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On An Island - Surviving the One-v-One Battle

Every defender has experienced it. The moment that an attacking player breaks through the midfield and is running unimpeded towards the back line. You are the last one standing between the attacker and the goal. Maybe you’ve got cover, but maybe not. It’s up to the defender to stop, slow down or otherwise block the opponent from getting the ball near the net. What goes through a defender’s mind during the moment when it becomes mano-y-mano? During a week when the USA is preparing to face some of the best dribblers in the world – the Brazilian National Team -- we asked several of the U.S. defenders, who are among the best in the world at one-v-one defending, what they are thinking during those moments…or are they are thinking at all?

In a soccer game, if an attacking team is going to create the desired chaos in the opponent’s penalty area, at some point, someone on the offense will have to put someone else behind them on the dribble. As a defender, if you get beat, this means trouble for your team and a goal scoring chance for the opponent.

“There is a little bit of a frightening aspect to one-v-one defense,” said U.S. defender Cat Whitehill when asked how it feels to be the last player standing on the backline. “As a central defender you are used to having cover so you think to yourself ‘Wait, I am the last one here,’ but you just go back and do what you know. You move your feet, get them to a place where they are more predicable and push them to a place where first, they can’t shoot and second, where you delay them so your defenders can recover and support you.”

One-v-one defense invariably adds an extra sense of pressure and responsibility for any defensive player. An additional drop of sweat rolls done the forehead when a world-class striker is steamrolling down the field, coming unopposed with plans to knock the ball into the back of the net. When Christie Rampone, who during her163 caps for the USA has played both on the flank and in the middle, is faced with such a situation, she suggests with a sort of cool confidence. Simply stay relaxed.

“I just stay calm, patient, and let the attacker give me the ball,” said Rampone.

But how does one get the attacker to make the mistake and just cough up the ball? It takes time to master the craft as effective defending, perhaps in part the product of being impatient and getting skinned on numerous occasions. Veteran WNT defenders say the biggest mistake young players make when going one-v-one is stabbing at the ball.

Skilled defensive players will delay an oncoming attacker and then, if necessary, indulge themselves in a satisfying tackle once the striker has been properly pressured into a breaking point. For a defender, immense gratification arises from imposing personal defeat on a forward. It means you have won your individual battle, for now.

Whitehill also believes that you must have the physical qualities as well to ensure a proper one-v-one shut down.

“You have to be quick, agile, and have good anticipation,” said Whitehill, who has played more than 100 times for the USA. “You must have quick recovery in case you do get beat the first time so you can get back. You need grit. You need heart. If you are stabbing at the ball a lot, you are going to get beat a lot.”

If an attacker gets within shooting range, an internal alarm goes off in all good defenders. Once at the 18-yard line, an attacker creates the added incentive for a defender to finally go in and make the tackle. The threat of a powerhouse forward hammering the ball towards your goal is enough to get any defender to reach in for a winning touch.

Rampone finds that while slowing an attacker down is a good bet when waiting for cover, it’s not the most important factor when a shooter is in scoring range.

“When I see the forwards eyes go down and she is almost losing control or ready to shoot, I’ll go in for the tackle,” she said. “If she is in shooting range you have to go in and make the tackle. You don’t have time to wait for cover.”

A communication break down on the backline can also cause havoc, and for an attacking player, a rare look at the U.S. net. Defender, India Trotter, describes the backline as being attached by a long string. The pull of one player affects another, causing them to offer cover. If that string is broken, and only one defender is left alone to obstruct an attacker’s opportunity, danger ensues.

When asked about the importance of communication on the backline, all WNT defenders respond similarly, saying that communication is, well…everything. One-v-one encounters are the more likely when exhaustion hits its peak and focus and concentration waver.

“Communication plays the biggest role, especially for a zone defense,” said Rampone. “If we are getting overwhelmed and tired in the back, that is when communication tends to stop and that is just when it is the most important.”

In the end, it is much easier to destroy than create, but the sad truth about defending is that you can destroy 25 attacks in a row, but if you get beaten on that 26th dribble, and the opponent scores, it can be the difference in a game.

The U.S. players know this, they embrace this, and even thought they are often overlooked on a team of dynamic scorers, one look up at the scoreboard at the end of the game with a big “0” flashing next to the other team’s name, is all they need.