USWNT Post-Ireland Reaction: Players, Coaches, Analysis
If there are any doubts about whether the famous "Class of '99" thinks the current US Women's National Team stacks up, just look to local girl and US legend Brandi Chastain, who lined up with reporters after the game and half-jokingly pleaded with current defender Julie Johnston for her autograph. This group has a swagger to it, and for the first time in a long time, doesn't look like it's playing in the shadow of the last World Cup winning team.
That being said, scheduling a match against the 31st-ranked team in the world when you're number 2 may make a lot of sense as the opening game of a tune-up series on Mother's Day, but it does limit the amount we can learn about this team that is aspiring to the very top. At the very least, however, it let us focus on the good vibes all weekend long, with Fox Sports flying each of the player's mothers in to surprise their daughters and be introduced alongside them before kickoff.
"It was so special," said Captain Megan Rapinoe. "We spend so much time away from our family, which gets hard. We’re used to it, but it still sucks. To have everyone's mom here, just to have that little piece of home, totally surprised like that, was really amazing. Obviously for me, to celebrate my 100th cap, and have my sisters here, my girlfriend was here, my parents, other nieces and nephews, I was really happy about that."
Hope Solo, whose grandmother also showed up for the occasion, suggested tongue-in-cheek that she was "surprised that 23 women kept a secret."
Playing Against Our Own Expectations
What was obvious to the entire sellout crowd of 18,000 at Avaya stadium was that the Republic of Ireland wasn't in the same class as the Stars and Stripes. Irish Head Coach Sue Ronan gave a little context, explaining “[The Americans] are playing football from the time they’re 5 or 6, and they’re all with professional clubs. I had three professional players out there today. The rest are playing in our local amateur league at home, training twice a week. I had three new caps as well. So I’m really, really proud of our players”
“We came into the game knowing we were going to be under a lot of pressure, knowing we weren’t going to have a lot of the ball, USA are a top top team...it was always going to be difficult for us, our gameplan was to keep it tight, try to make ourselves difficult to break down"
One Irish player who stood out was goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke, a 22-year-old university student and amateur, no taller than 5'6", who had seven saves on the day and snuffed out a few more opportunities to boot. Although US fans may have mixed feelings about her going up against Abby Wambach for aerial balls, given that Wambach busted her nose on one such challenge, there is no doubting her bravery.
"I thought my keeper was magnificent today…shes been in the shadow of our captain and our no. 1 Emma Byrne…she certainly came out of the shadows today, [I'm] really really proud of her," said Ronan. "I thought she was inspired, she was magnificent, she was fearless."
The Americans weren't shy about joining in the praise, with Head Coach Jill Ellis saying "their goalkeeper came up big, she was great."
With the Irish defense packed in and their goalkeeper on top form, it was no coincidence that the Yanks found it hard to break through in the early passages of the game. While chances were plentiful, there seemed to be a black hole of possession between the central midfielders and strikers in Ellis's 4-4-2 setup, with the production mostly coming from set pieces and wide service. Although those are both emphasis areas for Ellis, she was not satisfied with early play in the final third, saying "the expectation is for more. The players expect that of themselves too."
For her part, Wambach seemed to view it as a matter of execution rather than tactics, saying “I think in the first half we kept the ball very well, we created a lot of opportunities…I felt like I was just about to get on the end of a few of them, I did, I just wasn’t strong enough in my heading presence."
Midfielder Carli Lloyd added “It’s the first time in a while we’ve seen a bunker, they were really compact, at times had 5 on the back line, so the important thing for us was to get the ball out wide, move the ball quick, and waiting for things to open up.”
Wambach Is Back
Once the momentum started building, Wambach stole the show, putting in two goals right before halftime, including a bizarre opener that began with a shot rocketing off of Irish defender Méabh De Búrca's face and a good portion of her teammates assuming the play had been blown dead due to the potential head injury as Wambach casually flicked it into the back of the net. Ronan refused to criticize the officiating, saying merely that "a goalkeeper cant turn her back to play. And unfortunately if the referee isn’t gonna blow for a head injury you just play to the whistle”
There could be no doubts on the second. But for many in the US team, the real proof that Abby still has it at 34 years old was in the 63rd minute when she took a forearm to the nose from Reid-Burke, spending a few minutes to clean up the blood on her face and getting some medical treatment before returning.
“To me, that mean’s she’s back," said Solo. "The bloody nose, The broken nose, that means Abby Wambach is back. She's been training in Seattle trying to get her timing back with her heading, and it just hasn't quite been there and then all of a sudden one week it just clicked. She got her footwork down, she got the snap back, she got the power back in her heading, and that was the prime example in that headed goal of her footwork that she's been doing to get herself back”
Lloyd agreed with that assessment, saying "Abby’s a unique player. She steps it up a couple notches right before a big tournament. I never had any doubts about her, I knew she would find her way. She's been working really hard, I think she’s finally looking like herself.”
“My nose is great. Doesn’t it look good?" Wambach joked, when asked about how her nose was doing. "It’s fine. It is what it is. At this stage, going into the world cup, you can either get X-rays and scans and what not, but if you’re not going to do anything about it, whats the point? It doesn’t matter if it’s broken or not, I’m gonna push forward.”
New Stars Emerge
Former Santa Clara University defender Johnston was the other standout on the night, scoring the third goal and playing with a composure beyond her 23 years. Despite not even being involved with the US team 8 months ago during qualifiers, Ellis declared that she had "locked up" a starting spot, describing her as "[a] phenomenal presence in the air, comfortable and confident on the ball, [and] reads the game very well.”
Johnston gave her teammates the credit “The service Ive been getting is perfect, I'm always happy to finish them when I can...I just ran through the near post, it was a driven ball, [Lauren Holiday] played a perfect ball, I couldn’t get my head to it so I tried to get my toe, and I think my pinky touched it, just enough to get it in, so I’ll take it”
As far as defending, her goal is “Trying to build relationships on the back line. We’re on the same page. And that’s really important going into the World Cup”
Lloyd added, “Julie is a warrior back there, she communicates even though she’s one of the younger players."
Although she didn't break into the headlines with a goal or an assist, the most exciting player on the pitch was the electric Christen Press, who flashed her pace and trickery repeatedly, particularly in the second half. Press, a former star at Stanford, converted forward, and first-time World Cup call-up at 26, operated from both flanks and through the center, starting to find her role in the middle of the park.
“I'm in a new role playing wide, but I'm embracing it and getting to enjoy it more and more. I like any role that puts me on the field. I really enjoy playing in the midfield. It’s a different experience. When I go into games as a forward, my job is very clear, and I just have to execute. But as a midfielder, you get to enjoy the game more and you get to feel the game and dictate the game."
“I still have that forward’s mentality where when I have good chances it ticks me off when I can’t put it in, and I was knocking on the door a few times, so I definitely want to put those opportunities away”
Regardless of role, Press just wants to see the field: “I feel like I've been waiting my whole life to play in this world cup and now it’s just around the corner.”
Storylines Go Beyond the Field
One last woman with local connections wasn't wearing red, white, and blue, but rather the Irish Tricolor. Fiona O'Sullivan, the Irish forward, grew up in Marin County, and when she was substituted in the 73rd minute, she got a roar from the crowd which included friends and family.
“I watched Fiona in the lineup for the [Irish] national anthem and she was singing away, a big smile on her face the whole time, just taking in the experience, and enjoying the occasion, being back home as she calls it,” said Ronan.
While US Captain Rapinoe was celebrating her 100th cap, earned a month ago in St. Louis, she didn't take home the prize usually reserved for those in US soccer who reach the century mark. Instead of purchasing a Rolex on the federation's dime, she opted to give the money to charity.
“My twin sister Rachael has worked with this organization i-activism for a couple years now" said Rapinoe. "She's gone on two trips, they go into the refugee camps in eastern Chad and Darfur and set up these soccer academies…I started looking around on watch sites and thinking this feels ridiculous to me, and it just didn't feel right, so I thought I would give it to something I really care about”
Conspicuously missing from the US squad was star forward Alex Morgan, who was recuperating from injury. Already a star in the 2011 World Cup, in the last few years she has added to her game with a new aerial skill-set and more sophisticated runs and positioning, in no small part due to the mentorship of Wambach. Ellis has been impressed with her development on both accounts, saying “We’ve looked at a lot of her movement in the last six months and at times she’s flagged offsides but when we break it down she’s on because her timing is so good." If Morgan gets back to 100% in time for the World Cup, that gives the US a wealth of options up top and a potentially game-changing talent to put them over the top.
Coming up, the US will play Mexico on the 17th and Korea on the 30th, both stateside, before opening the World Cup against Australia on June 6th in Winnipeg. All matches will be nationally televised.