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Pure Brawn and Horsepower
As Soccer Gets More Technical, the U.S. Women Still Thrive on Physical Play
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, Wall Street Journal
For three and a half years, Pia Sundhage, the head coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team, has pushed her players to embrace soccer’s new Platonic ideal — the patient, possession-focused ballet of precision passing that’s been perfected by the Spanish men’s team and its unofficial sister club, F.C. Barcelona.
The U.S. women have given this an honest shot. They’ll knock the ball around the midfield a fair bit and switch it from one side of the field to the other to change the point of attack. They sometimes succeed in stringing together three or four consecutive passes.
But when crunch time arrives, the Americans have won in Germany this year for the same reason they’ve always won: when they slam down the gas pedal, nobody can stop them.
From top to bottom, the U.S. roster is bigger, faster, fitter and stronger than any other in the world—and it’s this advantage that has landed them in Sunday’s final against Japan (Sunday, ESPN, 2 p.m. ET).
In Wednesday’s semifinal against France, all three U.S. goals followed a display of pure brawn and horsepower. The first came when speedy midfielder Heather O’Reilly beat a defender by flooring it on a run to the left corner, then sent a cross in front of the goal to another charging thoroughbred, Lauren Cheney, who checks in at 5-foot-9. The second goal came off the airborne forehead of the 5-foot-11, 160-pound striker Abby Wambach. The third arrived when Alex Morgan blew the doors off the entire French defense to reach a ball that Megan Rapinoe had deposited behind them.
“The Americans are in far better physical shape than us,” said French Coach Bruno Bini, who called the Americans the best conditioned team in the world.
Against Japan, the U.S. will have a decided physical advantage. They also have the edge in experience: Before this tournament, the Japanese women had just three wins in 16 World Cup matches since 1991.
But the final will also serve as something of a referendum on whether the technical, possession-oriented soccer that has swept the globe in recent years can conquer women’s soccer. Of all the teams in this tournament, Japan has most enthusiastically embraced the Spanish style.
The Japanese have won the possession battle in each of their five games in the tournament, even against teams known for their technical superiority, such as Sweden and Germany, and even in the team’s 2-0 loss to England. Japan’s creative but diminutive midfielder, Homare Sawa, is tied for the tournament lead with four goals scored.
Just how exasperatingly patient can the Japanese attack be? Against Germany, Japan held the ball for 54% of the match, but was outshot 23-9. And just two of those nine shots were on target. What this means is that the Japanese basically hung onto the ball while barely trying to do anything with it. “They literally made Germany chase the ball the entire game,” Julie Foudy, the former U.S. star, said of the Japanese. “They’re so technical they make the Brazilians look totally not technical.”
“You just know going in you’re not going to out-possess them,” U.S. captain Christie Rampone said of the Japanese Thursday.
After seeing the U.S. team take a 4-0 drubbing from Brazil at the 2007 World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation made Sundhage, a Swede, the team’s first European head coach. The goal was to finally teach the greatest collection of female athletes on grass how to master the finer points of the beautiful game. “Everyone always talks about increasing the tempo,” Sundhage said Thursday. “We needed to decrease the tempo and control the rhythm.”
Wednesday’s win over France was bittersweet for Sundhage. Her team was outclassed by a French side that played the way she’d like her players to play, holding the ball for 55% of the game and creating scoring chances from every direction. The Americans haven’t won the possession battle in any game here since the group stage.
Of course, when it comes time for other teams to figure out how to beat the U.S., any talk about the importance of displaying superior foot skills and connecting on a lot of short passes might seem a bit silly. The U.S. doesn’t look, or play, like a team that one can beat by tinkering in the margins. “They have so many huge players who are very good,” said Kleiton Lima, the Brazilian head coach.
The winning formula for the U.S. doesn’t look all that different from the one it used to win the first Women’s World Cup. Then-coach Anson Dorrance trained his players to run the equivalent of a full-court press for 90 minutes and attack the goal with little regard for the game’s technical traditions. “The other teams thought we were crazy,” Dorrance said.
As Tony DiCicco, the head coach of the 1999 U.S. women’s team that won the World Cup puts it, “We just have to accept that this is the way they play.”
The U19 National ODP Team, head-coached by Phil Nielsen the Team Chicago Elite Academy Director, concluded its Germany Tour with a very impressive performance in a 4-0 win over FC Lubars in Berlin. FC Lubars narrowly lost out on promotion to the First Division last season, so it was a formidable opponent for the young Americans.
But after a nervy first 15-20 minutes the U19s found their feet, and really started to play good patient, possession-oriented soccer that forced the FC Lubars players to spend most of the game chasing the ball. Avoiding the common American problem of getting impatient and wanting to play at a 100 miles an hour, the U19 showed great poise and maturity, and scored 4 great goals in the process. Especially the final goal was a thing of beauty, as the U19 defenders and holding midfielder kept the ball for 15 consecutive passes (in the process frustrating their own forwards who were begging for the ball :-) before a center-back found the left back on a weak-side run in behind the German defense with a perfectly weighted 40-yard pass.
Overall the game was a perfect end to the trip, as it showed that the players had embraced the theme and focus of the event. And it proved that American players CAN play patient possession-oriented soccer regardless of what is on display at most college, H.S., and club games all over the country. The German hosts and the referees were extremely impressed by the quality of the American play.
The U19s will conclude the event with a trip to the USA-Sweden game tonight at Wolfsburg and a pre-game BBQ with the friends and families of the U.S. players.