Sundhage brings European flair to American attack

The American women haven’t looked the same since Pia Sundhage

got her hands on them.

After years of getting the ball to their forwards and letting

them overwhelm defenses with their superior athleticism, Sundhage

has injected a little European flair into the U.S. offense.

”I was always saying the States played a little too direct,”

said Sundhage, a Swede who is the first foreign coach the U.S.

women have had. ”They’ve been very, very successful, don’t get me

wrong. So I wanted to change that, but it couldn’t be too big of a

change. With a successful team, you can’t change too much.”

When the two-time World Cup champions play Colombia on Saturday,

fans will see a possession-based offense. Instead of relying on the

forwards to begin the attack, Sundhage wants the offense to develop

in the midfield.

Think the fluid, pretty style of Barcelona, and you get an idea

of what Sundhage is going for.

”Really knowing how to break down teams with many passes and

much possession, truthfully that’s the best way of defending is

holding the ball,” Abby Wambach said. ”That’s why Barcelona is so

good. They literally force their opponents into submission because

they always have the ball. It’s demoralizing when you don’t even

get much chance.”

Opponents used to know exactly what was coming when they played

the U.S., regardless of who was in the lineup or where on the field

the Americans took possession. But they were powerless to do

anything about it. The U.S. forwards were either bigger or quicker

– or both – and more skilled.

And because U.S. kids start out playing one-on-one in pretty

much every sport, there was nothing Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm,

Tiffeny Milbrett or Wambach loved more than taking on a defender or

a goalkeeper.

”Yes, I love playing on a team that they’re sending balls up to

me and I’m fighting for balls. It’s my style,” Wambach said. ”If

you have a strong forward that can hold the ball, that can keep the

ball for you, you can start the attack much further up field. For

me, I love that. And I love being physical.”

But the rest of the world is closing the gap on the Americans as

countries devote more attention and resources to their women’s

programs. Two countries, Colombia and Equatorial Guinea, made their

World Cup debut here in Germany. Not only is France back after an

eight-year absence, it’s ahead of two-time defending champion

Germany on goal difference atop Group A after breaking down Canada

with a crisp passing game Thursday.

If the United States doesn’t adapt, it risks finding itself

pulled back into the pack.

”We need to be smarter. We need to do different things,”

Sundhage said. ”Change the point of attack more than once. For me,

the game is about rhythm. In order to find rhythm, in order to

decrease the tempo sometimes and increase the tempo, you need

everybody involved.”

Now when the Americans get the ball, Sundhage wants it to go to

the center midfielders, usually Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx. Based

on what they see, they can send the ball out to the flanks or up to

one of the forwards. Or they can direct it back to a defender and

start the whole process over again.

Not only do the long possessions burn time off the clock, they

can frustrate opponents like nothing else. Watch Barcelona play,

and it often looks like a game of keepaway – until there’s a

lightning strike of a goal, that is.

”I think it’s good for our system,” captain Christie Rampone

said Friday. ”We can’t always rely on one thing. Teams are getting

better, stronger, putting more into their programs, as you can see.

All these games (at the World Cup) have been close and they’ve been

very good. So I think we need that addition to our attack.”

As with any change, though, the transition has not always been

smooth. After going more than two years without a loss, the

Americans dropped three games in a five-month span. They lost to

Mexico, a team that hadn’t beaten the U.S. in 25 tries, in regional

qualifying. They dropped a game to Sweden, then lost to England for

the first time since 1988.

Wambach has scored only once this season – though part of that

can be blamed on her being slowed by a right Achilles’ tendon

injury much of the last year.

”To input a Barcelona-ish kind of style, where you possess the

ball, yeah, I get the ball much less,” Wambach said. ”But it is

more pretty to play the game that way. When the ball does

eventually get up to my area, I have to be better. That’s the

challenge I’m under. And it’s fun that way, too. It’s

different.”

And the U.S. isn’t abandoning its old ways completely. As the

Americans get more comfortable with what Sundhage is asking them to

do, they can combine it with their traditional strengths.

”We’re trying to now connect both,” Rampone said. ”I think

for a while there, we were just going with the creative side,

creative side, and not being as predictable on the field. I think

we were not reading each other as well. So I think we’ve come

together as still having that (one-on-one) mentality, USA, old

style, going after it combined with a little creativity.”