The media got it wrong about the United States women’s soccer team. Not all wrong … and not all of us. But too many of us missed the real story as Jill Ellis’ team has driven into another Women’s World Cup final.
While we grumbled about Ellis’ vanilla tactics, her inflexibility and about a dependence on Abby Wambach that seemed to border on obsession, we overlooked the principle element in this U.S. surge toward Sunday’s tournament climax: a defensive effort that has been about as proficient and dependable as it possibly could be.
Oh, we talked about center back Julie Johnston’s improbable rise to stardom through the tournament. And we made frequent mention that sure-handed goalkeeper Hope Solo was back there – in case she was ever needed, that is, and mostly she hasn’t been.
They are perched on the edge of a Women’s World Cup crown – it would be the country’s first since 1999, when the team rode a home-field edge to glory – thanks to this world-class defense.
No, the attack hasn’t been anything to shout about; this is hardly the women’s equivalent of Brazil’s fabled 1970 team. But that doesn’t matter. Because lots of titles in the game, domestic and international, are claimed without some regal, flowing, military grade attack. Not everyone can be Spain of those recent, glory years.
Rather, so very many titles are won because the prevention of goals is woven so tightly into the team fabric, because so much of the effort, from training ground to game day, is about not just preventing goals, but faithfully and fiercely preventing chances on goal. And that’s the team that Ellis has created.
That’s the story to which we didn’t pay enough attention.
Personally, I’ll raise my hand and say I was half wrong. Two weeks back I wondered whether the United States was working its way patiently into the World Cup or simply not up to the job. But I certainly did not recognize the full capability of this team’s collective defending.
Yes, dissenters may grumble about a big referee decision on Johnston’s foul Tuesday, but here is something that can hardly be argued: that penalty kick wasn’t just Germany’s best chance to score over 90 minutes, it was the team’s only real chance to score. Johnston and fellow center back Becky Sauerbrunn, screened so faithfully by Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday, led an effort that saw Germany reduced to a collection of feeble shots from 25 yards or further. Let that soak in: Germany, a team that had scored 10 goals in one match on its drive into the tourney semifinal, was credited with zero shots on target against the United States.
Not that it should have been a total surprise. Solo has not allowed a goal since the first half against Australia back in the U.S. tourney opener. She was tested twice in that tournament-opening 45 minutes, but Solo has seen stunningly little activity in subsequent group matches against Sweden and Nigeria and then in elimination contests against Colombia, China and now Germany.
While we lamented a predictable attack, we were woefully insufficient in praise for a shutout streak that has reached 513 minutes, the second-longest in tournament history behind a 679-minute run by Germany that stretched over three tournaments (including the entire 2007 event).
If we did talk a bit about Johnston and Sauerbrunn, we weren’t making a big enough deal of left back Meghan Klingenberg, who is filling up this tournament with the kind of incisive passing that we were all complaining wasn’t arriving in sufficient quantity from Lloyd or Holiday. Her telling ball into Megan Rapinoe created a penalty kick against Colombia. Tuesday night in Montreal, she found that critical passing channel once again; we are talking a lot this morning about Lloyd’s work to create the chance and Kelly O’Hara’s timing and determination to get in front of her marker … but let’s not forget about Klingenberg’s swell entry ball that initiated the match-clinching thrust.
And we weren’t talking enough about the indomitable Lloyd, whose drive and doggedness helped the team earn Olympic Gold three years ago in London. While we focused on whether Ellis was finding Lloyd’s best use, we missed how effective she was on the defensive side in a role assigned earlier in the tournament. We might have forgotten what a big-game figure she really is.
This all looks so much like Italy’s successful 2006 World Cup run, when a center back was the Azzurri star. Fabio Cannavaro was large and in charge along a back line that – Does this sound familiar? – allowed just one goal en route to the final. (Trivia answer: who was the only team to score on Italy in that six-game run toward the Berlin final? That would be the United States, in that wild night in Kaiserslautern that finished 9-v-10.)
That Italian team, like Ellis’ in Canada, found just enough offense in front of all that well-organized defending, in front of center backs who were unflinching cops on the beat, in front of a goalkeeper who may have been the best in the world. Heck, that Italian team, like this U.S. side, even took down Germany in the semifinal.
Yes, there is an element of luck to the American ladies’ march to Vancouver for Sunday’s final. Referee Teadora Albon certainly could have shown red to Johnston on Tuesday for tugging down Alexandra Popp. Albon adjudged that a penalty kick and yellow card for the dominant U.S. center back was sufficient, and German players did not appear overly put out by that choice.
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Of course, they didn’t expect their icy PK taker Celia Sasic, the tournament’s leading scorer to this point and a striker who nailed two spot shots with extreme prejudice as her team advanced past France in the quarterfinals, to yank her golden opportunity wide left.
Ellis’ team will continue to reap the benefit from Albon’s huge choice of yellow over red; not only did the United States get to finish with all 11, they’ll have Johnston for Sunday’s final. She would have been suspended, of course, with a red.
The United States also fell on the right side of another controversial choice as Albon pointed to the spot as Annike Krahn fouled a driving Alex Morgan. If the contact didn’t occur inside the penalty area (and it did appear to), we are talking mere inches. Most referees would surely have seen it that way, although German manager Silvia Neid might (and did) beg to differ.
Finally, we should say something about Ellis’ tactics and personnel choices. A big complaint was her inflexibility, but she did bench Wambach for the tourney’s two biggest matches. And she started Brian along with Holiday and Lloyd in the midfield for the first time since December, doing so in a way that got Lloyd higher up the field and into a more comfortable attacking role.
There is one match remaining, and things could still go wrong. But at least now maybe we can talk about the right things. This team is no offensive juggernaut – but it is fortified by a defense that is absolutely deserving of further praise. And we all probably have some catching-up to do on that account.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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