Assessing the USWNT Going Into World Cup Semi-Finals
More ink has been spilled in this World Cup hand-wringing over what this US team hasn't been able to do on the pitch than over what it has.
Perhaps that's why it was so darned surprising, then, to see a command performance against a disciplined and organized China side despite being short a few key players due to suspension. Head Coach Jill Ellis, who is still just as likely to be playing possum as to having the tactical sophistication of an actual possum, threw out an unconventional lineup and looked like a genius for it. Amy Rodriguez, not in the same universe of talent as Abby Wambach or even Sydney Leroux, fit in much better with the broader team concept and worked selflessly to set up others. Kelley O'Hara, a defender who played precisely zero minutes in the entire rest of the World Cup, suddenly became the United States's best right midfielder.
Then again, I don't want to over-interpret a result against the second-weakest opponent we had faced all tournament.
Here are my four major thoughts going into the epic semifinal clash with Germany in Montreal on June 30th.:
This Midfield Looks Way Better With Actual Midfielders, Even Backups
Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and Lauren Holiday are all fabulous players and I like their individual games. That being said, I hope we never send out those four together again like we did against Australia in the opener. Holiday is truly an attacking midfielder, whereas Rapinoe and Press are wingers (probably forwards if we're being honest) and Lloyd is versatile enough to sit deep in midfield but isn't a natural there either.
In the interim, other weird experiments putting players out of position yieled similarly sclerotic movement, such as putting right-footed Tobin Heath wide right, causing her to repeatedly duck inside to get on the ball, and giving up all sense of shape.
Against China, Ellis put Tobin Heath in for Rapinoe on her favored left side, Lloyd was paired with Morgan Brian (a much more natural deep midfielder than Holiday) in the middle, and O'Hara showed up from nowhere to hold down the right flank. The position is in fact much less of a stretch than any of those original four, since she's naturally a right wing-back. The result was coherence we had yet to see all tournament, with fluid passing, reasonable shape, and good possession.
While Holiday and Rapinoe were absent via suspension, I hope that Ellis gets the message that the original 4 simply weren't working, and that putting Heath wide right isn't enough to fix it. I don't have the benefit of access to training every day for the last several months, so I'll have to trust Ellis to evaluate what the real solution is, but we did get an indication she might know what she's doing if her hand is forced.
I Love Abby Wambach, And I Love Her Just As Much On The Bench
I've said it over, and over, and over, and over again, but Abby Wambach is 35 years old and brings out the worst in her teammates, whether intentionally or not. It appears the Yanks operate in deep deference to her, playing long and direct and forcing it to her the way you did when you were 9 and one kid was miles better than everyone else so the gameplan was "get it to the Italian" to paraphrase "Kicking and Screaming." I was worried Ellis would keep pressing the same button and expecting different results.
Instead, and not under pressure of having Wambach suspended, Ellis called Rodriguez's number up top to pair with Alex Morgan, also passing over Christen Press and Sydney Leroux. I was stunned, personally, but the move ended up working at least to some extent. While her touch and her technique was deeply untidy, almost unsavory given the occasion, she worked incredibly hard, didn't dominate the ball, and played with a selfless attitude that helped unlock the real star of the team, Alex Morgan.
I would've liked to see Christen Press up there instead, who I think has better technical qualities and athleticism, but I understand going with the more experienced and rugged player. Regardless, I'm glad Wambach was used in a substitute role, which I still feel is ideal for her. It'll be interesting to see which pairing is called upon up top, especially as Morgan looks healthier and more dominant every game.
Germany Isn't Invincible
France and Germany contested a low-grade war in the quarterfinals, in what was easily the match-of-the-tournament to this point. They certainly looked the part of two heavyweights in a deeply even contest, punching and counter-punching, fighting hard but never with one side or the other gaining a firm upper hand.
However, if I were to declare one team better on the day, I'd undoubtably go with France. They played more expansively, and had the higher quality chances, including a brutal miss on a sitter from Gaëtane Thiney that would've won Les Bleus a place in the semi-final. They certainly appeared to have more stars of individual brilliance, not in the least the peerless Louisa Nécib.
The Germans looked organized, and didn't exhibit any particular weak point, but also found it difficult to conjure anything special going forward in their first game against true equals. Their keeper, Nadine Angerer, is the only one on earth who could give Hope Solo a run for her money, but otherwise very little scared me about Die Nationalelf.
What I'm saying, then, is that with the benefit of watching the two teams against each other, I'd rather play the Germans. We also have the benefit of the fact they went through a grueling 120-minute match and emotionally-draining penalty shootout while the Stars and Stripes coasted through 90 minutes against the Chinese and got to rest some of their top playres along the way. The Germans will still be favorites against us, but we do get them in better circumstances than it could've been.
I Still Can't Get Over How Good Our Defense Is
Even in a team as social-media-savvy as this one, it's easy for defenders to get lost in the fray, since they aren't the ones scoring the goals or generating the highlights. A couple tantilizing form tackles from Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, the closest thing to highlights we've seen from them, were actually the result of mistakes in positioning rather than purely excellent plays. In an ideal world, you notice the defense less and less until you see the final scoreline.
That's how it's been for this group so far. The above center-back pairing, fullbacks Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger, and all-world goalie Hope Solo have put together an almost-unthinkable 423 consecutive minutes together without conceding a single goal. The cliché that "defense wins championships" may or may not be true in most sports, but in single-elimination soccer tournaments, it might well be exactly what's required to avoid variability and put out the consistent performances that are required to survive.
Johnston and Klingenberg, both World Cup newbies, are the choice of the lot for me. They're both players who have spent significant time as midfielders, but in dropping back, have given the back line an injection of pace and ball-skills to match their aggression and steel.
They're also 26 and 23, respectively, so they'll be the basis of a stellar group in the next World Cup and Olympics.