by Maura Gladys
Five games, nine days and 39 goals. That’s what it took for the U.S. women’s national team to win the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying
Tournament and book their ticket to this summer’s London Olympic Games. The U.S. steamrolled the opposition, beating Dominican Republic 14-0, Guatemala 13-0, Mexico 4-0, Costa Rica 3-0 and Canada 4-0. No question, the U.S. flat out dominated. But there was a weird tone to the whole affair. From a devastating injury to a key player, to the discussion stemming from two double-digit blowouts, there really wasn’t that unabashed joy and celebration that we saw at last summer’s World Cup. A few key takeaways from the tournament:
Just 40 minutes into the tournament, right back Ali Krieger fell victim to an unnecessary tackle from Dominican Republic that completely tore her right ACL and partially tore her right MCL, sidelining her for the foreseeable future and throwing an appearance at the Olympic Games into question.
The injury is a crushing blow to the USWNT. Krieger is the best right back in the world, and her absence, no matter who fills that slot, will be felt. One of the most dependable players on the field, Krieger paired with Heather O’Reilly can consistently dominate the right side.
Sundhage was able to cover up Krieger’s absence on the fly with a variety of players including Heather Mitts, Rachel Buehler and Kelley O’Hara. But moving forward, Sundhage will have to do some serious searching to find Krieger’s replacement. Mitts had a solid tournament but the 33-year-old’s best days are behind her. O’Hara showed promise, but will need more time to acclimate to the position. Becky Sauerbrunn is another potential candidate. A natural center back, Sauerbrunn has the ability to make the switch, and also brings a calming, even-keeled demeanor similar to Krieger’s.
Sundhage will find a suitable replacement. But the squad won’t be the same without it’s steadfast right back.
In the United States’ first pool play game against Dominican Republic, the rout was on after just 7 minutes. By halftime, the lead had climbed to 7-0. At the final whistle, the damage was two touchdowns worth of goals. Two days later, the squad poured on 13 goals against Guatemala, brining the goal total for the U.S. to a staggering 27 goals in two games. Both games were examples of the necessary uncomfortable moments in sports. Blowouts are inherent in soccer, especially the women’s game, where, although the gap between the United States and other front runners and up-and-comers is closing, the space between the good teams and the rest of the world is still gaping. So, blowouts happen. But when it gets to the point where neither team is gaining anything substantial from the game, it ceases to be a meaningful soccer game. It’s not fun. It’s not productive. It’s not good for the game. Should Sundhage have instructed her forwards to stop scoring? No. Did Dominican Republic and Guatemala gain anything from the trouncings? No. But in the end was it anyone’s fault? No.
If there’s a good cure for breaking out of a slump, a five-goal game should do it. After a successful tournament, Amy Rodriguez is finally looking like the player she used to be. Same goes for Carli Lloyd who netted 6 goals in four games. Both players were ineffective during last summer’s World Cup and in subsequent friendlies. From missed sitters to blasting the ball yards over the crossbar, neither was the player that they were expected to be. But hopefully this tournament is a sign of good things to come in 2012.
A-Rod looked slick down the wing, setting up crosses, getting in good positions and most importantly, converting goals and opportunities that she didn’t convert last year. Her breakaway goal in the 29th minute in the rout of Guatemala is a perfect example of a ball she would have either put high or drilled right at the keeper. Instead, she cooly and precisely lifted it past the keeper into the net.
Lloyd also benefitted from the tournament. The switch to the 4-2-3-1 puts less pressure on Lloyd to be the sole playmaker in the midfield, and she used that to her advantage, jumping on several opportunistic balls that she poked into the back of the net. She also flashed her trademark rocket shot blasting in a deflection against Costa Rica.
The Arrival of Sydney Leroux
Sydney Leroux had already received substantial media coverage going into the tournament as the hometown girl done good. She transcended that storyline with her five goal second half against Guatemala, cementing herself instead as a formidable threat to Alex Morgan’s title of best up-and-coming American striker. While Guatemala was a less-than-elite opponent, Leroux’s goals weren’t flukes and included a great header and a booming strike. But the 21-year-old has a while to go before she’ll see significant playing time on the national squad, with Abby Wambach firmly in control of the starting spot and Alex Morgan in-waiting as the super sub.
In very un-Pia Sundhage fashion, every member of the roster (except for goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart) saw significant time, and a few in different positions. This reflects the scary amounts of depth that the United States has on their roster going forward. Just on the wings, Sundhage can choose from Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez. Up front she has Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and, now, Sydney Leroux as options. Then there’s Lauren Cheney who can play as a number 10 behind Abby Wambach in the 4-3-2-1 or slide up alongside Alex Morgan in the 4-4-2. This amount of depth and versatility is so promising for the U.S. going forward.
Unlike last spring and summer, when it felt like the squad was stuck in a rut with slumping A-Rod up front with Wambach, and Boxx and Lloyd struggling to control the midfield, there are now several versatile options. The epitome of that depth and versatility is Kelley O’Hara who did an admirable job at both left back and right back. While she will need a little time to adjust to actual defending (which she wasn’t tested on that much during this tournament) her ability to play high and wide and push up and attack adds another layer of complexity that opposing defenses have to deal with.
USA vs. Canada: Closer to Real
Sure, Rodriguez and Lloyd were able to excel, Leroux was able to score five goals, players were able to shift positions and formations at will. But all of that was possible because the U.S. played inferior opponents all tournament, right? Yes, that’s partly true. (Although Costa Rica might dispute that fact, as they were the only team that gave the U.S. actual trouble).
But last night’s championship game against Canada was closer to the world-class opponents the USWNT will be facing in London. And the U.S. still looked great. FINALLY we were given a chance to see Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach start a game up top together, (it was the first game of the tournament that Sundhage started with a 4-4-2 lineup) and the duo didn’t disappoint. Morgan built on her six-month long case to be a starter, setting up Wambach’s two goals and scoring two for herself. Four times, she got behind the defense with her blazing speed and positioning, then either calmly slotted home a goal, or dribbled to draw the defense towards her and set up Wambach for a brace. Just an incredibly professional job. Morgan is making it harder and harder for Sundhage to justify her as a super sub, and come London, we should see her starting up top next to Wambach.