Stone's Slant on U.S.-Norway
It is impossible to play a whole World Cup at the peak of your game. You are bound to have at least one letdown contest, and the test of all great teams is how they overcome it (if they can), and then how they respond in the next match. That "off" performance came tonight for the U.S.
When it's all over but the shouting, all that really matters is getting the win, and the States did enough to earn it. Their midfield play was spotty (when your midfield maestro and captain, Julie Foudy, gets subbed out, that tells you how the night is going), their legs seemed tired, their passes were sloppy, and they missed a penalty kick! (by the way, can you believe the U.S. has been awarded 4 PK's already! stunning ... that goes for some of the ref's decisions as well -i.e. tonight's) April Heinrichs said post match this was the game she was most worried about, because they were coming off only two days rest ... it showed. But winners respond and overcome such adversity.
The reason the U.S. won was twofold. First off, the defense suffocated Norway, and in particular Dagny Mellgren. Nobody double teams better than the States. It's not an easy team skill to excel at, as it requires speed, communication, and cover. The U.S. was simply spectacular with it, and they set that tone from the opening whistle. Forwards to defenders actively participated in it, and when that happens good things come about.
Secondly, the team went to its new bread and butter ... Abby Wambach. As my boss barked in my ear during the game, "Put the ball on Abby's head!" Bingo. I've been saying in the last few columns that the United States' success rate on free kicks will start to go down as the competition level increases, and the opposition does more film work. Well, Norway did its work. The defense was all over Abby. Holding, tugging, lunging. Didn't matter. Wambach is now approaching Brian McBride-esque skill/heart in the air.
Depth is suddenly concerning me though. One would think with Brandi Chastain out, the defense would be light in the talent department ... NO. The offense is. Wambach had about 10 decent minutes in the entire second half because she was gassed, yet she went the distance. We were debating in the studio during the game, who should April bring in ... only Kylie Bivens was agreed on. Yes, Bivens now rates over Aly Wagner, Shannon MacMillan and Tiffeny Milbrett (who made a somewhat surprising entrance late).
One final note ... look out for Mia Hamm Sunday in the semifinal. After she missed her penalty kick she worked her tail off to do whatever was necessary to win that game (alright, she always does that, but she took it to a higher plateau this evening). I guarantee you she felt she let her whole team down, and was obsessed with not doing it again. Portland, Oregon, you could be in for a big time Mia treat Sunday.
-- Rob Stone is covering the Women's World Cup for ESPN.