For 50 minutes of Monday's 3-1 U.S. women's victory, organized pressure and athletic, energetic movement of Australia's front six created dangerous chances and disrupted Team USA from finding a rhythm.
Since the 2008 Olympics, the United States has relied on its insurance policy, Hope Solo, to weather stretches of opponents' dominance -- and Monday night was no different. The U.S. women were fortunate to head to the locker room tied 1-1 after Solo -- my pick for player of the match -- denied two chances by Australia in the first half. The second save against the excellent effort by Australia's Sam Kerr was the better of the two saves and one that few keepers make.
Do I think Team USA would have come back and tied the score at 3-3, sharing a similar score line of the other game (Nigeria versus Sweden) in the Group of Excitement?
Yes, I do, based on three factors:
1. The U.S. women's history of comebacks
2. Australia's inability to sustain its energy as the game went on
3. Megan Rapinoe is in form (see her two goals)
My Aussie friend said, "The U.S. just bullies teams into submission," which I found to be interesting phrasing to describe this physical and mental ability to persevere and perform at a high level for an entire game. The U.S. team prides itself and derives confidence from this mentality -- it has been the X factor for any U.S. side since the team's beginnings in the late 1980s.
Five more thoughts on Monday's victory:
1. Julie Johnston's composure will improve as the tournament goes on. Australia's play shook the World Cup debutant's calmness on the ball. When she is settled, she is capable of starting the attack and building a rhythm.
2. Sydney Leroux's second-half performance was aided by her positioning. Staying on the sides of the center defenders, not posting up, allowed her to use one of her strengths -- speed -- to her advantage. Her movement stretched and unbalanced Australia's back line and opened up space for players to exploit when joining the attack (see Christen Press' goal).
3. Tactically, the U.S. women tried to solve being outnumbered in the center of the park by pinching in their wide midfielders, Press and Rapinoe. Although the United States had four in a tight diamond, Australia's three midfielders found the pockets to play and move, linking up with the mobile Kerr, the post-up and layoff play of Michelle Heyman, and the unbalancing wide and high positioning of Lisa De Vanna.
Offensively, the team was stretched, which made it difficult to link up with the forwards and build any sort of rhythm. They needed to hold the ball and to connect some passes under tight pressure so they could build a rhythm and allow time for numbers to join. But it's the chicken or the egg -- which comes first when you're under such tight pressure?
4. Set pieces and recycled possession off of set pieces have been, and appear to still be, a vulnerability. On Australia's goal in the 27th minute, De Vanna sat a bit deeper and was untouched on her effort. Defensively, marking touch-tight requires concentration and relentless checking of one's shoulder until the team gains possession and one is able to return to one's regular position. Easier said than done.
5. Press' movement to peel off the defender and hold her run was intelligent. Her finish off of a softly weighted ball required preparation to get her feet right, poise and a bit of power to convert a chance into a goal.
Kate Markgraf earned 201 caps with the U.S. women's national team from 1998-2010. She was on the 1999 World Cup championship team and was also a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2004, '08).