Winning formula: Give it to Abby Wambach
PORTLAND, Ore. -- A new system yielded some old results when the U.S. women's soccer team got two goals from Abby Wambach to win the second of a two-game exhibition series against Canada on Thursday night, 3-0.
After the U.S. team unveiled a new formation designed to involve her teammates more in the scoring, Wambach took matters into her own hands, scoring twice in the second half to break open a scoreless game.
While the exhibition doesn't mean much in an official sense -- these "friendlies" don't count in the rankings -- it had to be a boost for the U.S. at a pivotal juncture.
The team will gather for a training camp in November to begin preparation for the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament, to be played indoors Jan. 19-29 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The field consists of eight teams, with the U.S., Mexico and host Canada expected to duke it out for two Olympic berths.
The Americans have won the past two Olympic gold medals and are ranked No. 1 in the world coming off a shootout loss to Japan in an electrifying World Cup final. In three World Cups since winning in 1999, the U.S. has gone bronze-bronze-silver. It's clear other countries are catching up to the once-dominant Americans, whose challengers are no longer limited to nations like Germany, Sweden and Norway.
"It's a dogfight, man. People don't understand," said Wambach, who was speaking of the match against Canada, but could have been talking about the U.S. team maintaining its precarious perch as the world's top target. "We think we are one of the best teams in the world, but it's one of those things, you have to prove it every time you step on the field because every country's getting better."
Both goals Thursday were vintage Wambach. The first came in the 63rd minute on a left-footed scorcher from 20 yards that Canadian backup keeper Stephanie Labbe didn't touch. The second came seven minutes later when Wambach climbed over the back of defender Rhian Wilkinson to direct a header from Kelley O'Hara.
With some in the announced crowd of 18,570 at Jeld-Wen Field chanting for a Wambach hat trick, World Cup breakout star Alex Morgan, the team's youngest player at 20, scored the final goal in extra time, tipping in a rebound off Lauren Cheney's header.
"You want to finish every season off on a positive note," said Wambach, who tallied her national team-leading 124th and 125th international goals. "We weren't able to bring back the [World] Cup but wanted to make this celebration tour something to celebrate. Winning's obviously a lot more fun ... scoring goals in the ways we did tonight gave Portland a good game."
In the 1-1 tie in the series' first game last week, the Americans outplayed Canada but looked uncomfortable with coach Pia Sundhage's new formation, which features just one forward and an opportunistic-minded midfield.
Not so on Thursday, when shots came from so many players and angles that Canadian starting keeper Karina LeBlanc must have felt like she was trapped in a pinball game.
"They were really on," said Canadian forward Christina Julien, who hit the post with a shot in the second half. "They played a bit quicker than they did the first game. We weren't expecting that. We have a bit to grow there ... hopefully [we can] bring our speed up to match them."
Still, it took a while. Wambach's goal came on the 14th of 21 U.S. shots (Canada had six).
Before that, midfielder and ex-University of Portland star Megan Rapinoe hit the crossbar twice -- once on a perfectly delivered feed from Wambach and again six minutes later, after which she threw her hands up in a "What do I have to do?" moment. Later, she took the blame for biffing.
"That was all me all the time," said a grinning Rapinoe, the elfin platinum blonde whose hair is so distinctive it's now a silhouette on a T-shirt. "I don't know. I think the goals are short or something."
The U.S. hopes this is the start of something good. The team is feeling pressure from up-and-coming countries like Mexico and Canada. Dynamic and intense new Canadian coach John Herdman, 36, has become the hot property in women's soccer as the nation prepares to host the 2015 Women's World Cup.
"The U.S. found another gear tonight that showed why they're No. 1," said Herdman.
But Wambach said to watch out for Canada.
"I believe they probably have the most underrated player in the entire world with Christine Sinclair," she said. "She goes down in my book as one of the best players in the world right now."
Sinclair didn't play in the series, resting up for Olympic qualifying, which gives Herdman even more optimism about Canada's potential after what he saw Thursday night. Add a rested Sinclair to the mix, and things might get interesting.
"I think a lesser team would've crumbled in the first half and I think the girls stood up to that and just kept going," he said. "Generally the U.S. was fantastic, and I was proud of the girls and the way they showed some resilience."
Canada isn't the only threat to the U.S. World Cup champion Japan isn't going away, and, along with France, it plays the type of possession game Sundhage is trying to emulate by experimenting with the 4-2-3-1 formation, which has one forward (Wambach) instead of two. It certainly worked Thursday night. Sundhage told her team at halftime to be patient, and the floodgates would open. They did.
"It's a good start. We have a long way to go to put this together, this system," Sundhage said. "But the energy, the attack ... it was contagious. They played well out there."
It's also another sign the U.S. is moving from the physical, direct style of play that was its trademark for decades.
More evidence of changing times: The U.S. team's last link to the dominant "99ers" of the Mia Hamm-Brandi Chastain-Julie Foudy era, captain Christie Rampone, said she'll retire after the 2012 Olympics. Who will replace her as the Americans' top defender and leader?
The U.S. had no answers for that Thursday night. Sundhage says only that the team will have the benefit of a few years to figure it out before the 2015 World Cup. (Sundhage herself is a question mark, with her contract up in November 2012.)
From the 2003 World Cup through 2010, the U.S. team lost just five matches in regulation. It remains to be seen if uncharacteristic losses to England and Mexico (the latter forcing the U.S. to win a home-and-away series against Italy last year to eke out the final World Cup qualifying spot) are mere blips or cracks in the foundation.
"We're still right up there with the best teams in the world," said veteran midfielder Heather O'Reilly. "Athletically, we still have what that older generation of players had, but the game is evolving. We need to take that athleticism and strength and power we have and continue to develop our game. That will continue to elevate us above and beyond the rest of the group."
What's next for the U.S.?
"Six weeks off," Wambach said. "Beers."
Then it's time for the games to count again.