Sunday, April 03, 2011

England 2, US 1

And now, a soccer interlude. The US Women’s National Team played a friendly against England yesterday afternoon and came away with a loss for the first time in a friendly in six and a half years. Six. And a half. YEARS. 50-something matches.

What, exactly, is the problem? Would you like a metaphor? Fine.

Brianna Scurry.

Too obvious and easy? Yes, and this is why. If you paid much attention to sports during the summer of ’07, you probably remember the World Cup kerfuffle that erupted after undefeated starting goalkeeper Hope Solo was benched in favor of Scurry for a crucial match against Brazil. Solo had been shaky at times during the previous two matches, but was still the undisputed best keeper in the world. Scurry, a long-term veteran who stopped the last penalty kick against China to secure the 1999 World Cup, hadn’t played a complete match in the three months prior to the ’07 Cup, but had a very good career record against Brazil, so bumbling US coach Greg Ryan opted for history and wishful thinking over the established hot hand. Brazil humiliated the US 4-0, and Solo gave one of the epically worst postgame interviews in the history of postgame interviews, essentially saying I can guarantee I would have stopped all those shots, you fucktard (well, exactly saying that, with fucktard merely strongly implied). A significant faction of the team went Mean Girls in response, Solo was blackballed, and Scurry went through a few repeated and increasingly futile attempts to stay on the US roster and then to hang on in the WPS, before finally staggering off into retirement.

Anyway. Fast forward to yesterday afternoon, and Scurry is sitting in the ESPN studio between Bob Ley and Tony DiCicco, trying her hand at being a studio analyst. The match had revealed several glaring US weaknesses; the bafflingly static US lineup of long-term veterans was out-played and out-finessed by a young England side until the last 15 minutes of the match, when US coach Pia Sundhage mercifully subbed out ailing forward Abby Wambach and ineffective Amy Rodriguez and Megan Rapinoe for zippy youngsters Lauren Cheney, Alex Morgan, and Tobin Heath. Until they came in, the US lacked possession and any semblance of linkage, let alone creativity, between the midfielders and forwards. So when Bob Ley posed the obvious question, the softball lobbed to give Scurry an easy opening to pounce on, her assessment of what the US needed was…

To get Abby Wambach more involved in the offense.

Jesus God. 32-year-old Wambach was working with one good leg and a serious fitness deficit, and aside from two more of the hacky fouls that have very unfortunately become her hallmark in recent years, posed little threat to the England defense. Nobody in the midfield could hold the ball long enough to make a pass, and when they did, it was more often a pointless long ball over the top that Wambach couldn’t have gotten to even if she were ten years younger and uninjured. The team was utterly without a spark until the young kids came in, and then we instantly saw crisp ball movement and even more crisp player movement off the ball. Had Morgan, Cheney, and Heath had more than 15 minuted to get their legs under them and synched with the rhythm of the game, the outcome would have been different.

And the poster child for all the ills caused by coaches hanging on to players who are past their prime (and players who push to extend their careers long past their sell-by date) could only see the need to get the third-oldest and most-injured player on the roster more involved in the offense.

The World Cup starts in June. That is not a lot of time for Sundhage to have the come-to-Jesus moment she needs, assuming Jesus has the same ideas about lineups and formations that I do. Many, many great players have done great things for the US on the field. But they can’t play forever. I understand the hunger, truly, and I have nothing but respect for Brianna Scurry's career. She was great in her day. And Wambach was great in her day, but she's been struggling for some time now, and every minute she struggles on the field is a minute Alex Morgan sits on the bench. There are boatloads of hungry young players coming up that need to get their own days going. Now.

No comments: