Technically Improving USA Wins U20 WWCBig picture progress, but a few details need tidying up for long-term success
by Ken Sweda | Monday, September 10, 2012
Ultimate success at the recently concluded U20 FIFA Women’s World Cup clearly showed that the US program continues to be a world class power in the sport.
And while the recent gold medal by our full Women’s National Team at the Olympics showed a similar standing at the highest level, the victory by our U20s was achieved in a much more promising fashion.
Our achievements at the Olympics relied for the most part on tried and true American qualities of athleticism and fortitude, probably most aptly expressed during a 4-3 comeback win against Canada. The tournament reinforced the idea that the old ways can, when called upon, still get the job done, but only just barely (our loss in the 2011 WWC Final to Japan showed us what happens when teams develop qualities that we don’t have).
The emergence in these Olympics, however, of a couple more technical and clever players like Megan Rapinoe, while still an exception, proved to be a valuable addition to the US mix and a step in the right direction.
What excited me even more about the U20 women was the fact that there are more than just a couple such players on the way up the ladder, and they are at the heart of the team.
Standouts such as Morgan Brian and Vanessa DiBernardo, both wonderfully technical, composed and aware midfielders, were the focal point of the U20’s system, rather than the “X-factors” they might be in a typical American set up. Indeed, they were at the literal center of the formation, and of the ideas the team was trying to carry out, operating as a double pivot somewhat like Barcelona, with Brian and VDB in the Iniesta and Xavi roles, respectively. Rapinoe, who shares qualities with both these players, was largely pushed to the margins, in a literal on-field sense and also figuratively, but forced herself into the mix from her wide position to impact every moment of her Olympic experience.
The U20s, under the leadership of coach Steve Swanson and assistant Janet Rayfield (DiBernardo’s head coach at the University of Illinois), are clearly attempting to play a fluid, possession-based style that will put them on par with the world game. Play is often started out of the back by a defensive line that is notably more technical than it has been in the past. Even centerback Julie Johnston, an absolute force of nature and a standout during the tournament, doesn’t rely exclusively on her strength and size as other American centerbacks have before here. She is quite technical and reads the game exceedingly well, often making runs upfield, not unlike Pique of Barcelona or Vermaelen of Arsenal.
In addition, the team makes very effective use of overlapping runs by outside backs like Crystal Dunn, normally a forward at UNC. Our full Nats also tend to use runs by their backs, but the individual skill and creativity at that level leaves a bit to be desired. The prospects for improvement in that area are quite exciting.
These successes not-withstanding, there are some issues in the details of what I observed that do need to be addressed to provide for sustainability for the success of this group of players.
The speed of play is not anywhere near where it needs to be, and under pressure the composure of even the best ball handlers frequently did break down, most notably in a 3-0 loss to Germany in the group stage. Even Nigeria, with only 4,000 registered players in this age group (compared with 1.2M in the US), gave us a lesson in quick, composed and attacking play. Our deficiencies in this area are largely explainable, however, by the fact that we are playing a style that has only recently been adopted. With time, greater facility will certainly come, both in the understanding of the style and the technical and tactical qualities needed to execute it.
Continuing with the details, the first touch of several individual players was consistently lacking, forcing unnecessary turnovers at inopportune moments. Much of the play was still short of subtlety and composure. Even in the Final, the individual and group qualities of the Germans were at a considerably higher level and more consistent. As an example, players such as Dunn, playing out of her normal position at right back, was a player of extremes, producing countless quality attacking runs, but also quite often letting the attacking instincts get the best of her by dribbling into trouble, leaving her side exposed. With time at the position, however, her contributions will become more even and predictable. She clearly has the technical ability and awareness to master the position, but currently the mindset she has carried over from her college duties as a forward (i.e. all you need is one “success” per game) creates a few too many potentially critical mistakes.
Even with the overall improvements in the technical area, a player or two unfortunately still fit the mold of the “speed merchant/no touch” that continues to hang around the American camp. Learned observers will know not to put too much stock into goal counts when looking at the overall impact of an individual player. As this system progresses, even the “pacey” players will need to prove they can manipulate the ball more effectively, or they will be replaced by players with pace and touch.
Overall, I was quite pleased, excited even, by what I saw from this group when they were at their best. And even at their “worst”, they were trying to play the right way, the sustainable way.
The direction the program is taking is absolutely the correct one, but as with all change it will take time to master. I am heartened by the observable difference in the types of players the program is beginning to value, but there is still some residue of the old ways that needs to be stripped away.
The Germans did outplay us in the qualities I look for, even during the Final, but the standard competitiveness the US always brings won the day. That competitiveness is never a bad thing, but we have used it for far too long to the exclusion of other things. What I see happening at the U20 level, at least, is a distinct attempt to add qualities that the traditional footballing nations have always valued. When we get on equal footing in those areas, the US will have a truly remarkable and long-term formula for success.
The world already knows never to give the Americans another crack at you. This is ever more true now that we are making a commitment to raise our technical and tactical level.