Exposed At The Back: The US WNT Outside Back Problem — Part 1

As the 2011 Women’s World Cup nears ever closer, the growing concern over the chances of the U.S. Women’s National Team winning the cup increases proportionally. This concern is not at all eased with the continuing success of a seemingly unstoppable German side, who is undoubtedly determined to hoist the trophy once again and reclaim their number one ranking from a country who is coasting on the coattails of what used to be.

It should seem that after the summer of 1999 with a heightened interest of women’s soccer and inspiration for little girls that the next ten years to follow would produce a tremendous number of skilled, creative players to fill the void left by the inevitable retirement of that summer’s heroes. One of the biggest problems with the squad right now, arguably, is that these younger girls have had little to no opportunity to shine. The coaching of the WNT in the last ten years has undoubtedly been horrendous. The reign of April Heinrichs from January 18, 2000 to February 15, 2005 did irreparable damage to the development of the dynasty. This was not at all helped by her successor and former stooge, Greg Ryan. Greg Ryan literally made no innovative or intelligent decision of his own, choosing instead, to follow the game plan set out by Heinrichs and, rumors say, obey the instruction of then WNT ring-leaders, Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach. Solo-gate and the 2007 Women’s World Cup imploded in Ryan’s face, resulting in his removal in less than a month after the conclusion of the USA’s second consecutive 3rd-place finish.

The era of Pia, one of rebuilding amongst the broken rubble of the eight years past, began in early 2008. Her efforts have been valiant and successful, but not good enough. However, the root of the WNT’s problems lie in those crucial eight years after the controversial hiring of April Heinrichs to the controversy surrounding the firing of Greg Ryan. The poor coaching decisions, which were heavily biased and nonsensical, severely affected the development of players for the future of the squad leaving us where we are now.

As the WNT continues to win Algarve Cups and an endless string of meaningless friendlies like there’s no tomorrow, any criticism one makes seems nitpicky and fruitless. But, quite simply, it’s not enough to win watered down tournaments and meaningless friendlies against watered down opponents. There are small cracks in the infrastructure of the squad which need to be patched. The first of these cracks, which I intend to expose, is the subsequent underdevelopment of the outside back because, quite frankly, we don’t have any nor have we had any for quite some time. This is unacceptable. To understand the problem we have to go back to the root of all that is evil. Yes, the beginning of the Reign of Ape.

In the early 2000’s the depth of the back line was fairly sufficient. The US WNT was rich in players who could not only play this position, but who could play this position well. Players such as Joy Fawcett, Christie Rampone, Cat Whitehill, Jena Kluegel, and Brandi Chastain all saw significant playing time at the outside back position in the years spanning from 1999 to 2002. Joy Fawcett, despite her age and experience, was more useful to the USA as an outside back than as a central defender. Her work rate, clean tackling, and offensive prowess made her a perfect candidate for an outside defender for the WNT for about a decade. After the retirement of Carla Overbeck, however, her speed, clean tackles, and expertise were needed centrally to organize the USA’s defense. The constant shifting, however, of the USA defense meant that Joy Fawcett had no permanent home in the back line. Regardless, she was such an asset to the team that her presence was far more significant than her placement.

Christie Rampone flittered in and out of USA’s starting line-up in the 90’s, ultimately earning her place a sub in the 1999 World Cup. However the retirement of Carla Overbeck left a big gap in USA’s back line, and Pearcie never looked back. Rampone was essential the US backline as she was able to make penetrating runs along the outside to get forward into the US WNT’s infamous multi-layered attack in which defenses would be penetrated in waves by the onslaught of forwards, midfielders, and defenders.  Rampone’s spot on crosses and speed to get up and back made her crucial for this position for years.

Brandi Chastain first made her appearance on the US WNT as a bench player in the 1991 World Cup. She was a highly celebrated striker in college who had been called it to play second fiddle to the infamous “Triple-Edged Sword” that was the US front line. (The sword was made up of April Heinrichs, Michelle Akers, and Carin Jennings-Gabarra. Yes, wife of Jim.) Despite the retirement of Heinrichs in the early 90’s and Akers brief hiatus in which she was stricken with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, Brandi was never called upon to fill the gap left by these players. This gap was instead filled by Mia Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett, both of whom graduated from college tied with 103 career goals, which was then the NCAA Record. (This was later broken by future WNT forward, Danielle Fotopoulos with 118 goals, who still holds the record.) Brandi’s relationship with Anson Dorrance was legendary as she hated the man, which was likely why she never became USA’s number 1 striker. This is all relevant because after missing the 1995 Women’s World Cup, Tony DiCicco abandoned Dorrance’s game plan and formulated one of his own. He chose to revamp the entire line-up and called upon Brandi to fill the left center back position. The availability of left footed players not named Kristine Lilly was not great, cementing Brandi’s position as the USA’s left center back for the remainder of her career. She spent some time at center back, but her willingness to attack and patience to make simple yet smart passes cemented her starting position on the roster until the 2003 World Cup.

Cue the founding of the WUSA and we have the emergence of our last two defenders. Jena Kluegel and Cat Whitehill were both standouts at UNC who benefitted the most from the development of the WUSA. When the league started in 2001 all of the founding players remained with their clubs teams in lieu of participating in the Algarve Cup so that they could focus on building the league. The roster for this tournament is littered with names I’m sure you are familiar with. No one on the roster was over the age of 21, Kluegel was considered one of the “veterans” of the team along with a young Hope Solo, who each had 5 and 4 caps each, respectively.** Kluegel was a center back in this tournament, where Whitehill was an outside back. By the end of the year with the national team at full strength, Kluegel came off the bench to spend time at outside defense, where the remainder of her time on the field with the WNT was spent. However, thanks to friends of mine who take public transportation and scoop USA Today journalists, it was unveiled that Heinrichs, despite Kluegel’s solid performances on the field for the grand U-S of A, decided she “didn’t like her” and Kluegel stopped getting invitations to training camp. Cat Whitehill then made her move, filling in for Kluegel as the go-to young player on the outside for the US. Christie Rampone tore her ACL in late 2001, which allowed more playing time for both Kluegel and Whitehill. When Rampone returned to full strength and Jena discarded, Cat, who played almost 1,200 minutes in 2002, became Heinrichs’s best option off the bench.  This development was crucial as Cat earned her spot as a full starter on the team when Brandi went down with a foot injury in the first game of the 2003 Women’s World Cup.

Originally written as one piece, this commentary has been split into two parts. The second part will be posted tomorrow.

**Side note: Saved on my hard drive are Jena’s journal entries from this tournament  in which she chronicles a hilarious run in between her and former SBFC striker/Riptide Public Enemy #2 Patrizia Panico. Let me know if you’d like to see them.

10 thoughts on “Exposed At The Back: The US WNT Outside Back Problem — Part 1

  1. Luke

    Great summary. Sadly the rest of the story isn’t so pretty, but it will be good to hear your thoughts, especially regarding the constant shifting of defenders at the 2003 World Cup (benching Rampone for the semi-final, alternating between Markgraf and Whitehill in the middle, etc). Yikes.

    It’s unfortunate that injuries have hampered the careers of our two most promising outside left backs of the decade: Danielle Slaton and Lori Chalupny (still hoping she makes it back).

    And yes, every young outside back currently in the pool needs to watch old video of Joy Fawcett to see how its done. I think its safe to say, without too much controversy, the best outside back in women’s soccer history.

    Reply
    1. Angela Snider Post author

      I totally agree — Joy Fawcett is by far the best outside back in women’s soccer history.

      I completely forgot about benching Rampone for the semi-final. I love Kylie Bivens and she was a great player, but she hadn’t played much at all prior to the semi’s and Rampone had the experience factor going into the match for sure.

      But don’t even get me started on the 2003 semi-final. I could write 8 pages on that game alone with little difficulty. Greg Ryan got the heat for 2007, but April did the same thing 4 years prior.

      I also believe that Lori Chalupny is better served as an outside midfielder than a defender. She was put at defender out of necessity, and because she is simply so awesome, she excelled there. But Chups has a great eye for creating plays and getting to goal. Offense is your best defense.

      Reply
  2. Batfink

    Nice piece so far. Reaffirms my thoughts that Tony DiCicco should have gotten the WNT job back after Greg Ryan. From what you say here DiCicco shook up the system and got positive results, like he did for the champion U-20 WNT side in Chile. Leaving out big names while bringing in future stars for the sake of the team, seems to be a trait the senior side could do with now.

    Reply
    1. cow pasture alum

      It is far from obvious that he would have been interested in the job. IIRC, he left the first time largely for personal reasons (separation from family, etc.). If he still feels the same way, it would be difficult to interest him in any coaching gig outside of New England.

      Reply
  3. leo

    You may want to be a bit more careful which rumors you choose to believe about the UWNT and which are rumors circulated specifically to discredit certain players. For example, had certain coaching hires been made to satisfy player “demands” and/or follow their wishes, the coaches hired would not have been hired. And no, I’m not talking about DiCicco.

    And you missed one of the bigger outside back experiments of the Heinrichs era which was tried for far, far too long–Sobs to left back. And the hole left when Slaton’s knees really gave out.

    Reply
  4. Sally Griffiths

    Angela – I doubt you still have Jena’s journal entries from this tournament in which she chronicles a hilarious run in between her and former SBFC striker/Riptide Public Enemy #2 Patrizia Panico – but if you do, I would love to see them. Jena is my brother’s daughter, and can be quite a stitch.

    Reply

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