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Jun 17, 2007

Wambach delivers once again for the U.S.

CLEVELAND -- The rest of the world may be getting tired of seeing Abby Wambach come through in the clutch, but not nearly as tired as opposing defenders are getting trying to cover her and the rest of her teammates on the field.

Over the years, opponents have grown adept at taking away half the field against the United States, bunching together in formations more reminiscent of the Roman Legion's take on defense than that of Roma or any other soccer tacticians. Yet the Americans keep piling up wins and avoiding upsets against the game's middle class largely because those teams can take away real estate, but they can't figure out how to take away the second halves of games. So it was for a familiar foe on Saturday.

Playing its first game against the United States since Swedish coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors took over in March, China put together a strong effort in front of a hostile Cleveland crowd before eventually falling 2-0 on a pair of late goals from Wambach.

"I think it was a night where our forwards weren't quite in sync the way we've been recently," United States coach Greg Ryan said. "And so on days like that -- a lot of forwards, if they're not on it gets to them and maybe the confidence, but it doesn't put a chink in Abby. She's just solid. ... That's what separates her from the other forwards in the world is just that passion, determination and commitment to drive into the box and score goals."

Frustrated for much of the game by an outstanding defensive effort from Chinese captain Li Jie, Wambach got behind the defense on Kristine Lilly's long free kick in the 67th minute and leapt over the outstretched arms of goalie Zhang Yanru to head home the goal that broke open a scoreless tie. She later sealed the win with another header in the 88th minute off Stephanie Lopez's third assist of the year.

"You can't give her a step, and unfortunately defenders do," midfielder Leslie Osborne said. "And they can play a great game, but if you don't stay with her all the time, you're going to get burned like that. And that's why she is the player she is."

Backed by outstanding play from Yanru, Domanski-Lyfors largely abandoned her team's previously aggressive approach and packed defenders into its own half. China managed a total of nine shots in the game -- an improvement on the last meeting between the two teams at the Algarve Cup in February but still short of the free-for-all predicted by Ryan. But even if the style wasn't exactly what was expected, the Chinese executed it with exactly the discipline and intensity Ryan anticipated after scouting the new regime.

"Their new coaching staff has done such a great job organizationally," Wambach affirmed. "And throwing a new look at us, it's hard, because you scout other teams and you try to get a good game plan, and when it doesn't go as planned, you kind of have to do the best you can with what you've got. And luckily our team did at the end there."

Counting the two late tallies from Wambach, the United States now has 11 second-half goals in 10 games this year, nearly twice as many goals as its opponents have total. With 13 first-half goals, the Americans are hardly soccer scavengers, but it's that consistency that continues to separate them. They aren't just good; they're good for 90 minutes. And although Wambach is the perfect embodiment of that commitment with three goals in the first half and four in the second half, she's not alone. Time and again, whether against Sweden in summer 2006 or Iceland this past fall, the United States won despite so-so overall performances by outlasting the competition.

"It's a huge asset for this team," said defender Cat Whitehill of the squad's fitness level. "We've been working April, May and June, just mainly focusing on the fitness aspect and the transition game. We know going into the World Cup we have to have every edge, and if fitness is an edge that we can gain, we're going to work on it. And you could see out there, we may have been tired, we may have not had a day off in a really long time, but our fitness is what carried us through."

It carried them through on this occasion despite, or perhaps because of, a training schedule geared much more toward September's trip to China than Saturday's game.

"We've had a pretty rigorous training schedule this past month," Wambach said. "Our day off this past week was a flight from the West Coast to here, so it's not necessarily a day off in my book, not that I'm complaining. But we were a step off today, we were a little slow to figure things out. And I think it just shows a lot about the character of this team to still come out with two goals on top."

The other part of the equation for resiliency, of course, is that when the United States does wear down, it still has better options off its bench than most opponents. China used five of its six available substitutions on Saturday, but none of them had the impact Osborne had as Ryan's lone substitution until the 78th minute. Coming on for Shannon Boxx, who tweaked her arm in the 53rd minute, Osborne immediately helped her team regain control of the tempo after the Chinese came out of the half with their best offensive sequences of the game.

"Leslie came on and really helped initiate a lot of our attacks," Ryan said. "So I think Leslie's performance tonight in the attack really helped kick-start us. I wish it had been coaching, but I think it was good fortune and Leslie's good play."

With another game scheduled for next week against a Brazilian team that is difficult to scout given the relatively light schedule it keeps in non-World Cup and Olympic years, the United States won't get much of a chance to rest. But any fatigue they feel at Giants Stadium in seven days will pale in comparison to what opponents are likely to feel as the clock ticks down in September.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.