USWNT: Deconstructing Pia

Maura Gladys returns with Part I of II on the USWNT moving forward

Out with the old, in with the new? Yeah, um, not so much....

It’s tough to derive meaning from last week’s U.S. Women’s Soccer Celebration Series in an on-field context. With nothing at stake, and with the purpose of the two game series against Canada clearly stated as a celebration, the squad was under no obligation other than to entertain fans.  USA-Brazil it was not. Pia Sundhage made sure that every member of the team saw the field, and tried out a new formation, with mixed results. But the games did give us a glimpse at who could feature prominently for the USWNT in Olympic qualifiers and (if everything goes to plan) London 2012 next summer.

Sundhage trotted out a shiny new 4-2-3-1 formation in both games, a departure from her usual 4-4-2. It relies on outside midfielders and backs to push the attack forward, good for the U.S. who has one of the most potent right side duos in the world in Ali Krieger and Heather O’Reilly. But the new formation also means that Sundhage needs to solidify an already muddled central midfield, that never quite hit it’s stride in Germany.

O'Reilly, still the USWNT's Jason Bourne

Carli Lloyd, Lauren Cheney, Shannon Boxx and Lori Lindsey played in the two “possession” midfielder slots over the course of the series, with all four doing well. Shannon Boxx made her defensive presence known, and Carli Lloyd looked more comfortable in this playmaking role than the goal-scoring one she was charged with in Germany. But that doesn’t mean that either’s spot is guaranteed for the future. Lori Lindsey passed well and was the catalyst for several U.S. attacks, and Cheney is morphing into a superb utility player, providing whatever is needed wherever she plays. Although she did better when moved a bit closer to goal, she still maintained play as a deep-lying playmaker.

Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez started both games access the midfield, with A-Rod running the left wing and Rapinoe playing beneath Abby Wambach. The real revelations from the series were subs Tobin Heath and Kelley O’Hara. Heath dazzled in Game 1 with her tight ball skills and eye for creativity. The one knock against her is her lack of physicality, and her lanky stature often sees her pushed off the ball too easily. But Heath is the future of the U.S. attacking midfield. With Alex Morgan up top and HAO and Rapinoe out on the wings, Heath will have an arsenal of weapons to spray choose from.

But this is Abby Wambach’s team for the foreseeable future. She again demonstrated her ability to seize games by the throat with her hustle and athleticism when she netted two goals on Thursday night, the first one a spinning, one-touch perfect strike to the top corner of the net, and the second one a trademark header that sent her and the ball flying into the goal. She also set up several teammates with wonderfully-placed crosses.

Wambach’s dominance, and the potential new lineup means that Alex Morgan likely won’t crack the starting lineup anytime soon. Her speed is too dangerous to put on the wing and she does her best work getting in behind defenses down the heart of the field, what that lone forward is designed to do in a 4-2-3-1. But there is no way she unseats Wambach.

"Tobinho" -- the US youngster with the handles showed off a little flair in the Canadian series..

A super sub is a valuable key to have, but with it, you run the risk of wasting that person’s contributions for 60-70 minutes per game while they ride the pine. It’s just tantalizing to think of what the duo could do with 90 minutes together up top.

While Morgan is knocking on the door of the starting lineup, Amy Rodriguez has basically played her way out of it. The striker went cold all summer, failing to find the back of the net at all, and continued to flounder last week. She looked better on the left wing against Canada than she did up top with Wambach. But, she’s been given more than enough chances to produce and has been unable to do so.  It remains to be seen whether Sundhage will actually sit Rodriguez, a favorite of Sundhage’s.

It’s not hard to spot the sea change that’s coming. Cheney, Rapinoe, Heath and O’Reilly controlling the midfield, Wambach still up top with Morgan influencing the second half as a super sub. Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone hanging up their cleats soon. Amy Rodriguez and possibly even Carli Lloyd bumped from the starting 11. It’s just a matter of when Sundhage decides to make it happen. Don’t expect that to be in January. With the way the U.S. backed into the World Cup last fall, Sundhage will want to book the team’s ticket to London in as easy a manner as possible, so she’ll most likely go with a lineup based in experience and reliable talent. Depending on how the4-3-2-1 progresses in training camp, she may even hold off on that until it can be tweaked and perfected more.

20 responses to this post.

  1. Welcome back Maura. Glad to see that some mainstream US Soccer sites are still covering the USWNT even after the Women’s World Cup is over.

    On to London!


  2. Posted by Antonio H. on 2011/09/26 at 6:53 PM

    This may be just me but I think it would serve the U.S. Better in matches to have Alex Morgan coming off of the bench. She has the killer instinct, finishing ability, and mindset to make smart runs that,s so vital when things get rough in a close 2nd half. Just imagine her coming off the bench with Tobinho’s creativity. Whether this all meansbenching Rodriguez, I’m not sure. I don’t think Pia will go there because Amy is fast as hell if nothing else, and the need to keep the opposing defense honest and in their toes is understood. Ive alluded to this before, but unfortunately Rodriguez is starting to resemble Robbie Findley ’10 both in terms of production and playing style.


    • Posted by Maura Gladys on 2011/09/26 at 8:14 PM

      Totally agree that Alex Morgan brings something really valuable by coming off the bench. But I would just love to see Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach team up together for 90 minutes just once…


  3. Posted by HF66 on 2011/09/26 at 8:28 PM

    Cheney has been just excellent, very powerful and I don’t understand why she doesn’t get more minutes. She should be playing 90 mins. She’s great for setups and for scoring.
    I agree that Rodriguez should probably be benched, and I haven’t been impressed with Heath, she often gets stuck and doesn’t pass. O’Hara was very impressive in Portland, so i’d like to see her more often.

    What about the defense? Rampone is out. Seems to me Krieger is the strongest, but Lepeilbet and even Buehler I haven’t been too impressed with. Kia McNeill from Philly Independence shut out Wambach as a defender and I think she’d be just what is needed to lock up the back, which lost the game against Japan and made the US look weak in KC. And – Christine Sinclair wasn’t even in the game!


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/09/26 at 9:03 PM

      Agree on Buehler–plus her distribution is sketchy.

      LePeilbet got better as the tournament went on. I think she should be given more reps on the left.


    • Posted by Maura Gladys on 2011/09/26 at 9:12 PM

      Krieger is definitely the strongest among the back four, and that right back spot is hers for as long as she wants it. Buehler and LePeilbet are solid, but not stellar. If they were younger, I’d say to just give them time to grow into their positions, but LePeilbet is 29 and Buehler is 26 (not old, but not young enough to hitch your wagon to if she already doesn’t impress.) I could see Rampone playing in January’s qualifiers and maybe even in London before she hangs it up. After that, it’s a toss up. Becky Sauerbrunn will definitely get a chance to earn a starting spot. McNeil would be a great addition to the back. With Krieger growing into the veteran role, plus a scrappy McNeil and composed Sauerbrunn, it could be a radically different defense than the current one.


      • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/09/26 at 9:30 PM

        Did not know LePeilbet was 29. That changes my opinion. My error.


        • Posted by Maura Gladys on 2011/09/26 at 9:38 PM

          Because so many of these players haven’t had experience on the national team, you kind of get the false impression that they’re young. Most of them are older than you think. I thought Krieger was like 23 or 24 but she’s 27.


  4. Posted by Mo on 2011/09/26 at 9:00 PM

    Buehler has been bad, she should be the first one out of the lineup. Too slow and fouls when she gets beat. Saurbraun or Cox or Engen should replace her.

    Heath, Heath, Heath. If she didn’t fancy-dribble herself right into a defensive scrum at least twice a game, I would have more faith. She should be past that now.


  5. Posted by SLG on 2011/09/26 at 9:20 PM

    This was a good read. Finally someone else who sees the possibility of Lloyd being cut. (I hear Pia likes her and she has 5 goals this year if I rem correctly). She and ARod imo should be reassessed as well as Buehler. I would like to see Buehler replaced by Sauerbrunn. Sauerbrunn anticipates well and is smart with her play. She’s physical, strong and fast. And I agree that O’ Hara looked great in Portland and everything seemed to move “up” when she hit the field. ARod presents very aggressively and she is very fast, but that seems to be where it stops. Somehow that just doesn’t translate into the ball getting where it needs to go. All that said I love our team and can’t wait for the Olympics.


    • Posted by HF66 on 2011/09/27 at 8:45 AM

      Yes, to all that, and yes on Sauerbrunn. Strong, solid, secure. Yep on cutting Lloyd.


  6. Posted by kate on 2011/09/26 at 9:44 PM

    black holes = carli Lloyd, a rod and boxx’s just straight up old. Well done Maura. Great article! Glad my roomie knows soccer 🙂


  7. Posted by Ashley on 2011/09/26 at 10:46 PM

    Definitely agree on Lloyd and A Rod being on the outs. I know they have been clutch in the past, but we need to play in the present and they have been too inconsistent. I wouldn’t start either one of them.

    I personally think Cheney should be in the hole (Foudy agrees with me haha) of the attacking 3 midfield. The girl doesn’t get enough credit! I mean she did make the all star list for the WWC. If you look at especially the Portland game, so many more great balls were coming from Cheney in the middle than Rapinoe (Abby’s 2nd goal when Cheney sent the ball to O’Hara and a feed to Alex Morgan around the 83rd to name a few). I have a feeling that Pia wants Cheney back in the holding midfield because of her size though. I feel like that second holding mid (if Boxxy is the first) will be the hardest to find with Lloyd out, so I can see why Pia wants to try Cheney there.

    I thought Sauerbrunn was really impressive the past two games and would start her instead of Buehler. Buehler is another example of one of those inconsistent players.


  8. Posted by Robert on 2011/09/27 at 4:19 AM

    Rodriguez is in a terrible 2011 slump that extended to her league play, where she struggled also. But let’s remember that Wambach was in a nine-month slump herself–albeit for a valid reason, her achilles injury–and yet she came out of it in a big way, with seven goals in her last six games. Rodriguez has proven herself in the past and so I’m not quite ready to toss her out like an old dish rag. She seems to be lacking confidence, and that’ll extend any slump. I think all she needs is one goal to restore that confidence. But if she can’t get it together by the end of Olympic qualifying, then I agree that she should be replaced.


  9. Posted by john102728 on 2011/09/27 at 6:19 AM

    Also, am I the only person who is surprised that SYDNEY LEROUX is not on this team?


    • Posted by Paula on 2011/09/27 at 1:18 PM

      Well, no … but I wouldn’t count her out for the Olympics. Based on the roster, I don’t think this double header was about bringing out the up-and-comers.


  10. my opinions
    -llyod is on the downswing of confidence, but should be fine, her atlants WPS team never won and thats never good on a player no matter how good you are
    -buehler has to go, rampone should play til she drops, but saurbrunn is a great replacemnt and lepeilbet should be at CB where she won mutliple defenders of the year in WPS. outside backs should be krieger and cox
    -cheney CANT PLAY HOLDING MID. she always ends up in front the goal with the rest of the team and great teams will chew up that sparse midfield on the counter. (We saw it in germany when she was a winger and did the same thing (there is potential for much worse at holding mid)
    -cheney should take rapinoes spot, who is very inconsistant on the ball. i see her spray as many balls as she connects, although the ones she connects become chances so…cost/benefit? i feel like when she hit wambach in the brazil game, everyone changed their minds about her, but even she said in an interview, those crosses “NORMALLY go short”, she said normally!!!
    -i back a-rod, she looked good on the left, and she isnt afraid to stand up defenders and take them on
    -heath is the future for sure, love her style. but needs to learn from a rod to GO TO the game. (but it may just not be her style, though we saw it more in portland, she was all over the field)
    -orielly and wambach will never not start, and morgan is perfect coming on when the backline is already tired, (she can see out wabach’s reign, and will be there to take over)
    -not in love with lori lindsay, she didnt even start on her WPS team, or play much for that matter…does that seem odd to anyone else?

    love this team.


  11. you didn’t talk about KO 😦


  12. Posted by VWall on 2011/09/27 at 1:57 PM

    In my opinion, i would like to see some new players. The central midfield was terrible in the WC. Carli and Boxxy have very little creativity. I would like to see Heath get more playing time in there. A-Rod is A-bust! Yeah, she’s fast but couldn’t hit water if she fell out of a boat. I get so frustrated with her. I like Cheney in her spot. LOVE O’Hara! She’s got some serious pace and just needs more experience at the International level. O’reilly is badass and am thankful that we have a player that is not affraid to take players on. This is missing in all of the US teams.

    If Pia doesn’t win the Olypic gold then she needs to go. I would like to see a coach in there who emphasises technical ability much more. The USWNT made it to the WC final on heart, not well played soccer. Other countries are catching up and passing us because they are developing technical and tactical players.

    I hope we learn from the Barcelona’s, the Japan’s, and the Brazil’s who possess the ball, reward creative play, and are not affraid to go 1v1.

    That being said….I think this team has a lot to work with and a lot to work on. However, I think they can be very successful.


  13. […] Guardian deconstructs Pia Sundhage as the USWNT finish up a series of […]


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