The 2011 Women’s world cup is underway in Germany and the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) pocketed decent wins against North Korea (2-0) and Columbia (3-0), and a tough loss against Sweden (1-2). Despite making out of the group stage and reaching the knockout phase of quarterfinals, many questions remain about the team. Most important of those is the role of Abby Wambach on the team.
Prior to the start of the World Cup, in the qualifying matches and the friendlies, the subpar performance by the USWNT was a major concern. The tactical approach appeared to be to find Wambach so she can head the ball into the net. Set pieces (corner kicks and free kicks), where Wambach was inevitably the target, became a top choice for scoring goals instead of creative buildup in the play.
Coming off of a heel injury and not fully in form, Wambach struggled with a scoring drought the past one year until she finally scored in the game against Sweden. This goal in the last quarter of the match came off of her shoulder on a corner kick from Lauren Cheney. This form has been a problem for a prolific goal scorer like her.
The approach of using Wambach as a target forward was clearly not working for the USWNT and was worrisome going into the 2011 World Cup.
Wambach had a poor start in the first game against North Korea. Complicating things for Wambach in that game was Lauren Cheney, a forward playing as an outside midfielder, drifting into the middle. Wambach hardly touched the ball and almost all shots taken by the US came from Cheney.
Coach Pia Sundhage of the USWNT made good adjustments at the half time. Wambach drifted more to the outside to take on the role of a playmaker. Wambach brought down the lofted pass from Carli Lloyd and crossed it into the box. It landed nicely on Cheney’s head that was well directed into the back of the net.
Wambach continued to play a critical role the rest of the match and clearly enjoyed being a playmaker. This adjustment has been timely and much needed for the USWNT. The approach of direct soccer with a target forward is not only not pretty but difficult against teams with strong and compact defensive backline like that of North Korea.
In the end, what worked was stretching that defense and finding open players in the middle to put the ball in the net.
No doubt Wambach played well in the second half of the opening match to give the USWNT its first win. Although she did not get any assists in the game against Colombia, she played well with many shots on frame. The goal for Wambach finally came in the game against Sweden.
If her playmaker role continues to evolve in the rest of the matches, the team should fare well in scoring goals. Whether they can beat Brazil to move into the semifinals round depends on how well the midfield and defense plays.
In the group stage matches, Shannon Boxx delivered poor performances. She was constantly going down, losing the ball and sending negative balls, especially in the opening match against North Korea. Carli Lloyd was better than Boxx but the team needs a better showing from her as well.
Lloyd sure can score from a long distance, as she demonstrated in the game against Colombia, but her tendency to take shots on every possession when there are better options available does not bode well for the team.
Among the defensive players, Ali Krieger had a stellar performance winning almost every ball in the right back position and playing a major role in some of the goals scored. Amy Lepeilbet was beaten most of the time on the left flank and had a miserable performance in the game against Sweden.
Lepeilbet committed a foul in the box that led to the penalty shot from Sweden and then had a ball deflected off of her shoulder into the US goal from Sweden’s free kick. Directly or indirectly, she was responsible for both goals against Sweden and hence the loss.
Keeper Hope Solo was solid in the goal in all three games thus far, with multiple saves, but the team cannot afford any defensive lapses like the one we saw in the game against Sweden. Brazil will punish and the US would have to go home without a trophy.
If the performance in the game against North Korea is a testimony to what will come in the future matches, the prospect of the USWNT moving forward in the knockout stage looks good. However, the match against Sweden provided a glimpse into how the US midfield and defense can collapse and give up goals.
In the quarterfinals, Brazil will be raring to go against the US defense. It will take a lot of discipline and organization from the back four to hold Marta and her Brazilian battalion.
While the ability of USWNT to beat Brazil depends on the defense and the collective effort of the team in general, one player that needs to emerge as a playmaker is Wambach. Coach Sundhage must change her tactics to let Wambach evolve as a playmaker.
Wambach has worked tirelessly so far in all three games but she needs to build plays instead of being a target for a long ball. Whether she becomes a boon or a bane to the USWNT team depends on how she wants to write her soccer history. The moment has arrived.