U.S. shakes up its formation against Canada

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- When it comes to the U.S. women's soccer team, you often need to read a fair amount into snapshots. It's necessary to connect dots over the months and over the years.

The Americans were last on the pitch in Germany in July when they were devastated by letting the World Cup title slip away to Japan.

"A heartbreaking loss, and it will be with me forever," team captain Christie Rampone said Saturday. "But it was nice to step back on the field."

Rampone and her fellow Americans did just that against Canada and both sides shook off some rust in a 1-1 tie. Abby Wambach scored the Americans' lone goal on a penalty kick in the 10th minute, while Melissa Tancredi got the equalizer for Canada just before halftime.

The U.S. and Canada will meet again Thursday (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in Portland, Ore., and then the U.S. players will have a six-week break to do their own thing -- goalkeeper Hope Solo will be hoofing it on "Dancing With the Stars" -- before reconvening for training camps in November and December.

This is what is meant by soaking up snapshots: Take mental note of these two games and retain that until the Olympic qualifying tournament this winter.

These matchups with Canada are intended to celebrate the enthusiasm generated by this summer's World Cup, but there is also some real work going on both sides.

The venue was the new Livestrong Sporting Park, a beautiful soccer-specific facility that is part of a sports/entertainment complex built in the past decade that also includes the Kansas Speedway.

When Brandi Chastain made her famous penalty kick to win the World Cup for the U.S in July 1999, there was little more here on the western edge of greater Kansas City than a lot of dirt being moved around for construction of the racetrack. That opened in 2001, and now there's also a baseball park, a shopping village, restaurants, hotels and of course the soccer stadium which is home to Sporting Kansas City of MLS. That franchise, previously called the Wiz and then the Wizards, played in the NFL's Arrowhead Stadium -- home of the Chiefs -- which seemed depressingly cavernous for soccer.

Chastain & Co. didn't have any trouble drawing a big crowd, though. In October, 1999, she brought her teammates to Kansas City on a victory tour after their landmark World Cup win. Arrowhead held 36,405 that night; all saw the U.S. pummel Denmark 6-0.

The young voices that screamed Mia Hamm's name ceaselessly that fall evening are now college-aged or a bit older. Since then, one pro women's league, the WUSA, launched and went under. Another, Women's Professional Soccer, is trying to survive in tough economic times.

The U.S. team hasn't won another World Cup in the past dozen years, falling in the semifinals to Germany in 2003 and Brazil in 2007, and then to Japan in the penalty-kick shootout in the final this summer. However, the Americans have won the past two Olympic tournaments.

Rampone was a youngster for Team USA in 1999. Now she's a mother of two with her eye on one more major event before she retires as a player -- the 2012 London Olympics.

To get there the Americans will have to earn one of the two berths in the CONCACAF Women's Olympic qualifying tournament in January in Vancouver. Host Canada will also vie for an Olympic spot in the eight-team, 15-game tournament (which is played indoors, lest you think teams have to brave the British Columbia winter.)

Canada has a new coach in John Herdman. He took over when Carolina Morace resigned after a disastrous Women's World Cup in which Canada finished last. Considering both the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament and the 2015 Women's World Cup are in Canada, it's a priority for that team to find its mojo.

"Whenever you have a change in a coach, it brings a new outlook and energy," Rampone said of the Canadians, having been through coaching switches herself. "You want to do well for that coach. Once we're both into full training, you'll see two different teams than you saw tonight."

There was already something different about the Americans style. They went with a 4-2-3-1 formation that should give them more of a possession-oriented attack and make their outside defenders a greater part of the offensive threat.

The team just started working on that this week but coach Pia Sundhage and the players seemed to like at least some of what they saw Saturday.

"What we tried to do is tweak the system a little bit," Sundhage said. "There will be a lot of practices to see if we try to change the system or if we go back to 4-4-2. We already know we can play 4-4-2. It'll be a very interesting next few months."

Solo added, "We're in a new system and defensively it's hard to organize because we don't quite know our roles in the midfield. So it makes decision making difficult with our defenders.

"But again, it's been three days. It's not like we know the system well. You can see the flair in the attack at times, especially with people like Tobin Heath in the midfield. I think it's going to benefit us in the attack. Now we just have to lock down the defense."

A lot of the defensive responsibility the past several years has fallen on Rampone, 36, who has been with the U.S. team since 1997. During her career, she has seen the highs and lows of United States Soccer in general, and for the women, specifically.

Applying the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory, one could look at Livestrong Sporting Park and the renovated Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, where Thursday's match will be played, and applaud what that means for continued soccer progress in the United States. The more facilities like this are established, which greatly enhances the experience of soccer players and spectators, the stronger the sport gets.

Did the U.S. miss an opportunity for greater visibility by falling short in the Women's World Cup? Yes, but based on the reaction of the 16,191 in attendance Saturday, this team definitely made an impression. Yet there is still a lot the team has to do before the Olympic qualifying tournament.

"With the midfield, we are changing the role a little bit," Sundhage said. "I want the midfield to be a little more compact. That will be a priority in defending. And if we can sort that out, it will be easier to be more sophisticated with the back four.

"It will be a lot of work on the attack. We gave away the ball way too often today, but you can see some glimpses here and there of really good soccer."

And those were the best snapshots of Saturday.

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