Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By MIKE McCALL
ORLANDO — With key players missing on both sides and a bit of sloppy play from the hosts, this was not one of those U.S.-Brazil clashes for the ages. But as U.S. women’s national team coach Tom Sermanni and his players shouted their way through interviews over a still-roaring crowd, it was clear that there were plenty of positives to be found.
“You can never be unhappy when you score four goals,” Sermanni said.
Sydney Leroux struck twice, Abby Wambach added a penalty, and Erika Tymrak opened her account as the U.S. polished off 2013 with a 4-1 drubbing of an inexperienced Brazil squad.
Playing in front of a Florida Citrus Bowl crowd of 20,274 that made for the highest attendance of any home match this year, the U.S. put the finishing touches on an undefeated season (13-0-3) — just the second time in team history that they’ve gone unblemished through a schedule with 10 or more games.
The win also ran the team’s home unbeaten streak to 77 and its overall streak to 39.
But as rosy as all that is, there were reasons to temper the excitement.
Brazil’s roster featured 15 players with 10 caps or fewer, and only two, midfielder Rosana and forward Cristiane, were around for the epic U.S.-Brazil quarterfinal match at the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
Rosana found the net with a header in the 25th minute to give Brazil its lone goal, and there could certainly have been more.
Still sorting through his defensive options, Sermanni went with a back line of Leigh Ann Robinson (second cap), Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn and Stephanie Cox, who was making her return after having a child earlier this year.
That group made for the 14th different defense in 16 matches under Sermanni, and they proved susceptible on many occasions. If not for a few crucial stops by goalkeeper Hope Solo in the second half, the score easily could have finished level.
“The way we play, we always leave ourselves susceptible for counterattacks, and that’s where it makes Hope the No. 1 goalkeeper in the world,” Sermanni said. “It’s not like she’s in the action all the time. She’s out of the action for 10 or 15 minutes and then has to pull off a one-on-one. She was magnificent in the second half in that regard.”
But even Solo had her struggles.
A misplayed clearance in the 34th minute could easily have led to a goal with a decent chip, but Brazil couldn’t capitalize. Nine minutes later, Solo dropped a corner kick and had to be bailed out by a clearance from Wambach.
The goal came when Rosana ran down the left side, snaked her way between a few defenders and made easy work of a cross from Rilany.
“Unfortunately we let a goal go in, so I’ll never be happy about that,” Solo said. “But moving forward I got the opportunity to overcome that mistake and make some good one-on-one saves that made a difference in the game.”
Solo’s performance was more than enough help for the attack, which held true to its usual dominant form.
The U.S. controlled the early play and was rewarded 15 minutes in, when Cox played in a cross to the far post, which Heather O’Reilly volleyed back across the face of goal. Leroux was waiting right there to bang it home and open the scoring.
Less than two minutes later, Wambach went streaking toward goal and outmuscled Brazil’s Andressa, who then brought Wambach to the ground for an easy penalty call. Wambach made the ensuing spot kick look easy, putting it away low and right for a 2-0 lead.
“That’s demoralizing from the opposite team’s perspective, so getting that goal was really important, and getting the third one was as well,” Wambach said.
The third came in the 36th minute, after Rosana had pulled one back for Brazil.
Carli Lloyd started another dangerous attack with a pass to Wambach near the middle of the field. With a deft touch, Wambach deflected the ball forward to a streaking Leroux, who cut in from the left, juked the keeper across the front of goal and smashed an emphatic shot into the middle of the net for her second and a 3-1 lead.
The nightcap was provided by two second half subs. Just two minutes after coming on, midfielder Erika Tymrak controlled a pass from forward Lindsey Horan, took two touches to cut between two defenders and slid a low right-footed shot into the left side. It was Tymrak’s first goal for the national team in just her second cap, and the former University of Florida star immediately reacted with her hands on her head.
“She didn’t quite know what to do when she scored,” Sermanni joked. “She took the goal really, really well. It really emphasizes the talent we have in this team and on the fringes of this team.”
There was plenty of talent left out as well.
Forward Alex Morgan came on in the 68th minute and had two strong chances that wouldn’t go in, and National Women’s Soccer League MVP Lauren Holiday was left on the bench due to injury.
That was one of many big names missing, as Megan Rapinoe, Ali Krieger, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen and Brazilian icon Marta all had to remain with their club teams in Europe.
But pushing all that aside, a comfortable win over Brazil in front of a record crowd in an emerging soccer city left plenty of smiles on the field.
“I’m not lying: There are very few stadiums where I lose my voice,” a hoarse Wambach said of the Orlando crowd, which is soon to have its own MLS franchise in Orlando City SC.
The win marked the end of a successful first year for Sermanni. He used 2013 to evaluate his talent pool in-depth. On Sunday, he started three players who came in with fewer than 10 caps: midfielder Kristie Mewis (nine), Robinson (one) and midfielder Amber Brooks (zero).
Now, it’s time to whittle down the list and focus on World Cup qualifying.
“You never conclusively have your mind made up with this team at this stage,” he said. “But at the end of this year, I think I have a good idea of where the team’s going. There is such intense competition that it’s often difficult to separate some of the players.
“I certainly think there will be more consistency and continuity in selection going into 2014.”