U.S. wins head games
WASHINGTON -- OK, so it wasn't as forceful as the Hurricane that trudged through here on Thursday night.
But, nevertheless, the play of the U.S. Women's National Team in a 3-1 victory against Sweden was solid enough to garner three points and carry positive momentum into the preparation for Thursday's match against Nigeria.
The 34,144 in the stands at RFK Stadium saw the U.S. open in a 4-3-3 formation with the same starting lineup that took on Mexico two weeks ago in the team's last friendly before the World Cup.
They also saw an April Heinrichs-coached squad that didn't carry the play for several portions of the match, yet one that took advantage of its chances and was smarter than the opponent.
The same can't be said for Sweden, which still played with four and, often, five defenders in the back even when the U.S. enjoyed the lead for 62 minutes of the match. Despite a busy striker duo, the Swedes also didn't take advantage of several situations, including a golden opportunity to tie up the match on a free kick in the 73rd minute.
With the ball positioned at the top of the box from 21 yards out, it seemed like an ideal situation for Sweden to score its second goal. Before the kick was taken, Mia Hamm rushed at the ball within the 10 yards of space Sweden is allowed to have. Rather than stop her run at the ball and ask the referee to push the U.S. striker back, Malin Andersson - the captain, no less -- proceeded to take the kick and knock it over the net.
Just five minutes later, Shannon Boxx scored to essentially knock Sweden out, making the snafu stand out that much more.
Sunday's result was similar to the 3-0 score the U.S. beat Denmark by to kick off the World Cup in '99, in that they were able to display their dominance, shake the cobwebs off and gain the necessary three points, yet leave room for improvement.
"We can play much better," admitted striker Abby Wambach, who gave the U.S. 56 strong minutes up top in her first World Cup appearance. "We didn't play our best soccer today."
To best evaluate the performance turned in by Americans, let's look at the three areas within their play that won them the game:
1. Variety in the attack -- From the opening whistle, it was apparent that the Swedish backs were in for a long day. It's one thing to have to muscle up against the behemoth pair of 5-foot-11 forwards -- Cindy Parlow and Wambach -- while keeping close watch on the world's leading goal scorer, but it's a whole different story when they are constantly rotating between three positions and unselfishly playing off of each other on a consistent basis.
While Wambach started the match as the center forward in the three-striker system with Hamm on her left and Parlow on her right, she was often seen attacking from the right flank. Not only did she do such a thing after receiving a great ball from Julie Foudy out of the midfield to ultimately setup Kristine Lilly's goal to kick-start the U.S., but she also served a perfect ball to Parlow along the six-yard box four minutes earlier that should have resulted in a goal (Parlow beat her marker, and barely missed getting her head on it).
When the Swedish back four weren't worrying about the three U.S. strikers, they had to deal with Lilly, who was slotted behind the attackers in the team's three-man triangle midfield system.
"(Lilly) played a higher role today," said captain Julie Foudy. "Boxx and I played a little more conservative in a deeper seam."
The world's all-time leader in caps with 256 looked like the younger version of herself from the '90s who dominated her side or space in the midfield. Her runs through the seams in the defense caused problems for Sweden, and made them play more defensively even when down one or two goals.
"It was a hard time for our midfielders against Kristine Lilly today," admitted Swedish coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors after the game. "She was the difference in the first half."
Lilly's goal came in the 28th minute when Hamm laid a well-timed ball back to her at the top of the box. Her one-time strike with her left foot from 20 yards out rung the back of the net, and got the U.S. off and running. She also nearly struck oil first for the defending world champions when she rocketed a free kick around a Swedish wall from 24 yards out in the 12 minute.
Combining with the serves she played in and a few penetrating runs down the left side, Lilly provided the type of offensive presence that allowed Heinrichs to keep Aly Wagner -- the team's purest playmaker -- on the bench to start the match.
2. Aerial dominance -- The second and third goals were a result of the shear brute strength and athleticism by both Parlow and Shannon Boxx. That's not to take away from the serves that Hamm sent in to the box on both occasions. But let's be frank - both were 50-50 balls won by the goal scorers. That type of efficiency in the air in the attacking third is an element that no other team in the tournament can match.
"It's something that can probably put a little fear in teams," said Boxx, who is coming off of an outstanding season for the New York Power of the now-defunct WUSA. "It also gives us a lot of confidence."
"Normally you have one player who is dominant in the air. We have three," said Cat Reddick referring to Parlow, Boxx and Wambach.
On Parlow's goal, the 25-year-old striker simply out-leaped the much-smaller Hanna Marklund. The Swede wasn't out of position on the play. Just beat to the ball by a stronger, more powerful player.
Boxx's goal, which marked her third strike in three international games to set a new women's record for the U.S. National Team, came on the same type of situation.
In fact, the ball that Hamm played well beyond the far post was likely intended to be knocked back into the mixer by Boxx who was giving the U.S. depth on the weakside. However, the least-experienced American player made a veteran move by knocking the ball to the keeper's left after she timed her jump better than Sara Larsson, who really should have won the ball off the corner kick.
"Shannon said she didn't even see it," said a slightly-awed Hamm.
It was just a case of timing, which the U.S. excels in on head balls.
"That's heading" said Boxx, who never saw the ball go into the goal. "The best headers are the people who time it well. The people on our team -- Abby, Cindy -- are amazing at that. Obviously, they are big, but they time the ball so well. And that's what heading is all about."
3. Bend but don't break in the back -- Despite the final score, do not think that Sweden wasn't dangerous in this match. Ljungberg, the 24-year-old superstar striker, didn't take one shot the whole game, but she did set up a few of her teammates to create some scary situations for the U.S. back four.
One of those players was Victoria Svensson, who was able to find open space throughout the match, and got off five of the team's 10 shots, including three that were on goal. Sweden's lone tally came in the 58th minute on Svensson's perfect header that beat Briana Scurry off a cross from Ljungberg.
Even with two-goal leads twice in the match, this twosome didn't allow the U.S. to rest.
"They are two of the best forwards in the world," said Reddick, who entered the match at halftime for an ailing Brandi Chastain (foot injury). "They just run, run and run."
Ljungberg and Svensson also were able to turn and run at the defense due to their deft ball skills. And when one was turning, the other was streaking across to space. What kept this duo at bay was the combination of Scurry's steadiness in the back and Joy Fawcett's ability to run the defense, especially in the second half when Chastain was not on the field.
"She was wonderful today," said Heinrichs when asked about her 35-year-old co-captain. "She was our iron woman in the back."
Fawcett won several balls in the air and was a calming influence for Reddick in her first World Cup appearance. The University of North Carolina senior even encouraged Fawcett to be in her ear as much as possible when they walked onto the field together to start the second half.
"I love having her next to me when I'm out there," said Reddick, who now has 37 caps for the U.S. "I know when I go out there that she'll be in the right place at the right time."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.