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WPS Extra Time: USWNT fate lies in midfield

Giovanni Albanese Extra Time

Being on the West Coast, I was unable to have the fortune of covering the final tune-up match for the United States Women’s National Team heading into this year’s World Cup in Germany. Instead, like many of us throughout the country gearing up for the Women’s World Cup, I was glued to the set to hear the call from Ian Darke and Julie Foudy on ESPN – one which the United States took 1-0 over Mexico at Red Bull Arena on Sunday.

Maybe I was observing a different match, or perhaps the game looked different in person, but my frustration level with the broadcasters was growing high when they kept referring to the tune-up match as a dud – paraphrasing, of course.

This wasn’t a Women’s Professional Soccer regular season or playoff match, nor was it a FIFA World Cup group play or elimination match. It was exactly what they advertised it as: a tune up; an exhibition; a friendly.

On June 5, when you observe a match – considered to be meaningless – and the club you are critiquing puts 34 shots at goal, 14 on target, allows four shots (two on frame), while taking nine corners and controlling play throughout – against a team that eliminated you from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying no less – that is domination. (It’s also welcoming to see a substitute, Boston Breakers striker Lauren Cheney, come in and bury a shot from distance in the 92nd minute to allow the U.S. to leave the field with a good taste in their mouth.)

However, if on June 28, in their opening World Cup match, those same stats show with virtually no execution in the final third, it’s at that point when you question the finishing. So, with that said. Let’s all take a step back for a second.

Do we really think that Abby Wambach is going to miss those same opportunities again? Do we really think Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd are going to create that many opportunities and waste them? Do we think the US will have as many unforced errors in a couple weeks after the team has been together and gelled into the international powerhouse they are perceived to be?

If you really think the collective answer to those questions is yes, then you are clearly a glass-half-empty personality. Surely USWNT coach Pia Sunhage is not happy with the lack of finishing from her side on Sunday. But she stands on the opposite side of the spectrum when looking forward to the World Cup.

“In a perfect world we should have scored a couple of goals today but my glass is half full,” said Sunhage after the game. “When you look at the game, it was an excellent game because we played well and we created chances and it was a player coming off the bench, Lauren Cheney, who made the difference. That tells us how important every single player is on this team.”

It’s unlikely that Wambach and Amy Rodriguez, as well as offensive-minded subs like Alex Morgan and Cheney will continue to miss when given scoring opportunities – at least not at the alarming rate they did over the weekend.

If the United States does plan to win its first Cup since 1999, the fate of the team looks to be not in the strikers, but in the creative approach and build up in the midfield.

Rapinoe, O’Reilly and Lloyd were constantly making things happen. They, along with Shannon Boxx, need to control the flow of the match for 90 minutes in order for the United States to dominate the group phase and advance throughout the elimination phase.

And this is exactly why the club needed a tune up. While the midfield was able to make things happen over and over again, they also had a number of hiccups that led to potential harm (which may prove costly against an elite club in a month’s time).

With O’Reilly and Rapinoe on the outside, chances are they are going to be the more talented of the midfields in any matchup. They can’t play like they know they are more talented, getting fancy. What they should do, however, is play with tenacity that they show in flashes at all points, and use the flair in flashes which they tend to use on a regular basis.

Certainly Boxx can teach the aforementioned middies a thing or two about being gritty while toeing the line of unsportsmanlike. Boxx has that skill set that mixes a perfect blend of talent with physicality that results in a winner. Because when it comes down to it, an ugly win is better than a pretty loss.

If each midfielder played that way every game, the U.S. would be locks to hoist the Cup. They have three weeks to iron out the kinks.

Things to look for this week

Can Sky Blue FC continue to streak up the table? A win over the Boston Breakers at home on Sunday, with some help, can put the inaugural season champs in a tie for second.

MagicJack looks to find some cohesion with its depleted roster – missing several key players to national team duty – against a young and pesky Atlanta Beat squad. Atlanta hosts the Abby Wambach-less second-place club on Saturday night.

And in the WPS Game of the Week on FOX Soccer, Western New York Flash will attempt to stay unbeaten hosting Paul Riley’s scuffling Philadelphia Independence. Philly is searching for its first win in four matches, kicking off Sunday at 6 p.m. ET.

Power Rankings

1. Western New York Flash

2. magicJack

3. Sky Blue FC

4. Boston Breakers

5. Philadelphia Independence

6. Atlanta Beat

Player of the Week

Just a couple days removed from being traded, Meghan Klingenberg helped out her new squad, the Boston Breakers, beat her old club, magicJack, with a goal and assist – her goal turning out to be the winner in a 2-1 Breakers victory. For that, you have to give Klingenberg top honors for the week that was in WPS.

Quote of the Week

After Western New York blew a 2-0 halftime lead at home to Sky Blue FC, resulting in a 2-2 draw on Friday night, Flash keeper Ashlyn Harris said it quite matter-of-factly: “I think we were soft.”

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