How Pia Sundhage Cost Abby Wambach and the US Women's Team the World Cup
As the American FIFA Women’s World Cup team begins to make its rounds of the late-night talk shows, many of us will forget that we lost a game we clearly should have won. And without wanting to detract from the team’s deserved accolades, or the freshness and glamour of The Girls Of Summer 2.0, we need to point out an uncomfortable fact.
Coach Pia Sundhage made three huge mistakes in the final, and they cost us the World Cup.
Injuries Obviously Aren't the Coach's Fault
Sundhage cannot be blamed for injuries, of course.
Hearts across America sank when Lauren Cheney emerged from the locker room for the second half with her ankle wrapped, clearly unable to continue.
Cheney had problems finding the frame against Brazil and Japan, but there is no arguing about the strength of her right foot and, had she been available, she would have been a shoe-in to be one of the five players who took the penalty kicks.
If Hope Solo Was "Injured," That Wasn't Sundhage's Fault Either
Sundhage also can’t be blamed for Hope Solo’s injury, if her limping around at the end of the game really was one. Solo has a bit of drama queen in her, so maybe that act with the thigh-wrapping was intended to mess with Japan's heads.
After guessing correctly on the third penalty kick, though, she was all over the ball, but seemed to lack the lower body push needed to power it aside.
Maybe her leg was bruised.
Either way, Sundhage was correct to leave her in. You don't pull your No. 1 keeper in the finals of the World Cup unless her femur is poking through her skin.
But there are three serious errors that Sundhage must be blamed for.
3. Subbing out Megan Rapinoe
With the U.S. up 2-1 in the 114th minute, Sundhage subbed out Megan Rapinoe.
Rapinoe gets my vote for the best American player of the tournament, and she was in incredible form against Japan. Her wide balls in from the wing were a constant threat, and she also had a beautiful assist on the first goal to Alex Morgan, sending in a 50-yard rocket ship for which Morgan didn't even break stride.
Rapinoe has extraordinary power, and though she did look tired, it would have been nothing for her to stay on the field another 10 minutes until the period ended and PKs started.
She then could have been in the lineup for the PKs…and she was obviously needed.
2. Putting Tobin Heath in the PK-5
Even after she decided to take Rapinoe out for Tobin Heath, why did Sundhage then put Heath into the PK-five?
Heath is a fine player, but she is the second-youngest player on the team and known more as a finesse ball-control midfielder than a scorer.
There were better choices, especially Heather O’Reilly.
O’Reilly is a striker, an attacking forward; she is constantly thinking about scoring, and would have been less intimidated by the moment. Heath’s penalty shot was weak and easily handled.
1. Not Mixing Up the PK Lineup
With the World Cup on the line, you absolutely must lead the penalty kicks with your biggest guns.
Abby Wambach should have led off; her PK was sure and untouchable, and if the rest of her team had seen that, it would have inspired them.
Instead, Shannon Boxx missed (give credit to the Japanese goalie, Kaihori, who guessed correctly), Carli Lloyd skied one 20 feet over the bar and newbie Heath dribbled one that barely made it to the goal line.
By the time Wambach got to shoot, it was essentially over.
Sayonara, World Cup.
All credit goes to the Japanese, who played their game throughout the tournament and hung tough for 130 minutes.
But one of these days, it would be nice if our national team coaches put in efforts equal to those of our players.