglehold on the center of the field in the first half, there really wasnít anything for the central D to do offensively so basically, a quiet but solid night.
Chastain - as Iíve already mentioned - speed is becoming an issue on the left, but she and Cat seem fairly organized and managed to handle speedier players fairly well. It is going to take two of them though . . . and thatís going to diminish the defendersí runs up that left flank against better opponents. The more Iím thinking about it, the more Iím thinking maybe Brandi and Joy need to switch sides . . . I have no idea how difficult a switch like that would be for them, but if not too difficult, it might not be a bad idea to have the speed interspersed throughout the backline rather than leaving the left side vulnerable. Oh - and one point I touched on last time: I was talking about Brandi using her head defensively more effectively and sure enough in this one, one of the first balls that got flighted into the defensive third, Brandi was right there and nodded it forward just like Joy so expertly does all the time. Again, players refining their games in preparation for the tougher opponents that lie ahead - thatís what makes matches like this fun to watch.
Reddick - Speed is definitely an issue and I think most of us can agree Cat will more likely than not wind up in the central D once Joy calls it a career (I know we all think sheíll play until sheís 50, and she really says nothing to disabuse us of that notion, but sheís not . . . sheís really not . . . I donít think . . .), but she really is an incredibly smart and savvy player and makes up for that lack of speed with heads up play and by expertly reading the game. Maribel Dominguez is much faster than Cat. Cat knows that. So she has an option - she can be young and stupid, challenge Maribel and delusionally think she can defend her 1 v. 1 (aka the Kluegel method of defending - Pia, move her to the midfield . . . sorry, I really canít help myself) OR Cat can just play smarter and sounder than Maribel, play off her, force her to the outside, stay between her and the goal and wait for the help to arrive - which it will and it did all night long. Thatís how you play against a player faster than yourself - it sounds simple, but for players who are so accustomed to dominating at other levels (whether it be college or WUSA) it is tempting to try to swoop in there and take that ball. The only time Cat got in serious trouble against Mexico is when she took that bait, she went for the ball and as soon as she committed, the attacker (I forget whether it was Mora or Dominguez) darted to her inside and either Kate or Joy (I forget who) had to sprint from the other side of the field to stop her. Luckily, every other time I can remember, Cat went for the fundamentally sound play and eschewed the showy, knucklehead moment. With young players especially, there are simply no words to adequately describe the value of that. There is no shame in a double team - itís why you play with four backs. One point offensively Iíd like to make is that like Kate, I think Cat is getting more comfortable at her new position. She had a give and go with Lil that was one of the most seamless plays of the match. The left side is where the vast majority of the offense is, so developing that chemistry with Lil, especially in situations where Brandi, Cat and Lil are right on top of each other and Lil just decides itís time to take off streaking down the flank, is key. Catís ability to read that situation and somehow get that ball on Lilís foot will go a long way to setting up good offensive possessions for Team USA. So overall, I like the poise, savvy and confidence she showed and sheís getting more accustomed to the left flank. I think these games are going to be great confidence builders for Kate and Cat and will give them some time to settle in at the wing positions in games that matter, but games that the US should win fairly easily.
Foudy - Julie Foudy - my player of the match. In the first half of this game she was positively dominant. The way she can win the 50-50 ball, make the trap, bring the ball down with her head up, survey the field, and then make the perfect decision and pass all in one fluid motion that takes about 1.5 seconds is truly a thing of beauty. And she was clicking on all cylinders in the first half of this one. She had a stranglehold on that offense, she had a touch on probably at least 2/3 of the offensive possessions and engineered almost everything that happened out there. I have been clamoring for her to get a shot at that defensive midfield position since the switch to the diamond midfield (more privately than publicly, but trust me, clamoring has occurred and you donít have to think real hard as to why I would want to see this so much) and now that Iíve seen it, I really donít see why youíd want to play her anywhere else. Foudy needs to be in the middle of the field and she needs to be a little behind the offense so she can see everything and everyone she needs to see without too much effort. When you put her in this position she can control the entire field and when she does that, the US gets many opportunities, theyíre organized and the ball rarely goes behind the midfield stripe. As usual, Foudy was very strong on set pieces - she really has great timing and always puts herself in a position to make a play and it really would have been nice if her header had gone in - since so many people judge a game by the number of goals or assists a player has, it would have been a nice exclamation point on her night. If I must nitpick, I was scratching my head a little bit about the decision to play the ball over the top so much rather than combining with Aly a bit more or dragging TR in from wide right a little bit. There is not a single player on that field for whom playing the ball over the top works except maybe Lil (those "fetch it Lil" runs down the left side - put it out there and watch Lil run and fetch it off the endline . . . although, they put a few too many over the endline in this one) - CP is much better with the ball played to her feet. But, Foudy could see the field better than I and it was a very very crowded center of the field, so I imagine that dictated a lot of the decision making. That quibbling aside, a fantastic first half from Foudy, I want her in the center of the field from this point forward. Having the opportunity to see not just what a good player she is, but also just how smart a player she is and how easy she makes an incredibly difficult job seem, made this one well worth watching for me.
Roberts - well - Iíve said it before, sheís got a nice niche in Carolina and I understand the curiosity as to whether it will translate to the Nats. However, I have to point out, that niche in Carolina isnít right midfield. Sheís not a very good offensive player (Iím still screaming SHOOT - she just stood there, she got that ball, wide open and had no clue what to do - SHOOT), she doesnít make good decisions, she doesnít hit targets, she has no clue when to come in, when to get forward or how to work with the wing defender or striker. Hucles played this right midfield position as well as anyone, Roberts played it as poorly. Itís simply like no one is out there. She didnít so much have a bad game as she had an invisible one. Yes, the offense will always be run predominantly through the left - at least until Kristine Lilly retires - Iím aware of that - and I also understand that they stick TR out so wide to try to take a defender or two out of the mix, but the player you stick out wide has got to be at least a little threatening or no defenders are going to bother with her. You have got to give the defender a reason to look in your direction or itís just going to be TR standing out there by herself providing nothing. All that said, she did do a few good things - made some nice runs down the flank, tried to cross a ball or two into the box and actually managed not to turn one of those over for a nice US opportunity, but like I mentioned with Hucles last outing, if TR is going to sink or swim, letís let her sink or swim in a role that sheís more accustomed to. As the preceding paragraph indicates, I donít think sheís going to be better in the defensive midfield role than Foudy at this level and in this formation, but if sheís going to have a chance to make this team, thatís where she should be getting her tryout. And no, I donít think we need both her and Fair on this team if Foudyís going to play in the defensive midfield so a decision probably will need to be made at some point. Anyway - that probably came out much harsher than I intended because she really just had a quiet game, not a bad one. However, that right side is a wasteland, they need a stronger offensive player out there than Roberts if the right midfield is going to have any role in the success of the team at all. Thereís just got to be enough out there to keep the defense honest and in the first half there were enough Mexican players to triple team both Lil and Mia and still have a couple of folks left over.
Lilly - she continues on her merry way having a fantastic year. Incredible assist on Wagnerís goal, great at pulling the defenders to her on CPís goal and beautiful shot leading to Macís . . . and of course, one obligatory shot off the post, just inches wide - what would a National Team game be without one. Every good thing that happened on that field in this match, Lil was a part of. I enjoyed Wagnerís goal especially. In January, the Mexican defense seemed intent on not letting Milbrett beat them. In this one, Mia and Lil seemed to be getting a great deal of attention. That they handle all that attention so well is one of the things that makes them great. Lil finds herself triple teamed, realizes if sheís triple teamed someone else is open, she sees Aly (play with your head up - always play with your head up), calmly gets her the ball and Aly puts it home. Simple. CPís goal, again, savvy veteran move, Miaís got the ball, Lilís charging in and attracts one defender directly and is such a distraction that she draws a glance from Gonzalez, CP then sneaks behind this mess and puts the ball in the net. Sheís just everywhere she needs to be. Sheís working very well with both the youngsters who were on the field (Cat and Aly) and as weíve been watching for what seems to be from the beginning of time, she was tirelessly running up and down that flank all game long. Great game and if I hadnít been so fascinated by how completely in control of that field Foudy seemed to be in the first half, Iíd have made Lil my player of the match . . . But Foudyís job is more thankless and she rarely gets the credit she deserves . . . and I was slamming her not too long ago (hey, she was playing out of position in my estimation - the coach obviously thought she needed a change of venue too, so I wasnít all wrong . . .), so my player of the match designation remains and Lil will just have to settle for being the runner up.
Wagner - I know itís rare, but I have very little on Aly today. I think Foudy took a lot of the running of the offense out of Alyís hands and I think because Foudy was playing over the top so much the style of this game really didnít play to Alyís strengths too much. I have no doubt Aly and Foudy will work it out though and will be humming right along in no time. I think solving the problem on the right will help that process though - the middle of the field wonít be quite so cluttered with defenders if some of them have to keep an eye on the right side of the field. As for the goal - very professionally and confidently done. Itís nice to see the chemistry that has developed between the vets and the younger players - they read each other very nicely. Thatís about all Iíve got - the goal aside, a pretty quiet outing for Aly. I expect sheíll get louder as the tournament progresses. Maybe April will rest some of the vets in one of the next two games and let Aly run the show on her own.
Hamm - great game as usual. Like Lil, she was drawing three defenders - two of them playing her very physically - and she showed that youíve got to stop more than two players to stop team USA. CPís goal was Mia all the way. Mia got the ball on that right side, drew a couple of defenders and, most importantly, the keeper right to her, then put the ball in front of the goal and CP snuck in there and put it in. Very nicely done. Things like drawing defenders, drawing keepers out and the like, these are the things that years of experience teach and are a big part of the reason why, no matter how good a lot of the youngsters who come onto this team are, Lilly, Foudy and Hamm are always among the most dominant players on the field year after year after year. One of my favorite Mia moments - that high floating chip from about 30-35 yards out - that was just smart - keeper was way off her line, taking way too long to get back in the goal (one of the few mistakes the keeper made all night, she had a very nice game) and Mia just decides to float one in . . . If it had been on target it would have been a goal, there were no defenders back and there was no way the keeper was going to get to it on time - unfortunately, Mia put it pretty far wide. I like that she was thinking about it though. Another one whoís always playing with her head up (one of the things I like so much about young Aly as well). Overall a nice game by Mia, although I recognize she was probably a little frustrated with her finishing.
Parlow - I donít have much more on her than I had on Aly. Quiet night for them both, and I think for related reasons. CP is tall, yes, I understand that - but sheís not a classic big tall target player like an Abby Wambach. CP is at her best with the ball at her feet - in this one, the ball was being played over the top and that just doesnít let CP do what she likes to do with the ball. Sheís one who likes the shot she creates - thatís a contrast to someone like Abby who can create her own shot, but is also just pleased as punch to take any ball and try to somehow smack it toward the goal - Abby will take any half chance in the world, CP is looking for the perfect goal of her own creation. So playing it over the top often doesnít give CP the opportunity to create what she wants. There are plusses and minuses to both styles, but it does help explain why CP had a pretty quiet outing. The style of this game just wasnít playing to her strengths. Hopefully the US will be able to spread the defense out a little bit more in future outings - one more time, I think once that right side gets sorted out, CPís another one who will benefit. So overall, a solid, yet quiet outing.
Hucles - well, Iím glad she got this opportunity - she didnít do so well on her attacking midfield test, but this game and her ability to play on that right side showed why sheís still in the mix. Besides the 45 minutes or so that Aly played on the right a few games back, Hucles has performed better in that right midfield role than anyone else. She has great instincts when to move in, when to move back and when to try to spread that field wide - honestly, she seems to be the only player whoís attempting to specialize in this position and therefore the only one learning its nuances. As opposing defenses see that thereís actually a threat out there and she can swoop into the box at any moment, some defenders are going to have to come out on her, or at least reduce the triple team on Lil to a double. And Angela had some great chances in this one as well - sheís very aggressive offensively and isnít afraid to shoot. The one knock: at this level, youíve got to shoot better than she was shooting. If youíre going to pull that trigger, pull it constructively. But overall, I liked her play on the right side, she provided another player on the field that Mexico had to defend. If the main personality players are going to have any space at all, the role players have got to be solid enough to attract attention and Mac had a lot more space than either Mia or CP had, so Hucles had to be doing something right. Solid outing - this is the one position that actually improved in the second half.
MacMillan - ahhh, my favorite streaky little player. Well - dare I say weíre at the start of an upswing? I donít want to jinx her but she was far more active in this one than she has been of late. She is taking some silly shots from ridiculously far away (panicky - 100+ caps, almost 7 years and sheís still taking panicky, rushed shots like she was a nervous 17 year old kid - except the real 17 year old kid doesnít have an ounce of panic in her) and is becoming quite the little black hole from whence no ball emerges, but she was showing more signs of life in this one than she has the last 4 or 5 televised matches. Case in point - her goal. Last game I blasted her for pulling up and not charging into goal to get a rebound. Well, thatís exactly what she did in this one. She had a tremendous workrate all match long and when Lilís shot rebounded off the keeper, Mac was right there, took the ball and put it in the net without even breaking her stride. Very nicely done. I never like to get too excited with Mac though, lest she break my heart one more time. So Iíll leave it at much improved, needs to get more efficient and, frankly, smarter, with her chances and I look forward to seeing where she goes from here.
OíReilly - honestly, Iíve got very little - nothing actually - I must admit, my attention was waning a bit in the second half. Iím still curious about how sheíd handle that right midfield role though . . . all that space, put that kid with those wheels in all that space and what would she do . . . just a thought . . . .
OK - thatís about it from here. This was a nice start for the tournament - a very solid outing. Itís hard to glean just a whole lot from games against weaker opponents, but there are always a few nuggets to enjoy in every outing. Iím sure the next one will be a high scoring affair for the US and hopefully a time to get a long look at some of the bench players and what they can do when April gives them the keys to the car.
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