Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Emerging English team represents a tough challenge
SHANGHAI, China -- Once the United States finally escapes Shanghai, it will begin trying to earn its way back to the city that hosts the World Cup final on Sept. 30.
England's Rachel Yankey will pose problems for the U.S. defense. (Christopher Koepsel/GettyImages)
A day after beating Nigeria 1-0 to clinch first place in Group B and earn a spot opposite England in Saturday's quarterfinal in Tianjin (8 a.m. ET, ESPN2), weather delays related to Typhoon Wipha prevented the American team from leaving Shanghai as originally scheduled. But even as they waited out the effects of a very real force of nature, coach Greg Ryan and his staff were contemplating the challenge of taming the soccer phenomenon that is Kelly Smith.
Coming out of a group that included Swedish stars Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson, and facing potential showdowns against Brazil's Marta and Germany's Birgit Prinz in the semifinals and finals, respectively, accounting for individual brilliance isn't anything out of the ordinary. But that doesn't make slowing one of the world's best strikers any easier. Smith scored four goals in England's three games in Group A, including a pair of goals against Japan that sparked two shoe-kissing celebrations that drew the ire of her coach but also helped her team earn a critical point in the 2-2 draw.
"She's a very dynamic player," Ryan said. "She wants to take the game over ... and she's capable of doing that, as she showed against Japan."
Of course, England earned its spot in the quarterfinals, after not qualifying for the last two World Cups, because its talent goes deeper than the sometimes flamboyant Smith. Much of the talk during group play centered on the importance of the United States finishing first and avoiding a potential quarterfinal clash with Germany, but England is the only team in the world this year to play the United States and Germany and come away with points against both powers, tying the United States in January's Four Nations tournament in China and tying Germany in Group A play in the World Cup.
U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. England
Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium, Tianjin, China 8 a.m. ET, ESPN2
Coach Hope Powell, a veteran of the 1995 English World Cup squad who became the first full-time coach of the national team in 1998, reigns over a generation of unprecedented talent in England. Thanks to an improving women's club system, most notably at European power Arsenal (which shares nine players with the national team), English players have better access to top training and playing opportunities than ever before.
"Before this tournament started," Ryan said, "I said to everybody that asked, 'Watch out for England.' This is a team that's come into their own, they've got the players they need, they've got the leadership they need and they're going to do very well."
The United States caught a break when England midfielder Fara Williams picked up her second yellow card of the opening phase in her team's final game against Argentina. A key component of a dangerous midfield that likes to build the attack on the ground, and England's second-leading scorer entering the World Cup, the 23-year-old rising star will miss the quarterfinal.
"I think she's a very good player, very important part of that central midfield the way they play, but I'm sure they have other players that can stand in for her." Ryan said. "I've always really liked her. I watched her in Euros and I think she's playing very well this World Cup. The game against Germany, she was fantastic."
The United States has its own cache of young stars experiencing the ups and downs of their first World Cup, and Ryan was quick to praise them following the group stage. Players like Lori Chalupny, Heather O'Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley and Stephanie Lopez are holding up well to the challenge in China, perhaps in no small part because of a visit to the country earlier this year for the Four Nations. The game against England in January, played in Guangzhou, featured a young American side that was without veterans Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly, Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone.
Although the Americans managed just three total goals in beating China and tying Germany and England, the experience of playing without the safety net of Lilly and Wambach helped speed the development process for some of the young players.
"I think that that was a great opportunity, without some of our leaders there, for the younger players to step up and have to take a little bit more responsibility," O'Reilly said. "And the thing about a World Cup is that the level is just so high, it's too much to rely on a certain couple of shoulders."
Now the challenge is for both the newcomers and veterans to put together the kind of complete offensive game that was missing in both the Four Nations and the first three games in this World Cup. The team showed signs of breaking out against Nigeria, especially in controlling possession and building the attack for extended stretches of the first half, but the finishing touch was missing on a wet and sloppy field.
"Finishing is just something that comes," Ryan said. "The main goal you have is to keep getting your chances. And you never put a lot of pressure on a goal scorer or they'll miss more. So the main thing for us is to continue creating our chances, knowing that at some point, they just start falling."
One key to improving the team's finishing touch is making better use of their biggest weapon. Despite scoring three of the team's five goals in group play, Wambach has suffered at times from her team's inability to control the point of attack, and she appeared to be on the receiving end of more tackles from behind than passes against Nigeria.
It's no fluke that after earning 108 corners and surrendering 32 in 12 games this year with the full squad leading up to the World Cup, the United States had just 16 corners -- the same number as its opponents -- in three games of group play.
"I think we can keep the ball a lot better than we've done it," Ryan said. "We can possess it a lot better. And I feel like we're maybe a bit rushed, may not hold onto the ball well enough, not being accurate enough with our passing, but I think all our players are aware of that."
Although both Chalupny, who attended Wednesday's press conference, and Wambach remained on the ground several times after hard fouls against them by Nigerian players, Ryan said the team has no new injury concerns coming out of the game.
The winner of Saturday's game moves on to a semifinal in Hangzhou on Sept. 27 against the winner of a quarterfinal match between the second-place team from Group C, likely Australia or Canada, and the first-place team from Group D, likely Brazil.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.