Why USWNT Still Has Work To Do
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- U.S. women's national team coach Jill Ellis has long said the only thing that matters is what happens on June 8, when the Americans open their World Cup campaign against Australia. For that reason, it's difficult to determine how nitpicky one should be in assessing the U.S. team's 3-0 victory over Ireland.
The Americans dominated possession from start to finish to the tune of 68.7 percent, took 26 shots and had a whopping 19 corners. The U.S. also found Ireland goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke in inspired form, as she delivered a slew of impressive saves, some of which seemed to be lucky as well as good.
"We created a lot of chances, their goalkeeper came up big, inadvertently I think at times, but she did great," said Ellis. "I was pleased we put three in. Do we want more? Of course we want more."
And yet the concern over the U.S. team's inability to score from the run of play remains, one that has been present regardless of the availability of injured forward Alex Morgan, who sat out Sunday's match with a bone bruise in her left knee. This was, after all, an Ireland team that according to manager Sue Ronan contains just three professionals.
Two of the U.S. goals came from set pieces, the exception being Abby Wambach's second tally of the day, courtesy of a Carli Lloyd cross.
Without question, Ireland revealed its intention to bunker in from the outset, putting 10 players behind the ball. And it seems unlikely the Americans' World Cup group stage trio of Australia, Sweden and Nigeria will adopt a similar strategy. Ellis said she expects the team's Group D opponents to play the U.S. "straight up."
That said, there may come a time in the tournament when the U.S. needs a goal, and the late-game psychology of bunkering in to protect a lead will take over the mindset of its opponents. At which point the U.S. will need to heed the lessons from Sunday's match, the biggest one being that going up the middle and trying to thread multiple passes through a tangle of legs will in all likelihood be a futile approach.
Certainly in the game's early stages that was where the majority of attacks seemed to be directed. Then, as the first half progressed, the U.S. seemed more adept at finding the wide areas through Lloyd, Christen Press and Meghan Klingenberg.
"I think at times, myself included, you kind of want to bounce those passes off," said Lloyd. "These are the games to try things, and if it doesn't work you obviously reassess. But getting it in quickly and getting it out wide was the key today."
The U.S. eventually broke through on Wambach's two goals, including the one that came from Lloyd's assist. But Ellis still felt compelled to remind her team at halftime to continue to pound the flanks.
"[We need to] get our outside backs higher, commit their lines and draw them out a little bit," she said.
The good news, of course, is there is still time. Peaking in May does the U.S. no good. It's all about June.
"These games will serve their purpose," said Ellis. "It is about ironing the last wrinkles out."
The U.S. players got a huge surprise the night before the match. Fox Sports, the broadcaster for Sunday's game, paid to have the mother of each player flown in and they showed up unannounced at Saturday night's team meal.
Wambach said, "It was such a fun night, a fun day today for them to be here, especially for my mom because she has a lot of kids and she has a lot of grandkids she could be spending it with. So it's awesome that she chose to spend it here with me for this game."
Wambach's mother, Judy, flew in from West Palm Beach, Florida, and was convinced there was no way the secret could be kept.
"She was so surprised," she said. "The girls were so surprised. It was so cool because I thought, 'My daughter's like Google, she knows everything. She would definitely know that this was something that was going on.' But she had no idea. It was the best."
Wambach made the trip worth her mother's while, scoring twice in the first half.
"It's such a special day being Mother's Day and I saw her turn around after her second goal and point up to me," said Judy Wambach. "That's my Mother's Day gift. Is that not the best?"
Of course, there was tension later when Abby Wambach collided with Reid-Burke on a high ball in the box and received a bloody nose. Ellis indicated Wambach had actually broken her nose earlier in the game, but the trainer indicated the forward was OK to play.
"My nose is fine. Doesn't it look great?" Wambach said when asked about the injury. "At this stage, going into the World Cup, you can get X-rays, scans and whatnot. If you're not going to do anything about it, what's the point?"
But at the time, Wambach gave an "OK" sign to her mom to let her know she wasn't seriously injured.
"I knew she was OK down on the field," Judy Wambach said. "After the Brazil game many, many years ago when she broke her leg, we had a sign either thumbs-up or OK so that if I'm watching on television or on the field, I know she's OK."
Rapinoe donates honor
U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who hails from Redding, California, was honored before the match for reaching 100 international appearances, the 31st female U.S. player to reach that milestone. (Defender Lori Chalupny became the 32nd on Sunday.)
U.S. Soccer typically honors such players with a Rolex watch, but Rapinoe asked that the money be given to charity instead, specifically iactivism.org, an organization for which her twin sister, Rachael, works. The organization has gone into the refugee camps in Darfur to set up soccer academies and train coaches so that the academies are self-sustaining.
"I started looking around on watch sites, and thinking, 'This feels ridiculous to me.' It just didn't feel right," Rapinoe said. "So I thought I would give to something that I really care about and an organization that is amazing and does really good work."
Sunday marked the return of Ali Krieger to the lineup just under a month after she sustained a concussion in a frightening collision during an NWSL game. She played Sunday with custom-made protective headgear and delivered a solid 45-minute performance.
"It's nice to finally get a game back in, the first 45 minutes," she said. "I felt really good. Wearing the headband obviously was new. I don't know how long that will last for me. But it was good, I felt great."
Krieger recalled she put the headband to the test with one header during the game.
"It went to where I wanted it to go," she said with a laugh. "But then I had to readjust and my hair got caught in the Velcro. I was like, 'Ah, what a drag.' I quickly readjusted and it was fine."
Krieger added that she'll continue to wear the headband for the next two friendlies, at which point she'll have to decide if she'll do the same in the World Cup.
"If it affects me too much, I'll have to do without," she said. "But as of right now it's really good and I felt really secure and safe and that's the most important thing."