Neil W. Blackmon
As high as the standard of excellence is for the US Women’s National Team, undefeated years don’t come along that often. The last year the American women completed without defeat was 2006. Until Sunday.
Less than two weeks after winning a vote to get a soccer-specific stadium in Orlando, the newest MLS expansion city hosted the final US Women’s National Team match of 2013, where a spirited and record (year-best, stand-alone in the southeast) crowd of 20,274 saw Sydney Leroux score twice and the US women defeat Brazil for the seventh consecutive time, 4-1 at the Citrus Bowl.
The Americans stormed to a 1-0 lead behind Leroux, who scored a poach goal after a brilliant Heather O’Reilly ball in the area in the fifteenth minute.
The first goal was technically brilliant execution from both O’Reilly and Leroux, and more evidence for a large theme in 2013, that you can attempt to defend the Yanks in a variety of ways, but they are so talented at the attacking positions they will find a way to exploit and dissect your plan. Brazil began the game playing very deep with nine players behind the ball and two midfielders who attempted to keep the American in a phone booth, cutting off angles for wide distribution and pressuring forays through the middle.
Leroux, playing in her first match against Brazil, admitted she was a bit surprised at how deep the Brazilians started the match. “Yeah, it was strange because they didn’t seem to try to get forward until it was 2-0. I didn’t really know what to expect, in that it was my first time playing them, and obviously the other girls have played them before, but I was surprised they started so deep and I think we dealt with it really well.”
The second goal came on a penalty two minutes later, when Abby Wambach took a pass from Carli Lloyd and went in clean on Brazilian keeper Thais, only to be caught and tackled from behind by Andressa. Wambach calmly beat the keeper on the ensuing spot kick for goal number 163 as a US international, and in so doing, ensured status as the Americans’ top goal scorer for 2013, with eleven.
Down two goals, the Brazilians, who as noted began the match playing very deep and attempting to clog the center, earn takeaways and counter, came out of their shell and began to press the USWNT’s back four of Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn, Leigh Ann Robinson and Stephanie Cox, who were shielded by newcomer Amber Brooks, earning her first cap. This grouping marked the thirteenth time in 2013 the USWNT played a different backline, and the Brazilians were able to do control the game for spells after falling behind.
Only minutes after the tactical adjustment, Brazil cut the lead to 2-1 through Rosana, who hit a strong header near-post that beat Solo’s punch. It was, to be fair, a save Solo typically makes, and the goalkeeper knew it, yelling at herself thereafter, but it made things interesting and had Brazil on the front foot until Leroux scored on a spectacular goalscorer’s run and goal approaching halftime. Becky Sauerbrunn and Carli Lloyd helped win a ball in the midfield zone that was fed to Wambach, who quickly played to Leroux on the left wing. Leroux gained speed, dribbled around and through 2 Brazilian defenders and around rushing Brazilian keeper Thais to finish and give the Americans a lead they were very unlikely to, and ultimately, did not relinquish at 3-1.
Leroux said her second goal was largely about Wambach’s quick ball to the wing giving her the perfect opportunity to incut past her defender and towards space. “Abby played me an amazing ball, and I took my touch and felt my defender on the outside and saw space on the inside, so I went at that area, and another defender slid and missed me, which is when I felt the goalkeeper coming in, so I just did a little stutter-step and went to the other side and beat her.”
Manager Tom Sermanni wasn’t as quick to make it sound so simple, and he was quick to point out the rapid development of the 23 year old forward this season. Leroux scored “two real goalscorer’s, striker’s goals today,” Sermanni said. “A striker’s instinct on the first one and a composed, fast, strong run on the second. She’s just grown this year unbelievably. She’s taken every opportunity that’s been given her, and continued to perform well, playing even better each time she goes on the field.
Outside of the goalscorers, the Americans received very positive first-half performances from Heather O’Reilly and Carli Lloyd, who Sermanni played in a slightly more advanced role ahead of Amber Brooks Sunday. The tactical switch wasn’t entirely related to Lauren Cheney (Holiday) picking up a minor injury prior to the match, according to Sermanni,who said that having a defensive-shielder and ball-winner who plays with discipline is a positive because it allows Lloyd to “roam around” and “play her natural game” as a box-to-box midfielder.
Lloyd agreed. “This week, unfortunately, Lauren Cheney picked up a bit of a knock, so I kind of thought I’d get the opportunity to play in the attacking role,” Lloyd said, adding that it wasn’t much of an adjustment for her preparation-wise. “At the end of the day, either role, I’m pretty much defending, attacking, contributing, I’m just higher up on the field.” Lloyd also was quick to praise Amber Brooks, who she trains with at Universal Soccer Academy back home in New Jersey. “We had a great partnership going on,” Lloyd said. “I said to her, I’ve got your back, you’re going to be nervous, but just keep it simple. She’s a fantastic player that has a lot of potential. If she keeps working hard, continuing to get fit, and dedicate herself, she’s got a bright future here. I was very pleased with how she performed for her first cap. She did really good.”
After the Americans reclaimed the two goal advantage, Brazil dictated play in swaths against the patchwork American backline and defensive shielder Amber Brooks, who had both some nice, and some shaky, moments in her first cap. Sermanni noted that the Americans will certainly enter 2014 trying to find more cohesion in the defense. “I think for a lot of today, they performed very well, but we did get caught a couple of times in the second half and gave them breakaways, either from positioning or communication issues. That’s going to happen when you’re constantly changing your lineup, and it also happens when teams get tired and teams get lazy, so it’s a balance where you need poise but you also need to play better,” Sermanni said.
The good news for the Americans is that the goalkeeper was more than ready to handle the defensive breakdowns.
Hope Solo held off a furious Brazilian flurry early in the second half, making a series of fine saves that more than made up for her mistake on the Brazilian opener, including stunning saves on Cristiane and Raquel with the game still very much in the balance early in the second half. For her part, Solo wasn’t terribly concerned about the backline. “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.” What remains to be seen, however, is what combination works, and whether the Americans can find it before qualifying begins next year. The Americans attacking style does leave them vulnerable to the counter, and Brazil, it is worth repeating, are a strong team, but the Americans need to find balance and cohesion in the back. Sermanni agreed, suggesting that will be a priority before the team plays in Frisco, Texas in January. “I certainly think there will be more consistency and continuity moving forward,” Sermanni said.
The US added a fourth goal, sealing the victory, through substitution Erika Tymrak in the 76th minute, and it was a special moment for fans and teammates alike. The goal for Tymrak was her first as a US international. Tymrak, a University of Florida product playing in front of a great number of family and friends, sent the record crowd and Abby Wambach, a fellow Gator alum, into a frenzy when she scored, but her reaction was perhaps the most priceless: she simply put her hands to her head, almost covering her eyes, as if it were all too good to be true.
Tymrak remained giddy after the match, doing a Gator Chomp to the Florida crowd and wearing an ear to ear smile, noting that her reaction to the goal was just what it looked like- shock. “That’s exactly what happened, I was like– Am I in a dream right now? It was very surreal and an incredible experience that I could score in front of all these people in my home state. It’s very cool, and I had teammates here, and of course, Abby (being a Gator), it’s so cool it could happen like that.”
Wambach shared Tymrak’s joy on the goal, saying that it was special to see a fellow University of Florida alum score for the national team, particularly after her longtime college and US Women’s National teammate Heather Mitts retired. “I was jumping up and down on the sidelines like a little kid with Lauren Cheney, her teammate in Kansas City. Obviously, Tymrak’s a former Gator and I’m really proud of her for getting her first goal, and obviously, that she gets her first goal here, as close to Gainesville as possible, is awesome,” Wambach said.
The Americans finished 2013 13-0-3, extended their world-best unbeaten streak to 39 games, just 12 short of the federation record, and garnered a great deal of momentum heading into the crucial qualification year that will be 2014. On a player development and production standpoint, the Americans saw several players earn their first caps in 2013, including four players who featured Sunday in Orlando: Kristie Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Amber Brooks and Tymrak. Forwards Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Sydney Leroux give the US a young, outstanding nucleus for the future at the forward position, and oh by the way, some woman named Abby broke a record by a woman named Mia you may have heard a thing or two about. It’s the type of dominant year that you’d expect from the world’s best team, with the added bonus of being undefeated for the first time in seven seasons.
Wambach remained reticent about breaking the record, and shed perspective on finishing the year without a defeat. “Obviously every time we go out on the field, we don’t want to lose. But more importantly, I think the bigger step for me, Sydney, Alex and Christen Press, we’re scoring a similar amount of goals and in a number of different ways. That’s indicative to how deep we are in attack, moving forward.”
Asked about whether he took additional pleasure in finishing his first calendar year as manager undefeated, Tom Sermanni offered humor, and only then, reflection. “I’m still in a job, I think. You haven’t heard anything different, have you? I haven’t gotten a vote of confidence from the board,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a great first year coaching this team. As a coach, you never stop learning, you never stop working, you never stop seeing different things in players, and as I’ve gone in the year, I’ve learned more and more things about the team, both on and off the field, and it’s been a really positive year for me. I’ve really enjoyed being (in) this environment.”
The biggest winner in the 4-1 victory was the city of Orlando. As noted, it has been a great month for soccer in that city, and the American women were quick to point out how ready the city is for MLS and what a great choice it will be for expansion. “This is definitely a soccer city, and that’s hard for me to say because I’m from Seattle,” Hope Solo remarked.
Abby Wambach agreed. “It’s LOUD. Seriously, on the field, we couldn’t hear each other. This was a world championship environment and you can’t create this every day. That’s a great opportunity for us to play in a loud environment against a great team like Brazil, so we have to use hand signals and communicate in other ways, which is great,” Wambach said.
The environment bodes well for the future, Wambach added. “A lot of people talk about the southeast as ‘not that into soccer.’ Now that the city of Orlando has okay’d the building of a soccer-specific stadium, hopefully all those people came here, because that choice was the right one. They just had over 20,000 people for a women’s national team game. Imagine what it will be like when the people here come and support that team. Hopefully MLS gets the franchise up and running as soon as possible, because look at these fans. I’m not lying. There’s very few stadiums where I lose my voice, and it’s about to go.”
With a stand-alone USWNT southeast record crowd of 20,274 in the rundown Citrus Bowl on a glorious November day in Orlando, and given the 20,ooo plus who saw Orlando City win the USL Pro title a month prior, it is hard to argue with Wambach. Not that she’d have the voice left to anyway.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.