Are Pia Sundhage's tactics too risky?
When Pia Sundhage took over as U.S. women's national team coach in 2007, the first thing she did was call the team together and burst out a rendition of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." A little less than four years later, "The Gambler" might be more appropriate.
After coaxing what had been a dysfunctional outfit to a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Sundhage could have been forgiven for simply maintaining the status quo in terms of the team's style, one in which she relied on a stingy defense and an opportunistic attack. But with three years to prepare for the 2011 World Cup, Sundhage wanted not only to win but also to win well, and in the process she has tried to refine the team's offense so that it adopts a more possession-based style."Back in 2008, I had just eight months to get ready. It was quick, quick," she said. "I didn't want to make too big of a change because that would take away the confidence a little bit.
"We're on a totally different road right now because we've gone through and made it work, and we continued to talk about changing the point of attack and changing the lines. Soccer is all about rhythm for me. Sometimes you increase the tempo; sometimes you decrease the tempo. And out there it's feelings, and the players are making decisions every single second. We talked about that, and from that gold medal, and we have [had] more time [to change our style]; we spend more time to be a little more sophisticated in the attack."
The U.S. players often compare the approach to that of Spanish club Barcelona, but it's more a reflection of Sundhage's very tactical Swedish background. Rather than lump long balls to forward Abby Wambach, the team is being encouraged to play through central midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, who in turn will try to free up the likes of Heather O'Reilly, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney out on the wings.
But like most transitions, there have been plenty of bumps in the road. The U.S. has lost three official games in the past year, including a stunning 2-1 loss to Mexico during World Cup qualifying. As recently as last week, the U.S. fell to Norway 3-1 in a closed-door scrimmage. And with each defeat have come questions about whether the style really suits the U.S. team.
One significant adjustment has revolved around recognizing when to play through midfield and when to be more direct, especially in terms of taking what opposing defenses are giving the U.S. team.
"Over the last few years, we're definitely trying to be a good soccer team on the ball, finishing those chances in the final third, keeping it, just making good decisions," Lloyd said. "It's hard. It's not black-and-white. You have to be crafty and think outside of the box on the attacking side of things."
Then there is the question of whether such an approach suits the personnel at Sundhage's disposal. Even Pellerud, who coached Norway to the 1995 World Cup title and is now the women's national team manager for Trinidad & Tobago, has long implemented a direct style for his teams. When he looks at the talent the U.S. has available, he sees a side less than the sum of its parts.
"In my opinion, if the U.S. played a more direct game they would be even more dangerous with the attacking power they have, with Wambach in the air as a target, with her play in the box and the speed they have around her."
There also have been rumblings within U.S. women's soccer circles that emphasizing possession has made the team more passive defensively and less willing to use its athleticism to press teams in its own half. It's a criticism that Sundhage has taken to heart, and she insists that during the past few months she has tried to meld the tactical refinements that have been put in place with the more traditional American elements of aggression and high pressure.
But the biggest issue that the U.S. team is having can be loosely categorized as risk management. Of the two center midfielders, Lloyd is the one tasked with having the more attack-minded role. But Boxx has been encouraged by Sundhage to also get into the attack, and there have been times when both Lloyd and Boxx have been caught up field when possession has been lost, thus leaving the U.S. vulnerable to counterattacks.
"That's been my main concern for a long time about the U.S., the midfield shape," Pellerud said. "The back four is very strong, composed, well-organized and always in good balance. But the midfield is rarely in balance because they seem to have a lot of freedom attacking and dribbling and taking risks. Against not-so-strong teams, their players are so fast and so fit and so powerful that they can always recover from a bad shape. Against the better teams they will not recover because the other teams are as good as the U.S. is. The U.S. has the skill, but they don't always have the discipline."
This habit was in evidence during a 2-1 loss to England on April 2, when a turnover allowed opposing playmaker Kelly Smith to run 50 yards with the ball on a counterattack before feeding Rachel Yankey, who scored to put The Three Lionesses up 2-0.
Afterward, Sundhage held a meeting involving center backs Rachel Buehler and Christie Rampone as well as midfielders Boxx and Lloyd. What came out of it was a mandate for better on-the-field communication to solve problems on the field rather than waiting until halftime.
"We all have eyes, but they have to make the decision," Sundhage said. "They were a little in no-man's-land; they were a little bit disconnected. That's something that came out of that meeting. The center backs need to coach the center-mids. That part of the team should be able to coach each other to bring out the best performance in each other."
Yet there were moments during the Americans' three send-off games when similar opportunities occurred. So why does something so apparently easy to fix keep happening? One theory is that the U.S. has so much faith in its back line and, in particular, goalkeeper Hope Solo, that it can afford to take such risks.
But what also happens is that when the U.S. isn't finishing its chances, some impatience creeps into the team's game, and it starts throwing more numbers forward rather than taking comfort in the fact that chances are being created. This is what happened in the final send-off game against Mexico, when a dominant U.S. side allowed a couple of clear opportunities on the break and nearly squandered a game it had dominated.
In the World Cup, the Americans likely will not be so fortunate. North Korea has a midfielder in Jo Yun Mi who is plenty adept at making the box-to-box runs needed to orchestrate counterattacks. Sweden's midfield containing Caroline Seger, Nilla Fischer and Therese Sjogran also can do plenty to punish any positional indiscipline on the part of the Americans.
Yet this is the path Sundhage has chosen. On a team that perhaps isn't as powerful or as fast as its World Cup-winning forbears, it could be argued that the Swede had little choice but to try to evolve the team's attack. And players like Lloyd and O'Reilly seem to be thriving in the new setup. But through it all, Sundhage is projecting a confidence that reveals she's at peace with her decisions.
"I enjoy the road so much," Sundhage said. "As I said, going for the Olympics, I was asked back then, 'How do you deal with the pressure?' You know what? We might not win the gold medal. There are so many who want to win that gold medal in a World Cup. But nobody can take away my road with this team to the World Cup. So I'm not letting that pressure be too hard on me. I have no problem with that [pressure]. I sleep like a baby. I have the best job in the world."
If the U.S. prevails in this World Cup, it's bound to get a whole lot better.
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 email@example.com.