Thursday, June 25, 2015

Survive and Advance

How many times have you read those words in the past two weeks? In a tournament it does not matter how you win, or how good you look while winning, only that you do, we keep hearing. Survive and advance.

That's exactly what the U.S. Women's National team has done so far in the World Cup. It's also about the nicest thing that anyone has to say about its performance to-date.

And it's also why it's taken me so long to finish this post. There's something about this team (and has been for a while) that leaves me unconvinced that it will end up with a third star.

There were those shaky moments against Sweden and Australia. If not for a saving header by the shortest player on the field (Meghan Klingenberg) the U.S. would have lost to Sweden and its former coach, Pia Sundhage. And Hope Solo, not weighed down by off-the-field baggage, kept the Yanks in the match with several first half saves against the Matildas that only Solo can make.

The match with Columbia took on an edge thanks mostly to perceived slights of the American players asserted by Colombian forward Lady Andrade. Andrade's comments were curious given that publicly the U.S. players said all the right things about respecting every opponent in the knock-out stage and Columbia's shocking 2-0 upset of France in group play, not to mention that one would think that she would not want to draw attention to herself given that the last time that the two teams met she punched Abby Wambach in the face and was suspended for two games as a result.

But whatever statement the Americans might have made on the field in response was buried under another avalanche of offensive mediocrity. No matter what combination of forwards coach Jill Ellis has tried between Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Kristen Press, Amy Rodriguez, and Sydney Leroux, the result has been depressingly consistent - few chances, fewer shots on goal, and, since the Australia match, three goals in three games.

As a coach it always frustrated me when the press and other coaches focused on who was scoring goals, not how they were put in the position to score them. And, while Morgan has been rusty, Wambach not one but two steps slow, and Press, Rodriguez and Leroux largely ineffective, I suspect that the real root of the problem is the service that they're receiving from the midfield, specifically center mids Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday.

I've expressed before my fondness for Lloyd's game and my frustration with Holiday's. We may see if the U.S. is better off with Lloyd playing the more offensive ("number 10") role for the women on Friday against China, a game for which both Holiday and Megan Rapinoe are suspended. It's easy to forget now, but Lloyd did score the game winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Gold Medal matches.

Lloyd celebrates one of her two goals against Japan in the
2012 Olympic Gold Medal match (photo from

But the problem may not be of either Lloyd's or Holiday's making - they may simply be playing the way that Ellis has instructed them to. Long balls forward and depending on set pieces is not interesting to watch and definitely not the way to play if you're playing from behind, which the U.S. has yet to be in the World Cup, fortunately.

If you want to watch how the game should be played, play hooky or DVR the Friday afternoon match between Germany and France. Notwithstanding Les Bleues' inexplicable loss to Columbia, these two teams are not only the most exciting in this year's World Cup, but also clearly the best to this point. The way that they move without the ball and play give-and-goes is a thing of beauty, and sorely lacking in the Americans' play.

The winner of that match will play the U.S.-China victor in the semi-finals. And, while I expect that the U.S. will squeak past China, I don't hold out much hope for it against whichever team survives the Germany-France match (and, really, when Germany and France meet in any competition, can you ever bet against the Germans?).

On the other side of the bracket, if it's possible Canada has been even less impressive and more predictable than the U.S. It will likely have its first real test against Japan in the semis. And will lose.

So, an all-Axis power World Cup Final anyone? 2-0 Germany in the final over Japan. And perhaps a victory for those who play the game the way it's supposed to be played.

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