USWNT: Missed Chances, Sloppy Defense Hand Japan the World Cup

July 18, 2011

American hearts were broken not once, not twice, but three times Sunday as the Americans twice conceded the lead and eventually fell to the Japanese in penalties. For Americans, the bitter pill to be swallowed will be in knowing that they were the better team, but allowed the Japanese to stay in the game by wasting chances in front of goal and conceding two relatively soft goals to the Japanese.

Although the possession stats were about even, the Americans doubled the Japanese shot count 27-14 and created far more dangerous chances than the Japanese. Early in the first half the Americans challenged the Japanese goal over and over, but could not find the finish to take the early lead they had against both Brazil and France. Early in the game Lauren Cheney broke down the Japanese defense, but missed a near post effort after trying to catch the Japanese goalie flat footed. As the game progressed, Megan Rapinoe tried a similar near post effort which went into the side netting, Carli Lloyd put a volley over the top which had sat up nicely for her, O’Reilly shot over from an open look at the top of the 18 and Wambach rattled the woodwork on a long distance effort that looked a sure goal.

At the half, American coach Pia Sundhage was forced to sub out Lauren Cheney because of an injury. Cheney had started up top for the out-of-form Amy Rodriguez in what I personally thought was a brilliant move. The shift allowed Megan Rapinoe to slot in at left midfield and Rapinoe terrorized the Japanese flank the entire game. Cheney was replaced up top by Alex Morgan, an interesting decision seeing that Amy Rodriguez has a good history of goal scoring against the Japanese and the fact that Sundhage is usually very loyal to her preferred starters. Morgan had earned the chance with her cool finish against the French in the semifinals and repaid her coach’s faith once again with a terrific left footed effort to break the scoring in the 69th minute to put the Americans ahead.

At that point, it felt the Americans were destined to win the game having not allowed the Japanese many substantive chances and forcing the Japanese to abandon their typical possession and resort to counter-attacking football. However, in the 80th minute, a bizarre sequence of events allowed the Japanese to equalize. First, the dependable Christie Rampone gave away possession in the American defensive third. The ball was quickly moved to the flank and the ensuing service was miscleared by American defender Rachel Buehler into teammate Ali Krieger. The ball fatefully fell to a Japanese player just outside the six for an easy finish.

In extra time, the U.S. showed the same heart they have showed throughout the entire tournament and once again battled back to retake the lead. Alex Morgan drove to the endline and centered the ball for another suberb finish from Abby Wambach. Once again, it felt the Americans would be able to run out the clock as the Japanese struggled to break down the American defense.

After the goal, Sundhage replaced Rapinoe with Tobin Heath, a questionable move considering how well Rapinoe has played all tournament and during this game in particular. While Heath is certainly a talented individual, she hasn’t done much to note in her earlier tournament appearances. I was also left wondering if Lori Lindsey would have been a better choice helping our central midfield with some fresh legs and possession play to help run out the clock.

As the second overtime came to an end, the Americans, whether from nerves or fatigue began to look shaky and after conceding a corner in the 116th minute, Japanese hero Homare Sawa snuck inside her mark to guide the ball into the American net to force the game to penalties.

The Americans also finished the game with 8 corners and, against a team with such an obvious height disadvantage, should have done better. The attempt, over and over, was to float the ball into the back post. The Japanese were ready for these services and defended them well. It would have been nice to see the Americans try another idea on a corner, perhaps a driven ball in. The Americans seemed over reliant on trying to find Abby Wambach, even when they have several other players like Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd who can be equally dangerous on set pieces.

In the penalty kick shootout, the Americans did not look confident. The look on their faces was as if they knew they had ridden their luck one too many times. The Americans did not convert their 1st three penalties and despite another penalty save from keeper Hope Solo eventually lost out 3-1.

In the end, the Americans will be left to rue their wastefulness in front of goal and their sloppy defending. While the Americans broke the Japanese defense down time and time again, both of the Japanese goals had a sloppy, “half chance” feel to them. The Americans missed too many good opportunities, especially against a team like Japan who has played with so much heart the entire tournament. While we should all extend congratulations to Japan, it certainly felt more like we lost the game than they won it.

John D. Halloran

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