VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The United States defense has been immense throughout the World Cup. Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg have played tremendous, keeping a 513-minute shutout streak and keeping most shots from reaching goalkeeper Hope Solo.
The U.S. has been scored on only once, in the opener against Australia. U.S. coach Jill Ellis has finally found a perfect back-four grouping of players that communicate, play well together, and shutdown the oppositions biggest threats.
Lotta Schelin, Caitlin Foord, Asisat Oshoala, Lady Andrade, Anja Mittag and Celia Sasic were all pretty much neutralized and on an island when up against the No. 2-ranked United States. The Americans will hope to do the same on Sunday in the World Cup final against Japan.
Much of the credit for the U.S. success has been given to a solid defensive game plan. In any team sport, communication and an understanding is a huge factor for teams that win championships. Krieger knows the importance of having excellent dialogue and communication on the pitch.
“Every single game we are trying to have quality performances and when we do make a mistake right after we speak about it, and we fix it,” she said. “Then at halftime we’ll say what do you need from me, what do I need from you. This is how I feel, what can be better, what needs to be better, and what do we need to fix in order to help the team or the front-six to be successful and score goals. I think that we’ve just done a great job of communicating and making sure that each of us are feeling comfortable and confident in our position.”
While other teams — including the hosts Canada — have preached about being the most connected and together team, the U.S. have proudly shown how much support they have for one and other. Players aren’t afraid to comment and make tactical suggestions off the pitch and during actual game action. In-match adjustments are key, and not every player is comfortable with one and other to make such a switch during the course of play. Krieger and Johnston make a habit of staying organized throughout.
“It’s all about the communication, ‘hey’ from J.J… ‘Ali you can push wide or stay and hold,'” Krieger said, describing some of the communications. “I think that we have that down pat and I think that we’ve done such a great job of really organizing and staying compact and just expecting a lot of that out of each other. I think that all starts with having good communication and that’s also having good relationships with the players around you. As long as you have that good communication, the pressure and cover balance has been excellent for us. We just try and stay comfortable, and confident as a collective group and that’s what I think we’ve done really well at.”
Ellis has added an emphasis on team defending and that includes her taking an initiative to help improve the back line. While she could have delegated coaching duties, Ellis has taken an active role as a line coach for the defense. This has helped immensely in structuring the team play in front of Solo. This has also helped players to quickly understand areas for in-game situations where they might need improvement.
“It starts with the team defending at first and then at times she’s our line coach as well so I think that, that is also important,” Krieger said. “That’s what helped me personally in the last World Cup. I think we had Erica Walsh as our line coach. I think it’s just finding little details like maybe my footwork and maybe in the Australia game when I got caught back twice in some of their opportunities.”
Japan and the U.S. have a history and because Japan claimed victory over the U.S. in the 2011 World Cup final, there has to be somewhat of a small revenge factor. Both teams have different styles and tactics, and formations have completely evolved. However, whichever way you slice it, the United States would like nothing better than to beat Japan.
Krieger missed out on the 2012 London Olympics — where the U.S. beat Japan in the final — with a torn ACL and MCL. Her memory of the 2011 World Cup final is something she isn’t willing to over-think it and focus on with this World Cup final on the horizon.
“Obviously you think about that, but it’s four years later,” she said. “It’s a new team – both sides, it’s a new tournament and I think we’re obviously very happy we’re playing against Japan in the final. It gives us a little bit more motivation because of that loss four years ago, but that I don’t think that has anything to do with their team now, and our team now because it’s a lot different than it was four years ago.”
The U.S. and Japan always seem to produce breathtaking matches with end-to-end action up and down the pitch. Sunday should be no different. These teams know each other well and Japan coach Norio Sasaki and Ellis will be doing their best to make sure their team comes out on top in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final match from BC Place.