Defense saves the U.S. in scoreless World Cup draw with Sweden
By Eric Adelson June 12, 2015
WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The match finished with two zeroes on the scoreboard, and although the numbers added to nothing, they both stood for a whole lot.
Zero told the story of the United States backline, which was momentous on Friday in preserving a 0-0 draw with Sweden and keeping the Americans in first place in the Women’s World Cup’s Group of Death. The highlight of the entire match came when left back Meghan Klingenberg headed a Swede volley off the line and off her own crossbar and away from peril in the 77th minute.
“Brilliant,” raved U.S. head coach Jill Ellis, mentioning that the team had practiced that exact play all week.
“I knew Hope would have to take a step off her line,” Klingenberg said after the match. “I had to have her back.”
That wasn’t the only must-see moment for the American defenders. Becky Sauerbrunn raced back on a 2-on-1 and made a sliding block on the cross to keep goalkeeper Hope Solo from facing a direct shot. Sauerbrunn blamed herself for allowing the odd-player rush and joked that she needed her ” ‘Oh crap’ speed” to get back into the play. The humility doesn’t erase the magnitude, though: She acted fast and acted right.
And the best player on the field was fellow central defender Julie Johnston, with her constant calm and communication from the back. Her perfect positioning interrupted Sweden’s last, best scoring chance in the 88th minute when she danced and sidled an attacker into the corner and forced her to fire a desperate cross, which Johnston blocked out of bounds.
“J.J.’s a stud,” Sauerbrunn said.
All three of the players were effervescent after the match, praising each other and underscoring the kind of bond they’ve developed already in this tournament. “We are like-minded players,” Sauerbrunn said. “We all analyze the game a little bit. We go to the ground when we need to, and we attack when we need to.” They are turning into soccer’s Legion of Boom.
And that chemistry stands in rather stark contrast to the USA’s continuing struggle on offense. That zero tells quite the foreboding story now.
Ellis decided to start Christen Press on Friday, then subbed in Amy Rodriguez to shift Press to midfield, then brought in Abby Wambach, then brought in Alex Morgan. The momentum grew with each move, but it wasn’t enough. There has been little steam in this engine. The American attack has felt like dart-throwing instead of a steady barrage.
Ellis said of the forward play of Press and Sydney Leroux: “I don’t think it was as efficient as it needs to be.” What the coach does in Vancouver against Nigeria is unclear, probably even to Ellis herself.
American fans will have to realize that their team may have to keep plodding without beautiful goals and picture-perfect passes. Neither Wambach nor Morgan are in top form, and although both entered late and pushed the throttle to change the dynamic of the game, the U.S. still has little visible chemistry and almost no offensive force outside of the dynamic Megan Rapinoe, who was thrilling again on Friday despite not creating a goal. What was cast off as nerves on Monday is now looking like something more troubling: a trend.
Carli Lloyd, who has been largely absent from the attack, called the situation “a little bit frustrating” and compared it to the lead-up to the tournament when “it did take a little bit to find our rhythm.” She said she hopes that as the World Cup goes on, teams will become more fatigued and the Americans will be able to score more.
In fairness, Sweden played a stringent defensive game on Friday, suffocating the U.S. whenever it could. Head coach Pia Sundhage half-joked that the strategy was to stuff eight or nine players deep and hope for a counterattack. Yet those are not new tactics when it comes to playing the Americans. Teams will always play conservatively when overmatched in talent. It’s up to the U.S. to be creative and forceful in making things happen. Suggesting that opponents will wear down later in the month sounds more like hope, and hope is not a plan.
Asked if the offensive strategy is working, Press answered somewhat indirectly: “The strategy changes depending on the defense. We have the talent to be very effective. Some games have been better than others.” Press called the offense “a fantastic attacking force,” and she’s right, but right now the only thing “fantastic” is the defense and goalkeeping. Right now, the USA side consists of a group that has it all figured out, and a group that doesn’t.
Right now, the Americans have a defense that can answer everything with a zero, and an offense with zero answers.