Editors’s Note: TSG guest columnist Maura Gladys on Game 1 for the USWNT.
Hear that? That’s the sound of the entire U.S. Women’s national team, along with its fan base, exhaling. After weeks of hype, build up, criticism, anxiety and pressure, the U.S. finally has a little room to breath, thanks to a 2-0 win over North Korea. It was not perfect. But the U.S. reached a level of play towards the end of the game that contained promising glimpses of a world champion team.
Those glimpses were not evident in the first 45 minutes. The U.S. looked nervous and shaky, especially on defense. The back four had trouble picking up streaking North Korean runners, and left fullback Amy LePeilbet, the U.S.’ best 1v1 defender, was beat twice in succession, leading to shots. The United States’ struggles weren’t only in the back. They failed to finish several good opportunities. Amy Rodriguez’s touch was off, Abby Wambach couldn’t convert on a few balls that you expect her to convert on, and all of Lauren Cheney’s shots were straight at the keeper. Not the best way to kick off a tournament that is supposed to be your return to glory. (It was around this time when Ian Darke of ESPN began referencing Italy in the 1994 World Cup, when they played poorly in the group stages but went on the win it all.)
While many of the U.S.’s struggles were a product of their nerves, North Korea implemented a smart strategy that tied up the midfield and forced the attack to go out to the wings. They clogged the midfield and basically sat on top of Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, neutralizing their distributing abilities, and daring the U.S. to attack from the wings. But with Lauren Cheney pinched in and Amy LePeilbet hesitant to push forward, Heather O’Reilly was the only one consistently out on the wing generating any offense.
Entering halftime with a scoreless draw was not a good feeling. With North Korea creating several good first half chances, a goal from them was not out of the question, and the buildup, hype and expectations seemed to be weighing even heavier on the U.S. squad.
Then, with one cut, cross and header, it was all okay. In the 54th minute, Carli Lloyd sent a floating opposite field cross to Abby Wambach, who collected it near the right corner flag. Wambach faked out her defender with an inside cut that gave her the space and time to pick out Lauren Cheney in the middle of the box. Cheney directed the cross right back where it came from, placing a header at the far post and sending the keeper sliding.
Cheney raced to the sidelines where the she was engulfed by the entire squad in a collective release of anxiety.
The fact that it was Cheney that netted the game-winner makes Pia Sundhage, who had recently taken some heat with her personnel choices, look like a genius.
Cheney wasn’t even expected to start until two days ago when head coach Pia Sundhage announced that she was mulling starting Cheney over left wing Megan Rapinoe, who had been in great form. The announcement seemed…random. Yes, Cheney had hit the game-winner against Mexico on June 5th, but inserting Cheney would mean that some part of the U.S. formation needed to be altered, something that Sundhage seemed hesitant to do in previous matches. While Cheney’s presence would strengthen an iffy center midfield, it would also take away from generating offense on the wing. But Cheney proved her worth. She distributed well from the middle, shifted back to help left fullback Amy LePeilbet, took several shots, and of course, netted the goal.
Once the U.S. took the lead, their concentration and focus slowly built up. Their possession improved and in the 76th minute, Rachel Buehler put the game away for good. The central defender netted her second career goal (hooray for defenders scoring!) when she just got a foot on a bouncing ball and slid a shot perfectly between the post and the goalkeeper’s outstretched fingers.
By this time, the U.S. swagger had returned in a form we hasn’t seen in many many appearances, and they dominated the last 25 minutes of the game. A third goal by substitute Rapinoe was disallowed when she kicked the ball into the net while the goalkeeper had possession
While Abby Wambach was key in creating the United States’ first goal, she struggled with her own possession and failed to capitalize on several opportunities. The striker has only scored one goal in 2011, and although no one has uttered the word “slump” just yet, it’s fair to say that she has been frustrated as of late.
The United States’ other superstar Hope Solo saw some action today, making five essential saves in the first half, including a tremendous near-post deflection in the 35th minute. Her bum right shoulder, which she admitted does not have full extension, didn’t seem to impede her that much, although all of the saves she had to make were low to the ground.
With the win, the United States has cleared a tremendous hurdle, and will be riding high when they take on Colombia on Saturday. With a huge amount of pressure off of them, the squad should use the game to rack up a high goal differential and aim to take their performance from the last 25 minutes of today’s game and stretch that out to a full 90.