Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By MIKE McCALL
ORLANDO — The U.S. women’s national team put on quite a show to end 2013, notching a 4-1 win over Brazil in front of its biggest home crowd of the year on Sunday.Here are four thoughts from the match as the team prepares to move into the new year and begin qualifying for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
1. The experimenting is (mostly) over.
In 16 matches this year — his first as the U.S. coach — Tom Sermanni chose 16 different lineups.
That gave him a chance to get a full assessment of his talent pool, which he deepened Sunday by starting players like Amber Brooks, Kristie Mewis and Leigh Ann Robinson, who came in with a combined two caps.
It was a valuable chance for that trio. Brooks performed capably as a defensive midfielder, and substitute Erika Tymrak got her first goal in just her second appearance.
But with World Cup qualifying just months away, it’s time to start thinking about chemistry, which should be a welcome change for the U.S. regulars.
The nature and depth of the roster means there’s likely to be some variability, but Sermanni said this weekend that he had seen enough from his players to evaluate them and move forward.
“I certainly think there will be more consistency and continuity in selection going into 2014,” he said.
2. But it will continue on the back line.
It’s one thing to rotate through a stable of talented strikers. It’s quite another to keep shuffling the defenders around.
This year also featured 14 different quartets in the back, and even the two repeat lineups had the centerbacks flipped. There has been little chance for continuity, and this weekend was no exception.
Sunday brought the return of Stephanie Cox on the left, a first start for Leigh Ann Robinson on the right, and a more familiar central pairing of Christie Rampone and Becky Sauerbrunn.
That certainly wasn’t the magic ticket for the U.S., which could easily have let in three or four goals if not for some clutch goalkeeping from Hope Solo.
On the whole this year, the team allowed an average of only 0.69 goals per game while scoring a healthy 3.5. But the defense remains the Achilles Heel, and Sermanni won’t want that weakness to persist through the World Cup.
The team’s attacking style will always leave it open to the counter, but that’s all the more reason for a stoic defense. So far, that doesn’t exist, and they’ll need to find something that clicks soon.
“This is the year you have to [experiment],” Solo said. “We have to see what players are going to be perfect for that position, help us win a World Cup and help us qualify. It’s time to take off the old hat, bring in some new kids and see who can perform under pressure.”
Look for the likes of Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg, Crystal Dunn and perhaps even Cox to compete for the fullback spots, with Rampone, Sauerbrunn, Rachel Buehler and Whitney Engen in the mix at centerback.
3. This team is loaded with attacking options.
Okay, not a news flash. But imagine having to leave a few of these names on the bench when the U.S. heads into its biggest games: Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday, Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath.
It’s nice to have world-class players coming off your bench, but there’s also a balance that must be struck when managing all that talent. Players like Press and Leroux have established themselves as elite, with Leroux dominating against Brazil and finishing one behind Wambach for the team lead in goals at 10. Press tallied eight, and it’s scary to think that the U.S. hung four on Brazil without her, Rapinoe, Holiday or Heath, and with Morgan as a sub.
Sermanni’s experimental lineups have opened the door to plenty of competition. That’s a great thing, but it also adds pressure to his selections, and he’ll have to manage egos as well.
4. Orlando showed itself as a true soccer city.
With a stadium planned and an official announcement expected soon about MLS expanding to Orlando, the city has caught soccer fever, and that was on full display Sunday.
A crowd of 20,274 showed up at the Florida Citrus Bowl, good for the highest home attendance this year. And they were loud, too, drawing rave reviews from the players who had to yell their answers during post-match interviews to be heard over the roar.
Wambach said the game was one of the few where she actually lost her voice, and she and Solo both expressed excitement that MLS was on its way.
“This is definitely a soccer city, and that’s hard to say because I’m from Seattle,” Solo said.
It’s far too early to put Orlando on par with the Pacific Northwest, but Sunday’s crowd, along with the 20,886 who came to see Orlando City SC win the USL PRO title earlier this fall, are very encouraging signs.