WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- No team, especially one competing in a World Cup, will turn up its nose at moments of individual brilliance. They are often the difference between despair and delirium when the final whistle blows.
That was certainly the case for the U.S. women's national team in its 3-1 World Cup victory Monday over Australia. Hope Solo's saves helped the United States survive a shaky opening 15 minutes. Sydney Leroux's surging run and assist to Christen Press helped break a 1-1 tie, and Megan Rapinoe's two goals came off strong individual efforts as well. Australia, meanwhile, was left shaking its collective head at how long stretches of impressive play failed to turn into three points.
But if there is a downside to such fits of genius, it's that they have a tendency to mask underlying problems. In this instance, the play of the U.S. attack remains a cause for concern.
To be fair, just about everyone in the U.S. camp, from manager Jill Ellis on down, admitted that the Americans will need to play better than they did against the Matildas. There was talk of nerves, and inexperience among some elements of the U.S. lineup.
"We didn't play with a sense of rhythm or calmness about us," Ellis said.
Alas, the U.S. problems go deeper, and were a byproduct of the team's choice of tactics. Against Australia, part of the problem was down to the Americans' approach in the face of a high-pressing Matildas side that not only harassed the U.S. back line but whose three-man midfield left Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday outnumbered at times.
"I think with a three-front, them pressuring our backs, our game plan was to not really force it into the midfield," Lloyd said. "Play a little bit direct, get it wide. It was a little bit crowded in there."
The U.S. players took that advice a little too much to heart. The result was an overemphasis on low-risk passes that would also be categorized as low-reward, namely going long to target forward Abby Wambach. There's nothing inherently wrong if there are spaces to exploit up top. Indeed it was Wambach's header off a long ball that Rapinoe latched onto in the run-up to her first goal. But for the most part, Australia was effective in clogging these areas as well.
"I think there were still some times where we probably could have settled the play down and played it in there, probably keep a little bit more possession," Lloyd said.
Ellis said that at halftime she instructed her team to be more aggressive in attacking the flanks, and for Lloyd and Holiday to step up a bit defensively. The results seemed to point to the effectiveness of those changes. The Americans scored twice after all, both of which came after long runs down the left wing. Ellis spoke of how pleased she was that the United States "grew into the game."
But did the changes actually yield improved play, or was it a case of the classic adage "goals change games" taking over? It was a combination of both, but leaned toward the latter. Certainly, the defensive intensity of Lloyd and Holiday increased, as Australia's ability to connect passes eroded to start the second half.
However, in terms of their attack, the Americans' ability to dictate the tempo didn't really pick up until after Press put the United States ahead. The Americans' pass completion percentage for the first 15 minutes of the second half wasn't demonstrably better than in the entire first half (73.6 percent versus 72.6 percent). After Press' goal, Australia was forced to take more risks, the spaces opened up, and the U.S. women found it easier to connect. This trend increased after Rapinoe scored in the 78th minute. The United States completed more passes in the last 15 minutes of the match (89) than in the previous 30 (78).
So what does this mean for the Sweden game Friday? More patience on the ball, better off the ball movement and increasing the tempo would help, as the U.S. team occasionally looked painfully slow against Australia. There are times when the U.S. women seem to think that going direct will put the opponent under the most pressure. But it tends to have the opposite effect by conceding possession cheaply. Establishing an early rhythm, or at least more of a mix of the direct and indirect would suit the team better.
Such an approach certainly seems doable against a Sweden team that doesn't appear to have near the mobility that Australia has, and was made to look plodding in its 3-3 tie against Nigeria. Then again, while the United States has speed with the likes of Leroux and Press, it doesn't possess as much as Nigeria. With the fear factor of getting beaten for pace lessened, the Swedes might feel more confident in trying to apply pressure to the American midfield.
"I know Sweden is probably not happy with their result, so they're going to come out strong," Lloyd said.
The U.S. women will no doubt intend to do the same. A win, even on a day when they didn't play their best, should give the Americans confidence, and they'll be hoping that patience fused with moments of brilliance will lead to a stronger overall performance.