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Global Jun 09, 2015

Dure: USWNT beat Australia with fitness, and why not?

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The U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup-opening win against Australia is best represented by this clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Australia, in that scenario, is the swordsman. The team has plenty of technical skill and tactical acumen. The USA, as Indiana Jones, watched for a few seconds and fired back with something less dazzling but brutally effective.

And the view from Australia is a sarcastic slow clap:

The US certainly like to talk a good game. The reality is they play a fairly rudimentary, bog-standard 4-4-2, were short of ideas going forward and outmanoeuvred tactically. ‘Play it long and look for the head of Wambach’ seems the default game-plan for a team stuck in the past.

World football has moved, in case Jill Ellis hasn’t noticed. US were outplayed by a better, smarter footballing side – who were also without two certain starters in (Clare) Polkinghorne and keeper (Lydia) Williams – before the Aussies ran out of gas.

All true. But so what?

We know what this U.S. team is. Jill Ellis wouldn’t have been able to change it in two years, and it’s not changing now. Asking a team with Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux up front to turn into France or Japan is like going to a Van Halen concert and asking David Lee Roth to sing the Sammy Hagar-era songs. It’s not happening, and frankly, you wouldn’t want to see or hear the results, anyway.

wambachThe Fox commentary team wasn’t any kinder than the Australian site. Cat Whitehill griped about the USA forcing the ball into the box and not marking very well. Tony DiCicco’s voice dripped with frustration when he said the USA passed up a good opportunity “because Abby’s in the game.”

Whitehill and DiCicco fretted when Wambach missed a scoring chance, with DiCicco raising the issue that Wambach had skipped the first part of the NWSL season and may be rusty.

After 30 minutes, DiCicco presaged the Aussie criticism: “Let’s not pull any punches here. The U.S. is being outplayed. Their one half-chance went for a goal.”

We’ll have to hope Hope Solo’s sources weren’t listening.

The longer Solo focuses on soccer, the better. Maybe Ashlyn Harris could have made those saves as well, but when the USA is being played off the field as it was in the first half, you can’t argue with Solo and her impeccable play.

And yes, the USA was in trouble in the first half. Lauren Holiday continues to be miscast as a defensive midfielder. Christen Press, for all her Swedish sophistication, kept forcing the ball into the box for no one. Wambach and Leroux were not dangerous, and as DiCicco pointed out, they hardly ever passed to each other.

meganrapinoeOne player stood out. In the seventh minute, Megan Rapinoe took her first meaningful touch on the ball. She took on a defender, bought time and played a good ball to the overlapping Meghan Klingenberg. A few minutes later, she found space amid several defenders. The deflection for the goal was lucky, but the skill to set up the shot was legit. Even the Aussie site had to praise her “individual brilliance.”

So with good fortune, good saves and Rapinoe’s class, the USA managed to get into the locker room tied 1-1. After that, it was fitness.

Even as the oldest team around, the USA can run. The outside backs will make overlapping runs that press the midfield and defense, and the whole back line has recovery speed. Carli Lloyd, she of the Olympic-winning goals, will be a pest in midfield. The USA will wear you down and win. In the beep test we trust.

And it was a mix of Rapinoe and Press skill with Leroux’s running that set up the second goal. Rapinoe chipped the ball into Leroux’s path, and the big, fast forward raced around her defender to set up Press. The rest of the way, Australia was chasing waves of powerful Americans pushing down the flanks with the subtlety of Michael Bolton in full screech. One more moment of Rapinoe class sealed it for a 3-1 win.

We can find plenty of things not to like about this U.S. team. The goalkeeper keeps getting in trouble and manipulating the media to give her excuses a broad audience. Those “GREATNESS HAS BEEN FOUND” shirts in 2012 were tackier than wearing stripes with plaid and putting all your meals on Instagram. Wambach has taken gamesmanship to new lows.

Boston Breakers Heather O'ReillyEllis could make a few changes. Maybe she could start an actual winger like Tobin Heath or Heather O’Reilly to take advantage of space on the flanks, then move Press to forward (Whitehill and DiCicco liked that idea). Wambach surely will go to a supersub role when Alex Morgan is fit to start.

But the overall approach isn’t going to change. They’ll wear people down. They’ll make unsophisticated but surging runs.

And they have just enough world-class ability to be contenders, if not favorites. Morgan has it. Then for all the talk of the USA beating a weakened French side in the Algarve Cup, look back and consider who was missing when the USA lost to France earlier in the year: Rapinoe and Solo, the USA’s best players against Australia.

The rest of the world has indeed evolved. France, Germany, Japan and Sweden will bring a more sophisticated game than the USA possesses. Nigeria, another U.S. opponent in the Group of Death, has a dizzying attack. (Let’s not speak about their defense and goalkeeping.)

But “evolved” isn’t “better.” This team knows what it’s doing. And while we may hope the next generations of U.S. women’s soccer are ready to match skills and savvy with the rest of the contenders, in this year’s World Cup, the world is still chasing these fast, fit, feisty Americans.