Seeking a perfect pairing
After a scoreless draw with Sweden, the United States continues to look for stronger partnerships.
winnipeg— A soccer team is at its best when partnerships are in prime working order.
Three combinations form the spine of the U.S. women’s national team lineup. Through two World Cup matches, though, only the center backs, Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn, are in peak form.
Central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday have put in the work but haven’t passed well or broken down defenses through individual effort. On the front line, Coach Jill Ellis changed starters between games and adjusted personnel during them but is still trying to identify the ideal duo.
The shortfalls have not stricken the U.S. operation. Despite a 0-0 drawwith Sweden on Friday, the Americans remain atop Group D with four points heading into the first-round finale Tuesday against Nigeria (one point) in Vancouver.
Only a heavy defeat mixed with the outcome in the other group match — Australia (three points) against Sweden (two) in Edmonton at the same time — could knock the United States out of a top-two position and force the two-time champions to sweat out third-place scenarios.
Two teams in each of the six groups will secure passage to the round of 16 while the third-place finishers will vie for the last four slots.
In every major tournament, the Americans carry the weight of great expectations. When women’s soccer launched in earnest 25 years ago, they’ve never failed to reach the semifinals of a World Cup or Olympics. And upon their arrival in this 24team competition, they joined Germany, Japan and France as favorites.
Ellis’s squad has conceded only one goal and not lost. But it hasn’t performed to standard either, raising questions about its capability to reach the July 5 final in Vancouver.
Counting a 0-0 draw with South Korea in the final tune-up two weeks ago, the attack has come up empty in twoof the past three matches. The forwards have been blanked in all three; left wing Megan Rapinoe (two goals) and right wing Christen Press furnished the scoring in the 3-1 victory over Australia on Monday.
“In the first half, it’s been hard for us to find our rhythm,” said forward Alex Morgan, who has been used off the bench as she seeks to regain form after recovering from a knee injury.
“Once we start to wear teams down in the second half, we become more in control and gain more of a rhythm. It’s been tough in the first half of these first two games.”
Ellis started Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux in the opener, then added Morgan late. In the second outing, she began with Leroux and Press, then inserted Amy Rodriguez, Wambach and Morgan in the second half.
“I don’t think it was as efficient as we needed it to be,” Ellis said of the Leroux-Press partnership. “In terms of quality looks and quality chances, we could have been better and more productive.”
What’s in store for the Nigeria match? It’s hard to predict. Complicating matters is Morgan’s push for optimum fitness and form. She played 12 minutes in each of the first two matches, but those close to the team do not expect her at full effectiveness anytime soon.
When in top form, Morgan offers a blend of speed, improvisation and finishing touch. She also changes the dynamic of the frontline and offers a greater scoring threat than Leroux, who assisted on Press’s go-ahead goal against Australia but has been generally static.
Wambach remains an aerial warrior. But her lack of pace and mobility holds back team rhythm. And when she had the opportunity to score with her head, she did not finish: Two attempts against Australia glanced wide and a courageous diving bid against Sweden was touched away by the leaping goalkeeper.
Lloyd and Holiday haven’t manufactured many chances, leaving Rapinoe as the primary playmaker from a wide position.
There has been better news in the back. Johnston, 23, was the most polished player on the field Friday, timing tackles, reading the game and imposing a physical presence. Sauerbrunn, primarily a reserve at the previous World Cup and Olympics, was cool under pressure.
“A lot of teams aren’t getting tested as much, and we’re getting tested,” Ellis said. “It’s good for us, it’s good for our younger players. Those are things you hope will pay off later on.”
Julie Johnston (19) is half of a strong partnership on defense.