The following is an exchange a friend and I had during the opening minutes of the U.S./Japan game in Columbus back in May. He’s a big MLS and USMNT fan, but this was his first time watching the USWNT play.
*Japan begins pressuring immediately. The U.S. get dispossessed twice in a span of 15 seconds*
Him: What the hell?
Me: I know.
*By his tally, Japan has completed seven consecutive passes. The U.S. has completed two*
Him: Do they always play like this?
*Japan rips through central midfield and puts a shot on frame*
*Seven minutes have elapsed. Japan continues to press through the center*
Me: I don’t know. We just have to hope they don’t concede early. They get rattled by things very easily.
Him: Like starting 0-0?
And such was the case today. The first half went from bad to worse. As North Korea tightened its grip on the midfield, the U.S. became increasingly disoriented. Save for three shots driven directly into the North Korean goalkeeper by surprise starter Lauren Cheney, the U.S.’ attack looked toothless. Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez struggled to receive balls through a swarm of North Korean defenders.
The tension was real, and you could see it in the players’ body language. Maybe it the overpowering sense of the Rudolf-Harbig Stadium’s eerie history. Or the fact that many of them were playing in THE WORLD CUP for the first time.
North Korea’s technical quality shone through as the team passed circles around Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx before releasing perfectly placed balls to players that had timed their runs to a mechanized perfection.
And then there was the U.S. defense. It began to buckle, then break down. North Korea continued to make headway down the left flank. The back four truly lost its poise as it began getting shredded by incisive runs and cutting crosses.
The halftime whistle blew and the U.S. retreated to the locker room having conceded some of its confidence, but – fortunately – no goals.
This was the same USWNT, wasn’t it? The same disorganized USWNT devoid of cohesion or creativity. The same tactically confused USWNT. The central midfield problems remained, as did the gaping seam on the left side.
World Cup jitters seemed to be the general consensus both on Twitter and television. 45 minutes left. Not time to panic. They’re no. 1 in the world, after all. They just have to calm down, be patient, and regain their composure. They can do it.
And did they ever. Sundhage made no substitutions and the tactics remained the same.
Only this time Abby Wambach evaded much of the pressure by drifting to the flanks. Lauren Cheney doubled back in defense in an effort to help out a besieged Amy LePeilbet. Carli Lloyd pressed higher up the field, took her time, and worked the passing channels more effectively. The U.S. back four clicked back into form and defended as a unit.
And in the 65th minute, the U.S.’ improved build-up play paid off as Abby Wambach served in a cross to Lauren Cheney’s head in what seemed like a reverse of initial plans. Cheney connected and drove the ball into the top right corner.
The extra surge in confidence helped the U.S. to its most complete second half performance in recent memory. The joy (the relief!) was apparent in the team’s play. And it was certainly apparent in the team celebration after Rachel Buehler thumped in the team’s second goal. 2-0 USA.
Megan Rapinoe’s late goal (
3-0 USA) was waved off, but it had little consequence.
The game was won, the U.S. had three points in the bag. So much for the anxiety and sloppiness that had marred the first half. So much for the insipid performances that had provoked so much criticism (and slight disillusionment) throughout the U.S.’ journey to the World Cup.
Like the commercial says, history doesn’t determine results.
Although the U.S. lacks the precision and the technical quality that have been showcased throughout the tournament, today’s second half performance proved the team will be able to contend for the world title. That is, so long as the team stays true to the principal virtues that remain at the core of the program: brute force, athleticism, fitness, individual talent, and mental strength. That last item in particular.
Innovative tactics and faultless organization just aren’t in this team’s DNA (although Sundhage deserves loads of credit for seeing that Cheney can do serious damage on the left from the start. Boy, did that work.) But if they show can the same unbreakable will – and physical stamina – they did this afternoon, it’ll be O.K.
It’s good to see there’s still plenty of reason to believe in the U.S. Mostly because the U.S. still believes in themselves. And each other.