US SoccerUS Soccer

Build Up to Athens ‘04

Residency Success = Olympic “Gold”

The US Women’s National Team reclaimed the top spot in world soccer by winning the gold medal in Athens at the 2004 Olympics.  The team was undefeated in six games; never trailed; outscored our opponents 12 – 4; and were the only team in the Olympics to score against Brazil (4 goals).  Along the way, the US avenged the 2003 Women’s World Cup loss to Germany, eliminating Deutschland 2-1 in the Olympic semi-finals.  In the championship game, the US women displayed disciplined defense and outstanding finishing, along with the tremendous heart, character and the will of a true champion to defeat an exceptionally talented Brazilian team 2-1 in overtime.

Preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games began January 12th with the first training camp since the 2003 Women’s World Cup. Thirty players committed to training and traveling together for 8 months with the sole focus winning, “Olympic Gold.”  From January through March, the team completed a competition phase: winning the Four Nations Cup in China (Sweden 3-1, China 0-0, and Canada 2-0); the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Costa Rica (outscoring CONCACAF opponents 24-2); and a second consecutive Algarve Cup Championship (France 5-1, Denmark 1-0, Sweden 1-3, and Norway 4-1) in Portugal.  These games were critical to the team’s development and future success in 2004.  The early season matches sharpened the squad, gave young team members valuable playing time, showed the team could come from behind to win, and provided clear insight into the team’s needs that would be addressed during the formal residency period.

The foundation for “Olympic Gold” was our unique and extensive residency program.  US Soccer made an enormous commitment to the team’s development and preparations by funding this intensive four-month training phase.  Full-time ‘residency’ began April 5th and ended August 2 when the team departed for Athens.  Based at the National Training Center in Carson, California, the team trained six days a week and played six international matches over the four months.  The residency period was divided into training blocks of 2-3 straight weeks.  Players were given time off between each block to recover from the rigorous schedule.

Block 1:   April 5 – 24                      USA 5 Brazil 1
Block 2:   May 3 – 16                       USA 3 Mexico 0
Block 3:   May 24 – June 12            USA 1 Japan 1
Block 4:  June 28 – July 3                USA 1 Canada 0
Block 5:  July 9 - 18                          USA 3 Australia 1
Block 6:  July 28 – August 2            USA 2 China 0

Residency provided an opportunity for players to work on their technical and functional roles, while the extended training periods allowed the coaches to work on virtually every aspect of the team.  From fitness to technique, tactics to team building, attacking to defending, every part of the team game was examined, addressed and revisited many times.  Training goals were established for each specific block and progress was measured by the team’s performance in international matches. 

Priority was given throughout residency to developing a greater level of sophistication in the team’s attacking capabilities.  The goal was to improve and expand the team’s attacking repertoire, creating greater variety and balance in the team’s attack.

The central theme that all aspects of attacking revolved around was possession. Training sessions were constructed to develop players’ confidence and competence on the ball under intense defensive pressure.  Mandatory three-touch minimum rules in tight spaces were used frequently to challenge players to solve pressure on the ball.  The goal of developing better possession (individually and collectively) was to get additional numbers into the attack, thus increasing the number of attacking options.  A specific example was the team goal to get the wing defenders forward to attack in the final third more frequently.  This effort paid off in the semi-final game with a critical goal created by Brandi Chastain from left back.  She penetrated the left flank and found Kristine Lilly, who then combined with Wambach inside the box.  Lilly was focused and composed, hammering a shot past the German goalkeeper, Silke Rottenberg, to score the first goal in the semi-finals.

The US attack is renowned for dynamic 1v1 personality and flank play.  These two critical weapons were added onto with subtle nuances.  For example, the team worked vigorously on early service from the flanks to attack behind the opponent’s restraining line. We were rewarded with two goals from early service that included a brilliant volley from Kristine Lilly against Australia. Julie Foudy assisted Lilly’s goal with a perfectly placed early service to the far post after a cut back at the top of the box.  Additionally, we spent a great deal of time working on getting end line and quality runs and service in the box.  A world-class example of such was Mia Hamm overlapping Abby Wambach in overtime against Germany, getting end line at speed, and then serving a perfect pass to Heather O’Reilly, who finished a near-post game winner. 

Combination play was another major priority for team training throughout residency.  Sessions to develop more sophisticated combination play included functional training with strikers and team training with focus on central and flank combinations. Pattern play, games in tight spaces, and advancing out of zones via combinations were all a part of the training regimen to develop this critical aspect of the team’s attack. The language used all year was “enhancing the chemistry of two”, in particular how the two forwards worked together (Hamm and Wambach). The chemistry of two was emphasized all over the field. Examples include wing backs working well with wide center mid fielders, attacking and holding mid fielders understanding each other’s movements innately, and of course, the two forwards working simultaneously with the two supporting players underneath.

Final passing – playing penetrating passes behind the opponent’s back line – was also a recurring theme of residency training sessions.  The progress the players made in this area over the course of 2004 was phenomenal.  It paid off in the first round game against Brazil when Julie Foudy slipped a perfect “final pass” to Abby Wambach behind the Brazilian defense.  Abby was taken down from behind in the box and Mia Hamm converted the ensuing PK that ended up being the winning goal in this match.

*An analysis of how the goals were created during the team’s Olympic Gold Medal run reveals the balance in attack developed during residency.

On the other side of the ball, the USA defense was impressive throughout the Olympics.  The team, led by veterans Joy Fawcett and Briana Scurry, conceded only four goals and never gave up more than one goal in a game.  Additionally, in 120 minutes of play against Germany, the reigning world champions, the USA conceded only 2 shots on goal.  A key area addressed during residency was defending as a team in two systems against three opposing systems.  The US prepared to defend in a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 against teams playing a 4-5-1(China, Australia and Greece), 4-4-2(Germany, Sweden and Japan), or 3-4-3 (Brazil).  Each system and opponent required adjustments to be made in terms of defensive shape, direction to force play, and area to initiate pressure.  For example, the team played successfully in a 4-4-2 system with a ‘low pressure’ line of confrontation and deeper restraining line against Germany.  Whereas the US contained the Japanese attack, and applied the greatest amount of pressure against Brazil defending in a 4-3-3 system with high pressure all over the field.

Training time was also provided to fine tune the technique of individual defending for all players.  The goal was to defend more efficiently so that the team would spend less time defending and more time attacking.  Specific critical situations were given priority, such as marking runners in the box on crosses and individual marking technique on set plays.  Maintaining tight marking and inside positioning in these two situations was emphasized throughout residency.

One of the more important aspects of residency was timing… knowing when to focus on each specific developmental need within the four-month cycle.  Fitness was first, as a strong aerobic base was needed as quickly as possible during the first two blocks of residency.  In attack, possession play was emphasized more in the early blocks, while penetration became the priority once a strong possession game was achieved.  In defending, great emphasis was placed on each individual’s responsibility, particularly once teams entered our defensive third. Later in the cycle, we put a greater emphasis on team defensive shape, marking in the box and defending set plays. 

Once we neared our final roster selection, a major shift occurred.  We began to focus on The Olympic 18, and in particular The Starting 11.  The number of practice sessions and duration of the sessions were cut back, while maintaining the high standard of training intensity.  This allowed the players a chance to recover physically and mentally from the rigors of residency.  Tapering renewed the player’s energy and confidence as they approached the final stretch to the Olympic games.  More 11v11 games were played during the final two phases including many matches with boys’ teams. This enabled us to focus on developing team tactics such as rehearsing “up a goal” or “down a goal” situations. Scrimmages with starters against reserves were played more frequently to fine-tune chemistry in the starting team and to provide the players with opportunities to play 90 minutes.  Pattern play was more commonly used during practices in this phase.  Allowing the team to regularly rehearse playing in two systems, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 enhanced our players’ ability to flex in and out of two primary systems.  Finally, we spent some time considering players in secondary and tertiary positions, in the event we used all our substitutions and an injury occurred in an Olympic game.

Overview of Olympic Preparations
A. Tournament Stage: January-March:
     Focus: Level Playing Field, Competition and Olympic Qualifications 
         1. January -     2 day training camp and Four Nations Cup – China
                            - Results :Sweden 3-0, China 0-0, Canada 2-0
                            - played a 4-5-1
                            - PRIORITY: PLAYER AND TEAM DEVELOPMENT
         2. February -   Olympic Qualifying – Costa Rica
                            - PRIORITY: QUALIFY
                            - (Canada, Norway, USA baseball, Brazil men did not)
         3. March  -     (3 day turnaround) – Algarve Cup – Portugal
                            - Defeated Arch Rival Norway 4-1
                            - played a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2
                            - PRIORITY: PLAYER AND TEAM DEVELOPMENT

B. Residency Stage: April – July – Carson, CA:
     Focus: Compete for Roster and Future Consideration
     Policies: Player numbers and Floaters (22 pros+4 college+4 floaters=30)
                           - Signed Welsh, Luckenbill, Fair, Lindsey; lost Tullock;
                           - Evaluated a total of 37 players

        1. Training:
             A. April & May: Heavy Blocks
                          - Physical testing
                          - Steady State & Interval fitness
                          - Strength training 3x/wk
                          - Double days
                          - Measured bio-mechanics, blood lactate, vision, dental
                          - Inter-mixed scrimmages
                          - Individual Training Focus (Technical & Individual Functional)

            B. May & June: Functional Blocks
                         - Physical and Mental shift-intervals within the game
                         - Small-sided & 11 Games
                         - Strength training 2x/wk (1 optional)
                         - Afternoon Group training sessions: technical and functional
                         - Small Group Training Focus (Technical, Group Functional
                            &  Tactical)
                         - WUSA Break and U21 Camp: last evaluations before the team
                            and alternate selections (2 weekends).
            C. July & August:
                 Focus: The Team and the Starting 11
                        - Attacking & Defending Shape (Pattern Play)
                        - Refine nuances of our 4-3-3 and 4-4-2
                        - Scenarios: up a goal, down a goal
                        - “What Ifs” – injury to Boxx, Fawcett, Scurry (irreplaceable?)
                        - Scrimmages
                        - Team Training Focus (Individual & Group Functional, along
                           with Team Tactics)

             D. La Liga

             E. WWC 2003 to Goal-Setting 2004

                 1. Possession and Combination Play - to get numbers forward
                 2. Flank Play and Flank Service - end line service and early service
                 3. Bigger Shape in the Back - wing backs contributing to the attack
                 4. Attacking Shape & Patterns in a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3
                 5. 1v1 Flare & 1v1 Confidence / Competence on the ball
                 6. Back to Pressure - technical, functional play up top, possession
                 7. Final Passing – technical and tactical
                 8. Runs & Balls at the restraining line
                 9. Finishing
                10. Restarts - the last 2 blocks and beyond
                11. Scenarios: up a goal or down a goal

                1. 1v1 Defending - tackling technique
                2. Marking in the Box - run of play & especially Set Plays
                3. Defensive Shape in 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 (various looks within each) 
                4. Reviewed and tweaked Set Plays - entire year
                5. Back Line Movement: synchronized: squeeze, drop, and hold
                6. Midfield Defending – 3 or 4 Shape; Tackling and Recovery
                7. Heading and Clearing
                8. Restraining Lines: High, Middle and Low Pressure
                9. Scenarios: up a goal, down a goal or injury

               1. Shot Stopping
               2. Flighted Balls/Crosses - under pressure
               3. Reading Service - behind our back line
               4. Distribution with feet and hands
               5. Foot skills - 1 and 2 touch passing, receiving, clearing, punts and goal kicks
               6. Defensive Set Plays – Corner Kicks,
                                                           Free Kicks Outside Shooting Range – hold higher

       2.   Games:
              A. Friendly Games:  Brazil 5-1
                                                 Mexico 3-0
                                                 Japan 1-1
                                                 Canada 1-0 (The Olympic 18) 
                                                 Australia 3-1 (Team-back up Plans)
                                                 China 3-1 (The Olympic Starting 11)

              B. Residency Scrimmages: April-June (2 teams)
                   1. Boys Teams – U16 and U17 Club and State teams
                   2. U21 Women’s National Team
                   3. Inter-Squad Games: April-May, teams were drafted
                                                           June-July, Starters versus Reserves

  • There’s nothing like the games in the world event itself.

Navigating through a grueling eight-month schedule where the team traveled to China, Costa Rica, Portugal, Greece, and across the U.S. was a monumental task carried out by a wonderful group of world-class players.  The individual and team growth from all the players during their preparations provided a tremendous boost of confidence as they departed for Greece.  Six games later, the players were wearing “GOLD.”  The USA won the 2004 Olympic Gold Medal!  The veteran and younger players all stepped up to accept their Gold Medal and sing their National Anthem – every American athlete’s dream come true!  All of their preparations, dedication, sweat, tears and commitment to pursue excellence were rewarded.  Highlights of the year include: winning every tournament entered; righting the win percentage against Norway; qualifying for the Olympics, winning the marathon-like Algarve Cup for the 3rd time; living together near the beach in southern California; defeating the reigning World Champions – Germany; defeating Brazil 3 times in several months; losing only 1 game; and ultimately winning the much coveted 2004 Olympic Gold Medal.