You know how sometimes, coaches and athletes say stupid things in public arenas, and that’s okay because we know that’s what they have to say or how they have to think because of PR, or that sports mentality, or whatever. Everyone gets that there is a script, and just like when you’re watching a movie or a play, you have to accept certain fictions and omissions in order for the story to go forward.
But sometimes, stupid things are said that turn out to be true. And sometimes, these stupid and true statements explain so much that you’re just left shaking your head in wonderment that PR didn’t keep a tighter lid on that particular insight into what is really going on behind the the scenes. It was kind of strange when the China-USA game commentator kicked off the match by telling us that Coach Swanson said the changes in the US lineup were “not about injury or tactics.”
Not about injury. Not about tactics.
The choice of players on the field? Haha, no, don’t be silly. That was not about tactics.
Common sense says that “not about injury or tactics, but about getting players minutes” should be one of those lines that comes from the script. Maybe, just maybe, it was a line with regards to Swanson’s starters for this particular game. But as the game wore on and subs were made… that bit about personnel not being about tactics? That rang pretty true.
The second game of group play, with your final and toughest opponent coming up next, is not the time to ignore tactics.
US vs Ghana, the first game in group play for the Americans
- Starters: 1-Bryane Heaberlin; 4-Crystal Dunn, 15-Kassey Kallman, 8-Julie Johnston (capt.), 2-Mollie Pathman; 16-Sarah Killion, 10-Vanessa DiBernardo, 6-Morgan Brian; 7-Kealia Ohai, 5-Maya Hayes, 9-Chioma Ubogagu
- Subs: Katie Stengel in for Chioma Ubogagu, Sam Mewis in for Sarah Killion, Mandy Laddish in for Morgan Brian
- Subs not used: 3-Cari Roccaro, 11-Becca Wann, 17-Taylor Schram, 18-Abby Smith, 19-Stephanie Amack, 20-Kelly Cobb, 21-Jami Kranich
Despite the 4-0 scoreline in this game, the US did not play well as a whole. They had the better mentality, but Ghana (and nearly every other team in the opening round) outplayed the American side. More heart, more energy, more creativity, better soccer. The US was very direct, very boring.
We did see some good performances by the starters. Maya Hayes was amazing, Crystal Dunn totally proved me wrong (and I’m willing to admit it, nya!), and both DiBernardo and Killion looked like they belonged in that midfield. Of the subs, Mewis was a great addition (two assists!) and Laddish didn’t really have enough time to make an impact (but notably replaced Morgan Brian, who wasn’t really doing much). The backline was getting beat by Ghana’s speed, so it would have been nice to see Roccaro in, for sure; maybe Amack as well. The opening game is always a learning opportunity, and fortunately, Ghana is such a strong side that the US had the chance to learn a lot.
Except… see, the lineup for the next game wasn’t about tactics.
US vs China, the second game in group play for the Americans
- Starters: 1-Bryane Heaberlin; 4-Crystal Dunn, 8-Julie Johnston (capt.), 3-Cari Roccaro, 2-Mollie Pathman; 16-Sarah Killion, 10-Vanessa DiBernardo, 6-Morgan Brian; 7-Kealia Ohai, 5-Maya Hayes, 20-Kelly Cobb
- Changes from the first game: Roccaro replacing Kallman on the backline, Cobb replacing Ubogagu in the attack
- Subs: Chioma Ubogagu in for Kelly Cobb, Katie Stengel in for Kealia Ohai, Becca Wann in for Maya Hayes
- Subs not used: 13-Samantha Mewis, 14-Mandy Laddish, 15-Kassey Kallman, 17-Taylor Schram, 18-Abby Smith, 19-Stephanie Amack, 21-Jami Kranich
China is a very different team from Ghana, but some of the weaknesses exposed by the game against Ghana were general, not specific to the opponent. For instance: Roccaro is a solid upgrade for the backline, as she brings speed and energy. Pathman, whose presence didn’t help the US against Ghana, was better suited to the possession game the US tried against China. (To close out the backline vs. China: Dunn again had a good game, and Johnston was able to make more of an impact.)
The problem with ignoring tactics in this game showed through in what didn’t happen in the midfield and what did happen on the front line, where the US was particularly struggling.
In the midfield: Golden Child Morgan Brian was not up to the task of playing a smart passing game against China. And yet she played 90 minutes, while Sam Mewis (who showed good passing and had two assists in the first game) and Mandy Laddish (who has a record of consistently better work ethic) did not see the pitch. Taylor Schram, one of those players that “needs minutes,” and is actually pretty good in the midfield, stayed on the bench as well. DiBernardo and Killion could have used help out there, but didn’t get it.
In front: Cobb. I can understand starting her, in theory; she’s a great attacker, and why not see what she’s got on the international stage? But she is coming back from injury and hasn’t spent much time with this team, not a great combination when you need points and are trying to rely on your passing game. So tactically speaking, it was a good idea to sub Ubogagu in for Cobb, who will probably be shortchanged by this showing. But when your team is having trouble finishing, does it really make sense to sub in yet another untested, recent-addition forward, particularly when you could make a major impact just subbing in the midfield? (Nothing to say about the Stengel/Ohai swap. At at least, not directly.)
All three subs that Swanson made were on the front line. Two of the forwards he played in this draw were relatively new to this team and the stage. Obvious need for a sub was obvious in the midfield. Swanson clearly demonstrated in the first game that Brian can be pulled, and those midfield subs can make a difference in possession and scoring.
This just smacks of 2010 all over again, where ignoring tactics and strengths/weaknesses in personnel was the USA’s undoing. On paper, this is a great team. In fact, past performances have shown that this edition has a lot of promise. 2012 is a stronger all-around team than 2010, but again, the starting and subbing decisions aren’t making a whole lot of sense. And the “it’s not about injury or tactics” explanation unfortunately makes total sense, both for this cycle and others.