US 3 Sweden 1
U-S-A U-S-A U-S-A - so it begins. And what a way to start. This was a well played match by Team USA and one in which they showed that they are ready to play and they mean business. I thought this was a fairly one sided affair for about the first 50-55 minutes or so and then Team USA did the only thing I found displeasing the entire match - they went into a somewhat defensive posture - they were up 2-0 and it seemed they decided to sit on the lead - with loads and loads of time left. I am a firm believer in sticking with what got ya there and they simply didnít. Going into a shell with 5-7 minutes left with a 2 goal lead is one thing, but basically from the time Tiff got in the game, Team USA just seemed to stop going forward with the energy and the numbers they did earlier in the match. They certainly had their moments, and it may not have been deliberate . . . and to be honest, I never really felt the match was in doubt, but they made life very difficult for Bri there toward the end. If youíre not attacking with the urgency you were earlier in the game, the opposition gets bolder, they push numbers up and if you couple that with taking the big girl out to whom they were often assigning 3 defenders (Abby) then you give a good team an opportunity to open up their offense. Maybe it just comes down to counting your chickens before theyíve hatched (or your eggs, or counting some sort of poultry, you know what Iím saying), or maybe the US simply shouldnít take out both big girls if the other team is paying so much attention to them and devoting so much of their defensive personnel to them. Or maybe Iím just nitpicking. Team USA did what they needed to do to win and as a special bonus, they provided us with a wonderfully entertaining first half, a pretty darn fun second and something good to cheer about. And just to close my opening with a little cliff hanger, I must say - after seeing North Korea play Saturday, I am very very glad Team USA took this one - the Koreans are big . . . very very big . . . and fast . . . very very fast . . . and skilled . . . and technical . . . and they look a lot like Team USA . . . Iíve got a feeling that match is going to be a barn burner . . .
Now - for my disclaimer - I was at the stadium for this one - sometimes I focus on odd things. If you want the stats and a straight up match report of the game, Heifetz does a great job at US Soccer, if you want some off the ball observations and random thoughts from someone who was watching odd players at odd times, read on . . .
Formation (4-3-3) back-front, right-left
GK - Scurry; Def - Pearce, Fawcett, Chastain, Sobrero; Midfield - Foudy, Boxx, Lilly; F - Parlow, Wambach, Hamm (I think thatís where they lined up at the beginning, but the forwards were quite fluid). Reddick in for Chastain at the half. Milbrett in for Wambach; Wagner in for Parlow
Scurry - She came up HUGE there near the end, didnít she? My goodness. That one save that was slicing across the face of the goal that she pulled out of the air diving to her right - WOW. Thatís why sheís in there. She had another save right around there that was also impressive, she was definitely under fire when Team USA shut down their attack a bit, and came up huge every time. Running to the edge of the box on the left side toward the end, wasnít my favorite thing she did all day, but she got there and like I said, it was a rough last half hour for her and youíve got to give her the benefit of the doubt on her decisions. There were a few issues at left center back the whole game and I think it led to her being a bit more aggressive off her line than usual, but overall, this was a great outing for Bri - couldnít ask for anything more. As for the goal - give it up to the Swedes - that was beautiful from start to finish and I doubt thereís a female goalkeeper anywhere who could have stopped that thing.
Pearce - Well - she was solid enough. More than solid defensively, there was just little flank play by the defensive wings in this one. Since Kate and Joy were kind of cradling the left center back in this one and coming up with huge defensive plays time and time again, Kate gets a bye on the offensive thing, but I would like to see Pearce attack a little bit more. Frankly, I enjoyed her the few games she played behind Lil - kinda wish weíd load up one side with the two better wide-ish players and see what they could create, but I understand the need to have Brandi and/or Cat surrounded by Joy and Kate, so I get it . . . Anyway, this is about Pearce, solid game, the slip and fall was more "one for the blooper reel" than egregious - and certainly preferable to the two giveaways last week (and I know she had another one, but it wasnít as bad as the two against Mexico so it barely hits my radar). Against Nigeria I expect her to be a bit more aggressive on the offensive end. Seeing as Brandi was on crutches at the end of this one and apparently will be out at least until the quarters, Team USA is somehow thin at defender all of a sudden, so I trust Pearce will pull it all together and go from solid to strong in the next one.
Fawcett - Great game from Joy. Cleaning everything up in the air, but more importantly cleaning everything up on the ground. For whatever reasons Joy had a lot of ground to cover in this one and did a great job. Even before the injury, Brandi wasnít moving so great in the first half and Joy had her back and then some. In the second half, the Swedes smelled fresh meat and picked on Cat continuously and Joy (and Kate, Iíll get there in a minute) was there to help out or just flat out cover and make the play just about every time. Clearances were strong, passing was fairly good, but in this one, the defenders needed to defend, especially in the second half after the offense slowed down a bit, and the defenders stepped up. Since Brandi is out, Joy is going to have to continue this level of play and sheís going to have to step up in the leadership department as well. Whoever winds up out there is going to need to hear from her, whether itís Cat, Bivens or Slaton. Anyway - Ďbout what youíd expect from Ms. Fawcett - great match.
Chastain - Well - I think that thereís no denying that the US defense is more organized and orderly with her in there. And that had been a serious issue with Team USA after Overbeck retired - I think people underestimate what a serious issue that was. Brandi solved that problem - I realize that athletically, there are other players on the US roster who can play the position better, but the defense (this includes the defense all the way up the field - middies and forwards too) simply wasnít as organized without her as it has been with her. At the same time, when sheís out there folks are going to pick on her lack of speed and run at and past her. Especially on a day when sheís not moving terribly well . . . and she wasnít moving very well in this one even before her injury. So I applaud Brandi for the leadership she brings to the field - and I have no doubt if healthy enough, sheíll find something to do in the big games that helps Team USA win. But Iíve also got to call them like I see them, and she was getting beat badly in this one, wasnít moving well at all, wasnít providing just a ton of help to others and is fortunate both Kate and Joy seemed to have an eye on her and what was coming at her. They will miss her leadership, they will miss her on set pieces and if healthy, Brandi should probably be out there, but I think the individual skill at the left center back will improve if Kate takes over in the next one . . . as for what the defense and defensive shape all over the field will look like - well, that remains to be seen.
Sobrero - Defending was outstanding. All that I said about Joy, you can repeat here. Her speed and ups and flat out defensive ability make up for a lot of mistakes in the back and it appears that cradling a less athletic central defender with Joy and Kate is a great idea. As for any offense from Kate - well, in my last one I made the comment that if theyíre attacking out of the back at all, they shouldnít put Kate back there on the left wing. But ya know what? They really didnít attack out of the back at all and didnít put Kate in a position where sheíd have to leave her comfort zone . . . which is straight up defending. That said, since Brandi canít go in the next one, I put Kate back in the left center back role - Brandi is in there for her leadership and organization - itís why everything was rearranged if Iím not mistaken, but if they lose that, then just put the player for whom that spot is most natural and who needs help the least. I think Cat will do much better if you stick her on a wing and thereís no one, except maybe Joy, I trust more than Kate in the central defense. So even if theyíre leadership/organization light, I think they can make it work very well if they need to. Like I said, Kateís speed, her ability to read the game from the center of the defense, her height/ups and her all around athleticism make up for a lot, and that includes misreads and miscommunications. I said earlier Kate gets a bye on the offense because her defense was so good and she was covering for others a lot of the match, but I must make one observation. When Kate has time, when she has space, when she has an opportunity to think about her touch on the ball, she flubs it horribly, turns it over, makes a stupid decision. When sheís going on instinct, clearing the ball, taking a little half volley under pressure, she connects the pass . . . . Maybe she just needs to ease up on herself and take a quick touch or just clear the dang thing. To me this speaks to confidence and being unsure of herself - when she just follows her instincts and takes a quick touch she seems to make a better pass/play. Anyway - Iíll finish on an up note because I enjoyed her game very much - great game from Kate. In the next one I hope we see her right next to Joy in the center of the field.
Foudy - Not my most favoritest Foudy performance . . . canít really pinpoint why though. I think itís just an invisibility factor - I guess she did have a fair number of touches, but it just seemed very little that was productive was coming from them. Lil was pushed in the center a lot in this one, so maybe that pushed Foudy out a little wider than is optimal for her. Foudy is at her best collapsed inside. With the defenders busy defending in this one though, and with the defense overly concerned with the big girls, Lil found herself with a bit more space than usual so she was pushing in and Foudy would move out to stretch things a bit. At least sometimes this was happening. Other than that though, Iíve really got nothing. Some turnovers, some nice passes, some playing a bit too deep and some enabling the sitting on the 2 goal and then 1 goal lead strategy a bit too much, but other than that, Iíve got nothiní. Foudy has games where she completely dominates and has her little foot prints on everything the offense musters . . . and sometimes she has games that make you go "enh." For me this was an "enh" outing - not a bad outing, not at all - just one that kind of makes me shrug and go "enh." And 70 minutes seemed to be enough for her in this one - and she seemed to tweak something toward the end there so Iíll make the plea here - against Nigeria, against very very physical Nigeria, if they can get the thirty-somethings a break, I think it will be a tremendous benefit to all.
Boxx - Glad to see her in there - nice ball winning force in the midfield. Her touch on some of the passing was a little off at times, but defensively she was making play after play, she was winning ball after ball and she was forcing a lot of Swedish turnovers. She is definitely a force out there and Iím sure she had some nerves it being her first game against a top tier opponent and all. Touch was bound to be a little off. I have no doubt it will tighten up in the next one. After seeing both North Korea and Nigeria on Saturday, Team USA is definitely going to need her size out there - especially if both of the big forwards are going to get subbed out (not my favorite decision of the night, but Iíll get there in a sec). As for her goal - uhhh, yeah, take out Abby and CP and put her as the only one over 5í6" in the box, uhhh, you better believe that ball is coming to her head. And even though every single person in the stadium knew that ball was going to be looking for her head, she managed to get up in a crowd and finish it beautifully. 3 goals in 3 games - pretty efficient in the scoring department there. Goals from the defensive midfielder are a bonus - and sheís delivered each time out. Gotta love that. So Boxx gets a "very strong" on the defensive part of defensive midfielder, she gets a "wow" for her ability and efficiency with headers on set pieces and the only knock is that she just needs to tighten the passing up a bit. Even though the passing can improve she did have some nice plays - that ball Abby worked so hard to get her (had 3 defenders on her) was a mistake turned into an exciting opportunity and it speaks to her composure that they made something of that. Iím sure she got past any nerves in this one though and I look for her next outing to be a strong one. Watching her play, itís awfully hard to remember this was only her 3rd international match with the senior team.
Lilly - Hamm to Lilly, Lilly to Hamm - if youíd asked me before the game the perfect way to start, that would have been my answer - gotta love it when the players come through, donít ya? It just seemed like she was everywhere doing everything - Lilly had an outstanding game. Like Iíve said a few times, Sweden seemed a little over concerned with Abby to me, honestly, off the ball (and on) they were devoting 3 defenders to Abby quite often and this left a couple of players with an undue amount of space . . . Lil was one of those players and dang if she didnít just completely take over this game. Defensively, offensively, getting chances for herself and creating them for others. Seemed to be the tactician in this one and was orchestrating the offense for most of the first half. As for the goal - terrific finish. CP sent a ball to Abby who not only managed to get it to Mia with two defenders hanging off her, but she managed to occupy those defenders for the remainder of the play, and then we had one of the most reliable and beautiful things in sports - Mia with what appeared to be an effortless ball to Lil and Lil with the beautiful finish. Last time, we started with a goal from Mia and that was as it should have been - and here, for their last time on the World Cup stage together, we get Hamm to Lilly to get the party started - for this fan, they couldnít have written it any better.
Parlow - Well, CP is real hit or miss with me. She always has her "wow" moments in a match. In this one it was the goal. A picture perfect corner from Mia, CP elevates and puts it home - text book . . . absolutely brilliant and CPís on the highlight reel and in the boxscore. And CP had some great moments in the run of play, there was one where Abby again was occupying 2-3 defenders, the ball at her feet, she just taps it, goes down and Parlow read and timed it perfectly, swooped in and put the ball toward goal. It was great . . . But somehow, you watch Mia, you watch Lil, you watch Abby and Boxx and Parlow just didnít have that kind of impact on the game . . . or that kind of workrate. Sheís not the ball winner Abby and Boxx are, her dribbling sequences inevitably go on too long and lead to nothing - so many times there were players open but CP kept the ball at her feet like she thought she was going to dance around three defenders with a fourth one riding piggy back for good measure. And her wanting to dribble the ball into the goal has always been bothersome - all of this makes me wonder if maybe she simply needs to play with her head up a bit more. My grousing aside - Cindy had a solid game. Both she and Abby were occupying many defenders at all times and that alone is enough reason to have them both in there - frees everyone else up. The thing that I think is at the heart of my grousing though, is that often, Abby had more of those defenders on her than Cindy did so CP was one of the ones freed up and just didnít use the space well. She didnít use the opened up field to the extent Mia and Lilly managed to use it at any rate. If Abby is going to be a magnet for defenses and if other teams are going to pound on her for however long theyíre going to pound on her, CP simply needs to get more active and hold nothing in reserve. It brings me back to my 45 minute point with her from my last report - tell her before the game, "45 minutes." Tell her to use it all up and then sub her out. CP going full tilt for the entire first half, with Lil, Mia, Abby and the rest of the gang doing the same thing? Maybe they put these things away by half time . . . which admittedly they kind of did in this one, but I still want to see better from her. And before the CP fans get on my case - if I didnít think CP had better to show us, I wouldnít bother saying any of this - Iíd rather have 30-40 minutes of brilliant Parlow playing full tilt than 65-70 minutes of CP turning it on and off and taking some truly lazy touches and loping around the field. Ultimately though - my complaining aside - it was a solid effort punctuated by some wow for good measure. I think measuring her against her running mates up top and in the midfield in this one is where I have some issues. Undoubtedly we will see her starting in the next one, and since Nigeria is just as big, fast and physical as they were the last time Team USA saw them, I hope the big girl is ready for some rock Ďem sock Ďem soccer . . .
Abby - My goodness, Sweden was going to make sure Abby Wambach didnít beat them if it killed them. She had one defender within 2-3 yards of her at all times, she had a second defender within 6-8 yards of her at all times and when she was anywhere near a ball, she had a third defender running at her to knock her over. The woman was occupying three defenders almost the entire first half - this freed everyone else up. It was ridiculous. Abby gets the ball, one hits her, the second comes and makes an Abby sandwich and the third would come to knock the whole pile down onto the ground. The thing is, when Abby falls, she falls on people - Lilís goal - beautiful feed from CP to Abby, Abbyís defenders crash into her, she makes the touch to Mia and then falls and takes them with her and completely takes three defenders out of play - itís brilliant! Mia makes the pass to Lil and Lil has a beautiful goal. U-S-A U-S-A U-S-A!!!!!!!!!! Heh heh - I like it - in three of the four matches I saw in person, the refs were letting them play - calling very little, so if Abby gets mugged like she did all game in this one, she can just fall on everyone and watch her teammates score - works for me . . . As for the rest of it, even with two defenders hanging off her shoulder almost the entire time, Abby was a tremendous ball winner the entire first half, had a few chances to net one of her own in the early going and basically just kept on moving the entire time she was in there. And the value of it requiring so many defenders to take her down really shouldnít be underestimated. Look what happened when she went out. Part of it did seem to be strategic - a more defensive posture, people better with the ball at their feet were in the game to dribble around and I assume kill some time, but part of it simply was that there was no one player on the field for whom it required three players to squish. I watched what was happening with Tiff, she was occupying about one and a half defenders. Every time sheíd get near the ball, theyíd make a Tiff sandwich just like they did with Abby (it was a physical game), but they could level her and move on - there wasnít the kind of time and space there was in the first half and Sweden was able to free up more players for the attack. Again, I realize part of it was a strategy switch, but the tone of the game changed when Abby went out - and some of that has to be attributed to Abbyís absence rather than just a changed strategy. Anyway - great game from Abby - just a workmanlike effort every minute she was in there. She doesnít get the highlight reel attention on this one, but she performed an invaluable role. Hope she gets the start in the next one - the Nigerians are accustomed to fouling hard and trying to push the little US forwards and flanks around (I donít think I have ever seen Kristine Lilly take as much punishment in a game as she did in 2000 at the Olys in that first half against Nigeria) - well, wait until they get a load of Abby . . .
Mia - Hmmmmm - ya know, Iím so peeved the vast majority of Aprilís gushing was directed at Mia rather than Lil, I almost donít want to be nice here . . . But I kind of have to because Mia had a great game. Workrate, serves, ball at her feet, corners, oh boy the corners in this one, going back on defense . . . Just a fantastic game from start to finish. Perpetual motion, always playing with her head up, always aware of where she is on the field and aware of where others are. Even in the second half when the offense was slowing down a bit she put some nice balls through that unfortunately no one ran on to. Just a great game from Mia - I kinda got my gushing out on Miaís assists when I discussed the goals in other folksí sections so Iíll just say it one more time "beautiful pass to Lil" and "textbook corners to CPís and Boxxís little noggins" and refer you to the comments above. "Outstanding" is always the expectation with Ms. Hamm and if you think about it, itís kind of amazing how often she lives up to it.
Reddick - talk about getting thrown into the fire . . . Whew . . . . Had to be some nerves - having a bit more trouble reading what was coming at her than I would have expected, but then again, they were coming at her in waves . . . The Swedes saw the college kid, and thatís where they ran. Considering the amount of stuff coming at her, and that she kind of got tossed in there where she might not have been expecting to in a position she hasnít played just a ton of at the National Team level (sheís better on the right, and has gotten considerably more time on either wing for the Nats this year if Iím not mistaken), I thought she maintained her composure very well. Didnít see any panicky turnovers or really stupid moves. I think some things got by her, Joy and Kate never seemed to be too far away, but it wasnít panic on her part and since sheís probably going to be in there the next couple of games thatís heartening to see. I worry a little about the lack of speed coupled with the inexperience, but if you cradle her between Joy and Kate, or, my preference, move her out on the wing, I think sheíll be fine. This was her "young" and "nerves" game. The next one, sheís going to have to be ready. Iíll be honest with you - Cat in the central defense against Nigeria, a team that is more physical, and probably faster and bigger than anything sheís ever seen before, worries me a bit. Out on the wing I donít worry so much because you can double team and trap Nigerians out wide - their crosses were not so impressive, but if they run right at her and try to mow her down in the center of the field, this causes me some concern. Anyway - while it wasnít the best game Iíve ever seen Cat play, as play wore on she tightened up a bit and it wound up being a relatively solid outing. I expect improvement in the next one - Iím sure sheís seen the tape of that N.Korea-Nigeria match so sheíll know what to expect and be ready for it.
Milbrett - Well - Iíve discussed it a bit - unfortunately for Tiff, when she came in, Sweden seemed to be playing the same very physical defense on her that they were playing on Abby. Ball would come to Tiff, and one defender got her and the other got her and boom, Tiff was getting her bell rung - the difference is, with Abby, the playís still going on and Team USA still has possession - when this happens to Millie, itís a turnover and both defenders are gone pushing the ball forward. In the second half the offense shut down - watched this with the Freedom all season long, 2 goal lead and you basically sit on it for 40 minutes, or at least you try to - the only way this works is 1) have a brilliant goal keeper - Bri qualified in this one, and 2) have a personality up top who can hold the ball while the rest of the team (which is playing 7-10 yards behind in a rather defensive posture) catches up to her . . . and that was the problem. Either CP or Abby needs to be that singular forward - tiny little Tiff ainít gonna cut it. Maybe the idea was for her to hold it by dribbling around until everyone caught up to her but watching the defense the whole game, Sweden simply wasnít going to let that happen - Abby holds the ball by making her body wide and just muscling folks out, CP uses less muscle but still uses her size well enough such that she can dribble a bit and hopefully give folks enough time to join her, Tiff, however, has no width to use and was just getting crushed and dispossessed (or the ball was being intercepted before it could even find her). They were crushing forwards the whole game, Abby, CP, Mia, all crushed, and when CP held the ball and tried to dribble through the box it generally did not end well - I donít know why anyone would think Tiff would be more successful. Ultimately, not my favorite Tiff outing, Mia did manage to put a ball or two through to her and at times her timing was off, at times it seemed she simply didnít see the play developing and didnít run onto it. For all the talk of a WUSA slump with Tiff, during her National Team appearances sheís brought a heck of a lot of energy and effort out there even though the finishing hasnít been on - hopefully this was a momentary blip and sheíll be wreaking havoc on defenders in the next one.
Wagner - Hmmm - first touch - taking down Swedish player right on top of the box . . . She gets the WWC 2003 Most Interesting First Touch award. Man - talkiní about freakiní yourself out early in the game - guess she just wanted to rattle herself as much as possible right there at the start to make all the rest of it seem easy . . . Well, no harm done ultimately, and it was kind of a break away situation and she probably felt she had to do something. As for the rest of it, ya know, Iíve got very little here. Offense had slowed down demonstrably by the time Aly got in and basically having Tiff alone up top with Mia and Lil kind of randomly roaming where ever their considerable forces were needed really doesnít play to Alyís strengths. Running the offense is what Aly Wagner does, and there really wasnít an offense to be run at the point she got in. She made some nice passes to Lil, and like Mia, I think she had a ball or two through to Tiff that really didnít amount to much, but basically, Aly was kind of helping the defensive effort as this one wound down. Besides that first foul - the pros and cons of which you may discuss amongst yourselves - she was quite solid defensively and made no major flubs. A good way to get first game jitters out, and hopefully, Foudy will get some time off in the second half of Nigeria (she really looked like she was hurting/spent at the end of this one) so Aly will get some additional time to show what she can do when Team USA is still attacking. Some time out there with CP and/or Abby would be great - Alyís passing to the targets/front runners is a strength, and in this one, Tiff was often alone up top and the connection just wasnít being made. And they were in such a defensive posture that Mia and Lil were often playing even with or behind Aly so they werenít an option as often as they would have been in the first half. Get her out there with some true target players, or when Team USA is still pushing forward and letís see what sheís got. I think Iím reserving judgment until we see this happen. I expect at some point in this tournament, weíre going to see it, and I suspect sheís got something good in store.
Well - thatís that. This performance must have silenced all but the most stubborn of critics. The score was 3-1 but Team USA had a dominant performance - most of my comments are inconsequential, at best, because the whole team managed a heck of a game, the whole team came ready to play, the whole team has a look about them that says they wonít be satisfied with anything less than defending their title and the whole team won. I must say, I had one heck of a good time in Philly and DC on opening weekend (well, OK, Brazil-S.Korea was a snoozer, but Nigeria-N.Korea was a rip roariní good time) and am looking for a rough and tumble, fast and furious match against the Nigerians.