On Friday, in the final quarterfinal game to be played, the US managed a 2-1 overtime win over Korea DPR, who went unbeaten in a group that consisted of Canada, Norway, and Argentina. The US emerged from group with a win, a tie, and a loss, in that order. This quarterfinal showing was not the best or worst from the US team this tournament. Given that this was the only quarterfinal game that could be considered a toss-up in terms of victory, it’s time to break down what we have seen from this 2012 team, both good and bad.
@WoSo95 (Chris) and I (Ruth) have tackled this analysis while looking beyond just this game. The good and the bad are impressions from the tournament as a whole, with both of us having watched the US games and a number of the other nations as well. We don’t have entirely the same biases and come at the game from somewhat different angles, so I figured that both of us approaching the U-20s together would make for some better perspective.
Since we have a long list of “talking” points, it’s probably best to break this into sections. So here goes.
USA Lineup vs Korea DPR
1-Bryane Heaberlin; 4-Crystal Dunn, 8-Julie Johnston (capt.), 3-Cari Roccaro, 2-Mollie Pathman; 16-Sarah Killion, 10-Vanessa DiBernardo (15-Kassey Kallman, 108), 6-Morgan Brian; 7-Kealia Ohai, 20-Kelly Cobb (13-Samantha Mewis, 61), 5-Maya Hayes (9-Chioma Ubogagu, 71)
Subs not used: 11-Becca Wann, 12-Katie Stengel, 14-Mandy Laddish, 17-Taylor Schram, 18-Abby Smith, 19-Stephanie Amack, 21-Jami Kranich
Morgan Brian …is not an entirely bad idea
Shocker, I know.
- What works: Brian had been pushed to the wing a couple times during the past few games and actually appeared to be productive there. However, we can’t say conclusively that the wing is a good spot for her on this team, because she wasn’t there for long before returning to….
- What doesn’t work: being central and having the midfield run through her. On one hand, this isn’t entirely her fault – the rest of the team dumps the ball to her and expects her to do something with it (regardless of whether she can), while opponents know that this is the US game-plan and put constant close pressure on her. So the question of Brian’s productivity becomes a chicken-or-egg issue.
- What might work: playing Brian as a forward, rather than the predictable central mid, and acknowledging that she is a subbing option. There is no reason she has to start every game, and no reason she has to play every single minute for the US. It would probably totally confuse opponents if Brian was off the pitch at any point, if only because that would change the way the midfield operates.
- Maya Hayes – speed, control, finishing, doesn’t just sit up top and wait for delivery
- Julie Johnston is going to make us sound like a broken record, but she still shows leadership, control, solid field vision/understanding of her position, and all those wonderful qualities that made her a good pick for captain in the first place. She’s holding up just fine.
- Cari Roccaro, particularly in place of Kallman, is a defender that is willing to go at players and be aggressive without being afraid of losing the ball. Including her in the lineup and leaving her in all game against Korea DPR was a good choice.
- Crystal Dunn defends well, attacks well, and seems to get tired of waiting for everyone else to get their shit together and puts it together for them. I [Ruth] can’t get over how much she has improved from past tournaments. I [WoSo95], on the other hand, am not surprised. She’s better now, but was always good; one of the few positives on the 2010 team. Her potential is coming along nicely.
- Vanessa Di Bernardo – omg, a midfielder! an attacking midfielder! She might not have had her best game against Korea DPR, but she scored a beautiful goal and has been, overall, good in the midfield this tournament.
- Sarah Killion helps Di Bernardo out in terms of possession. And that’s awesome, because the Morgan Brian Chicken Egg has some trouble in this area (regardless of whether that’s her fault). She’s good with the ball in tight quarters; a weakness with the rest of the US.
- Samantha Mewis, when she is on the field, is generally the best in the midfield in terms of distribution and possession. As in, she is the player you can run the midfield play through. A really great alternative to Brian in that role. She’s probably the slowest midfielder, in terms of pace and reaction, but is a smarter player with wider vision.
- We’re not playing the long-ball game! Congrats, US U-20s!
- Defense: not only does the US have the right personnel to deal with most opponents, but the coaching staff have shown that they are willing to make changes in the back. Generally speaking, this is a good defensive unit that is also willing to get involved in the attack. In fact, sometimes the backline is the attack, and they’re not bad on that end, either.
- Really poor off-the-ball movement and sometimes no off-the-ball movement at all. Folks aren’t available for passes, or are out of position to win balls in the air, or second balls. There doesn’t seem to be much effort to anticipate, especially late in games; North Korea was winning nearly everything towards the end of the quarterfinal. And there is a horrible tendency – seen especially in the game against Korea DPR – to pass to teammates that are either very close-by or closely marked by one or two opponents. Just because you can see a white jersey doesn’t make it a good option.
- Midfield: not connecting with forwards, not winning balls in the air (despite being taller, generally), and apparently not a priority for the coaching staff. The lack of changes here seems negligent as the tournament progresses. Mewis is often left on the bench, either not playing or getting too few minutes to make a real impact. The same true is Mandy Laddish and Taylor Schram, but Mewis has proven to provide key distribution that is sorely lacking otherwise. The midfield shows little connection to the forwards, who often look lost, and rather than focusing on players that can create attack, the coaching staff often opts to toss in new forwards and hope one of them has an answer.
- Forwards: don’t know what their midfield is doing, and the mids don’t seem to know what the forwards are doing/capable of. In some cases, this is clearly a communication/familiarity issue. And that is just not good. Hayes poured out energy into getting the US through group play, and she looked understandably gassed in the quarterfinal. Kelly Cobb is unselfish, to a fault; there is an obvious disconnect between her and the rest of the team. This U-20 campaign is a poor use of her skills. You can see her hesitation, a poor first touch, and lack of speed. She’s returning from injury and doesn’t appear comfortable with this team or the style of play. Chioma Ubogagu and Maya Hayes serve such similar roles that they probably don’t need to be on the field at the same time (hooray for the straight swap in the Korea DPR game!), and Stengel is similar to Cobb but much more confident and somewhat better with possession. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough possession up top, and Kealia Ohai hasn’t shown much of a talent for passing. When passes do connect, the often lone forward is double- or triple-teamed and has little chance to do anything with the ball.
- The subbing sucks. There was improvement in this area in the quarterfinal, but we won’t know until the next game if that was a fluke.
- April Heinrichs is clearly doing her job, since this team looks a lot like they’ve been aligned with the senior team – minus the long ball. Still, playing this way is a waste of everyone’s college seasons, a waste of everyone’s precious chance at a World Cup. While we’re maybe seeing some development at the U-20 level, now is not the time to develop this team. There really should have been more of that the past two years. The 2010 U-17s would have been a great base to build on this cycle. If only.
Okay, so – how did we beat North Korea?
Three major factors:
- The Koreans were cocky and pretty much beat themselves. This game should have been theirs, with their only major obstacle being…
- The US defense, which looked a little shaky at times but was only really truly beat out once, which resulted in the lone PRK goal.
- The US was disjointed and messy, but had good moments and managed not to beat themselves. And credit the subbing this game: Mewis came in for Cobb – a mid for a forward – a connector for someone that wasn’t connecting. Ubogagu came in for Hayes – a direct switch. Kallman in for DiBernardo – you can’t win them all; fortunately a late sub and mostly due to injury. By and large, the US defense was very good compared to everyone else on the field. Pathman and Dunn built attack, Roccaro and Johnston held tight in the back. Attack forever, defend together.
How can the US beat Nigeria?
The trap is to think that the US can play as they did in the game against Ghana, basically. That was the first game of the tournament, when everyone was fresh and both sides were in a different headspace. From a US standpoint, we relied too much on the energy of Hayes. There’s no way that facing a confident Nigerian side in the semifinals results in a 4-0 win for the Americans. But that isn’t to say the US can’t put in a good showing or even win.
- Lineup: Could be similar to the one versus Korea DPR. Same defense and midfield (it’s too late to make real changes, isn’t it), and try starting Stengel and Ubogagu.
- Subbing: Hayes can come in for either forward – for Ubogagu if the finishing or connection is off, for Stengel if the US needs double the speed on attack. Mewis for distribution, Laddish or Schram for fresh legs. The Nigerians have the US athletically beat and are hungry for this win. The US has to match their energy and focus. These are two completely different teams and styles, and the US can’t win by trying to be something it’s not.
- Tactics: more flank play, stop giving everything to Brian. Forwards need to work together; quick flick-ons, dummy runs, give and go’s. Communication! So, hey. Respect basic soccer as a foundation. That’s what you’re supposed to build on.
It should be acknowledged that the most effective performance by a US-born forward in the U20 Women’s World Cup was by Sofia Huerta, who played for Mexico. Ironically, Huerta was in a US U20 training camp as recently as this January [www.ussoccer.com], and only joined Mexico for the first time shortly thereafter. In the World Cup, she connected with her midfield and her fellow attackers, made a menace of herself with opposing defenses (scoring several goals in the tournament by forcing errors from defenders and goalkeepers), and finished most of her few chances (at least until the ill-fated quarterfinal against Nigeria).
I [WoSo95] don’t think it’s as easy as “US takes Huerta and the US attack suddenly works better”, but Huerta clearly fit in with Mexico and its playing style better than the US forwards have fit into the US style. It can’t even be explained away by saying that Mexico has played and trained together longer; Huerta only met her current teammates less than six months ago. The question is not why wasn’t Huerta chosen for the US squad, but rather what is Mexico doing to integrate its team that the US has clearly failed to? Why do the US players appear to be so lost in their own system?
This shows that the problem with US youth development is not so much individual player development – Huerta grew up in the same systems as the US players did – as it is in team-building. There are plenty of skilled, smart players in the US; they’re just not being allowed to show it on the national team.