China likely to be more aggressive on offense
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Intrigue was in short supply on the shores of Lake Erie this week when it came to the sporting scene, but Saturday's international friendly between China and the United States already promises more interesting plot lines than the hometown Cavaliers could muster against the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
China arrived in the United States (the team played a scoreless draw against Jersey Sky Blue of the W-League last week) with a new coach, the program's third since the end of last year. After failing to regain its place among the sport's true elites under the guidance of either Ma Liangxing or Wang Haiming, China looked abroad for the first time in March, signing long-time Sweden coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors and assistant Pia Sundhage, the latter a familiar name to WUSA fans.
Even with little time remaining to implement a new system, Domanski-Lyfors set a goal of at least a semifinal run in the World Cup. For his part, United States coach Greg Ryan saw plenty of progress in the tape he reviewed of the opposition's recent play.
"They're doing a lot of things differently," Ryan said of the new Chinese regime. "I think their new coach is definitely making some good tactical improvements in the team. The last couple of years, they've sat back more and looked to counter through just two or three of their players, and now they're really making an effort to get more players into the attack."
China managed just 11 total shots in two earlier losses against the United States this year, including just four shots on neutral ground in Portugal against Ryan's top roster in the Algarve Cup. Despite the continued development of world-class striker Han Duan, China has scored just two goals in its last seven games against the United States. Whether or not the ball finds the back of the net with more regularity, at least the first stat is likely to change.
"They're attacking with five or six players running at the back line now, instead of one or two or three," Ryan explained. "What that means is it's probably going to be more of a wide-open game, because if they're sending that many, they'll give us chances going the other direction. And we always send a lot, which means we've got to be very careful that when they counterattack, we're prepared for that."
One benefit of China's new philosophy and improved execution is the scouting opportunity it provides for the American coaching staff, as much for one of China's Asian rivals as the Steel Roses themselves. The United States won't play North Korea before the two open World Cup group play against each other on Sep. 11, but Saturday's game has become a good chance to run against a scout team.
"[The Chinese] are actually more of a gauge, because I just watched North Korea, and they play much more like North Korea now than they did before," Ryan said. "North Korea throws the kitchen sink at you. They throw five at you all the time, so North Korea attacks with four running at your back line and one attacking midfielder running at your back line all the time. So China, by sending more numbers forward is actually simulating North Korea more than before."
And it's not as if Domanski-Lyfors inherited an empty cupboard when she took over. The Chinese remain a technically talented team in their own right, perhaps a group that needed a change of direction more than it needed an overhaul of personnel.
"They transition very quickly and they swarm numbers around the ball," defender Kate Markgraf said. "They're so good on the ball that it's very hard to dispossess them. You really have to take care of it, and I think that's the challenge that will be great, especially in our World Cup group against someone like North Korea and someone like Sweden -- two teams that are very difficult to dispossess. We have to learn how to keep the ball, because if we don't, we're really going to get punished because they'll counterattack you really quickly with numbers."
Making matters more complicated on that front for the United States is Heather Mitts' absence from the lineup. The team's most durable defender over the last few years, Mitts tore the ACL in her left knee in the team's last game against Canada and will miss the World Cup.
Just minutes before Mitts tore the ligament after getting her leg caught in an awkward position on a typically assertive and aggressive challenge, she helped set up a goal from Lindsay Tarpley with a perfectly placed cross from the flank. It was that two-way play, as well as one of the team's top fitness levels, that made Mitts such a mainstay in Ryan's lineup. Without her, both ends of the experience spectrum will need to come through, with 1999 and 2003 World Cup veteran Markgraf hoping to play a full 90 minutes this week for the first time since giving birth last year and University of Portland rising senior Stephanie Lopez inheriting Mitts' spot at outside back.
After allowing two goals in a 6-2 win against Canada on May 12 in Texas, the first time any team other than Sweden has scored twice against the United States during Ryan's 40-game tenure, the defense will be looking to make a statement on Saturday.
Even with the injury to Mitts and the likelihood Ryan will employ four players in the back against the new-look Chinese, instead of the three-back formation he used against them earlier this year, one move the coach said he's unlikely to make is returning Lori Chalupny to the back line. With Chalupny and Carli Lloyd pushing temp in midfield, the United States has scored 16 goals in its last four games. In nine games this year, six different players have scored multiple goals, including Chalupny and Lloyd. In the team's first nine games last year, only four players managed to score at least two goals.
The United States is 18-8-11 all-time against China, including 6-2-2 on American soil. After Saturday's game, Ryan's team will head directly to the New York City area for a quick turnaround before next weekend's friendly against Brazil.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.