USA 3, France 1: Once More Into The Breach For The USWNT Results In Triumph

EXTERMINATED! (Psst...you hear those Wambach critic crickets? We don't...now.)

It’s gone beyond tactics. It’s turned into a force of will thing now. This collective journey that we’re all taking. It’s out of our hands now.

Today the U.S. proved that you don’t have to play the best soccer for the most minutes to win. You can completely lose the midfield battle, get out-shot, look both confused and exhausted at times, and not only win, but win by two goals.

That’s why you can’t help but think that it’s beyond discussion. This story will be written no matter the tactics or strategy.

Bit of a different game today. Just like Sunday, the U.S. struck first, then gave up a goal to tie it up, and eventually prevailed, just with not as much controversy or drama. But it’s been a little hard to put a label on this game (in an effort to try and avoid chalking it up to the Team of Destiny stuff). So, instead of trying to put together one long narrative, here are three tiny ones, that, hopefully, will add up to a pretty clear picture of the game. All the stuff I missed, hit me up in the comments.

Abby Wambach: American Folk Hero

Twenty years from now, we’ll remember her as a giant, with a forehead that doubled as a missile launcher, a frame that opponents bounced off of and a will that raised the play of her entire team.

In today’s world, it’s really not that far off.

Abby Wambach has become an American folk hero.

But, with the way she scores those goals, it’s hard not to paint her that way. Case in point, today’s goal. France had been dominating for the entire second half, and seemed poised to net a game-winner before the end of regulation. But with one flick of her head, Wambach quashed all of the momentum that France had cultivated for the past 35 minutes. And it wasn’t just a simple nod. Wambach took two giant steps, elevated above everyone around her, right to the exact spot where only she could reach with her head, and sent a statement into the back of the net. Her momentum caused her to smack into the post, but the Wambach wasn’t fazed.

There’s a difference between playing well and being successful, and doing what Wambach does. Lauren Cheney has been playing well. Abby Wambach has been seizing games by the throat.

It’s not just the goals (although there’s something inherently beautiful about those headers). She had two near-misses today (one of which she full-out ran over a defender and the French goalkeeper, leaving them sprawled in her wake) that demonstrated both how skilled she is, and how her talents allow her teammates to play in a way that no other team can. Even when she was slumping during the group stage, she still had the ability to pull defenders away from other teammates, and set them up to score.  Throw whatever superlative you want at her: winner, game-changer, folk hero. It all sticks.

The French Perspective

Turns out Bini's gamble pointed the wrong way....home.

At 77:38 Bruno Bini took a gamble. Despite trailing the United States for most of the first half, France had equalized at 55’ and dominated for most of the second half. But Bini wasn’t content to try his hand against the Americans in overtime or penalty kicks. If France was going to win, it needed to score during regulation. So, he subbed out veteran defender Sandrine Soubeyrand in favor of lightning-fast forward Elodie Thomis. Yes, it would leave France a little more vulnerable in the back, but it was worth it to have the speedy Thomis charging at goal, especially with the confusion that France’s offense was already causing for the American defense. Approximately one minute later, Bini’s risk burned him.  As soon as Abby Wambach’s scorching header hit the back of the net, France’s mission changed from trying to put the game away to needing a goal just to force overtime. But almost immediately after that, Alex Morgan ensured that Bini and France’s luck had run out for good.

It almost wasn’t like that though. Louisa Necib had mystified the U.S. defense all day, opening it up, stretching it, bending it to her will. France was throwing waves and waves of assaults on the U.S. goal for most of the game, and the defense was beginning to crack. Bossing the central midfield wasn’t a problem, thanks to a fifth midfielder, and the less-than-stellar play of U.S. central midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd. They almost equalized in the 32nd minute when Sonia Bompastor sent a rifle off the cross bar from long-range. The long-range shot approach worked well enough, so they kept launching them, mostly into keeper Hope Solo’s arms. The strategy did pay off in the 55th minute though, when Bompastor sent another floater in to Solo. But the keeper had to hold her line in case a streaking Gaetane Thiney attempted to redirect it. That indecision left just enough room for Bompastor’s shot to bounce into the opposite side of the net for the equalizer.

For the next 24 minutes, it was all about Les Bleus. At times, it was like they were just possessing and creating around the U.S. defense, not even needing to go through it. But then came the gamble, and the header, and just like that, that historical first trip to a World Cup final, that had just begun to sparkle and twinkle in front of them, went dark, at least for another four years.

Movable Parts

Maybe one day, at some point in the future, we’ll understand Pia Sundhage’s rationale behind her substitutions and lineup changes. They don’t always make sense as they’re happening, but, besides the Kelly O’Hara gaff, Sundhage has been pretty on target. Today’s moves exemplified Sundhage’s madness/genius when it comes to her lineup. In the 56th minute, with the U.S. even at 1 with France, Sundhage sent Alex Morgan in for Amy Rodriguez.

The wear and tear finally got to US stalwart Carli Lloyd in this one...

Rodriguez coming off made sense, but the most logical switch would have been for super sub Megan Rapinoe to come on at right wing, allowing Lauren Cheney to step in at forward. That way, Rapinoe could give the squad a much-needed lift and Cheney could distribute from the middle. Morgan’s entrance also meant that if/when Rapinoe came on, there would be no room for Cheney at forward. Sundhage’s decision seemed less and less wise as the match went on. Morgan made several rookie mistakes, and missed an easy chance in front of the goal in the 70th minute (even if she was offside.). But in the 65th minute, Sundhage’s intentions became clearer. She switched out Carli Lloyd, who had an overall unremarkable game, for Megan Rapinoe and moved Cheney into the middle. Now, Rapinoe could give a spark with her fresh legs, Cheney could feed from the middle and there was a forward up top who wasn’t Amy Rodriguez. Everyone wins.

The move paid off almost immediately, as each movable part executed its role to perfection, and Alex Morgan topped the game off with a goal. Still, the only curious thing is the timing of it all. By inserting Morgan so early, it seemed like Sundhage wasn’t responding to the squad’s immediate need, shoring up the midfield and rebounding after conceding a goal. Morgan really only became effective once the second switch was made. While it all does say something about how Sundhage responds in a tactical and technical manner to a situation (re: in a ‘go with your gut’ kind of way), it’s hard to question a win, especially at this point in the tournament.

Defensive Troubles

For the first 20 minutes, they looked stingy. For the next 70, they looked frazzled. At the end of 90, they just looked tired. That, in a nutshell, was the U.S. back four’s night. Despite a promising start, the United States were put on their heels for much of the second half, thanks to the fluid, possession style of the French.

Even with Becky Sauerbrunn, who was filling in for the red-carded Rachel Buehler, the defense got off to a good start. Sauerbrunn showed no jitters, and even added an aura of calm to the line. They snuffed out France’s early chances and put good pressure on the ball. But as Necib settled into the game, she began to work her magic. As the game closed in on 30 minutes, Necib and France began to pick apart the U.S. defense. They would draw all four into the middle, then swing out to Camille Abily outside, or spread the defense and then zip right down the gut. Passes were slicing in and out of the defense with ease. The struggles of the defense also meant that the midfield dropped back more, which in turn, stifled the fluidity of the U.S. attack.

The biggest scare came when Ali Krieger went down with an injury after a hard tackle in the box. Immediately afterwards, it looked as if she couldn’t put any weight on it, and had to step off the field to have it examined. If Krieger had been unable to return, her back-up, 33-year-old World Cup debutante Heather Mitts would have had to fill-in, a move that the already struggling back line probably could not have handled.

Despite the shaky play for most of the match, there actually isn’t a huge reason to worry. France’s fast style, plus the strain from Sunday’s match caused a good deal of fatigue amongst the four. With the return of Buehler for Sunday’s match against Japan, plus three full days of rest, today’s slip-ups should have little effect on the back line moving forward.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Anatoly M on 2011/07/14 at 4:57 AM

    French played well. They are a young team, they will be even better. It’s a noticeable trend of rising skills across the board for men and women. Cakewalks become more exception than the rule. Unless you are a Barcelona (but they are from another planet).

    So, the same old, same old: determination, never give up, a will to win, shut your teeth and keep playing – this all pleases soccer gods. Not to discount skills and tactics, of course, and you can’t win on the skin of your teeth alone, but when the skills are not that much different, and when the fire is in the belly of not just a few players, but the whole team – you get a feeling that nothing can stop this team.

    Japanese played a good game too. Amazingly enough, Sweden did not use their aerial advantage and did not test the short Japanese goalie enough. I hope our ladies won’t be as overconfident, but they can and should win.

    Reply

  2. Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/07/14 at 6:43 AM

    I think Abby Wambach rescued this squad and Hope Solo is a goaltending goddess. France overwhelmed for long stretches and I agree that the tactical subs were justpuzzling considering how obvious it was the Lloyd was a liability in the CMF role. I’ve been calling for Cheney and Lloyd to flip flop for most of the WC so far.Not declaring my genius but simply what a casual watcher could see. Cheney holds and distributes exceedingly well. Under duress. Lloyd beats her first defender and then looks to get rid of the ball by shooting or launching the ball to first flashing attacker….pretty much plays MF like you’d expect a world class forward to.

    Re Lloyd(and I’m a huge fan of hers in her old attacking role BTW)-only the sunshine of a huge victory could allow you to call her “unremarkable” on the day. She made a fantastic attacking play with her back heel and then proceeded to cede possession and any coherent distribution in almost every touch. In her defense, she looked like she was gassed and giving her all, and it’s on Pia tactically as she has NOT demonstrated a facility for the role she’s been given to boss the MF. Huge talent that seems to be wasted. Might there be some conflict between she and Abby in their play that has caused her to be “re-engineered” as a player?

    Again I see Boxx lumped in with Lloyd as underperforming but she continually has demonstrated stronger CMF play throughout the tournament. I think Lloyd’s struggles affect her play.

    The lesson here is that Cheney should drop in to the CMF role and Lloyd moves out wide left in Cheney’s old role. Both cut in naturally to shoot so you don’t have any issues with losing width. Sub her with Rapinoe as has been the case and start Morgan in Rodriguez’s place to take advantage of Carly’s slipped balls and to make space for Abby coming in late.

    In closing, Hope Solo is a goddess and the unquestioned best keeper in the world.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Smitty on 2011/07/14 at 7:34 AM

    Good analysis…looking ahead to Japan now.

    I have not seen Japan once in this tournament, I am hoping you TSG writers have. It does not seem to be the same Japan team that we have beaten thrice in the runup.

    Reply

  4. Really excellent points.

    Abby has proven me wrong. During group matches I doubted whether it wouldn’t be better to add speed and insert Cheney for Abby. No way should she sit. She has regained confidence and is a tireless worker. Hoping Cheney moves centrally so Wambach can focus on steamrolling shorter defenders at the net.

    Great description on the “Movable Parts.” No one likes calling out the coaches when the team wins, but the win does not condone no criticism. This team would have trounced France that much more if Rapinoe was inserted just after half in like the 47th minute for Rodriguez (if not before half). Then later Morgan in for Lloyd. The team just have such an advantage of fitness and doggedness that they make up for any poor tactical structure in the end. Can’t get away with it forever though, twice lucky, if it repeats for a third time against Japan, watch out.

    With such superior height advantage against Japan is there any reason Rapinoe (and her crossing ability) should not be displayed from the beginning? Let Rodriguez sit and bring her on later after either Cheney has slotted 1 in, Wambach has smashed 1, or Lloyd has blasted 1 from deep.

    Reply

    • rapinoe is best when she has the advantage in lungs.
      when she starts with the rest she is as average as the rest with not only crosses, but even shorter passes.
      her spark at some point after half time is priceless

      Reply

      • Of course she would not be as devastating starting, but she is in good form. Start the best formation, I feel our best lineup includes Rapinoe not necessarily because of her individual ability but how the individual players fit together. Against Japan having a roaming Cheney untethered in the middle with Wambach might help disrupt their passing and having a LM staying outwide would help keeping shape.
        By no means an expert, have been wrong before many times.

        Do understand the spark point but Morgan, Rodriguez, Heath, and Lindsey can do that too.

        Reply

  5. Posted by SamT on 2011/07/14 at 7:45 AM

    Great summary. Saw the game similarly. Two other angles to the game.

    1. The game was on a knife edge at 1-1 and easily could have gone 3-1 in the other direction. France was very good yesterday. Their 5-mid setup was the perfect option against the US 442 with both teams having tired legs, and we began to wear down in the second half. They also had a number of players capable of hitting the ball with pace from well outside the area. Hope is easily the best keeper of the tournament, but I disagree with Foudy that those were poor decisions by France. At that velocity a ball placed inside the posts could have beaten Hope.

    2. Lloyd takes way too much crap. She is one of the most creative players on the field. Fatigue after the Brazil match hurt her effectiveness yesterday — as did the 5 v 4 matchup in the midfield. I loved the Rapinoe sub and Cheney switch. One sub upgraded two positions on the field and — with the poor French sub — really turned the game. Also agree with the comment above that a better starting lineup may very well be Lloyd on the outside and Cheney in the middle with Boxx. In fact, it was Lloyd’s creativity with the unexpected pass at the touch line that set up the first goal.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/07/14 at 7:52 AM

      Disagree on Lloyd’s position. (Didn’t see that she took crap for anything). She is nearly the perfect attacking mid for a US system that sees it’s wingers fly up the flanks and stay wide. She arrives as a trailer and has a booming shot. She knows exactly when to get in the box. She tracks back.

      Lauren Cheney’s creativity is better served on the flank where she can venture from and not have quite as much defensive responsibility–which also goes to show that a lot of the LePeilbet jeers were unfounded since Cheney has been a little more tethered since the Sweden game.

      Reply

      • Posted by SamT on 2011/07/14 at 9:14 AM

        Wanted to clarify the “Lloyd taking crap” comment because I was not clear. The crap hasn’t come from TSG directly so much as the comments section, particularly in previous games. People criticized I think because of the many missed shots but failed to acknowledge the positives: well-timed runs forward, creativity and unpredictability in forward passes in the offensive half of the field, the “responsibility” of the CM role defensively — which you have pointed out in your subsequent post.

        Yesterday Lloyd was clearly fatigued from the 120min against Brazil. So a comparison with a fresh Cheney (who came off after 50-60min against Brazil if memory serves) isn’t apples to apples. That said, I thought Cheney did very well with possession centrally yesterday during a period of the game when France was desperate to dispossess her.

        It’s a nuance whether Cheney and Lloyd switch starting roles at this point. My guess is that Pia won’t disrupt the Lloyd-Boxx pairing in the middle. And as good fortune would have it, Lloyd is now the fresh one after being subbed off.

        Reply

        • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/07/14 at 9:19 AM

          And Sam — didn’t mean to be harsh — had seen a lot of it out there this morning and (per our tweets) was already riled up. : >

          Reply

  6. Posted by Maura Gladys on 2011/07/14 at 10:19 AM

    On Lloyd: Agreed that it can be easy to overlook Lloyd’s success because of her inherent role in the central midfield. And she has been the catalyst for several good U.S. chances that she (admittedly) doesn’t get enough credit for. Examples 1 and 2, her smart pass to Megan Rapinoe on Wambach’s goal against Brazil and her sweet back heel on Cheney’s goal yesterday. On both occasions she created those opportunities but her contribution was relatively overlooked.

    I think some of it still comes down to a frustration about the Lloyd-Boxx partnership. On paper, they should be so good together, but it doesn’t always translate that way on the field. And so, a good game by either player, gets lumped into a “not as good as it should have been” performance from the duo. Plus, as it was mentioned, it’s much easier to criticize a shot over the cross bar than congratulate a smart supporting play.

    While we won’t remember this as a breakout tournament for Lloyd (if only because Wambach, Solo, Krieger, HAO, maybe Rapinoe have had better tournaments), she’s still a solid starter and adds a creative presence to the field.

    Reply

  7. Posted by kaya on 2011/07/14 at 10:38 AM

    I actually never counted myself as a Wambach critic. What I don’t care for is how she’s allowed us to abandon use of the midfield distribution. Of course when she’s on form, it doesn’t matter. Like many, I didn’t see a lot of the WNT before the WC, so how much is due to Rapinoe’s new sub role I’m not sure, but I certainly didn’t like what I saw between minutes 20ish and 65ish.
    Goals 2 and 3 owed a lot to poor goalkeeping…
    Contrary to being an Abby critic, I think we could make her look even better with a modicum of midfield possession and technique.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/07/14 at 10:49 AM

      FYI: TSG Corporate is just a little riled up today. A little upset we didn’t win the ESPY last night for lifetime achievement.

      Reply

      • Posted by kaya on 2011/07/14 at 11:01 AM

        Ha! No worries. IMO, your follow-up was enough to be entertaining without being too much.

        Reply

      • Posted by Christopher on 2011/07/15 at 8:46 AM

        Lifetime Achievement? I had you down for the Jimmy V ESPY Award for Perseverance AND the Arthur Ashe Courage Award…fan voting? what a crock.

        Reply

  8. I think the biggest reason the defense looked susceptible after the first 20 minutes was the enormous gap in space between the central defenders and the central midfielders. Because of France’s 4-5-1 versus our 4-4-2, they were able to get in space behind the midfield and in front of the defense without any pressure. Thankfully the French players decided to try their luck from distance when they turned with the ball rather than trying to dribble into the box. The only real way for us to “fix” the defense is to switch to a 4-5-1 where you could put Lloyd and Boxx as defensive midfielders, and then place Rapinoe, Cheney and O’reily as attacking mids. If later in the game you need some speed and want to bring Morgan you can switch to a 4-4-2 and pull one of the midfielders, attacking or defending depending on the situation

    Reply

  9. The biggest problem for Lloyd and Boxx was being outnumbered in central midfield. Whenever the USA tried to play through that area to the opposite flank, they were under much more pressure than they are accustomed to and frequently lost possession in this area. Compare that to the amount of space and time they had to look up the pitch and find penetrative balls forward up the flanks against Brazil. The ball from CM out to the flank that normally takes the US into the attacking third was simply not there against French. Credit to the French midfield for closing it down.

    Wambach and Rodriguez played much flatter across the front than after Alex Morgan came on, Pia got an extra body into the midfield by having one of the forward players drop deeper and play just in front of midfield. In response, the french defensive line pushed higher up the pitch. Once Rapinoe came on, the US was able to outflank the french 4-2-3-1 with advanced width (as Mexico had so much success doing in the Gold Cup Final) and the US started to create an outnumbered situation on the left flank.

    And voila – the result was more space in the middle of the park for the central midfielders to control the match and lots of room for the US to get in behind the French back line.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Nelson on 2011/07/15 at 4:10 AM

    b a u tiful

    Reply

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