Seek­ing a per­fect pair­ing

Af­ter a score­less draw with Swe­den, the United States con­tin­ues to look for stronger part­ner­ships.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

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.”

MICHAEL CHOW/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Julie John­ston (19) is half of a strong part­ner­ship on de­fense.

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