Tarpley shines at the forward spot
RICHMOND, Va. -- Rain fell throughout the day on Friday in Richmond, soaking fields and forcing the United States to scramble for a viable practice facility in preparation for Sunday's game against Iceland (2 ET, ESPN2) at the University of Richmond Stadium.
Good thing coach Greg Ryan has learned a thing or two about using his Tarp in recent weeks.
Playing up front alongside Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach in Ryan's preferred 4-3-3 formation, Tarpley scored once against Mexico and twice against Chinese Taipei, three of the four goals she's scored in 14 games this season after not scoring at all in five appearances last season.
With Heather O'Reilly, who had been starting as the third forward in recent months, involved in ACC conference play with North Carolina, Tarpley is looking at her third start in a row at forward on Sunday. All of which begs the question has Ryan created something of a dilemma for himself in choosing between the two North Carolina products?
"My assistant coaches keep telling me how dumb I was not to put her up there before," Ryan said of moving Tarpley from midfield to forward for the Mexico game. "But I looked, and apparently she hasn't played many games up top in her career. But her chemistry with Abby and Lilly is really good; they can read each other so well. It's just been an instantaneous fit for this team. So I guess I agree with my assistants."
Tarpley, despite turning 23 between the games against Mexico and Chinese Taipei, is hardly an inexperienced youngster just now hitting her stride. With 52 caps, she's one of the more experienced players on the roster for the game against Iceland. And while she was primarily a forward for North Carolina and numerous junior national teams (she scored the game-winning goal in the United States' 1-0 win against Canada in the 2002 U-19 Women's World Championships), Ryan is right about her relative inexperience playing the position for the senior national team. In fact, Tarpley was starting just her third game at forward for the national team when she took the field against Chinese Taipei.
Equal parts quiet, succinct and courteous off the field, moving around doesn't faze Tarpley.
"For me, it's just playing," Tarpley mused when asked about different approaches in playing the two positions. "And when I try to think, I don't play as well. So if I can just step out on the field, if I'm playing midfield or forward, and play the way I can play, I know that I'm doing all I can."
But for those around her on the field, the new lineup has changed the complexion of the entire front seven for the United States.
"I think what Tarp brings to the table is a total new thing for us," Abby Wambach said. "Heather is a hard worker, she's willing to do the defensive hard work and what-not. But Tarp has this ability to hold the ball -- she's been a midfielder for the past couple of years, and I think she was more of a forward when she was younger -- but having a midfielder, like Lil, who can go back and forth from midfield to forward is a big bonus. If somebody gets out of place -- Aly [Wagner] or Carli [Lloyd] get caught up front -- she can fill in and there is no skipped beat at all. Number two, she holds the ball so well for us, and that's what we need to do with the forwards."
With Lilly and Wambach, the United State has two players ideally suited to playing up front in a 4-3-3. Tarpley gives Ryan another option to pair with O'Reilly in looking for the ideal fit for the other spot in a formation the coach feels best suits his roster, in addition to freeing Tarpley from a logjam in the midfield.
"Right now, with our current player pool, we're just not suited to playing with wing midfielders," Ryan said. "We just don't have very many of them. We have a lot of central midfielders, very great central midfielders. ... Lil's a true winger; it's great getting her up high and wide. Tarp's doing well out there, Heather O'Reilly's done well out there. And Abby's a true center forward, you know, central striker. I just think this system suits the personalities of our players.
"We're very aggressive in our nature -- just U.S. soccer mentality is very aggressive, and this system really allows you to play a very aggressive style without getting caught in the counter too badly. That's always a problem when you throw a lot of people up high."
Like a great line in hockey, Tarpley is an ideal fit not because she's the third-most talented forward available to Ryan (although she's certainly in the debate), but because her game best complements the two most talented forwards available to Ryan. Tarpley is the rare combination of a role player blessed with a nose for goal.
"She's one of the fittest players on our team, so she does a lot of the hard, grunt work," Wambach said, before echoing something former United States captain and current ESPN analyst Julie Foudy often says of Tarpley's goal-scoring instincts. "And honestly, I've played with a lot of players in my life, but she's one of the more opportunistic players. She scores a lot of big-time goals -- I can think of three off the top of my head."
That Tarpley has that kind of goal-scoring legacy, including the first tally in a 2-1 win for the United States in the final of the 2004 Olympics against Brazil, is yet another reminder of a longevity that contradicts her age. Viewed for so long as one of the most prominent faces of the "future" of women's soccer in this country, Tarpley hasn't necessarily had as much slack as other players her age when it comes to improving.
"I've learned so much," Tarpley said of the time since her debut with the senior national team in 2003. "Just the basic things: playing with the ball, being comfortable with the ball at my feet, striking the ball, serving the ball. I look back to residency in 2004 and I've definitely improved a lot, but I also have a ways to go. It's exciting to watch Kristine Lilly and think that hopefully, one day, I can be up there with her."
Presumably, Tarpley meant up there with her in the figurative sense, because it doesn't appear like she's leaving Lilly's side anytime soon in the real world.
"I think that her being on top with Lil and I is a great asset," Wambach said. "Who knows if Greg is going to keep things that way, but for right now, I think it's been a great addition to the front line. I think we've been more successful, and we've gotten behind teams more with Tarpley in our lineup."
Ryan, for one, knows that he plans on keeping it that way for the time being.
"We want to keep Tarp up top for now," Ryan said without hesitation. "I'm really happy with the way those three are meshing together, and right now, I'd say that's our best trio together, in terms of chemistry, reading each other. Each one can get behind the defense, but each one also is good at playing the ball behind the defense. Each one can create, each one can score. It's just pretty good right now."
Rightfully proud of her versatility, Tarpley isn't ready to say forward is where she wants to play exclusively, but with the way things are going, her actions are speaking far louder than her soft-spoken words.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com