The United States Women’s National Team – the No. 1 ranked team in the world – was the last to qualify for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It struggled through qualifying, getting bounced from the CONCACAF tournament in the semifinals and forced into a two game playoff with Italy to qualify for the Women’s World Cup.
After a few months of up and down play for the U.S. in the summer of 2010, the results finally caught up with the Americans. A 4-0 win over Germany on May 22, 2010 was followed by less than convincing results against Sweden and China (the U.S. went 2-0-2). Pia Sundhage’s team selections were brought into question and since that Nov. 5 loss to Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying and she has since been brought under sharp scrutiny for her tactics.
It may only be two games into the Women’s World Cup, but it is time to put that criticism to rest.
Sundhage has already in two group games shown that she knows her team better than anyone else with a voice or computer could ever imagine. First she pulled Megan Rapinoe from the starting line-up in favor of Lauren Cheney in Tuesday’s opener against North Korea. But Cheney had never played as a left midfielder before, right? ‘So what,’ was the response from Sundhage and her staff.
Then came Saturday, when the U.S. coaching staff made the choice to give Shannon Boxx a rest to gear up for upcoming matches. Lori Lindsey slid into her place for at least one match and performed marvelously, delivering precise passes to her teammates and keeping possession for the United States. That move brought less questioning from pundits, but there was some intrigue over why the change was made. It too paid off.
The latest move? Bring on Rapinoe at halftime against Colombia after dropping her from the starting line-up for both group games to date. An inspired Rapinoe put in a performance that was exactly that. She came on at halftime and scored five minutes later to announce her presence on the scene. (And if you didn’t hear the announcement, the ensuing celebration was a rendition of “Born in the USA” heard around the world. By the way, Cheney assisted on that goal.)
What Sundhage has proved is that she knows her team well and she knows how to push players mentally. Rapinoe got the jolt she needed; Cheney got the vote of confidence she needed and Boxx got the rest that she needed.
At this stage, training sessions in the three days between games is not what wins matches. Those help tweak deficiencies, but are hardly more important than the preparation the team put in over the past few months. It is true that the players ultimately win and lose matches, but the right group of players needs to be given that opportunity. That comes down to superior management and thus far Sundhage has been one of the best team managers in this Women’s World Cup alongside France’s Bruno Bini and Japan’s Norio Sasaki.
Granted, Sundhage’s opponents have been North Korea and a completely overwhelmed Colombia squad, but her tactics helped shape those matches.
The Americans got off to a slow start in the first half against North Korea before playing their best half of soccer this year in the final 45 minutes. The beautiful soccer continued in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Colombia, although some improved finishing would have been welcomed by the United States.
Still, Sundhage has saved her best tactical changes for the biggest stage (and it is her first Women’s World Cup as U.S. head coach, remember). Whether intentional or not, Sundhage’s subtle changes scream of ‘got yah’ moments. At a point when hardly anyone expected any changes in the United States’ line-up, Sundhage is showing she has an open mind after enduring months of criticism for supposedly having exactly the opposite.
Wednesday’s match against Sweden will provide a greater test for just how good Sundhage’s management skills are, but thus far she has shown serious understanding of her squad’s needs. In the knockout stage, that chemistry with her players will be a match deciding factor.