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Mar 27, 2008

U.S. women making strides under Sundhage

It was all about the angles in the Algarve Cup, as the U.S. women schooled the competition to take the championship game over Denmark 2-1. Yet the key to the United States' success derived not from a formulaic lineup or set-pieces, but from Pia Sundhage's positive, can-do system: simple, exuberant soccer --and the U.S. women are happily buying into it.

A revamped midfield that had Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd weaving up the field (with the occasional stiff arm thrown) showcased a winning formula of creative possession. The Yanks breathed new life into a 4-4-2 lineup, alternating between quick give-and-gos and a mix of slotted short and long balls. Ground play was big in this tournament; fierce winds nearly qualified as the 12th player on the pitch -- especially against China and Denmark. Jet stream or not, the U.S. women's focus on hitting the feet paid big dividends.

Given the number of young players on the roster, the U.S. played with the confidence of a gold-medal team. Goals were eye-popping and plentiful (12 total, a new record), and the back line only allowed one goal the entire tournament -- an impressive feat with keepers Hope Solo and Nicole Barnhart starting two games each. Barnhart played well against China and Norway, despite battling a whooping cough that left her barking the entire tournament.

The scorecard alone read nearly perfect: 4-0 against China, 2-0 over Italy, and a 4-0 Norway drubbing. The only minor gaffe came from Denmark's goal in U.S.'s 2-1 win.

The match against Denmark was a replay of last year's final, which the U.S. took 2-0. The Danes had three shutouts going into the final, until Natasha Kai headed a Carli Lloyd cross through goalkeeper Heidi Johansen's legs. The U.S. defense was put under duress several times, and Cathrine Sorensen finally capitalized in the 30th minute. Yet, a few minutes into the second half, Wambach scored the game-winner off a well executed cutback in the penalty box for a line drive in the left corner. Evidently, Sunhage's halftime words were put into action.

While Wambach continued to fulfill her goal-scoring responsibilities with endless enthusiasm, Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O'Reilly and Natasha Kai all punched out stellar two-goal performances that may very well move the trio into star forward status. Newcomers Tobin Heath and Amy Rodriguez each added a goal -- Heath especially earned rave reviews from her teammates and coaches. "Every day she's getting better, and her confidence is building. I see great things happening from her," said captain Christie Rampone, who also said that Tarpley is flourishing in her revised role as an attacking-mid, with a team-leading six goals. Don't forget Lori Chalupny, a jack of all trades who posed a constant, speedy threat on the wing as a reliable defender and penetrator.

Carli Lloyd, following up with her breakout year in 2007, continued to prove she's a vital cog in the midfield with spot-on playmaking alongside Boxx. Although Lloyd struggled a bit against Norway, Sundhage's confidence in her shone through -- leaving Lloyd in to battle back. "It was kind of one of those days where everything was off. The wind was tough," Lloyd said. "Right now my focus is just playing good soccer and being a central force in the midfield, keeping possession, and working on running the game more."

Sundhage subbed intelligently and freely, utilizing her bench and making all six of the allowed substitutions over the course of four games -- a testament to her willingness to let players play their own destinies. "[The U.S. Women] seem to expect changes and they really want to play, knock it around a bit and take chances. I like that and they like that, so it's a good combination," Sundhage said. "Every game is a teacher."

The fluid lineup wasn't the only thing that clicked. The chatter on the field was loud and commanding, as if the team had brought its locker room discourse onto the pitch. "Pia is making the players speak a lot more and talk about what they see out there, rather than her dictating what she sees," said Christie Rampone. "It works well, we're not afraid to use our voices. We're now employing the same terms and the same phrases on the field."

The communication has allowed for a more efficient offensive transition, as evident in the high line the back four posted to keep pressure on the opposition. The movement off the ball has improved considerably, Rampone noted, and the forwards are checking back, playing a "cat-and-mouse game."

World Cup Champion Germany posted an uncharacteristically poor showing, struggling with a fourth-place finish after losing to Norway 0-2. Sweden secured a 3-0 fifth place win over Italy, while Iceland, the only other team to go 4-0 in tournament play, had a terrific Algarve to finish seventh.

The U.S. team is now back in camp, wrapping up training on March 30 to head to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, for the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament on April 2-12. Sundhage will select a 20-player roster, although only 18 will be allowed to suit up a game. Some questions regarding a few key players remain: Looking at possibly a two-keeper only allocation, will Sundhage leave world-class vet Briana Scurry off the lineup in favor of Nicole Barnhart? Will Heather Mitts be game-ready to fight her way onto the back four? It's doubtful Sundhage will bring three keepers over another field player, but she's got an enviable decision to make -- picking the best out of the best.

"Qualifying is going to be tough," Rampone said. "You have two great competitors in both Canada and Mexico. The team is getting better and better each day, so that's definitely a positive and heading into qualifying." For all her humility, the team captain and mother made quite an impressive case for the Algarve Cup MVP. Perhaps there really is such a thing as the "Lilly phenomenon" on the women's national team -- astoundingly, players get better with age.

The U.S. will play Jamaica on April 4 and Mexico on April 6. The top two teams will most likely play Canada and either Trinidad and Tobago or Costa Rica for one of two Olympic berths.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.