USA success masks shaky showing

March 13, 2013

Another tournament, another victory for the U.S. women’s national soccer team. This time, it is Algarve Cup, an annual tournament held in Portugal that attracts the bulk of the world’s elite teams.

After cruising though their opening games with Iceland and China by respective scores of 3-0 and 5-0, the U.S. came from behind on Monday to get the 1-1 draw they needed against Sweden to advance to the final. On Wednesday, two opportunistic goals by Alex Morgan handed the Americans a 2-0 win over Germany and the trophy – their ninth Algarve Cup in the tournament’s 20th edition.

If their first two games suggested that all was well and the women’s world dominance was secure for the foreseeable future, however, the latter two painted a more troubling picture.

Sweden, coached by Tom Sermanni’s very recent predecessor Pia Sundhage, showed that playing the U.S. physically and pressing them high can negate their athleticism and innate technical superiority. The two faced off on Monday with a place in the final at stake. By making the spaces small, rather than sitting back and reverentially observing the U.S. from afar, as some teams are wont to do, Sweden unsettled them and created oodles of opportunities by forcing turnovers. That’s how they got their go-ahead goal in the fourth minute, when Lisa Dahlkvist picked up a weak clearance from U.S. goalkeeper Ashlyn Hall and sent it hurtling back into the goal from nearby the half-way line.

In a helter-skelter game, Sweden kept running at their opponents. Morgan’s equalizer in the 56th minute, when she freed herself on a corner and headed in from close, set up a tense finale. The U.S. held on, but could so very easily have buckled under the immense pressure Sweden applied and been knocked out that day.

In Wednesday’s final, Germany was plainly the better side. U.S. goals by Morgan in the 13th and 34th minutes – one a marvelous finish into the top corner; the other a cunning move in which she tapped the ball away from in between a colliding German defender and her goalkeeper to roll into an open net – nevertheless gave the Americans the win. But they were hardly convincing. Following Sweden’s example, Germany forwards Celina Okoyino Da Mbabi and Dzsenifer Marozsan charged hard at the American back line. They had some degree of success with this approach, creating lots of chances.

That Germany lost was more to do with their own inefficiency than it was any real accomplishment of the U.S.’s. It’s just that whereas the Germans squandered their chances, the more seasoned Americans capitalized on their opponents’ mistakes, getting their two goals from just three shots on target. But they were outplayed and outshot 12-6.

Physicality gave them trouble. And the U.S. was significantly better in the second half than it was in the first in all four games, recovering from sluggish starts. Both are concerning developments. They may have won the tournament, but the U.S. was far from unimpeachable.

Still, there were bright spots. Such mainstays as Kelley O’Hara, Shannon Boxx, Becky Sauerbrunn and Heather O’Reilly had strong tournaments. Ali Krieger demonstrated that she’s fully recovered from a bad injury that cost her much of 2012. Yael Averbuch, meanwhile, who was brought back to the fold by Sermanni after a long absence, showed herself to be a viable option in midfield. Young newcomers Christen Press, Crystal Dunn and Whitney Engen made good impressions.

But then Abby Wambach was nearly invisible in her time on the field. And Megan Rapinoe, who was a late scratch from the final, wasn’t sharp in her other appearances, taking a litany of errant touches, in spite of rather oddly being named player of the tournament. Morgan grew into the tournament after a sloppy start – and would have made a more logical choice for MVP – but Sydney Leroux did not.

The new piece of silverware is a nice addition to the trophy cabinet and will look good on some mantle at U.S. Soccer’s headquarters in Chicago. But the point of this tournament – which offers the best chance to build and improve the team in non-World Cup and non-Olympic years – is to get ready for when those major tournaments come around again in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

And if it taught the U.S. women anything, it’s that the continuation of their winning ways is not a given.