Lloyd and Chalupny key U.S. midfield

September 10, 2007
(Archive)

Like a trainer sizing up a promising young boxer, Greg Ryan built around a thundering knockout punch when he took over as coach for the United States in 2005.

In Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly, anchors of Ryan's front line throughout his tenure, he has two players who have scored more goals between them in the past decade than the U.S. team allowed during that span, including a 57-18 edge over the past three years.

GettyImages / Liu JinMidfielder Carli Lloyd is being counted on for offensive production.

But in an increasingly competitive world scene, one in which an American side that included Mia Hamm managed only one goal in 180 minutes against Norway and Germany in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 2003 World Cup, Ryan knew from the outset that he needed the jabs and body shots that could weaken and punish opponents who went into a shell or devoted too much energy to avoiding those lethal haymakers.

"We looked at we just weren't scoring enough goals out of the midfield in 2006," Ryan said. "So we said, 'We've got to find some players who can score some goals.'"

It sounded easy enough in theory, but the reality was that between Julie Foudy's retirement and Ryan's preference for playing Lindsay Tarpley up top in a three-forward alignment, the midfield last year lacked many known quantities outside of stellar holding mid Shannon Boxx and distributor Aly Wagner. Midfielders scored only six of the United States' 57 goals in 2006, while Wambach and Lilly scored 30 times and teamed with the other forwards to account for 80 percent of the total tallies.

But by showing the patience to allow one experiment to come to fruition and the flexibility not to cling stubbornly to another, Ryan may have found the key components of a solution with young attack-minded midfielders Carli Lloyd and Lori Chalupny.

Ironically, even as Ryan searched for offense out of his midfield, Lloyd's defense proved as much of an obstacle as anything in her quest to earn a starting spot with the national team. The New Jersey native gained plenty of experience against top international competition playing for youth national teams, but she wasn't always pushed to her limits during a college career at Rutgers in the Big East, a conference that has only one other representative on the World Cup roster in Notre Dame's Boxx.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. North Korea,

Sept. 11
Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, Chengdu, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN2

U.S. vs. Sweden,

Sept. 14
Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, Chengdu, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN

U.S. vs. Nigeria,

Sept. 18
Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai, China
8 a.m. ET, ESPN

"Growing up, I was always a neutral player, so I didn't have that defensive responsibility," Lloyd said. "I wouldn't say I didn't know how to defend, but it just wasn't in my brain to do; I wasn't aware of being that complete player both offensively and defensively. That's one of the things I had to adjust, training my brain and my mind to get better on the defensive end. I feel that I'm pretty strong and can tackle -- it's just a matter of doing it on an everyday basis. I'm thankful that [Ryan] didn't let me just slide by with not defending, because my ultimate goal is to become a complete player."

A gifted offensive player with a hard shot from outside and an instinctual sense of creativity with the ball at her feet, Lloyd managed only one goal in 19 appearances last year, including the first 13 starts of her national team career, as she adjusted to both her newfound defensive responsibilities and a new level of competition. Despite sounding occasionally frustrated with her bouts of inconsistency, Ryan stuck with her as the top choice at center midfielder and was rewarded with a breakout performance at this year's Algarve Cup. Lloyd scored goals in each of the team's four games in Portugal to earn tournament MVP honors as the United States beat China, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.

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"She's really growing, she's really maturing," Ryan said before a recent game against New Zealand on Aug. 12 in which Lloyd scored twice. "She's still a young kid, and there are days where it's not working for her and there are days where she's just brilliant. ... But she is much more comfortable, much more confident, and again, the only thing you can't give these guys is more games and more experience. That's just going to come over time."

Even as Ryan stuck by his gamble on the relatively unproven Lloyd, he was making the decision to shift Chalupny, a star midfielder in college at North Carolina, back to her natural position after a stint at outside back. Chalupny was a more than capable defender and remains an option there if injuries strike, but she is a different player in midfield.

"I grew up with the mind-set of going forward and kind of taking more chances," Chalupny said. "So the shift back to defense was harder for me, in terms of not being able to take chances back there and having to just clear it out when there is any danger. So getting back to the midfield, I'm just able to play a little more freely and take a little more risk."

Paired together, Lloyd and Chalupny provide a second line of attack behind the forwards, constantly pressing forward and threatening to put the ball in the net from long range if defenders drop back into the 18-yard box and give them too much room to shoot.

"Shooting from outside is one of the big things we're working on, for teams who kind of back into the box," Lloyd said. "[Ryan] really wants the midfielders to be able to shoot from outside the box and keep it on frame."

Ryan, who works directly with the midfielders when the team breaks into groups during practice, has pointed out that playing Lloyd and Chalupny together does stretch his defense to occasionally dangerous degrees as they push forward, but even the former defender whose defense has allowed 18 goals in 45 games seems tantalized enough by their chemistry to likely start them together in China.

"Chalup is awesome," Lloyd said. "She's a workhorse out there and you can put her in any position and she can play it. It's great having her back in [midfield], because I think we complement each other pretty well. She's great at attack, she's great at defending, and I think we just complement each other well. If she goes up, I kind of drop in and there's just that balance there. She brings great work rate on the field, she works hard, defends hard, sprays balls and even scores a few."

Lloyd and Chalupny are the only players other than forwards Wambach, Lilly, Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly to score multiple goals for the United States this year. And while the United States still relies to a large degree on the heavyweight thunder provided by Wambach and Lilly, sometimes it's the punch you don't see coming that floors you.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.