VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- When the U.S. women's national team stumbled to a 0-0 tie against Korea Republic in its final World Cup send-off match, the overriding sentiment from players and coaches alike was "Don't worry." The implication was that once the World Cup started, the offense would quickly reach light speed.
It's time to worry.
Save for a few individual moments of brilliance -- and luck -- against Australia, the U.S. attack has looked much like it did that day against the Koreans, in that it was bereft of ideas, energy and execution.
Now the excuses are piling up as well. U.S. striker Abby Wambach insisted that the Americans would have more goals if the Women's World Cup were being played on grass, a rather absurd statement.
The playing surface isn't going to change, but here are a few things the U.S. can alter to help its attack.
1. Get Tobin Heath on the field
One of the more curious decisions made by U.S. manager Jill Ellis has been with regard to her choice of personnel at right midfield. With Christen Press lining up at forward, Ellis opted to give a start to Morgan Brian in that slot. Brian is a fine player who has some tools to excel in that role, especially when she slides into central positions and allows Ali Krieger to get forward. But she hasn't looked comfortable in the position the last two times she's played there, and she seems unsure of which spaces to exploit without encroaching on the areas that Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday normally occupy.
Her most recent performances lend more credence to the thought that she's better suited to a central role. There, her mobility, passing range and finishing ability would be more effective. Against Sweden she looked subdued. Save for one inviting cross to Sydney Leroux, she failed to make much of an impact. In her 58 minutes of action she had a total of 18 touches. By the time she was substituted, only Becky Sauerbrunn, a defender, had so few contacts on the ball.
Which raises the question of why Ellis didn't opt for Tobin Heath. Heath has been one of the few U.S. attackers to show any semblance of form over the last few weeks, and her ability to beat defenders off the dribble and deliver a telling pass would seem to be perfectly suited for that role. And those are by no means Heath's only attributes. When she came on as a substitute against Australia, she succeeded in bringing some possession and tempo to the U.S. attack. And with much of the creative burden falling on Megan Rapinoe, Heath's presence would provide opponents with another attacking threat they'd have to respect. Heath's defense is also good enough that she'd be able to provide help to Ali Krieger if need be.
Heath was dealing with a hamstring injury last month, which limited her availability in the last few send-off games, but even if she's only able to last an hour against Nigeria, the U.S. is much more likely to increased production from that part of the field.
2. Either Abby Wambach or Amy Rodriguez has to start
When Ellis' starting lineup against Sweden was revealed, the front-line pairing of Leroux and Press immediately raised concerns about which of those two would be tasked with holding the ball up. Both forwards have their strengths, but holdup play isn't near the top of the list for either player. To Leroux's credit she took a ton of abuse with her back to goal, but was dispossessed several times. She's also more effective when she's able to run at defenders. Press is better facing up to goal as well, but more from a creative standpoint of putting teammates in on goal, like she did with Krieger in the first half against Sweden.
For these reasons, the U.S would benefit by having a forward on the field who is adept at holdup play. The good news for the U.S. is that there are two players on the roster who fit this description. Wambach is the prototypical target forward who uses her aerial ability and size to accomplish those goals. Amy Rodriguez goes about it in a different way, using her low center of gravity as well as quick feet to evade defenders and maintain possession.
With either player on the field, the U.S. as a team will feel more comfortable joining the attack and getting additional players forward as it moves out of its own half.
3. Return Lloyd and Holiday to their Olympic roles
There was a time when the central partnership of Lloyd and Holiday was deadly, especially against France in the 2012 Olympics. But back then, Lloyd was the one to hold and Holiday played more advanced. Now with Ellis reversing those roles, something has been lost. Defensively the two have performed well enough, but the duo has struggled in attack. Lloyd in particular hasn't seemed herself this tournament, misplaying passes and generally looking out of sorts. She has yet to create a single chance so far in the World Cup.
Holiday looks like she's playing with a restrictor plate on -- she seems to be holding back. On the one hand, she's completing her passes at a decent enough rate of 83 percent, but she hasn't seemed to reach the heights of tournaments past in terms of creativity. Some of this is positional. You don't want your holding mid recklessly bombing forward, but it might throw teams off-balance if she were to join the attack more often.
The two have occasionally swapped roles in this World Cup, but it might be worth seeing what would happen if they switched for a longer period than just a minute or two. Late runs into the box have long been one of Lloyd's trademarks, but that seems to have disappeared for the most part. And Holiday might be energized by such a move so as to have more of a creative influence in the attacking third.
4. Patience yes, but faster tempo too
When asked during the postgame news conference what she wanted to see more of from her midfield, Ellis said she wanted to see more patience. That is a fair point. Too often the U.S. players forced passes into spaces where the window was just too small.
But the U.S. attack could benefit from a quicker tempo. That's not to say it needs to go 100 mph at all times. There is value to taking a deep breath. Yet for the most part, the Americans have looked plodding when entering the attacking third. Some faster passing sequences and quick combinations would have helped pull the Sweden defense out of its comfort zone and will be needed against Nigeria.
5. Better movement off the ball
This goes hand-in-hand with playing at a faster tempo. There was a moment Friday when Julie Johnston brought the ball out of the back and looked up field for a target, only to see her teammates rooted to where they stood. No one checked to the ball or worked to give her a good option. This will need to change against Nigeria.
This is important in terms of forward play as well. Prior to the tournament, former U.S. international and current ESPN television analyst Kristine Lilly noted that it wasn't enough for the U.S. forwards to be talented. They needed to work off of each other to create chances as well. There wasn't much evidence of that against Sweden. When facing Nigeria, Ellis will need to select a forward tandem whose respective games complement each other better than those of Leroux and Press.