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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)

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned : Day 8

I spent most of the Brazil-Norway match trying to figure out what formation Brazil was playing, what their movement was. For the most part, I was baffled.

Were there three true forwards? Was it a diamond formation in the midfield? Were they using a true sweeper, or did Daiane come up sometimes and just look like a sweeper when the other team had the ball?

I forgot, though, what a legendary high school basketball coach used to tell me after his team won (he’s actually better than he gives himself credit for, but the point is still valid).

“Talent is the divider. You can’t win without talent.”

And, in the end, as frustrating as it for analysts and armchair coaches like me, Brazil may win the World Cup because they have the best players. Occam’s Razor lives again.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two (or 10), and here are the 10 things we learned in Day 8 of Germany 2011.

1) There are some things that defy explanation

Gyoengyi Gaal is one of the top referees in the world. She is the first female ref to officiate men’s professional games in her home country of Hungary, she did a quarterfinal (and third place involving the U.S.) match in the 2007 World Cup and semifinal in Euro 2009. It stands to reason that she would be picked for a semifinal in this tournament, or even (gulp) the final.
Which makes the incident today in the Australia-Equatorial Guinea match even more bizarre. I’m sure you’ve seen it by now, and my immediate thoughts were trying to figure out what happened. But after a few seconds, it hits you, “What the heck was that?”
I’m not sure what Gaal was thinking. I’m not sure she knows what she was thinking. It was just one of those brainfreezes that everyone gets every once in a while. Unfortunately, it happened in front of the whole world.
At least in this U-20 game at last year’s World Cup, the ref had an inkling that the ball might be out of bounds.

2) Unfortunately for Gaal, it was a poorly officiated game, even taking out the handball

Again, this is not a personal attack against Gaal, and it should be pointed out that officials are graded all the way up, so she must be a very good referee to get as far as she did, but it wasn’t her day.
People complain that referees that hand out too many cards have lost control of the match, but sometimes – as it was today – that’s precisely what the game needs. Equatorial Guinea should have been a shown a couple of cards early, and then if they continue to foul repeatedly, you have to send people off. Otherwise, you get what you had today, a chippy hackfest which is ugly to watch. And this was ugly.

3) Genoveva Anonma wasn’t nearly as likable today

Which is kind of sad, because she did score twice and almost singlehandedly keep her team in the game. But she also was petulant with the opponents, the officials, and – on a couple of occasions, it appeared – her own teammates, as she didn’t think about passing too much.
Part of the frustration for Equatorial Guinea seemed like the formation. Marcello Frigerio changed to a 3-6-1, and it didn’t seem like his team got it.

4) Australia is dangerous, but very young

I found this interview with Leena Khamis, who was probably Women of the Match today, interesting. It’s not like the men’s game, where most of the stars will make plenty of money to retire on in the game.

You saw the best and the worst of Australia today, young players like Samantha Kerr and Emily van Egmond (whose finish n the winning goal was underrated), but you saw young Servet Uzunlar make two giant mistakes in the back, too.
If I’m the U.S., I’d probably want to play Australia rather than Norway because of that, but in the quarterfinals, I guess you take whatever comes your way.

5) Australia with Kate Gill might be a threat to go a long way

It’s easy to forget that Australia is without Kate Gill, the 2010 Asian Player of the Year. Gill, at 26, would figure to be in her prime for this tournament, too, but went down with a knee injury in the spring. We shall see, but that might be the difference for Australia against Norway on Wednesday.

6) Brazil has Marta and no one else does

As I said in the open, we can talk about tactics until we’re blue in the face, but Marta can do so much just by being Marta. You can make a pretty strong argument that there was a foul on the first goal, but she basically created two goals by herself, and that’s the difference in any match, in any round.
Marta is now tied with Michelle Akers for most goals ever (12) at the World Cup, and if she doesn’t break it against Equatorial Guinea, it’s likely because she was rested.
The great thing about soccer is that you can scheme all you want to stop her – and people will the rest of the tournament – but it probably won’t work.

7) Kleiton Lima may be a tactical genius, but probably not

His deep sweeper 3-4-3 looking formation has two wins and two clean sheets in the first two matches, and you can’t knock the numbers, but I’m concluding: a) he has some pretty darn good players to work with; and b) he just hasn’t faced an attack that will give him much trouble yet.
The thing that bothered me even more than the sweeper was the lack of pressure in the opponents’ half. Maybe Lima feels like his team isn’t in shape to chase, maybe he just wants to counter, but Cristiane pressured about three times, almost caused mistakes, and finally did on Brazil’s third goal. Maybe he wasn’t watching the rest of the tournament?
But he’s 2-0, and I’m not.

8 ) There were probably two fouls on the lead up to Marta’s first goal

I’d probably say Marta fouled Nora Holstad Berge, although I can see why it wasn’t given. The bigger issue for me was upfield, where Emilie Haavi just seemed to get dumped by Erika in the Brazil third, and Kari Seitz saw nothing wrong with it. Such is life.

9) Brazil is capable of levels that no other team can reach

That three minute span coming out of halftime that saw Brazil score twice? Ridiculous. If you get Marta clicking with Cristiane and Rosana, look out. Obviously, you don’t have to tell the United States that, they saw it in 2007.

10) Norway might have enough to give Australia problems

Athletically, you give Australia the advantage, but Norway did get some chances in the second half by getting the ball forward, and I already mentioned the youth in the Australian team, you wonder if they can hold it together against an onslaught of corner kicks and balls into the box. The first goal will be extremely important in that match.

Bonus:

Tom Sermanni = class act

How many coaches would have completely flipped out on the non-penalty kick call? But Sermanni didn’t, and his team – as is often the case – followed his demeanor, they stayed calm enough to get through it and eventually, they got their three points.

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 4

Sometimes the real world can be a cruel, cruel place. Australia and Equatorial Guinea began Wednesday’s action as underdogs, teams that would likely have to get very lucky to get a result against Brazil and Norway, respectively.

As it turned out, they had no luck at all.

Now, in the end, just as in any of life’s endeavors, you make your own luck and neither the Aussies or the Equatoguineans (my favorite world of the World Cup, by the way) could find a way to score a goal, and therefore got nothing, absolutely nothing, they lost (say it in your best Willy Wonka voice).

But as the final whistle sounded on the Australia-Brazil match, while the poor Matildas looking disconsolate after a last-second corner kick rattled around the box for one seemed like an hour, I thought, “Darn it”.

I didn’t pick Australia or Equatorial Guinea, I have no ties to either, they just didn’t to deserve to lose today. And, as these things go, they may not get a better chance to win than they did today.

Onto the 10 things we learned in Day 4 of Germany 2011.

1) It’s good to be Genoveva Anonma

Well, except for the whole “being accused of being a man, thing”. I’m sure that’s terrible.
However, imagine you’re Genoveva, you just turned 22, you led your tiny country no one ever heard of to its first World Cup, no one thinks you have a chance to do anything, and your coach tells you to run around, get the ball as many times as possible, and shoot whenever you get within the same zip code as the opponents’ goal.
I’d probably paint my hair Equatoguinean (2) green as well. Anonma took 13 (?!?) shots, and was the most entertaining player in the tournament. We hope she can keep it up for a couple more games. The only downside …

2) Finishing seems like a lost art at this World Cup

The only thing Anonma (the official roster lists her an Anonman, must be a translation thing) was missing was the finish. After trying her luck from distance in the first half, she got her first great look at the stroke of halftime when she hit Norwegian goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth right in the chest. In the 53rd and 71st minute, she was clear again, but couldn’t make it work either time.
Alas, she’s not alone at this World Cup, Norway took a page out of the Swedish handbook, and Australia missed more than their fair share of chances. We’ll see if it changes going forward, but it might be the difference between winning and losing the World Cup (yeah, pretty obvious, but still).

3) Equatorial Guinea had a couple of other players, too

I was particularly impressed with Carolina (Martins Pereira). Of course, until a few years ago, she was probably about as Equatoguinean (3) as I was, but the veteran Brazilian was a calm presence when her team needed it in the back. (And, hey, it’s not like men’s teams aren’t doing the same thing in naturalizing players, I guess). Despite Cat Whitehill talking about the weakness of Miriam (Silva da Paixao) in goal (another Brazilian), I thought she was reasonably solid, she punched out a few balls and didn’t make any glaring mistakes. Of course, Carolina was taking her goal kicks, however, which is never good. But there’s reason to think, they’ll at least make things interesting in their last two matches.

4) I don’t despise direct play, but you need a Plan B, too

It looked like either Norway was surprised how good the Equatoguineans (4) were in the air, or didn’t really have another plan other than to lump the ball forward at every opportunity and hope for the best. I guess it’s a good sign for the women’s game that a team like Equatorial Guinea forced Norway to try something else, as I said, it’s a shame they didn’t make them pay for it at the other end.
I was encouraged to see Norway start in a 4-2-3-1 (not a 4-4-2), and and they did have some bright spots…

5) There were some bright spots for Norway, so there’s hope going forward

You can add 19-year-old (and just turned it two weeks ago) Emilie Haavi to our growing list of young standouts, as other than Anonma, she was probably Woman of the Match, which made it fitting that she got the winner in the 84th minute (with Equatorial Guinea going for the winner). Of course, Haavi is a decidedly un-Norwegian like player, and not just because her hair is not completely blonde. She has skill, and wasn’t afraid to use it.
The only other player on the Norway roster shorter than Haavi was second-half sub Lene Mykjaland, who made an immediate impact, but had to be subbed out herself after just 24 minutes on the field. Elise Thorsnes on the other wing had her moments as well, Norway is going to need those players if they want any shot of advancing, even with this result.

6) Brazil was using a sweeper

Like finding evidence of a reportedly extinct animal, there it was for Brazil (of all people) against Australia. I made fun of Nigeria for using it in past World Cups, and it was personally jarring.
My playing career was mostly as a sweeper, and my coaching career started a decade using a 4-4-2 with a sweeper because that’s all I ever played. But once more and more games came on television, especially the 2002 Men’s and 2003 Women’s World Cup, no one was using a sweeper (except the Nigerian women). No one. I really haven’t seen it since, except among some local coaches, who – like me – probably knew nothing else and don’t watch as much television.
And it wasn’t a high sweeper, it was a deep sweeper, with Daiane way back and Aline and Erika basically man-marking the two Australian forwards in front of her.
And so Kielton Lima is either revolutionizing tactical soccer, or he’s 20 years behind the times. Obviously, I’m biased, but I’m going with the latter. Australia and Lisa Da Vanna should have made them pay and didn’t, and Brazil (which was listed as a 3-4-3) never seemed sure where they were supposed to be defensively. But Lima got his clean sheet and three points.

7) Again, it’s about the goals, stupid

We can talk tactics and 100 other things, but when Christiane keeps the ball alive early in the second half and Rosana takes two brilliant touches and buries it, that’s the difference in the game. It’s the reason why Didier Drogba has been so valuable, why Chicharito is so valuable, and the difference between a good team and a championship team.
You can blame young right back Caitlin Foord for not stepping up, or the center backs for failing to clear the ball, but give credit to Rosana, too.
Despite all their failings today, Brazil is capable of scoring just like they did today – in lightning quick fashion – and I don’t know how many other teams in this tournament are.

8) Australia has a future, if not a present

Foord was excellent at right back and doesn’t turn 17 until November, fellow teenager Emily Van Egmond didn’t stand out as much, but didn’t stand out in a bad way, either. Center back Servet Uzunlar just turned 22. Kyah Simon, who didn’t score, but was pretty dangerous and lively celebrated her 20th birthday earlier in the week. And, based on today’s performances, you’d still have to make Australia a favorite against Norway, wouldn’t you?

9) However, let’s not get too worked up over one game

Brazil and Norway, my picks to advance, were not good today, I’ll readily admit that, but one game does not a tournament make. What kind of adjustments do Eli Landsem and Lima make going forward is the big question? Does Lima scrap the pseudo 3-4-3 and old-school sweeper? Does Landsem order the ball played to the feet of her skill players?
We may look back on the first game as an aberration if Brazil and Norway make a deep run.

10) Low-scoring does not necessarily mean bad or unentertaining

Scoring is down, way down, in this World Cup, but the Equatorial Guinea-Norway match was the most entertaining of this World Cup and would have been even if it had finished scoreless. So I’m not worried about the lack of scoring, even if people that don’t actually watch the games will point to it as reasons why people shouldn’t watch.

Bonus:

Europe is the only undefeated confederation

But yet between Sweden, Norway, England, and France, they probably haven’t been as impressive as CONCACAF or Asia (with Australia). Discuss.