As the U.S. Women’s National Team filed into a meeting room at the team hotel in Dresden, Germany, the night before the opening of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, there was a little extra excitement in the air.
The World Cup opener against North Korea was less than 24 hours away. A packed stadium and worldwide TV audience awaited, all eager to see what the Americans would bring to what was shaping up to be the most electrifying Women’s World Cup in history.
Over the previous two days in Dresden, Lauren Cheney had been training with the starters during full-field drills, but she didn’t know for sure whether U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage would give her the nod. After all, she had been a reserve for most of the run-up to the World Cup.
With a big looping motion, Sundhage turned over a page on the over-sized flip chart sitting on an easel, revealing the starters, and Cheney’s biggest dream – and perhaps scariest soccer nightmare – all came true.
She would in fact be starting in the World Cup, but at left midfield.
ON THE OUTSIDE
Left midfield? She had been a center midfielder during her youth club career, but on the flank was a position she had never played in her life, never mind for the National Team, never mind in a World Cup.
She had been training at outside midfield here and there in the days leading up to the tournament, but when she saw her name in the lineup, reality hit.
“It was exciting and scary at the same time,” said Cheney, who was rooming with Abby Wambach in Dresden. That night, she expressed those concerns to the player whom she had replaced on the 2008 Olympic Team after Wambach suffered a broken leg.
“I don’t know if I’m good enough to play outside mid in a World Cup,” she revealed to Wambach.
Never one to sugarcoat anything, Wambach answered, “Yeah, me neither, but you’re going to. We need you on the field.”
Sweet dreams, Lauren.
The fact of the matter was that Cheney had been playing so well in training that Sundhage and her staff decided they needed to find a place for her in the starting 11. They made the brave move of inserting the 23-year-old into an unfamiliar position, replacing Megan Rapinoe in the starting lineup.
“The only thing that really scared me was the defensive aspect,” said Cheney of the box to box demands of a flank midfielder, which she would be required to perform on the world’s stage. “I think I’m a creative player, so I wasn’t so nervous about that, but I feel like everyone around me did such a good job of talking to me and helping me be defensively conscientious that I settled in quickly.”
Did she ever. Cheney had an excellent game against the North Koreans, scoring the USA’s first goal of the tournament in the 2-0 victory while making the position her own, floating between the flank and the middle to support the forwards while continually getting herself into dangerous positions.
“Our left mid has a little bit more of a free role, but it’s more natural for me to go inside and underneath the forward, and I like to combine with people,” said Cheney. “Out wide, I feel more alone so drifting central made me feel a little more comfortable.”
One of Sundhage’s favorite words is “unpredictable,” and Cheney was.
For the first five games of the World Cup, she played at that left midfield spot. But in an effort to get Rapinoe – who was also having an excellent tournament off the bench – into the starting lineup, Sundhage started Cheney up top with Wambach in the World Cup Final.
Less than a minute into the match, Cheney almost scored. Unfortunately, on that play she suffered a fairly severe ankle injury and while she gutted out the rest of the half, she needed to be replaced at halftime. In the world of “what ifs” it’s not hard to envision that the result of the match would have been different had a totally healthy Cheney been able to play more minutes.
Cheney ended up starting all six games of the Women’s World Cup in what was a breakout tournament for the Indianapolis native. She left Germany as one of the USA’s most consistent and dangerous players and was named to the All-Tournament Team, scoring two goals with three assists.
ON THE MOVE AGAIN
In part because Cheney played midfield so well, Sundhage decided to lead off 2012 experimenting with a 4-2-3-1 formation, moving Cheney into a more traditional playmaker role in the center of the field, in front of Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx and just underneath lone forward Wambach. It is a position that seemed to be perfect for Cheney, as some of her best qualities – holding the ball to allow to the team move forward in numbers, crashing the penalty box and slipping deft passes through seams in the defense to flank players and Wambach (with whom she could combine to get either into shooting position) – could be more utilized.
“I like how many numbers are around me playing underneath,” said Cheney. “I feel like having a lot of players around me lets me combine better and dictate the tempo. I like to turn and run at goal so when I can break the pressure, I have options wide and in front of me.”
However, with the recent pairing of Wambach and Alex Morgan up top proving to be quite dangerous in the USA’s 4-4-2 formation (one most preferred by Sundhage during her time at the helm), Cheney may see more time at left midfield.
“It is great to have that kind of a player, but it’s a balance,” said Sundhage. “If we do too much, she can get a little frustrated because she needs to know her role, respect it and accept it, and that takes time. We as coaches need to be patient, as well. We need to look at the team as a whole when figuring out the best positions for players. The reason we are looking at the 4-4-2 now as opposed to a month ago is because of Abby and Alex. We like the speed up top and having that creative attacking midfielder on the field, as well.”
FIRST OF HER KIND
Cheney’s remarkable versatility is unprecedented in U.S. Women’s National Team history. Never before has a player been able to play four different positions so well and so differently as conditions in the match – or personnel on the field – dictate. In fact, whether she lines up on the left or in the center, Cheney’s ability to play the “number 10” role – that player who possesses the ultimate medley of midfielder and striker qualities – has made the 4-4-2 even more potent.
Just in the past five months she has played as the withdrawn forward/attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, and in a 4-4-2, she has played center midfielder, left midfielder and forward. Sometimes she plays several positions in a single game, moving around as the U.S. coaching staff inserts substitutes, giving Sundhage valuable flexibility when making tactical changes. Her versatility can also create chances for talents like Amy Rodriguez, Rapinoe and Tobin Heath to get on the field, especially in the 4-2-3-1.
While in many ways soccer is soccer no matter where you are on the field, Cheney may be a new breed of female player, someone who can contribute to a team’s success at multiple spots while executing the particular unique demands of those positions.
That’s not to say all the movement hasn’t been challenging.
“My biggest concern with all the changes is that I ask a lot of questions,” said Cheney. “I like to know the nuances of the game in whatever position I’m in, and sometimes that can make me seem uncertain or come off as frustrated because I don’t necessarily know that position that well. Now, though, I think I have come to realize that I can play my game anywhere on the field.”
In whatever position Cheney plays, Sundhage sees the potential to have her as an important catalyst, making everyone around her better. Cheney is tremendously strong and arguably the USA’s best player with her back to goal. Her fitness level heading into the World Cup, and now in her mid-20s, is the best it’s ever been. Those physical traits in her powerful 5-foot-8 frame, combined with her technical ability and a gritty mentality, has made her one of the team’s most important players heading toward the Olympics.
“At the end of the day, she is a goalscorer but is also a good final passer,” said Sundhage. “If she is sitting underneath those two forwards, we have speed, we have power in the air, and we have the final pass, and that triangle can be very interesting.”