If Pia Sundhage had a checklist for what she wanted to see out of the US women’s national team during the Volvo Winners Cup, it’s tough to imagine she didn’t check off must of the list.
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Score goals in bunches with the Alex Morgan-Abby Wambach tandem? Check. Beat Japan? Check. Give some new players a chance to start against top competition and see them excel? Check. Play possession soccer and be effective at it? Check.
The United States opened with a somewhat sloppy effort in a 3-1 win against Sweden last Friday, but completed the tournament with a resounding and encouraging 4-1 victory against world champion Japan on Monday — the same Japanese side that had gone unbeaten in the past three meetings between both teams.
You can’t really call it revenge considering Japan beat the US in a World Cup final and considering it was pretty clear Japan was rusty from not having played in more than two months. The Americans could not afford another loss to Japan, even if only to prevent the sense of a psychological edge. Sundhage will come away happy with the way the United States were able to create chances and attacked the Japanese, keeping possession and moving the ball around in open space.
These were things Sundhage stressed during the team’s lengthy training camp in May, and her lineup decisions suggested she is serious about fielding a faster, more attack-oriented squad. Lauren Cheney started ahead of Carli Lloyd in both matches, and young speedster Tobin Heath started ahead of established standout Heather O’Reilly.
Although it might seem far-fetched to think Heath has unseated O’Reilly (whom Sundhage raves about every chance she gets), there is definitely a sense that Cheney has supplanted Lloyd as a starting central midfielder. Cheney’s superior attacking qualities give her the edge over Lloyd, who might be showing signs of slowing down. She turns 30 next month and cannot match the energy of the 24-year-old Cheney. Providing quality passes to Morgan and Wambach being such a high priority, you can understand why Sundhage would want to go younger.
The battle between Cheney and Lloyd for the starting spot has been a long time coming, and if Lloyd has indeed lost the starting spot, it would signal the end of a lengthy era for the national team. Lloyd’s Olympic gold medal-winning goal in the 2008 Olympic final will not soon be forgotten, but Sundhage isn’t one for nostalgia and will make changes needed in order to have her team function the way she wants it to play.
Cheney didn’t necessarily impress in the win against Sweden. She struggled at times to command the midfield and generate chances. During the Japan match, Cheney showed her show considerable improvement; her style of play is well-suited to take on a possession-oriented team like Japan, and like France, the USA’s opponent in the Olympic opener next month.
Sundhage surely knows how important winning that first match is in order to take control of their group, and she also knows that the key to racking up goals is to continue providing steady service to Wambach and Morgan, especially with Morgan playing like the best player in the world at the moment.
The US team also trotted out the 3-4-3 again, a formation Sundhage has been trying out at the end of recent matches. The formation is built to take advantage of Sydney LeRoux’s qualities off the bench, and could come in handy if the Americans find themselves needing a late goal. It isn’t a formation that will likely ever be used in a full match, but the US team has looked sharp using it each time out, including on Monday against Japan.
The trip to Sweden wasn’t all perfect for Sundhage’s squad. The US defense showed some vulnerability, with Rachel Buehler being beaten on both goals surrendered by the US during the tournament. Sundhage may have to think about replacing Buehler with Becky Sauerbrunn, who has been impressive in recent matches.
If Sundhage has shown anything lately, it’s that she isn’t afraid to shake up her lineup. She stated repeatedly how strong and deep her team is heading into the Olympics, and the fact she is able to make such changes shows just how tough the competition is for starting spots.
There is still plenty of work to be done with the US women’s Olympic team. However, with Morgan in red-hot form, Wambach healthy, and a strong competition in midfield keeping the level high in the middle, the Americans have plenty of reasons to feel confident to win their straight Olympic gold medal in London this summer.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.