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Chapecoense AF
12:00 AM UTC Jun 23, 2017
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Sinking Pirates eager to grab shot at redemption

By ESPN Staff

Ryan makes the biggest gamble of his coaching tenure

HANGZHOU, China -- Slowing Brazil's powerful attack apparently worries United States coach Greg Ryan more than confronting the weight of conventional wisdom.

Ryan's unprecedented decision -- at least in the annals of American Women's World Cup history -- to change goalkeepers during a tournament for reasons unrelated to injuries or red cards, turned what had been a quiet buildup to the semifinal between the United States and Brazil into a day of questions and intrigue in Hangzhou.

Ryan is replacing Hope Solo with 36-year-old veteran Briana Scurry. A coach long willing to put his own stamp on a national team, Ryan just pushed all his accumulated chips to the center of the table with one bold move.

During Wednesday's news conference, Ryan faced the most intense questioning he's received since arriving in China, including after the United States tied North Korea in its opening game. Ryan gave his reasoning for replacing a keeper who has backstopped a defense that hasn't allowed a goal in the last 298 minutes.

"I think the way the Brazilians play, in terms of creating off the dribble in the penalty box and making the goaltender make reaction-type saves, I think [Scurry] is the best goalkeeper in the world in those situations," Ryan said. "You only have to look back as far as the [2004] Olympic final and our recent game [against Brazil] in June to see. And if you could watch her in training every day and see the kind of saves she makes off reaction-type situations, I think it would be very clear to you."

There is no arguing with Scurry's track record in international soccer, her heroics in the 1999 World Cup final penalty shootout, and specifically her record against Brazil. Scurry has won all 12 of her appearances against Brazil, with a 0.41 goals-allowed average including eight shutouts. Despite her age, Scurry has shown few signs of slowing down in recent years.

"I had to play well up to this point, otherwise I probably wouldn't have been in consideration," said Scurry, who left the team following the 2004 Athens Olympics before returning in 2006 in a move that allowed Solo to seize the starter's job. "So I'm really excited that I'm playing this well in practice ... so [Ryan] felt confident to give me the opportunity."

The starter for the United States in all four of its games against Brazil over the last four years, Scurry turned in perhaps her all-time best effort in the 2004 Olympic final, leading the way in a 2-1 win on a day when almost all observers felt the Americans were dramatically outplayed by the emerging South American power.

"Brazil, if you watch the game tapes, just kicked our butt that day," defender Kate Markgraf said. "They were beating us one on one like crazy, they were hitting the ball off the post and Bri was coming up with some miraculous saves. So Bri does have a great history against Brazil -- she anticipated where the shot was going to be every single time."

Scurry was also in goal three months ago when the two teams met at Giants Stadium, starting in place of Solo in a 2-0 win while the latter remained at home following the death of her father. Ryan remarked at the time that the team was in capable hands because by not relying on a lot of crosses and long balls, opponents like Brazil played to Scurry's strengths. On Wednesday, despite both keepers making it clear they had no knowledge of the switch before last night, he reiterated that the option of playing Scurry against Brazil in the World Cup was an idea that had germinated in his mind for months.

From the moment Ryan took over as coach of the national team in 2005, he has displayed a willingness to go his own way. He inherited a program shifting to a new generation of talent following the retirements of stars like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, a squad coming off an Olympic title that only partially erased the sting of a semifinal loss in the 2003 World Cup. Ryan didn't hesitate to break from the past, publicly dropping Brandi Chastain from the squad and watching veterans like Tiffeny Milbrett leave the scene.

That willingness to follow his instincts continued unabated in the buildup to this World Cup, both in personnel decisions and tactical decisions. Some decisions worked and others offered less conclusive proof of success. But in both its timing and nature, this move is the gamble that will define his tenure.

It is all the more surprising that he waited until two nights before the game to tell both Solo and Scurry about a decision he admitted he had been pondering for months.

Standing in a hotel lobby in Shanghai on Tuesday as the team prepared to board busses for the three-hour drive to Hangzhou, Solo sounded like a player well aware of the challenges Brazil posed and ready to take her shot at stopping them. A day later, even while accepting the move with remarkable grace and earnestness, she sounded like someone who had been blindsided as she described the "pit in her stomach" when she felt the tap on her shoulder from the coach the night before.

"Life isn't fair sometimes, but I've known that for a long time," Solo said. "And this isn't going to set me back; I've been through a lot tougher things."

She undoubtedly has been through tougher and might well bounce back without issue, but is she really going to be ready to play again two days after the semifinal should the United States win and face Norway or Germany, two teams that theoretically play to her strengths more than Scurry's strengths?

Ryan's decision, tactically motivated though it might have been, has ramifications that will linger long past the end of the game Thursday night, even if he offered a rather curt assessment of the long-term impact the move could have.

"That's not our concern," Ryan said. "We came here to try and win the world championship."

Ryan has gambled three years of work and often largely anonymous success on a move that leaves him wide open to second guessing. Should the United States lose to Brazil, or even lose in a final based on goalkeeping mistakes by either keeper, the criticism former coach April Heinrichs faced after the 2003 World Cup will seem tame by comparison.

But if the man in charge has yet to prove he's assembled and trained the best team in the world when it matters most, he long ago proved that he's going to win or lose on his terms.

"I have never concerned myself with the press' reaction," Ryan said. "I have always just asked myself, 'What can I do to give my team the best chance to win the next game?' I think I've done that. And if it turns out to be a mistake, I can live with that. I've made mistakes before."

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