Freedom 3 Athletica 1

 

Greetings and salutations soccer fans!  We are back and running, and the soccer has been fun.  The matches this year have been pretty entertaining and the level of play this second season has improved.  Even the expansion teams are playing an entertaining brand of soccer.  That said, there are always things to be dissected, analyzed and rehashed – the players play, the rest of us talk it to death in the aftermath.  Not a bad way to spend the evening

 

For the Freedom, it was a pretty good match.  I think they’re still figuring out how to get the 11 best players on the field and where to most effectively play them.  I’m very glad that some of the more experimental moves, i.e., Becky Sauerbrunn, defensive midfielder, have already been discarded.  In the past, Gabarra has stuck with some experiments that clearly weren’t working way too long.  Here, 3 games and done.  And that’s fair enough.  I’ve been to two Freedom games, and possession-wise, they’ve been out matched for long stretches of both games.  That said, they do get the ball back and they’ve been pretty efficient when they do.  Far fewer silly distance shots, and a lot more patiently working the ball up the sidelines or through the middle of the field.  A huge part of this is that Sawa is playing high this year.  She’s no longer back in the defensive midfield and she looks like the player we see at the international level.  Lisa De Vanna also seems much improved.  Her tactical sophistication seems better than what it was last year, she’s going on a lot of off ball runs and wreaking even more havoc up top than she did last year.  Defensively, Marshall and Moros have provided an infusion of athleticism on the backline.  During the offseason, I was a tad discouraged by the lack of moves the Freedom made and very displeased that Lori Lindsey was the midfielder that was left dangling in the wind.  But after seeing the Atlanta and St. Louis games, I’m pretty pleased with where this team is at this point. 

 

For Athletica, this is easily one of the two best teams in the league on paper.  This is also a team that I think is going to waste all of its talent if it doesn’t ditch the 4-5-1.  I hate the 4-5-1 in the women’s game – don’t love it in the men’s, but I hate it in the women’s game.  Women don’t consistently score from as far away from goal as men.  You need that extra pass in the offensive third, heck, often you need an extra pass when you’re inside the box for a high percentage shot.  With only one player up top, you have midfielders running themselves into the ground trying to get forward.  Boxx, Chalupny, Blank, DiMartino all do it, but because they’re coming from the midfield, where they’re setting play, they’re just a step or half step behind.  St. Louis had great possession and played an attractive game all game long, but only very rarely looked dangerous.  Aluko is up there all by herself, and the cavalry doesn’t show up to bail her out until about a half second too late.  It’s the difference between a productive possession or McLeod and the defense being able to smother the ball.  In this one, Moros and/or Huffman were marking Aluko for most of the game – this meant midfielders were handling the load on offense for long stretches, and is also why despite so much possession, St. Louis rarely got closer than about 22-25 yards to goal without being dispossessed or putting the ball over the endline.  They’ll waste this season if this 4-5-1 doesn’t go away – we’ll watch them play great, attractive soccer, and then scratch our heads at the end of the game wondering why they don’t score more goals. 

 

Formation

 

Freedom – 4-4-2, back-front, right-left: GK – McLeod; Defense – Moros, Whitehill, Marshall, Sauerbrunn; Mid – Huffman in the defensive mid; Long, Sawa, Bompastor – I was ball watching a lot in this one, so I’m not positive on the shape of the midfield other than Huffman deep in the defensive mid and Sawa playing high; F – Wambach, De Vanna.  Mykjaland in for De Vanna; Singer in for Moros, Gilbeau in for Long. 

 

Athletica – 4-5-1, back-front, right-left: GK – Solo; Defense – Fletcher, Cross, Ellertson, Weber; Mid – Boxx and Blank withdrawn, Miyama, DiMartino, Chalupny; F – Aluko.  Tarpley in for DiMartino; Edlund in for Aluko, Trotter in for Blank. 

 

Freedom Players

 

McLeod – Solid game.  She really doesn’t get the credit and recognition she deserves.  She’s got great reflexes, good decision making and positioning, a consistent goal kick and punt that gives her team the advantage on 50-50 balls.  The Aluko goal was a very nicely placed driven shot that just beat her.  No real complaints in this one – the Freedom are obviously a different, far better team when she’s in the nets than when she’s not. 

 

Moros – I was skeptical when I first saw her back on defense against Atlanta, but left that game feeling OK about it, if not still a little squeamish.  After this one, I am fully on board.  She provides great speed and offense on the right flank.  She is up on offense allowing the Freedom to stretch the field so much that it appears that they’re playing a 3 back at times.  She sends in a nice ball from the flank and has great offensive instincts.  That said, when needed, she’s back on defense.  She ran with Aluko the whole game, especially at the start of the second half.  She and Huffman both marked Aluko for long stretches and were able to neutralize her for a lot of the match.  You can’t stop Aluko, but she was slowed and much off of her foot was smothered, knocked over the endline or otherwise handled by the Freedom defense.  Nice game - this is one of Gabarra’s player position switches that I actually like. 

 

Whitehill – Solid game from Cat.  You know what you’re going to get from her – solid defense, better than solid defending in the air, hard but largely clean tackling, good decisions and accurate passing when connecting with the midfield.  She’s just an all around rock solid steady central defender.  Great anchor.  I’d like to see her go a little less direct with the ball on free kicks – Abby and Long and Sauerbrunn and Welsh when she’s in there, do have a nice height advantage against most of their opponents, but that’s about all I have in the way of nitpicking.  I think teaming Cat with a more athletic central defender like Nikki Marshall is going to pay dividends this season.  Time will tell on that count.  Nice outing. 

 

Marshall – I was a little skeptical when she was drafted – just on a need basis, I was hoping more for an established defensive midfielder to free up Sawa to play a tad higher than she did last year.  So, I was inclined to find something not to like about this player – but I just can’t.  She’s athletic, she makes good decisions, she’s an experienced defender who takes all the right angles, she’s in tune with her keeper and saved one off the line, she’s aware of the outside backs and is quick to cover when one gets caught forward, she can connect with the midfield capably . . . I have nothing negative here – she has impressed the heck out of me.  Just because of the nature of the central defender position, I’m sure others in the class of 2010 will get more headlines, but I’ll take this rookie over any others I’ve seen at this point.  And yes, that really is two, bordering on three, nice things I’ve said about Jim Gabarra’s decisions already – no, this doesn’t mark the End of Days, I’ve only seen the two matches the Freedom won 3-1, so I’m just feeling all warm and fuzzy right now. 

 

Sauerbrunn – Glad the midfield experiment appears to be over.  I get it - height at the defensive midfield spot is desirable, getting your best players on the field is desirable, getting Sawa into the attacking midfield is desirable, pairing Cat with a more athletic central back is desirable – I get it.  But Sauerbrunn is a defender and she’s a defender without great offensive instincts.  She looked unsure of herself every time she had the ball at her feet when she was playing in the midfield and in the first half of the Atlanta game turned the ball over an astronomical number of times.  In the second half, she was constantly looking and passing back to Whitehill.  She was winning balls and playing solid defense, but it was painful to watch her put in a position where she could not succeed.  To contrast, back on defense, even if it was on the wing instead of in the center, she looked like her old self.  She even made some very nice passes up the sideline to Bompastor.  She knows tactics from the back, she simply looks more at ease back there.  I don’t think the lack of speed on the wing hurt the defense too much because Moros aggressively pushed forward and the whole defense shifted pinched in – and Marshall is right there to help out with any coverage issues.  Sauerbrunn on the left flank is preferable to what we saw against Atlanta – I thought she did a capable job and had a solid game. 

 

Huffman – Looking at the starting lineup pregame, I was scratching my head wondering exactly who the defensive midfielder would be.  When the game started and I saw it was Huffman, I winced a little because tiny defensive midfielders aren’t my favorite, but at the same time I was pleased because it meant Sawa was free to roam up high and create on offense.  As the game wore on, I got on board with this move.  At least against this opponent and at least until someone like, oh, say, Brittany Bock is available.  Huffman did a great job tracking Aluko and/or Chalupny through the midfield.  She’s got good speed and was reading the St. Louis offense fairly well.  She got into passing lanes well and made good decisions distributing the ball and connecting with the other midfielders.  Fewer turnovers from this position with her playing it than in previous weeks.  She wasn’t winning many air balls, but the Freedom really didn’t have her going for many of them.  Long, Wambach, Whitehill, Sauerbrunn and at times Marshall and Bompastor were moving into position to fight for balls off McLeod’s foot, and the whole team was effective at getting fouls called against Athletica in the air.  So, surprisingly solid game against a strong midfield – she held her own. 

 

Long – Ask me how much I like that she was protected in the expansion draft rather than Lori Lindsey, go ahead, I dare ya, just ask me!  Argh.  OK – same old same old with her – all the talent in the world, none of the tactical sophistication she needs to compete at this level.  With her talent, yeah, she will sometimes put up really nice box score numbers.  But most games will be more like this one – turnovers that lead to shots on goal, getting pushed off balls, making bad decisions, not winning 50-50 balls unless the ref bails her out.  I will say, she was much more disciplined in front of goal than last season.  She’s making the pass rather than booting it over the goal from 30 yards out.  So she is learning some patience.  I think it comes down to this with Long – talent/natural ability, size, speed, got her through at the collegiate level – that’s not going to do it here.  She is what she is, and at least Gabarra has figured out she needs to not be the distributing midfielder this year.  If I had my pick, it’s Long who goes to the bench when Bock is finally ready to play, not Huffman, but I seriously doubt the coaching staff is going to see it the same way.  At least her effort seems a bit better this year than what the Freedom got from her last, so that’s an improvement.  If she can get some finishes, it’ll make up for the short comings.

 

Sawa – Now THAT’S who I thought the Freedom drafted.  It’s not much of a secret that I thought she was misused all year last year – playing way too deep to be effective.  This year, they’re searching for another defensive midfielder so she can run the offense.  And she’s done a great job.  Game winning goal in both games I’ve seen, the Freedom work the ball patiently through the midfield instead of taking shots from ridiculously long range and nice combination play between Sawa, Wambach and De Vanna.  The shot numbers probably won’t be as gaudy as last, but I’m betting the efficiency numbers will be greatly improved.  Nice strong finish on what wound up being the game winning goal.  A nifty little volley that was struck well enough to find the back of the net even as Solo got an outstretched hand on it.  Nice outing from Sawa, she’s off to a great start this season. 

 

Bompastor – I like her off defense and back in the midfield.  She’s extremely active offensively and has a strong enough workrate that she helps defensively where needed.  She got the scoring started by collecting a nice little touch pass from Abby and then putting it past Solo to the far post.  Confidently and quickly struck and well placed.  A very professional goal.  The Freedom really stretch the field nicely with her on the left and Moros wide right.  De Vanna runs up whichever flank she feels like whenever she feels like it so the Freedom offense is a little less predictable than it was at times last year and defenses are spread a little bit more thin.  She has a nice cross but is also good with the ball at her feet so she can cut it inside - defenses just don’t know what she’s going to do.  While the ball is in the middle third, she very aggressively tries to gain possession – she cuts inside and commonly goes up for 50-50 balls.  She’s probably been the most consistent player for the Freedom over the past two years and this performance was yet another great one.  Well deserved player of the week.

 

Wambach – She’s off to a great start this season.  She collected another assist in this one with a nice little touch pass on Bompastor’s goal.  All the assists she’s racking up really shows the versatility in her game at this point.  She’s looking for her teammates and to work the ball in for good shots rather than just a lot of shots.  She’s seeing the field so well this season.  She continues to have a great workrate, commonly going back into the midfield to win 50-50 balls and peppering passes all over the attacking third.  She’s very aggressive on her runs forward.  She consistently occupies a couple of defenders which leaves other players open. Just a typically great outing. 

 

De Vanna – I really like what I’m seeing from her so far this year.  She is perpetual motion, making a ton of off ball runs, providing an outlet for her teammates and spreading the defenses by making runs wide.  She’s passing much better and combining especially well with Sawa and Wambach.  There were times last year she seemed to be a bit of a black hole from which no ball emerged, but she’s been connecting well with teammates at the outset of this season.  She is getting into the box frequently and putting in shots from inside the box that just haven’t found the back of the net yet.  Much better shot selection from the whole team than what we saw at times last season, and she is no exception.  Nice solid outing.

 

Mykjaland – She was a nice sub in this one.  Good energy coming off the bench, kept the Athletica defense quite busy.  Splitting time between her and De Vanna was a nice move.  Fresh legs with a strong workrate leaves the defense chasing for a full 90.  Her goal was a very professional strike.  I’ve been railing on distance shots all night, but hers was so smart.  Solo was way off her line.  About two thirds of the goal was left completely uncovered.  Mykjaland recognized this and put the shot home.  Very opportunistic and very good awareness of where the keeper was, or in this case, wasn’t.  Nice outing.  While this wasn’t exactly a headline inducing addition, it does seem as if this is a nice solid off season pickup.

 

Gilbeau and Singer – I’ve got nothin’.  I was glad to see Long leave the pitch as she was tiring and making some costly turnovers, and Moros ran herself into the ground chasing Aluko most of the night and got some well deserved rest, but I really have nothing on the replacements. 

 

Athletica Players

 

Solo – What was she doing?  I was watching the ball and didn’t see where the heck she was or what she was doing as the play was developing, but what I did see was the gaping maw of a goal mouth and her nowhere near where she should have been on Mykjaland’s goal.  Off her line, with at least two thirds of the goal completely uncovered.  Very uncharacteristic of Ms. Solo – I’ll just chalk it up to a momentary lapse in attention.  As for the other goals, they were well placed cutting across the front of the goal.  Bompastor’s was a great angle and Sawa’s had both power and a nice angle.  They just got by her.  Her kicking was fine, but she just didn’t look as sharp as usual for much of this one.  A few nice sequences where she made a couple of stops in succession, but just seemed a tad off.  I’m sure she’ll have a return to form in the next one . . . at least I hope so as she’s the captain on my fantasy team . . . she killed me this week . . . teach me to pick against my home team again . . .

 

Fletcher – She has always been a rock solid player.  Never too flashy, always quite reliable. She makes run after run up that right flank – combining well with her teammates and getting back well on defense.  Like most of this Athletica team, she’s got a very high workrate.  Athletica work hard, they get in the attacking half of the field well, they just don’t get enough players far enough forward into that attacking third fast enough.  Defensively, she tracked De Vanna fairly well at times and cut inside to help Ellertson and Cross.  She makes very good decisions with the ball on offense, passing the ball through the midfield more than sending crosses in from the flank.  Solid outing – I always enjoy her game when I see her. 

 

Cross – She seemed a little off most of the night, well, not off, just looking like she was starting at center back for the first time this season.  She’s got great height and size back there, so I understand why they might want a big body to defend against Wambach, but the Freedom were getting shots/space right in the box all game long.  I’m not sure she was reading it well – when the Freedom were able to wrest the ball from Athletica, they were fairly patient.  They’d pass in the middle third until they saw a hole and got it through.  Ellertson was commonly running to the ball to make a play with Cross minding the store and she was just a step or two late a few times.  She’s great defending in the air though and didn’t really have a moment that made me groan, but at the same time, I’m not sure this is necessarily the best choice for Athletica – especially if they play a team with really technical players rather than large ones.  I think they might have underestimated the Freedom’s on ball ability when they were planning for this one.  It really ain’t all about Abby being big at this point – have to game plan for more than that.. 

 

Ellertson – Hardest working woman in show business.  She’s everywhere, defending centrally, marking Abby at times, running down De Vanna at others, going up against Bompastor for a 50-50 ball, just always near the ball trying to make a play.  Great speed, great in the air, and enough physical toughness that she’s definitely become the kind of player only a home team can love.  She’s gotten to the point that she really reads the game well from the defense as well.  I think that’s been the last part of the equation for her as a defender and this season, even though St. Louis gave up a bushel of goals in this one, it’s clear she’s developed that part of her game as well.  Nice outing – I’m sure she wishes her team had given up a couple fewer goals, but individually, she was impressive. 

 

Weber – She’s another player who had a solid game.  She had her hands full with Moros running right at her most of the game, especially in the first half.  And I do think Moros got the better of that matchup most of the night, but Weber was right there with her disrupting the play or forcing the direction of the pass as often as not.  Like many of the supporting players on this team, she’s just a hard working, non-flashy player who gets her job done.  She’s not quite as active offensively as Fletcher, but she cut inside and got into the attack at times.  Not too much else.  Relatively solid outing. 

 

Re Athletica’s defensive outing, I know three sounds like a lot of goals, but two of the balls were well struck at great angles, and the third just caught the keeper napping, so the defense really didn’t completely muff this one such that it’s worth being terribly critical.  A more typical Solo outing and more typical Solo decision making would have held the Freedom to one, maybe two. 

 

Boxx – Like Ellertson, Fletcher and Chalupny, everywhere and on the ball all game long.  Great defending, winning everything in the air – well, everything the ref wasn’t calling a foul and giving back to the Freedom, at any rate.  What I found really impressive in this one, was her role on offense.  She really plays a major role in distributing the ball, winning balls, and running through the midfield into the opponents end.  She was near the top of the box distributing quite often, but they just couldn’t pull the trigger on many good shots in this one.  Either the passes were just a little too heavy, or a few feet off, or the numbers were just a step behind where they needed to be.  Typically Boxx-like outing in this one.  She still sets the standard in the defensive midfield.

 

Blank – She was solid in this one, she was fantastic in the game against Boston.  I really like what I’m seeing from this player so far this season. She’s providing a lot of support to the offense by making good decisions with the ball.  She’s an accurate passer who advances the ball through the midfield well.  She gets the ball out to Chalupny and Miyama well and teams well with Boxx a tad deeper in the midfield.  She was all over the ball in the attacking third against Boston and got into the attacking half consistently against the Freedom.  The entire Athletica team just looked like they were a few yards too deep most of the night – consistently in the Freedom end combining well with each other and working hard, just a little off.  I’m quickly becoming a fan of Blank though.  This team does have great midfielders, I just left this game wondering if maybe one of these midfielders couldn’t join Aluko up top. 

 

Miyama – Set piece specialist extraordinaire.  Late in the game, the speed with which she can get off a free kick, not just doing a quick little restart, but a full blown free kick that’s headed straight for goal, almost caught the Freedom twice.  She delivers a great ball on set pieces of all kinds, she’s a nice target in the offensive third and she has great energy.  That’s kind of the book on this whole team, high workrate, good on the ball skills, accurate passing.  Honestly, my bias against their formation notwithstanding, I really don’t know why this offense wasn’t getting more dangerous chances.   They should have been.  Nice game from Miyama – she’s a great player in the run of play, she’s an exceptional weapon on set pieces. 

 

DiMartino – She combined well with Chalupny, Fletcher, Boxx and Aluko at times.  Made some nice runs forward and nice passes out wide and to Aluko through the middle of the field.  I think she’d be more effective if she had more players playing in front of her.  Most of the time, she’s only got Aluko ahead of her.  This limits some of the offensive creativity she showed in college.  Here, she’s either passing to Aluko or she’s setting up a ball for someone playing behind her.  That’s tough – not much of the field to see and plan for when your targets aren’t going to get in your sightlines until after you should have already made the pass.  A few balls that were just a few feet off for Chalupny, Miyama and Aluko in this one.  It might just be that they need to work on their timing, it might be that she should take a step back a little.  Blank at times in the past two games was seeing the field better and creating a little more than DiMartino – being the one playing back a bit gives her a little more time to plan than DiMartino has.  We’ll see – if DiMartino heats up and learns her teammates’ tendencies in this formation, a lot of what ails this Athletica offense could be resolved.  They just need to figure out something so they’re not so dependent on Aluko.  One player scoring almost all your goals isn’t likely to win you a championship. 

 

Chalupny – Hardest working woman in show business part deux.  She is all over the field, all over the ball, all over everything, all the time.  She’s wide left, she’s wide right, she’s making an off ball run toward the endline, she’s running in the middle, she’s running onto a through ball, she’s going for a 50-50 ball, she’s helping out on defense, she’s everywhere!  Just a step behind or ahead of the ball around the goal mouth for much of the night.  So much possession deep in the Freedom end, I was frustrated on her behalf for how close they were coming to really getting something going.  Her assist was part of a play that showed Athletica at its most effective.  Nice combination play where all three players knew exactly where they were, where they were putting the ball and then they executed it perfectly.  Boxx, to Chalupny, who put the perfect ball into Aluko who scored a very professional goal.  Quick passing, accurate passing, it was happening all night.  In this instance, it was happening right in front of goal – I’m sure we’ll see more of this before too much longer.  I really do like this team and Chalupny is one of the most important parts of it.

 

Aluko – She’s a fantastic forward, no question.  She’s going to get loads of goals this season, no question.  Would she be more effective if Athletica played someone up top with her so two players couldn’t be used to mark her whenever she’s in the attacking half?  No question.  Moros and Huffman were on her when Athletica was in the Freedom end all game long.  As Aluko is everyone’s favorite end user, this led to balls being put over the endline, balls being put out, Freedom defenders taking possession and McLeod smothering balls in the box all night long.  In my opinion, you have got to have more than one option.  The Freedom have scored 8 goals this season, only Sawa has scored more than one.  Last year, Marta was so effective because Abily was on the pitch with her.  There wasn’t just one.  As good as Aluko is, someone has got to step up and not just occasionally get a good shot off – someone has got to prove to be almost as dangerous an offensive threat as she is.  Otherwise, take two players, cover Aluko and force someone else to do something when the ball is in the box.  Until Athletica shows that anyone else can even so much as get a good, dangerous shot off, they’re not going to be the team most of us looking at that roster thought we were going to see.

 

Tarpley – She looked good.  A healthy Tarpley might wind up being an answer for Athletica.  She’s one of the most tactically savvy and crafty players out there.   I’m not sure whether it was the desperation for scoring as time was running down or whether it was Tarpley that put a little charge into the offense, but when she took the pitch, Athletica was making charge after charge into the Freedom end.  When Trotter joined the fray, Athletica looked like they were playing more than one forward up top.  Don’t know if they formally made a formation change, but Trotter and Tarpley were very aggressively getting forward.  Some of Athletica’s play got a little impatient and direct with about 20-25 minutes to go, but combine the numbers forward with the style they were playing earlier, and I’m guessing they sure would have gotten a few more serious looks at goal in the early going.  Anyway – nice game for Tarpley – I’m just glad to see her back out there running around.

 

Trotter – Not too much that’s different from Tarpley.  Very active when she came in, running around the offensive third and looking toward goal.  There’s just not enough room on the pitch for all the talent they have over there in St. Louis.  Not too much else – I think I’ve pounded my thoughts on Athletica’s offense to death.  I’m done – and like with Tarpley, I was just glad to see India Trotter back out there again.

 

Edlund – I got nothin’.  I just lost her.  I’m sure she was a part of the pandemonium going on at times in the Freedom end, but I just didn’t have her in my sights. 

 

And that is it – don’t let the final score fool you, this was really a great, very well played game.  Both teams worked hard, both teams held possession well, both teams had great combination play, Athletica just couldn’t take a dangerous/threatening last touch.  Regardless of whether they ditch the 4-5-1 or not, and I’m guessing not, Athletica should be at the top of the standings when it’s all over – they’re way too talented and play way too well for that not to be the case.  The dependency on a single player to score the vast majority of their goals though, is going to catch up with them one way or another – as well as they played, as much as the maintained possession at times, I can count the number of times they looked dangerous in front of the Freedom goal on one hand, and I don’t need all my fingers.  As for the Freedom, a little schizophrenic to start the year.  They get thumped by an expansion team, but then they take out arguably the most talent laden team in the league the next week.  As I’ve only seen the two 3-1 wins, I’m pleased with what I’ve seen from my home team.  The one thing that was making my hair come out in clumps, Sauerbrunn in the midfield, seems to have been an experiment that’s now been laid to rest, so I’ve really got nothin’ but happy thoughts over here.  What I’ve really been happy to see, is that the level of play in all the games I’ve seen this season has been fairly high.  Little sloppy play and a whole lot of entertaining matches.  That’s really all I can ask for. 

 

Beulah