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Tag:USWNT
Posted on: July 17, 2011 6:47 pm
 

Unthinkable: U.S. women out-closed, out-finished

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

There were a lot of scripts for today's Women's World Cup final that ended in defeat for the U.S.A. against Japan. The one it followed had to have been the most far-fetched of all.

Because if there was one thing the U.S. knew they could rely on, one strength they could always fall back to, it was their ability to finish. No team was fitter. No team was more resilient. No team dealt better with pressure. Down a goal and a player in the 122nd minute to Brazil? No problem. Tied 1-1 with France with 15 minutes to play after an hour of French domination? We'll win by two. 

So when the U.S. went up 1-0 thanks a brilliant Alex Morgan strike and took that lead into the 80th minute, you could have forgiven the watching nation for believing the Cup was within reach. But the crushing defensive lapses that had hamstrung the U.S. in group play reared its head again, two failed clearances from Rachel Buehler and Alex Krieger leaving Aya Miyama to stab home from close range. Cup: back out of reach.

OK, so it's extra time, but they're the U.S. No problem, right? It looked that way when the terrific Morgan turned her defender and lofted a pinpoint cross that Abby Wambach headed home with maximum authority. 2-1 up and with the clock ticking under five minutes to play, the Cup was within the U.S.'s reach. Again.

But with the American defense suddenly -- and surprisingly -- looking dead-legged, Japan mounted a last-minute surge and forced a corner. That corner fell to Homare Sawa, Japan's best player and the tournament's high scorer. 2-2. Cup gone. Again.

But they'd done it at the absolute death of overtime once already, right? And sure enough, with just seconds remaining, Heather O'Reilly somehow broke free on the right flank to cross to an unmarked Wambach just six yards from goal. Wambach, the U.S.'s certain closer, the U.S.'s cold-blooded assassin, their finisher of finishers. But the ball fall fell to her feet, rather than her head; the one-time shot skewed wildly over the bar.

But with Hope Solo in goal and the kind of precision on display in their 5-for-5 ouster of Brazil, surely a penalty kick shootout would belong to the U.S. Right? Please? 

No. The U.S.'s first three penalty takers (Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, and Tobin Heath) went a stunning 0-for-3. It was over. 

It was unthinkable. A loss? Not a shock. But like this? As not just the second-best team, but the second-most resilient team, the second-most clutch team?

It's the sort of defeat that -- like the U.S. men's loss to Ghana in the wake of Landon Donovan's heart-stopping goal against Algeria last year -- cannot help but take some of the shine off of the Brazil comeback that first seized the country's sporting attention the Sunday before. As amazing a moment as that remains, quarterfinals aren't finals. Goals scored in the 122nd minute don't count more than ones given up in the 117th. Losses from ahead are every bit as devastating as wins from behind. That's sports.

That's not to say the U.S.'s one shootout loss should overshadow what came before it. The USWNT took advantage of this tournament to re-establish themselves as one of the world's elite sides. They reminded the nation of the drama and power of the sport they play, just a year before they look to defend their Olympic title. They lost to a deserving champion, one who punished opponents' mistakes mercilessly throughout the tournament and did so again today. The U.S. should remain immensely proud of their accomplishments, and the nation should remain immensely appreciative of the giddy ride we've been taken on.

But assessing the Americans' entire tournament means also assessing the Final's last 10 minutes of regulation, that final 5 minutes of extra time, that dreadful shootout. And as brilliant as the U.S. was in Germany, there's no way that assessment can't conclude that the U.S. chose the worst possible time to close in the worst possible fashion.

It's not the script we expected. And after 12 long years, the U.S. must now wait four long more for their World Cup rewrite.

Posted on: July 17, 2011 1:38 pm
Edited on: July 17, 2011 1:40 pm
 

USWNT names Finals starting 11

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 10:25 pm
Edited on: July 17, 2011 2:00 pm
 

What the U.S. women must do to win the WWC

Posted by Jerry Hinnen



There are some things we know the U.S. Women's National Team will do in today's World Cup Final against upstart Japan. 

We know they will run until their lungs burst. We know they will do anything and everything they can to get the ball to the head of Abby Wambach. We know Hope Solo will provide the steadiness in goal that comes with being the world's best female goalkeeper. We know, after their epic comeback against Brazil, that regardless of scoreline they will throw everything they've got at the Japanese for all 90 minutes. Or, if it comes to it, 120. Or 122. 

But those things alone won't be enough. Here's five more the USWNT must do to win their first World Cup title since 1999:

Win the set-piece battle. This final matches up arguably the world's two most dangerous women's teams on free kicks, though each side creates that danger through very different means. Behind the precision shots of Aya Miyama, Japan is a substantial threat to score directly from a dead ball; Wambach, meanwhile, has used the tournament to again prove herself the greatest aerial target in the women's game. If the U.S.'s crosses to Wambach can cause more havoc for Japan than Miyama's free kicks can for the U.S, the edge could prove decisive for the Americans. (And given the huge physical advantage the towering Wambach has over Japan's size-challenged defenders, that's not unlikely.)

But it's not just about quality; it's about quantity, too. Even moreso than usual, the U.S. must be careful not to commit unnecessary fouls near their own box--particularly since the Japanese have been one of the tournament's best teams in avoiding those kinds of fouls themselves.

Keep pressing--but do it smartly. The U.S. is the soccer equivalent of Nolan Richardson's old "40 Minutes of Hell" Arkansas basketball teams, using their box-to-box pressing style both to 1. force turnovers and create scoring opportunities as well as 2. grind down opponents with their superior fitness and strength. But against France in Wednesday's semifinal, the U.S. became too aggressive at times, pushing five or even six players into the French side of midfield to pressure just four defenders. While this approach can pay huge dividends against the Colombias of the world, against the skilled French it more often resulted in a quick pass through or over the pressure--and a scramble in the American defense. And unfortunately for the U.S., Japan is much more France than Colombia when it comes to team skill.

That's not to say the U.S. should abandon the philosophy that's brought them this far. (In fact, it was just a game ago that Sweden's only goal against the Japanese came following an uncharacteristic giveaway by star midfielder Homare Sawa.) But a bit more caution will be called for against a team that passes as well as Japan, particularly if the U.S. can once again grab an early lead.  

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Defensively, just don't make the killer mistake. U.S. fans should go ahead and accept that their team will lose the possession battle; tight, controlled passing is (as mentioned) the cornerstone of the Japanese game, while the Americans' direct approach often gives the ball up willingly in exchange for the chance of hitting a deep home run to Wambach or speedier forwards Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan.

But as with France -- who dominated the middle hour of the semifinal but had just one semi-fortunate goal to show for it -- all that possession doesn't have to guarantee Japan an end product. Even against Sweden, where Japan hogged the ball for a startling 60 percent of the match, all three Japanese goals could be partially (or fully) attributed to breakdowns by Swedish keeper
Hedvig Lindal. And before that match, Japan had scored just one goal over their previous 210 minutes of play. If the steadily improving U.S. backline (and perpetually reliable Solo) can avoid making the same crushing errors that doomed the Swedes, Japan could have trouble finding the net no matter how eye-popping their possession figures.

Get the ball wide. Speaking of possession, central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx struggled badly to maintain it against the French. But perhaps their even bigger sin was their failure to consistently get the ball to starting wingers Heather O'Reilly and Lauren Cheney. While Wambach is the finisher, it's the wide midfielders -- O'Reilly, Cheney, and in-form substitute Megan Rapinoe -- who provide the bulk of the U.S. attack's creativity and flow.

Lloyd and Boxx must simply do a better job of getting the wingers involved, and the quicker their passing the better; Japanese outside backs
Aya Samashima and Yukari Kinga have been known to push forward and leave space behind them for the taking.

If all else fails, take it to penalty kicks. Between Solo and the penalty-taking clinic the U.S. put on in their shootout against Brazil, the Americans will be heavy favorites if the match reaches that stage. While the U.S. has never been the sort of squad to sit back and just let the clock peter out on a tie game, their likely advantage in this scenario suggests that once the clock hits the 110th or 115th minute, that might be the better strategy than risking a sudden breakdown at the back.

The U.S. has never lost to Japan, going 22-0-3 against their fellow finalists all-time and even winning a pair of meetings by identical 2-0 scores earlier this year. Naturally, the elevated stakes and Japan's impressive tournament form mean that those records don't count for a whole lot. But if the U.S. can get Wambach the crosses she needs -- either from set pieces or the wings -- and stay steady at the back, don't be surprised if they stay perfect against Japan all the same ... and return home the nation's biggest soccer heroes since their famous forerunners 12 years ago.  



Posted on: July 16, 2011 12:57 pm
Edited on: July 16, 2011 2:29 pm
 

USWNT: Sundhage must stay aggressive

Posted by Jerry Hinnen



Entering Wednesday's Women's World Cup semifinal against France, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd had started every game her country had played in 2011. She'd been on the field for every minute out of a possible 390 thus far in the tournament. She had earned 115 caps in her six-year national team career and scored 28 goals, including the game winner in overtime to win the 2008 Olympic gold medal.

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-
mistakes coaching philosophy.

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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.

CBSSports.com's Lauren Shehadi caught up with Wambach by phone for an interview about the U.S.'s amazing run -- watch it below:  


Posted on: July 13, 2011 2:51 pm
Edited on: July 13, 2011 4:19 pm
 

US stuns France late with late charge, wins 3-1



Posted by Adam Jacobi

You'll have to excuse France for looking a little shell-shocked in the last 10 minutes of today's match against the United States in the World Cup semifinals. The Americans led for nearly two-thirds of the match, yes, but France spent the majority of the match on the attack, and when French defender Sonia Bompastor snuck an untouched crossing pass past a diving Hope Solo in the 55th minute to tie things up, everything looked to be going France's way. When Ali Krieger came up limping after a tackle attempt nine minutes later, the situation started to look just a little bleak -- even for a tie game. 

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Ah, but there was still most of the second half left, and when it comes to closers in this World Cup, it's the United States, and then it's everybody else. Outscoring opponents 5-0 in the second half in group play. Last Sunday's comeback. Now this.

When Megan Rapinoe entered the match in the 65th minute for Carli Lloyd, she was once again the catalyst for magic, setting the Americans back on the attack for essentially the first time since Lauren Cheney's brilliant goal in the 9th minute. What had been a match controlled by the French for the majority of play was once again wide-open, and it was that renewed American aggression that forced the 79th minute corner kick from Cheney that Abby Wambach would convert with a header (seen at top) to tip the match in the USA's favor. 

If that all sounds just a bit familiar, recall that Rapinoe was also a late substitution in the USA's last match -- that epic struggle against Brazil last Sunday -- and she was the one who sent that crossing pass to Wambach (on, what else, a header) for the tying goal in stoppage time. Those fresh legs and that attacking approach are tough for foes to deal with in the late stages of a match; today, it was a game-changer.

It would be just three more minutes before the USA removed any doubt from the proceedings, as Alex Morgan snuck into the open field on a counter attack and put the clinching goal over the helpless French goalie Laetitia Philippe. Morgan, it should be mentioned, was another late substitution. 3-1, USA, just like that.

Of course, there's more than just tactical decisions and fresh legs that go into pulling out wins like these. It takes confidence, and the USWNT has that in spades this year. "I know that we're going to pull through," Wambach said in an interview after the match. "I just have a belief in this team, and everybody feels it."

Solo put it a bit more bluntly. "Confidence comes from our preparation, and because we know we're damn good."

Hey, you try telling her she's wrong. The fact is, the Americans are back in the World Cup finals for the first time since 1999, and they've got a closer's mentality to thank for it. Now there's one last job to finish: the tournament itself.

Posted on: July 11, 2011 11:57 am
Edited on: July 11, 2011 12:21 pm
 

U.S. women at the World Cup: What now?

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.

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But we said the same things before the U.S. men faced Ghana, before they came out flat and looked even flatter by the end of the Ghanaians' 2-1 extra-time victory. Similarly, as defining a moment as yesterday's match was, it might have been the worst possible way for the U.S. women to advance. As they proved against Brazil, the USWNT's greatest strength isn't technical skill or tactical acumen so much as its athleticism, physicality, determination and absolutely peerless workrate. But after riding yesterday's emotional roller-coaster for 120 minutes and playing 10-on-11 for nearly 60, do the Americans still have enough energy in reserve -- mentally or physically -- to still press that advantage?

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? 
Posted on: July 10, 2011 2:37 pm
Edited on: July 10, 2011 3:00 pm
 

VIDEO: Abby Wambach saves the USWNT

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

So, folks, just your average Sunday morning contender for the most thrilling sports moment of the year:

From 2-1 down and out of the tournament to clinching a penalty kick shootout the USWNT were always favored in in the 122nd minute ... it doesn't get much more exciting than that. Between this and the famous Landon Donovan goal from a year ago, the one thing no one will say about U.S. Soccer's World Cup efforts are that they lack drama. (The other thing is that if ESPN needs any extra cash to continue floating announcer Ian Darke's salary, the U.S. Soccer Federation should feel obliged to chip in at any time.)

Thanks to Abby Wambach, the USWNT did edge Brazil on penalty kicks (due in large part to a phenomenal save from the brilliant Hope Solo) and face France in a Women's World Cup seminifal on July 13. U-S-A! U-S-A!

(We'd tell you to take one moment to express some sympathy for the Brazilians -- still without a major women's championship in their history -- and we do feel for the amazing Marta, who played the game almost 1-on-11 and nearly pulled it off. But that Wambach's goal came in time added on by the referee for the Brazilians' disgraceful injury-faking and time-wasting was the most poetic justice possible. )

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com