[U.S. WOMEN'S SPOTLIGHT] Any system looks great as you slam in 31 goals while conceding none, and though the USA women have yet to be tested in Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament heading into a crucial semifinal Friday against Costa Rica (8:00 p.m. ET, Universal Sports Network), a new 4-2-3-1 formation with Lauren Cheney in a playmaking role has brought a different sheen to the team.
As it was four years ago, the Americans can advance to the Olympic Games by beating Costa Rica in a semifinal.
Back then, Cheney was a scoring demon at UCLA (42 goals in 44 games) trying to land a regular place in the national team. She watched from the bench as the Americans beat Costa Rica, 3-0, to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
As a late replacement for an injured Abby Wambach, she reprised her role as a sub at the Olympic Games, though she was on the field when the Americans beat Brazil, 1-0, in overtime to win the gold medal.
“To have played in the Olympics, coming off the bench in a different position than I am now, that was one of the greatest feelings in the world,” she recalls of winning a gold medal as an emergency stand-in. “I hope to continue that this year and have a different role, a more impactful role, for this team.”
Since an agonizing PK shootout loss to Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final after a 2-2 tie, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage has taken steps to incorporate Cheney’s abilities in both impactful and different ways. In a 4-2-3-1 formation Cheney has taken on the central position just behind the lone striker in the much-discussed yet often misinterpreted No. 10 role.
“I think actually the perfect spot for her is in that No. 10 hole,” says former U.S. international midfielder Julie Foudy, who is in Vancouver working the qualifying tournament for ESPN. “She does have the talent and skill on the ball to be able to pull that off, and she’s an excellent finisher and gets in good spots. That’s what I like about her, not only is she a good finisher, but she gets in good spots.”
Cheney played that slot in a pair of post-World Cup friendlies against Canada, and against negligible competition to date in the Concacaf tournament has scored two goals and registered a team-high six assists. Since two teammates – Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux – have each scored five goals in a game, the gaudy stats mean very little, and it’s likely the Americans could be racking up those figures regardless of formation.
More pertinent are Sundhage’s reasons for implementing the system: it gives the Americans a different look than their traditional 4-4-2, and it offers Cheney the optimum situation to showcase her abilities while also exploiting those of her teammates. Wambach has played 160 only minutes (out of 270) so far, and so Sundhage has been trying myriad combinations.
“If you look at the front six players, we have so many options,” says Sundhage. “I think the challenging thing is not get carried away and try too much. If you look at the qualities, we have speed like Alex Morgan, Amy Rodriguez, Heather O’Reilly. We have technique in Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, and Megan Rapinoe, just to mention some of the players. If we can put that together so they play as a team, and not as individuals, we will have a really good team.”
One element of her doctrines Sundhage has retained, and she believes this formation can enhance, is an interchanging of positions during the run of play. This feature has opened up a possible flank midfield spot for Rodriguez, a forward for most of her career, and allowed Cheney – strictly a central midfielder before she went to college -- to utilize her strongest assets, as the modern No. 10 role is often a hybrid of attacking mid and second forward.
“I like to face the game and combine with people and play that final ball, so I think it was just a natural fit,” says Cheney, who attended her first national team camp in 2005 while a student at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. “Pia used to always say, ‘You’re going to be a midfielder one day.’ It was hard at first to be thrown in that position but it’s been a pretty smooth trip.
“The talent we have, whether it’s people coming off the bench or the players starting, it makes it easier to play a new position, just like in the World Cup, when I played out wide.”
Sundhage hasn’t abandoned the 4-4-2 formation, in which Cheney has played up top as well as out wide. She expects her players will have mastered the new system by the time they leave for London without having developed a dependence on it. “If you look at the options we have with attacking personalities,” says Sundhage, “I would love to see players interchanging positions, so we could have fast players, technical players coming up on the left, on the right, and we get the most out of Cheney if she sits in that No. 10 role.”
All that movement and fluidity could deteriorate into chaos without a great degree of communication and cohesion, not to mention high levels of technique and skill across the board. Since taking over the women’s team four years ago, Sundhage has sought players with touch and flair and guile along with the traditional American attributes of size and speed and strength. As the World Cup proved, skill teams – Japan, France, Brazil – are very hard teams to beat.
“As much as America is known for its athletes and our never-say-die mentality, I think the girls on this team have been raised in soccer environments,” says Cheney, who recovered from heart surgery at age 3 to attain athletic excellence. “We have the technical ability and the tactical ability to have a great base.
“When Pia embraced that I think it helped everyone on the team. Obviously, that’s my strength: I’m not going to be the fastest or the tallest or whatever, but I’m strong and I’m good with the ball at my feet. That definitely has helped with Pia encouraging it.”