Friday, January 25, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: January 26, 4:10 PM UK
U.S. women impress in China under Sundhage
China has been good to Pia Sundhage. A former assistant coach for the Chinese national team, it was somewhat ironic for Sundhage to notch her first game as the U.S. head coach in her old stomping grounds. The final game in the Four Nations Tournament -- a 1-0 win over China on Jan. 20 in Guangzhou -- was also Sundhage's first title with the U.S.
"That's the beauty of the game. You can be on both sides. I've been very privileged to be in different soccer cultures," said Sundhage.
The Four Nations Tournament host, a country rooted in superstition, passed on a fortuitous charm to the U.S. women's national team. It comes in the form of a fortune cookie (or a Four Nations Champions trophy) that reads: "You will be successful under new leadership. The future looks bright."
You might even say the coach who sings Bob Dylan during pregame talks sent some feel-good vibrations through the team. Sundhage's idiosyncratic approach struck a chord with the young U.S. women over in Guangzhou. With a renewed sense of rhythm, the U.S. dictated the pace against Canada, Finland and China. Sundhage didn't stop there, adjusting the lineup within various formations to experiment with the team's playing style.
The trip was a tremendous opportunity for new players to step into the spotlight. Step into the highlight reels they did, with an impressive tally of assists, goals and minutes.
MidfieldDuring the two training camps leading up to Four Nations, Sundhage's primary concern was to shape a more productive and possession-oriented midfield. Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly were reinvented as attacking midfielders, most likely to better utilize their speed. It came as no surprise that the tandem had a standout tournament, especially Tarpley, who practically camped out in the opposing team's net with four goals (she was top scorer in Four Nations).
Tina DiMartino earned her first cap and assist against Finland, and Angie Woznuk found the back of the net in just her second cap with the senior team to tally the 4-1 win over Finland. "All of them are technical. Woznuk, she had a great goal, and Tina DiMartino played [Lauren] Cheney in," said Sundhage. "It is good for them to have this experience playing in China in big games."
Defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx scored the winning goal against China off a looping header served up from the back line, fortifying her place as one of the best aerial players who also packs a punch on the ground. Tobin Heath, who is the youngest player on the team and just finished her sophomore season with the Tar Heels, provided fresh legs at outside back against Finland. Her finesse with the ball was apparent when she nutmegged a Finn near the U.S. goal -- her first touch of the game. A crafty player, Heath is also equally capable as a striker, subbing in at forward against China.
The midfield, playing three to four wide in 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 arrangements, combined for a blistering six goals and four assists over the course of three matches. The U.S. women spread the field well, emphasizing Sundhage's European patience instead of a direct, one-dimensional attack that has left them vulnerable in the past.
Abby Wambach wasn't the sole target up top for a change, but she had a strong presence guiding the young forwards Sundhage rotated in. It may take some time for Wambach to find her streaky scoring touch within the Swede's new scheme, but there is no doubt she's thrilled to have a supporting cast on offense. In the opening match of Four Nations, 20-year-old USC forward Amy Rodriguez opened up a scoreless game with double strikes in her first ever start. Sundhage let Rodriguez run free for all 90 minutes, also starting her against Finland in a show of confidence. "Her speed is exceptional," said Sundhage. "There will be different players stepping up at different times and I think that can be one of our strengths."
Lauren Cheney also earned valuable minutes, shredding the defense with brilliant dribbling runs on the ball. Cheney's second career goal was a well-placed redirect from UCLA teammate DiMartino.
The back line only allowed one goal in Four Nations, an impressive feat considering two newbies played in place of veteran Cat Whitehill, who didn't see any action due to an ankle injury suffered right before the tournament.
Stephanie Cox also saw limited playing time, providing an invaluable opportunity for Ali Krieger and Becky Sauerbrunn to earn their first ever senior caps in the team's opening match against Canada. The tandem started alongside newly appointed captain Christie Rampone, who was a steady voice in the back.
Sauerbrunn picked up a broken nose with her first cap after colliding with a Canadian, yet soldiered on to anchor the center defense against China with a facemask. Krieger also provided exceptional poise at right back. "Becky and Ali did amazing," said Rampone. "You wouldn't have even known it was their first cap. They had a lot of patience and composure and they were just easy to play with. They communicated well."When China's conservative defense effectively shut down the United States offense for a scoreless first half, Sundhage made same changes to the formation, allowing the Yanks to poke some holes in the Great Wall of China (the team was playing a defensive 4-5-1). Hope Solo also returned to her goalkeeping duties, starting against Canada and China, while Briana Scurry was in goal against Finland. The defense was organized well enough that Solo and Scurry only had to combine for four saves. The only real challenge came when Solo had to backtrack to make a punch-out save against China.The Algarve Cup in March will up the ante for the United States. In the meantime, the U.S. women will take their new lucky charm -- confidence.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.