US Women's National Team World Cup Preview
It's here. The (Women's) World Cup, in Canada, the last for a vanguard generation of Americans. That means it's preview time, but most previews are reductively basic.
The way I see it, if you're interested enough to read a preview, you probably don't need to be reminded how the game works, or for the most well-known players to get name-checked. This preview is for those of you who know the sport and are vaguely familiar with the team who want to impress their friends at parties with a deeper knowledge than 99% of the bandwagon fans that will tune in for our coming summer of nationalism.
Players to Watch
Everybody has heard of Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and Alex Morgan. Hopefully, you've also heard of Megan Rapinoe too. They've all world-class players, or at least they have been (injuries and age may threaten that this time around). Here are four women you might not be as familiar with, none of whom have any World Cup experience, who I think may be difference-makers up in the North Country:
JJ is a psycho in the air, and that's about the highest compliment you can give a defender. She's only about 5'7", but her fearlessness, competitiveness, and desire to learn the craft of the header from Wambach more than make up for it. A year ago, she wasn't in the national team picture. Now, at just 23 and two years removed from Santa Clara University, she's the unquestioned starter in the center-back tandem with Becky Sauerbrunn (no slouch herself). That pairing at the back is my personal pick to be the most important part of the team's success going forward given the lack of a holding midfielder in Ellis's setup. If the offense is as sclerotic as it has looked in the lead-up, the defense will need to be next to perfect to give the Stars and Stripes a chance to take home the Cup.
Press is the US's most electric player this side of Alex Morgan. And what she brings that Morgan doesn't is a bit more flair for the unpredictable. Naturally a foward, going back to her Stanford days, Jill Ellis has moved her back into midfield. She told me after the Ireland friendly last month that the transition backwards has more to do with mindset than skillset, from an execution-oriented attitude to more of a strategic/creative mindset, from micro to macro. She's one of the team's best dribblers, explosively quick, and more than capable of putting a good shot on goal. The real issue with her, as I'll discuss below, is getting the most out of her on a team where there are a million other options at the positions she plays. For my money, she's best at left wing or as a second striker, positions currently occupied by Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan.
Fullbacks are rarely central cogs of a team, so you have to be a huge soccer nerd to even really notice their impact sometimes. However, Klingenberg is a fiercly competitive defender with the kind of quickness and skill getting forward that gives an offense width and breaks up a team that is sitting deep. With teams likely to sit deep against the pre-tournament favorites, that will be all the more necessary. She's begun to form an excellent partnership with Press whenever they've been on the field together, allowing her to get to the touchline and Press to cut inside. She's a bit undersized for a defender, but since she plays outside her marking ability more than compensates for it.
The youngest player on the roster, Brian may or may not grow into an impactful role in this World Cup, but she almost certainly will be in the future. She's a highly skilled midfielder, and those simply don't grow on trees. The US has yet to figure out consistent ways to build through the middle of the team and create chances aside from lumping balls towards Wambach in the box, but if Brian emerges, she could present one solution to that puzzle.
Big Unanswered Questions
Will Jill Ellis be able to overcome sentimentality or will the tail wag the dog?
This team is literred with veterans who are significantly more important to US soccer than any one coach would be, and who outshine even those who may have surpassed them in play on the field. That means that it takes a strong and confident coach to make the tough, unpopular decisions sometimes. Ellis has already done so in some ways, such as dropping Shannon Boxx and installing young Julie Johnston as a nailed-on starter.
However, there may yet be other dominoes to fall: Megan Rapinoe is the incumbent left wing, but that also looks to be Christen Press's best position. Abby Wambach may be a former World Player of the Year, but she just turned 35, and hasn't looked sharp until recently. My amateur opinion is that she would be more effective coming off the bench and letting one of our talented younger forwards (like Amy Rodriguez or Sydney Leroux) get the starting nod. These kinds of decisions are tough, and require maturity and buy-in from the players as much as the coach. I think Ellis may be the woman we need for that job, but the proof will be in the pudding.
Is this midfield a delicate ballet still in progress or is it just a mess?
The US has long been stereotyped as a direct, long-ball team, leaning on their superior size, strength, and athleticism, but a cut behind the skill of the European powers. Jill Ellis has very much stayed on message in terms of sticking by our strengths, claiming that service from wide areas, dead-ball situations, and counter-attacks still remain the three most proudctive modes of attack. Ireland coach Sue Ronan confirmed after their match that they were as direct as ever, with diagonal balls pretty much the only new trick unveiled. None of that portends a shift towards an on-the-ground, posession-based attack, but there are signs Ellis is looking for a plan B, not in the least because of a bevy of attackers and no natural holding midfielders other than 37-year-old Shannon Boxx.
To solve the problem, she's moved attackers like Press back into midfield, and pushed Lauren Holliday, one of the great attacking midfielders in womens soccer, into a deeper position. The results so far have been erratic and ugly, with slick possession only rarely bubbling up. The supposed fluid interchange of midfielders has looked a bit more like being lost on the field. However, the US (like most teams) tends to look better when they bright lights go on, so I'll be watching closely to see if this group can form something coherent.
Will all the #narrative drown out the play on the field, or vice versa?
Anyone who follows womens' sports closely knows that the media coverage even in the best of circumstances tends to focus on lots of non-sports storylines and feature stories, not in the least because the small cadre of sportswriters who cover women's sports are supplemented by non-sports reporters for major events. This World Cup has the apocalyptic FIFA scandal casting a huge global shadow over the actual play. The lack of natural grass surfaces, pretty much due exclusively to Sepp Blatter's spite, is humiliating for top female athletes and a major slap in the face to the women's game.
Most troubling for the US, however, is Hope Solo. She is undoubtably the best women's goalkeeper of all time, and is still the best in the world at 34. She also has an ugly history of alcohol-related incidents, including a still-simmering domestic violence charge in which she's accused of beating her nephew and half-sister. More recently, her husband was charged with DUI while operating a US-Soccer-owned van while Solo was drunk in the passenger seat, leading to a month-long suspension from the team. Ellis and team leaders like Wambach have declared that Solo has dramatically changed her lifestyle (interpret that as you will) and made it up to her teammates, but the negative storylines are very real. The challenge for the US team is not merely to succeed despite the distracting narratives, but to get the public to pay attention to the play on the field despite them.
The US has an unusually difficult group, probably the toughest in its World Cup history. The headline opposition is Sweden, coached by former US gaffer Pia Sundhage, ranked 5th in the world. Sweden is a realistic title contender, well-drilled, and skillful in a way that will challenge the US. Next in the group is Australia, 10th in the world, and a dark-horse title contender. The US should outmatch them, but their style is physical and athletic like ours, and that may negate our primary advantage. Nigeria is the minnow of the group, ranked 33rd, but they have one player who stacks up with the best of the world. Asisat Oshoala is just 20 years old, plays professionally in England, and won BBC's Women's Footballer of the Year. While the US should be able to key on her specifically and get past the rest of the side, she's one to watch.
Regardless, the US should be clear favorites in each of their three group matches.
In the knockout stages, the US is likely to avoid powerhouses France or Germany until the semifinal if no major upsets occur. Those two teams are both athletic enough to match up with the US, but probably beyond us in terms of skill. We did beat France handily earlier this year in the Algarve Cup, but Germany remains the world #1 and we have yet to show the ability to overcome them. Either way, that's a solid final.
Before the final, or with upsets occurring, the most dangerous teams are Brazil, Japan, and host nation Canada. Brazil is led by former player of the year Marta, who is still just 29 and in her prime. Canada is a good side with home advantage, and still wants to get one back on the US after feeling robbed in the 2012 Olypics in one of the wildest games I've ever seen. Then again, the US always seems to have their number. Japan doesn't have the star power of France/Germany, but they did beat the 2011 US team of destiny to win the World Cup, so they can't be counted out.
This team needs its more than ever, now that they're 16 years removed from the last triumph. However, it's a transitional period in terms of personnel and the tactics have simply not yet clicked. My guess is a decent run that falls traumatically short in the semi-final or final stage.