High expectations for squad in transition
The United States Women’s National Team may be ranked No. 1 in the FIFA world rankings, but is it the best team in the world? It’s difficult to answer in the affirmative, particularly given the team’s current form and host nation Germany’s undeniable preeminence in the women’s game. Germany’s dominance stems from its shock 3-0 win against the US in the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup semifinals. The US has been forced to play catch-up ever since.
Still, it would be foolish to write off the United States. The U.S. has hoisted the Women’s World Cup trophy twice (and remains the only country other than Germany to do so). Images of the team’s momentous win in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final still resonate today. Pedigree and tradition must count for something.
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Head coach Pia Sundhage’s team withstood a trying CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign last fall that saw the US become the last team to qualify for the tournament. Then, the team was on the losing end of another upset at a semifinals stage. Their shock defeat at the hands of hosts Mexico broke a 35-match unbeaten run and provoked questions about the team’s current status in the global game. It appeared that the gap between the once-mighty United States and the rest of the world was closing.
The change: a squad in transition
For one, the US is in the midst of a generational transition. Brandi Chastain, Kate Markgraf, Briana Scurry, and Mia Hamm will all play a part in this tournament, but from the commentary booth. Team captain and starting center back Christie Rampone is the only player on the current roster that was part of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup winning side.
The squad includes several national team mainstays, however, including star forward Abby Wambach. The 30-year-old is one of the most prolific goal-scorers in women’s soccer history. Wambach’s size and strength sets her apart from her peers, as does her tactical intelligence. Her vision and playmaking abilities have enabled her to make an impact as a reserved striker tucked in behind the central forward.
Outside midfielder Heather O’Reilly has become an integral part in the squad. The 25-year-old’s work rate and probing runs from the right flank make her one of the team’s biggest attacking threats.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo is coming of a long lay-off after extensive shoulder surgery. The firebrand remains one of the most feared goalkeepers in the world, and could be the key to the US's success, especially in front of a creaky defense.
Just eight players included on the U.S.’s 21-player roster have previous World Cup experience - the fewest amount in any U.S. World Cup squad since the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. The recent retirement of legend Kristine Lilly, as well as an injury to Lindsay Tarpley, has forced Sundhage to put her trust in youth.
Young guns Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney, and Tobin Heath were members of the team’s 2008 Olympic Gold Medal winning side. Rodriguez’s speed, Cheney’s power, and Heath’s trickery all give the U.S. a varied attack. True consistency continues to elude the trio, however, and their biggest test will be how they can perform on the grandest stage.
The team does indeed have one young forward who can inspire confidence off the bench. Enter Alex Morgan. The California native has stepped up when it has mattered most, as was the case with her stoppage time goal last November in the first leg of the team’s World Cup qualifier against Italy. The elegant striker burst onto the scene with a star-making stint in the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. The 21-year-old has since played for keeps on the senior side, and has impressed. Morgan has displayed keen tactical awareness as well as a cool confidence in front of goal.
The team has players that can undoubtedly compete against the world’s best. So what’s gone wrong in recent months?
Assembling the parts
Sundhage’s reliance on a static 4-4-2 formation has been the subject of criticism from fans and observers alike. The team’s central midfield partnership of Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx has at times looked permeable under heavy pressure. A lack of defensive presence in midfield has left the U.S. susceptible to quick counterattacks - notably, in the team’s 2-0 loss to England in a friendly in April.
The US has ditched the long-ball tactics of a bygone generation, instead opting to retain possession and create chances from passing sequences. However, the midfield is at times resigned to ball-chasing. Without possession, the team is unable to utilize its best attacking assets. The team has often reverted back to a direct approach as a contingent plan, with hopes of finding Wambach as a target forward. The Plan B has been far from fail-proof, as has been an inflexible, unchanging Plan A.
Despite this, the current generation of the United States Women’s National Team is lined with innately gifted players whose performances can transcend stubborn tactics and lackluster team play. Look no further than the US’ victory over Mexico in the team’s World Cup send-off match on June 6. After some inspired play in the early minutes, the U.S. seized up and failed to convert numerous chances. A frustrating 0-0 draw seemed inevitable until second half substitute Lauren Cheney scored a blinding last-minute screamer. Forget the performance, it was the final result that mattered.
It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the US's World Cup journey.
Jenna Pel is founder and editor of All White Kit, a site devoted to coverage of the women's game. She is also a contributor to the New York Times' Goal blog and ESPNW, as well as co-author of The Complete Guide to the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.