On the seventh day, she rested
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- To turn the faucet on or off. That was April Heinrichs' dilemma on Sunday.
In other words, do you leave the faucet on that's been freely spewing out dazzling performances by Mia Hamm during the first week of the World Cup by playing her against North Korea on Sunday, or do you "shut it off" and bench the star striker in a game that the U.S. didn't need to win to advance to the quarterfinals, and ultimately won 3-0.
Saving a player like Hamm, who had played all 180 minutes in the first two U.S. matches, was not a bad idea at all. It just seemed to go against the philosophy Heinrichs used to answer critics who openly questioned her decision to keep the 31-year-old veteran on the field against the rough-and-tumble Nigerians when the game was in hand on Thursday night.
"If you take Mia off," explained Heinrichs on Saturday afternoon at the team hotel, "you run the risk of turning the faucet off … we want to keep her in that zone."
She later added, "I wouldn't want to be the one to turn the faucet off."
Yet, that's exactly what Heinrichs did against North Korea by deciding not to play her, which marked only the second time that Hamm didn't start in a World Cup match. The last time came against Japan in 1991.
"We had Mia slated for 45 minutes," said the U.S. coach after the match.
But that decision changed once the U.S. headed into halftime with a 1-0 lead on a penalty kick by Abby Wambach.
While Heinrichs had reduced Hamm's minutes down to 30 or 15 in her own mind, her squad built the lead to 3-0 on two Cat Reddick goals in an 18-minute span in the second half. That's when she decided to keep Hamm on the bench, much to the dismay of a crowd of 22,828 fans who were screaming, "Mee-uh!, Mee-uh" throughout the second half.
Though Hamm did say that she would have preferred to get some touches on the ball to keep her form, she understood the decision.
"I was completely fine with that," said the team's scoring leader with two goals and four assists in the World Cup thus far.
Hamm was even approached by Heinrichs on the sideline with about 20 minutes to go in the match, and was asked what she thought the right thing to do was. Knowing that she'd either get a solid run in by playing or give an opportunity for Danielle Slaton to appear in her first World Cup match, Hamm said her choice was to stay out at that point.
It allowed Heinrichs to make her ninth substitution in three games, and use 18 out of 20 players during the round-robin, group-play stage of the tournament.
Resting veterans, using nearly everyone on the roster, and posting different starting lineups each match has all been part of the scripted plan for the coaching staff, admitted Heinrichs.
"We have methodically tried to rest a lot of players," she said. "By our count, after two games we had rested six players. After three games now, we've rested somewhere around twelve. That's good. I feel like we're going to go into this game -- this quarterfinal -- as rested as humanly possible."
She has a point, considering the numbers shown below to illustrate Heinrichs' use of her roster:
One could compare Heinrichs' tactics to that of U.S. men's coach Bruce Arena, who threw new lineups and different formations at each of his squads opponents in the 2002 World Cup, and was quite successful at it.
The comparisons are there. Look at Kylie Bivens, who has played as a right back, a right midfielder and as a left midfielder the last two games, and then look at how Frankie Hejduk was used by Arena. Youthful player stepping in for a rock-solid leader? Pablo Mastroeni fit that bill in Korea filling in for Chris Armas just as Reddick is now doing in place of Chastain.
Heinrichs has said that she's not being "elusive to be elusive." Her coaching moves simply stem from the lessons learned at the 2000 Summer Olympics when she saw her U.S. side tire by playing five games over a 14-day span, including the 3-2 loss to Norway in the gold medal match. In three of the matches, Heinrichs only used one substitute, which didn't help the fatigue level.
This time around, she didn't want to see her team in the same position come the knockout round. Heinrichs said that she also quietly spoke with her assistants about the concerns of playing a quarterfinal match on two days rest compared to their opponent's three days, which she noticed right away when the draw was announced.
When the U.S. plays Norway on Wednesday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., it'll be against a team that played all its starters on Saturday afternoon in order to ensure that they'd advance as the second-place team in Group B.
That won't be the case for the Americans, who now can use starters such as Hamm and Shannon Boxx on a full five days rest, as well as play veterans such as Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly after only playing 45 minutes on Sunday.
"In soccer, the difference between three and four days is not huge," said Heinrichs. "But the difference between two and three is big."
After the match, Wambach noticed that this type of management of a roster is new to the U.S. squad and is helping to make a difference.
"We've never been able to rest players before for the later rounds," said the 23-year-old striker. "Some of our veterans are obviously a little more aged than myself and some of the other younger players. To get them as much rest as we can is crucial, because if they're playing at their peak performance than I don't think that there's any team here that can beat us."
More than anyone, that applies to Hamm, who has been Wambach's partner-in-crime for the past two years as front-runners for the Washington Freedom of the WUSA.
"I just can't wait to see what she does against Norway," said Wambach with an almost devilish smile.
Same goes for Heinrichs.
The one who turned the faucet off, and the one who will open it again on Wednesday.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.