Olympics – What We Learned: Quarterfinals – United States 2:0 New Zealand

“In one physical model of the universe the shortest distance between two points is a straight line in the opposite direction.” – Ty Webb

The United States Soccer Federation has recently advised all of its men’s Academy teams to try to switch to some variation of a 4-3-3 recently (actually, much stronger than advised in many cases) in an attempt to get more possession-oriented soccer at youth levels, and presumably to try to take that to the national team level at some point in the future.

In theory, I’m all for it: most of my young teams play in a 4-3-3 to try to teach them positioning and to create more possession and movement by giving another option out of the midfield and encouring the wingers to pinch in and allow the outside backs to overlap and get forward. Of course, despite what we may hear from some parents and others, winning isn’t our top priority.

Pia Sundhage, probably taking some advice from somewhere because Scandinavians play it about as often as a winter heat wave takes over Stockholm, experimented with a 4-3-3 after the World Cup, to mixed reviews and results. It was pretty obvious by then that the best lineup for the U.S. women’s national team was something that put Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan together, and quite simply that was a 4-4-2.

As the play of the United States has gotten more and more direct over the last few months, its status has been climbing. Do you remember before the World Cup last year? Germany was heavy favorites, the United States? Not so much. Obviously some personnel changes and more experience help the cause, but the U.S. has reclaimed its spot as the favorite to win a major tournament – in this case the Olympics – by doing what works best for them, playing it as quickly as possible at two of the best strikers in the world.

While against France and Japan (and maybe even Canada), things won’t be as easy, against New Zealand, all it took was one look at the terrified look on poor central defender Abby Erceg’s face every time the ball was played long and Morgan was on her outside shoulder, inside shoulder, or seemingly both at once. If Erceg did get there, she probably wasn’t going to be able to do what she wanted with it, and that kind of pressure just builds up over 90 minutes. New Zealand makes more mistakes, the U.S. gets more of the ball in their end, and gets more chances.

New Zealand – to their credit and as we expected – battled until the end. But the result and the number of scoring chances was inevitable. It won’t be as easy in the final two rounds, but I don’t see any reason why it won’t work.

Here’s what else we learned in the United States’ 2-0 win over New Zealand:

1) Welcome to the show, Lauren Cheney

Cheney was Woman of the Match in this one as she did what an attacking midfielder is supposed to do: pull the strings, win the ball back in the other team’s half, and just run the game. Cheney was on the ball a lot and had some very incisive passes, especially in the first half, giving the U.S. a real-live playmaker, something we really haven’t seen in a long time. Now we just need her to get forward and get a couple of goals, and the Cheney, Wambach, Morgan combination could be just flat out lethal. And we saw her smile a little out there, which was nice.

2) The U.S. was still wasteful in the final third, which is good and bad

This is always a tough one as a coach. Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach (once both on the same play) missed a couple of glorious chances in the first half, and the frustration continues to grow for Morgan, who could use a little confidence around goal right about now. However, on the bright side, the fact that they’re getting in such dangerous areas on a regular basis against a pretty tough defense (at least against other teams) has to be a positive sign, right? The goals have to start going in some time, and hopefully Morgan will score a beauty just when the U.S. needs her most, although that’s been Wambach’s job the last few years.

3) It was a strange tactical battle

I was sure Tony Readings would do whatever it took to shut off the wings, especially Megan Rapinoe, but he basically gave up on them, playing Amber Hearn centrally and Kirsty Yallop and Betsy Hassett as outside mids, although they were also in the middle more often than not. You have to give him credit for setting out to attack, and I’m not really sure how the U.S. didn’t take advantage of that on a regular basis. But both goals came from long balls out of the back. Readings’ team also didn’t give up too many chances on set pieces, and only six corner kicks. So they stuck to the gameplan pretty well, which is probably why they were still in it until the end.

4) Stats often lie, but maybe not this time

The supporting cast helped, but how about these numbers? Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan combined to take 14 shots (seven each, although only two each on frame), while their counterparts on New Zealand – Sarah Gregorius and Hannah Wilkinson – never even attempted a shot. Sydney Leroux also added two shots of her own, including a goal, obviously. Tough for New Zealand to win that way. As I said, a lot of it is their teammates, but Wambach and Morgan are also good players and not just good athletes. Gregorius and Wilkinson are great athletes, but just not quite on the level of the American strikers? Who is right now?

5) The U.S. and Kelley O’Hara might have gotten away with one

In O’Hara’s defense, it does seem at this Olympics like it’s become overtime hockey, you have to commit some sort of capital offense to get a penalty called, but New Zealand could make a good case that Rosie White was pulled down in the 83rd minute by O’Hara and New Zealand deserved a penalty to tie the match. As I said, at least they’re being consistent, there were a couple of calls in other matches that looked like they could have been penalties, but no one pointed to the spot. It would have been against the run of play, sure, but if the game is tied there, who knows?

6) The Alex Morgan-Jenny Bindon cunundrum

First, it appears that both are OK after that nasty collision, so that’s most important. On first glance, it looks like Bindon deserves a foul and probably a red card as denying a clear goal scoring opportunity (I don’t think Ali Riley was getting there if there wasn’t contact). But when you watch the replays, I’m not sure what Bindon is supposed to do. She slides to get the ball and Morgan basically runs her over, it’s not like Bindon drifted toward her or anything. In basketball, Morgan surely would have been called for charging. Alas, it’s not basketball. I’m baffled, and if I’m that confused, probably a good no-call from the referee, I guess.

7) Sydney Leroux definitely has a future

While she’s not ready to take Alex Morgan’s job and still has some developing to do, she does offer different qualities than Morgan in that in addition to being fast, Leroux is just ridiculously strong. A tiring Rebecca Smith stood no chance physically against Leroux, who just shook her off and scored what was a big goal for her. While Abby Wambach may not be retiring too soon, Leroux will certainly be ready when she does.

8) It wasn’t Ali Riley’s best game

As you’d expect, Riley and the rest of her teammates were very nervous at the beginning, and it showed in Riley’s play with a couple of uncharacteristic poor touches and the inability to get involved in the game, probably playing overly cautiously. By the second half, the nerves were gone and Riley was back to her usual self, getting forward and becoming a force for the U.S. to deal with on both sides of the ball.

9) Fitness was not a factor

If anything, it was New Zealand who looked freshest at the end of the game, and that’s a big credit to them and the organization of their federation. Their improvement over the last few years was no accident, and if they can find some good competition to play in the meantime, surely they’ll be heard from in Canada in three years again. As for the U.S., it’s slightly disturbing, but not that concerning, it’s not like they looked completely out of gas either.

10) Shannon Boxx is still not healthy

It would have been a perfect time to give Shannon Boxx a chance with the U.S. holding onto a lead, and an even better opportunity after they got the second goal, but the last sub made as Amy Rodriguez for Lauren Cheney, not Boxx. It’s hard to see a scenario where Boxx plays a meaningful part in either of the last two games now, but we shall see. I’ve been wrong before. Rapinoe also gave way for Heather O’Reilly in the 71st minute, but that just seemed like a defensive sub when the situation certainly warranted.

BONUS

All you need is Alex Morgan involved, and…

Poor Jenny Bindon. She plays her whole life, and unfortunately now she’ll probably end up best known as the keeper whom Alex Morgan kicked in the head at the 2012 Olympics. The video has spread like wildfire everywhere today after the game, mostly because it involves Morgan, of course. Well, all publicity is good publicity, right Jenny?

DOUBLE BONUS

Attendance woes?

Great that the game was at historic St. James’ Park, but an attendance of just over 10,000 for a quarterfinal match involving the United States? Our view of women’s soccer in England may have taken a big hit today everywhere. Oh, well.

TRIPLE BONUS

Possession, etc.

Possession was officially only 53-47 in favor of the United States, which seems a bit low. The U.S. committed 11 fouls to New Zealand’s six (pretty clean game), and New Zealand never got a corner kick.

ONE MORE HOT OFF THE PRESS

New Zealand has a problem with a cartwheel celebration? Really? Boo.

C’mon, Tony Readings.

  • Check for the semifinal preview of U.S.-Canada sometime Sunday afternoon on AWK.

4 thoughts on “Olympics – What We Learned: Quarterfinals – United States 2:0 New Zealand

  1. Tom from California

    Nice write up!

    Now then, I heard on the broadcast today NBC commentator Cat Whitehill say that she thought UK’s #2 Jill Scott was the best defender in the world. And here you tell us that Reading claims Hope Solo is the best keeper in the world.

    I’d like to hear the rest of the lineup from some intelligent people. Who cares to take a stab and list their top starting 11 team from around the world? If you feel inspired, give me your 2nd 11, too!

    Cheers,
    Tom

    Reply
  2. Salt in the wound

    how has readings’ saying “We haven’t got time to work on celebrations in training. (but) If it makes them (the uswnt) happy and they win games, then good on them,” been turned into nz coach and nz have a problem with the us goal celebration?

    hahaha media sensationalism much

    Reply
  3. johnnygeekiwi

    I am quite sure Ali Riley was not a bit nervous playing against so many buddies and frequent WPS opponents. But a wing-back is always limited by the amount of service she gets.

    As for the celebration, my rule of thumb for playing like an American is simple. If you feel you are expected to win you don’t celebrate too much. If you are worried that you will lose and you score, celebrate all you like. NZ has a tough defense. The US is full of College graduates. Not exactly dummies. I interpret their outlandish celebration in the above spirit. It was a good goal.

    NZ should probably have been awarded a PK. However these calls are always controversial so I will not dwell on that. My big frustration with the refereeing is that the few good refs (all center referees) get no support from the Olympic line referees. The latter seem to be highly inexperienced and unwilling to make even simple line calls. The quality of the women’s game has risen far above the quality of women’s refereeing. Of the 4 games that I went to, the quality of the refereeing of the USA NZ quarter-final was the worst.

    One of the Ferns said that she thought the USA and Brazil were similar in effectiveness. If she is right, Canada has a real opportunity. However I am betting on the US of A.

    Reply

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