A Perfect Day – AlmostPosted: July 14, 2019
Sunday, July 7, 2019 was a very rare day for US soccer. It is certainly a rare occasion when both the men’s and women’s national teams play on the same day. Even rarer is the occurrence that both games count for something, that neither is a friendly. And even rarer that both matches are for the championships of big tournaments for these teams. And finally, incredibly rare ( like never before) that one of those titles is for the largest championship available for any national soccer team, the World Cup. And yet, that day, that Sunday, was exactly that day. And the results of the matches played on that remarkable day were very satisfactory… almost perfect…almost.
After blasting their way through their group in such dominant fashion that the most negative feedback from observers was the nature of their celebrations, the USA women entered the knockout rounds as a co-favorite (with France) to win the whole thing. But, in facing a Spain squad that had so far given a good account of themselves, the Americans were facing a moderate jump in quality and huge uptick in the intensity of their opponent.
The Spanish did play well with the ball. They dId display some possession and some offensive creativity. But what they did most was foul. They fouled the American forwards ,they fouled the American midfield and their pressure earned them a goal from a steal in front of the USA goal. But they also fouled inside their penalty area and that cost them the game.
That win brought the USA to the French. One of these days FIFA might realize that seeding each team rather than groups of teams could eliminate these types of “finals played in the quarterfinals” but that hasn’t happened yet and so the two co-favorites met way too early in the competition. The concern to the Soccer Yoda going into this match was the straight-on system used by coach Jill Ellis with her side. The USA typically plays a 4-3-3 with the three forwards spread across the top with little help from the other forwards or the backs behind them. Rapinoe and Heath are forced to go 1 v 1 against defenders who have help behind them and Morgan, in the middle, hopes to latch onto a cross or an errent misplay by a defender. It works fine against the likes of Thailand but against knowledgeable and skilled defenders scoring from the field can become a matter of individual brilliance. Set plays become the bread and butter for scoring as the offensive system does not create the space needed to score goals from the run of play. The fact that it took two penalty kicks to beat the Spanish reinforced my concern.
So it was with some surprise that less than a minute into the match against the French Rapinoe took the ball across the top of the penalty area and seemingly took the French unawares. The move resulted in a wicked shot but right at the French keeper.
A couple minutes later a long pass down the left wing found (surprise again!) Morgan…making a run outside the penalty area. The move forced the French into a youth soccer mistake.. Morgan got goalside of her defender who promptly fouled her.
The French then compounded their mistake by setting up a too-small 2-person wall which wasn’t positioned well anyway.
Rapinoe had plenty of room to curl the low driven ball around the “wall” while the USA runners came across the French keeper to block her view. Another set play goal for the USA. The rest of the game was typical USA play as they went back to their more conservative offense and protected the lead. Midway through the second half Morgan checked back into the midfield and laced a perfect long ball to the streaking Heath who got behind the pressing French defense and then sent an excellent pull back cross to the late running Rapinoe for a perfect one touch finish. Although the French scored late on a corner kick header, it wasn’t enough and the Americans were into the semifinal against England.
The English noticed the difficulty the Americans were having in scoring from the field and thought they detected a weakness in the USA defense which could allow them to get behind the Yanks if they attacked quickly. So they came at the Americans all out without the numbers committed to defense that other teams had used. Sure enough, they were right about the way to attack. They scored a nice goal early in the first half, had a second called back for offside and forced the USA into giving away a penalty kick. Unfortunately for them, they were offside if only by a step and Stephanie Houghton’s PK was saved by Alyssa Naeher, the USA goalkeeper. Meanwhile, they discovered that speed and athleticism can be tough to deal with if you don’t cover well and have enough numbers on your defense. Christen Press headed in an early goal when given too much room at the back post and Morgan timed her run perfectly to get behind the English and nod in another late in the first half. 2 – 1 again and our girls were in the final.
In the championship game the Dutch played their numbers back on defense and hoped to find those offensive openings like the English did on the counter attack. But the American technical skills were too good to give the Orange any real looks at scoring. The problem though was that there was little of the creativity that the USA showed against France and it appeared that a scoreless draw was imminent. The Americans were consistently outnumbered near the Dutch goal and they seldom threatened. However, midway through the second half a Dutch foot managed to catch Morgan in the chest which was unfortunate for Netherlands as Alex wasn’t really threatening the goal considering the two defenders on her. Rapinoe was on again from the penalty spot and when the Dutch came out of their defensive stance the Yankees poured in. Only some selfish play and purposeful time-consuming possession prevented the final total from reaching 4 or 5. But the USA women were happy to settle with 2-0 and another World Cup championship.
Later that day the American men had their opportunity to win a championship. Of course, the Concacaf Gold Cup isn’t the World Cup. Under normal conditions it would be expected that the USA men would reach a final in a tournament which features teams from islands and nations that average the size of one American small city. But this isn’t “normal” times for the USA men. The team consists of almost an entirely new set of players and a new coach and the majority have no meaningful prior national team experience. The squad is young and new to each other and entering the tournament the questions surrounding the quality of the group (especially after a couple poor performances in friendlies) suggested that they would be lucky to win a few games at all. So getting to the final in convincing fashion, even if the opponents were not the world’s best, was considered an accomplishment. The opponent in the title match was, of course, Mexico and El Tri represented a major jump in quality compared to the opponents the USA faced leading to the big game. But the USA was ready for a test of its progress and the Mexicans were perfect for that.
The USA men were in an opposite situation from the women. No one questions the American women in regard to their basic abilities as players, only their tactics were at question. But while new coach Greg Berhalter’s system of play looked to be a good match for his players, it was their ability to play the game at a high level that was considered a fault. And so it was with a surprise for everyone, especially the Mexicans, that the Americans flew at the their opponents goal in the opening minutes. First an excellent combination of pace and passing opened up Christian Pulisic to drive at the Mexican goal, only to be denied by keeper Ochoa and some bad luck.
Not long after that chance the USA broke in again but Josie Altidore put a great opportunity wide.
Those misses were very important as the Mexicans settled down and worked themselves into the game. By halftime it was anybody’s guess as to which team would gain the advantage in the second half. And in that decisive second half it was the more experienced side that took the advantage as the young Americans gradually lost their edge and ability to hold the ball for any length of time. Finally, at the 72nd minute a nifty heel pass gave Jonathan dos Santos the space he needed and he hit a perfect shot just under the crossbar to give Mexico the lead. The Yanks mounted a dangerous series of attacks late in the game, but it wasn’t enough and El Tri won the Gold Cup title 1-0.
It must be said that the tournament presented a positive outlook for the USA men. They already can consider themselves a major force in the region and a favorite to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. With a number of quality u-20 players coming up to add into the mix and a couple years to gain in experience and familiarity with each other and Berhalter, the future looks very promising for the American men. Of course, if one of those early chances had gone in, they could have joined the women as champions and made it a perfect day on that rarest of occasions for American soccer.