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
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.
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.
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.
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.