Wagner waiting in the wings
PHILADELPHIA -- When April Heinrichs posted the starting lineup the night before the U.S. played Sweden, Aly Wagner wasn't surprised that her name was not on there.
"We pretty much knew the way we were going to approach the game against Sweden beforehand," says the 23-year-old midfielder. "I was mentally prepared for that. I've been mentally prepared for that all four years I've been with the team."
Not seeing Wagner out there as a starter is still a rarity, though, as she came into the World Cup with a team-high 15 appearances in 2003, which includes 11 starts, and has been considered one of the main stalwarts for the U.S. over the past two years.
Known for her creative playmaking ability from the attacking-midfielder position, Wagner led the team last year with 11 assists, and currently leads the side with seven this year.
The emergence of two-way standout Shannon Boxx has allowed Heinrichs to go with a highly-offensive 4-3-3 formation instead of the 4-4-2 system that had been in place the past few years.
With three midfielders, Wagner is the odd player out. When they go with four in a diamond-configured setup, she plays at the top behind the two strikers, just as she did on Sunday when she entered the match for striker Cindy Parlow in the 70th minute.
Wagner said that she used her time on the bench to study what was going on so that she could make an impact if and when she entered the match.
"Being a substitute is always a tricky thing," says last season's Hermann Trophy winner as the top collegiate player in the country for Santa Clara. "You don't have the opportunity to be in the flow of the game, so that's a drawback. At the same time, you can sit back and really observe the game. You can get a pulse of where the openings are and where the seams are to exploit."
Against Sweden, she saw an end-to-end battle that needed a calming presence.
"I noticed that we needed possession," she says, "and to play balls to feet to get a rhythm going, as opposed to being in all the 50-50 battles."
If she starts against Nigeria on Thursday night, which could happen considering that the Super Falcons will likely bunker on defense and the U.S. will need someone with vision directing the attack, she'll look to do much of the same -- calm the game down, hold the ball, and patiently look for opportunities to spring her strikers.
"If Nigeria does sit back against us," says Wagner, "we're going to have to keep the ball and not force things. We're really going to have to pick the right times to go at them."
In the meantime, she's doesn't seem to be worrying about whether she'll start, come off the bench, or not play entirely. Whether she's dancing on the field at practice or joking with her teammates during several sessions with the media, Wagner seems like her usual self, and far from anything that resembles a "woe is me" persona. Part of that comes from how open Heinrichs has been with her squad.
"April's great about making sure that all 20 players know their role," she says. "It's not just lip service. You feel it, and it's genuine. She's made comments to the whole team, and to me specifically, saying, 'We're going to need you, regardless (of starting)'
"We're all competitive on this team. You want to start. You want to play all ninety minutes. But, with this team, there's such great chemistry, and it's an environment that makes it okay to be a sub. You give what you can and do what anyone asks of you. For me, it's been a good experience, and I'm trying to embrace and step up."
Centered on Sobrero
Since Brandi Chastain will definitely be out of the lineup against both Nigeria and North Korea (Sunday afternoon), and possibly in the quarterfinals next Wednesday, because of a broken bone in her right foot, Heinrichs has several options in the back. Cat Reddick, who came on for Chastain at halftime against Sweden, is likely to get the start, but it could be either as a centerback with Joy Fawcett or on the outside.
Kate Sobrero stood out for the U.S. during the '99 World Cup when she paired with then-captain Carla Overbeck in the central defense, and had been playing there next to Fawcett up until a year ago when Heinrichs moved Chastain to the middle. This makes her a possibility to play one of two positions on Thursday night. If she moves back to the middle, that's fine with her.
"I'm definitely more comfortable in the middle because I played there with my club team (Boston Breakers)," says Sobrero. "Being on the outside I have a lot more freedom, so that's fun. I like both positions a lot and I'm pretty comfortable in both spots. They're seven of us, including Brandi, who can play anywhere in the back."
If Sobrero does move to middle, the extra vocal leadership she'll need to organize the defense, and perhaps aid a much younger player like Reddick, is something that's never a problem for her.
"Anytime that there needs to be communication in the back, all of us are stepping up and saying something -- Brandi just is the loudest at it," joked the 27-year-old defender. "There's always plenty of talk going on. Anytime you play as one of the two centerbacks, you have to be talking, so whoever ends up there knows that it's their responsibility, and they'll know it, and do it, no matter what."
No one on the 20-player U.S. roster hails from the Keystone State, but Thursday's match will be sort of homecoming for Christie Pearce, who grew up in Point Pleasant, N.J., and played college soccer and basketball at Monmouth. As was the case in '99 when the U.S. played Denmark in the opening game at Giants Stadium, Pearce will have quite a cheering section in the stands.
"I have a lot of friends and family coming," said the 28-year-old outside back. "I purchased 35 tickets already for friends from home, and a lot of others are trying to get tickets now as we speak."
Pearce said that many missed watching her play in person the first time around, so they're not missing this opportunity.
"There's a lot more coming than in '99, actually," she said. "Because of the team's success and what we did in '99, more people want to come out and be a part of it and see me play."
Sam I am
Nigeria's coach, Sam Okpodu, was candid when asked about what concerns him most about the U.S. team.
The former Nigerian National Team and North Carolina State standout is a story in his own right, having spent over a decade in the U.S. coaching at his alma mater as well as Virginia Tech before going home to take over the women's team last year. He viewed it as a fantastic opportunity to do something for his own country, and to change the style of Nigeria's game.
"The tactical game is what I'm trying to get into the national system," said Okpodu, noting that the U.S. thrives on tactics within both the men's and women's games.
To help demonstrate his points, the diminutive coach often jumps into the team's games and shows off the skills that made him one of the best players to ever play in the ACC while he was with the Wolfpack in the '80s.
"Sam is a good player," said striker Mercy Akide. "He still plays with us in practice, and he kills us."
Though his squad started off the World Cup in a disappointing way with a 3-0 loss to North Korea and is in danger of being eliminated from further rounds with a loss against the U.S., the affable 41-year-old coach couldn't be happier with his team.
"It beats coaching anywhere," he said. "I couldn't pass this up. Those ladies play great football and I wanted to be a part of it. This is a fantastic opportunity and I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.