Monday, October 1, 2007
U.S. women no longer the team to beat
If the lasting image for the United States at this Women's World Cup is Hope Solo staring into a camera, U.S. Soccer ought to save some money on airfare and cancel next year's return engagement in the Olympics.
The drama that unfolded between Solo and coach Greg Ryan made great fodder for a sports world that loves to be polarized, but Ryan's decision to switch goalkeepers before the semifinal against Brazil was as much the root cause of the team's disappointing finish as a debate on the bridge of the Titanic over whether to turn to port or starboard. The iceberg was always going to win. Put aside the Americans' No. 1 world ranking and the 51-game unbeaten streak they carried with them into the game against Brazil, and the reality on the ground in China is that they demonstrated they were certainly good enough to win the tournament, but not so good they unequivocally should have. The senior national team has played in four major championships since the 1999 World Cup; its only win came in the 2004 Olympics. The U-20 national team (or U-19 national team until 2005) played in three World Championships during that same span; its only win came in 2002. The world has changed, even if expectations at home have not. More than anything, that must be the starting point in trying to figure out what went wrong -- or perhaps more accurately, what didn't go right. What happened in China had as much to do with the strength of the rest of the world as the shortcomings of the United States. Never was that more apparent than in the artistry of a Brazilian team that entered the semifinal game with one win in 22 tries against the mighty Americans. Whatever anyone wants to say about bad breaks, bogus yellow cards or playing a player down for an entire half, Marta, Cristiane and the rest of Brazil's attack didn't just benefit from American mistakes, they exposed American weaknesses. Thus the short-term task facing Ryan or anyone coaching the United States after this tournament is to figure out how essentially this same cast of characters can assert a personality and execute a plan in the Olympics. The long-term objective for U.S. Soccer is finding a way to live in a world where a significant advantage in resources no longer equates to a significant advantage in talent. Both because of the condensed schedule before the Olympics and the public outcry in the United States, the most immediate issue will be Ryan's future with the team. It seems improbable in one sense that a coach with one loss in three years would be shown the door, but his contract expires at the end of the year and plenty of voices, both reasoned and otherwise, have already called for a change at the helm. Speaking before the third-place game, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati remained understandably mum on Ryan's future, since the coach had one more game left in the tournament. But in discussing the composition of the current coaching staff, he offered an insight into the kind of latitude given to the coach on all matters related to the team on the field. "The most important thing [a coach] does is control that environment," Gulati said. "We put up mechanisms, put resources forward, to allow players to be the best in the best possible environment they can." Given those resources, including extended residency training and an annual budget of more than $10 million, Ryan surely will find himself held accountable for the breakdown in team harmony that ultimately forced him, after consulting with team leaders, to banish Solo from the stadium for the game against Norway. One thing that seems clear is that there is no way to commence Olympic preparations with Ryan, Solo and Briana Scurry together. While the two keepers might be fine around each other, keeping all three would inevitably mean answering all the same questions time and time again from media members who know little else about this team. Even as he opened the door to the possibility of reconciliation, Ryan sounded like a man already tired of answering questions about Solo. "We'll work to try and get past this hurdle," Ryan said. "The other thing is that one of the great strengths of American teams, both men and women, is the talent pool of our goalkeepers." Lost amidst that controversy was an offensive performance at the World Cup which raises questions about both the talent pool for the national team and the system it plays. Building on his background as a defender in the defunct North American Soccer League, Ryan constructed a team that was tough, conditioned and committed to defense. In theory, the result would be a versatile group capable of responding to any opponent's style of play by containing it. But no sense of offensive cohesion or flow surfaced in China, especially in the midfield, leaving the back line overexposed and the forwards isolated. More than a year ago, Ryan explained his preference for utilizing a 4-3-3 formation by saying it had less to do with his own philosophical leanings than with a shortage of quality midfielders capable of playing in a four-wide alignment. At times in the World Cup, it wasn't clear there were even three capable of competing against more productive midfields from North Korea, Sweden, Brazil and even (arguably) England. Moving Lori Chalupny, who has the most promising future of any young American midfielder, back to her natural position this year helped, but losing Aly Wagner negated some of those gains. Wagner remains the best playmaker in the American pool of midfielders, but she didn't play until the third-place game in China after battling injuries all year. Carli Lloyd looked like the missing piece of the puzzle after the Algarve Cup this spring, giving the team a powerful shot from distance and one-on-one creativity on the ground, but she played tentative soccer in the World Cup, exposing the defensive limitations that still plague her game. Beyond that core group, which also included holding midfielders Shannon Boxx and Leslie Osborne, Ryan's decision to include veterans Angela Hucles and Marci Jobson on his final roster spoke volumes about the available midfield options. Hucles and Jobson were safe chemistry picks, but they were never options for any kind of significant duty. The most curious midfield move, or non-move, may have been Ryan's refusal to play Lindsay Tarpley behind the front line. Tarpley might not have been the best physical fit for a three-player midfield, but she displayed good chemistry with both Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach as a forward and always played well with Heather O'Reilly, her old college and youth national teammate. Finding a way to get all four of them on the field together might have at least provided a spark. Part of the problem stems from the lack of a post-college venue for players to develop their skills beyond a collegiate level. Ryan's residency camps never held much personnel intrigue, because other than a rotating cast of current college stars, the rosters generally involved the same group of players for more than two years. The only true midfielders to earn caps in the past two years and not make the World Cup roster were Joanna Lohman and current North Carolina star Yael Averbuch, and it's difficult to argue either would have been the difference in the World Cup. The new women's professional league slated to begin play in 2009 may help for the next World Cup cycle if it's able to navigate the treacherous financial waters that brought down the WUSA, but it's difficult to imagine many new names popping up in time to play significant roles in the Olympics. After a World Cup disappointment four years ago, that U.S. national team made the most of its last shot at glory in the Olympics the following year by winning gold. After this World Cup disappointment, the current team must prove that the gold in Athens in 2004 wasn't also a final farewell for American women's soccer as the peak of the international game. It's into that uncertain future that Ryan, Solo and the rest of the team now walk. Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.