U.S. shows pride, passion vs. Canada
CARSON, Calif. -- The match was played in the right stadium and on the correct weekend that had long been circled on the U.S. players' calendars. But it certainly wasn't the game they wanted to be in or for the trophy they wanted to hoist.
Nevertheless, the U.S. National Team played with the essential amount of pride and with a renewed sense of creativity to down Canada 3-1 to take third-place honors in the Women's World Cup on Saturday afternoon at the Home Depot Center.
Traditionally, third-place games are better left unwatched. The quality is poor, the energy is missing, and the pace more resembles a Sunday kick-around than a World Cup match with a medal at stake.
Unless it's a pair of upstart nations that rode waves of momentum to magically reach the semifinals -- Turkey and South Korea in last summer's World Cup -- no one seems to care about the result. Maybe the home federation, but certainly not the fans. The same can be said for the players many times.
Fortunately for the 25,253 fans at the HDC, this was not the case, as two border rivals went at it with the same amount of passion and sense of urgency as was seen in the various college football games around the country on Saturday.
U.S.-Canada has a long way to go to match the history of Texas-Oklahoma and Miami-Florida State. Or even U.S.-Mexico on the men's soccer side, for that matter. But this hard-fought affair gave us a preview of the type of competitive battles expected out of these two teams for years to come.
Here's what led to the U.S. victory:
1. Dynamic attack. In the loss to Germany, several chances were created. No one can deny that, or the fact that goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg happened to play like her Germany counterpart, Oliver Kahn, on that day. But the fact remains that the U.S. was less predictable against Canada, and featured several more players causing problems for the defense, which allowed 16 shots to be taken.
From the start that was evident, as Christie Pearce gave the attack an element from out of the back that Kylie Bivens failed to do in her presence last Sunday. Her speed and experience allowed her to pick and choose her moments in overlapping, and opened up the right flank for Julie Foudy more in front of her.
In the first eight minutes alone, the Point Pleasant, N.J., native crossed two balls into the box - once on a length-of-the-field run with the ball at her feet, and another time off a tactical switch into space while the midfielders and strikers were demonstrating fine combination play in the middle of the field.
That extra spacing created for the attackers right off the bat helped the U.S. establish a more technical game than Canada, who April Heinrichs said looked like the "spitting image of Norway" because of its physical style and tendency to play long balls whenever it could.
"Our possession game helped serve us today," said Heinrichs, who admitted to watching the tape of the loss to Germany three times over the last week.
There was even a little flair exhibited, at times, like when Abby Wambach surprised the defense with a deft back heel to space for Pearce in the 45th minute, which setup yet another chance for the home side.
The U.S. also looked to play the "early ball," meaning that serves were sent in from areas outside of the 18-yard box, and didn't consist of straight forays down the flank before hitting a ball back to the middle for an on-rushing forward - something that was seen too regularly against Germany.
Such was the case on the first U.S. goal, as Mia Hamm played a chip towards Abby Wambach, who essentially boxed out defender Charmaine Hooper, causing her to botch a clearance. That resulted in an opportunity for Kristine Lilly from 20 yards out, which she rifled into the back of the net with the outside of her left foot to put the U.S. up 1-0 in the 22nd minute.
The inspired play of Tiffeny Milbrett helped open up the attacking third, as well.
"We wanted to try and get behind the defense a few more times and get chances from our combination play," said Milbrett, who came on in the 43rd minute for Cindy Parlow due to a concussion the striker suffered on a collision with Abby Wambach and Canadian defender Brittany Timko early in the match.
The 30-year-old striker scored her first goal in six matches to round out the day's scoring by creating something out of nothing - a trait that had also been lacking within the U.S. attack.
Milbrett dribbled into the box and angled herself at the goal before trying to feed Lilly with a pass across the penalty stripe. When it was denied by a deflection, the 13-year veteran knocked it home without hesitation with her left foot from the right side of the box.
As the team's most-creative striker and first to look for her own offense, it was fitting that she was able to finally get on the board.
"I want to dribble," said Milbrett. "The bottom line is: You gotta try it."
An excellent mantra for a striker. Somebody put that on a T-shirt.
2. More Hamm, please. The decision to move Hamm back into an attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward role really gave the U.S. an added dimension. As per usual, the world's leading scorer was intense and tracking down every ball in sight, which helped the Americans control the midfield early on.
In the first 14 minutes, Hamm set up chances for both of her front-runners -- Wambach and Parlow -- and was serving balls from both sides of the field. It was reminiscent of some of her better games with the Washington Freedom when she played in the midfield, and made one wonder why this option wasn't explored in one of the five previous matches.
"There were certain points against Germany when we were getting too forward too quickly, so we didn't have any support in the midfield," explained Wambach. "With Mia being more withdrawn, it gave us the opportunity when me, or C.P. or Millie gets forward, she's right there (in support). And who better of a person to have sitting at the top of your box waiting for a ball to come in than her."
In addition to the chance she helped create for Lilly's goal, Hamm once again got rewarded with an assist after playing in a good ball to the back post on a corner kick, which Shannon Boxx nodded home for the team's second goal.
"She hit a perfect ball," said Boxx. "All I had to do was put my head on it."
When Mia's on her game, sometimes it's that easy for those around her.
3. Ability to focus. The U.S. is a veteran team, and one that has handled big losses before. The squad persevered after the 1-0 semifinal loss to Norway in the 1995 World Cup, and came back to down Sweden 2-0 in the third-place match. It also built off the loss to Norway in the gold medal match of the 2000 Olympics and became a better team with a rebuilt defense and a new formation.
That's why it was players like Lilly, Foudy and Chastain who pleaded to the rest of the players to rebound off the Germany loss and leave this tournament with a strong showing no matter who the opponent was, what the game was for, or when it was at.
"They were the ones pulling us younger ones up," said Boxx, who was named to the All-Tournament team along with Joy Fawcett and Hamm (alternate) on Wednesday. "They were the ones saying, 'Hey, we've got one more game to play, and we're gonna be ready.'"
That passion and aggressiveness was apparent, whether it was in the way Wambach and Parlow showed absolutely no disregard for their bodies to try and win balls, the way Hamm intensely screamed at the officials after two calls, or the way Lilly and a few others stared down hard-nosed defender Sasha Andrews after confrontations in the box.
"There was a determination in the game," said Heinrichs. "And our persistence paid off."
Said Boxx: "I think we had as much heart in this game as we did against Germany."
Milbrett agreed, saying there was nothing to save themselves for.
"It's the last game, so you want to give everything you have."
They did, which contributed to the win, and allowed the U.S. players to leave the field with smiles on their faces to the chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A."
Again, it wasn't the way they scripted it, or with the correct color medal around their necks. But they left the field with their pride and confidence fully intact after a trying week consisting of "what-ifs" by every player and second-guessing by media around them.
"When the U.S. team has naysayers and when people doubted us," said Heinrichs, "they rose again. I'm very proud of the way they played."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.