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Talking Tactics with Pia Sundhage

Every soccer match tells a different story. As often as not, that story can veer wildly from the script. The best coaches and players can adjust the tactical game plan during the 90 minutes according to the many variables a game might present.

When the U.S. Women’s National Team faced host China its third and final match of the 2011 Four Nations Tournament on Jan. 27, nothing less than a win was necessary to claim the championship.

We asked U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage to take us through the match from a coach’s perspective, how it evolved, the moves she made and the tactical keys that were most important to the eventual 2-0 victory that gave the Americans their seventh tournament title since the Swede took over at the end of 2007. 

Heading into the China match, Sundhage had already used 22 of the 23 players on the roster over the first two matches, a 2-1 loss to Sweden and a 2-1 win against Canada. The USA needed a win to take the tournament title. With a few injuries to veterans, including Abby Wambach who had not made the trip to China, Sundhage went with a 4-4-2 formation. The starting lineup had experience, with a few younger players getting their chances to perform under pressure in what was basically a tournament final.

Nicole Barnhart was in goal. Becky Sauerbrunn, who had played very well in the previous match against Canada but had not started a game since 2008, was at right back (Heather Mitts was out injured). Amy LePeilbet and captain Christie Rampone were in the middle and Rachel Buehler was at left back. Tobin Heath got her first start of the tournament (and just the fourth of her career) at left midfield, while Sundhage started the usual duo of Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd in the central midfield. Heather O’Reilly was also in her usual spot at right mid. In Wambach’s absence, Lauren Cheney and Amy Rodriguez started up top.
U.S. Women's National Team
The U.S. starting XI

“We tried Becky Sauerbrunn on the right for two reasons,” said Sundhage. “We wanted LePeilbet and Christie to get minutes together and at the same time we wanted Becky to get some international minutes. She could be a back-up on the right side, the left side or central, so that gave her a great chance to show that.”

As in the first two matches of the tournament, the USA did not start with a great attacking rhythm, but even so, Carli Lloyd scored off a short corner kick in the 31st minute. It was the USA’s first corner kick of the game. Usually the first goal has a dramatic impact on the game, but Sundhage said this one did not. In fact, she was much more concerned with getting the team to improve its ball possession.

“There is something to be said about the defending part and the attitude that we really wanted to win,” said Sundhage. “But the most important thing for the coach is to find a way to keep the ball and control the game. It’s about being able to recognize that even though you have all these wonderful players and high expectations, sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

To that end, Sundhage decided to switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1, dropping Cheney deeper at the point of a three-woman triangle in the center midfield. The WNT rarely plays in a 4-5-1 but Sundhage she was not quite happy with the developments on the pitch and felt a change needed to be made.

“China had tried to dictate the tempo and go through the center, but they didn’t make the penetrating runs,” said Sundhage. “We had Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd sitting in the middle as well, but as the first half went on, we thought we were not effective enough at winning the ball in the midfield. They also liked to play balls into their two forwards, who were very good, and we needed a player sitting in there. So we changed formations with Cheney dropping off a little bit.”
U.S. Women's National Team
The U.S. switches to a 4-5-1

Meanwhile, with LePeilbet playing with a minor injury, Sundhage decided not to take any risks and removed her in the 42nd minute, inserting Stephanie Cox at left back, pushing Buehler to the right and Sauerbrunn into the middle.

“I’m not a big fan of moving that much,” said Sundhage in reference to her mid-game defensive shift. “But the facts are Stephanie has a sweet left foot, Buehler can play either side and Becky Sauerbrunn can play every position. I give the players credit for how they did it, because ‘bang!’ they were comfortable like that. And that’s the reason we dared to do it, because they are comfortable in multiple positions on the back line.”
U.S. Women's National Team
LePeilbet comes off and Sundhage shuffles the back line

As the first 45 minutes came to an end, Sundhage decided on two halftime substitutes. She sent on Yael Averbuch for Boxx and Megan Rapinoe for Cheney, staying in the 4-5-1, but now with Averbuch holding, Lloyd in front of her and Rapinoe as the highest attacking midfielder or withdrawn forward.

“We adjusted with A-Rod up top and tried to keep the ball better in front of their back line, but it still didn’t work because we still didn’t win enough balls in midfield,” said Sundhage. “So at halftime we made an adjustment to play 4-5-1, but with a holding player and then I think two things happened. First of all, we got that second ball in midfield, and secondly we could keep the ball a bit better. So we had technical players in the center midfield, and numbers to win the ball, but also the chance to keep the ball and actually penetrate. Granted, they didn’t put a lot of pressure on us with the two players they had in midfield so we didn’t have to deal with the runners coming from behind or their midfielders trying to get behind our back line. That meant that Averbuch could sit and cover that space while we had Carli to make more penetrating runs and more diagonal runs and we got some crosses from that.”
U.S. Women's National Team
Rapinoe and Averbuch come in as the midfield changes shape at halftime

Rapinoe in particular played a key role. She had been playing almost exclusively at left midfield for the USA over the past two years but had experience playing in the center in college at the University of Portland and at the 2009 Algarve Cup.

“Rapinoe had a pretty good tournament,” said Sundhage. “In 2010 you saw flashes of her being one of the best players in the world if she wants to be, but the game is 90 minutes long and last year she had 20 minutes here and 45 minutes there. When she came into this game you could see she was connecting with both Tobin Heath and Yael. Those three players are very technical and kept possession a little bit better. The next step is finding the right moment to play the final pass and that’s one of the hardest parts of soccer. She did some good things when she came in and Tobin was able to find that last pass.”

With the changes, the USA started to hold the ball a bit better, but first they had to get it from the skillful Chinese, who had the majority of possession in the second half.

Defending was now the focus of the day, with the game had taken a turn Sundhage had perhaps expected, but hoped to avoid. The USA sat back and absorbed pressure, challenging the Chinese to find a way through or over the compact U.S. team. The home team could do neither.

In the 67th minute, it was the USA that broke down the Chinese through a lightning attack and a ball over the top from Heath that, when combined with the speed of Rodriguez, led to a classy breakaway finish and a 2-0 lead.

“If you score goals you gain so much confidence,” said Sundhage. “We gained confidence after A-Rod scored, but even more so because we were playing good defense and that also gives you confidence. We still kept our playing style, we stuck with the game plan and that was very important. It was a great way to train our discipline in an international game.”

Still, more than 20 minutes remained in the match and Sundhage still had decisions to make. In the 58th minute O’Reilly had received a rare yellow card. Did Sundhage think about taking her off to avoid a possible ejection?

“No, not at all,” said Sundhage. “I thought this is our way to the World Cup, so let’s see how she deals with that and let’s see how the team deals with that. If this had been a quarterfinal in the World Cup, we might have reacted differently, but she responded in such a way that she did fine.”

Sundhage did have two substitutes remaining (the Four Nations Tournament allows five subs in its games) and would use both of them before the game was over. In the 71st minute she took off Rodriguez and replaced her with swift striker Alex Morgan. Another goal would have been fantastic, but even more important was the insertion of a young player at the end of the match.

“Alex Morgan is interesting because she has done very well coming off the bench,” said Sundhage. “She is fast, she is strong and she follows coaching directions. If you tell her to go straight to the goal, which we told her against Italy in November and when she scored her first goal against China in Philadelphia, she goes straight to the goal. Putting her in at that time is a great way to train her to get used that role because I can see that being her role in the World Cup, coming off the bench to make a difference.”

With eight minutes left in the game and the USA firmly in control, Sundhage used her last change on Meghan Klingenberg, giving her a second career cap in place of Buehler.

“Klingenberg hadn’t played that much so she needs to play minutes at the international level, just to get that feeling,” said Sundhage. “Even if you sit on the bench for 89 minutes and only play one minute, it’s important because you always want to get in there even if you only touch the ball once or twice.”
U.S. Women's National Team
Morgan and Klingenberg enter the match

The final whistled sounded and the USA had won the tournament, coming back from an opening game loss to take its seventh all-time Four Nations title. Sundhage was very pleased with the win, but even more pleased with the tactical versatility the U.S. team showed.

“We played three different styles which is a little bit unusual, but for our coaches sitting on the bench, it was huge,” said Sundhage. “We won the game controlling the match with good defending and counterattacks with Carli and her penetrating runs. If you also look at the ball Tobin played into A-Rod’s feet, that was a lot of space behind that back line and she linked up with Megan Rapinoe on a give-and-go and then played that bending ball. That is attacking, but it didn’t start with controlling possession, it was a sudden situation with the goalkeeper having the ball and then a couple of quick touches.”

“The good thing was that we didn’t go crazy when things didn’t work early on,” said Sundhage. “There is something called defending as well. If you look at the U.S. you don’t talk about defending as much, but to be able to change the formation – twice actually – is a big strength. The players, they didn’t look at the coaches and say, “what are you doing, we are an attacking team!” they respect China, they respect the game and they respect our coaching.”

The USA will now head to Portugal for the 2011 Algarve Cup. That’s four more games against quality opponents. That’s four more stories to be written and four more chances to change the outcome mid-game like a Hollywood film with alternate endings. Of course, if we knew the endings, the beginnings and middles wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.