Group Effort: US Women Wields Heavy Stick In 2nd Half, Drop North Korea, 2-0

Editors’s Note: TSG guest columnist Maura Gladys on Game 1 for the USWNT.

Lauren Cheney paid back the boss lady for her surprise start....

Hear that? That’s the sound of the entire U.S. Women’s national team, along with its fan base, exhaling. After weeks of hype, build up, criticism, anxiety and pressure, the U.S. finally has a little room to breath, thanks to a 2-0 win over North Korea. It was not perfect. But the U.S. reached a level of play towards the end of the game that contained promising glimpses of a world champion team.

Those glimpses were not evident in the first 45 minutes. The U.S. looked nervous and shaky, especially on defense. The back four had trouble picking up streaking North Korean runners, and left fullback Amy LePeilbet, the U.S.’ best 1v1 defender, was beat twice in succession, leading to shots. The United States’ struggles weren’t only in the back. They failed to finish several good opportunities. Amy Rodriguez’s touch was off, Abby Wambach couldn’t convert on a few balls that you expect her to convert on, and all of Lauren Cheney’s shots were straight at the keeper. Not the best way to kick off a tournament that is supposed to be your return to glory. (It was around this time when Ian Darke of ESPN began referencing Italy in the 1994 World Cup, when they played poorly in the group stages but went on the win it all.)

Not the best day at the office for LePeilbet...

While many of the U.S.’s struggles were a product of their nerves, North Korea implemented a smart strategy that tied up the midfield and forced the attack to go out to the wings. They clogged the midfield and basically sat on top of Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, neutralizing their distributing abilities, and daring the U.S. to attack from the wings. But with Lauren Cheney pinched in and Amy LePeilbet hesitant to push forward, Heather O’Reilly was the only one consistently out on the wing generating any offense.

Entering halftime with a scoreless draw was not a good feeling. With North Korea creating several good first half chances, a goal from them was not out of the question, and the buildup, hype and expectations seemed to be weighing even heavier on the U.S. squad.

Then, with one cut, cross and header, it was all okay. In the 54th minute, Carli Lloyd sent a floating opposite field cross to Abby Wambach, who collected it near the right corner flag. Wambach faked out her defender with an inside cut that gave her the space and time to pick out Lauren Cheney in the middle of the box. Cheney directed the cross right back where it came from, placing a header at the far post and sending the keeper sliding.

And exhale.

Cheney raced to the sidelines where the she was engulfed by the entire squad in a collective release of anxiety.

The fact that it was Cheney that netted the game-winner makes Pia Sundhage, who had recently taken some heat with her personnel choices, look like a genius.

Cheney wasn’t even expected to start until two days ago when head coach Pia Sundhage announced that she was mulling starting Cheney over left wing Megan Rapinoe, who had been in great form. The announcement seemed…random. Yes, Cheney had hit the game-winner against Mexico on June 5th, but inserting Cheney would mean that some part of the U.S. formation needed to be altered, something that Sundhage seemed hesitant to do in previous matches. While Cheney’s presence would strengthen an iffy center midfield, it would also take away from generating offense on the wing. But Cheney proved her worth. She distributed well from the middle, shifted back to help left fullback Amy LePeilbet, took several shots, and of course, netted the goal.

Once the U.S. took the lead, their concentration and focus slowly built up. Their possession improved and in the 76th minute, Rachel Buehler put the game away for good. The central defender netted her second career goal (hooray for defenders scoring!) when she just got a foot on a bouncing ball and slid a shot perfectly between the post and the goalkeeper’s outstretched fingers.

By this time, the U.S. swagger had returned in a form we hasn’t seen in many many appearances, and they dominated the last 25 minutes of the game. A third goal by substitute Rapinoe was disallowed when she kicked the ball into the net while the goalkeeper had possession

While Abby Wambach was key in creating the United States’ first goal, she struggled with her own possession and failed to capitalize on several opportunities. The striker has only scored one goal in 2011, and although no one has uttered the word “slump” just yet, it’s fair to say that she has been frustrated as of late.

The United States’ other superstar Hope Solo saw some action today, making five essential saves in the first half, including a tremendous near-post deflection in the 35th minute. Her bum right shoulder, which she admitted does not have full extension, didn’t seem to impede her that much, although all of the saves she had to make were low to the ground.

With the win, the United States has cleared a tremendous hurdle, and will be riding high when they take on Colombia on Saturday. With a huge amount of pressure off of them, the squad should use the game to rack up a high goal differential and aim to take their performance from the last 25 minutes of today’s game and stretch that out to a full 90.

9 responses to this post.

  1. I think the Cheney move was a brilliant move, but also necessary as I disagree with the assessment that Rapinoe was in top form. Watching the pre-WWC friendlies, it seemed that Rapinoe was plenty fit and fast, but became a absolute black hole on the offensive left…possession was funnneled into her never to be seen again.

    Now, Rapinoe was excellent in protecting the left flank in defense, but the Ladies didn’t really have issues with keeping teams from scoring against them, they weren’t earning chances (like crossing from the left flank in the air to possibly the most dominant aerial striker in the history of the women’s game) or finishing the chances they were given (like when said striker would hold a route 1 ball for oncoming attackers just to have it sail off frame from unskilled strikes).

    (I may be over-stating Wambach’s quality, but certainly not her physical dominance. She would be considered a “physical forward” if she played for a MEN’S team. (No, I’m not suggesting…). She’s a linebacker among cornerbacks in front of the goal. She gets called for fouls she doesn’t commit because fouling defenders often bounce off of her.)

    Cheney’s ability to create off of the hold up play of Wambach, and ability to not hit the first defender on the flank with her crossing makes her a much more valuable offensive player.

    I think Cheney is the WNT’s analog of Clint Dempsey from about 3 years ago. Perceived by many to be a defensive liability, her energy and creativity cannot be left on the bench. However, notice her effort on defense in the second half against PRK. MUCH more determined and effective once Sundhage lit a fire under her.

    Here’s to many more starts for Cheney on the left, and many Rapinoe sub appearances.


  2. Good analysis.

    The USA did a great job of coming out strong the second half – North Korea was looking very dangerous in the first 45 minutes, especially their 16-year-old right winger (not sure of her name; she was wearing bright yellow cleats).

    Looking forward to seeing more quality play from the USA women as I tune in for my first women’s World Cup!


  3. Posted by matthewsf on 2011/06/28 at 4:43 PM

    I think the US Women have some serious issues in midfield. North Korea just didn’t exploit the space but a good team will attack relentlessly.

    Bringing Cheney central creates some dynamic offensive movement but also leaves a gaping hole that she has to track back to. Lloyd and Boxx were beaten or catching up multiple times against a very inexperienced team.

    I like the movement, but unless Lloyd and Boxx are planning on running for their lives all tournament the space in midfield will be an issue.


  4. Posted by Jesse G. on 2011/06/28 at 5:54 PM

    Cheney was by far the best US player today, for me. Tons of energy, great runs from the midfield. Obviously, her finishing, header aside, left a lot to be desired but she seemed to be the only exploiting space between the lines on a consistent basis. Also, small note, the Italy team that Darke referenced was the 1982 edition with Paolo Rossi that barely made it out of the group stages and then managed to take down arguably the greatest team of all time in Brazil.


  5. Posted by Marmaduke on 2011/06/29 at 7:07 AM

    In the first half Cheney was slow getting back on D and left LePeilbet on her own, often with two attackers (but Boxx was also often there in support). It was unfortunate that LeP had an off day at the same time, but I think you can attribute some of her struggles (thouhg not a couple of those 1v1 fails) to being left alone. Rapinoe probably would have provided more help. I think Cheney got the message at half time though, because it was much tighter after the break.

    Cheney’s possession and distribution were much better than we’ve seen from Rapinoe and were vital in closing out the game. On balance, even without the goal, I think it was a good move by Sundhage.


  6. Posted by kaya on 2011/06/29 at 9:00 PM

    I only caught the last few minutes of the first half and then the 2nd half. I’m so happy espn is covering the WWC so I can go back and watch games later.
    I think the thing I noticed besides the obvious attacking improvement in the 2nd half (it was obviously languishing from even the few minutes of the 1st half that I caught) was that PRK looked a lot less dangerous in possession, too. Do you think that was Cheney and Wambach helping out in defense?
    I agree with Peter that I didn’t find Rapinoe’s form convincing. I didn’t feel she brought a lot of energy on as a sub, disallowed goal not withstanding.
    Any thoughts on the other games? I saw the Brazil-Australia game today and it seems like Brazil like to handicap themselves by not training together before the WC. Rosana’s goal was skillicious.


    • Posted by Maura Gladys on 2011/06/30 at 9:31 AM

      Wambach and especially Cheney’s work on defense definitely helped in cutting down PRK’s possession. Although I think some of it was just the United States gaining confidence and settling into a rhythm. They weren’t having any of those nervous giveaways that they had in the first half, which conversely, affected PRK’s confidence and rhythm a little bit.

      In terms of the other games, no one looked particularly impressive. Rosana’s goal was awesome, and straight out of the streets of Brazil, but you’re right, by not training together for very long, they are left to rely only on their skill. The Mexico/England game was pretty decent, and Ocampo’s crazy goal is my pick for best of the tournament so far.


  7. Posted by kaya on 2011/06/30 at 1:37 PM

    Germany are underwhelming me atm… though I suppose it’s hard to judge in a game they were DeJonged for 90 minutes. Nigeria just don’t have much to offer outside of fouls.


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