Brazil overwhelms U.S. with its talent

September 27, 2007
By Graham Hays
(Archive)

HANGZHOU, China -- For all the drama and controversy over personnel moves coming out of the United States camp in the hours leading up to Thursday's semifinal, the moves Brazil made with the ball at its feet ultimately ushered the Americans out of the World Cup.

And unlike four years ago, when a 3-0 semifinal loss against Germany was in doubt until two stoppage-time goals from the eventual champions, there was no positive spin to put on either the team's performance or the state of a once-dominant American women's soccer program.

GettyImages / Feng LiBrazil routed the U.S. in a stunning display.

A team with little financial support, or any other kind of support, from its own soccer federation -- Brazil's women's national team didn't even play a game for two years after the last Olympics -- beat the best-funded, best-trained and most successful team in the history of the women's game for one simple reason.

It was more talented.

The Brazilians imposed their will from the outset in the 4-0 win that earned them a spot in Sunday's final, setting a physical tone early that punished American bodies and cost them a player to a red card before unleashing an offensive attack that broke their spirit.

Centered by Daniela at the top of the lineup, strikers Marta and Cristiane electrified the pro-Brazilian crowd of 47,818 and tormented the United States on the flanks. Even taking into account the fact that the United States played down a player after Shannon Boxx's second yellow card in first-half stoppage time, Brazil created more scoring opportunities and displayed more creativity in one game than Greg Ryan's team did all month.

"They have really amazing individual soccer players on that team," Abby Wambach said. "And today they played like a team; I've never seen them play so well. They brought all of their heart and all of their soccer to the table."

Not that the United States didn't contribute to its own demise.

Ryan's controversial decision to start Briana Scurry in goal in place of Hope Solo, who hadn't allowed a goal in the team's previous three games, paid no dividends. Scurry looked like a player who hadn't played a full 90 minutes since June.

She didn't call off Leslie Osborne when she had a clear path to the ball Osborne headed into her own goal for Brazil's first score off a corner in the 20th minute, and she couldn't react quickly enough to push clear Marta's near-post blast for the second score seven minutes later. And while Osborne deserved the blame on the first and Marta the credit on the second, part of Ryan's rationale for playing Scurry was the veteran's quick reaction time in the high-pressure situations Brazil's ground attack creates.

"I think if I had maybe come off my line a little bit more, obviously when I got the touch it would have gone around the post," Scurry said of the second goal. "But it's tough to say with Marta, because she's so skilled -- if I hug the near post too much, she goes far post. If I hug the far post too much, she goes near. It was an incredibly skilled player and she put it, unfortunately, just out of my reach."

Ryan stuck by his decision after the game, and in truth, even if Scurry stood on her head (as she did in leading her team to a win against a Brazilian side that outplayed the Americans in the 2004 Olympic final), it wouldn't have mattered.

Ryan spent three years building a team equipped to face the best teams in the world, but somewhere along the way, all that work left his team without an identity of its own.

The Americans played hard and they played their roles, but they didn't play a lot of soccer.

For most of their stay in China, the Americans appeared more intent on countering an opponent's strengths than playing to their own. Instead of relying on a talented defense to cover as the team looked to exploit Wambach's unparalleled combination of size and agility or free Kristine Lilly wide, they allowed themselves to get backed into the defensive zone like a boxer absorbing body shot after body shot on the ropes in hopes of avoiding a knockout punch.

So it was that, already down two goals in the second half, Ryan substituted defender Tina Ellertson for forward Heather O'Reilly.

"We brought Tina on to defend Marta, and I thought she did a very good job," Ryan said. "And we tried to push Christie Rampone up the field, because Christie is very good at not only defending but attacking going the other way."

Instead of adding an offensive threat like Natasha Kai or Aly Wagner to try to force Brazil to play in its own end, Ryan made a defensive move to bandage a wound already inflicted.

In some ways, it was a fitting gesture for a national program at an uncertain crossroads.

With the game long since decided, Marta broke in on goal in the 79th minute and, with her back to goal, flipped the ball up in the air with the back of her foot. As the crowd started its collective inhale, she spun around Ellertson, corralled the ball, deked Cat Whitehill out of the way and fired home her second goal to push the score to 4-0.

Teams have beaten the United States for years, including twice in World Cups and once in the Olympics, but they've done it by overcoming an opponent with better talent.

Brazil simply did it by putting on a show.

Player ratings (scale of 1-10)

Briana Scurry, 3 -- She can't be blamed for Osborne's own goal or Marta's great shot, but she also didn't come up with any of the reaction saves that Ryan used as his rationale for starting her.

Abby Wambach, 3 -- The Brazilians went at her body as usual, but Wambach couldn't make them pay for it. Without anyone to get her the ball, she faded out of the picture for long stretches.

Kristine Lilly, 4 -- Contrasted against the Brazilians, it was clear she's a player who needs the ball played deep and wide to her to be most effective.

Heather O'Reilly, 3 -- Never seemed in sync with Wambach and Lilly throughout the tournament, although she did provide support tracking back against the initial Brazilian wave.

Leslie Osborne, 3 -- One egregious mistake shouldn't erase a breakout tournament in the big picture, but the own goal set the tone for a day that went completely wrong.

Lori Chalupny, 3 -- The best hope of setting some pace in the midfield, she never seemed to find her footing in the knockout phase after strong performances in group play. Stretched too thin playing both ends.

Shannon Boxx, 2 -- The second yellow looked like a questionable decision by the referee, but she put herself in bad spots by trying to match Brazil's overly aggressive play.

Christie Rampone, 4 -- Struggled to stay with Brazil's speed, but she was able to push forward a few times early in the only real success the U.S. had at putting Brazil on the defensive.

Kate Markgraf, 4 -- She may have been the most effective defender before spraining her ankle late in the second half.

Cat Whitehill, 3 -- Had a couple of good free kicks early when the teams were trading fouls but didn't get many chances after the U.S. went a player down.

Stephanie Lopez, 2 -- Set up the second goal when she allowed Marta to turn her on the flank. She struggled to stay with both Marta and Cristiane all through the first half.

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