Sept. 22, 2007
By Michael Lewis
USA players clear air, clear England hurdle
Tianjin, China -- In a city that has more than its share of air pollution problems, the U.S. Women's National team decided to clear the air about its disappointing performance before it took on England in the Women's World Cup quarterfinals last night.
|Abby Wambach in a mid air clash with Faye White of England during a 3-0 USA victory in the quarter final of the FIFA Women's World Cup.
Tony Quinn/Icon SMI
So, the team gathered for a players-only meeting Friday and talked about why the team had struggled in its opening three games.
The gathering worked and then some. The Americans broke out of their scoring slump by connecting for all their goals during a a 12-minute span early in the second half en route to a 3-0 victory.
Goals by Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Kristine Lilly boosted the U.S. into its fifth semifinal in as many tries since the WWC began in 1991. The Americans (3-0-1), who extended their unbeaten streak to 50 games, will meet the winner of today's Brazil-Australia encounter, in Hangzhou Thursday (ESPN2, 7:55 a.m.).
"We feel like this team hasn't shown its best and the only you can show your best is to score goals and you can win games," said Wambach, who scored her 81st goal in her 100th international game.
"Scoring three goals at all is a huge confidence booster for us," said defender Cat Whitehill, who set up two goals. "This is our first opportunity to show what this team is really made of.”
The U.S. won the Group B title, but it was far from convincing, scoring only five times in three games, and far from its reputation as a goal-scoring juggernaut through the years.
The Americans tied North Korea, 2-2, and then shut out Sweden, 2-0, and Nigeria, 1-0, falling well below their expectations and potential.
As it turned out, words spoke louder than actions prior to the match as the players met in the hotel room of Wambach and Lilly to discuss the team’s problems.
"We just came together," Whitehill said. "It wasn't tense. Everyone get off your shoulders what you want to say. It was kind of an open forum for us. just to say what is working and what isn't working. I think it really helped us."
Whitehill said that coach Greg Ryan had set up "an incredible game plan for us but we have to get it done. and we weren't."
England coach Hope Powell might have been a bit premature when she called the U.S. “world champions” by accident during the post-game press conference, although the Americans did have their problems with their fourth slow start in as many matches.
The players looked tentative and allowed England to dictate the rhythm of the match early on.
The U.S. lost defender Stephanie Lopez for several minutes after she needed five staples in her scalp to stop the bleeding after taking a cleat to the head from Jill Scott in the 23rd minute (after the game the staples were removed for three stitches).
Slowly, but surely the Americans found their footing and started to penetrate into England territory before an announced crowd of 29,856 at Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium.
"Honestly, we had a lot of confidence in the locker room," Whitehill said. "The last 15-20 minutes of the half, we were really starting to get a rhythm, especially the last 5-10 minutes we were figuring out how to beat their system.”
Added Boxx: "It was just a matter of time."
Indeed, it was.
Wambach broke the ice in the 48th minute, heading home a Lilly corner kick that she likened to the game-winning goal in the 2004 Summer Olympic gold-medal match. It was the U.S.'s first goal since the opening minute against Nigeria Tuesday and was the second longest scoring drought by the Americans in its WWC history. The Americans went 178 minutes without a goal in the 2003 competition.
Someone mentioned to Wambach that the ball might have been deflected. “It went in,” she said. “.I don't care.”
Boxx said the goal was "huge. We needed that goal and we needed it early."
Boxx, who had struggled in this competition after being named one of the top players at the 2003 Women‘s World Cup by the FIFA technical staff, came through on a 22-yard strike in the 57th minute after Whitehill tackled the ball away from an England player.
“It just skipped in,” Boxx said. “It was nice and quick.”
England goalkeeper Rachel Brown mishandled a Whitehill chip shot from the left side into the penalty area. The ball bounced over the keeper as Lilly pounced on it and scored past defender Faye White and tapped it home for one of the easier of her 127 internationals goals in the 60th minute (Lilly also has eight goals in five WWCs).
“If I had missed it I just would have gone right home from there,” Lilly jokingly said.
"Scoring three goals at all is a huge confidence booster for us," Whitehill said. "This is our first opportunity to show what this team is really made of.”
While the U.S. rediscovered its attack, the defense continued to shut down the opposition with its third consecutive shutout. The Americans haven't surrendered a goal in 298 minutes.
The key to last night's defensive success was a rock-solid backline and shutting down England's most dangerous player, former Seton Hall standout Kelly Smith. Smith (one shot), a playmaking midfielder with a lethal shot, was stifled by defensive midfielder Leslie Osborne.
"She had the great job," Boxx said. "I don't think Kelly did much and that was because of Leslie and the defenders, helping to contain her."