The United States takes on Sweden in their second group stage game on June 12 at 8:00 pm (Eastern). Currently they sit a top their group with 3 points. But this game is about more than points right now. This game is about pride. After hearing critical comments former United States national team Pia Sundage, Carli Lloyd told Sports Illustrated that she plans to respond on the field. This just in Pia, its about to get personal.
The Swedes are looking to bounce back from a disappointing tie to Nigeria. The Swedes gave up a two-goal lead before Linda Sembert did her best Clint Dempsey impression and scored to give the Swedes a go-ahead goal. The lead didn't last long as Nigeria responded with a very good Portugal impression and scored a late equalizer in the 87th. The Swedes scored two of their goals off set pieces. The US should still be careful though. This is the same Sweden that this year beat the Germans 4-2 at Algarve Cup.
3 Things to Look for Going into the Game:
A lot of people, including yours truly, noticed that the central midfield was not that engaged in the game against Australia. The United States used a very direct strategy that often bypassed the midfield. Hope Solo successfully passed to Abby Wambach 9 times. That is the exact amount of times that Carli Lloyd passed the ball to Lauren Holiday and vice-versa. This just in: you don't want your goalie to your striker to be just as common as your two central midfielders to each other.
To be fair, the direct game works. That's how the United States scored their first goal, a long ball from Becky Sauerbrunn to Abby Wambach. Abby heads it down and than Megan Rapinoe kicks it into an outstretched Australian knee and it flies into the goal. However lucky the deflection may have been, the truth of the matter is the long ball is what made it happen. The problem is that it can't be the only plan. Too often the US relies on Abby to make magic happen. And while she has in the past, even her magic is surely finite.
Look for the US to hold onto the ball more to avoid a wide-open game like the one they had against Australia or Sweden vs. Nigeria. That wrinkle could be what helps transform the US from an unconvincing favorite to the undeniable favorite.
The Abby of it All:
The 100 lb gorilla in the room is Abby Wambach. A friend who spent time abroad in Sweden told me there wasn't a lot of small talk there. Often Swedes dive into topics that Americans would find uncomfortable. Case in point: Pia Sundahage. Pia remarked that she believes that Abby should be a super sub and not playing 90 minutes, something that she did the other day.
The thing is Abby can be magical. The only header as clean as hers against Brazil was Andy Carroll's against Sweden. However, Wambach's presence on the field screws things up sometimes. Through no fault of her own, players force-feed her the ball because she is so capable of making magic happen. Megan Rapinoe, the US's best player Monday, made her own magic happen a few times. But she also tried to force Abby the ball. Her passing chart showed a lot of red arrows into the box. Rapinoe crossed the ball 8 times and was unsuccessful on all of those attempts. In fact only 3 of those crosses were from the final third.
Furthermore it forces players out of their natural roles. With Abby in the lineup, Christen Press is forced to play right midfield. Press, naturally a striker, wants to drift in and get forward. That is exactly what she did to score the US's go-ahead goal. Getting her to do anything else is asking her to abandon her instincts and not properly using her skill set. Press's movement leaves right back Ali Krieger with less than optimal defensive help. Furthermore, without a true midfielder, such as Heather O'Reilly, Tobin Heath, or Morgan Brian, the midfield duo of Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday have no easy outlet pass on the right and are forced to make more aggressive and dangerous passes.
My question: as an opponent would you be more worried about a fresh Abby coming off the bench in the 60th minute or a tired Abby Wambach going 90?
The United States midfield had issues. Many of these issues could be pointed at the midfield two of Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday. Both players bloom when they're making late runs into the box and play more conventionally as 10's. The issue is that they are playing side-by-side in a two player central midfield. This is literally what England tried to do in the 2000's with Gerrard and Lampard. Looking at the US's average position (not a perfect science) confirms what many of us saw with our eyes, that Lloyd and Holiday are isolated from the rest of the team. The average position of Lloyd and Holiday according to Opta shows them sitting directly between the strikers and back line.
Compare this to a team like Canada. They play a with a defensive midfielder, whose job is to not only shield the defense but to also make sure that the defense and the midfield are connected in possession. Scott's position is much deeper than either Lloyd or Holiday and doesn't leave as much of a hole between the midfield and the defense, allowing other midfielders to roam more freely. Ellis has been quite open about her desire to have central midfielders who spray the ball, a skill she feels defensive midfielders lack. While on a certain level she might be right, look at the two team's in the Champion's League Final. What allows Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba or Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic to do what they do best? Andrea Pirlo and Sergio Busquets.
Australia really exposed the US midfield two with their 4-3-3. Ellis hopefully has figured out a way to get Lloyd and Holiday into more natural positions. The issue is that in constructing the roster for the World Cup, Ellis was all in on the idea of playing Holiday and Lloyd as a midfield two. There really aren't any other options to change the way the midfield is structured, as the only two that can really play defensive midfielder are Julie Johnston (currently starting at centerback) or Shannon Boxx who is 37 years old. That being said, expect Ellis to try something different. It might be giving Boxx a shot (I doubt it) or it might be putting a central midfielder like Brian at RM to help the team with possession (more likely). Either way if the US wants to make it far it can't keep doing what it's doing.
Predicted Line Up: