By Shannon Hovan
1. ALEX MORGAN
Who said Alex Morgan wasn’t a 90-minute player? Head Coach Pia Sundhage did, as recently as the friendly against Sweden back in November.
During the post-game press conference, Sundhage said the reason why Morgan was so good was because she came off of the bench. She continued by saying, “she has a small role and she plays it well. She understands it and respects it.” This quote of course accounts not just for the game against Sweden, where Morgan came in late in the second half and whose laser of a shot deflected, setting up teammate Tobin Heath with an opportunity to tap in the game-tying goal in the 81st minute. Sundhage is also referring to the number of game-changing performances Alex Morgan has had off of the bench from late 2010 through 2011, most notably the two goals and one assist she posted in five appearances at this summer’s Women’s World Cup in Germany, and the game-winning goal that qualified the US for a spot in the World Cup initially back in the Fall of 2010. Her ability to perform and perform well against the world’s best and in the most high-pressure situations is not debatable.
Although, whether or not she would produce with the same consistency as a starter was, until recently. Sundhage referred to her use of Morgan as a sub as “good coaching”. I’d say giving Morgan her first start against Canada in the Championship Game of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament on January 29th and then again in the friendly against New Zealand on February 11 as “better coaching”.
In an effort to put the label “Super-Sub” behind her, she netted four goals and two assists. The US scored six goals in those two games. You do the math.
Although she’s only 22, she’s given plenty of reasons and made enough statements to be a starter. No question. Now if we could only see her up top consistently, alongside newcomer Sydney Leroux….But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
2. DEPTH & VERSATILITY
You know your team has depth when you can win the Championship game of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament without starting Lauren Cheney, Shannon Boxx, or Heather O’Reilly, arguably, three of the best players in the world. Cheney came in as a sub in the Championship game against Canada, while Boxx and O’Reilly did not play at all. Not that they needed to.
The US won, 4-0, scoring three goals in the first half, ending the contest early. Sundhage said throughout the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and in preparation for the friendly with New Zealand that the challenge leading up to the Olympics would be to find which players fit where, within each of the two formations they use — the familiar 4-4-2, which they used in their commendable World Cup run this past summer, and the recent 4-2-3-1, which made its debut in the friendly against Canada on September 17th in Kansas City, Kansas.
The 4-2-3-1 formation has developed considerably since September, highlighting not only the depth of the US squad but the versatility of its players as well — players like Tobin Heath, who in the 4-4-2 formation is traditionally an outside midfielder. In the 4-2-3-1 she plays up top and out wide at the flank or in the No.10 spot, as the role of playmaker, which suits her vision, unselfishness and technical ability well.
Amy Rodriguez is another exciting example, historically playing in one of the two forward spots up top in the 4-4-2, alongside Abby Wambach. Her production in the 2011 was minimal, specifically, scoring no goals throughout the entire Women’s World Cup tournament this past summer, thus sparking questions about her future role on the team. The 4-2-3-1 has allowed her to move outside into a flank position, taking off some of the pressure in goal-scoring. The flank allows her to make more runs, create and work combination play with an overlapping outside-back. The new formation has brought about a rebirth in Rodriguez, highlighting her strengths and allowing her to use them in new ways.
The changing roles of players is exciting and represents a fresh approach to 2012, which will bring out sophisticated soccer the more the players move around and Sundhage finds the right combinations.
We’ve already seen fresh goal-scoring combinations arise as a result of the 4-2-3-1. The third goal in a 3-0 win against Canada on September 22nd in Portland, Oregon, saw a cross into the box from Heath to Cheney, who headed the ball onto Morgan, who put the ball in the back of the net sealing the victory. The fact that the oldest of those three players was 23 at the time, is the most exciting fact of all, for fans and for Sundhage. To think, Cheney-Heath-Morgan can be a goal-scoring combo for the next decade.
3. O’HARA WILL GET THERE
With the loss of Ali Krieger to an ACL tear in the opening match of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament last month, a number of question marks have arisen in the shifting back line of the U.S. team. One of the answers, and quite surprisingly, was the insertion of Kelley O’Hara at the outside-back position.
O’Hara is by nature and trade a striker, winning the coveted Hermann Trophy as a forward, while playing her collegiate years at Stanford University. Her energy and attacking mentality, however, aid her as an outside-back in Sundhage’s newly instituted 4-2-3-1 system as it calls for the two outside-backs to push forward, overlap the flank midfielders and send balls into the box creating scoring opportunities. O’Hara’s flaw is, of course, that she is not a trained defender. This was most evidently shown in the United States’ recent friendly with New Zealand.
In a moment of pressure, O’Hara attempted to clear the ball back into the middle to goalkeeper Hope Solo, which ended in a New Zealand player beating Solo to the ball and chipping her for an early second half goal. Mistakes like these are expected for someone who has only started as a defensive player five times in her young International career. Will she earn a starting right or left back position?
I’m not convinced she is the replacement for Krieger at this moment. It doesn’t appear that Sundhage is convinced either, as eight defenders have been included in the 23-player Algarve Cup roster, some familiar names and some newer ones.
However, O’Hara’s energy and excitement for the game as such a young player is obvious, contagious, and a pleasure to watch.
As a fan, I am happy that Sundhage is giving O’Hara the chance to define her role on the National Team. To be given that chance says a lot. The shift from striker to defender is dramatic.
Whatever her role ends up being, it seems it is clear that Sundhage sees qualities in O’Hara that are indispensable.
4. ALGARVE CUP
Held in Portugal from February 29-March 7, the 12-team tournament Algarve Cup holds a heavy talking point in the much-anticipated rematch of The United States and Japan. On Monday, March 5th, in its second match in group play, The USWNT will face the Japanese squad for the first time since their heartbreaking defeat to them in the Women’s World Cup Final last July. Unfortunately, the matches will not be televised, but fans can follow them on ussoccer.com’s Match Tracker.
As the US has already qualified for the London Olympics, following their victory in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament last month in Vancouver, Canada, the Algarve Cup is in a sense “meaningless”. Although with the opportunity to bring a 23-player roster, it allows Sundhage time to experiment with different players in various positions, in the hopes of being closer to finalizing a much smaller 18-player roster for the Olympics come August.
(Quotes from ussoccer.com)