US 2 North Korea 0

Two, two, TWO games in one.  That’s what the start of the US World Cup journey appeared to be, two completely different games.  In the Sundhage era, the US is at its best when play is comprised largely of seamless one touch passing all over the field.  And what was completely missing in the first half?  Seamless one touch passing all over the field.  Instead of quick combination play that would stretch a very compact Korean midfield, we saw individual players running at defenders without support and long balls over the top.  Sometimes this works, when the opponent is a quick Korean side that can get two players on O’Reilly or Rodriguez as they try to individually take on defenses, not such a great idea. 

Second half?  Completely different.  I stopped muttering about the US failing to switch fields and bunching, I quit muttering about the lack of combination play, I quit muttering that the forwards weren’t getting any touches and I quit muttering that the ball was in the air too much.  I quit muttering because they started to look like the team I was expecting to see.  Lots of room for improvement still, but seeing the difference in the first and second half makes me hopeful about the coachability of this side and the ability of everyone (coaches, players, whoever) to adjust and pull it all together midgame.

Regarding the “big story”?  Whoop-de-doo, a couple of midfielders got switched out.  This isn’t the same as switching out your number 1 goalkeeper in the semis for someone who hasn’t played a meaningful game in years and it’s ridiculous that the reporting on the move was so overblown.  This sort of thing happens all the time.  Field players sometimes even change from game to game.  Oooooo, say it ain’t so (yes, if you could see me, I am rolling my eyes right now).  As for the move itself.  I think it was a good one.  I love Megan Rapinoe, she is a bundle of energy and has as high a workrate as anyone on the team.  That said, all too often, she’s  running around without direction.  Cheney is a more composed, disciplined player than Rapinoe at this point and is more suited to starting.  Rapinoe the livewire?  I have a feeling she’s going to make a brilliant supersub – that energy running at players on tired legs is going to make a huge difference at some point in this tournament . . .watch. 

The story that the nice folks at ESPN should have been discussing instead of overblowing the Rapinoe-Cheney thing?  LePeilbet playing on the wing.  LePeilbet doesn’t play on the wing and it showed.  I understand the desire to put your 4 best defenders on the pitch, but both Buehler and Rampone have better skills on the wing than LePeilbet and LePeilbet spent Rampone’s maternity leave combining brilliantly in the central defense with Buehler.  Going forward, this is the big story for me.  What are they going to do here, because I don’t think they can go into the knockout rounds with LePeilbet on the left wing.   Does Cox get a chance or does the US put LePeilbet back inside and give Buehler or Rampone a chance to show they can handle speedy players flying up the flank at them?

And that’s about it for the general comments.  The tournament is off to a great start.  No big surprises in results, but I think most would agree that it has been surprising how close some of these games have been.  I mean, who knew they even played women’s soccer in Colombia before the U-20 tournament last year?  Nigeria looking like a disciplined well-coached side?  Canada a missed gimme goal and a clearance away from making that game against The Juggernaut a whole different animal?  For parity in results, I have a feeling we might be a cycle away, but parity in play – we might finally have gotten there.  Makes for a little bit more stomach churning if you’re rooting for the traditional powers, but it also makes for a much more fun tournament.  Looks like Equatorial Guinea is going to be the only team to get steam rolled here (Equatorial Guinea?  Really?  What happened to Ghana? How have I not paid more attention to this?). 

FORMATION

4-4-2, back-front, left-right – GK – Solo; Def – LePeilbet, Buehler, Rampone, Krieger; Midfield – Boxx in the DMid, Cheney and O’Reilly on the flanks but playing pinched in at times, Lloyd in the AMid; Fwd – Wambach, Rodriguez – they switched sides a lot, but at the start, Wambach appeared to be left.  Morgan in for Rodriguez, Rapinoe in for O’Reilly.

PLAYERS

Solo – Love her, hate her, or anything in between, what good soccer fans everywhere have to acknowledge is that she’s one of the, if not the, best in the business.  While some scary things were coming up the left flank and at times there was a little confusion in the middle, Solo wasn’t that tested in this game.  The quick reflex save in the first half right at the left post was a nice stop.  But most of her other stops were coming right at her and shouldn’t have, and didn’t, cause her any trouble.  She made a scary back pass by Krieger in the late going into a beautiful clearance to midfield.  Gotta love a keeper who is good with her feet in the run of play.   Solid if uneventful outing.  The Koreans play well in the midfield and were stifling defensively in the first half, but they still seem to have some work to do on their play and finishing in the attacking third.

LePeilbet – I’ve touched on this already, but I think she’s the wrong choice for the wing defender.  She’s a central defender and a brilliant one.  She’s got a big leg for clearances and the occasional ball over the top to the forwards, she’s good in the air, and she reads the attack very well from the center of the field.  You put her outside and her lack of speed, her lack of offensive instincts, and the need for a bit more of a finesse game offensively rather than the big service game in which she thrives, really shows through.  In my opinion, the best the defense has looked in the past 3 years has been when Buehler and LePeilbet were playing in the central defense together.  The second best, when they were working Rampone back in, was with LePeilbet and Rampone in the middle together and Buehler outside.  So I’m not sure why the one defender on the entire roster most ill-equipped to play the wing was put on the wing (well, OK, Becky Sauerbrunn on the wing probably would have been a worse decision, but not by much).  That’s really my only Pia head scratcher though, and I realize the injuries in the run up to the WWC and the desire for consistency probably played into this choice, but I still don’t like it.  Anyway, enough of my meanderings on this.  Her game?  She got beat by 1 v. 1 attackers in the first half, was unable to connect passes in the first half, and just looked very uncomfortable.  As with the entire team, she did look better in the second half.  I think everyone realized she was struggling 1 v. 1 in the first half, so Cheney was falling back to help a bit more and I think Buehler was keeping a better eye on what was going on out there as well.  She still wasn’t connecting well on the short pass, but she did use that big leg of hers more effectively to send in some crosses, including one to Abby in the box that could very easily have scored.  Rocky first half, improved second, but in my opinion, should be playing inside.  If Pia doesn’t want to mess with the Buehler/Rampone central defense (I would mess with it, this is what I would mess with), maybe Cox should get a shot in the lineup against Colombia.

Buehler – And the central defenders gets a goal!  Who doesn’t love that?  Numbers in the box. When all is in chaos, gotta keep numbers up in the box.  Krieger tracked down the cleared out corner, fired a ball back into the box, Lloyd got a foot on it and put it back to Buehler, who calmly put it in.  A friend of mine calls those shots that go 30 yards over goal defender shots, because defenders are the ones who commonly get all hyped up in front of goal, get too far under the ball and send it flying.  Well, not this defender.  This defender kept her poise, didn’t over hit the ball and put the game away.  As for the rest of her game – she knows LePeilbet is not at her most comfortable on the outside, so she should have been closing and helping out a bit more than she was in the first half.  Central defenders have to help when wings are out of position (either because they get beat or because they get caught too far forward in the attack) and she just didn’t seem to be helping enough in the first half.  Rampone came sprinting in for a lot of last second saves, but in the first half, Buehler was a little quiet.  Second half, she asserted herself a lot more.  She was helping on the wing, she was moving forward through the center of the field and the entire defense just seemed to be communicating a lot better.  Solid game that got better as time wore on, with a little touch of the spectacular on the goal. 

Rampone – Before the game started, she is who I thought should have been out on the left wing.  About 20-25 minutes in, I understood why Pia wanted her inside.  She’s really my star of the first half.  Yes, there were some muddled moments in the defense in the first half, but she understood where the trouble spots were and came sprinting out of nowhere to help with some of those 1 v. 1 attacks coming up the left (Korean right).  She was providing support with balls out of the back and she served some nice balls on the long distance free kicks.  Just a rock solid outing.  Wasn’t always perfect, but she was one of the reasons the nice Korean midfield play really didn’t amount to a lot in the attacking third.  And I like her distance free kicks.  She serves a nice ball in from 40-50 yards out. 

Krieger – This is generally the time where I would praise her offense and bust on her defense . . . but she was actually pretty good today so we shall be bust-free on the Krieger front for this outing.  The Koreans were working through the middle and torturing LePeilbet most of the first half, so Krieger didn’t have a ton to do defensively.  She did cover in the middle a bit but she largely had a quiet first half.  In the second half, like just about everyone else, her game picked up.  She was helping to spread the field a bit and create space for the US attack.  All the defenders appeared to be communicating and helping each other more and she just seemed to be a lot more active.  Solid game – she brings a ton of athleticism to the backline and if she continues to use it as she did in this game, and not get caught too far forward too often then she’s poised to have a very nice tournament.

Boxx – She’s just not the invincible, dominant and flawless force of nature she once was.  I think I saw her give the ball away more in this one than I’ve seen in the previous 10 years combined (well, that might be an exaggeration, but not by much).  She provided some nice support to the attack at times, but wasn’t always getting back to help out on defense as she should have been.  A couple of time she just clearly got beat, one of those times she pulled the defender down by her jersey in what could have been a yellow card (nice German ref could have thrown a few yellows and didn’t – I think I like the whole “let them play” mentality).  That said, she was great in the air, as usual, and in the second half, her game seemed to pick up a bit.  She still had some turnovers, but she was instrumental in distributing the ball and spreading the field a bit and she was providing a bit more support to the defense.  The entire US team seemed to have a little bit more space in the second half and I think her game benefited from it.  Overall a solid outing, just not the uniform excellence with which we’ve been spoiled over the past decade.  It’s one of the reasons why it concerns me Christine Nairn isn’t on this team.  Why does Team USA seem so determined to wait too long to develop the next generation?  WPS isn’t kind to young players, the level of coaching is atrocious and youth isn’t being well developed there, so why exactly is a 30 something injured defender who won’t see a meaningful second of action this tournament sitting on the bench while the “it” players from the U-20 WWC team are sitting at home (for my money, Kristie Mewis and Christine Nairn)?  But I digress . . .

Cheney – I’ve already said I thought this was a good decision and why, so I won’t rehash.  I’ll just point out, I think she demonstrated that Pia made a good choice.  She was very active from the start.  She was on the ball as much as any of the offensive players, was taking reasonable shots and putting them on frame.  Probably not combining as well with her teammates as she could have been in the first half, but even that improved in the second.  She was even tracking back on defense helping LePeilbet out late in the second half.  She proved to be quite a bit fitter than I thought she’d be and kept her energy up a full 90.  And just what you want from one of your designated goal scorers, great finishing on her goal.  Lloyd started the sequence with a great ball up to Wambach on the left side, who then put a beautiful ball into Cheney’s head.  Nice professional finish – headed back toward goal and past the keeper.  Great sequence all the way around and everyone was rewarded by Cheney not flubbing the final touch.  She seems to have gotten her anger management/attitude issues under control and I look for her to have a really strong tournament.  Goal scorers need to have a little edge to them.  And she edged her way into the starting lineup and showed everyone it was the right decision.

O’Reilly – I need her to touch the ball more.  I need Heather O’Reilly to dominate, take on players and distribute the ball.  We saw it a little bit in the second half, but for a full 90, I need Heather O’Reilly to be a classic #10.  She’s got the athleticism, she’s got the soccer brain, she’s got the skill, she’s got the clarity of mind and coolness of head to be the one who brings it all together for Team USA when they’re struggling to find a rhythm as they were in the first half of this one.  The one thing she really didn’t have for too much of this one, though, was the ball.  Get Heather the ball gang – I think there will be fewer first halves like the one in this game if you do.

Lloyd – I like the 2011 version of Carli Lloyd.  It’s been the Carli Lloyd we’ve been waiting to see for a while.  She seemed to lose her way there for a bit.  A combination of injury, some not so great coaching in WPS, and what appeared to be a complete loss of confidence made the past few years kind of lost ones for her, but what I’ve seen from her this year, is what got everyone so excited about her when she first hit the National Team scene.  She’s never going to be a classic distributor, it’s just not who she is.  But she is a very dangerous offensive weapon.  She was strong in the air, both offensively and defensively, she was providing support to the forwards and she was connecting well with her teammates in the second half.  She was instrumental in creating both goals.  Great distance ball to Wambach set up the first goal and just being right in front of the goal mouth, exactly where she should have been, set up the second.  I think her overall game has improved as well – a lot more help on defense then we generally see from her and she just seems to have a better sense of the entire field and where she is on it than she’s had in the past.  She’s more than just a finisher.  She seems to have developed a more complete game – or, if she’s had it all along, she’s final showing it to us.  Solid outing.  I said to a friend going in, Team USA needs Lloyd and O’Reilly to show up big this tournament.  Lloyd’s off to a good start on that count.

Wambach – Very quiet first half.  Too many long balls in the first half and no one was getting on the end of them.   The Koreans were clogging up the midfield, just swarming O’Reilly whenever she got anywhere near the ball so the forwards weren’t getting much service.  Communication wasn’t great at the outset either – one instance with Abby obviously leaving the ball off for a give and go wasn’t executed.  Abby did the go but the other player (I forget who it was) didn’t give.  Abby was playing a little deep at times in the first half and that clogged up the midfield even more.  A little frustration at not getting the ball definitely seeped in.  As with everyone, her second half was much much better.  The whole team was stretching the field and everyone had more space.  I think the Koreans might have been having some fitness issues as well.  All the swarming on the player with the ball simply wasn’t happening.  A lot of that was because the US stopped bunching, but some of it was that I think the Koreans just wore themselves out double teaming the ball the entire first half.  Anyway, Abby benefitted from the extra space and made some great serves to her teammates, including the ball in for the first goal, and had a couple of great chances of her own – the cross into her head from LePeilbet being the best of those chances.  Overall a solid outing, even if it started more quietly than I would like.  Her teammates need to think about getting her a score in the Colombia game.  I have a feeling once Wambach gets one, the floodgates are going to open and it would be great if Team USA would unleash that torrent before they get to the knockout rounds. 

Rodriguez – Like Abby, I think she wasn’t getting the ball enough in the first half.  This is a player who needs balls played through on the ground and who I think would benefit most from Heather O’Reilly getting the ball more.  Heather O can put her through, we know she can.  However, the one touch passing that has been the hallmark of the Sundhage era has to happen for the opportunity to put those balls though to arise.  Second half, all the combination play was better so Rodriguez had a few chances.  The timing seems to be a tad off at times.  If someone’s putting a ball through that Rodriguez can’t get to, then the passing is a little heavy.  There isn’t much A-Rod can’t run down.  Solid but unspectacular game.  They just weren’t playing a style conducive to her being really successful for much of the night.

Morgan – Didn’t make much of an impression.  The combination and communication between everyone else was just jelling when she got in the game and I’m not sure she was immediately a part of it.  She was very active while she was in, just not too much notable happened.  I expect to see more of her and as Team USA’s only real youth player, I’m glad to see her playing a meaningful role on the team.

Rapinoe – Glad they got her in and I’m glad that immediately after she got in, she got a touch on the ball.  She is an absolute livewire.  Bringing her in late to run at defenses is a great idea.  She was everywhere all at once.  Sometimes that drives me crazy with her, so much expended energy, so little purpose.  But as a late game sub, that’s exactly what you want.  Rapinoe running at you over and over and over again until you make a mistake.  Just as happened on what should have been Team USA’s third goal.  Abby smashed the ball toward goal, Rapinoe was there for the follow up.  She never stops running and I know I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again, it will pay dividends later in the tournament.  If this is her role and if she’s dedicated to it, I’m thinking Shannon MacMillan in 1996 kind of dividends.  We shall see. 

And that is it.  It isn’t always pretty with the US, but they find a way to win.  I love that they started a little muddled but then completely readjusted at halftime.  They looked like a different, much better team in the second half.  Seeing this game, I actually feel a lot better about Team USA than I did going into the tournament.  They seem to be made of pretty tough stuff, they don’t get down when it’s not going well and they really do seem to be trying to play together.  Now, they need to be supremely focused going into the Colombia game.  As the game against Sweden showed today, there are no walkovers in this one.  If they want that steamroll game that their fans love so much, they’re going to have to earn it because I don’t think the Colombians have any intention of rolling over for them.

Beulah