US 1 Iceland 0
Ahhh - what a relief to see the return of a true veteran - the professionalism, the knowledge of the game, the ability to stay focused . . . just makes the game so much more enjoyable to watch - WELCOME BACK JP!!!! Heh heh - OK, it was nice seeing Mia, Julie and Lil too, but címon, the difference in the telecast when an actual professional play by play announcer is on the mike instead of the aging frat boy that is Rob Stone was startling - I knew Rob was bad, he annoyed the heck out of me and that he made the telecasts quite painful to get through at times, but man, try the comparison sports fans, he wasnít just bad, he was insulting to opposing teams, insulting to players on Team USA and taking those insults to personal levels at times, constantly imposing himself into the telecast (play by play guys should never ever do that and only the very worst, least insightful and most arrogant color analysts have a need to do that), completely lacking any insight at all and worst of all he egged Wendy on with her "we should admire these women because theyíre thin and pretty" nonsense - she stays on point when JP is there and the telecast remains focused on soccer where it belongs.
OK - enough about that - as for the game - fairly entertaining and far more enjoyable than what we saw in January. As expected Iceland bunkered. I still think it would be nice to try to directly go at these bunkers, but Aly put a ball through early, Mia ran onto it, and Team USA got the goal they needed for the win. Honestly though, Team USA is going to see a lot of bunkers, probably at least in 2 games in group play in the WWC, so if this formation is so inflexible that they canít adjust the offense to more effectively deal with a packed defense Iím kinda wondering why theyíre so dedicated to it. I guess theyíre just going to keep going for the through balls on the ground - with Aly running the show and Julie the defensive midfielder, it will probably work, but I still wonder why they want to limit their options like that. While CP had a very nice game, it was through balls/balls on the ground, no one put any balls up for her.
As for the returning vets, well, they were what we should have seen from the entire team in January - this is how you come back from vacation - touch is a tad off, not quite connecting/communicating with teammates as you should, but still out there hustling and giving it what youíve got - Mia most notably plays with fire and intensity at all times, even in little friendlies against Iceland. That we didnít see the effort in January and that the reaction to not exerting that effort was kind of a collective shrug still disappoints. The vets arenít here for much longer. The talent is there in generation next, the question remains of whether the intangibles are there - the intangibles are what make champions. However, the effort in this one was great on all counts, the combination play is improving, the players donít look quite so much like theyíre playing on a leash (which in this formation is huge because to me, they really havenít looked relaxed in this formation - still donít, but theyíre looking better) and most of the individual performances were strong although itís pretty apparent some folks just need a lot more time on the field together (Lil and Mia with the youngsters in particular - more on that later). Just like with Four Nations, Iím left wishing we could see Algarve so we could see the next chapter in this little saga, but I guess Iíll have to settle for enjoying Sundayís effort and pick it up again in the late spring.
Formation (4-4-2 - back front, right-left):
GK - Beene; D - Pearce, Sobrero, Chastain, Benson; DMid - Foudy; Mid - Hucles, Lilly; AMid - Wagner; F - Parlow, Hamm. Tarpley in for Hucles, Mullinix in for Beene, OíReilly in for Parlow, Sobrero and Pearce switch, all at the half. Kluegel in for Wagner, Lilly moves to the attacking mid.
Beene - Well - she had three decisions to make the whole game and two of them werenít just great - but then again, she only had three decisions to make - how much do we really want to take from that. I donít want to take much. The collision shouldnít have happened - sheís got to call off her defender and go in much harder than that if thatís what she wants to do - if not, she needs to get back and let the defender take care of it (which probably would have been OK right there). I believe there was another instance where she came out but didnít come out quite hard enough and caused some stress for Brandi (the play that followed which I'll discuss in Brandi's section indicates it was a tad stressful for Brandi). Well - thatís what you get with her. More often than not she makes the phenomenal save - but the fact of the matter is, sheís a cardiac keeper - about once a game or so, one of those decisions is going to go very wrong and you just hold your breath hoping the ball doesnít wind up in the back of the net. Thatís the way she plays - sheíll make some stops she has no business making, but sheíll give some up on occasion as well. I do think that when she makes the decision to come out, she needs to come out hard though - Wendy was talking about her owning her box, but frankly, I think thatís where she muffed it in this one. She didnít go out like she owned that box - she went out, but ultimately not quite hard or assertive enough. Seeing Brandi call her off the way she did in a situation where there is no way a defender should be calling off the keeper (itís the keeperís box - Brandi would never have done that to Bri in a million years and Bri would never have let it happen) makes me think her "owning her box" might be the biggest knock on her Iíve seen. Overall though - I donít think the keeper situation is any less muddled than it was before this game. Just need Beene to assert herself with her teammates a bit more so that they recognize she "owns" that box.
Pearce - ya know - it is so good to see her back and playing so well. I watched almost as many Power games last year as I did Freedom games (they have great television coverage in NY on MSG) and before she retweaked her knee, she was one of the few bright spots for that team. She looked great on the right side of that defense Sunday. Running up the sideline, getting the ball to Wagner and Parlow, playing strong defense and adding so much offensively. And something that I think got lost while the kudos (deservedly so) were being given to Aly and Mia, but we saw on the replay - the goal was a beautiful through ball from Aly, but Alyís feeder? Christie Pearce. Itís a shame we didnít get to see it live, but the replay was quite clear on that. Great game. I tell ya - if everyone gets healthy and stays healthy, I will take this six defender rotation over any in the world (Reddick, Pearce, Chastain, Fawcett, Slaton, Sobrero) and I would feel comfortable with any of the six of them at any of the four positions. What flexibility. As for her central defending - it was rock solid, but my preference is Sobrero in the middle and Pearce on the right - they both look far more comfortable and far more effective in those positions.
Sobrero - I do love watching her in the central defense. She was fine on the wing, but her instincts, her ability to read the game and her coverage and anticipation is just so much better when sheís in the center of the field. There was one play in particular - the defender (I forget who, I think they came through the midfield though - may have been Foudy) was running with the attacking player and slowing her up a bit, but just couldnít get in front of her and it looked like it was going to be a dicey situation, but in swoops Kate, as your central defender should, smoothly and calmly comes in there with the help defense and smacks the ball to the left, problem averted and the US attack gets started - sheís a strong defender no matter where you play her, but sheís just so smooth and at home in the central D. It was fun to watch. As for her play on the right - well - she was getting up there and getting the same number of touches Pearce was but seeing them in the same game under the same circumstances really just highlights how limited Kate is offensively. She put a couple of nice balls through, but she just doesnít have the instincts of when to cut in, when to put it into the box and when to find the middies that Pearce has. Itís just not as natural for her. But on the other hand - not so long ago, it was high comedy watching her offensively on the right - now weíre talking about nuances - she has improved by leaps and bounds out there offensively and weíre at the point that I think Team USA is equally fine with either one of them in either spot.
Chastain - quiet game for the central defenders. She was solid enough - really thought she was a bit out of line and completely undermined Beeneís authority back there by cutting her off and making that stop - it looked like Beene was there already and going to make the play. Then again, the decision making just prior to that was questionable on Beeneís part and maybe this particular play was a tad closer than it appeared on TV. Regardless - the young keepers need to assert themselves more out there - like I mentioned earlier - exact same situation but itís Bri in the nets, it doesnít go down the way it did. Beene needs to command that kind of respect from the defenders or confused plays and collisions will just keep on happening and thatís just asking for trouble. And I would be remiss if I didnít mention the Brandi Chastain bicycle kick - those have been missing the past few games, but watching a US match just doesnít feel right unless Brandi has her showy moment where she winds up in the air trying to kick one backward over her head - just puts a smile on my face - usually Iím shaking my head and smiling, but somehow, even though nothing good ever comes of it, it just belongs . . . .
Benson - I thought she had a really nice second half - she was just all over the place and much more of the offense seemed to be on the left than in the first half. I imagine Lilís rustiness wasnít helping her a lot and there wasnít any defense for her to play from what I can remember - to the extent there were any attacks they attacked up the middle. So the first half was fairly quiet for her. In the second half she got forward into the attack very nicely. She seemed a bit less shy about pushing forward once Kluegel was out on the flank - I think some of that is simply that Lil and Benson need some time together - there were a few times in the first half Lil took off down the flank and Benson needs to learn to put it up there for her on those runs - but time together will solve that. They need to learn to read each other a bit. Other than that though - I have no real complaints. Benson always plays very nicely offensively when she gets called up. I donít think we learned a lot about her defense in this one, but on my depth chart, she remains the seventh defender (which is important in the event someone gets hurt/doesnít recover as expected). While sheís not as versatile as the other six, that they are so versatile makes it manageable to have a left sided wing on the bench - if sheís needed, everyone else can shift around. I certainly like what I see of her at this level more than what I see from Bryan and/or Mitts.
Foudy - Nice to see her back. She was out there hustling from the start and actually played some nice soccer in the second half. Most of the offense was being run from deep in the midfield in the second half (even before Aly went out) and thatís because Foudy took over. Itís a nice luxury to be able to switch the primary playmaking responsibilities like that and it frees Aly up a bit to look for her own shot a bit more. Itís also nice to have that flexibility against a bunker - while they were playing the same style and still trying to hammer through the bunker on the ground, with Aly freed up to roam around a bit looking for goal, you essentially have an extra player trying to hammer through and to whom to put the ball through. And of course, I just like Foudy at the defensive midfield because of who is not on the field when sheís in that role. Sheís a little bigger than Fair and Roberts and is far far more tactically sophisticated than both of them - I just see no downside. With the limited options in the player pool April has developed in the defensive midfield (I know, I know, it was supposed to be Cramer), Foudy really is the only player of international caliber that Team USA has to play in that role. I like the way she and Aly play together as well and that will only improve with time - especially since theyíll have to make it work in San Diego. Overall nice effort in the first half if not terribly sharp, and a strong, quite Foudy-like second half. Most of the time, nothing she does will make a highlight reel or box score - it just tends to be a workmanlike effort that keeps the offense chugging along.
Hucles - She was out right - if she winds up on the roster it will be to be on the right side of that diamond. But honestly, I didnít think this was one of her better performances. There was nothing wrong with it per se, she certainly didnít hurt herself in the WWC sweepstakes, but it wasnít nearly as dynamic an outing as we tend to see from her. Part of it may have been that Pearce was playing great and bypassing her a bit (going straight to Aly or straight into the box). About 5 minutes in (I guess that would have been 10 minutes in game time - about 5 minutes after we joined the proceedings on ESPN2) she made a real nice play, but other than that, I didnít notice that she was pushing forward into the box as much as usual (Lil was way out wide most of the first half so she should have been pressing up and in - thatís kind of how the shift tends to work in this diamond) or that she was getting as many touches as I would have liked to see. Ultimately though, not a bad performance, just a fairly quiet one. I expect she played well enough to be on the plane to Portugal, but I think a stronger performance would have sealed it.
Lilly/OíReilly (didnít intend on combining them, but it just kinda happened) - Nice to see Lil back - ya know, even when theyíre not at their best there is just something that Mia, Julie and Lil bring to the field - actually, Tiff brings it too - call it the athletic equivalent of stage presence, I donít know - but they not only shine a little more brightly, but everyone on the field steps it up and shines a bit more brightly with them. Weíre back to the intangibles I was talking about earlier I suppose - these three just have "it." It looks like some other youngsters might have "it" as well - one of the things that will be interesting and fun to watch in the years to come.
OK - enough of the waxing rhapsodic over the presence of the vets, no one wants to read that. As for Lilís game - well, touch was off by a lot - everything seemed to be a little short and her timing was off a bit as far as combining with others. First half she spent a lot of time out wide holding her arm up pleading for the ball - Benson wasnít getting it to her and somewhat surprisingly, Foudy and Aly werenít really looking for her either - the "play it on the ground through the middle of the field and do absolutely nothing else ever" strategy doesnít just do great things for Lilís game. There was one really nice combination with Mia in the first half that made me smile but it was essentially a quiet half for her. The second half was a bit different. With Julie running the show they were looking for her a bit more and she had a few more touches early on. But what I found interesting was the combination of Mia and Lil with OíReilly once Lil moved to the attacking mid. Iíve been clamoring for Heather to get some time with the big girls and frankly, watching her out there with the big 3 kind of shows her limitations. Well, her limitation - singular. And itís tactical sophistication. Both while Lil was out wide and while she was in the attacking midfield the disconnect was apparent between Lil and Heather and Heather and Mia. True, Mia and Lil have a freakish ability to find each other in any and all situations, and true Lilís passes were consistently short all game, but Heather just doesnít see the same things the more experienced players see and maybe sheís moving so fast and so amped up that sheís not watching Lil and Mia and listening to them out there telling her where to go quite like she should. Kid has a lot of energy and a phenomenal amount of talent (yes, she is one of my "it" girls in generation next) but Lil saw the holes and put the ball through and Heather would run out wide, Lil would put it out wide for her and she would cut inside into traffic where no hole existed - kidís a bundle of energy but in this game, seeing her alongside Mia and Lil, with Julie running the show, I think the fact that she is generation "next" rather than generation "now" really shines through. I still think she might be a nice bench player for the team for some instant offense, but as excited about these teenagers as we like to get at times (and as the powers that be like to get at times) theyíre still just 18-19 years old and playing against the U-19s ainít quite the same as playing with and against the grown ups. Ultimately - for Lil, not a great game - workrate was there, as always. Touch was not. Second half saw a little improvement, but not much. That said - whenever she has a substandard performance, she comes back strong. Iím looking for her to be all over the box score in game 1 of Algarve. As for Heather - well - I like the effort and I do lean forward a bit whenever she gets the ball to see what sheís going to do, but I just donít think sheís there yet tactically such that she can be a major contributor at this level. Playing with the second unit as we hurtle toward the WWC, that wonít be an issue - most of the second unit does not play with the same sophistication that the starters do. However, in the WWC itself, there wonít be mass subs and she wonít be playing with the second unit if she gets in the game - I donít see how in 6 months time sheís going to find a way to get on the same page with Mia, Lil and Foudy (and Tiff). Interesting to see what happens here. She is very much the April type player (speedy, technical, dynamic with the ball at her feet, most comfortable with the ball at her feet) and assuming good health and assuming she wants to continue on in this game I have no doubt sheís going to be an incredible talent for the US National Team for years to come - so if they want to take her along for developmental reasons, I wonít be surprised. I doubt sheíll see much playing time in the WWC though.
OK - that got way off track . . . in a couple of places. Iíll try to reel it back in and get through the rest of this in a semi-coherent manner . . .
Wagner - I thought she had just a very nice game. For me with Aly, the last time they played Iceland was kind of a benchmark game for her. Foudy was upstairs in the booth watching with Carla and Sara Whalen, Lil was not imposing herself in the running of the offense too much and it was totally and completely her show. And she couldnít break the bunker . . . and for all practical purposes, Alyís year 2000 and chances at making the Olympic team were done. So even though I didnít get to see it live I did take extreme pleasure in the fact that it was Aly who threaded that ball through the bunker to Mia for the goal. Took her 5 minutes to break through that sucker this time out - itís nice when everything comes full circle like that isnít it? As for the rest of her game - I thought she and Pearce were connecting so well the entire first half. This might be where Hucles was out of the loop a bit - Pearce and Wagner just looked very in sync with each other out there. That last touch up top wasnít working out real well, but I thought Aly was doing a good job getting the ball up there to them - this happens with Foudy all the time - when the last touch is not working out, sometimes it gets lost that the ball is getting through the midfield to the folks up top - itís the middies who are making that happen and in the first half of the game, it was mostly Aly. She was combining with CP fairly well in the early going too. And of course, sheís getting to where she has a radar and can hit the zippy forward up top without even thinking. Very smooth - we saw it with Tiff during Gold Cup and we saw it with Mia in this one. Good stuff. As for the second half, looked like Foudy decided to assert herself - donít know whether that was by design or not, but Foudy was doing much of the playmaking and Aly was getting into the box. One of my refrains with Team USA during the Heinrichs regime has been that players arenít getting forward and we never have numbers in the box so it was nice to see Foudy come up, handle the playmaking and essentially make Aly a third option in front of goal. Besides, just like the point guard has got to shoot to keep defenses honest in basketball, Aly, whoís getting a reputation as one of the best passers in the world, has got to take a chance at goal to keep the defenders guessing. Just a nice game from Aly all the way around and what Iím coming to expect from her.
Parlow - I thought she had as nice a first 25 minutes as sheís had in a while. Basically, her workrate looked higher than itís been in a long time. She was quite active up top - combining nicely with Aly and Mia. Then, about the 24th minute or so, the camera caught her, she looked gassed and then she disappeared for the next 15 minutes. She finished the half strong, but dang, she just disappears for long stretches at a time in these games. Hereís my thing though - granted, nice effort for the first 25 minutes of the game - but here it is for me - she plays it on the ground, same style as Tiff and Mia - I donít recall them going in the air to her even once in this one, she doesnít go into the midfield and win balls, she doesnít use her head defensively, she doesnít even seem to be a target on set pieces as often as Brandi is, basically, they donít use her size at all. So if theyíre not going to use her size at all, why is she starting? Obviously, April doesnít want complementary players on this front line - she wants everyone to be the same - everyone must put that ball on the ground and keep it on the ground (for evidence of this - Siri Mullinix did not take one single kick - not even one - short passes to the defenders so they could play it on the ground each and every time), so shouldnít the two who are best with the ball on the ground be starting. All CP used her size for in this one was elbowing that girl in the head/neck region (inexcusable - Wendy said retaliation, but for what? - defender was just defending, there was no cheap shot leading to CP's cheap shot), so Iím thinking it should be Tiff and Mia starting when Tiff gets back - if the ball is never ever leaving the ground, then thatís your best line up. If you take size out of the equation (and the way they played in this one, size was not even remotely a factor), CP is the #3 forward at best. Well - thatís my riff on that - overall, nice game, good workrate for about 25 minutes and she had some nice chances and was working well with Aly. I just donít think she should be a presumptive starter on this team if this is the way theyíre going to play.
Hamm - She looked great - what is there to say with Mia. Speed is there, workrate is outstanding, intensity and fire she brings to the field is unequaled, technically and tactically superior . . . what else is there to say? Put Tiff up there with her and with this midfield I think theyíll do some damage. The difference between this lineup and in 2000? Well, Aly in the attacking mid and Julie in the defensive mid - there are a whole lot more people who can get that ball up top. I donít have much else to say I havenít already said - like I explained ad nauseum with Lil, I think if OíReilly is going to be on the field with Mia, they need a lot more time out there together. A general disconnect between those two and I wonít be surprised that if it continues, Lil and Mia just bypass the kid (I wasnít watching closely enough to see if that happened toward the end). She just wasnít where Mia and Lil were expecting her to be at times. Nice goal - forwards have got to appreciate the playmaking middies putting those balls through for them. And playmaking middies have got to love playing with a player like Mia who is seeing the exact same hole and running through it and putting it away. I guess if I have to pick, then itís that she is holding on to that ball too long at times - sheís Mia Hamm, her half chance is the best shot most players will ever see in their lives, so she needs to take it. Twice, she had Thora out and down and she could have chipped her. She took another touch though and gave Thora a chance to smother the ball. Havenít noticed that Miaís been doing this since 2000 though, and these two chances werenít especially egregious, but I was screaming CHIP HER at Mia a couple of times so I thought Iíd mention it. Thatís nitpicking though - great game from Mia, especially considering she was coming off of a break.
Oh this is long . . . and not too much notable happened - I think being trapped in my house for several days has made me a little wordy . . . even more so than usual. OK - subs - Iíve already done Heather - go up and read the Lilly section if you missed it.
Tarpley - I thought she played fairly well. She was getting into the box pretty well and moving the ball around nicely although without a lot of direction. Like OíReilly, I thought there was just a disconnect between her and the vets - the chances she was getting or creating for others originated with her - not a lot of combination play with the other middies or forwards. I see the potential there though, she did have a couple of "wow that was nice" moments - like Heather I just think itís not there yet. And the kid is so stick thin - if anyone pays attention to her enough to play her physically, theyíre going to knock her off the field. She looks like sheís at least a year away from being able to physically compete at this level. She does some nice things out there though and I really have no complaints. Iíll confess if I had to pick a player who I lost in this one, it would be Tarpley. Honestly though, she was packing the middle, it was Kate I was seeing out wide so minus a few flashes of "wow" I donít know just how much there was to watch with her. Not real integrated into the offense. Iíll look for her more next time.
Siri - Solid. Not much here because she didnít have to do much. She looks a bit more in command back there than Beene did, but I donít think we saw enough of either of them to make any meaningful decisions. As for her kicking - seems that along with the offensive players over 5í6", April has vanquished keeper kicking from the Team USA repertoire. Ya know - I am all for picking a style of play and sticking with it, but inflexible, slavish devotion to it despite some of the talent you have at your disposal - well, thatís not what Iíd do . . . then again, Iím not a coach so what do I know. On the other hand if weíre going with a miniature lineup, we saw in 2000 that such a lineup just wonít ever win its share of 50-50 balls so why even bother. That must have been the thinking and why Siri did not take even one punt the entire game. Solid and extraordinarily uneventful outing for Siri.
Oh - Kluegel - I almost wrapped up without touching on Jena - and for Jena I just have one word: Why? I mean, really, Why? Sheís still doing that cute garbage trying some tricky little dribbling that wouldnít even get by a mediocre college defender and turning the ball over in the process. Not to drive my basketball comparisons into the ground, but were it basketball - I would have yanked her immediately. What is that - exactly what does she think sheís doing and where does she think sheís playing and when has it ever worked at the international or even the WUSA level? She had a knuckleheaded defensive play as well. I donít have much more. Benson was much more aggressive on the left offensively once Jena got in there, she was running by her and taking the ball forward or getting it to Lil herself. As always Kluegelís workrate is fine and dandy, but I just donít think she is anything approximating National Team caliber. Sheís not even a good player in the WUSA so why does she keep getting these chances? I just donít understand it. Hereís how annoyed I was with some of the ridiculous and fundamentally unsound things she was doing: I was thinking "so when is Lorrie Fair back?"
OK - thatís about it from the snowbound. If youíre in the Washington area, send food . . . and a snow plow. It was a fun game - got a little negative with my little write up there at the end. Didnít mean to - I enjoyed this game actually. I usually do enjoy watching the Nats play though. I think this has the potential to be a very strong side both offensively and defensively if they can pull it all together and finally get comfortable and a little more free flowing in this formation. They still seem a bit stiff and restrained in this offense and that is cause for some concern, but assuming the real Top 20 are going to Algarve (i.e., no rests - they need to stop with the rests - they need time together on the field in game situations) that should be a great chance for them to get more comfortable with the offense and with each other. Good luck to them in Portugal!