Lessons learned for U.S. women
Takeaways from the U.S. women's two-game set at the Kirin Challenge Cup
As results go, there can be few complaints about how the U.S. women's national team fared in the Kirin Challenge Cup. The Americans secured a 1-1 draw against reigning World Cup champion Japan, then eased past a disorganized and Marta-less Brazil side 3-0. If the right outcome occurs in the competition's finale between Japan and Brazil, the U.S. might even be crowned tournament champion. Not bad considering that three of the top four teams in the world were in the mix and games were less than 48 hours apart.
But as U.S. manager Pia Sundhage prepares her side for this summer's Olympics, there is much more to ponder than mere results. The Swede must somehow pare her roster down to the mandated 18 players, meaning some talented performers are due to get some bad news. Then there are the ongoing matters of formation, style and how best to mask weaknesses. With that in mind, here's what was learned from the past two games.
1. Controlled aggression works best
One intermittent criticism of Sundhage's tenure as manager is that the U.S. has lost the aggression that characterized past teams. Of course, this is an oversimplification. Overall, teams have gotten better around the world, especially on the technical side, which can have the effect of allowing opponents to play their way through that kind of pressure and leave the defense exposed. Yet there are also a few kernels of truth in the observation, and it was borne out over the two games.
Against Japan, the U.S. was often left chasing the game as the hosts hogged possession, and the Americans seemed content to cede space and defend in numbers. It was only when the U.S., especially in midfield, began to apply a bit more pressure that they got a toehold in the game, and Alex Morgan's equalizer was a result of winning the ball back as Japan tried to play out of defense.
The lesson was evident as well against Brazil. The U.S. showed good intensity from the outset, started aggressively and moved in for the kill when it sensed defensive weakness. When done responsibly, such an approach seems to be the way to go in London.
2. No system is perfect
If this tournament is anything to go by, it looks as though Sundhage has junked the 4-2-3-1 she implemented after the World Cup and reverted to the tried-and-true 4-4-2 -- with good reason. With Morgan in electric form, Sundhage has to find a way to get the forward and Lauren Cheney on the field at the same time, and using the 4-4-2 is the best way to do that.
But as so often happens with such a formation shift, while one problem was solved, others have emerged. Japan had plenty of success attacking the flanks. In particular, the hosts exploited Cheney's tendency to stay forward, tuck inside and leave defender Kelley O'Hara isolated. It wasn't a surprise, then, when Japan broke through in the first half through right back Yukari Kinga.
Against Brazil, the tendency of central midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd to push too far forward was revealed again. That Brazil failed to capitalize on several counterattacking opportunities is a luxury the U.S. likely won't have in London if Marta is in the lineup. Boxx did a better job of staying home in the second half, allowing the U.S. to cruise to victory.
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3. The back line remains a work in progress
If there were any lingering doubts that Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler remain the center back tandem of choice, those were put to rest in this tournament. Buehler looks to have more jump in her legs than she did a year ago, and was very consistent over the two games, especially against Japan, when she put out plenty of fires in the defensive third. Rampone struggled somewhat in the first contest but rebounded nicely against Brazil, and her speed remains vital component to the U.S. cause.
As for the outside backs, things are less clear. For this tournament, Sundhage settled on Amy LePeilbet at right back and O'Hara on the left side. The relative placement of the two players seems odd given O'Hara is new to the position while LePeilbet is the better one-on-one defender, making her better suited to cope with Cheney's inevitable forays forward.
While O'Hara did get caught upfield on occasion, her understanding of the left back position has improved. She stayed connected well enough with her back-line teammates to execute two critical clearances against Japan, and got forward to good effect against Brazil.
4. The good and bad of set pieces
The U.S.' strength in terms of its attacking set pieces was on display against Brazil, as the Americans rightly punished some slack defending to the tune of three goals. But defending free kicks and corner kicks remains an issue. As it did in the World Cup final, Japan continued to create havoc in the U.S. box, with the Americans struggling to clear crosses away from its penalty area.
It seems an odd aspect to struggle with given the sizable height advantage the Americans enjoyed against Japan, and they'll need to clean up this part of their game as they prepare for London.
5. Sundhage has some tough roster choices to make
The center back positions look set with Rampone, Buehler and Becky Sauerbrunn at the ready. LePeilbet has plenty of experience there as well and could fill in if needed. Out wide, it would appear that it's a case of Heather Mitts' toughness versus the versatility of Stephanie Cox, who can fill in on either side.
An even bigger battle is emerging in the attacking half of the field, where one out of Tobin Heath, Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux will be left home. Leroux is an out-and-out forward, but her pace and finishing make her presence critical in order to provide cover for Morgan. That leaves Heath and Rodriguez, both of whom are versatile players. Rodriguez no doubt helped her cause with a goal against Brazil, but some time remains for Heath to cement a spot.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.