Unable to close out two late-game leads, the USWNT’s magic finally ran out against Japan.
The USWNT run in this Women’s World Cup was a roller coaster of emotions. From the last-gasp, game-tying goal versus Brazil to the late game fight-back vs. France, the Americans relied on razor sharp counterattacks to cut open continental possession teams. Like the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the header heroics of Abby Wambach got the heart racing and blood pumping. But was this really a streak of good luck that papers over lingering problems? Was the loss the result of an unfortunate error or future inevitability?
In terms of tactics and success, the dominant national team in the men’s game is Spain, who has won the most recent European Championship and the World Cup. The Spanish play a perfect continental game, using short passes to retain the ball and carefully probe an opposing defense for weaknesses. The closest American football analogy is the West Coast offense, with midfield maestro Xavi Hernandez playing the quarterback role of Joe Montana. Spain plays possession football. Spain has won everything as of late. Therefore, possession football=everything.
Based on that simple math, the Americans’ tactics this tournament should cause concern. The midfield combated with grit, but struggled to string together passes. The US shot out of the gates to early leads, yet eventually wilted after failing to keep possession. A good NFL team with a lead will resort to the running game, using inch-long advances to milk the clock. In soccer, the equivalent is the backwards and sideways pass, which force the opposing team to play monkey-in-the-middle. Cynical? Strategic? Regardless of your preferred adjective, this USWNT displayed none of it.
The USWNT thus fit the narrative of the “underdog” and the “flawed Achilles hero” perfectly. The concession of possession gave the impression the Americans were perpetually pinned, the littler dog looking for a sliver of a chance to get a bite. The inability to put games away early, despite scoring the first goal, added a human element of fallibility. This was no Dream Team firing on all cylinders. In a sense, the USWNT succeeded because of and in spite of itself.
Unless, of course, you sweep away the premise of those last two paragraphs: possession football=everything. In the last Olympic games, the USWNT eeked out 1-0 games with a dominant game of methodical keep-ball. It culminated in gold glory. Yet the roster has changed. Chalkboards and tactics play an important part in soccer, but national team coaches cannot create a player out of thin air—if anything, they piece together a jigsaw puzzle from pre-ordered parts.
With a strong target forward and cocky, creative wingers, the US’s Swedish coach constructed her team around classic English tactics—kick and rush, cross anand head. And it played to the team’s strengths. The best players available drove the tactical decisions, not vice versa. The swashbuckling was just an added plus.
Against Japan, some fans hoped for a 4-5-1 to bottle the slick slide-rule passing of Japan, who patiently pass sideways before rolling passes between unsuspecting defenders. They are the spiders to the American thoroughbreds. Instead, Wambach and Cheney pressed up top, while Rapinoe started out wide to add some spark. However, the 4-4-2, thanks to the impressive Boxx, managed to both maintain possession and create chances. The Yanks created chance after chance, yet lacked the dramatic cutting edge they had against Brazil and France.
You live by the sword, you die by the sword. Despite an impressive performance by sub striker Alex Morgan, the US lost via the lottery of penalties. Would a possession game have helped to kill off the game after leading twice? Maybe. But the US wasn’t exactly starved for possession, and the Japanese goals, off a corner kick and fluke clearance, weren’t the result of failure to retain the ball. Instead, the US simply ran out of gas. Or pixie dust. Depending on whom you ask.
So if a pundit complains about the USWNT’s lack of tiki-taka, point to Beijing 2008. Been there. Done that. Try as you might, a square peg won’t fit into a circular hole. And this USWNT was born to run. Even if they pulled up just short in the final.