Tomorrow morning at 10:30 ET, The United States Women's National Team starts their home and away playoff against Italy in an attempt to qualify for the 2011 Women's World Cup. The United States has never been in this situation before, previously sailing through CONCACAF qualifying on all previous attempts. However, this year was a different story, as the U.S. women fell 2-1 to Mexico in the semifinal round of qualifying. This forced them into a third place match against Costa Rica, which they won. Winning that match earned them the right to play Italy in a home and away playoff with aggregate scoring and the away goal rule in effect.
Ahead of that playoff, I had a chat with Jenna Pel of All White Kit. Her blog covers women's soccer from all over the globe and features some of the best USWNT and WPS coverage found anywhere on the internet. I recommend following her on twitter for not only her insight into women's football, but also her fantastic tweets about the DJ Girl Talk and the television series "The Wire." Our conversation about the USWNT and the upcoming playoff against Italy can be found below.
Kevin McCauley: You mentioned that the internet wasn't working and I assumed your tubes were clogged. Thanks to Ted Stevens, I know that the internet is a series of tubes.
Jenna Pel: It is indeed. Hurray Ted Stevens.
KM: Considering whether or not this is going to be part of the article.
JP: Haha I think so. I'd be happy if Ted Stevens gets more mentions than Carli Lloyd in this conversation...
KM: Carli Lloyd is definitely the source of most USWNT rants. [SBNation Soccer editor] Richard Farley and I were wondering what kind of incriminating photos of Pia she has. It's not that Carli Lloyd sucks or anything. She's certainly better at football than I am. I just think that Leslie Osborne, Yael Averbuch, and Lori Lindsey are all better.
JP: The fact that she missed the lion's share of the 2010 WPS season certainly doesn't help her case either. She was a pretty important cog in the USWNT in 2008 and 2009. She scored the winning goal in the 2008 Olympics Final after all. But now I just think that there are other players who are better suited to that attacking midfielder role.
KM: I think there's a bit of a debate about what Carli Lloyd's role actually is and what it should be. This, of course, leads into a debate (and an often abstract one, at that) about the USWNT's tactics. I know you're a proponent of a switch to a 4-2-3-1 system with Lloyd out of the picture and Abby Wambach in a playmaker role. Explain yourself for the people.
JP: Gladly. I'm not sure I'm advocating a permanent switch to a 4-2-3-1. That was the formation most prominently used in this summer's World Cup, obviously. It was on full display in the Semifinal match between Spain and Germany, in particular. I'm not sure it's caught on in the women's game yet but it can't hurt to be ahead of the curve. The USWNT will be opening their playoff series (that sounds like such a baseball phrase) away to Italy in Padova. It would be interesting to see if Coach Pia Sundhage decides to go for the throat immediately with her beloved 4-4-2 or play more conservative and wait for the home leg. This USWNT isn't used to playing anything other than a 4-4-2 so it's unclear whether or not Coach Sundhage will take such a gamble in such a significant match. However, having Leslie Osborne back in the squad is huge. For awhile it seemed as if Osborne's USWNT days were over due to injury. She was the best holding midfielder in WPS last year and was a major contributor to the Boston Breakers' midseason turnaround. The USWNT has the personnel to play a more defensive formation. Who knows if they will actually take advantage of it.
KM: Do you think that the USWNT's lack of tactical variation has hurt them significantly?
JP: Absolutely. It wouldn't be so bad if the 4-4-2 actually paid off from time to time. It worked wonders in the May friendly against Germany in which the USWNT won 4-0. Wingers Heather O'Reilly and Kristine Lilly actually played like true wingers, which is a major characteristic of the 4-4-2. But it's when it doesn't work that's the issue...obviously. Since that match, the USWNT's central midfield has been a bit of a mess. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of commitment to either attacking or defending and the result is kind of a mishmash of tactical confusion. It's the team's inability to make tactical adjustments on the fly that is disconcerting. Look no further than the team's 2-1 loss to Mexico in CONCACAF Women's World Cup Qualifying for proof of this.
KM: So how do Italy play and does it pose any serious matchup problems? I have to admit that I don't know a ton about them.
JP: Neither do I. I'm not sure anyone outside of Italy's coaching staff does, to be honest. What I can say is that the team has improved tremendously under head coach Pietro Ghedin's tutelage in recent years. They were the very first UEFA team to advance out of the first Women's World Cup qualifying stage which was impressive. They're a physical side and will be hard to break down. That might not bode well for this USWNT team who struggled a bit against a physical, defensively organized Sweden in two friendlies this summer.
KM: Got a prediction for tomorrow's lineup?
JP: There are hopes and then there is reality. The lineup will probably look a lot like the squad that started the two China friendlies in October and the CONCACAF WWCQ Semifinal match against Mexico. That's Nicole Barnhart in goal, Heather Mitts and Rachel Buehler at fullback and Amy LePeilbet and Christie Rampone in central defense. Barring a massive change in philosophy, it will probably be a flat four across midfield with Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Shannon Boxx and Heather O'Reilly. Abby Wambach will start in a withdrawn striker role and Amy Rodriguez will play off of her. I would expect to see the livewire that is 21 year-old Alex Morgan come off the bench if the team needs an injection of energy. If the team's midfield gets a little unhinged, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think a Lori Lindsey or a Leslie Osborne wouldn't come off the bench to help try to plug the holes.
KM: I think A-Rod and Mitts also have incriminating photos of Sundhage.
JP: Ah A-Rod, who knows about her. Her goals to game ratio is pretty poor for a starting striker, yet she essentially led her club team the Philadelphia Independence to the WPS Championship game last year. The girl's got pace to burn and loves to receive the ball over the top from the midfield. The USWNT's passing game has been totally off in recent matches. With no production of passes, A-Rod struggles. Mitts is a different story. It's clear that her legs are going. She typically starts matches strong but fades away quickly. She just doesn't impose any attacking threat going forward but few USWNT outside backs do, to be honest.
KM: What about Ali Kreiger?
JP: Krieger is a bit of a mixed bag. She plays regularly for one of the best club teams in international women's soccer in FFC Frankfurt of the German Frauen-Bundesliga. Yet she's only had 8 caps for the USWNT I believe so she hasn't had a lot of time to bed in. She has real attacking potential but the formation has to be balanced for it to come to the fore. She looked a little shaky in defense in the CONCACAF WWCQ third place match though.
KM: She still has to be a better option than Mitts, right?
JP: In terms of potential, definitely. The USWNT's outside backs have all really suffered from inconsistency recently but Mitts probably heads that list.
KM: Prediction for tomorrow? The whole tie?
JP: I'll be bold: 1-1 tomorrow. 2-1 in Bridgeview the following week. USWNT advances 3-2 on aggregate and 4-3 on the away goals rule. From this keyboard to God's ear, brother.