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USWNT 2-0 North Korea: A tale of two halves

It has been a long time coming for the United States Women’s National Team. Their opening match of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany on Tuesday against Korea DPR was expected to result in a relatively comfortable score; don’t let the 2-0 score fool you, the U.S. did not make it easy on themselves.

Heading into the match, having played a number of matches in preparation for their Group C counterparts, the United States’ coach Pia Sundhage went with a 4-4-2 formation, sporting the likes of Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez up top, with Carli Lloyd, Heather O’Reilly, Shannon Boxx and Megan Rapinoe as the facilitators in the midfield. However, less than 24 hours before the match, Sundhage made a curious tactical change, putting in Lauren Cheney into the left midfield slot, replacing Rapinoe.

Now Cheney has been impressive in the tune-up matches and, according to Sundhage, even more impressive in training. So, as surprising as it was to the general public, it was anything but major in house. In the end, her decision to put Cheney into the fray was brilliant.

But that wasn’t before the U.S. allowed the young North Koreans into the match. In the first 45, the offense wasn’t making any headway toward the North Korean goal. Most notably, Wambach hardly touched the ball. And on the back line, Amy LePeilbet (playing left back) and Rachel Buehler (at left center back) looked to be playing with nerves of their first World Cup match. Christie Rampone (center back) and Ali Kreiger (right back) were right at home. However, the Koreans were capitalizing on the shaky play by LePeilbet and Buehler, making their way into the box and threatening Hope Solo in goal.

Solo managed to save the U.S. in the early going, stopping a number of shots, keeping the match scoreless at the half.

Whatever Sundhage relayed to her club in the locker room at halftime, they got the message. Less than a minute into the half, the United States showed the aggression – something they should have displayed from the outset – knocking the North Koreans off the ball and making a quick counter that resulted in a Cheney blast that went high.

Wambach was more assertive in the second half. Instead of waiting for the ball to get to her, she was tracking back to the ball, receiving it early in the possession, and started to wreak havoc on the North Korean defense. In the 54th minute, it paid off.

After receiving the ball toward the left flank, Wambach made her way into the box where she lined up a shot, only to fake it, cut it back to her right foot, and serve a perfectly lofted ball to the center of the box. Cheney, backtracking into position to head the ball, caught the North Korean keeper sliding to her left (Cheney’s right) and touched a header to the vacant side of the goal for a 1-0 lead. It was Cheney’s fifth shot of the match.

And the United States continued to pressure North Korea nearly into submission. Buehler put the game away with a goal in the 76th minute. On a scramble, Buehler was in the right place at the right time in the box (after a missed set piece opportunity) and slammed a shot, while sliding to the turf, that found its way through the traffic and into the back of the net.

Overall, it was hardly a match that the U.S. would care to write home about. In the first half, there were far too many mental miscues and turnovers in the center of the pitch that countries like Germany or Brazil would make them pay. They rebounded with a near-flawless effort in the second half, but much needs to be done for them if they hope to make a deep run into this tournament.

Sundhage’s change of Cheney for Rapinoe worked. (Rapinoe came into the match late for O’Reilly and pounded in a goal of a rebound of a Wambach shot that was nullified due to a foul.) Looking ahead to matches with Colombia and Sweden, maybe another subtle change to make would be sliding Buehler out to the left back (on a trial basis, knowing she lacks the speed an outside back needs to be successful) and putting LePeilbet in her more comfortable center back position. Other options to consider for fixing the back line would be to insert Stephanie Cox into the left back and slide LePeilbet over (or just keep Buehler in the mix).

Sundhage has a couple days to figure out any potential changes she’d like to pursue before the U.S. takes on Colombia Saturday, July 2, at noon ET.

Giovanni Albanese Jr. is the sports editor for Tri-City Voice newspaper in Fremont, Calif. He covered FC Gold Pride in 2009-10 and is a WPS contributor for Equalizer Soccer. You can contact Giovanni on Twitter @GAlbaneseJr.

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