Welcome back Maura Gladys. We missed your USWNT coverage.
No one knows when the exact moment occurred. We don’t know if it was a instant of enlightenment at a day of training, a late-night soul-searching session or the second that Japan lifted the trophy at the Women’s World Cup last summer.
But at some point in the last year, Pia Sundhage made the conscious decision to start both Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, and that was the moment that determined the outcome of this summer’s Olympic Games women’s soccer tournament.
Because of that pairing, along with several other tactical shifts and decisions, the United States is rolling on all cylinders and is poised to defend their Olympic gold medal.
Unlike the men’s tournament, which is essentially a U-23 tournament, the women bring their strongest squads and the stakes are just as high as the World Cup.
With the U.S. playing at their current level, they are the odds-on favorite to defeat the likes of Brazil, Japan and France to claim their third gold medal in as many Games.
The move to put Morgan and Wambach together up top is huge in that endeavor.
The two play beautifully together, with Wambach still operating largely in her target striker role and Morgan using her speed, balance and vision to sneak behind defenses and create opportunities for herself and Wambach. It’s what “we” were begging for from Pia a year ago. Add in Sydney Leroux a lightning-quick super sub (a role Morgan donned in apprenticeship last year), and the forward position is completely stacked and more than equipped to take on any defense in the world.
Now, the other key moments that have and-or will, define the U.S. women’s road to gold.
January 20th, 2012, USA vs. Dominican Republic, 43rd minute:
As soon as Ali Krieger crumpled to the turf of B.C. Place in the middle of the United States’ 14-0 rout of Dominican Republic, the U.S.’ defense changed drastically, and not for the better.
Krieger was arguably the best right back in the world and the bright spot on a usually sputtering defense.
Krieger tore her ACL and MCL in her right knee, sidelining her for the Games and forcing Sundhage to accelerate her experiment of converted forward Kelly O’Hara at left back, and switch Amy LePeilbet, a converted center back who had been playing on the left, over to the right. Instead of easing into a defensive role in preparation for Christie Rampone’s retirement and subsequent need for more depth, O’Hara was essentially handed a starter’s role and forced to learn on the fly.
And she’s done fine.
There is still a bit of shakiness with the entire defense, and the back four will be tested. But ultra-vet Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler manage the center well, and it doesn’t hurt to have the world’s best goalkeeper backing you up.
• June 18, 2012 USA vs. Japan
Going into this game, the United States was 0-1-2 against Japan in their last three meetings. The U.S. was teetering a dangerous line between respectful rivalry and being straight up owned by the Japanese. But the U.S. came out strong, rolling 4-1, and giving a good indication of what the team would look like in London.
Sundhage started Tobin Heath on the left wing, Lauren Cheney and Shannon Boxx at central midfield and Megan Rapinoe on the right wing. Noticeably missing from the lineup were stalwarts Carli Lloyd and Heather O’Reilly. But as we’ve seen, this is a little bit of a more progressive-thinking Pia, one who’s open to trying the Heath/Cheney/Rapinoe trio in the midfield. The move makes real sense. Rapinoe is a solid player on either wing, Cheney is a master play-maker, plus she has great chemistry with Heath, who can provide vision, slick ball skills and a little bit of oomph on defense. All of this was on display against Japan, as was Boxx’s elevated play. While it will be strange to potentially have Lloyd, and especially O’Reilly on the bench, it only adds to the team’s depth.
• July 25th, 2012: USA vs. France
Much will be decided in the United States’ first group match against France. The U.S. face all three of their Group G opponents in last summer’s World Cup, but should have little trouble disposing of North Korea and Colombia, just as they did last year.
France gave them trouble. Louisa Necib was straight dirty, toying with the U.S. midfield and defense, creating space and opportunities out of nowhere, while other French stars like Sonia Bompastor and Camille Abily exposed U.S. weaknesses. This time around, the U.S. should have the upper hand, but France is always tough and could give Team USA the shot in the arm that it needs, right off the bat.
• August 6, 2012: USA vs. Brazil, Olympic semifinals
If all goes to plan, the U.S. should face Brazil in the semifinals on August 6th, and it will be another classic. Before either team has even played a minute of Olympic soccer, their two narratives are already on a crash course toward each other. Both teams feel slighted from last summer and believe that it is their role, their destiny to avenge the team that sent them packing, and claim a piece of international hardware.
For Brazil, that means knocking off the U.S., for the U.S., that means getting past Brazil and facing Japan in the gold medal game (again, if everything falls the way it should.) Throw in the less-than-affable match that went down in Germany last July and the added fire burning in Brazil’s bellies due to the fact that they’ve never won a major international tournament, and this match should be absolutely electric.