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US, Sundhage look for finals answers

The US women will face Canada in last friendly before the summer Olympics.
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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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The US Women’s Olympic team will receive an abundance of celebratory cheers from the pro-USA crowd in Utah during Saturday’s send-off match against Canada. However, as much as the game will be about giving the team a warm farewell before they head to London, it is also the team’s final opportunity to solidify starting roles and work out any remaining kinks in a squad fully expected to win Olympic gold this summer.

The US women are on a roll, having trounced China, Sweden and even world champion Japan in the past month, and with Alex Morgan looking every bit like the best player in the world at the moment, the focus during Saturday’s match will be about keeping that momentum going into the Olympic Games.

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“Everyone has done a great job (in camp),” Sundhage said. “It’s all about trying to peak when you go into the Olympic tournament.”

The USA attack has been overpowering lately, led by Morgan’s stellar form and Abby Wambach’s physical presence. The tandem always figured to be a dominating combination, but the recent romps have further established the Americans are the team to beat in London.

It hasn’t all been perfect for the United States. Some defensive issues cropped up at times, with Rachel Buehler struggling in the recent Volvo Winners Cup. This game will tell us whether those issues have cost her the job, and if Sundhage has decided Becky Sauerbrunn is the better option in central defense.

Canada should provide a good test for the USA defense, with star striker Christine Sinclair a real handful up top. US captain Christie Rampone is the anchor in the back, and will be the leading option to try and contain Sinclair. Either Buehler or Sauerbrunn will be competing for the starting job alongside Rampone when they open Olympic play against the high-flying attack of France.

Offensively, as much as the team has produced goals, there are still some question marks about which direction Sundhage will go in midfield. Lauren Cheney appears to have supplanted veteran Carli Loyd in the starting lineup, having played ahead of her in the team’s recent friendly victories. She was particularly good against Japan, and her attacking qualities make her a better fit for increased emphasis on possession-oriented soccer that Sundhage has been preaching.

Saturday should show us if Cheney has taken control of that central midfield spot, while also giving us a sense of what the rest of the preferred midfield will look like. Heather O’Reilly didn’t start in the Japan victory, but Sundhage has heaped steady praise on the veteran winger throughout the lead-up to the Olympics, so it is tough to see O’Reilly being benched.

What could be the tough battle is between the technically skilled Megan Rapinoe, and the speedy youngster Tobin Heath. Heath looked sharp against Japan, and adds some extra speed to the attack, though Rapinoe’s passing and crossing ability make her a real threat on the flanks.

Sundhage could choose to sit O’Reilly again and let Heath and Rapinoe both start, and battle it out to see who can impress more against the Canadians. Though, with this being the last official match before the Olympics begin against France on July 25th it appears unlikely that Sundhage will experiment too much.

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The stellar play of Morgan and Wambach has made it clear that, as much as Sundhage wants her team to be able to play multiple formations, the 4-4-2 will be the lineup of choice in London. The experimental 4-3-3 the team has used late in recent friendlies has yielded some promising results and should be seen in the second half against Canada, but as long as Morgan and Wambach are clicking, Sundhage will keep playing the formations and lineups that maximize the production of that imposing strike force.

Saturday’s farewell match will be one more chance for Sundhage to put the finishing touches on a team that looks very capable of winning a third straight Olympic gold medal. The pressure of keeping that streak going won’t really kick in for another month though. For now, the Americans can take the Canada friendly as a last chance to show off their quality, and a last chance to work out minor kinks before the meaningful games next month.

“It’s the last little details,” said US midfielder Shannon Box. “We’ve played Canada before and what we’re focusing on is ourselves and we want to go out in this game and have some fun.”

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