U.S. finishes with clinical precision against Mexico
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The grass really was always greener elsewhere until they tore up the faltering sod at Gillette Stadium and replaced it with evergreen FieldTurf last fall. But with a few more performances like the one turned in against Mexico on the stadium's synthetic surface on Saturday, it will be time to stop wistfully wondering what the United States could do with the proverbial greener grass of the offensive efficiency of yesteryear.
While perhaps less athletically poetic than clinically precise in dissecting Leo Cuellar's team 5-0 in front of the largest domestic crowd to watch the team since the farewell tour for Mia Hamm and others after the 2004 Olympics, the United States opened its domestic schedule with a barrage of offensive soccer that buried Mexico.
As much progress as the Mexicans may have made in recent years at becoming a legitimate regional rival, they still struggle to cope with an opponent as physical as the Americans. And after a few early forays into the American end, the game settled into long stretches of time in which the Mexicans avoided disaster interspersed by brief moments when they failed to escape calamity's grasp.
Neither beating Mexico, something the United States has done in all 19 games between the teams, nor even scoring five goals, a total the United States had reached just once in the previous nine wins against its neighbor, marked an especially momentous achievement against an opponent that didn't qualify for the World Cup after losing a home-and-home playoff against Japan.
But aside from a pregame ceremony honoring defender Cat Whitehill's 100th appearance for the national team, momentous wasn't on the docket for the United States. Instead, the game was an exercise in the kind of mundane offensive execution that coach Greg Ryan's team needs to master in order to accomplish something momentous in September.
"Right now, most of our evaluation is over," Ryan said. "We know who our players are. And we had all of last year in residency to train and develop this team. And now what we're doing is putting our top players together, getting them in rhythm with each other, getting them to know each other so well that they can play without even looking at each other."
Abby Wambach opened the scoring with a goal in the 10th minute on a typically impressive display of sheer physical superiority mixed with a deft touch with the ball at her feet. And by the time 19-year-old Lauren Cheney finished the scoring in the 89th minute with her first goal for the senior national team, four different forwards had found the back of the net. The defense might have enabled the team to pull out a win with no more assistance than Wambach's goal, but both the abundance and diversity of the scoring were an important development in the team's evolution.
The United States scored one or fewer goals in 19 of 57 games (33.3 percent) during former coach April Heinrichs' final two seasons at the helm, going 8-5-6 in those matches. The team hasn't recorded an official loss since Ryan took over in 2005, but it scored one or fewer goals in 12 of 39 matches (30.8 percent), going 5-0-7 in those matches.
In other words, while the team has been more effective at creating and finishing chances during Ryan's tenure, much of the success in avoiding losses can be traced back to an underrated back line (veteran defender Kate Markgraf didn't play this weekend while continuing to rehab injuries suffered during the Four Nations in January) and the team's overall defensive efficiency.
"Greg is definitely a defensive-minded coach," Wambach said before the game. "He played in his glory days as a defender. And that definitely changed, because April was a forward. This team has always been more of a risk-taking, offensive, attacking team. I think, as of late, we've decided to go with a few new formation looks that give us more opportunity in the attack. Because our defenders are that amazing, and are that good, that we can handle two-on-three in the back, even three-on-three."
As had been the case against China in the Four Nations Cup in January, Ryan opened the game against Mexico in a 3-4-3 formation instead of the team's standard 4-3-3 alignment, opting to sacrifice some measure of defensive security for more aggression of offense.
"Both China and Mexico play an indirect style of soccer, which means they want to play short passing around the ball, not too much long ball," Ryan said. "So it makes it a lot easier for you, in a 3-4-3, to push your midfield up high and your forwards up high and just put them under so much pressure that when they turn the ball over, you get a goal out of it."
All night, the front line of Wambach, Kristine Lilly and Lindsay Tarpley did just that, scoring on everything from Tarpley's goalmouth follow on her own rebound in the 33rd minute to Lilly's knuckleball from 25 yards in the 50th minute (the veteran would later add her 121st career international goal).
"I thought Abby and Lilly and Tarpley, up front, played some of the best soccer off of one another that I've seen from us in a while," Ryan siad. "Just in terms of understanding where each player was and then find one and find the runner in the box."
Tarpley might not be the perfect fit alongside Wambach and Lilly if the goal is assembling an all-star lineup, but she increasingly looks like the right fit for aspirations of bringing home a World Cup title.
"What Tarp and [Heather] O'Reilly bring to our game is a lot of energy, a lot of youthfulness, hard work, defensive shape," Wambach said. "It gives Lil and I a chance to do our thing. A lot of times, if another forward comes in, and they're not doing the grunt work that Heather and Tarp do, it makes our job harder. So them on the field is always a good thing for us."
Of the eight field players on Ryan's roster for this week's game with at least 60 career appearances for the national team, none had made a greater percentage of those appearances as a reserve than Tarpley. But since settling in as the third forward midway through last year, she has found a home by matching her natural scoring touch with a willingness to do the work Wambach talked about.
Whether it was scoring a goal, assisting on Wambach's goal or making plays that didn't register on the stat sheet, like pressuring the goalkeeper on a stray ball in the third minute that led to a poor outlet and an immediate counter for the United States, Tarpley played the role of facilitator to perfection.
"I love playing with them," Tarpley said of Wambach and Lilly. "I'm the type of player who likes to combine to get in, and I'm always thinking about the next play as the play is going on. So playing with them more has given me more confidence, and I feel more confident on the field. When I get the ball, I know where they're going to be."
And as Mexico now knows, that often means the ball is soon going to be in the back of the net.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.