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Aug 20, 2004

U.S. women back on right track

The U.S. Women's National Team did not string together a complete 90 minutes of soccer in beating Japan 2-1 in its Olympic quarterfinal on Friday, however, it was the side's finest performance of the tournament so far.

The cobwebs and scattered play that had been on display throughout the three matches in group play were not there against the Japanese squad.

It's a positive development for April Heinrichs' team, as it now must prepare for a gigantic match against the favored-Germans on Monday in the semifinals.

The Americans didn't dominate Japan in a match that was more evenly played for the bulk of the time than anything. But, they did display an attack that was much more balanced than earlier in the tournament.

In order to beat Germany in a rematch from last year's 3-0 loss in the World Cup semifinals, the U.S. must continue to create opportunities from both sides of the field and in a variety of different ways.

The Americans can't just knock long balls to Abby Wambach or rely on serves into the box from the flanks, as was seen during that fateful day at PGE Park in Portland last Oct. 5.

They showed a promising glimpse of such a mindset against Japan.

Here are five observations from Friday's match:

1. The 4-3-3 is a better system for this group

Tony DiCicco's 4-3-3 has been slightly altered, as Heinrichs used two holding midfielders (Julie Foudy and Shannon Boxx) behind an attacking midfielder (Lindsay Tarpley) rather than use two attackers above a lone holding player. And that's probably a better idea, considering DiCicco had Michelle Akers to count on in that defensive midfielder role during the team's run to winning the World Cup in 1999.

By going with the 4-3-3, the U.S. was able to attack from both sides of the field out of the back, particularly on the left side where the presence of Brandi Chastain kept the Japanese defense wary during each build up. It also opened up space for Kristine Lilly on the left wing, as well as it stretched Japan's defense enough so that double teams could not occur on the other two forwards - Mia Hamm and Wambach.

Defensively, having three forwards pressuring the ball after losing possession helped force poor passes and many times rattled the Japanese back line. Playing in such an aggressive manner with three players pressuring instead of two aids someone like Hamm, who still remains be the best defensive forward in the world after all of these years.

This system also works out better for Julie Foudy. As analyst Lori Walker expertly pointed out during the broadcast, the longtime co-captain is much more effective in a central role where she can organize and have more ball-winning responsibilities rather than in a wide position where her lack of blazing speed and inability to get behind the defense are exposed.

2. Japan gave the U.S. defenders too much time on the ball

The back four of Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone were able to knock the ball around and advance up the field without much pressure from the Japanese strikers for most of the match. This allowed the U.S. to keep possession longer and pick and choose where and when to attack.

Fortunately for Japan, its defenders did a good job in keeping a body on Wambach to fight for each ball sent up to her from the back. If Germany makes the same type of mistake, it could come back to burn them, as both Markgraf and Chastain -- if she gets the nod again -- serve excellent balls to the strikers.

3. Another shot of Brandi

She deserves it. Not because the 36-year-old is at the end of a long career, but because the 5-foot-7 defender can still fill a few roles that no one else on this squad can play.

If Heinrichs opts to use the 4-3-3 system again against the Germans, it'll be hard not have an attacking personality like Chastain out there on the left flank. Not only does she serve good balls into the strikers and combines particularly well with Lilly down that side, but she also is one of the top aerial presences on the team after only Wambach, Boxx and Cindy Parlow. During the last World Cup, the U.S. missed having her on set plays, as well as having her making runs to the back post from the weak side of the field.

Chastain's strength in the air was on display in the 73rd minute against Germany when she rose up over two defenders and the goalkeeper to get her head on a corner kick from the right side. Had the serve been two inches lower, she would have been able to keep it lower for a shot on goal, as it was just high enough that all Chastain could do is head it over the goal.

Nothing against Cat Reddick, who filled in admirably during the World Cup last fall, but she does not have the marking skills that Markgraf has as a central defender, nor does she have the experience and savvy as a player like Chastain, who is one of the true students of the game in women's soccer.

Give Brandi the nod for this one, April.

4. Japan's offside trap was poorly done, which allowed the game-winning goal

Even though Boxx wasn't behind the defense when Hamm's long free kick was played from the left side, the line the defenders established wasn't properly set.

When a quick pull is done the right way, there usually is a code phrase ("Mark up number nine, mark up number nine!") one of the center backs uses to alert the other defenders what is taking place. Once the call is in play, each of the defenders spring out of the area when the attacking player taking the free kick is one or two steps from serving the ball.

In this case, Japan cleared the area right as the ball was struck, which allowed Boxx to receive the ball onside. As the Japanese defenders were caught looking back helplessly hoping the linesman would bail them out, Boxx took a few touches before slotting the ball over to Wambach for an easy goal in the 59th minute.

That's the risk you take on a play like that, and the Japanese side paid dearly.

5. Lilly blossoming once again

There's a reason why Lilly is not joining longtime teammates Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett in retirement. For starters, she just turned 33 years old and remains in the best shape of her life. (Her "beep test" time -- a grueling test of speed and endurance -- over the winter was off the charts for the U.S. women).

While Lilly is not as dominant as she once was, that has more to do with the level changing around the world than diminishing skills or loss of athleticism. In fact, one can argue that the Wilton, Conn., native has displayed much improvement over the past few years, as her right-footed shots are much more accurate and stronger than ever. She's a more technically-sound and sophisticated player as well, after playing three years in the WUSA, especially after having the opportunity to train under Pia Sundhage her last year as a Boston Breaker in 2003.

At times, Lilly can still be explosive, as she was against Japan, when she create a goal-scoring opportunity for Tarpley in the 43rd minute out of nothing, and ended up finishing the play herself for her second strike in the last two matches. The play began on a pass from Chastain, which Lilly received with her back to goal, and had to quickly maneuver out of a hard tackle by her defender. Once she turned to goal, the four-time World Cup veteran snuck through three defenders, overpowering one on a tackle within the box to send the ball floating towards the goal to an on-running Tarpley.

When the University of North Carolina sophomore won the 50-50 ball with Japan goalkeeper Nozomi Yamago, the ball bounced on the ground once before Lilly quickly pounded on the ball with her right foot and deposited into the open goal from six yards out. It was her 97th goal of her long career, and one of the more important strikes she's ever had.

No matter what happens to the U.S. over the next week, there'll be no reason to include Lilly with the rest of the '91-ers and count her out as an asset for this team over the next few years.

Women's World Cup 2007, anyone?

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com