Ryan still looking for more scoring options
CARSON, Calif. -- The search for goals will continue, but so will the unbeaten streak.
Seconds away from a penalty-kick shootout in the Gold Cup final against Canada, the United States pulled out a dramatic 2-1 win when Kristine Lilly converted a penalty kick in stoppage time of the second overtime period. With the win, the United States finished the year 18-0-4 (including a shootout loss to Germany in the final of the Algarve Cup) and improved to 26-0-5 since coach Greg Ryan took over the team in 2005.
But on a day when the United States fired off 25 shots and got just seven of them on goal, it was a victory of attrition rather than artistic execution.
"I think if you looked at this game, we had more chances than Canada had," Ryan said after the win. "And that's very consistent with what we've done throughout the year, no matter who we've been playing. I think what we've got to do is really work on the technical end of finishing, because we're getting enough chances to win games a little easier than we are. I think tonight could have been a game that we won by a couple of goals, and yet we're fighting it out to the end."
The end came with Lilly, arm raised in triumph even as the ball traveled into the right side of the net on the penalty, rescuing the night. With seconds remaining in stoppage time, Cat Whitehill's long throw-in bounced once before Abby Wambach got a foot to it and sent it across the face of the goal toward Carli Lloyd. At that point, depending on your point of view, either Canadian defender Robyn Gayle elbowed Lloyd to the ground as the ball skittered away from goal, or the referee bailed out the home team.
"I don't know," said Canadian star Christine Sinclair, one of the quietest stars in the sport. "You never see a ref call a foul like that at the end of the game in a championship. At least I've never seen it. I don't know."
Countered Lloyd, "I just remember her pushing my whole body out of the way. I just remember I tried to kind of half-volley it, swing my body around, and I just felt her come and kind of bump me out of the way."
Whatever the truth of the matter in Lloyd's earthward tumble, the controversial conclusion overshadowed a game that offered a good summary of the United States' competitive spirit and its offensive deficiencies at the close of 2006.
Having already qualified for the World Cup by virtue of Wednesday's semifinal win against Mexico, Ryan mixed up his starting lineup, inserting midfielders Marci Miller and Angela Hucles and forward Natasha Kai for regular starters Lloyd, Aly Wagner and Lindsay Tarpley.
Throughout the week, the coach talked about the need to find offense, and specifically finishes, from people other than Wambach and Lilly, and the security blanket of qualification gave him the freedom to experiment in the final.
"You look at the stat sheet and you go, 'OK, if a team can figure out how to stop Lilly and Abby, you've got a great shot of getting at least a draw with us,'" Ryan said.
For the better part of 120 minutes, or at least the 76 minutes after Canada tied the game at 1-1, that appeared to be the script for Sunday night in spite of the lineup changes.
The United States struck first in the sixth minute when Leslie Osborne scored from 15 yards into an open net after Canada keeper Erin McLeod vacated her line to clear a long free kick from Whitehill but couldn't push the ball completely free. The goal was Osborne's second in 30 appearances for the national team but carried far more weight than her initial goal in a 10-0 rout of Chinese Taipei on Oct. 1. It may have come off a scramble rather than the buildup of play, but the accurate finishing touch was something sorely missing for the rest of the night from the American lineup.
With Shannon Boxx out of the lineup most of the year after tearing her ACL, Osborne stepped in and has repeatedly earned high marks from Ryan as the holding midfielder in his 4-3-3 alignment. But with Boxx likely to be back in time for the World Cup, Osborne's future might lie in a more attacking position. Whatever the role, she appears to have earned a permanent place in Ryan's lineup.
"The player that really is stepping up is Leslie Osborne," Ryan said before the game. "I've just been so happy and so impressed -- happy for the team and happy for Leslie. Leslie has some great leadership qualities. She's a good communicator, she's all about the team; this kid will do whatever she can."
Canada countered Osborne's goal in the 44th minute after a foul on Heather Mitts set up a free kick just outside the box. Mitts appeared unlucky to be pegged for the foul; it seemed she stepped in front of Rhian Wilkinson and committed no greater crime than playing solid position defense. But the foul ended up costing the United States when Miller's attempt at a clearing header on the ensuing free kick bounced off Walsh and settled at the feet of Randee Hermus, who promptly fired it past Hope Solo for the tying goal.
Through the game's opening 60 minutes, the United States struggled to build offense out of the midfield, succumbing to Canada's pressure and answering long ball with long ball and 25-yard shot with 25-yard shot.
"I think as the game went on, we got stronger," Ryan said. "Canada is a very difficult team to play against, and I want to give Canada a lot of credit for coming out and playing very well today, making the game very difficult for us. They pressured us, they went after us, and we just tried to continue to play our style of soccer."
With the game tied and little progress being made in the opening minutes of the second half, Ryan subbed in Wagner for Hucles in the 58th minute, and Wagner immediately helped the offense string together passes and create scoring chances closer to goal.
The problem on this night was neither Lilly, who admitted her touch was off all night, nor Wambach, who could barely walk after the game after battling an ankle injury throughout the week, were in peak form when the ball found them in good spots.
In that respect, no newcomer was more noticeable than Kai, who had more scoring chances than any other player on the field. It was a night that summed up everything that is intriguing about Kai, from the emotion she showed in trying to energize the crowd before the start of overtime to the blazing speed she showed in chasing down through balls. And with subpar first touches sabotaging many of those runs and errant shots or slow reactions stymieing other chances, it summed up why she remains a work in progress.
"Tash has a couple of things she needs to work on," Wambach said. "Her fitness -- this game helps. She needs to work on just her experience and her know-how -- know what to do in certain situations. Just to keep the ball. She's such a slashing forward, and she's so fast, sometimes she's overthinking and too fast for her own good. So I think if we can slow her down when we need her to and speed her up when we need her to, she's going to score tons of goals for us. And it takes a lot of pressure off Lil and I, for sure."
Tarpley, who has been starting as the third forward in recent months, didn't play on Sunday, as Ryan took an extended look at Kai. With Heather O'Reilly soon to be free of college commitments after completing her senior season at North Carolina, Ryan has options but few proven answers up front. The same holds true in the midfield, where Tarpley and O'Reilly could also factor in the mix along with Wagner, Lloyd, Osborne, Hucles and others.
"There's plenty of players who can be those go-to players, but we've really got to continue to develop them," Ryan said.
What the team has in abundance is toughness, which it displayed in a hard-fought contest against a Canadian squad that played one of its best games of the year.
"If you said what is the one consistent part of our team personality, I'd say we are unbelievably competitive, aggressive people," Ryan said. "From the coaching staff on down, that's the way we are. I think that shows, in not having a loss through this year, that, as people, we're not willing to lose in checkers. This is a group that doesn't want to give anybody a chance to beat us."
So while questions remain about who will score the goals if Wambach and Lilly ever falter, Ryan feels good about where his team stands entering a World Cup year.
"I think right now, based on playing all the other teams, we're the best team in the world," Ryan said. "And I think other teams are going to have to find a way to knock us off."
Canada thought it had found a way to do just that on Sunday, but as has been the case throughout Ryan's tenure, the United States just found a way to win.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.