It was tough enough night for the U.S. women’s national team that the coach of the Iceland national team decided it was OK to talk some pretty audacious smack against the Americans.
Frey Alexandersson said if he was the U.S. coach, he would be “very unhappy” with the long balls he saw being launched by one of the top teams in the world.
But it was what it was. The U.S. tried to boot the ball over and around an aggressive Iceland and had to settle for a draw, which was not what was supposed to happen.
On a night when the stated goal was to collect a third and final group play victory that would let the U.S. secure an Algarve Cup championship match against France, the U.S. women’s national team made a funky decision to use the match to give starts to four new players.
Maybe the chance to mix and match personnel took precedent over starting a lineup that might best produce a ‘W’ in this World Cup year. Good thing for the U.S. that the 7 points it collected in group play did indeed prove enough to let them slip into the final.
Hard to resist a chance for a rematch against France, a team that if it were to win the Algarve Cup could indeed take the No. 1 FIFA world ranking heading into the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
Still, a starting lineup that doesn’t include Carli Lloyd, Ali Kreiger or Megan Rapinoe is less than a perfect way to start for the U.S. women’s national team.
Yet that’s who was missing when the U.S. came out last night.
The trio of experienced midfielders were noticeably missing as the U.S. struggled to break through a tough Iceland defense, which packed the middle of the field and forced the U.S. to resort to flank work and the long ball. Not even the head of Abby Wambach could tip the balance to the U.S. side.
Iceland’s Alexandersson could not have been any more baldly honest about what he saw from the U.S. team, given he said that the U.S. has been in the Algarve training for a week before the start of the tournament, plus sports some of the best and most fit athletes in women’s soccer.
“If this was my team I would be very unhappy,’’ Alexandersson said.
“We forced them to play the long ball since after watching their first two games, we saw that when they get under pressure they tend to resort to the long ball. I don’t understand it because they can play the ball on the grass. I would expect a team 20 seeds (ahead of us in the world rankings) would trash us.’’
Indeed, Iceland threw a lot of bodies at the U.S. — a tactic coach Jill Ellis seemed to indicate came close to dirty pool. When told that Alexandersson said if it was his team he’d be unhappy, Ellis did not miss a beat.
“Maybe he’s unhappy because his team is at the bottom of the group,’’ she said, adding that given the aggressive hits dished out by Iceland, she was happy to take the draw and move onto the Algarve Cup title game Wednesday.
By halftime, the U.S. sent in some stalwart help to the midfield. In came Lloyd. A measure of balance and focus was more clearly on display for the U.S., as Lloyd immediately made a difference quarterbacking an attack that could penetrate the packed Iceland defense.
Still, the U.S. was stymied even in the Lloyd-bolstered second half as much by its own lack of attack as by the Iceland formation.
Instead of being the forceful offense that had gotten the job done in the first two Algarve victories against Norway and Switzerland, Monday’s game seemed to see the U.S. revert to the same alarmingly diffused offensive attack shown in the loss to France and the troubles the had late last year producing in Brazil.
Otherwise, the night had all the makings of perfection. The weather was blissful in Lagos. The U.S. team had only a short shuttle over to the quaint stadium from the team’s luxury resort overlooking the blue Atlantic Ocean.
Better yet, the 22nd Algarve Cup was shaping up to give the U.S. a fitting finale, since earlier in the day, France beat Japan 3-1, to win Group C with a perfect 9 points. The U.S. was looking to do the same.
This would set up a rematch against France, a team that had beat the U.S. in February. France’s coach Pierre Bergeroo slipped into the Lagos Municipal Stadium to scout what would be France’s alluring Algarve Cup championship opponent.
Ellis said she was still pleased that she got a chance to rest some of her starters. This allowed four players saw their first Algarve Cup starts: Kelley O’Hara, Rachel Van Hollebeke, Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath went out for the opening kick, with Heath on the left flank and O’Reilly on the right in the team’s usual 4-4-2 formation.
Iceland started out gamely, giving the U.S. a decent pace and bruising physicality, but it seemed a matter of time before the U.S. would crack it open.
Fifteen minutes in, O’Hara was dropped on a blindside tackle by Holmfridur Magnusdottir, who was given a yellow card. The play at led to a free kick for the U.S. about 30 yards out. Heather O’Reilly drilled fly ball toward goal but a U.S. skirmish in front could not capitalize. In the next play off a corner, Abby Wambach missed a header just wide.
Iceland’s 4-5-1 formation continued to prove a tough barricade to break through and the U.S. women’s determination was well tested. Wambach slide tackled an Iceland defender deep in the corner but narrowly escaped a yellow card.
The U.S. will have to leave this result behind when they meet France in the cup final (live, FOX Sports 1, March 11).