Shawhan: USWNT are still playing UNC-style soccer – why not play like UVa or UCLA?
After the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated China 1-0 on Friday to reach their seventh straight Women’s World Cup semifinal, the general reaction from U.S. soccer fans (and journalists) was not only relieved but impressed.
For the first time in this World Cup, the U.S. imposed themselves on the opposition and controlled the match from the kickoff. The WNT displayed an energy and an ability to exert pressure that we had not seen before in this tournament.
Whether this was a result of Abby Wambach being left on the bench in favor of players hungry to make an impact, coach Jill Ellis breaking out a Fergusonian hair dryer, the team (finally) blossoming rather than wilting under pressure, or simply all of the above is hard to say. But it is certainly the case that this was the WNT’s best match of the tournament.
Permit me, though, to register a small note of dissent from the overall optimism.
Against China, the U.S. pressed high, swarmed the ball, and attacked quickly at every opportunity. It was as if the WNT could only play in one gear—forward! Energetic and aggressive, yes. Controlled and patient, no. To use a college soccer metaphor, you might call it the North Carolina style par excellence.
But UNC is the past, not the future, of women’s soccer.
For all the USWNT’s domination of much of the match, they struggled to create clear-cut chances after Amy Rodriguez’s miss in the first minute.
That may have been because they took every opportunity to attack, not just the good ones. And it was rare that you saw a U.S. player in possession actually hold the ball and attempt to drag the defense out of position—it was all attacks in transition.
Carli Lloyd’s goal, of course, was scored on that old standby, heading in a long, straight ball from the back. That’s classic UNC. But relying entirely on converting opportunities in transition only works if one can consistently press the opposition into coughing up the ball and opening up opportunities in transition to begin with.
As legendary coach Anson Dorrance‘s UNC has found of late against teams like UCLA and Virginia, that strategy is much less effective against teams that are very comfortable on the ball, can pass quickly and accurately under pressure, and rarely give up direct opportunities in transition. Teams like, say, Germany and Japan. (Or, for that matter, France.)
The irony here, of course, is that Ellis spent more than a decade at the helm of UCLA’s program, years in which the Bruins were perennial NCAA College Cup contenders, but never winners.
To be sure, Germany also struggled to make headway against French pressure in their quarterfinal. But Germany had problems not merely because France pressed their backline, but also because superb passing and movement on and off the ball, coupled with Amandine Henry’s ability to break up play, enabled France to control midfield, too.
That is, shall we say, not a strength of the USWNT right now. (Morgan Brian, her tactical IQ and ability on the ball notwithstanding, is not in Henry’s class when asked to play as a defensive midfielder.)
Add in as well an ability to always pass and receive the ball precisely even under heavy pressure that several members of the current USWNT simply cannot match, and it’s not a pretty picture. If the U.S. were stalemated by Sweden, Germany dismantled Sweden, and Germany was thoroughly outplayed by France, then…well, perhaps it’s best not to extrapolate.
This is not to say that the U.S. will necessarily lose to Germany in the semifinal. Germany did, after all, have to go a draining 120 minutes plus penalties in their epic quarterfinal against France. And the U.S. are undoubtedly fired up after their best performance in quite some time.
So who knows? Maybe with smart lineup choices — i.e., not starting Wambach — a bit of spirit, and a lot of luck, the U.S. will make it to the final. But I wouldn’t count on it. And even if they do, we should not lose sight of the fact that such success would merely paper over the cracks in the USWNT foundation.