US 2 Brazil 2 - US Advances on PKs

Holy moly . . . Anyone else really exhausted?  US v. Brazil at the World Cup – it’s never boring.  That was the craziest most emotional match in recent memory.  I’m not a real exuberant sort by nature, but I leapt off my couch and was jumping up and down in my living room on Abby’s equalizer.  Playing over 50 minutes a man down, giving up a goal in the opening seconds of extra time, then getting that goal back in the extra time of extra time, a fantastic save on the PK and BOOM, USA victory – this match just had a little bit of everything.  I think it’s safe to say this match report is going to be focused on the positive, because I honestly can’t remember a darn thing they did wrong in this outing.  OK, maybe I can, and maybe I’ll mention a few, but come on, if you can’t love a win like this, stop watching sports. 

Regarding how Team USA came out today – honestly, even if they’d lost, I’d be pleased with this performance.  The defense looked transformed.  The US played deeper, they played more organized, they double teamed more and they surrounded the slow with the speedy.  The early goal by the US really allowed the midfield to come back and help defensively as well.  When Marta got the ball she was swarmed.  When anyone else got the ball, there were at least 2 players closing on them.  I guess my tweak on the US’s game in this one, they seemed to be sitting on that one goal lead at times.  Too many midfielders playing too deep.  Boxx was on in this one, having Rampone to back her up seemed to bolster LePeilbet’s confidence a bit, so I’m not sure Amy Rodriguez needed to be in the defensive third as often as she was, especially since a few careless touches led to some scary turnovers and Brazilian chances.  There were too many turnovers on light passes for the US all over the field though.  It made for some scary moments, but the commitment to team defending kept the Brazilians from capitalizing too much.  That and the fact that the Brazilians were mysteriously lacking some aggression, especially when the US went a man down.  I spent about 20 minutes wondering why Brazil didn’t just force the ball down the US’s throat when Buehler went out.  They were content to knock it around their own end and pick their spots rather than mounting a full on assault. 

Regarding the US offense, well, it wasn’t particularly pretty at times.  Too many passes weren’t connecting.  But at the same time, they did come out aggressively, which caused the first goal.  Shannon Boxx, defensive midfielder, ran all the way up the left side and put a nice ball into the box.  Even though it’s scored an own goal, Boxx caused it and it was a sign that she was going to have a very different outing from her last one.  The team was playing well in stretches, but still weren’t putting balls through to Rodriguez and distributing as well as would have been optimal.  I think defense was the focus though and the team defended well.  Everything sharpened up a bit when they went a man down and in the extra time.  It had to.  Everyone was a little more careful with the passing and maintaining possession, Morgan was on fresh legs and wreaking some havoc and Rapinoe came in and was in the passing lanes. 

Overall, from an analytical soccer standpoint, this might not have been the most beautiful game either team has played.  But from a pure sports fan point of view, the drama, the agony, the ecstasy – this game was a one for the ages in women’s soccer.  Against all odds, a man down, against arguably the most potent offense in the world, Team USA plays Brazil even through the end of regulation and only gives up a single goal in the extra time . . . and then, and THEN, they get one back to take it to PKs.  That was the goal, to make the PKs and ultimately put the game in Solo’s hands.  Just a crazy crazy day.  Despite any nitpicking that’s about to take place, I’ve got to say, as a fan of Team USA, I couldn’t be prouder.

OK – let’s do this – be warned, I’m not sure I remember anything . . .

FORMATION

4-4-2 – back-front, left-right – GK: Solo; Def: LePeilbet, Rampone, Buehler, Krieger; Mid: Cheney, Boxx, Lloyd, O’Reilly with Boxx withdrawn and sitting on the defense much of the outing; Fwd: Wambach, Rodriguez.  Rapinoe in for Cheney, Morgan in for Rodriguez, Heath in for O’Reilly.  Buehler went out, Boxx slipped back but was actually still getting forward into the attack. 

PLAYERS

Solo – Wow – just wow.  Saves the PK in regular time, gets it called back, gives the next one up, but doesn’t let it affect her game.  We all knew, everyone who has ever rooted for Team USA knew, just get it to PKs and Hope will stop one.  Just get to PKs and the US is in the semis.  The PK saved in the shootout was actually well struck and well placed, Hope just stretched out and made the stop.  Easy peasy.  What a luxury to have a keeper like this – where we actually expect that she’s going to save a PK.  She is very simply a game changer.  And in the women’s game finding a goalkeeper who is a game changer in a good way, is extremely rare.  As for the rest of her game, she was in command of her box from the start.  Very vocal, crashing into Brazilian players who were in her way and calling off defenders with abandon.  A little too aggressive off her line early which led to a scary moment or two, but that’s who she is.  She’s not a stay at home keeper.  Her shoulder may be hurting her but she’s dealing with the pain brilliantly.  She stretched out and up and landed on that shoulder several times in this one and despite a grimace or two and some windmill stretching, no ill effects popped up during the match.  Regarding the PK retake – if that call was anything other than encroachment by the defender, it was a ridiculous call.  Fortunately, it wound up not mattering.  Brilliant game and this whole section could, and maybe should, have been comprised simply of the two words: HOPE ROCKS.

LePeilbet – Best game of the tournament to date.  I still don’t love it (and with Buehler out, I imagine we’ll be getting a reprieve from it in the semis), but she is getting more comfortable on the left and in providing support to the offense.  She was connecting some passes offensively and sending some nice balls in.  She worked her way into the box early and had a really nice shot that went just a little wide.  More significantly, she defended better.  The entire defense was playing deeper and seemed a lot more organized.  She benefited.  With a double team, either from Rampone or Cheney she could make better plays – turning the ball to kick it out over the sideline or up the field for a clearance.  She just seemed more confident.  The whole team did.  Solid outing, I expect to see her playing in the center, between Krieger and Rampone, in the next one. 

Rampone – Great game.  She was everywhere making play after play.  She served a beautiful ball up to Boxx which led to the first goal.  She’s taken good free kicks from distance the entire tournament.  And defensively, she got dinged when they looked disorganized against Sweden, so she gets the praise in this one.  They were highly organized, they combined with the midfield to provide double teams on attacking Brazilians (and triple and quadruple teams when the attacker was Marta) and they played fairly deep which minimized some of the problems the back line has with speedy attackers.  This is how a slower defense plays a faster side – I think against Sweden, they just underestimated the speed.  I don’t have much else here – this was her best game of the tournament defensively and from a leadership standpoint as well.  The defense is not quite on the string that it was in the days of Carla Overbeck, but it was as close as it’s come in a long long time. They need to be just this organized, if not playing quite as deep, in the next one. 

Buehler – We all have a bias.  Never let anyone tell you that what you’re reading is a completely objective piece, because there is no such thing.  Man is biased – period.  And as all longtime readers know, I come at things from a defender’s perspective.  So here’s my take on the red card.  The ball was free and Marta made a decision to come off her feet and launch herself at the defender.  You can’t blame the defender when the attacking player is 100% responsible for creating the contact, and you really can’t do it in the quarterfinals of the World Cup when you’re in the box and where you have to issue a red card, essentially give the other team a goal, and make the defending team play a man down for the rest of the game.  The ball was loose, Marta jumped into Buehler and made sure she made a spectacular fall to the turf.  And the ref bit.  Where were Kari Seitz and the tall blonde German ref (apologies for not knowing her name) in the quarters?  The two best, most experienced refs in the tourney and I don’t believe either one of them called a game in the quarters. And the Czech ref, who is also a go to ref for these tournaments, was the fourth official in this one – why wasn’t she on the pitch – it’s absurd, it’s unacceptable and it almost dictated the outcome of this match.  OK – that’s my tantrum about that.  Buehler was having a solid outing.  As always she defends really well in the air.  For someone who isn’t especially tall she uses her head so well defensively.  I think she benefited from the switch with Rampone almost as much as LePeilbet did.  She’s perfectly capable of covering her own territory, but I think she was struggling with having to control her own territory and keep an eye on LePeilbet as well.  In this one, she could concentrate on the double team and keeping the attack from coming up the middle.  And that’s about it – seeing her tearful hug with Pia at the end of the match made me glad for her that they won the match as much as anything.

Krieger – She had another solid outing.  She was getting up the sideline offensively, providing as much help defensively up the middle as she has all tournament.  Quite a bit more was running right at her than it had previously and she handled it well.  There were a couple of confrontations with Marta where she just bodied her up beautifully.  Pushed her off the ball a couple of times, changed Marta’s shot or pass a couple of times more.  And that’s really all I’ve got – the team defense was just so much improved in this one and she combined very well with her teammates on that count in this one.

Cheney – She was all over the place.  I’m not sure if they abandoned the left side in the first half because of the glare or not, but she was rarely out there.  Play for the US was largely up the middle or out wide right for a lot of the first half.  There was a lot of space out wide left that wasn’t being used so if it wasn’t by design due to the slowly setting sun, then her decision to abandon the flank probably wasn’t the best.  At the same time, she did fall back defensively quite often in this one.  With the early goal, the US really had the luxury of pulling Cheney back to help LePeilbet defensively.  Of the forwards/offensive minded midfielders not named Wambach, Cheney has been the best defensively this tournament.  It’s been a nice surprise – a facet to her game of which I was not aware.  And that’s about it.  Not a lot to say about her performance in this one.  A quieter offensive performance than we’ve seen, but she did help maintain possession and win balls throughout the midfield so I was a tad surprised that she was the player who was subbed out for Rapinoe. 

Boxx – Now THAT’S how Shannon Boxx plays soccer.  A wonderful rebound performance.  Everything I criticized in the last, was cured in this one.  She was very aggressive from the opening whistle.  That run up the left on her goal was all about creating a target for her teammates.  The ball went off Rampone’s foot and Boxx was streaking up the left and she took it to the endline and put it in the box.  Brilliant play by her and the only thing that upsets me about it being scored an own goal is that Boxx doesn’t get a hard earned assist.  I also loved that she was playing such a physical match.  I cheered every tackle.  In order to have success against Brazil, you have got to play them physically, it takes them out of their game, and she seemed quite dedicated to it.  She sat right on top of the defense for a lot of the first half but she still made very timely runs forward.  Tremendous workrate throughout and she only very rarely was out of position.  Passing, especially leave offs and back passes were a little light for the whole team for most of the match (until Buehler went off actually, then it got much sharper) so there were a few more turnovers than is optimal, but nothing too horrid happened with them.  Regarding Marta’s goal, yes, she was on Marta right there and maybe not exactly where I would have wanted her to be, but sometimes, it’s just a great goal.  And for me, that goal was about Marta being Marta, and not about Boxx screwing up.  Yeah – play the whistle, don’t look for the call, but I don’t think that’s why the ball scored there.  Just a beaut by Marta.  And that’s about it.  A much more characteristic outing for Boxx.  She’s still got it – just need to make sure she has had enough rest along the way so she is able to bring it to each and every match she plays.

Lloyd – She seemed a little schizophrenic in this match for me.  If just talking about the first 70 minutes of this one, I’d say this wasn’t her finest outing.  But she’s one of the players who really sharpened up when Buehler went off.  In the early going, she was turning the ball over too much and not really getting into good positions or making well times runs offensively.  She was helping on defense and playing physically, although, she got a little careless at times.  Play physically but make sure you don’t get kicked out of the game.  She came close on a couple of plays to seeing that second yellow.  Once the US was playing a man down, she really sharpened up.  She had a nice shot in the waning moments that went just a little high (taken from the top of the box about 20 yards out, not 30+ - now that’s a distance shot she can take and make).  She helped create chances and maintain possession in the extra time.  Ultimately, a solid outing, just need her to take a little more care with possession and weighting her passes appropriately in the next one. 

O’Reilly – I love Heather O, you know I do, but she’s the one player in whom I was a little disappointed in this one.  It’s not that she did anything wrong, and she was helping a lot on defense as that right side was seeing more of the attack than they have all tournament long, but she wasn’t really imposing herself offensively.  I think my expectations and standards for her are a tad higher than for anyone else.  I expected to see her making runs wide and making runs into the box and feeding balls through to Rodriguez and Wambach a little more.  She seemed more than a little distracted defensively so that probably explains it, but I’m looking to see a lot more Heather O’Reilly torturing defenses in the next one. 

Wambach – GOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLLLLL . . . . . GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!  She had it when they needed it and made it seem like that had been her plan all along.  Great players come up big in big games – it may have taken her 121 minutes, but she certainly did that in this one.  Not going to bother with anything else here – I think an equalizing goal, playing a man down, in the 122nd minute gives her a pass on all that preceded it.

Rodriguez – Early on a few balls were coming on the ground to her and she was running onto them nicely.  I still think the timing with the through balls on this team needs some work.  If I was going to run them through some drills the next few days, drills addressing that timing would be what I’d work on.  She’s such an amazing weapon, I just don’t feel that her timing with any of her teammates is that great.  She was trying to help defensively at times and while you’ve got to appreciate a forward coming back to help, especially since she is one of the few players on the US roster who can deal with the Brazilian speed, she has got to be more careful with her touches in the defensive third.  Turnovers deep are a lot more troublesome than turnovers in front of the other team’s goal.  Neither is great, but one can lose a game for you.  And that’s about it.  I liked her workrate in this one as much as I have the past two weeks, it’s just that timing that’s gnawing at me now.  She should have ample opportunity to run at the French defense in the next one. 

Rapinoe – Hmmmm, I seem to recall someone saying something about Rapinoe coming off the bench to be an absolute game changer at some point during this tournament . . . I think an absolute perfect ball to Wambach’s head for the equalizer in the 122nd minute qualifies.  Just a brilliant ball – she has such a strong leg – she’s been a little heavy with her passing and with her shot for a lot of the tournament, but right then, when it mattered the most, she weighted the ball just right, she placed it just right and she made one of the most important and perfect passes in US National Team history.  And that’s all I have to say about that.

Morgan – She was running at the defense from the second she got in.  Her timing with Krieger, Lloyd and Boxx actually seemed pretty good.  She was helping defensively as well.  She just isn’t really getting the opportunity to run in on the defense.  No one is really setting her through the seams.  I’d like to see her play out there with Lori Lindsey or with O’Reilly playing a little more centrally to see what kind of damage she could do.  I do like that she’s getting meaningful minutes against top tier opponents during this tournament.  This is invaluable experience for her and she’s one of the few of “tomorrow’s stars” who is actually on this roster and getting playing time. 

Heath – Not really in long enough to make much of an impact.  I never love seeing Heather O go out, but with her coming off injury and not making much noise on offense, I didn’t think this was a bad choice.  Heath seemed to be a little more careful with possession than she usually is and she was running at the defense forcing the Brazilians to stay honest defending.  And that’s about it – usually she does something to really tick me off, but I am uncharacteristically ambivalent about her game today so she probably did pretty well. 

Now, here’s the challenge:  remembering that there are two games left.  The US looks like a team that just won the World Cup.   But they’ve got two games left against two pretty darn good teams.  France’s offense is frightening – it comes from so many places, it comes quickly and it comes relentlessly.  That team has a cold blooded attacking mentality and they don’t really seem to let anything take them off their game.  Underestimate them, as I get the feeling Team USA underestimated Sweden, and this tournament might not end as well as they would like.  However, when Team USA shows up sharp, respects their opponent, plays aggressively offensively and disciplined defensively, they can beat anyone.

And that is it.  What a game.  Can’t we ever just get a normal game where both teams finish with all their players on the pitch and no one has to take a PK when these two meet in the World Cup.  I can’t be the only one curious about who would win if it was 11 v. 11 with no controversial calls.  But, ‘twas not to be.  As it was, the US treated its fans to a heart stopping win.  No one gets more annoyed with the references to the USA mentality than I – I’ve even challenged my friends to make a drinking game of it – whenever a former US National Team coach or player says “mentality,” DRINK!  That said, this was one of the grittiest, toughest, never say die wins I have ever seen in any sport.  The Brazilians are faster, more skilled and were up a player.  And the US held them scoreless during regulation and held them to one in the extra time.  And then, amazingly, when the Brazilians just had to hold on for one more minute, the US scores the equalizer.  The PKs were a formality – someone in the postgame said “someone is writing this book” and that’s a great way to look at it . . . except I don’t know that there’s anyone with enough imagination to have included all the twists this one took. 

Beulah