Posted on: July 17, 2011 1:38 pm
Edited on: July 17, 2011 1:40 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
We speculated yesterday that after substitute Megan Rapinoe's heroics in the U.S.'s two elimination games and the continued struggles of starting forward Amy Rodriguez, head coach Pia Sundhage might promote Rapinoe to the starting lineup or drop Rodriguez to the subs' bench for today's Women's World Cup final.
As it turns out, Sundhage has elected to kill both of those birds with the same stone. Midfielder Lauren Cheney has been moved to striker, both opening up a position for Rapinoe on the wing and moving Rodriguez to the bench.
Cheney has plenty of experience at striker and proved her goalscoring chops in the semifinal against France, finishing cooly to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 9th minute. Her superior passing to Rodriguez's could also help what projects to be a substantial U.S. deficit in possession against the highly technical Japanese.
As expected, central defender Rachel Buehler has returned to the starting lineup after her red-card suspension against the French. Replacement Becky Sauerbrunn returns to the bench.
The full U.S. starting 11:
GK: Hope Solo
D (right to left): Aly Krieger, Rachel Buehler, Christie Rampone, Amy LePeilbet
M: Heather O'Reilly, Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe
F: Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney
Posted on: July 16, 2011 12:57 pm
Edited on: July 16, 2011 2:29 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
In short, on paper, the veteran Lloyd was the last player you'd think to remove from a tied World Cup semifinal, with the Americans under a second-half siege and desperately needing a stronger, steadier presence in the center of midfield.
On the field, though, it wasn't working out that way. Lloyd was struggling, giving up possession far too easily against the swarming French midfield and repeatedly failing to get the ball wide to the U.S.'s threatening wingers. So in the 65th minute, head coach Pia Sundhage did the nigh-unthinkable: she substituted Lloyd out of the game. Left-sided midfielder Lauren Cheney -- and her nearly 70 fewer caps -- took up Lloyd's spot in the center, while Megan Rapinoe (the supplier of the cross for Abby Wambach's heart-stopping goal against Brazil) went wide.
It was by far the most aggressive, most courageous, boldest decision made all tournament by the typically conservative Sundhage. And it paid off in a bushel of spades -- what had been one-way traffic toward the American goal slowly and steadily shifted in the opposite direction as Rapinoe terrorized the French backline and Cheney stabilized the center of midfield. Seventeen minutes after the Lloyd substitution, Rapinoe fed Alex Morgan for what became the clinching goal, and the U.S. was off to the final with a 3-1 victory. The match's turning point -- and the colossal impact of Sundhage's decision -- could not have been more obvious.
Now, with less than 24 hours until the U.S. takes on Japan for its first World Cup title since 1999 (Sunday, 2:45 ET, ESPN), Sundhage faces choices even bigger than those that decided the semifinal. The sort of coach who might celebrate victory with an air guitar solo or sing Simon and Garfunkel at a press conference, the Swedish-born Sundhage has often seen her tactics and roster management overshadowed by her quirky off-field personality. The irony there is that the latter plays a big role in the former -- Sundhage's (seemingly) laid-back, carefree approach to life is mirrored in her cautious, let-the-players-work-through-their-
Despite frustrating some of the more rabid followers of the USWNT, it's an approach that's paid impressive dividends during the Americans' World Cup run. After left back Amy LePeilbet's howler of a performance in the 2-1 group-stage loss to Sweden, the calls for her benching were long and loud. But Sundhage opted for a more subtle adjustment, moving veteran Christie Rampone from the right to the left of the U.S.'s central defense to give LePeilbet more support; the result was the American backline's best outing of the tournament against Brazil.
That win did come at the cost of a semifinal suspension for the U.S.'s other central defender, the red-carded Rachel Buehler. Many USWNT supporters suggested Sundhage replace Buehler by moving LePeilbet to her more natural central defensive position and starting the promising Stephanie Cox at left back. Instead Sundhage kept LePeilbet in place, simply moved the untested Becky Sauerbrunn into the starting lineup in Buehler's spot, and watched Sauerbrunn play the game of her young career against the French.
But just as it became necessary to yank Lloyd to turn the tide against the French, so winning a championship against a poised, confident Japanese side will likely require Sundhage to once again make some bolder decisions than she might be comfortable with.
Forward Amy Rodriguez, for instance, has started every game of the tournament, but has yet to find the net. Is it time to give the enterprising Morgan the start instead? The U.S. has frequently struggled to maintain possession and faces an even bigger challenge to do so against the technically gifted Japanese. Though the U.S. rarely plays with a five-woman midfield, might it be worth doing so to keep Lloyd and fellow central midfielder Shannon Boxx from being overrun, as they were against the French? And then there's Rapinoe, easily the best American player on the field in the semifinal. As stocked as the U.S. is at her wide midfield slot, shouldn't there be a spot for her in the starting lineup somewhere?
Those questions aren't easy to answer, which is why even the happy-go-lucky Sundhage is no doubt feeling the weight of the World Cup at this very moment. Stick too closely to her conservative guns or experiment too wildly, and she blows the biggest opportunity the U.S. has enjoyed in more than a decade in front of the biggest audience of her and her players' careers. Correctly weigh her cautious instincts with the right amount of aggression, though, and she wins the championship that etches her name alongside those of Anson Dorrance and Tony DiCicco as one of the greatest coaches in USWNT history.
By this time tomorrow, a new Women's World Cup champion will be crowned. And for the U.S.A., it all hangs in its manager's balance.
Tags: Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Amy LePeilbet, Amy Rodriguez, Anson Dorrance, Becky Sauerbrunn, Brazil, Carli Lloyd, Christie Rampone, France, Lauren Cheney, Megan Rapinoe, Pia Sundhage, Shannon Boxx, Stephanie Cox, Sweden, Tony DiCicco, U.S. Women's National Team, U.S. women's soccer, USWNT, Women's World Cup
Posted on: July 11, 2011 11:57 am
Edited on: July 11, 2011 12:21 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
It took the U.S. Women's National Team 12 long years. But Brandi Chastain finally has some company.
No, we're not already putting yesterday's fightback-for-the-ages against Brazil on the same pedestal as Chastain's legendary Cup-clinching penalty kick and (just as legendary) jersey-optional celebration. That moment remains the single most iconic moment in U.S. soccer history, men's or women's, and until Abby Wambach winds up on the cover of Time, it's no contest.
But it is a conversation. Wambach's 122nd-minute goal* and the U.S.'s subsequent victory on penalties sent Twitter into a frenzy, led every highlight package edited in this country between then and now, and drew congratulations from everyone from Ochocinco to Li'l Wayne. Not one not two but three different senior CBSSports.com writers were moved to sing the praises of their epic in Dresden. Yes, the USWNT have had their moments since 1999 (a pair of Olympic gold medals among them), but at no time have they firmly, decisively re-entered the national sports consciousness the way they did yesterday.
So they've got our attention. Which is why we ask: What now?
It was just a year ago the country was experiencing the same brand of summer soccer euphoria, thanks to Landon Donovan's equally-thrilling goal against Algeria to send the U.S. men into the final 16 of their World Cup. Wambach's goal drew immediate comparisons to Donovan's for many reasons -- their improbable lateness, their shared do-or-die drama, the impeccable call of ESPN's Ian Darke on each -- but one overlooked similarity is the golden opportunity each created for their respective teams. For the USMNT, it meant a path to an unprecedented Cup semifinal berth free of any of the world's traditional powers; only Ghana and Uruguay stood in their way.
After a carnage-filled quarterfinal round, the U.S. women likewise find themselves the sudden favorite among the four remaining teams. Highly-touted England went out on penalties to upstart European rivals France; hosts Germany were stunned by Japan 1-0 in what many observers have called the biggest upset in Women's World Cup history; and of course Brazil is going home trophyless once again, having run into their American archrivals a round (or two) earlier than they'd have liked. Both the French and likely finalist Sweden (3-1 quarterfinal victors over a solid Australian team) have strong, sound programs that only the U.S.'s best efforts will overcome, but neither can boast the USWNT's overall depth or tournament-honed pedigree.
In short, the door is open. And with the team still riding the wave of interest generated by yesterday's impossible finish, walking through it means the names of stars like Wambach, Hope Solo, and Megan Rapinoe (provider of that pinpoint cross to Wambach) could reach the same kind of household status held by previous USWNT stars like Chastain, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. Win these two matches -- winnable matches, at the minimum -- and the U.S. women come home with even more than a championship.
That's not the team's only problem, either. For all of Wambach's aerial brilliance and fellow striker Amy Rodriguez's speed, the U.S. has often lacked creativity in attack, preferring a direct route approach that defenders at this level (unless they've been on the field for 122 minutes already) are usually prepared to deal with. Coach Pia Sundhage has seemed unwilling or unable to call on her bench, exacerbating the fitness issue. And most worryingly, the U.S. back line -- led by intelligent-but-aging centerback Christie Rampone -- has looked wobbly throughout the tournament (most notably in the 2-1 group stage loss to Sweden that doomed the Americans to the Brazil quarterfinal in the first place). Now they face France without red-carded starter Rachel Buehler, and the relatively green Becky Sauerbrunn making her tournament debut in Buehler's place.
But for all of that, the Americans still have plenty going for them. They have Solo, by nearly all accounts the world's best goalkeeper. They have the indomitable Wambach. In Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney, and Heather O'Reilly, they have a wealth of outside attacking talent that few teams can match. More than anything, they have the same never-say-die fighting spirit that has always been the hallmark of American soccer, men's or women's.
That spirit is why they now also have the the greatest opportunity of their soccer careers. What now? Now the USWNT either takes advantage of that opportunity, or Wambach's goal -- like Donovan's before it -- is remembered as the brilliant high point of a World Cup campaign that wound up less brilliant than it might have been.
*Do you realize how few soccer matches even have 122nd minutes?
Tags: Abby Wambach, Algeria, Amy Rodriguez, Australia, Becky Sauerbrunn, Brandi Chastain, Brazil, Christie Rampone, England, Germany, Ghana, Heather O'Reilly, Hope Solo, Ian Darke, Japan, Julie Foudy, Lauren Cheney, Li'l Wayne, Megan Rapinoe, Mia Hamm, Pia Sundhage, Rachel Buehler, Sweden, U.S. Men's National Team, U.S. Women's National Team, Uruguay, USMNT, USWNT, Women's World Cup, World Cup