USA’s hunker-down approach could prove unsuccessful at World Cup

WINNIPEG, Manitoba 

Next stop, Vancouver. Two games into their World Cup quest, the United States women’s national team is looking world weary as they head to the Pacific Northwest for the final game of group play.

Nothing like a scoreless draw Friday against Sweden, one of the U.S. biggest rivals, to put a damper on the proceedings. And nothing like the U.S. Soccer Federation addressing new material now in circulation about goalkeeper Hope Solo’s arrest last June on domestic violence charges and saying they are "gathering information" and "investigating" the matter.

Is this the kind of World Cup the U.S. women were aiming for?

Despite sitting on top of the Group of Death with four points, ahead of Australia’s three points, Sweden’s two points and Nigeria’s one point, the U.S. surely expected to have booked their ticket into the knockout round by now. Instead, it will take a win against Nigeria on Tuesday for the U.S. make a clear bid for the No. 1 spot and the easiest path through the elimination rounds. While the U.S. is likely to get that done, the Americans head out of Winnipeg with a pretty firm knowledge of their standing — and their reputation.

It’s definitely not a heroine’s role the U.S. is playing in this World Cup, and it shows on their faces and in their body language. The vaunted American attack does not have a shred of consistency, not with Alex Morgan limited after months out of action and the eternal question about how to use Abby Wambach.

Against Sweden on Friday night, starting strikers Sydney Leroux and Christen Press faltered against a stout backline for Sweden, despite some good space created by outside midfielder Morgan Brian. If not for the stellar work — again — by a backline anchored by centerbacks Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, and a fortunate save by Meghan Klingenberg to stop what looked like a sure Sweden goal late in the game, things could be even worse.

But the U.S. does have fitness and depth, so the Americans are correct to count on those strengths as their great assets as the World Cup competition moves on. It’s the other stuff — the mind games and criticism and now, a war of words between U.S. Soccer, a U.S. senator and the CEO of the United States Olympic Committee over Solo — that are draining.

Open season against the U.S. was declared months ago in Portugal. At the Algarve Cup, after a scoreless draw against Iceland, coach Freyr Alexandersson ripped the U.S. women’s team as too predictable, too one-dimensional and too eager to resort to the longball. "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,” Freyr crowed.

Three months later, not much has changed. The Americans are being pigeon-holed as the team that time has left behind. The chorus is growing. After the opening 3-1 win over Australia on Monday, the Americans were found to be so unimpressive by their opponents that the editors of the Matildas official team website picked up where Iceland’s coach left off.

"The U.S. certainly like to talk a good game. The reality is they play a fairly rudimentary, bog-standard 4-4-2, were short of ideas going forward and outmaneuvered tactically. ‘Play it long and look for the head of Wambach’ seems the default game-plan for a team stuck in the past,” Australia’s team site said.

They were just clearing their throats, as the waltzing Matildas became the trash-talking Matildas:

"World football has moved, in case Jill Ellis hasn’t noticed. U.S. were outplayed by a better, smarter footballing side —€“ who were also without two certain starters in Polkinghorne and keeper Williams — before the Aussies ran out of gas.”

The U.S. team professes to be in a bubble, or off the grid, as midfielder Carli Lloyd pronounced on the eve of the U.S. team’s first game. But the distractions and the detractors have broken through, with significant implications.

There’s the continuing issue of Solo’s arrest last June on domestic violence charges. Despite a judge’s dismissal of the case in January, details about the fight were brought forth in a report by ESPN. Solo’s half-sister went on the record about the incident, along with information for sealed court documents, which has prompted a drumbeat against Solo by media outlets and a U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.

Many have called on U.S. Soccer to suspend or kick Solo off team. On Friday, TMZ produced a restraining order that was issued against Solo back in 1998, when she allegedly punched a high school classmate. Also, USA Today reported that United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackburn contacted U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati specifically to express concerns about Solo’s domestic violence arrest.

The U.S. team is rallying behind Solo — or at least giving an account of its process following Solo’s arrest last year. While U.S. Soccer is pushing back against charges that they failed to perform a due diligence investigating Solo’s case, it does concede that new information, via sealed documents being provided to ESPN, has caused U.S. Soccer to investigate Solo’s post-arrest behaviors.

The Solo drama that was supposed to be a closed case is now swinging open — and there is no telling the wear and tear it will have on this team. They can say they’re in a bubble and ignoring the non-soccer stuff, but it keeps coming — from the media, from Congress, from the USOC and at the World Cup.

Even German coach Silvia Neid didn’t need much prompting to take a shot at Solo.

"I’m happy that my players do not have the same off-field lifestyle," Neid said last week. "(Germany goalkeeper) Nadine Angerer is very focused on the games, not much of a party-goer like I hear Hope is. I have players who are extravagant, intelligent and do have a life outside of soccer. I don’t know what the case is for Hope Solo."

Sweden coach Pia Sundhage, who coached Solo and the U.S. team from 2008 until 2012, called Solo "a piece of work,” and said it took work to keep Solo happy and create team chemistry. Maybe this is the price that the U.S. team has to pay for setting the standard and breaking the women’s game into world view. The Americans have fallen a few pegs since 1999 as the rest of the world got better.

But now, 16 years removed from their last World Cup title, the Americans are feeling the weight. What is supposed to be a joyous demonstration of soccer at its best is turning into a soap opera.

Next stop, Vancouver. After that, who knows?