U.S. takes Abby road to semifinals
FOXBORO, Mass. - Yankees-Red Sox it wasn't.
The home side's 1-0 victory over Norway lacked the drama, the level of execution and the back-and-forth play of the usual type of classic rivalry match that was mentioned going into this Women's World Cup quarterfinal.
But what 25,103 fans at Gillette Stadium were treated to on Wednesday night was typical Norway-U.S. It's never pretty. It's never too technical, or even tactical, for that matter. Instead, it's always more of a case of survival and about getting the result no matter how it is achieved.
Such was the case in the 37th matchup -- third on the World Cup stage -- of the two top countries in the history of women's soccer that now stands at 18-17-2 in favor of Norway now that the U.S. has won the last four matches in the series.
"It was a physical battle," admitted Cat Reddick, who earned yet another point with a well-placed free kick to Abby Wambach who headed in the game's lone tally in the first half.
Even more so than the match against Nigeria last Thursday night, as the U.S. players were fouled 24 times.
Said U.S. coach April Heinrichs: "We knew that Norway's number one priority would be to make the game physical."
Norway might have set out to play that way to win balls, set a tempo and establish the tone of play, but it was the stronger U.S. women that benefited from such a style, especially Wambach, who Heinrichs said "played the best game of her life."
"She was being grabbed and groped and all sorts of things," said the U.S. coach.
Yet it was all for naught. Trying to manhandle Wambach is like trying to stop a bulldozer with a picket fence. And the more obstacles put in her way, the better she gets, as was seen tonight.
"That's playing right into my hands," said Wambach with no hesitation. "If you play physical with me, I'll play physical back."
The winner of Thursday night's Germany-Russia match would be wise to take note for the semifinals, which will be held on Sunday in Portland, Ore.
Here are five observations from the match:
1. The Americans came out with the same starting lineup that they used against Sweden to open the World Cup with the lone exception being Reddick in the back four in place of Brandi Chastain (broken foot). But they showed an entirely different look, going with a 4-4-2 formation instead of the 4-3-3 used in that first match.
Cindy Parlow dropped back from her usual forward slot to attacking midfielder at the top of the diamond-configured midfield with Kristine Lilly out on the left, Julie Foudy on the right, and Shannon Boxx back as the defensive center midfielder. It's the first time Parlow has played there in this tournament, yet not a new position for her at all, as she took on such a role with the Atlanta Beat of the WUSA.
"I feel comfortable playing there," said the 5-foot-11 striker. "It really wasn't much of a difference for me today because they were back in a bunker."
If anything, it gave the backline a big target to play through for flick-ons to Hamm and Parlow.
If there was a slight surprise in the lineup, it came in the back. Not with the choice of players, but with the way they were slotted. Kate Sobrero paired with Joy Fawcett in the central defense instead of Reddick, who spent more time in the middle the past three games than out wide as a left back as she was against Norway.
Reddick said that this decision was a no-brainer since Sobrero was a teammate of Norway's top striker, Dagny Mellgren, on the Boston Breakers.
"Sobs knew her tendencies," said the 23-year-old senior at the University of North Carolina. "She knew what she was going to do. That was a main reason."
Both Mellgren and withdrawn striker Marianne Pettersen were bottled up throughout the night, as Norway only managed to get one shot on goal and three overall.
Sobrero and Reddick did happen to switch positions in the second half, exhibiting the versatility of the U.S. side once again.
"We both feel comfortable in both spots, so we just switched. I'm not as comfortable getting forward, and Kate is. So that's probably the reason why we did."
With the U.S. expected to take on Germany in the semifinal, expect to see Sobrero start as a central defender again, considering that another Breaker teammate -- German's star striker Maren Meinert -- will be the focal point of the U.S. defense.
2. The Norwegians have always been tough to beat in the air, and certainly seemed strong in group play. But they were no match at all for the U.S., which dominated most every 50-50 ball.
"Today," said Norway's head coach Age Steen, "they were stronger than the Norwegian team. We have not (encountered) such big and physical players like we have had in past tournaments."
The U.S. sent this message early, too, as Boxx, Parlow and Wambach completely outmuscled their respective defenders to win head balls in the first 11 minutes of the match. That's why it was no surprise to see Pearce and Reddick continue to serve long balls out of the back from the opening whistle, knowing it was just a matter of time before Parlow or Wambach put a shot on frame.
That moment came in the 24th minute when Reddick's well-struck ball to the six-yard box on a free kick from 45 yards out found Wambach in stride. All the play called for was a redirect, which the 23-year-old striker did to perfection past a helpless Bente Nordby.
"There was not much more I had to do," said Reddick on how most every serve into the box is usually going to be met by Wambach or Parlow. "It was a great header by Abby."
The damage wasn't only reflected in the score sheet, either. On two occasions, play had to be stopped to tend to injured Norwegians. The first instance came in the 10th minute when Boxx chopped down midfielder Trine Ronning as she was dribbling the ball near midfield on a play that should've resulted in a yellow card. Ronning eventually had to leave the game in the 24th minute, which handcuffed Steen for the second half, as it left for only two allotted substitutions. (Think they could have used an extra pair of fresh legs?)
The other collision was not deemed worthy of a card by official Nicole Petignat, as well. Perhaps Ane Stangeland's dentist bills will dispute that, as the high kick to her mouth, courtesy of Parlow, was as dangerous as they come.
"I didn't see her," admitted Parlow, who said she apologized after the game.
Neither did the ref, most likely.
3. The best player on the field was Norway's goalkeeper. Nordby was the difference between a four- or five-to-nothing affair, making several highlight-reel saves.
"She is a very good goalkeeper," said Steen. "Maybe the best in the world."
There'd be no argument from Parlow, either, as she was robbed of a sure goal in the 68th minute when Nordby dove to her left to save a headed ball from the U.S. striker from point-blank range.
Earlier in the match, she stoned Wambach, as well, on a textbook half-volley of a Hamm free kick from the right side. Though the hard strike was right at Nordby, most every keeper in the world would have allowed for a rebound in front of the net rather than haul it in the way she was able to.
Nordby also stood her ground on Hamm's poorly-placed penalty kick midway through the second half. Rather than guess to her left side -- Hamm's preferred location on PKs -- the Norwegian keeper read the kick well, and reacted to her left to make the save and keep her squad in the match.
4. This was about pride for the U.S. players. For anyone who either wasn't there or didn't remember the exact details of the defeats in the World Cup final in 1995 and in the gold-medal match in the 2000 Olympics, Heinrichs refreshed their memories. With some handy editing, the U.S. staff prepared a video tape that showed the Norwegian teams celebrating after both victories. At the end of the presentation, the words "Never forget" came up on the screen.
Captain Julie Foudy said she sat there with a pit in her stomach.
"It was quiet, with no music or anything," she said. "Just them standing up there with their medals on the podium.
"I was thinking, 'I don't want to feel like that again,'"
From the looks of the match and the intensity level, she wasn't alone.
5. Norway had a hard time controlling the ball and stringing together more than two or three passes throughout the match. What they did do well was limit the service from the flanks, as Anita Rapp and Solveig Gulbrandsen did a nice job containing Foudy and Lilly for the most part. Centerback Stangeland -- ye of the Parlow volley to the teeth -- was also strong in the air and the player that put out the most fires on the backline.
Considering the 14 shots, the eight corner kicks and the decided advantage in time spent on the attack by the U.S., there were a lot of fires.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.