Lineup changes by Ryan pay off for the U.S.

September 14, 2007
(Archive)

CHENGDU, China -- On the eve of his team's opening game in the World Cup, Greg Ryan tried to say his job was already at an end. After two years of preparation, he explained, the start of the tournament meant turning the reins over to the players on the field.

GettyImages / Liu JinThe explosive Swedish offense was shut out by the U.S.

If Friday's 2-0 win against Sweden is any indication, it might be the most disingenuous thing the United States coach says all month.

What happens on the field during the tournament might be the exclusive domain of the players, but it's up to Ryan to determine who those players are. And few coaches in the field have as many options, or the willingness to use them, as Ryan has with a roster that he has long contended has at least 14 or 15 starters.

The goals came from the usual suspect against Sweden. Abby Wambach drilled a penalty kick into the lower left to convert a somewhat dubious foul earned by Lori Chalupny in the 34th minute and then gathered in a perfect pass from Kristine Lilly in the 58th minute before drilling another shot past Hedvig Lindahl for the final margin.

"Big players win championships, and you saw what Abby did tonight," Ryan said.

But Wambach's production was also more than enough to keep the Americans in the running for a first-place finish in Group B because of a standout defensive effort behind her that had a lot to do with the lineup the coach turned in before the game.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Nigeria

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

After watching his midfield struggle to contain North Korea's pressure in the opening game, Ryan didn't hesitate to insert defensive midfielder Leslie Osborne in the starting lineup. A breakthrough star last year when Shannon Boxx was out with a knee injury, Osborne has been a favorite of Ryan's against some of the world's most dangerous individual talents, including Norway's Solveig Gulbrandsen and England's Kelly Smith. After watching Victoria Svensson dominate Nigeria in Sweden's opener, he again turned to his stopper.

"I had a huge responsibility today to mark their best player," Osborne admitted. "It gives me confidence that he has the confidence in me to take their best player. And no matter what my role is, it's to help us win the game. So I think I was ready for it. I feel like I've marked a lot of great players and I was ready for it."

Not only did Osborne render Svensson invisible for long stretches of the game, she set an early tone that helped the United States survive an opening barrage from Sweden that led to four corners in the first 10 minutes. With Osborne dominating balls in the air and gathering balls long enough in midfield to start a counterattack, the United States gradually built up an offensive flow that hit its stride when Chalupny raced in behind the keeper to draw the penalty.

And with the United States up by a goal in the second half, Ryan similarly didn't hesitate to sub Boxx, the player Osborne replaced in the starting lineup, for Carli Lloyd.

"Shannon settles us; she's got great composure," Ryan said. "She's also great in the air. Carli Lloyd is a player you want on the field when you've got to get a goal. Shannon's a great player when you've got a lead and you want to keep the ball. Shannon's a great player even if you don't have a lead, but tonight we wanted to rest her legs a little bit and get Leslie Osborne a chance to step in against Svenssson and try and keep her quiet."

The result was a nearly impenetrable zone in the middle of the field that kept Sweden from generating many chances until a final, everyone-forward surge in the closing minutes. Pairing the two together eased some of the pressure on a back line that had been under fire for the bulk of the team's first game and a half.

"We've always known that we had the two of us back there, if we were ever up a goal or whatever -- if we needed the presence of two defensive center mids," Boxx explained. "I just think it was awesome; me and Les just work so well together, it made it very easy for us to defend. We didn't have to do as much running as if there was just one of us. We just have the same kind of mentality. We're both hard, good in the air and we were very organized back there."

By taking chances like sitting red-hot Heather O'Reilly until the second half and starting World Cup rookie Osborne, Ryan took chances. But that's what coaches do to have an impact on a game, despite what he might have us believe.

Player Ratings (scale of 1-10):

Hope Solo, G, 8 -- Solo's performance ought to quiet the critics chirping about her after the opener, although ironically, her availability for Nigeria might be in question due to an arm injury. She came up big early when Sweden kept earning corners.

Abby Wambach, F, 9 -- Despite admitting after the game that her second goal came less as a result of perfect placement than of letting it rip and hoping for the best, Friday was absolutely Wambach at her best. Probably should have had an assist after a series of great one-on-moves freed her for a cross to a wide open Carli Lloyd.

Kristine Lilly, F, 7 -- Looked a little frustrated by the team's inability to string together passes early in the first half, but she helped settle things down and created a number of good chances, even before her brilliant pass that found Abby's chest between two defenders on the second goal.

Lindsay Tarpley, F, 6 -- She wasn't much of an offensive presence in the first half, but showed her skills as a great two-way player, tracking back to make several strong plays on defense. She started to put some pressure of her own on Sweden in the second half before coming out.

Leslie Osborne, M, 9 -- She set a tone right from the start, playing controlled, physical defense and dominating in the air. Her clean tackle on Svensson at the corner of the 18-yard box, with nothing else between the Swedish star and Solo, might have been the defensive play of the night.

Lori Chalupny, M, 7 -- It was another high-energy game from Chalupny. She let a few passes get away from her in the first half to stall possessions, but it was her speed and motor that put the referee in a position to have to make a call in the box on the penalty.

Carli Lloyd, M, 5 -- All things considered, a mildly disappointing night for Lloyd, although she did appear more aggressive than in the game against North Korea. She needed to do better with the open volley she got off Wambach's pass in the second half.

Cat Whitehill, D, 9 -- Kept any number of dangerous Swedish forays from developing into something worse and did a nice job getting outside when necessary as Ryan adjusted to Sweden's formation in the second half. She was also sharper on set pieces, nearly scoring on a free kick from about 45 yards at one point.

Kate Markgraf, D, 8 -- A very steady effort from the veteran. She made some big plays in the second half, when a goal from Sweden would have changed the entire complexion of the game.

Christie Rampone, D, 8 -- Rampone has been the team's most consistent player for the first two games. With a little more room to breathe than against North Korea, she was more aggressive in her overlapping runs and nearly created some good scoring chances.

Stephanie Lopez, D, 6 -- Had a few hiccups, especially early, that put the defense in some bad situations, but she seemed to settle in and pick up steam once Boxx's arrival gave her more freedom to roam on the flank.

Subs

Shannon Boxx, M, 7 -- She was back in top form, coming in and stabilizing the defense in the face of Sweden's attempts to rally in the second half. She was very effective at countering the long balls played into the box, taking pressure of Solo and the back line.

Heather O'Reilly, F, 6 -- She was an offensive sub at a time when the United States was beginning to hunker down on defense, so she didn't get a ton of exposure. But even in limited minutes, she made a number of outstanding runs behind the defense to keep Sweden honest.

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