Five goals conceded in one match? A two-game losing streak? A loss to Denmark? The 2014 Algarve Cup proved to be a nightmare for the U.S. women's soccer team. John D. Halloran explains why.
John D. Halloran
THE UNITED STATES WOMEN'S
March 13, 2014
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national team wrapped up its 2014 Algarve Cup on an upbeat note Wednesday, defeating North Korea 3-0.
That's the good news. The bad news? Pretty much everything else.
The Americans finished seventh in the tournament—which qualifies as a massive disappointment. More worrisome, the team's defensive display across these four matches may qualify as the worst in the history of the U.S. women’s program. Here’s a recap of the action, along with some thoughts of how this will affect the team going forward.
The U.S. headed into the tournament on a 42-game unbeaten streak (including a 16-0-3 record in the Tom Sermanni era), but everyone knew the caliber of opponents in Portugal would test the Americans. Group stage matches against No. 3-ranked Japan, No. 6 Sweden, and No. 13 Denmark proved to be too much for the U.S.
In the opener, the U.S. drew with Japan 1-1, but the Americans outshot the Japanase by a 20-8 margin. The post-game consensus? The U.S. probably deserved a better result considering their domination of the play. Sermanni added this: “We did more than enough to win…and [had] enough chances to probably win two or three games."
However, there were some worrisome signs from the Japan game. The U.S.’s lone goal did not come in the run of play, or even from a trademark U.S. set piece. It came on a “hustle play,” when Sydney Leroux closed down the Japanese keeper and redirected her clearance into her own net.
Also troubling from the Japan game was how the U.S. conceded the equalizer. In the 83rd minute, Japanese midfielder Aya Miyama scored on a 40-yard free kick past U.S. keeper Hope Solo, who clearly misjudged the flight of the ball and gave up the soft goal.
Losing to Sweden
The U.S. headed into its second match against Sweden—managed by former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage—knowing that it likely needed a win to keep alive its hopes of playing for the title.
Leroux was not in the lineup due to what was described as “violent” food poisoning and the U.S. started Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez up top.
In the 15th minute the U.S. got off on the right foot, earning a penalty kick. However, Abby Wambach missed the ensuing kick and nine minutes later Sweden took the lead on a header by forward Lotta Schelin.
Throughout the game, Wambach and Rodriguez proved ineffective in breaking down the Swedish backline. Late substitutes Sarah Hagen (who earned her first cap in the game) and Christen Press did much better, and Hagen nearly tied the match late on when she slid across the face of goal, narrowly missing an end-line service from Carli Lloyd.
The match finished 1-0 and meant the first loss of the Sermanni era and the end of the team’s 43-game unbeaten streak.
But even with the loss, no one in the U.S. camp seemed panicked and, considering the quality of the competition the U.S. was facing, the lack of panic seemed justified. The U.S. had outshot Sweden 12-4 and even Sermanni, coming off his first loss as head coach of the U.S. women, seemed upbeat.
“The result doesn’t always equate to performance," he said. "It’s really important that our team stay positive and stay upbeat. Overall, we’ve played two of the best teams in the world…created numerous chances, given up very few chances, dominated games, and even dominated possession against Japan and, unfortunately, didn’t get the results.”
The Disaster against Denmark
If the U.S. had produced a positive a result against Denmark, everyone would have simply shrugged their shoulders and moved on. After all, Japan won the World Cup in 2011 and made it to the finals of the 2012 Olympics. And Sweden has been no slouch either, finishing third at the 2011 World Cup and third at the 2013 European Championships. Both teams are elite sides.
Also, U.S. absences (Alex Morgan and Lauren Holiday) and injuries (Kelley O'Hara and Tobin Heath, who could not perform at full capacity) seemed to mitigate the results of the first two matches.
Had the U.S. to gone out against Denmark and win 3-0, they would have left Portugal no worse for wear.
But that’s not what happened.
The 5-3 loss to Denmark proved to be an embarrassment for the U.S. squad, and the team conceded the most goals in the team’s 29-year history. The result also began the team’s first losing streak in 13 years. The U.S. finished 0-2-1 in group play, which qualified them for the seventh-place match against North Korea. For a team that has won the Algarve Cup eight times, this was simply not up to par.
Against Denmark the U.S. went down 3-0 in the first half. While it did battle back valiantly in the second half, putting Denmark under suffocating pressure and getting three goals back, the Yanks also conceded two more times.
“We started the game very sluggishly, that’s what went wrong," Sermanni said. "We were too slow and too predictable and we allowed Denmark to dictate how the game was going to be played.”
“The results are obviously not up to our standards," U.S. captain Christine Rampone said. "We have to refocus and re-evaluate.”
Seventh Place and Plenty to Question
Forced to play North Korea for seventh place on Wednesday morning, the U.S. responded well. Abby Wambach scored twice and Heather O’Reilly, playing in her 200th game as a U.S. international, added another to give the Americans a 3-0 win.
But as the team heads back to the U.S. with the World Cup qualifying tournament only seven months away, the Algarve Cup has created far more questions than it answered.
The defense remains a big concern, particularly when Hope Solo is not at her best. With O’Hara still not fully fit, left back remains a serious question mark. At the Algarve Cup, Stephanie Cox split time on the left with Meghan Klingenberg, but neither were particularly impressive and Cox was at fault for two of the goals conceded against Denmark.
For some reason, center back Rachel Van Hollebeke only started one of the U.S.’s four matches in Portugal and the team has still not found a replacement at holding midfielder in the absence of Shannon Boxx.
Heather O’Reilly, who was one the best players in the U.S.’s friendlies against Russia last month, struggled in the matches against better defenders, and her “kick it down the touchline and run” move has been found out. Megan Rapinoe seemed off her game in the tournament and valuable minutes up top continue to be given to Amy Rodriguez, despite the fact that Christen Press appears to be a far superior player.
With the National Women’s Soccer League season opening up in just a few weeks, the U.S. women will be taking a break until April. The squad will only have a few more opportunities to play together before heading to Mexico in October for qualifying.
Sermanni has a lot of work to do, and a lot of decisions to make, between now and then.
What did you think of the U.S. women's team's showing in the Algarve Cup? What changes, if any, would you make to the squad? Tell us in the comments section below.