The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY ANNE M. PE­TER­SON

Much of the at­ten­tion on the United States rightly goes to its pro­lific of­fense, es­pe­cially af­ter that 13-goal game to open the Women's World Cup, but the team's de­fense has been pre­dictably re­li­able so far in France.

The de­fense has posted shutouts in the team's first three games, mark­ing the first time the United States has not con­ceded a goal in the group stage at the tour­na­ment. The de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons open the knock­out round Mon­day against Spain.

Goal­keeper Alyssa Nae­her saw lit­tle ac­tion dur­ing the team's rout of Thai­land in the opener, but matches against Chile and Swe­den pro­vided in­cre­men­tally tougher tests.

“To come away from group play with three shutouts, as a team de­fen­sively, I'm very proud of that,” she said. “It's a goal that we have go­ing into every game, es­pe­cially as a back line, to keep clean sheets. We put a lot of time into team de­fend­ing as well, all 11 play­ers on the field are de­fend­ing, and that co­he­sive­ness is what helps bring that.”

The team's back­line in France has shifted due to lineup changes and in­juries. Vet­eran cen­ter back Becky Sauer­brunn was held out of the first game be­cause of a mi­nor in­jury, but came back against Chile when coach Jill Ellis rested play­ers.

Against Swe­den, Ellis used the back­line that is ex­pected to start in the knock­out phase, with Abby Dahlkem­per along­side Sauer­brunn, Kel­ley O'Hara on the right and Crys­tal Dunn on the left. Dunn was es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive against Swe­den and in thwart­ing for­ward Sofia Jakob­s­son.

The United States has seven clean sheets in its last eight World Cup matches – the ex­cep­tion be­ing the two goals al­lowed in the team's 5-2 vic­tory over Ja­pan in the 2015 fi­nal. The United States went 540 min­utes in Canada with­out con­ced­ing a goal, the long­est streak in the tour­na­ment since Ger­many's record 679 score­less min­utes from 2003-11.

For­mer goal­keeper Hope Solo al­lowed just three to­tal goals and won her sec­ond straight Golden Glove as the tour­na­ment's top goal­keeper. The back­line in­cluded Sauer­brunn, Meghan Klin­gen­berg, Julie John­ston and Ali Krieger.

John­ston, now Julie Ertz, has moved up into a role as a de­fen­sive mid­fielder in France. She sat out against Swe­den be­cause of a hip con­tu­sion but U.S. Soc­cer char­ac­ter­ized the in­jury as mi­nor. Krieger won a spot on the ros­ter for this tour­na­ment be­cause of her big-game ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter a long lay­off from the team.

Nae­her has re­placed Solo, con­sid­ered one of the game's best goal­keep­ers ever. Solo was dismissed from the team fol­low­ing the 2016 Olympics.

Brush­ing off the in­evitable com­par­isons, Nae­her has been steady in goal.

“I've played with Alyssa since I was like 16, so I've known her for a re­ally long time. It's awe­some to see her step into this role be­cause I've al­ways known that she has the ca­pac­ity and the tal­ent to be the start­ing goal­keeper on this team. She's shown that,” O'Hara said. “She, for me, pro­vides a very calm con­sis­tency back there. She's also some­one with steely nerves. I think she does a re­ally good job of just putting on a game face.”

The United States is cur­rently on a streak of 594 min­utes since last con­ced­ing a goal. The last came in the 81st minute of a 5-3 vic­tory over Aus­tralia in April.

Echo­ing Nae­her, Tobin Heath said the Amer­i­cans have em­braced team de­fense.

“It's huge. It's a big part of what we're try­ing to do, both of­fen­sively and de­fen­sively. We al­ways talk about this idea of 360 de­fend­ing, where ev­ery­body's con­tribut­ing,” Heath said. “I think Alyssa's been fan­tas­tic. It's not easy, es­pe­cially in the first two games to not face that many shots, and then to have a qual­ity op­po­nent like Swe­den, to be on her game.”

If the top-ranked U.S. can get past No. 13 Spain, there's a pos­si­bil­ity of a clash against hosts France in the quar­ter­fi­nal in Paris. The fourth-ranked French, who scored seven goals in the group stage and con­ceded just one, face Brazil on Sun­day.

“I think this is the best team we've had, and we're so con­fi­dent right now, we're so mo­ti­vated to want to win and suc­ceed,” Krieger said. “We know what tools we have and what we need in or­der to break teams down and be suc­cess­ful in the fi­nal third. I think that's what we've show­cased so far.”


United States’ Crys­tal Dunn, right, is ex­pected to start on the left of the back­line in Mon­day’s quar­ter­fi­nal. Dunn was es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive against Swe­den.

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