Commentary

U.S. faces North Korea in World Cup

Updated: June 28, 2011, 9:24 AM ET
By Jeff Carlisle | ESPN.com

DRESDEN, Germany -- For the fourth World Cup in a row, the U.S. finds itself facing the always mysterious North Koreans. North Korea rarely plays outside of official competitions, but a few recent friendlies against Germany and Canada should give the U.S. enough intelligence to prepare for a team whose highly technical style has troubled them in the past.

What's on the line:

While Group A narrowly takes the Group of Death moniker, Group C is difficult in its own right, with three teams ranked among the top eight in the world. This means that the winner of this match will have the luxury of getting the jump on the other group competitors. This is especially true for the U.S., which in playing underdogs Colombia in its second match, could have already clinched passage to the second round by the time its group finale against Sweden comes around on July 6.

Four years ago in China, the U.S. tied North Korea 2-2 in its opener, and while a similar result wouldn't be a disaster, it would add considerably more tension to the Americans' journey through the group stage.

Style and tactics:

Part of the reason why the U.S. played Japan twice in the run-up to the tournament was to get used to the style of the North Koreans, one that emphasizes quick combinations in midfield and a high-pressure defense.

If the North Koreans' play in last year's Asian Cup is anything to go by, they'll line up in a 4-4-2, and look to keep the ball on the ground, with central midfielder Jo Yun Mi acting as the central attacking hub. Also look for North Korea to use its outside backs to get forward with regularity and provide width.

The U.S. also utilizes a 4-4-2 formation, and has tried to transition to a more possession-based style during this World Cup cycle. This entails playing through midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd and utilizing the speed out wide of Heather O'Reilly. But unlike North Korea, the U.S. has the option of playing more directly when needed, with Abby Wambach's 5-foot-11 frame making her an inviting target up top.

Players to watch:

For North Korea: Jo Yun Mi, Ra Un Sim, Hong Myong Hui

Jo was the MVP at last year's Asian Cup, and her box-to-box running reveals a player with a big engine as well as the intensity needed to help implement North Korea's high-pressure tactics. Goals have been hard to come by for the North Koreans ever since the international retirement of forward Ri Un Suk, and it will be up to Ra to help pick up the slack. She will rely on her pace and clever movements to latch onto passes from Jo. Goalkeeper Hong, just 19, will be playing in her first World Cup, and will need to play bigger than her 5-foot-7 frame in dealing with the inevitable barrage of crosses that will come her way.

For the U.S.: Abby Wambach, Shannon Box and Heather O'Reilly

The tallest North Korean player stands only 5-foot-8, meaning Wambach will have a sizable height advantage on set pieces, and the U.S. will need her to be a force in the box from the run of play as well. Boxx will be counted on to limit the effectiveness of Jo, and while her ability to change the point of attack will be critical against a disciplined defensive side, she'll also need to curb her tendency to creep forward and leave the U.S. vulnerable to counterattacks. O'Reilly's ability to take players one-on-one and deliver crosses into the box makes her one of Wambach's primary suppliers. If the U.S. midfielder has a good day, then Wambach will get plenty of opportunities in front of goal.

What we can expect:

For all of the talk about the Americans' change in style, the clear height advantage they enjoy makes this a game where they might benefit from a more direct approach. Not only will Wambach's physical presence cause problems, but the speed of O'Reilly and Amy Rodriguez -- assuming she starts -- could make North Korea pay for defending with too high a line. The ability to win set pieces through the work of O'Reilly and whoever starts on the left, be it Megan Rapinoe or Lauren Cheney, could tip the scales in the Americans' favor.

If the U.S. tries to be too clever playing out of the back, North Korea's ability to swarm around the ball could create turnovers in the Americans' half, so the U.S. defense, along with Lloyd, will need to make sure they don't force things and keep risky passes out of the back to a minimum. The U.S. has also looked vulnerable at times on the flanks, so expect North Korea to try to exploit that part of the field.

Intangibles:

Given the geopolitical overtones whenever these two countries square off, you can bet that it will be a highly motivated North Korea side that takes the field in Dresden. And when combined with the memories of four years ago, as well as the team's triumph over the U.S. in the 2008 U-17 World Cup final, it will by no means be intimidated.

The U.S. hasn't won a World Cup since 1999, and for players like Wambach and Boxx, this is likely their last chance. The rest of the side is also eager to write their own history and stand alongside the legendary 1999 side that won it all. Tuesday's match will start to reveal whether that kind of pressure can be a galvanizing force or weigh too heavily on the team's collective psyche.

Prediction:

This is a difficult matchup for the Americans. North Korea is a very disciplined team defensively and will be tough to break down. But Wambach's aerial presence remains a huge advantage. Look for her to provide the breakthrough and lead the U.S. to a 2-0 win.

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 eljefe1@yahoo.com.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet.