How do you beat the USWNT?

First off, I am not an expert or even an avid follower of women’s international soccer. I take an interest in it for events like the one now in my back yard, the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers, and the World Cup. I find women’s soccer frustrating because I see the biggest impediment to its improvement laying not in the physical aspects of the game but the technical. And in countries like Canada where girls have had the same access, or very close, to good coaching and programs for the past dozen years or so, it is frustrating to see basic flaws in technique and elementary mistakes related to positioning and movement. Without pointing fingers, there were very simple lapses in technique and positioning that cost the team important goals in Germany last summer at the World Cup.

There are some who say the women’s game will never be as good as the men’s game because the men’s game is faster and more physical. Perhaps. But the point for now is that it can be much better still than it is and we should be seeing the same level of technical proficiency and tactical nous here in Canada as we see in other western countries with similar populations. I don’t think we’re there yet but the progress under Morace and now Herdman is clear. We just have to hope that there’s a large contingent of 16-20 year olds coming through the system who can buttress the squad and provide competition for spots so that the next ten years sees continued improvement. After all, Christine Sinclair turns 29 this year.

The US Women’s national team however is considerably further down that road. As a country with ten times the population of Canada and a stronger cultural commitment to elite athletics than Canada you would expect this to be the case. It will be difficult catching up to the impressive abilities they have shown in recent years and of course in their first two games here in Vancouver. And while the Americans have dominated women’s soccer in the Olympics (three gold medals in the four Olympic Games that have included women’s soccer), they have not won a World Cup now in twelve plus years with their last win coming in 1999.

So they can be beaten. Sweden played them three times last year beating them twice and drawing once. England also beat them in a friendly and Canada even got a draw last fall in a friendly.

I’ve had the luxury of watching several of the Olympic qualifiers from the press box where I’ve been blogging my take on them as the game goes on. Today I watched the US team play but took a different tact. I tried to see what they do well, who they play through and how you would go about limiting their effectiveness. It’s ridiculous to think that you can, even if you watched them a dozen times, come up with a foolproof plan to nullify their potency and guarantee yourself a result. They are really in another realm within CONCACAF for the most part and while they have some aging legs, they have a lot of depth and that depth, in the form of players like O’Hara, Leroux and Morgan, shows this is not going to be a team that has a ‘golden generation’ of players and then goes to the back burner for a decade or so. The States will be a force in women’s soccer perpetually with their commitment to excellence in their youth systems, comprehensive national team development programs and highly competitive collegiate leagues.

So what can a team like Canada do to give themselves a chance to beat the States? Here’s my take.

We can’t play 4-4-2 against them and we can’t afford to play Christine Sinclair up front.

She’s too good to be marginalized in a game where we are going to struggle to have possession of the ball more than 40% of the game and we need the numbers in midfield as well as midfielders who can keep the ball and use it smartly every time. I would play her as an attacking central midfielder or false nine in a 4-2-3-1 with the mobility that Christina Julien offers giving her a better chance of being a threat against the American centre backs than Melissa Tancredi in my opinion. Sinclair played this role in the Cuba game in the first half and the diversity she’s added to her game under Morace, and the fitness that Morace demanded of her, leave her capable of the type of work this position demands.

The attacking shape of the American 4-4-2 system is predicated of quickly establishing width through both full backs and both wide mids. It’s almost robotic how the wide players get their heels on the line and show for the ball.

Width does two things. It either allows you to release those wide players to attack defenders 1v1 in wide channels if defenders don’t go out quick and far enough to shut down passes to them or it spreads teams defensively if they do go wide to cut out these passes. The American team is good enough to take deadly advantage of both the wide abilities of players like O’Hara (note how many goals the last two games were scored from crosses) and also via slide rule balls from players like Rapinoe to players like Wambach making angled runs beyond defenders towards goal.

So what do you do when each mode of attack has proven effective and the U.S. can employ a variety of players to carry out each?

First thing you do is shrink the field. This idea that Canada used to pursue, of high pressure, is completely outdated in the face of the technical ability teams like the States have to play through shotgun blast pressure. Drop off to the half and condense the field.

From there have Julien sit between one of the central defenders and the outside back she’s nearest to and force play one way or the other. By forcing the ball one way and cutting off balls that are aimed at coming back through the centre backs to switch play, Julien will allow a more concise defensive shape to emerge.

First of all, the starting eleven I’ve picked for the USA in the diagram below is a (perhaps mis-) educated guess as to what they will field against Canada. They could start Leroux just to wind us up but she’s more likely to come off the bench at some point.

For Canada though, that’s what I would go with. Chapman and Moscato anchoring the back with Wilkinson and Booth outside. I’d then put Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott as two holding mids that track across and look to block passing lanes to strikers feet. This will be important and hard work because I would ask the outside backs to over play their opposing wide mids and make the central mids hesitant to play balls to their feet. They don’t have to get tight on them but close enough to put off the passer from going there. Yes, this opens up space in behind the outside backs and that’s dangerous but the reality is that you are not going to come up with a defensive system against a team this good that does not give something away.

As most of the service to the wide mids (and overlapping outside backs) comes from central midfield it then becomes incumbent on Canada having the ability to boss the two central defenders and that’s were Parker, Kyle and Sinclair come in. If they can play 3v2 against their two central mids they will hopefully be able to pressure them enough that they will create turnovers or at the very least rushed passes that don’t find their wide targets (due to Wilkinson and Booth being pushed up) and can’t get through to Wambach and Cheney. If they can create turnovers in the middle of the park they will be well placed to counter attack through Sinclair, Parker and Julien against two centre backs that I think may be the States achilles heel.

But this only works if the three mids in front of Scott and Schmidt can minimize the supply of balls played wide and the two holding mids can make it difficult to thread balls to the feet of American strikers. There is no point in flooding midfield if the American midfielders can still get enough time to play the balls they want to play.

The other key to the game is that Candace Chapman has to be able to nullify Abby Wambach and that is next to impossible. Wambach is a force unlike almost any other in women’s soccer. She’s big and strong but can score with her feet from outside the box and also with deft flicks in the box. Her movement is outstanding as she times runs impeccably to stay onside but get beyond defenders. She has great instincts when she can see a cross coming in and pulls into blind spots for defenders that make it very difficult to track both the ball coming over on the cross (generally with pace) and Wambach’s run. She is all but unbeatable in the air if she gets a free jump at it. Chapman will have to impede her runs, use her arms to jostle as she jumps and time her jumps less to win headers but rather to ensure Wambach doesn’t win them. All fairly negative tactics but well employed by centre backs in the men’s game.

You can do all the outlined midfield work perfectly and shut down almost all the favoured options of the US midfield but it just takes one half decent flighted ball to Wambach and it all that effort comes undone.

Those are the specifics in terms of roles and responsibilities for individual players. There’s lots of general points though that any team facing a superior opponent has to be cognizant of. Here’s a list of things that would’ve helped Dominican Republic and Guatemala in their games against the States (besides “play with pop up mini goals” and/or “make the Americans play with blindfolds”)

  1. Track runners. Don’t allow easy targets for the Americans to pick out by letting them run off you and pretend you’re marking them when you’re five yards away and not goal-side. Track runs so that the person making the pass either looks for another option or really has to thread a ball in perfectly.
  2. Effective clearances; they will create more than enough chances on their own, they don’t need to be gifted second chances from poor clearances that allow another attempt at goal. If you don’t have time to bring down a ball and pick out a teammate to retain possession, make sure clearances clear out of immediate shooting range and ideally are played to an open part of the field where you can compete for the loose ball.
  3. Value possession. All over the field. Every minute you have the ball, they don’t and unless you park one in your own goal, they won’t score while you have it.
  4. Immediately pressure shooting opportunities. They will shoot from anywhere in 30 yards if they are given the opportunity and think it’s on. Pressure the ball and be prepared to block shots fearlessly.
  5. Attack selectively but with commitment and numbers when you do; you cannot afford to get caught often on the break.
  6. Contain Rapinoe in general; she’s very good 1v1, good passer, strikes the ball well at goal and links well with strikers on the ground.

The last thing I’ll add is that while it’s highly unlikely John Herdman is even thinking about how to beat the Americans. His job is to get this team to the Olympics and that means beating Costa Rica on Monday so they maximize their chances of avoiding the Americans in the semi finals and then beating Mexico who they would likely face if they do beat Costa Rica. Those tactics I’ll leave to him…

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13 Responses to How do you beat the USWNT?

  1. Colin Elmes says:

    Value possession? then Canada needs #8 on the field

    • Gregor says:

      Mottershead looked good against Cuba but she had acres of room to work with. Bit different playing against the States and given her lack of experience (think she has 2 senior caps including the Cuba game) I wouldn’t put the youngster in for this game.

  2. Colin Elmes says:

    already qualified if playing in the final. put the soccer player in please

    • Gregor says:

      Good point if you want to use it as a means to ‘blood’ young players into more serious games (even though nothing’s on the line technically). But if you want to experiment with what will work against the States so you have a clearer picture for when you next play them when there actually is something on the line, I’m not sure I’d go much further than giving players like her half a game.

  3. Colin Elmes says:

    They should do it. Otherwise when it comes up again(a game of this standard) the same excuse will be used over and over again and our National Team program will continue to go with players “who can cope”. Welcome to last 30 years of soccer for us at this level. This is one of the reasons that Jim Easton rarely got a game. The mentality has to change or we will be speaking in terms of “coping” ten years from now.

  4. Marty Rose says:

    Gregor. I think your suggested formation is excellent. It would be a surprise to roll out a formation with two holding players considering they’ve only played with one the whole tournament. Sinclair certainly appears to be being groomed for the midfield role you are describing though. I also think Colin has convinced me about Mottershead. I didn’t think she had a good game against Cuba but I wonder if that was simply because she had so much time on the ball she started to actually think too much about her options. Yes she made that great pass that set up the second goal. But she looked nervous in her play overall. She made a horrible pass that went to no one down the right wing in the second half and that seemed to be a wake up call. It then looked to me like she decided to get over herself and actually play. Unfortunately by that point our forwards were standing around like they were stuck in mud and she didn’t really have anyone willing to do anything creative with. I would really like to see her against an opponent that forces her to play by her instincts. A lot of our attacking play in the group stage came from the freedom our fullbacks had in getting forward on the wings. That isn’t going to happen against the USA. They will be pinned back by the threat of Rodriquez and O’Reilly. I think having Mottershead in beside Scott would give us a player with the ability to thread passes through the gaps and get the US back line turned facing their own goal. This is the right kind of competitive match to show a little faith and take a gamble. If it isn’t working out we could always revert to Schmidt off the bench.

    • Colin Elmes says:


      How the hell are ya?

      If it is a Can US final there is no better time. Nothing at stake accept the usual pride when we play them at any level.

      We have to start somehwere and 8 looks like a player for 2015 for sure

      • Gregor says:

        One good game against a team that, as I said, would not beat a U18 BCPL team and Colin has her pencilled in to start in the 2015 World Cup 😉

    • Gregor says:

      Hey Marty, haven’t heard from you in a long time.

      I just figure that when you are faced with a team as strong as the States you have to accept that if you want to stand a chance you have to set your self out in a manner that acknowledges you are not going to control how the game flows. You will be reacting to what they do more than you would like and if you accept that you should look to neutralize their strengths with a formation and players that can best do that.

      As for Mottershead, she may be excellent but there’s no way any of us can tell from a game against a team like Cuba. She was receiving the ball in ten yards of space and playing balls to others in similar amounts of space. It’s a total different experience than what she’ll see against players like Boxx and Rapinoe. I’d go with Schmidt and Scott if you want to see if you can actually contain the States in a 4-2-3-1.

      • Colin Elmes says:


        She looks and moves and acts like a soccer player- unlike some of our other current players, many of which are approaching there 30’s and Herdman has already correctly deduced this Olympics campaign is it for them at this level.

        Pep G

  5. a says:

    I just wanted to make a comment in regards to “elementary mistakes related to positioning and movement” in the female game as I totally agree with your perspective. From what I have seen in the Lower Mainland is that there are generally a couple of very strong players who dominate the game. I know from my own experience growing up playing soccer, I always improved when I played with the older kids, however if I played with younger kids I would do the minimum to win. To assist development, what are your thoughts on having those dominant player be able to practice with players older then them or with there male counter parts which I think would really work?

    • Gregor says:

      Playing up is definitely one vehicle to help very strong players but unless they’re going to get strong coaching at that level it may not move them forward as much as staying at their own age if they already have a strong coach.

      I find it rarely works girls, once they get to U12 and up, to train with boys. Maybe for the odd one but not as a general rule.

    • Marty Rose says:

      I was also going to say something about this comment. While it is definitely true that these elementary mistakes are happening but it isn’t just in the women’s game, it is rife throughout the in British Columbia and Canada in general. Heck, I witnessed many such elementary mistakes by Whitecaps players this past summer. I don’t think it’s wrong to say there are mistakes or that these mistakes need to be addressed, it’s just that we don’t have to be so high and mighty to believe that it is something specific to the women’s game. The difference is that the mistakes made on the men’s side are much more likely to not result in a goal due to the larger defenders and goalkeepers standing in front of the same size goal. If you want to compare the two more realistically make the men play a goal that is about a third higher and wider. I think the USA v Guatemala game on Sunday night that ended up 13-0 probably would have been much more reasonable if the US had lent Guatemala their backup goalkeeper.

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