SINSHEIM, Germany — The American women haven’t looked the same since Pia Sundhage got her hands on them.
After years of getting the ball to their forwards and letting them overwhelm defenses with their superior athleticism, Sundhage has injected a little European flair into the U.S. offense.
“I was always saying the States played a little too direct,” said Sundhage, a Swede who is the first foreign coach the U.S. women have had. “They’ve been very, very successful, don’t get me wrong. So I wanted to change that, but it couldn’t be too big of a change. With a successful team, you can’t change too much.”
When the two-time World Cup champions play Colombia on Saturday, fans will see a possession-based offense. Instead of relying on the forwards to begin the attack, Sundhage wants the offense to develop in the midfield.
Think the fluid, pretty style of Barcelona, and you get an idea of what Sundhage is going for.
“Really knowing how to break down teams with many passes and much possession, truthfully that’s the best way of defending is holding the ball,” Abby Wambach said. “That’s why Barcelona is so good. They literally force their opponents into submission because they always have the ball. It’s demoralizing when you don’t even get much chance.”
Opponents used to know exactly what was coming when they played the U.S., regardless of who was in the lineup or where on the field the Americans took possession. But they were powerless to do anything about it. The U.S. forwards were either bigger or quicker — or both — and more skilled.
And because U.S. kids start out playing one-on-one in pretty much every sport, there was nothing Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett or Wambach loved more than taking on a defender or a goalkeeper.
“Yes, I love playing on a team that they’re sending balls up to me and I’m fighting for balls. It’s my style,” Wambach said. “If you have a strong forward that can hold the ball, that can keep the ball for you, you can start the attack much further up field. For me, I love that. And I love being physical.”
But the rest of the world is closing the gap on the Americans as countries devote more attention and resources to their women’s programs. Two countries, Colombia and Equatorial Guinea, made their World Cup debut here in Germany. Not only is France back after an eight-year absence, it’s ahead of two-time defending champion Germany on goal difference atop Group A after breaking down Canada with a crisp passing game Thursday.
If the United States doesn’t adapt, it risks finding itself pulled back into the pack.
“We need to be smarter. We need to do different things,” Sundhage said. “Change the point of attack more than once. For me, the game is about rhythm. In order to find rhythm, in order to decrease the tempo sometimes and increase the tempo, you need everybody involved.”
Now when the Americans get the ball, Sundhage wants it to go to the center midfielders, usually Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx. Based on what they see, they can send the ball out to the flanks or up to one of the forwards. Or they can direct it back to a defender and start the whole process over again.
Not only do the long possessions burn time off the clock, they can frustrate opponents like nothing else. Watch Barcelona play, and it often looks like a game of keepaway — until there’s a lightning strike of a goal, that is.
“I think it’s good for our system,” captain Christie Rampone said Friday. “We can’t always rely on one thing. Teams are getting better, stronger, putting more into their programs, as you can see. All these games (at the World Cup) have been close and they’ve been very good. So I think we need that addition to our attack.”
As with any change, though, the transition has not always been smooth. After going more than two years without a loss, the Americans dropped three games in a five-month span. They lost to Mexico, a team that hadn’t beaten the U.S. in 25 tries, in regional qualifying. They dropped a game to Sweden, then lost to England for the first time since 1988.
Wambach has scored only once this season — though part of that can be blamed on her being slowed by a right Achilles’ tendon injury much of the last year.
“To input a Barcelona-ish kind of style, where you possess the ball, yeah, I get the ball much less,” Wambach said. “But it is more pretty to play the game that way. When the ball does eventually get up to my area, I have to be better. That’s the challenge I’m under. And it’s fun that way, too. It’s different.”
And the U.S. isn’t abandoning its old ways completely. As the Americans get more comfortable with what Sundhage is asking them to do, they can combine it with their traditional strengths.
“We’re trying to now connect both,” Rampone said. “I think for a while there, we were just going with the creative side, creative side, and not being as predictable on the field. I think we were not reading each other as well. So I think we’ve come together as still having that (one-on-one) mentality, USA, old style, going after it combined with a little creativity.”