Time to remonstrate, remember, and mostly reflect on what was an incredible three weeks.
Pia Sundhage is really clever.
Stubborn, unchanging, frustrating: all words used to describe Sundhage’s tactical and squad decisions. Up to the World Cup, at least. Sundhage’s many tactical and personnel amendments have been talking points, and for good reason. That from someone who, as Ian Darke once wrote, has shown a “slavish devotion” to the 4-4-2 that more likely than not featured a combination of Solo/Mitts/Buehler/Rampone/LePeilbet/O’Reilly/Boxx/Lloyd/Rapinoe/Wambach/Rodriguez.
Sundhage broke from tradition in nearly every single game in the World Cup. There could be three reasons for that, and each layer gets more interesting with each uncoiling.
1.) The match simply necessitated the changes. Lauren Cheney is an absolute force on the pitch, regardless of where she’s asked to play. Megan Rapinoe had been inconsistent at best prior to the tournament; explosive at some points, meek at others. Cheney got the nod, if only to add some might at outside midfield. It worked. The match against Colombia didn’t need a defensive midfielder. Shannon Boxx looked tired. Lori Lindsey’s game is well-suited against an opponent that allows plenty of time on the ball. It worked. Amy Rodriguez had had an anonymous tournament, while Megan Rapinoe looked so dynamic off the bench. Rapinoe got the nod to start. It almost worked.
2.) The moves were partly psychologically motivated. Much had been made about possible complacency emerging in the squad, especially if underperforming players weren’t going to be threatened with getting dropped. That all changed when it mattered most. Sundhage broke up the monotony as soon as Cheney’s surprise start was announced. It surprised a lot of people, perhaps the players included. And for the first time, it also fostered a real sense of competition within the squad. Cheney needed to prove she had the right to start, and did so against North Korea. Megan Rapinoe – the player she supplanted – needed to prove she was still of value. She entered as a substitute and made an immediate impact with the called back goal. She then went on to become the U.S.’ most reliable substitute. Perhaps she also felt the need to reclaim her starting spot, which she eventually did. It’s little wonder that both Cheney and Rapinoe were among the USWNT’s standouts: both had to play for keeps.
3.) Sundhage was 21 minutes away from successfully pulling off one hell of a ruse. It circles back to the beginning: this is a coach who almost never deviated from a certain way of doing things. That’s just how it was. And then right when it matters, she makes (somewhat obvious) changes she arguably should have made months ago, and earns plaudits for finally being a little bold.
It was as if this was all part of a master plan. Drill a certain fixed impression into everyone’s heads and then feed off the excitement generated from the long awaited change.
Two other notes on Sundhage: Pia’s jolly, Simon and Garfunkel-singing, “everybody did great” attitude had clearly rubbed off on the players. It’s why the U.S. seemed to be one of the more relaxed and self-confident teams that had advanced out of the group stage – even after the Sweden loss, which Pia was characteristically sanguine about. Compare that to the tight-lipped and furrowed brow personas of Silvia Neid and Carolina Morace; two coaches whose teams seemed utterly joyless. That’s not the only reason for each team’s results, of course, but it sure made for an interesting contrast.
The only time Sundhage looked truly flushed with concern was right before the penalty kick shootout on Sunday. And then the team lost.
The other thing has been noted a hundred times already. First kicker Shannon Boxx started a domino effect with her missed penalty kick. And Tobin Heath simply never ever ever ever should have been in that position. That’s on Sundhage.
The USWNT raises its level of performance as per their opponents and occasions.
For one, the U.S. played their best soccer in over a year against Japan, even if the match didn’t have the desired result.
That could be why Abby Wambach scored four goals in the World Cup despite having scored one prior to that in the calendar year. Or why Christie Rampone seemingly turned the clock back and flat out beat most opposing attackers for pace (she’s got two kids!). Hope Solo was still recovering from surgery, but she hadn’t looked that monstrous in goal in at least a year (save for the final).
It’s the very reason why you can’t count the USWNT out, regardless of previous form or supposed tactical formations. And it’s also why the team lacks a true playing identity.
It turns out all those lackluster friendlies were little more than glorified scrimmages. And maybe it makes sense. Maybe it’s just really hard to get ginned up for a game that essentially amounts to naught. Especially if you’re a player with an established spot in the starting XI. And you have a World Cup on the horizon.
That still doesn’t explain away the Mexico result last November. Or the tepid performances against Italy a few weeks later (even though the U.S. came away with victories both times).
The only time the USWNT showed signs of true mediocrity and “oh, c’mon USWNT, just play better” was in the first half against North Korea and most of the match against Sweden. The U.S. turned it around in the former and could afford to lose in the latter.
It’s also interesting to note that the U.S. really played some nice football on two occasions: in the first 20 minutes against France and much of regular time against Japan. The team bossed the run of play, connected passes well, and used the wings as primary outlets. France and Japan happened to be the two best footballing sides in the entire tournament. The U.S. had also played some really lovely stuff against Japan in May, particularly in the second game. And yet the team struggles to get that kind of possession game up and running against teams that play, well, kind of like the U.S.
The team’s eerily chameleon-like characteristics can be frustrating at times, but it can also be used in very big ways in tournaments.
Despite the disappointing finish…
And it was disappointing. The players looked truly terrified – and tired – heading into the penalty kick shootout. It was an ominous sight. Sawa’s goal had had a deflationary effect on the team, and it might have manifested itself in those three botched penalty kicks. It was the converse scenario of Wambach’s header against Brazil.
The United States couldn’t manage to hold their nerve while Japan did. And that’s what ultimately made the difference. That and the two conceded goals and the missed chances in the first half.
By dint of that, Japan are deserved winners of what was an absolutely epic match.
…this team deserves serious credit.
Not only for outplaying a quality side like Japan for most of the match (not that it ended up mattering), but for almost everything else. Players found their form at the most apropos time. The team overcame every setback along the way (the first half against North Korea, the dozens of missed chances against Colombia, the defense’s shocking performance against Sweden, Marta’s goal, Bompastor’s goal, “rigid” tactics, and some “ugly” soccer) and made it to their first World Cup final since 1999. Considering all that, what a feat.
All this in a tournament that has been proven to be the most competitive yet. Brazil and France are no mugs, and the team turned the tide to beat each. The landscape is changing, and the U.S. successfully proved its place in the grand scheme of things wasn’t about to change with it.
And all this from a team that was, yes, the last team to qualify for the World Cup and had looked so thoroughly mediocre for months on end.
There’s plenty of reason to be proud.
(2015 is going to be a different story, though. Christie will be gone, maybe Abby, too, and we’ll see how Solo’s body holds up. The team clearly lacks technical precision, even despite all that inspiring spirit. And the country’s mode of development is as confused and fractured as ever. But that might just be the spurned cynic talking.)