USA top Republic of Ireland but lack sharpness in their attack
SAN JOSE, Calif -- The feel-good exploits by Abby Wambach on Mother's Day made for a neat storyline, but if you dig a little under the sunny surface of the U.S. win Sunday, it gets a little worrisome.
Can the U.S. win a World Cup with a team that must rely on Wambach to score the bulk of their goals?
It's not a question the U.S. should be answering three weeks before the 2015 Women's World Cup kicks off in Canada.
Indeed, there was plenty of pleasure and pain in the U.S. women’s national team 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland. There was also blood from Wambach, the 34-year-old U.S. veteran striker whose nose spewed in the wake of a second-half collision with Ireland goalkeeper Niahm Reid-Burke.
Not that it kept Wambach out of action long. After making the "A-OK" signal from the sideline to her mom who was sitting in the stands, Wambach stuffed some tissue in her nostril and gamboled back onto the pitch. It was a good day for Wambach, after all, who scored her 179th and 180th goal to extend her all-time goal-scoring lead.
As for her nose, Wambach waved it off.
"It is what it is. At this stage, going into the World Cup, you can either get X-rays and scans and whatnot. But if you're not going to do anything about it, what's the point, in my opinion. So it doesn't matter if it's broken or not. I'm pushing forward," she said.
In a video message filmed earlier this week by U.S. Soccer for her mom on Mother’s Day, Wambach said she knew how much her mom didn’t like her new haircut. The powerful U.S. forward promised, however, to try and make her hair look especially good -- pretty, even -- for the game against Ireland.
Hair, however, isn’t the point when it comes to the all-time leading scorer in all of soccer. Wambach is all about the head, both in the way she thinks and the way she uses that noggin to knock in goals for the U.S.
On Mother’s Day, in front 18,000 fans at Avaya Stadium -- including her own mother -- Wambach booted in the U.S. first goal at 44:33 and quickly added a second at the 45-minute mark by flicking her neck and bouncing a beautiful cross from Carli Lloyd into the low right corner.
Just like that, a U.S. team that was oddly unable to finish for the entire first half was up 2-0, snapped into action by the 34-year-old Wambach.
"Abby's a unique player. She steps it up a couple of notches before big tournaments. She’s been working really hard training in Seattle. I love playing with her but this thing is kind of normal for her," said Lloyd.
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said it was good to see Wambach in action.
"Bloody nose, broken nose, that’s Abby. She's been training in Seattle trying to get her timing back with her heading and it just hasn't quite been there, and then all of the sudden one week it just clicked. She got her footwork down, she got the snap back and she got the power back in her heading," Solo said. "That was a prime example on that header goal of her footwork and what she's been doing to really get herself back."
For all the accolades and accomplishments Wambach has earned, her presence in the game for the U.S. tends to mean a much more direct style of play. That may have been the necessary game plan against Ireland, which is winless in now 11 matches against the U.S. Ireland stacked the defense in the box, pushing nine players back against the U.S. offense. It is a primary reason why the U.S. resorted to trying to lob the long ball over the top.
"The U.S. has become quite direct under Jill Ellis. They have powerful players who can get the ball into the box," said Ireland coach Sue Ronan.
In any event, the U.S. did not find a way to play through all three lines -- something Ellis had said she was aiming to have the team do more and better as the World Cup drew closer. While there was a feel-good storyline about mothers and family time on Sunday, this was not a demonstration by the U.S. of a World Cup contender that will easily roll through the tournament against teams like Sweden, France or Germany -- no matter how emphatically Wambach promises to bring the Cup back to the U.S. for the first time since 1999.
Ellis said she was pleased with the result, but there are still things the team needs to work on.
"We created a lot of chances. Their goalkeeper came up big, inadvertently I think at times, but she did great. Yeah, I was pleased with the three. Do we want more? Of course we want more," Ellis said.
Defender Julie Johnston, the Santa Clara star who has earned starting job with the U.S. this spring while veteran defender Christie Rampone is still working back into game mode after battling leg and back injuries, added the U.S. third goal at the 54th minute.
Johnston toed-in a corner from Lauren Holiday and immediately celebrated in front of an appreciative crowd. It was Johnston’s third goal in the past three games, all off set pieces. And it was more proof that the U.S. defenders are increasingly becoming part of the U.S. scoring plans. In St. Louis on April 4, three of the four U.S. goals were scored by defenders.
For a U.S. team that has its defense and midfield formations nicely settled heading to the Women’s World Cup opener on June 8, the bulk of the work in training camp lately has been about the final third. The attack, said Ellis, was going to be the final piece to get the attention and Wambach had said the team was trying to prepared to make sure every opportunity to score was not a missed chance.
However, against Ireland, the U.S. was almost flagrantly unable to finish on their attack. They had 15 shots on goal, and while they kept goalkeeper Reid-Burke busy, not nearly enough of their shots were blistering or pinpointed enough to break through.
In the second half, Megan Rapinoe was subbed and so was starting forward Amy Rodriguez and Lloyd. Ellis was surely looking to get playing time for Sydney Leroux, Morgan Brian and Shannon Boxx, but it could also mean that Ellis is making sure no one grows complacent about their roles.
The changes came after a first half of too many missed chances to finish. Wambach had several headers cleanly stopped, including one in the 28th minute that caused a collision with Ireland defender Jessica Gleeson. In the 26th minute, Christen Press saw her speed and ballwork stymied after the 26-year-old forward took a beautiful long pass from Rodriguez and shot, only to have Reid-Burke jab it cleanly away.
Still, for all the trouble the U.S. had created a sustained and dominating attack, the game was highlighted by the fitting presence of all the moms of the U.S. team.
In a surpise for the team, the mothers were flown into San Jose. The party started Saturday evening, when the U.S. team met before their meal. U.S. coach Jill Ellis told the players: "Look, guys, we know you've been working hard and we have a special guest speaker coming in so when they walk through the door please give them your utmost attention."
In walked Ali Krieger’s mom, so some of the players wondered why in the world Krieger’s mom was the guest speaker. But soon enough, all the moms came streaming through the doors. With cameras and tears rolling, the Mother’ Day weekend in San Jose was off to an emotional start. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo posted her appreciation on her Facebook page.
Solo, meanwhile, was never tested in the game. The veteran U.S. keeper had three touches and no saves.
The U.S. was without Tobin Heath (hamstring) and Alex Morgan (bone bruise on her knee) and doesn’t expect Morgan to be ready for the game Sunday against Mexico at StubHub Stadium in Carson, CA. Neither injury is serious, however the coaching and athletic training staff are being cautions with the two Portland Thorns players to ensure they will be fully fit for the Women’s World Cup.
Rapinoe wore the captain’s armband for the game. Rapinoe became the 31st American female player to record 100 caps back on April 4 against New Zealand in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Lori Chalupny collected her 100th cap when she came on as a sub in the second half, making her the 32nd U.S. women's player to reach 100.
With Wambach and Johnston both scoring against Ireland, the U.S. has 9 different players who have scored in 2015: Morgan, Wambach, Rodriguez, Press, Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Brian, Chalupny and Lloyd.