Sol 2 Freedom 0

I’ll admit it, I was more annoyed than excited before I tuned into the game.  It’s March Madness and I was going to be sitting here watching a soccer match.  So, I grumpily tuned in.  Then, the camera panned the stadium, I saw the players running around during warm up, lineups showed up on the screen and Jen Hildreth was doing her thing . . . and a crazy thing happened.  I started to get excited. Started to wish I was sitting on an uncomfortable metal bench and started to realize, for the first time in a meaningful way, that this league is a reality and women’s professional soccer was about to be played in the US once again.  Now, I’m a jaded old crank, and really just try to focus on the sport, not the big moment. But ya know, I took a moment to appreciate the meaning of it all and am now counting the days for the Freedom home opener when I can sit on that metal bench and yell at Scurry not to try a long goal kick in person.

OK – sappiness over, I promise.  Cranky good fun shall ensue – and for those of you new around these parts, I’m a Freedom season ticketholder.  That’s my angle.  I still try to keep these relatively balanced, but all writers have a bias.  That’s mine. 

So let’s start with the Freedom.  Defensively, it was actually better than I expected.  This is a speed challenged backline.  They’re going to have some problems containing players like Marta and Duan.  At the same time, I think it’s a very smart defense with a very steep learning curve.  Minus the first couple of minutes and the last 10, I thought they had a solid outing.  They kept their shape well, they shielded Marta from the ball, they forced LA into really bad shots and closed off passing lanes.  My big gripe for the Freedom in this one was on offense.  In the first 20 minutes, no shape at all and they were bunching like grade schoolers.  Hildreth kept wondering where the support for Abby was, but there were consistently 4 or 5 players forward.  They were just standing about 5-10 yards from her or 5 -10 yards from each other.  Running in a clump is just like having no one running with you at all – just gives the team no options and makes both the person with the ball and the clump very easy to defend.  I thought the passing got a lot better as the game wore on and the Freedom showed much better patience.  But the clumping?  That continued in spots the entire game.

As for LA, interesting moving Bock back on defense.  I was ready to just hate it, but you know, it wasn’t bad.  I can understand wanting your best players on the field and with internationals all over the offense, Bock is the one who had to be relocated.  In general, the Sol just looked like the more prepared and professional side.  They were keeping their shape beautifully on offense.  Showed poise and composure on the ball on all lines and had a great work rate.  Their only problem was that final touch in the attacking third.  They were shooting from too far out and just missing each other with the final pass.  That’s to be expected though.  Timing with teammates will be the last thing to come.  They’ve got that timing between the defense and midfield and amongst the midfielders.  I’m guessing in about 3-4 weeks, we’ll see it with the forwards as well.  With as many nationalities as there are with the offensive personality players on this team, communication amongst them presents that coaching staff a unique challenge. 

Formation – Freedom – 4-4-2 (back-front, left-right)

GK – Scurry; Def – Janss, Sauerbrunn, Whitehill, Singer (Whitehill and Sauerbrunn switched sides at time, I like the chemistry between the two former Cavaliers and hope that switch becomes permanent); M – Bompastor, Sawa, Lindsey, Long; F – Wambach, Zimmeck.  DeVanna in for Zimmeck, Gilbeau in for Lindsey.

Formation – Sol – 4-4-2 (back-front, left-right)

GK – LeBlanc; Def - Cox, Falk, Bock, Fletcher; M – Makoski, Boxx, Abily with Miyama playing centrally and right behind the forward line; F – Marta, Duan.  Larkin in for Fletcher and Welsh in for Duan.

Freedom Players:

Scurry – I know immigration lawyers. Good ones.  Who have experience getting Canadian athletes visas.  I’m not even joking.  It’s not the goals she gave up that bother me.  The first one was almost funny.  I could see the cartoon bubble over her head saying “Oop, have we started?”  Careless lapse in concentration – she can blame the ref all she wants but that’s what it was. Contact happens all the time and fouls are not always called. Deal with it and take responsibility.  The second one, that’s just how you beat Scurry.  You pull her out and chip her.  It’s easier said than done, of course, but that kind of goal against Scurry is not surprising.  What concerns me and should be giving the coach night sweats is that kicking game.  Over the years it’s gone from “not a strength,” to “bad” to “atrocious.”  Let’s count: the clearance that didn’t go 10 yards, the goal kick that didn’t make it half way to the midfield stripe, the fact it was so bad that the director of the telecast was shooting Scurry from behind and staying on her real close up so the nice viewers at home couldn’t see how bad the kicks were.  All signs that this could be a significant problem.  What comes off her foot is unpredictable, and the best that you can hope for is that it’s not terrible. It’s simply going to cost goals as the season wears on and the opposition gets some game tape of it.  Even if all the goal kicks are short passes to defenders, eventually, she’s going to have to make a play with her feet.  It’s that inevitability that would have me leaning on the league to get Erin McLeod’s visa problems resolved.

Janss – I thought she was getting into the attack very well.  Very confident, very aggressive.  She was solid defensively.  The Sol seemed intent on attacking up the middle or toward Singer most of the game.  They got that first goal attacking to the Freedom’s left, but in the first half, that’s not where most of the action was.  Janss does have good speed, so it makes sense a speedy side like the Sol would be picking on other defenders. 

Sauerbrunn – Favorite move of the game, that run up left center, she dispossessed the attacker, turned and put it over the sideline instead of letting it go over the endline.  While Bock had a nice game defensively for the Sol, it’s little plays like that, that save a corner kick, that make me appreciate having a tried and true defender in the center of the field.  When faced with the same situation on the other end of the field, Bock put the ball over the endline.  There are just some things a defender knows how to do instinctually, that a converted offensive player won’t get done.  She was good with double teams.  Noted when Scurry was in trouble and made some nice stops.  I thought she and Singer showed a nice chemistry.  This is a backline that is going to have to anticipate attacks well.  I thought for about 80 minutes, they did a great job.  It got a little ragged at the end.  When the organization gets ragged, this defense will be in trouble because they don’t have the athletes to make up for mistakes.  That said, I really was pleasantly surprised by the way this group played.  I think they’re only going to get better. 

Whitehill – I didn’t notice too many vestiges of the ACL injury.  But I didn’t notice her much at all.  I thought Sauerbrunn was a much more dominant force on the field.  She was helping out on the flanks more and just seemed to be making more plays.  I don’t have much else to say about Whitehill’s game.  First game back off a major injury – it’s good for her to get one under her belt for confidence purposes if nothing else.  I look forward to her asserting herself into the proceedings much more in the future as she starts feeling more confident about her knee.

Singer – Oh, I thought we were in for a disaster – that first play, Marta faked her out of her shorts.  But this kid must have the steepest learning curve in the history of mankind because after that play in the first minute of the game, I thought she did a great job.  No more cute little passes and trying to get the ball around a charging Marta.  Instead she put her body between Marta and the ball.  She did a great job making herself wide and shielding Marta off of through balls.  And when Marta started to accelerate, she just worried about pushing her to the outside rather than trying to keep up.  Fundamentally, very sound - that's how you deal with a faster player, keep yourself between the ball and the goal.  And of course, it helps that she’s not afraid of contact.  She was the biggest unknown for me, how she’d handle Marta and Duan running right at her.  I thought she did a great job.  Only quibble: I’d like to see her get in the attack more confidently.  She got better as the game went on, but she seemed a little hesitant in the attacking half of the field at the outset.  Overall though, I like this player very much.  The entire Freedom defense is solid.  They just need to stay composed at all times because organization will be key all year long. 

Bompastor – Very impressed.  Had no clue what to expect.  She kept her shape well (both flank midfielders did, actually), made good off the ball runs, after the first 20 minutes she was getting into the attack and combining well with the forwards.  Nothing good was happening on offense for the first 20 minutes or so.  When Bompastor started getting more touches, the Freedom started making a few runs at goal.  She seems to have some chemistry with Wambach already, they connected a few times.  She can serve the ball in a variety of ways – there were some through balls on the ground but at the same time she could serve a nice ball over the top to Wambach.  I don’t recall her cross inside, but she seems to have good foot skills and can take the ball in on defenders herself.  Good workrate.  I look forward to her developing some chemistry with the rest of the midfield.

Sawa – Speaking of the rest of the midfield, I didn’t think the central midfield really asserted itself enough in the early going.  Sawa can be a dominating player.  I don’t know if she had more than a handful of touches in the first 25 minutes.  They need to pick a midfielder, whether it be Lindsey or Sawa, and play needs to go through that player.  Right now, the team doesn’t look organized.  They don’t look like they know how to get the ball up the field at times.  Sawa or Lindsey would occasionally find the open space, switch fields and let a wing defender run the ball up, but it really does need to get more structured.  And in my opinion it should start here.  Sawa has been instrumental in turning Team Japan into a power.  If the Freedom seriously want to compete this year, they have got to give Sawa the ball and let her lead on offense. 

Lindsey – She had some nice moments.  She’d switch fields every now and again.  The passing and possession improved significantly as the game wore on and she was one of the keys to maintaining possession.  I didn’t think she was getting nearly enough touches on the ball to be as effective as she could have been though.  I would like to see the Freedom playing with a more traditional defensive midfielder.  I don’t think that person should be Sawa so that leaves it to Lindsey.  The last 10 minutes of the game, the Sol were getting through the midfield completely unhindered.  A more traditional holding midfielder would slow down an attack before it was unleashed on the defense.  As this defense is somewhat athletically challenged, the defensive midfield role is that much more significant.  It would also better define roles for both her and Sawa and allow for a bit more structure on offense.  Seeing Lindsey playing in a withdrawn position would be a nice adjustment. 

Long – I don’t have much.  She has a nice workrate.  She was running up and down that flank all game long.  I think there were some communication problems with her and the forwards that led to some bunching, especially when DeVanna came in.  There were several instances where DeVanna passed out, followed the ball expecting Long to dribble inside and it never happened.  Not sure whether that was Long or DeVanna, but they need to talk to each other on the field until they learn how the other plays.  An offense is very easy to defend if everyone is standing within 5-10 yards of each other.  That’s about it.  As she’s one of the more athletic players on the Freedom, I’d really like to see some balls put through to her and see her try to accelerate through and behind the defense, but it just didn’t happen here. 

Wambach – Exactly what you’d expect – a typical Abby outing.  Strong in the air, taking on defenses, great workrate, good receiving the ball and creating opportunities for herself when the attack went direct.  LeBlanc made a couple of great saves on solid shots from Abby.  She took responsibility for not finishing, but she really was taking good chances and putting them on frame.  I guess my only quibble was that she was playing way too deep in the midfield early in the game.  That was part of the reason for the early first half bunching on offense.  She’s got to trust that midfield to handle the ball in the middle third of the field.  In a two front, when she’s back in the midfield, especially when she’s paired with Zimmeck, there’s simply no one forward to receive direct service over the top or run into space to be on the end of a nice little through ball.  I thought she got a lot better staying forward about 20-25 minutes in and not coincidentally, that’s when the Freedom’s offensive shape improved and they actually made some nice attacks on that left side.  Strong outing, I hope chemistry between her, Bompastor and Sawa develops very very quickly.

Zimmeck – I don’t know, I just don’t think this is a good choice to pair with Abby.  I think they need a technical speedster who can take on defenses.  Direct balls are going to Abby, they need a player out there who can capitalize on possession through the midfield.  If DeVanna’s not a 90 minute player, and I’m not sure she is, they need to look around the roster, find someone with some speed and technical ability and give that player the first thirty minutes.  At every stage in the creation of this team, the Freedom left a whole lot of talent on the table in order to maintain consistency with their W-League team.  No place is this more obvious than with the forward line. Especially when you contrast it with the embarrassment of offensive riches on the Sol roster.  I really don’t have much of an opinion about Zimmeck’s game or potential.  What I did see in this one is that she really doesn’t complement the team’s star very well.  Since it’s expected the team’s star is going to be on the field for the vast majority of the minutes this franchise plays, the situation at forward has me more than a little concerned. 

DeVanna – I think I need to see another game or two from her.  I think she needs another game or two to learn her teammates.  This isn’t what I recall seeing from her with her National Team.  She does a lot of ball chasing.  She always runs in the direction of the ball.  She passes out wide, she follows it.  Bompastor runs up the left side, DeVanna starts running right at her.  Abby traps a direct pass from the defense, DeVanna is running right toward her.  She just didn’t strategically seem to be there in this game.  Spacing was not good.  If she is constantly running up the back of the person with the ball, exactly who is the person with the ball supposed to pass to?  She just seemed to be a very reactive player, not one who anticipates the game very well.  She also punted a few too many balls over the goal.  A friend of mine calls them defender shots.  A forward shouldn’t be getting so far under the ball that she’s consistently booting it over goal.  It’s sloppy and it’s wasted possession – she’s got to be more patient on the ball than that.  As for the break away speed, I didn’t see it in this one.  One sequence that stayed with me was when she was deep up the right-central side and she was trying to accelerate past Brittany Bock and Bock accelerated and stayed right with her.  Bock is a really nice athlete, but when DeVanna put the burners on, I really didn’t expect that Bock was going to be able to keep up with her stride for stride.  All that said, first game, not much practice time with the Freedom and some rumblings of an injury.  Those three things could account for everything that troubled me about her game in this one.  If I’m still seeing these things 3-5 games from now, then you can officially color me worried. 

Gilbeau – Didn’t really register with me.  I saw her, she was running around, pretty active.  Don’t have much else.  I’ll pay more attention to her in the next one.  Lots of players on the field, I always lose a few. 

Sol Players

LeBlanc – Nice game.  She didn’t have to come up huge too often, but she made a fantastic save with her feet on that close range Wambach shot and she handled set pieces fairly well.  Her kicking game is solid – it won’t hurt LA and with most keepers in the women’s game, that’s all you can ask for.  She really wasn’t tested enough for me to have much more than that.  She does instill confidence back there.  Were I a Sol fan, I’d feel good about her in the net.

Cox – Like most of the defense, I thought she had a nice solid game.  The Freedom were going inside or turning it over rather than running up the Sol’s left side so most of what I noticed from Cox was how well she was getting into the offense.  The Sol seemed surprisingly balanced on offense and it started with their defenders.  In the first 20-25 minutes Cox spent more time in the attacking half of the field than the defensive half.  She was making nice runs and passing the ball off to the midfield the entire game.  I don’t recall any of those beautiful crosses we all know she can serve up, but that just means the nice Sol fans have something to look forward to.  Nice game.

Falk – I LOVE it.  Central defender scores the first goal in WPS history.   Marta, Wambach, Duan, Miyama, Bompastor and even Boxx on the field, and who scores that first goal?  Scoring machine Allison Falk.  Beautiful irony.  Defensively, she’s just very very smooth.  So much so, that you almost don’t notice her out there.  She’s got great height, which comes in handy when the opposition flights in some direct balls.  Abby didn’t have quite the advantage that she’ll have against most teams.  And that’s about it.  Freedom were shooting from way outside rather than taking on the defenders 1 v. 1.  I’d be interested to see how Falk handles a speedy technical player.  I imagine playing against Marta in practice every day is going to help her improve on that count. 

Bock – I wanted to hate it, I didn’t.  She had a nice game.  There are some subtleties that just won’t come as naturally to her as they come to folks who have played defense their whole careers (e.g., the aforementioned turning the ball and booting it over the sideline rather than the endline – in her head, I’m sure she knows to do it, but for the natural defenders, it’s instinctual), but she’s a very heady player who reads the game brilliantly.  She could dissect a defense while playing offense as well as anyone in the college game last year, and it seems she can take that ability and make it work for her as a defender.  Like with Falk, I want to see how she handles a team that’s going to ram the ball right up the middle on the ground (say, a team with Heather O’Reilly and Natasha Kai), but for her first game in the central defense I thought she did well.  Like I’ve already mentioned, she did well when DeVanna ran right at her, I’m just anxious to see how she handles a more relentless ground attack than the Freedom were able to mount.  Nice game. 

Fletcher – I actually thought she had a relatively solid game.  First 20-25 minutes she just quietly did her thing, shut Bompastor down a few times.  Brought the ball up and pushed it through the midfield.  She’s not a flashy player, but the best player for the Freedom yesterday happened to be on her sideline so it did seem she was getting picked on a bit.  I thought she handled it relatively well.  She will give the Sol solid minutes and I think she’s well equipped to deal with some of the more technical concerted attacks that the Sol are going to face when the likes of St. Louis and that NY/NJ team roll through town.  One thing I found interesting though, is that the Sol coach seemed to think this was the problem area.  If that’s a problem for him, his expectations are high and that’s a good sign.  I think this Sol team might be better than a lot of people thought they were going to be after that initial US allocation. 

Makoski – Timing, all that’s missing is the timing with Duan and Marta.  That pass back in the box to Marta was just a little too close and jammed Marta.  A few games, she’ll put that in the sweet spot and Marta can turn and shoot.  This Sol offense is going to click at some point in the near future and when it does, it’s going to be incredibly scary.  I thought she had a great work rate.  She can run with the international players.  And I don’t have much else.  I think Miyama, Duan and Marta are going to be the big three on this team (heck, with Abily, I guess we can make it a big 4).  I imagine Makoski will make a nice complementary player to their star power and after a few weeks, I expect she’ll become one of the better set up players in the league. 

Boxx – A fairly quiet game.  Solid game, but quiet.  Most of the Freedom attacks were coming up the sidelines so there wasn’t a lot for her to mop up in the center of the field.  The Sol were maintaining possession and moving the ball through the field very well the entire game.  Boxx was responsible for getting a lot of that started.  And of course, she switched fields and determined exactly where the attack was going to go for much of the contest.  Marta was playing fairly deep a lot of the game and none of the other internationals are shy about taking the ball in the midfield so Boxx’s role seemed to be more defensive in this one.  This led to an effective but fairly quiet outing.  A team that attacks up the middle with speedy technical players in the center of the field, that kind of team is going to keep Boxx much busier.

Abily – I really enjoyed her game.  She’s a very active attacking midfielder who isn’t shy about running right up the center of the field on a defense.  She’s already combining well with the rest of the midfield and the forwards.  She isn’t as speedy as some of the other Sol offensive players, but she takes on defenders well.  She makes great off the ball runs to give her teammates options and she avoids a lot of the clumping that we saw on the Freedom side in the early going.  While everyone’s worried about Marta, Duan and Miyama, I have a feeling this player is going to sneak in and score some really opportunistic goals.  As I’m typing this up, I’m wondering who in the world the defenses are supposed to stop.  Freedom focused on turning Marta into a passer in this one, effectively managed to do that, and Abily, Duan and Miyama and later Katie Larkin had great chances to do them in.  Have I mentioned I really like the offensive talent on this Sol team . . .maybe I’m just excited because this was the first game of the year.

Miyama – She takes a nice set piece, there’s no doubt about that.  Tremendous workrate, good speed, combining well with Duan and Marta already.  I like that she was pressuring Freedom defenders at times, and would have liked to see more of that from both teams.  Forcing teams into quick decisions often forces them into bad ones.  I think the way the Freedom was playing (attacking up the sides rather than the center of the field) allowed her to stay forward most of the match.  It really wasn’t necessary for her to track back on defense most of the game.  That Marta was playing deeper in the midfield than I was expecting also allowed her to roam quite a bit in the attacking third. 

Marta – Her acceleration with the ball at her feet is like nothing I’ve ever seen in the women’s game.  She can get around players like they’re not even there.  The Freedom bodied up on her though and did a pretty good job of keeping her wide when she was in the attacking third.  That didn’t stop her though.  She wasn’t having success trying to power through Alex Singer, so she turned herself into a distributor.  I was concerned at the outset that Marta would buy the hype and she’d try to do it all herself even if that meant running and shooting into traffic.  In addition to all that talent though, she’s got an extraordinarily high soccer IQ.  It didn’t take long before Duan, Miyama and Abily were the recipients of her distributing.  She was really unselfish with the ball much of the game.  That’s not to say she didn’t dribble into the Freedom box a time or two, but the defense really seemed intent to not let Marta beat them as a scorer.  You know, there’s just an excitement when she touches the ball.  Singer did everything right, pushed Marta to the outside, but still, when Marta had that ball, way out wide, and was basically running nowhere, it was still a sight to see.  She’s going to be great fun for fans of the league.

Duan – Not really a whole lot different to say here than about the other Sol offensive players.  She stayed forward well, spacing on the Sol offense was good, good workrate, very disruptive.  She seemed to have the ball centrally quite often and I thought Whitehill and Sauerbrunn mopped that up well.  Always in motion, which makes her hard to defend.  In a few weeks I imagine her teammates will be able to find her better and more will come of that motion.  And that’s about it – she’s a key component in a very scary Sol machine.  Looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Larkin – I tell you what, I’d start her up top with Wambach right now.  The Sol are so deep on offense though, she came in for Fletcher.  She was making great runs forward up the flank and really added another dimension to the Sol offense.  She had a great chance to score from the left side of the box that her own teammate blocked.  That shot would have been low, hard and on frame had Boxx not stopped it.  I only noticed her back on defense a couple of times, so I’m not sure if she was supposed to be playing back there or not, but she added another dynamic offensive personality to the field in the second half.  With the internationals on this team, that she could make as much noise as she did when she came in was tremendous.  Again, Sol, I’m asking you, anything you want on the Freedom roster?  Rights to Ali Krieger maybe?  I’d give them that to get Larkin over here without even thinking too hard about it.  I think you nice folks in LA are going to like her. She can score in a variety of fashions and last year at BYU, she read goal keepers as well as anyone I saw all season long.

Welsh – How in the world are they so stacked offensively that Bock is now a central defender, Larkin is coming in for the right back and Welsh only gets in the game for a few minutes.  Dang.  I’ve got nothing here, she wasn’t in long enough . . . but dang . . .

And that’s it.  Round 1 to the Sol.  The scary thing is that I think they’re going to get much much much better on offense as soon as they get a few games under their belts.  As for the Freedom, I think starting someone a little less like Abby up top with Abby might be the salve to what ails ‘em (Sarah Huffman?  What’s going on here? Why didn’t she play? I haven’t been reading . . . might she be an option?).  Overall, for both teams, this was a really well played game for the first game of the season.  There’s a lot both teams can improve but at the same time, there’s a lot they’re already doing right.  Exciting offense, smart defense, strong midfields maintaining possession for both teams – well done Sol, well done Freedom and well done WPS.   I’m already looking forward to the next one.