U-20 USWNT: On the Draw with China

The draw between the United States Under-20 Women’s National Team and China’s U-20 WNT in their second group match of the 2012 Under-20 Women’s World Cup is a disappointing result for the USA squad, but far from a disaster.

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TECHNICAL NOTES

This was the third time that the United States and China played each other in 2012. Previously, in April, the two squads played a pair of friendlies in California.

USA’s Starting Line-Up — Swanson made two changes from the line-up in the opening match against Ghana: Cari Roccaro, at centerback, and Kelly Cobb, at forward, started in place of Kassey Kallman and Chioma Ubogagu, respectively. The formation at the beginning of the match was as follows:

Heaberlin (GK)
Dunn (RB) — Johnston (CB) — Roccaro (CB) — Pathman (LB)
Brian (AM) — Killion (HM) — DiBernardo (AM)
Ohai (FW) — Hayes (FW) — Cobb (FW)

Cobb would later move into a more central position, with Kealia Ohai on the left flank and Maya Hayes on the right.

USA Substitutions — At halftime, Chioma Ubogagu came in for Cobb, who was practically nonexistent in the first half. In the 65th minute, Ohai was subbed out for Katie Stengel. And, with five minutes to go in normal time, Becca Wann replaced Maya Hayes.

China’s Starting Line-Up — Defensively, the formation used by China was essentially a “Christmas Tree,” a.k.a., the 4-3-2-1, as there was a lone striker, Zhang Jieli (#8), two attacking midfielders, three deeper midfielders, and a traditional back line of four defenders.

Shen Li (GK, #1)
Wu (RB, #2) — Huang (CB, #6) — Lin (CB, #17) — Leo (LB, #4)
Han (RM, #13) — Liu (HM, #5) — Zhang X. (LM, #7)
Song (AM, #10) — Shen Lili (AM, #20)
Zhang J. (FW, #8)

Physically and athletically, this China squad matched up very well with the USA’s U-20s. In fact, China’s back line and goalkeeper were taller than their American counterparts. Here is the two squads’ starting line-ups by height, in centimeters:

CHINA
177
166 – 171 – 175 – 168
165 – 168 – 170
165 – 165
172

175 – 170 – 165
170 – 173 – 160
163 – 170 – 170 – 157
173
USA

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THOUGHTS

What Was Lacking…

Accurate Passes in Behind China’s Back Line: Passes that tried to release one of the forwards were usually hit either too hard or not accurate enough.

A Force in the Box: In hindsight, Katie Stengel probably should have started the match. Given the USA’s possession and China’s defensive posture, a back-to-the-goal forward would have caused the Chinese more trouble, especially if that forward’s dribbling and movements could have caught a defender or two off-guard and caused a foul that would have earned a penalty.

Diversity in Corner Kicks: The USA had ten corner kicks during the match. Most, if not all were long into the box. A few more short corners could have opened up China’s defense and allowed for better shot chances.

Focused Urgency: A killer attacking attitude was missing for most of the match. In other words, the USA seemed too patient.

Luck: If Johnston’s 2nd minute header had not been saved, or Ohai’s shot in the 28th minute had been on target (following Johnston’s dribbling run), or China’s almost own goal in the second half had gone in instead of deflecting off the post…

So, In Hindsight…

Starting Kelly Cobb, who seemed tentative and was generally not that involved in the match, was a poor tactical decision.

Another poor tactical decision was not subbing in a fresh midfielder, such as Samantha Mewis or Mandy Laddish. Mewis had two assists against Ghana and also brings a height advantage for heading the ball as well as has experience taking free kicks. Laddish would have offered fresh legs and a fresh mind for corner kick deliveries.

With China committing ten players behind the ball, perhaps the USA could have moved into a pseudo-3-4-3 formation for a spell or two in order to even up the numbers in its attacking third and to bring in some unpredictability. The player to send forward would have Pathman while Dunn (who was a centerback for the 2010 U-20s), Johnston, and Roccaro stayed on the back line.

That Said, No Need To Panic…

Most importantly, the USA did get a draw and a point out of the match. And, with the USA’s goal differential against China, the Americans are in a good position to advance even if China defeats Ghana, which is a far from guaranteed result. In addition, perhaps the USA’s perceived lack of urgency was in part due to either protecting against a loss and/or the fear of losing.

If this had been a knockout match, (one would at least expect and hope that) Swanson would not start a relatively untested player such as Cobb, and instead, gone with a completely first choice line-up.

The objective in the group stage is to advance out of the group, not win every match. And, as noted earlier, the USA is in a very good position to do that. Although a draw now is not the most encouraging result, it is a serviceable result. Plus, if the squad can use the result as a motivation for improvement and build momentum from this match, then that will serve the USA far better than a win.

History Lessons…

At the 2008 U-20 WWC, two teams who won all three of their group matches, Japan and Brazil, were each knocked out at the quarterfinal stage by a team with one group stage loss, North Korea and Germany, respectively. Germany would lose to the United States in the semifinals, who lost their third group match, against China. Meanwhile, North Korea would make it to the final against the USA, and we all know how that ended, yes?

In 2004, at the final U-19 WWC, eventual champions Germany had two wins plus a draw during the group stage, and had to win a penalty shoot-out just to get past Nigeria in the quarterfinals. Then, in the semifinals, they defeated a team who won all three of their group matches: the United States.

Those two historical anecdotes illustrate what anyone who has followed international soccer — or the stock market — for some time already knows: Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. In soccer terms, a non-win at the group stage does not foreclose the possibility of an eventual title.

(And, there’s plenty of examples at the senior women’s level as well: USA at the 2008 Olympics, Japan at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, et cetera.)