Photo: Courtesy of Women’s Professional Soccer
Mexico’s World Cup qualifying victory clearly shook the US Women’s National Team to their core. On Tuesday night, the US settled the score, reminding Mexico, and the world, that there is still an enormous gap in class between the two sides. Were at not for some shoddy finishing and a whole lot of five-alarm defending, the score line could easily have been doubled as the US controlled the match from the opening whistle and were rarely troubled throughout the 90 minutes.
A true 10 emerging
While it means less time for players like Alex Morgan, what coach Pia Sundhage’s new formation allows for is Lauren Cheney to operate in her ideal position as a creative playmaker for the US attack. Protected by Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, Cheney was free to run the show, spreading the ball to the wings, and working off of Abby Wambach to make the US offense tick. Compared to past formations where Lloyd and Boxx were required to provide chances, the new look US is markedly improved. This was easily seen based on not only the chances created but also the numbers the US got forward.
Domination on the wings
Carli Lloyd may win the headlines with her Johnny-on-the-spot three goal performance, but when it came to setting the table, and the tempo, Heather O’Reilly was without peer. Her speed and aggression were more than Mexico could handle and she spent 90 minutes carving them into pieces as she single-handedly commanded the right side of the pitch. On the world stage there are few who can match O’Reilly’s combination of pure pace and technical superiority, but it is her intensity that make her so special. Never throttling down, O’Reilly came out guns blazing and didn’t put them away until the game was well and truly secured.
Despite her unceremonious halftime substitution, Amy Rodriguez, who operates opposite O’Reilly on the right, was in top form as well. One of the fastest, most direct players in the US set up, Rodriguez has been allowed to drop deeper in the new formation, allowing her to face goal and run at defenders. Which she did, with aplomb. It was Rodriguez’s driving run that created O’Reilly’s goal, the second of the match, and the Mexican defense pushed numbers to cover her, leaving Wambach with more room to operate. Halftime subs are primarily used to reshape a team that is struggling. With the US in full-flight, Sundhage’s removal of Rodriguez was at the least confusing and quite unfair to a player who had been strong through the first stanza.
Despite the United States’ first half superiority, Sundhage chose to make a halftime substitution and completely alter the team’s formation. Sydney LeRoux replaced Amy Rodriguez, pushing the red, white and blue into a 4–4–2 and taking much of the wind out of the American sails. With Cheney moved out to the wing, the service to the front line slowed markedly and Mexico began to come into the game as they gained more possession in the midfield. Universal Sports commentator Brandi Chastain said that this was a faster formation for the US, but that was patently untrue, not least of which for the fact that Rodriguez could easily best LeRoux in a foot race. The real issue, however, stems from the fact that with LeRoux up front, the US became markedly slower in midfield and the American buildup play suffered. Sundhage had a chance to rectify the situation when Megan Rapinoe replaced Abby Wambach, but the US coach pushed Cheney up top to partner with LeRoux, again depriving the US No.12 of her best position on the field.
The injury to Ali Krieger was terrible news for a US defense that was already short on options, but the back four took to their task against Mexico with great energy and put in a masterful performance. Credit goes to Becky Sauerbrunn, who stepped off the bench to again prove her immense quality in the heart of the US defense alongside the ageless Christie Rampone, who remains one of the world’s quickest defenders at 36 years of age. Rachel Buehler slid seamlessly to right back where she did not put a foot out of bounds in a sterling performance that also saw her directly involved in two of the US goals. Amy LePeilbet rounded out a unit that was never beaten on either wing and was able to limit Mexico to a few speculative shots from distance.
Around the 60th minute, Hope Solo came up gimpy following an up-field clearance. Earlier in the first half, she was also seen stepping gingerly following a similar long ball. With the game thoroughly wrapped up, and an enormously experienced backup in Nicole Barnhart sitting on the bench, Sundhage did her team a disservice by not withdrawing Solo. It does not matter that Mexico didn’t look to be troubling the US goal; that’s even more reason to remove Solo and treat her injury. With a must-win match against Costa Rica on the horizon, and then hopefully a final against Canada or this same Mexico team to follow, the US coach took an extremely unnecessary risk. If Solo is unavailable for either match, US fans should look directly to the manager when assigning blame.
Top of the Match
Heather O’Reilly. See above. Put the US on the front foot and then kept them there the entire night. She was a class above. Carli Lloyd also deserves a share of the glory as her three goals but the game out of reach.
Shannon Boxx turned in another stale performance for the US midfield Tuesday night. Her lack of pace is easily exploited by any midfielder who chooses to target her, but what is really concerning is her passing. She turned the ball over with nearly every attempted forward pass. Against a team whose best option was the counterattack, giving the ball away so cheaply in the center of the pitch presented Mexico with their best attacking opportunities and a better side would have made the US pay for many of her mistakes. There are a great number of potential replacements in the US system. Sadly, not a single one is on the Olympic qualifying roster.
The only thing that can stop this team from claiming their place in the Olympics against Costa Rica is the kind of complacency that Mexico took advantage of to snatch their first win over the US before the 2011 World Cup. But that won’t happen this time around. Costa Rica is a far inferior opponent to Mexico and with no back door into the Olympic tournament, the US women will be looking to settle the matter quickly. If Costa Rica isn’t at the peak of their game, they could become the third team to suffer a double digit defeat to a US Women’s National Team that enters the semifinals in rampaging form.