On Sunday, the United States women produced what was arguably the second most high profile win in their history, beating Brazil in dramatic fashion in the quarterfinals of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. Thanks to Megan Rapinoe's cross, Abby Wambach's header, Hope Solo's save and the proficiency of all five penalty takers, the USWNT now has a date with France.
While there's nothing wrong with celebrating a massive win, it's important to remember that Sunday's game was just a quarterfinal, and that the United States are the No. 1 ranked team in the world. With the hosts and arguably the second best team in the world out of the tournament, the U.S. are now the favorites. Their job is far from done, and Sunday's game produced way more questions than it answered.
Rachel Buehler will be suspended for the semifinal due to her red card, while Rapinoe has proven in all of her appearances off the bench that she deserves to return to the starting lineup. Lauren Cheney, the woman who replaced her, deserves to start as well. The center of midfield has been questionable at best for the United States.
This is not 1999 and the USWNT doesn't have worlds more natural talent than their opponents. They can't afford to sidestep these issues and expect to squeak out more wins.
France is a much different team than Brazil. They do not have anyone with the raw talent of Marta, and they might not even have anyone with the raw talent of Cristiane or Fabiana. However, what they do have is technical skill, tactical awareness, chemistry, and discipline. Brazil has plenty of technical skill, but in the latter three areas, they are lacking. That allowed the U.S. women to skate by and fight back for a dramatic win. If the United States is poor in the middle, their back line isn't organized, and their forwards can't keep the ball, a comeback will not be coming against France.
It's no secret that Pia Sundhage plays favorites. She likes Carli Lloyd's athleticism and shooting ability. She likes Amy Rodriguez's speed. She likes Shannon Boxx's experience. Regardless of whether or not these players have been in form, they have been first choice for Sundhage. The problem is, Lori Lindsey, Alex Morgan, Lauren Cheney, and Megan Rapinoe are in much better form than all of these players. Sundhage's selections are tough to justify, and USWNT fans can only hope that Sunday's events were enough to break her out of her stubborn shell.
So, what needs to be done on Wednesday?
Move Amy LePeilbet to central defense and start Stephanie Cox
With Rachel Buehler suspended, Sundhage may be tempted to keep her back line the way it was, for the most part, and simply put Becky Sauerbrunn in at central defense, leaving the other spots unchanged. With no disrespect meant to Sauerbrunn, who has proven herself to be an absolutely terrific player in WPS, that would be a mistake. Amy LePeilbet is one of the best central defenders in the world and she has looked like a shell of her formerly world class self while playing left back. Sundhage needs to play LePeilbet where she belongs and bring Cox back into the starting lineup.
Start Lori Lindsey in the center of midfield
Whether or not Lori Lindsey should start in place of Boxx or Lloyd is a debate that could possibly warrant its own article, but the point is more about Lindsey's form and skill set than any deficiencies that Boxx or Lloyd have. Lindsey was one of the best players on the pitch in the United States' best performance of the World Cup so far, their win over Colombia. Her form in WPS has been fantastic over the last year and a half, and her positional discipline would be a big help against France. The Boxx-Lloyd partnership was poor against Brazil, and the United States needs a change.
Get Megan Rapinoe into the lineup
When Sundhage replaced Rapinoe with Lauren Cheney in the starting lineup to start the World Cup, it was more of a reward for Cheney than it was a punishment for Rapinoe, but despite the good-hearted nature of the change, it has still had a negative impact on the team. There's no doubt that the USWNT's best XI includes Rapinoe. However, it also includes Cheney, which means...
Time's up, Amy. To get Cheney and Rapinoe into the lineup, Amy Rodriguez has to be benched
Amy Rodriguez's speed is a dangerous weapon, but she doesn't bring enough to the table outside of that speed to justify one of Rapinoe or Cheney being benched. While Cheney has started this tournament at left midfield, she's a striker by trade. The United States would lose speed by playing Cheney up top and Rapinoe on the left, moving Rodriguez to the bench, but it's worth it for what they gain in skill and tactical awareness. Additionally, a player like Rodriguez might be more dangerous coming off the bench when opposing defenders have lost a step.
Sunday's win was a massive, dramatic, historic win for the United States, but it exposed some serious deficiencies in the team. Between the qualifying loss to Mexico, the unconvincing win over Italy in the first leg of the qualifying playoff, and the friendly loss to England, these were not one-off issues for the United States.
Amy LePeilbet has never been a left back, Lori Lindsey has always been a great option for the starting lineup, and the USWNT's best XI has always included both Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney. Now is not the time for Pia Sundhage to be stubborn. If she wants to win a World Cup, she is going to need to give in to the evidence in front of her, stop playing favorites, and actually get her best team on the field.