Any good football coach will tell you that special-teams play will win or cost you a few games a year.
Apparently, soccer coaches are now taking notice of their sport's own particular "special teams" activities. U.S. boss April Heinrichs has stressed the importance of set-piece execution leading into this Cup, and it is paying off big time now. Six of the United States' eight goals in the first two games came from set pieces (corner kicks, penalty kicks, free kicks off fouls), and all three today were a result of effective special-team play.
I remember playing youth soccer, and we had this one mom that would yell on every one of our corner kicks "every corner is a goal". I always thought she was a little nuts, but apparently she was ahead of her time. Just about every corner has been a goal for the States. I have never witnessed such effectiveness off corners as the U.S. has displayed so far. How much longer can it carry the team though? As the Americans enter the knockout phase, the defenses will be wiser, larger and educated in the ways of the States' corner kicks. The team will still be effective, but certainly not to this level.
So Aly Wagner got another start, and Tiffeny Milbrett made her first appearance in the starting eleven ... don't get used to it. Wagner continues to be a non-factor, and I'm not sure the coaching staff has much confidence in her as they used to. She seemed slower, with no explosiveness in her step, and some (not all) of her passes were well off target. As for Milbrett, is it me, or is the World Cup no place to try and get someone match fit. Shannon MacMillan should get the nod over her for the rest of the tourney, as far as offensive help from the bench is concerned.
Sorry to be so negative, so we change gears. Christie Pearce has more speed than I remember, and I love how she gets into the attack from her fullback spot. Kylie Bivens made this roster due in large part to her versatility, and she is flexing it this tourney. Abby Wambach continues to take over games. She scores, passes, jukes, and crushes - that is an awesome collection of verbs. Cat Reddick ... wow. Reads the game well, stepped up and intercepted so many balls, showed stunning composure for a college senior, and oh yeah, she scored twice off corners. Brandi who?? Alright, maybe that was over the top, but you know the team and staff are fine with her play (and she did it in the middle today, not out wide like last game). Also, love the fact that Mia Hamm and Cindy Parlow didn't have to take off their sweats today, and that the integral midfield combo of Lilly/Foudy only had to run for 45 minutes.
On to the quarters we go, and this is where things get interesting. No question that Group A, from top to bottom, was the most complete of the four in the tournament, and that will serve the U.S. well. The team has passed every test, conceded only one goal, and has scored at least three in each game.
Next up Norway. So let me get this straight, in the quarterfinals it's the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the world butting heads?? Ouch. I like the States in this one. They are rested, confident, and have that "special team" advantage going for them. On the flip side, Norway started slow, and then got it going. The Norwegians are playing with energy after pounding South Korea 7-1, but their lack of creativity and speed will eventually do them in. Stay tuned for a US/Germany semifinal.
-- Rob Stone is covering the Women's World Cup for ESPN.