After thumping France 3-0 on Wednesday to open the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup at Estadio Nelson Oryuzan in Chile, the Americans find themselves perched atop the Group B standings with a bird's-eye view of the tournament. The U.S. U-20 women already are only one win from capturing the top spot in the round robin after China and Argentina barely collected one point apiece in the other Group B matchup, a 0-0 draw.
Next up, on Saturday, is Argentina. "We have not seen [them] play live -- we are lucky to play them second so we can watch them in the first game," U.S. coach Tony DiCicco said. "Traditionally, they haven't been a very strong women's program internationally, but they've gotten better."
The U.S. women didn't exactly have an easy go of it against France in the balmy midday heat, as the gaping void on the scoreboard illustrated when the two teams headed to the locker rooms. Opening play was chaotic and dangerously sloppy but full of golden opportunities at both ends of the park. There was no question the Americans would have found the back of the net against a lesser goalkeeper, but France's Karima Benameur single-handedly kept her team in the game.
Credit for the win goes to DiCicco, who made a much-needed change in the game plan going into the second half, substituting Sydney Leroux for proven striker Michelle Enyeart. Needless to say, Leroux electrified the team, collecting two goals and one assist, all within the span of 30 minutes. Less than 10 minutes into the second half, the super sub led the charge by assisting Alex Morgan on the United States' first goal of the tournament. Leroux again showed keen positioning three minutes later, when she slotted the ball past Benameur's outstretched hands on another endline cross.
|U.S. U-20 women's schedule|
U.S. vs. Argentina
Estadio Nelson Oyarzun, Chillan, Chile
10 a.m. ET, ESPN360.com
U.S. vs. China
Estadio German Becker, Temuco, Chile
2 p.m. ET, ESPN360.com
"Today it was Sydney who was the star," DiCicco said in a U.S. Soccer news release following the game. "I have a lot of players who can step in and be the star. We felt that this was the right situation where Sydney could step in and help us in the second half and she proved that we were correct."
If the U.S. continues to execute on the wings, Argentina will not be able to contain Nikki Washington and Alex Morgan, both of whom are capable of getting behind some of the best back lines in the world. While the midfield had a slow start, by the end of the second half against France, the trio of Ingrid Wells, Keelin Winters and Becky Edwards looked like a well-oiled machine, as they demonstrated their collective ability to knock the ball around cleanly and effectively despite France's persistent offensive pressure.
DiCicco also should be pleased with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, whose made two terrific saves against France. Yet, her one-on-one ground game remains to be seen and could be a weak spot against teams that specialize in breakaways.
Fortunately, the U.S. back four of Meghan Klingenberg, Kiersten Dallstream, Lauren Fowlkes and Nikki Marshall looks pretty reliable, especially when Marshall, the center back, steps up as the team's anchor. Facing some towering French forwards, they all showed impressive composure in the air, redirecting a number of dangerous balls that were honing in on Naeher. The four will have to be more consistent, however, when it comes to delivering balls to feet. There were quite a few errors in the back resulting in misbooted balls and turnovers that were scooped up by France in the midfield.
"It was a very good win for us; obviously in the first game of any tournament you want to come out strong and I think we did that for pretty much the whole game," Naeher said, reflecting on her team's confidence. "Coming away with three goals and a shutout is a very good way to start this tournament."
If the U.S. women stick to DiCicco's game plan, which relies in part on the team's chemistry and year-long preparation, the squad should have little difficulty subduing Chile's South American neighbor, even if the home crowd gets behind the Albiceleste. Regardless, Argentina surely will play a more physical game against the Americans than past teams.
Despite the scoreless draw to which the team held the 2006 U-20 World Cup runner-ups, the Albiceleste's defense did not show the kind of defensive organization they would need to post a shutout against the U.S. Argentina often relied on haphazard clearances and showed a propensity for swarm defense -- the kind that occasionally rears its ugly head in the women's game. If the U.S. evenly stretches the field as it should, the South Americans will have a thorny match ahead of them.
"I know that Argentina is improving in women's football," DiCicco said. "Every time they enter a tournament I see a better team and I expect a difficult game against Argentina on Saturday."
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.