Print and Go Back News & Opinion [Print without images]

Friday, July 15, 2011
U.S. needs middle management

By Michelle Smith

FRANKFURT, Germany -- In a live-on-the-edge tournament run that has seen the U.S. team turn serious trouble into soaring triumph, no place on the field has been edgier for the American squad than the midfield.

It was in the midfield that France had its way in Wednesday's semifinal match, deftly moving the ball around and generating many of the 25 shots it took at the U.S. goal.

There was a long stretch of that game, before the U.S. scored two late goals, when it looked as if the French might just be able to pull off the upset because it was dominating possession so much.

Now here comes Japan, with its own high-quality possession game, and the U.S. midfield will again be the focal point.

Only this time, instead of being regarded as a weak link, the American midfielders would prefer to be the keys to a World Cup title. And it might come down to that.

"I think we want to be able to show the world that we can win and play great soccer and keep the ball just like Japan can keep the ball," U.S. outside midfielder Heather O'Reilly said. "We showed a lot of resilience and determination and fight in both the [quarterfinal] win over Brazil and France, but in terms of possession, I don't know that we kept the ball as much as we would have liked. I don't think we, as midfielders, controlled the rhythm of either of those games the way we would have liked to."

Japan could make the U.S. pay for that.

Japan already has used its disciplined, organized possession game -- led by veteran midfielder Homare Sawa -- to take down two of the world's best teams in Germany and Sweden. Japan dominated possession in both games, 54-46 against Germany and 60-40 against Sweden.

The Japanese accomplished both wins against teams with an advantage in size and physicality. No one can argue that the U.S. doesn't have both of those qualities in its corner, but if Japan plays keep-away well enough, it may not matter.

"We don't want to be playing defense the way we played for so long against France," O'Reilly said. "We want to have the ball and knock it around."

Former U.S. center midfielder Julie Foudy, now an analyst for ESPN, said that midfield play will be "huge" in determining whether the Americans can win their first Women's World Cup since 1999.

"You know against Japan you are going to chase," Foudy said. "You go in with that mind-set, you know that's going to happen. ... But you don't want to spend 90 minutes chasing. That's exhausting and demoralizing and fatiguing.

"The U.S. is somehow going to have to establish a presence with Carli [Lloyd] and Shannon [Boxx]," Foudy said. "And Lauren Cheney, too, if she pops into the middle. But to be fair, this isn't just a midfield responsibility."

Lloyd, however, is feeling the burden of responsibility. Her shaky play against France led U.S. coach Pia Sundhage to pull her from the game in the second half, insert Megan Rapinoe on the flank and move Cheney to the center. The change was the catalyst for the two U.S. goals that led to the win.

Lloyd had played every minute of the tournament until she was taken out in the 65th minute. She admitted she was feeling fatigued and that the French "put a lot of numbers in the middle and the decisions start to come a little slower.

"I never want to get sent off," Lloyd said. "But the people coming off the bench did a great job. You've got to remember that we had two days in between after playing 120 minutes. I have confidence in my fitness level, but the legs were just a little bit tired. But I was bummed."

Lloyd said, however, that with some time to think about it, she thinks it was "a good decision" and one that will benefit her in the final.

"I didn't empty out the tank," she said. "It'll be good. This is the last game, and I will leave it all out on the field."

With Cheney's strong play in the middle down the stretch against France, Sundhage will have another option if Japan is dominating the ball.

Lloyd said she knows that Sundhage's expectations for her play are high.

"She wants us to possess the ball and that's Boxxie and I, our job in the middle is to get the team to do that," Lloyd said. "Tactically, we will change things a little to possess the ball, and that's great. I'm all for it. I know she has high expectations of me, and I just want to go out there and keep the ball and link the ball with everybody and get it going."