US 2 North Korea 2

Blame it on the raaaaiiiiinnnnnn . . . hey, I don’t write bad ‘80s pop music, I just lip synch it when appropriate.  And so the 2007 Women’s World Cup begins.  An exciting game, start to finish.  Very well played by North Korea and not so well played by Team USA.  Individually, it wasn’t that bad – Team USA is chock full of dynamic enormously talented players.  And today, these dynamic enormously talented players looked like they’d never stepped on the field together.  This didn’t look like the same team that we’ve been watching for the past 2 years.  They didn’t look even a little ready for a competitive match against a talented opponent, and when they found themselves in the middle of one, I think they lost their poise a bit.  The defense looked as ragged and unorganized as I’ve seen in awhile, the offense was having a heck of a time making that last pass and the whole team was having a tough time getting the ball out of the US end. 

So let’s take the lines in order. 

Defense:  Here’s the thing about sports, and I know I’ve harped on this before, it’s about repetition.  You go to practice and play otherwise meaningless games in order to establish a way of doing things, and then you repeat it over and over again so that when you find yourself in a game that matters, it’s second nature for you to do the things you’re supposed to do.  Which is all a really long way of saying, why do you start with the marking when it’s not something that’s been done regularly over the past 3 years?  Having Rampone mark that Korean player for large chunks of the game (apologies for not getting the Korean names down – by the time we see them again, and I won’t be surprised if we do, I’ll have them down), essentially took her off the backline.  So three years of repetition and practice are simply thrown out the window in Game 1 of the World Cup.  The result is that the defense was a disorganized mess of individuals trying to defend a side that was playing as an organized, technical unit.  The side the US was playing was far far more technical than they were.  When playing a more technical side, a very organized defense is preferable – a defense where everyone knows where to help and you have a central defender pulling the strings.  This is not what we saw in the US defense today.  No one was in charge of the defense today, they looked confused and they’re very fortunate not to have lost this game by a couple of goals. 

My other issue with the defense?  The failure to clear the ball.  Clearances by the defense were atrocious.  I don’t know whether it was deliberate or whether everyone was having a bad game on that count the same day, but c’mon gang, know your opponent.  Again, far more technical side – don’t mess around with those little short passes right in front of your goal when the technical team has numbers forward and your less technical team hasn’t been able to connect a pass all day – CLEAR THE BALL. 

OK – all that yapping aside, it wasn’t that bad.  North Korea is really really good and is exactly the kind of team that the US does and should have trouble with.  They’re as big as the US is and more technical to boot.  Team USA came into the proceedings playing a reactive game.  They let the North Koreans dictate tempo.  It was going to look rough. 

Midfield: OK – I understand Ryan is very high on Carli Lloyd – so am I.  So I understand him putting her in there against a technical side like North Korea at the outset because they’re not just technical, they’re big too.  So if it’s a physical pound it out game, let’s go in with our heavy hitting, physical, ball winning, aggressive player.  Fine, not the decision I would have made against North Korea, but I get it.  So – here’s my question – when it was apparent that the US was having trouble with possession, that the Koreans technical ability was what was troubling the US, not their size, why don’t you put Lindsay Tarpley in the game?  This was an obvious adjustment to make at the half.  Lloyd is a blunt force instrument, Tarpley is a far more technical player, more sophisticated tactically and let’s face it, a lot more composed on the ball than Lloyd (nothing against Lloyd, I’m a fan, Tarp is just about as cool a customer as they have on the roster though).  Not sure why that adjustment didn’t happen.  Foudy called for Wagner – that would have worked too.  Again, another possession oriented, tactical and technical player.  Lloyd wasn’t doing anything in this one, I’m not sure why there were no in-game adjustments of any kind when it was obvious that the North Koreans had the run of play.

Forwards:  This comment could really be in the midfield section as well – but where were the numbers forward?  Why was everyone playing so deep?  Why was Team USA playing so tentatively?  My concern on this point was just beautifully borne out on that one run by Lil up the right sideline in the first half, she ran up, looked inside to pass, then there was a 1 count . . .  a 2 count . . . a 3 count . . .  and then a player FINALLY showed up on the screen.  Where WAS everyone?  All morning long, the question I kept on asking is where was everyone?  I thought I was in a time warp back to 2002.  Ultimately, I guess my concern for the whole offensive game plan in this one was simply that Team USA wasn’t the aggressor.  From the decision on the man marking to the forwards playing deep in the midfield, and then not getting forward into the attack with numbers it just seemed that US was intent on pulling itself completely out of all that it has done for the last 3 years so that it could react to North Korea.  That’s the game plan of an inferior team – I expected Team USA, the #1 ranked team in the world, to come out and play its own game and force North Korea to figure out how the heck to stop them.  As much fun as this game was, I’m a little disappointed that’s not what I watched this morning. 

OK – enough of that – probably too negative.  I hate it when Team USA’s game plan is wholly reactive though – when they are so focused on what the opponent might do, that they don’t try to do anything, as a team, themselves. 

Formation (4-3-3 – because the TV said it was so - it sure as heck looked like a 4-4-2 to me in the first half when the camera panned back and the US actually had some offensive shape  – Heather O was right there on that line with Lloyd and Chalupny – anyway, back-front, right-left): GK – Solo; Def – Rampone, Whitehill, Markgraf, Lopez; Mid – Lloyd, Boxx, Chalupny with Boxx withdrawn and Chalupny and Lloyd all over the place; Fwd –  O’Reilly, Wambach, Lilly; Kai in for O’Reilly way too late to matter. 


Solo – All together now!  Blame it on the rrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnn . . . uhhh, yeah . . . no Hope, sorry.  Should have had it – ball skidded right through her hands.  Unfortunate, yeah, ball was wet, but this is the World Cup and Hope is a world class goal keeper – she was a little too casual with that ball and it slipped right through.  That said, she made some phenomenal saves that more than made up for that mistake.  That one near the end, completely laid out, airborne, ball was on frame . . . one of the best saves I’ve seen in the women’s game.  As for JP’s comment that Hope was stretched out throughout the first half – he really made it sound like she was having a tougher time than she was and that those balls were closer than they were.  None of those balls was on frame – Hope had the goal covered to the post each time – there’s no need for her to stretch past that point.  I thought she had a great first half, and a great second half minus one careless slip.  As for the second goal – if the defense clears that ball, and they had several tries with the last one being Boxx on a clearance she can make blindfolded and sleepwalking, then that ball never scores.  First goal belongs to Hope, the second goal belongs to the defense. 

Rampone – I rip the idea of the man marking, not the execution of it.  I thought Rampone was fantastic defending 1 v. 1.  She was defending with her feet as well as I can ever remember seeing her and she was very active.  I just think that having her chasing her man all over the place completely took the defense out of its shape and that they never found a way to adjust.   

Whitehill – Honestly, minus Rampone, the defenders didn’t really make much of an impression on me individually.  I just thought the whole unit was a disorganized mess, they looked like they had no clue what to do and where to be and the clearances where bad . . . really really bad.  Cat took a nice free kick or two if I recall correctly, but she really wasn’t getting forward, even in spots, like she generally does.  I think the North Koreans just had the defense on its heels from the start and no one in this unit really recovered.  If this unit is going to shape up for the next one, Cat’s going to have to be the one to orchestrate it.  Communication on defense, with Boxx in the midfield and with Solo in goal, needs work. 

Markgraf – Basically all the same comments from Cat’s section.  I really don’t have anything at all here.  The individual performance was fine, but she added to all about which I have complained regarding this unit as a whole.  It just seemed to me that the defense was doing something with which they haven’t had just a ton of practice – and I am still baffled as to why you pick Game 1 of the World Cup to try something new out. 

Lopez – Again – not much.  I wasn’t overly impressed but really nothing stands out apart from all my general comments on the defense.  What I noticed most about the defense and I guess is why I’m not real high on anyone but Rampone, is that as the game was winding down and huge defensive plays were being made, it was the forwards Abby Wambach and Heather O’Reilly who were making those plays.  With the exception of Rampone, who was solid all game long, I think the defense got thrown early and were chasing the rest of the night. 

Lloyd – Well – I think I’ve already said it.  I’m not sure why Lloyd was in this game.  North Korea is a technical team – the US didn’t appear to have a game plan designed to take the Koreans out of what they were trying to do, instead the US appeared to try and match them on their terms.  In that case, why wasn’t a more technical player who plays a more possession based game on the field?  That’s not Lloyd.  That is Tarpley or Wagner.  As it played out, Lloyd looked overwhelmed, she wasn’t good offensively or defensively.  Defending with her feet is not her strength. A short passing technical game is not her strength.  And she didn’t look strong.  This was the one game in group play I would have sat her.  That said, I hope to see her against both Sweden and Nigeria (especially Nigeria) – I think she’ll have more success against teams that occasionally play balls into the air and against teams that are really physical (again, more Nigeria than Sweden – it wouldn’t break my heart to see Tarpley in for her against Sweden and then for her to come back for Nigeria).  I look forward to a return to form in the more favorable matchups to come. 

Boxx – In my opinion, her poorest performance in a National Team uniform.  I love Boxx, you know I do, but that was not a good game for her.  In this formation, the team relies on Boxx to start the offense, make good decisions with the ball strategically and to help link the midfield with the forwards.  I simply didn’t see any of that.  In addition, I realize that the Koreans kept the ball on the ground and Boxx is at her very best defending in the air, but she generally reads passing lanes well too.  And she wasn’t in this one.  The defense didn’t appear to have any shape at all, and I don’t think Boxx had any clue where to help out.  They seemed to be playing in a fashion for which they had not had a competitive test run and it seemed to me that Boxx struggled with it most.  All the strategic stuff aside, she wasn’t clearing the ball well, wasn’t getting forward much and just seemed out of sorts all night.  I guess after 4 years she was due for a bad one, but dang, the timing on it couldn’t have been worse.  I look for a return to form against Sweden.

Chalupny – In theory, I really like her on offense.  In practice, I think I would like her more on offense with Heather O, Tarpley or Wagner in the midfield with her to take care of some of the heavy lifting with getting the ball to the forwards.  I like her with a little less responsibility and with a little more freedom to wreak havoc and chase around her own forwards in support of the attack.  This is part of my numbers forward issue I think.  She was too much in the playmaking role and I don’t think she’s ready for it – that last pass to the forwards simply wasn’t happening and as one of the attacking midfielders, and by far the more technical of the two attacking midfielders in the game, she was responsible for that.  I don’t think she’s had enough time combining with this forward group and tactically, she’s not as good at this point as more unsung/less flashy players like Tarpley and Wagner.  I just didn’t see great decisions.  I saw too much individual play and reading developing plays way too late to actually help.  Like I’ve said, I think the whole team was a little thrown – not sure why they didn’t seem to be expecting such a tough match, but I felt a little bit of panic from them and I felt Chalupny was one of the players most affected.  Those moon balls over the goal are a good example of the nerves.  At this point those balls are inexcusable from Chalupny.  If she can’t calm down and get the ball on frame, then they need to get Tarpley in there with her or instead of her.  Maybe some of the younger players were just having their “oh my gosh I’m playing in the World Cup” moments.  Whatever it was, hopefully it’s out of their systems and we’ll see a more characteristic outing in the next one.

O’Reilly – I swear it looked like she was playing in the midfield for long stretches in this one.  And I wish she had been playing more centrally and simply taken over for Lloyd and Chalupny but that didn’t happen.  When she fell back into the midfield, she was wide right and often out of the play.  When she was up with the forwards she was often stuck up there waiting for the ball.  That said, when she did get the ball, she was her usual dynamic self.  She’s one of the few who got a lot better as the game wore on.  She started getting forward more on offense and she made some critical defensive plays deep in the US end.  Her goal was a very opportunistic and professional finish.  Lilly put the ball into the box, she followed the play, got herself in good position, got the deflection and pounded it home.  Well placed, well hit, well done.  I liked her game in this one, the team needs to get her more involved much earlier in the next one.

Wambach – Yeesh – that was a lot of blood.  The folks sewing bleeders up though, have got to get more of a pit crew mentality.  If this had been a race, it would have been lost in the pits.  Ten minutes was way way too long to sew that injury up. Rampone and Abby seemed to be the only things that made the North Koreans change what they were doing.  Abby was making a lot of defensive plays not just up top, not just in the midfield, but deep in the US end.  And as soon as she was out, they took it right to the US and capitalized.  Offensively, like Heather O, I wish Abby had gotten involved earlier.  Team USA seemed to be having trouble getting out of their own end though . . . and when they did, they struggled making the last pass up top. Unless Abby goes back into the midfield to playmake herself, she is the recipient on that last pass so she was underused.  That said, she had her chances – that header off the crossbar was a heartbreaker and one of her best chances all game.  Her goal, like Heather’s, was just a solid professional finish.  Ball from Lilly and she finished with a nice shot across the front of the goal.  She stayed poised, didn’t get under it, and hit the ball solidly – that’s how you finish.  Solid game on both ends – let’s get her more touches in the next one.

Lilly – Here’s my issue with Lilly up top . . . she’s not in the midfield.  Today, it would have helped to have her playmaking in the midfield instead of languishing up top waiting for touches for much of the early going.  It does concern me that 87 year old Kristine Lilly is still creating every goal Team USA scores and was somehow involved in most of the chances the team had all night.  Not much else to say – when the ball got up top, I thought both she and Abby were making the most of their opportunities.  I thought that they both suffered from a lack of support from the rest of the team.  The second wave of players forward didn’t seem to be trailing when the ball got up top, so much forward possession wound up in turnovers.  Not much else.  It was a strong Lilly performance.  If everyone calms the heck down maybe someone else will create a goal in the next one. 

Kai – She needed more time. And if she was going to come in, I’m not sure why it wasn’t for Lloyd so she and Heather O could try to run forward together and do some damage.  Without someone to run with her and feed her the ball, Kai’s not going to do anything.  By taking Heather O out of the game, they took out the only player on Team USA who could keep up with her to make a couple of runs at goal and try and snatch this one.  And if they weren’t trying to snatch this one, than why even bother putting Kai in?

OK – all that said, this game was fun as all get out to watch.  The crowd was great, the game was back and forth, end to end action, there was rain, there was blood, there were 4 goals . . . what more could a fan ask . . . at 5 in the morning . . . on a Tuesday . . . when I have to go to work . . ..  All that was missing was the win, but ya know, I was pretty relieved they got out of this one with a tie.  This whole World Cup thing might be a tad more difficult than some cocky amateur commentators might have thought (yes, I’m referring to my own ridiculous prognostications a couple of months back J ).  Here’s hoping for a win, and a more confident aggressive Team USA in the next one.