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Sunday, June 24, 2007
U.S. women perfecting set-piece routine

Graham Hays

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The hash marks and yard lines that set the boundaries for the autumn residents of Giants Stadium were still faintly visible on the turf Saturday when the United States women's national team faced Brazil, making the field a fitting backdrop for the kind of precision plays that Giants fans bitterly complain are beyond Eli Manning's grasp.

In beating an aggressive Brazilian team, seemingly bent on tackling by the same rules which apply to the Giants, 2-0 in front of 16,856 fans at the Meadowlands, the United States exposed an unorganized defense at its weakest point and demonstrated once again that there is no team in the world better at turning set plays into goals.

A week after scoring twice on set pieces in the second half against an organized but weary China, the Americans wasted no time jumping in front of a rusty and chippy Brazilian side playing its first international friendly since 2004 and its first meaningful game since last fall's World Cup qualifying. Kristine Lilly's perfectly placed free kick found the top corner of the net before the game was a minute old and Abby Wambach provided plenty of breathing room 16 minutes later by heading in Cat Whitehill's free kick from more than 50 yards away for her fourth goal in the last four games.

After beating Mexico 5-0 on April 14 with five goals that came from the run of play, the United States has turned to set pieces for success in its last three games. Six of the team's 10 goals in wins against World Cup qualifiers Canada, China and Brazil came directly off set pieces and a seventh came on a penalty kick earned on a takedown in the box off a free kick.

"We've been working a ton on set pieces, because we know most of the World Cups and Olympics have come down to set pieces in the finals," coach Greg Ryan said. "We're working on them constantly; we probably spend four or five days a week doing some set piece work. The one Lilly put in today, that's something we work on all the time with her from that side and Carli [Lloyd] from the other. The free kick with Cat [Whitehill], we're working on that all the time and if we get a line goalkeeper like we did today, we just send it right up the pipe and run Abby on."

As his team prepared last fall for World Cup qualification via the Gold Cup tournament at Home Depot Center in California, the permanent training home for the Americans, Ryan admitted he had devoted relatively little time up to that point to set pieces. Given the luxury of residency training sessions during a non-World Cup and non-Olympic year, the objective was to develop chemistry and familiarity within a roster that had played a very light schedule in 2005 and featured a number of young players.

Only this year, with his player pool pared to the most likely candidates for China and his overall system in place, would Ryan shift his attention to more technical minutia.

As plans go, it's starting to look rather Marshall-esque.

"We do set plays a lot," Lloyd said of the team's recent training. "Lil hit a great ball and scored off of it ... the corner kicks were great today. And Greg's been really been on us about making sure that we make those set plays count. And we've been doing great in the past few games with scoring off of those."

Even for a player like Whitehill, who has been booming long-distance free kicks for years with what Wambach described as a "cannon" of a leg, the fine tuning has made a noticeable difference.

"I definitely feel like I'm getting better," Whitehill said. "I feel more confident, and I know where I want the ball. And now for each different team we play, we have a different strategy. That's nice for me, because I can change it up and be unpredictable."

It helps to have Wambach around. Battered throughout the game, especially in a first half that saw her hit the ground six or seven times in the opening 20 minutes, Wambach still had the stealth, strength and size to slip behind an admittedly shaky back line and head Whitehill's long drive into the net for the second goal on Saturday. Even from half a field away, it's difficult to miss a target like the 6-foot-4 striker who has scored 34 of her 74 career goals with her head.

"It's extremely nice," Whitehill laughed. "I know that even if I'm a little off on the kick, she's going to get there and most likely she's going to win it just because of how excellent she is in the air and she does have a height advantage. It makes my job a lot easier."

On a perfect summer evening under a cloudless sky, complete with a real Ferris wheel and carnival providing background scenery in the adjacent parking lot, the atmosphere after the win was justifiably upbeat. But the undercurrent of apprehension about all the set-piece success, as outlined by former national team member Julie Foudy during the television broadcast, came from memories of the 2003 World Cup, when critics complained that April Heinrichs' team relied too heavily on set pieces during a disappointing third-place finish on home soil.

For their part, the players and coaches on the current team were having none of it.

"As much as we relied on set pieces, we still made it to the third-place game," Whitehill said. "So we know that set plays are going to be the difference between winning and losing. And we want to keep focusing on it. If we're scoring goals off of set pieces, it's scoring goals. Of course we want to get some off the run of play, but set plays are very important, especially with the weapons we have."

Just as Brazilian coaches on the men's side have to answer as many questions about how they won, as they do about whether they won, Ryan is the latest in a line of American coaches to face questions about if his team is winning with proper flair and style.

"I don't worry about what people think," Ryan said with a hint of uncharacteristic exasperation. "And we want to be great on set pieces, because on days like today, this is how you win games. ... Believe me the [World Cup and Olympic] champions are never complaining about how they scored the goals. We want to be as good in the flow as we can. Today I think we could have played better in the flow of play, but on days where you don't have that, you want to score on set plays. So we're going to keep working on it."

And so they do, from the oldest veterans to the freshest faces.

As the bulk of the team worked on other parts of the field during Friday's light practice at Giants Stadium, Lilly, Lloyd, Heather O'Reilly, and Angela Hucles fired off free kicks and corner kicks at one end of the stadium. Stationed at almost the exact spot from which she would score in the opening minute of Saturday's game, Lilly calmly launched a series of perfectly bending balls squarely into the top corner of the net, much to the amusement of an applauding O'Reilly. It was an impressive display of accuracy and you couldn't help but wonder in watching it if a goalkeeper would have had a chance to get to the ball.

As it turned out, she wouldn't. Because when play stops for the Americans it often means the scoring is about to begin.

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


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