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On the road to the World Cup, the goal of every team is for each tune-up to be better than the last. And for the U.S., that was true on most fronts as goals from Amy Rodriguez and Heather O'Reilly saw it defeat Japan, 2-0, for the second time in four days. Yet there were enough questions raised to temper any good feelings.
On the plus side, the U.S. coped better with Japan's high pressure tactics, and overall took better care of the ball, especially in its own half. In particular, Shannon Boxx shook off a subpar performance from this past Saturday to deliver the kind of play in the midfield the U.S. will need come June in Germany. Not only was Boxx more precise with her passing, but her willingness to take players on when appropriate gave the U.S. another weapon in attack.
More importantly, the U.S. received the kind of flank play from Heather O'Reilly and Megan Rapinoe that manager Pia Sundhage has long craved. O'Reilly, in particular, delivered a sparkling performance, setting the table for Rodriguez's opener in the 28th minute with a mazy run, and then scoring herself in the 69th minute on a great solo effort. Rapinoe provided some needed balance on the opposite flank, and with a bit more luck would have had a few assists.
But among these positives, there were some signs of old troubles. The positional discipline of Boxx and central partner Carli Lloyd has long been a simmering issue, and it was evident once again in this match. Japan's one threatening stretch occurred in the last 20 minutes of the first half, and the chances it created almost all came in transition when Boxx and Lloyd got pulled forward, leaving a chasm between the midfield and defensive lines. The balance appeared to be better in the second half, but the U.S. will not be able to get away with such a poor period against the best teams, and it begs the question of why this continues to happen game after game.
The U.S. also showed an alarming lack of killer instinct given the number of chances it created on the evening. The sight of substitute Alex Morgan taking far too many touches with the goal gaping, only to have her shot deflected out for a corner, was indicative of a side that will need to be more efficient in Germany.
But overall, Sundhage will likely be pleased with the night's proceedings. The U.S. seems to be fusing the possession-based game that she has been instituting with the power and athleticism of past teams. The challenge now is to try and increase the team's sharpness and keep players healthy. A friendly against Mexico on June 5 will be the final test.
Player ratings (1-10, 5 = average)
Hope Solo, GK, 7 -- Once again looked sharp and was quicker with her decisions compared to last Saturday's game. Her shot stopping, always a strong suit, was rarely tested, but she was alert to touch a Japanese shot over the bar in the 80th minute.
Stephanie Cox, D, 5 -- Looked to get forward, but her distribution lacked precision. Got caught in possession and had to be bailed out by her fellow defenders a few times.
Rachael Buehler, D, 6.5 -- Very steady performance in the back. She wasn't quite as on target with her passing as she was on Saturday, but overall, few complaints.
Becky Sauerbrunn, D, 7 -- She may be keeping the spot warm for injured captain Christie Rampone, but Sauerbrunn delivered another impressive performance. Calm with her passing and solid defensively, she's shown that the U.S. has some impressive depth in the middle.
Ali Krieger, D, 6 -- Supported the attack well on the rare occasions when O'Reilly was stopped, and looked composed defensively.
Megan Rapinoe, M, 7 -- Rapinoe was pretty solid with her set piece deliveries, and while her passing could have been sharper from the run of play in the first half, she was a continual threat in the second half. She also showed a willingness to track back and defend when Lloyd and Boxx got caught up field.
Shannon Boxx, M, 6 -- Was much better with her distribution, and her inspired long ball to O'Reilly helped set up the first goal. The positioning issue needs to be sorted out, however. Both she and Lloyd got caught too far forward at times, leading to several Japanese counters.
Carli Lloyd, M, 5.5 -- Struggled to link up with her teammates in the first half, but raised her game considerably in the second. Played several inspired deliveries, including a defense-splitting pass that released Morgan on a clear breakaway. That said, Lloyd needs to be more consistent.
Heather O'Reilly, M, 8 -- Was an absolute menace on the right wing, and her dynamic run helped set the table for Rodriguez. Looked confident and threatening whenever she got the ball, especially in slotting home her goal in the second half.
Abby Wambach, F, 6 -- Not as impactful as her performance last Saturday against Japan, when she had one goal and one assist, but she still made her physical presence felt. Linked up well with her teammates, although she was among those players who could have put the game away but didn't.
Amy Rodriguez, F, 7 -- Took her goal well, and looked sharp in her movement off the ball. The U.S. is deep at forward, but Rodriguez's hold on the forward spot beside Wambach looks ironclad.
Amy LePeilbet, D, 6 -- Looked more comfortable than Cox, providing a steadier defensive presence and composure on the ball as well.
Alex Morgan, F, 4 -- Has to be more clinical. The kind of chances she squandered on this night could be costly when the games start for real.
Lori Lindsey, 6 -- Looked pretty settled in the center of midfield, and nearly scored with a long-range effort in the 75th minute.
Lauren Cheney, M, 5 -- With the U.S. attacking almost exclusively down the left wing, Cheney was unable to get many touches.
Tobin Heath, M, NR
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.