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U.S.-Brazil Quarterfinal Preview: The Sweeper Is Dead, Long Live The Sweeper

If you’re like me (honestly, hopefully you’re not) and you grew up playing soccer in the United States 20 years ago, you probably played most of the time with a sweeper.

The person behind the back line was essential to a good defense, they were often the team’s best athlete, covered for mistakes that the rest of the defense played, and told the rest of the team where to go.

It was just how you played. Through high school, our teams played in a 4-4-2 with a sweeper, and so did almost everyone else.

(I don’t have time for it here, but you’d be amazed how much of an English flavor there is in U.S. development. We had an English coach, and there were more than a few others around at a time where not many people other than at the highest levels were very versed on the intricacies of soccer.)

About this time (the mid 90s), the sweeper was slowly disappearing from games at the highest level. By the turn of the century, it was just about extinct. Coincidentally, it also happened to be the time when I started coaching soccer. As you might have guessed, my teams most definitely played a 4-4-2 with a sweeper.

But I also began to watch more and more soccer, at least what was available. It’s easy to forget that a decade ago, there wasn’t much soccer on the tube, some MLS, some internationals. As a coach, you start to look at the games a little differently.

Where was the sweeper?

There was no sweeper.

As I started coaching varsity high school and higher level youth games, some teams I played against didn’t have a sweeper, either. I noticed that most of the coaches that didn’t use a sweeper were pretty organized, and people that had played the game on a higher level than I had.

And so in 2003, I set out to learn as much about playing a flat back as I could. My teams have never played with a sweeper since.

(Ironically, for this discussion, this was also the time where I made the switch from coaching predominantly boys teams to predominantly girls teams.)

I’ve come to see how much better the flat back works, especially when trying to teach how to play team defense and how to read the game. Sadly (at least for me), I still play against teams with sweepers all the time, more so on the high school level where the coaches often aren’t experienced or – like me – just played with a sweeper when they were younger and don’t really watch much of the game.

One exception (the only one I had seen over the past few years) was the Nigerian women’s team, who actually did pretty well with the sweeper in 2007, although it often looked chaotic to say the least. You could see the sweeper running in circles last November when Nigeria was bludgeoned by Germany 8-0 in a friendly.

But when Nigeria opened the World Cup two weeks ago, much to my delight, the sweeper was gone, and I remarked “it was, by a pretty wide margin, the most organized display ever by an African side at the Women’s World Cup.”

Nigeria lost that game to France 1-0, but gave up only two goals in three games. If they weren’t in a group with France, Germany, and Canada, they may very well be still with us this weekend.

But just when the sweeper was about to be pronounced dead and Franz Beckenbauer was being found to speak at its funeral, the Brazil women’s team took the field against Australia. The lineup was announced as a 3-4-3, which got my attention, Kleiton Lima was really going to open things up with a formidable trio of Rosana, Cristiane, and – of course – Marta leading the line.

Something looked strange, and about 10 minutes in, Australia played a through ball wide, and Daiane came across from a deep position to win it.

“Boy, they’re playing deep,” I thought.

A few minutes later, it happened again, and the light bulb went off in Julie Foudy’s head at about the same time it did mine.

Daiane was playing as a sweeper and Erika and Aline were marking the two Australian forwards.

Cancel that call to Mr. Beckenbauer, please.

Foudy, like me, has been apoplectic about Brazil’s sweeper system. Just like I see in my games, their defense looks disjointed and completely vulnerable to switches of the field.

But the ultimate proof is in the pudding and the scorelines, and there is only one team that has yet to concede a goal, and that, folks, is Brazil.

Is Kleiton Lima a genius? Has he started a sweeper revolution? Or is it just that he has some of the best players in the world, and he could send them out there without any organization at all, and they still might win.

Unfortunately, my coaching career has also taught me that the teams that have the best players usually win, regardless of set up and anything else a coach can do in a short period of time.

So will the United States be unceremoniously dumped in the quarterfinals. By rival Brazil. Using a sweeper? Oh, the humanity. Everything I believe in rests on this game.

I fear the worst, but like Foudy, I think eventually the sweeper system is going to break down. It might as well be Sunday.

Here are 5 things to look for in Sunday morning’s epic clash between Brazil and the United States:

1) Lima’s tactics seem odd even with a sweeper

It is a 3-4-3, but the front three doesn’t seem to pressure all that much, allowing opponents to keep the ball in their half. When they have pressured, they’ve caused a couple of mistakes, but the only thing I can think is that Lima is afraid that his team isn’t fit enough to run for 90 minutes, particularly if it’s a hot day.
Also, I guess he figures his team is set up to counter well, so if they do get the ball they can come at opponents with their front three, with Maurine and Fabiana joining them.
The problem I’ve seen (and Brazil has scored only once in the first half, and that was a controversial goal against Norway) is that Brazil’s formation has turned into a 5-2-3 at times, which makes it very tough for them to get forward. To take advantage of this, the U.S. will need its central midfielders to play well and will need to get someone (Heather O’Reilly?) to run at Brazilian defenders in wide areas. But we’ll see.

2) There’s some history there

It seems everyone (me included) remembers the 2007 embarrassment more than any other, but the U.S. – minus Abby Wambach – came back and knocked off Brazil for the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics back in China on Carli Lloyd’s overtime goal. Jacqueline Purdy of ESPN (whom most of you at this site know) had this excellent piece on the rest of the history between the two teams, and why it’s likely the best rivalry in women’s soccer.

3) The 2008 team has some names you’ll recognize, but some differences, too

There were two major factors why the U.S. was able to prevail three years ago. One is in No. 4, but the other was the aforementioned fitness. If you remember, Brazil got very tired at the end of regulation and it only got worse in extra time.
The U.S. back four will feature only one of the four that played in 2008, Christie Rampone. The other three were Heather Mitts and Lori Chalupny (boy, did the U.S. miss her against Sweden. While the media has generally done a decent job, the fact that the Chalupny story hasn’t been more reported is very, very surprising) on the outside and Kate Markgraf joining Rampone in the middle. So things have changed in the back more than you’d think. The only difference in the midfield was Lindsay Tarpley starting at left mid, but Lauren Cheney did come on in the 71st minute at that spot, and played a part in the winning goal. Many people (me included) forget that.
With Wambach out, it was Angela Hucles who led the U.S. in scoring at the Olympics.
Statistically, Brazil outshot the U.S. 15-10, but had a 15-3 edge in corners, which is a bit scary, even if it was three years ago.

4) Hope Solo may be the biggest advantage the U.S. has

As you probably know by now, I’m not Solo’s biggest fan off the field, but on the field she’s the best goalkeeper in the world, and – if this World Cup is any indication – it’s not real close.
She can’t be faulted for either Swedish goal (although she did not come out on an early breakaway when she probably should have), and has looked confident for the most part, at least more confident than Andreia at the other end. It wouldn’t be shocking if a goalkeeper mistake was the difference.

5) So what lineup for Pia Sundhage?

Really, your guess is as good as mine. There are so many questions. Here are the definite starters: Wambach, Cheney, Rampone, Krieger, Lloyd, Solo.
That’s all, folks.
So there are five positions that we probably won’t know until Sunday morning, also scary.
O’Reilly will start if healthy at right mid, and if she’s not, I expect it to be Megan Rapinoe, I don’t think Sundhage would go to Kelly O’Hara to start.
In looking at lineups from the last few years, an interesting one was May of last year, when the U.S. crushed Germany 4-0 in Cleveland. The center back pairing that day was Amy LePeilbet and Rachel Buehler, with Ali Kreiger (Heather Mitts played the first half) and Stephanie Cox on the outside. Does Sundhage drop Buehler, put LePeilbet in the middle, with either Cox or Mitts (who we haven’t seen yet) on the left? Not out of realm of possibility.
I really think Lori Lindsey starts for Boxx in midfield, and I think that’s the right decision, although my dream is still a 4-3-3.
Which puts us at forward. I thought Amy Rodriguez had a good first half (and she nearly scored), but she was replaced for Alex Morgan. I really can’t see Morgan starting, but I’m not sure what Rodriguez’s confidence is right now. But if there’s someone that can move around and drag Brazil’s marking defenders all over the field, I’m sure it’s got to be Rodriguez.
So if it’s me (and you forced me to go 4-4-2):

Kreiger-Rampone-LePeilbet-Cox
O’Reilly-Lindsey-Lloyd-Cheney
Rodriguez-Wambach

Unfortunately, as I said, is just may come down to the fact that Brazil has better attacking players. But they did in 2008, too, and don’t underestimate how important the goalkeeper will be in this matchup. It may not be pretty, but I think the U.S. can get this done with superior aerial ability and a chance to wear down Brazil as the game goes on.

I hope I’m not out on a wing and a prayer.

Prediction: United States 2-1 (aet)

Elsewhere (times EDT):

SATURDAY

England vs. France, Noon
This will probably come down to whether France can handle the pressure. Most of these players have played in the Champions League, but this is another level of pressure in front of the whole world (sadly, the whole world isn’t watching the women’s Champions League yet).
I think Bruno Bini tried some things against Germany, like starting Wendie Renard for instance, that just didn’t work. Marie-Laure Delie is for real, and I think she’ll prove that again, no matter how good England looked against Japan.
Prediction: France 3-1

Germany vs. Japan, 2:45 p.m.
Japan has very skilled players and I would like to pick them, but I think this is probably the worst team they could have drawn, and not just because they’re the hosts.
Germany will surely impose itself physically on this game, and I’m not sure the Japanese will have an answer. But give Japan too many set pieces near their goal, and the Germans will be asking for big trouble.
Prediction: Germany 2-0

SUNDAY

Sweden vs. Australia, 7 a.m.
To best describe Australia, I have to go back to the Bad News Bears when the hated Yankees begrudgingly gave the Bears a little respect, “We still don’t think you’re all that good a baseball team, but you got guts. All of ya.”
Australia’s got guts, all of them, whomever Tom Sermanni throws out there. And it might be enough to get the Aussies to a surprise semifinal.
Prediction: 1-1 (Australia advances in penalties)