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Nov 23, 2008

U.S. looks to continue momentum against China

The United States secured a second-round spot in the 2008 FIFA World Cup after defeating Argentina 3-0. In just their second game of the tournament, the Americans also virtually clinched the top seed in Group B, which would set the stage for a showdown with England, Nigeria or New Zealand from Group A.

The U.S. women will now travel to Temuco, Chile, to round out Group B play on Wednesday against China. Two years after placing second in the World Cup, China is well on its way to pulling a stunning reversal. The Chinese lost 2-0 to France, and they are struggling to put the skids on a downward spiral after reaching lofty heights in the international youth soccer scene. Despite poor back-to-back performances, the Rosebuds can claim a slight edge over the United States from a psychological standpoint: China dashed American hopes of a championship in dramatic fashion after triumphing over penalty kicks in the semifinals of Russia 2006.

But the U.S. doesn't like to dwell on the past.

The Yanks hope to storm into the second round of the tournament with the kind of squeaky-clean record that would make a janitor jealous. However, the U.S. will need to tighten up possession in the midfield, especially after Argentina managed to hack and chop its way to forcing turnovers by consistently challenging Nikki Washington, Ingrid Wells and Becky Edwards. Remarkably, the U.S.'s superior finishing lifted the team over periods of shoddy play, intervals in which Argentina maintained superior ownership of the ball. In fact, the Albiceleste won control of the game on paper, playing well enough to earn 52 percent of the game's possession.

Quite simply, the U.S. cannot afford to split or concede ball management once the team advances to the second round and beyond. Fortunately, the Americans are in a position to freely tinker with personnel and various formations to find the right formula going into the next stage.

U.S. U-20 women's schedule
Wednesday
U.S. vs. China
Estadio German Becker, Temuco, Chile
2 p.m. ET, ESPNU

U.S. coach Tony DiCicco is clearly opportunistic and confident in his team's depth; opting for a 3-4-3 against Argentina, DiCicco went deep into his roster to give the team a more offensively powered look. Change is good in DiCicco's program, as he inserted supersub Sydney Leroux up top, Christine Nairn at midfield and Elli Reed on defense to give some players a rest. Expect yet another arrangement against China, which will play a system unfamiliar to the young Americans, who have yet to face an Asian team this year.

"We did change the way we play [against Argentina]," said DiCicco in a U.S. Soccer press release. "Our wide players dropped in a little bit more and we made substitutions once we were ahead. That said, the best way for us to protect our goal is to hold on to the ball."

While Alex Morgan impeccably timed her runs to exploit Argentina's high back line, the team missed numerous precious opportunities to convert set plays. Argentina proffered a profligate number of fouls, including one that gave the Americans a penalty kick, yet the Yanks could only turn a handful of free kicks (out of 20 fouls) on frame. A missed PK and several flubbed 25-yarders were major inconsistencies that coach DiCicco will need to remedy fast, or else set plays could quickly become an Achilles heel for the U.S. in the future.

China will not allow the U.S. as much freedom on the wings as France and Argentina allowed, and Zhang Guilai's squad won't give the Americans much space to maneuver in the midfield. But the Rosebuds are up against a red-hot double-edged sword in Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, who have five goals and three assists between them.

"It feels good to have advanced because that was one of our goals," said Nikki Washington in a postgame USSF statement. Washington was a bull's-eye up top when it came to drawing a handful of fouls against Argentina. "We are taking it step by step and I think we're really pleased with how we're playing so far, but we know we have a tough game against China coming up. We're going to enjoy our win tonight, but we know that we can't just slip past China."

At the moment, China is looking less like a cluster of thorny rosebuds and more like a bouquet of wilted flowers. It will take a heroic effort for China to even penetrate the stronghold that is the U.S. defense, especially with the loss of China's two top scorers, Ma Xiaoxu and Ma Jun. Thus far, China's strike force has come up embarrassingly empty-footed, and the team's best hopes will rest in goalkeeper Zhang Yue and her defensive line to check the U.S. offense.

Looking ahead to the final game of the group, DiCicco discussed China in a phone call before the tournament began: "Of course China was a finalist in the last U-20 World Cup -- their players are going to be athletic and technical. They have a very good game plan from training together for a very long time, so that will be a very difficult game for both teams. Fortunately, we'll have the chance to see them play twice before we play them."

And providentially, DiCicco will have the opportunity to use the field as his test lab for a final practice run before the team reaches the elimination round.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at soccerdols@gmail.com.

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