Monday, August 21, 2006
Still room for improvement
It's hard to explain how a 4-1 win can be at all disappointing, but the U.S. team is still searching for its top gear out in Russia, though it has advanced safely out of group play with the result against Argentina.
It's an indicator of the team's talent, however, that they can earn three yellows as a result of failing to follow soccer procedure, commit a goalkeeping gaffe that leads directly to a goal by the opposition, lose a player to an accumulated red card, and still emerge with such a handy victory.
The Americans were looking to rebound after a squeaking out a 2-1 win versus the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was far too close of an opening contest for a team considered one of the title hopefuls. Not surprisingly, the U.S. squad didn't earn a day off of practice from coach Tim Schulz after that performance.
"He was disappointed," explained forward Kelley O'Hara, who notched the first goal against Congo, but will not be available for the final match of group play due to earning a suspension from two yellows versus Argentina. "It was definitely not our best performance. He knows that we have way more in us. He said we were going to train the next day because we had some things to work on."
"Mostly it was attacking and finishing drills," explained midfielder Amanda Poach of the refresher course. "We've had games where we are really sharp. We need to recapture that. We are young and we are not always as consistent as we need to be."
It wasn't just the extra practice that precipitate an improved, though still slightly fickle U.S. team effort against Argentina. Schulz ran out a number of different players from the opener who were eager to prove themselves.
"My mentality was to go out there and make a difference," said Jessica Rostedt. "Watching from the bench the first game was frustrating and you just want to go out there and create or score goals. I wanted to be an attacking threat and work with the other forwards to get some goals."
Mission accomplished, as the speedy tandem of Rostedt and Danesha Adams notched the team's first two goals.
"We work really well in little combos together, flicking the balls and reading each other well," noted Rostedt. "We both know we can run past people, so we try to pass balls to each other in dangerous positions."
The team has also adjusted to the atmosphere at games. That is, they are now used to having practically none. Three hundred people were present for the first game the Americans played in Russia. For the match against Argentina, two hundred showed.
"It would be nice to have big crowds," admitted Poach. "It would be great to play in front of bigger crowds, but I guess we will have to get our work done in the first round to get to the later rounds."
Though the team is now safely through to the quarterfinal round, the U.S. has to raise the level of its play to hope of advancing beyond that. Simple mistakes, like Kelsey Davis dropping a cross to gift Argentina their lone goal, could finish a team off in the knockout stage. The fact that the U.S. suffered yellow cards on Allie Long and Kelley O'Hara when the substitutes failed to check in with the referee after they came in at halftime was amateurish, as was Sarah Wagenfuhr's yellow for taking a free kick too early.
Nikki Krzysik, who served as captain in the Argentina match, knew the consequences of the cards would linger.
"It's harder for us now because those players know mentally that they have to be careful so as not to get another yellow and miss the quarters. We have been in situations like this before and dealt with them, so we'll just have to do that against France."
Positives for the U.S. included a balanced scoring effort. Rostedt, Danesha Adams and Allie Long all scored quality goals. Casey Nogueira became the youngest U.S. player to score in the tournament when she settled a pass from Erin Hardy in stoppage time and dribbled past goalkeeper Elisabeth Minnig for the final strike.
"When we are on, we can play great ball possession soccer," explained Poach. "We can be as good as Brazil or China, but we didn't show that in the first half against Congo. We were better in the second half and that possession led to a bunch of chances, but we didn't put them away."
Argentina presented a more technical challenge to the U.S., rather than the physical test Congo. If anything, the U.S. players were the hard-hitting combatants on the field this time, earning twenty fouls.
"We have some physical players," acknowledged Poach. "Carrie Dew is hard into the tackle and Brittany Bock just wrecks girls sometimes, but we all have to bring that hardness to the game if we want to be the best. We all have to want to win 50/50 balls in the air and on the ground because we know our opponents are going to go in hard all the time."
Since France defeated Congo by the same one goal margin as the U.S., the two teams will meet in the final match of group play with the top spot at stake. Though it is something of an upset to have the French top the group ahead of the U.S., the result is well earned given that France defeated Argentina by five goals.
Poach denied that the U.S. was specifically looking to better that five-goal tally in their own match with the Argentines.
"We're not focused on France's result. We can't spend time and energy worrying about the other teams. We have to take care of our own business."
Against the French, the U.S. will have the opportunity to sharpen their attack and tighten up defensively.
"France will be a good test for us because they play a possession-oriented style, which we will see in the quarters," explained Krzysik, "We want to win the game so we come on top of our group, but most importantly, we want to put together a complete game so we can have that under our belts heading into the knockout rounds."
There's good reason for the U.S. to be wary. Though the defending champions, Germany, lost their opening match to North Korea, both teams present a formidable challenge.
"[The Germany defeat] was surprising, but we know the North Koreans have done really well in Asia recently and they are very hard, physical team," noted Poach. "We've seen them in the hotel and they have some big girls, but Germany is so good that they will probably rebound and make it through to the quarterfinals."
Poach's opinion was prophetic, as Germany clobbered Mexico 9-1 and North Korea triumphed over the Swiss, 4-0, making them the favorites to advance and face the U.S. The Americans will take on either the winner or the runnerup of that group in St. Petersburg during the quarterfinals.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org