USWNT roster gives Sermanni options
SAN ANTONIO -- It didn't take Tom Sermanni long to highlight the difference between his old job and his current one. The coach of the U.S. women's national team didn't even wait for the first kick of Sunday's game against Australia.
For the first time ever, the United States sent out Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach together as starters.
Such are the luxuries of life in the land of soccer abundance. Too many world-class strikers? Throw one in midfield and see what happens.
In two stints as Australia's coach, most recently from 2005 to '12, Sermanni proved adept at doing more with less, at least relatively speaking in the global soccer structure. He twice took the Matildas to the World Cup quarterfinals and his teams proved a consistent thorn in the side of countries with deeper talent pools and richer women's soccer histories.
The United States improved to 11-0-2 on the year with its 4-0 win against Australia, but still at least a year away from games that mean much of anything, Sermanni's challenge is figuring out how best to do the most with more.
"I think we've got a lot of depth on this team," American midfielder Carli Lloyd said after contributing one of the four goals. "I think this is the start of it. This is the start where people begin to prove themselves. There are players that are interchangeable -- obviously -- Syd did well out wide, when she's usually up top. Overall, it's good. I think it's a good problem for Tom to have.
"And it's only going to make our chances better to win that World Cup."
It was not a revolutionary debut for the trio of forwards, who began the day with 226 goals among them. Wambach added one to that tally, but somewhat emblematic was a sequence late in the first half when a pass from Heather O'Reilly allowed Morgan to get to the end line and deliver a cross toward the waiting forms of Wambach and Leroux in the box. The ball sailed just over the head of Wambach, and when it fell to Leroux's feet, she was unable to maneuver around swarming defenders.
You saw what danger they could pose, but with Leroux occupying space wide left for much of the day, it never quite came together.
"It was more the kind of balance of the squad we had coming into the game," Sermanni said of the new look. "Unfortunately for Syd, we're playing her a little bit out of position, which was a bit unfair to Syd. If we played those three players as a three-front, I'm not sure how the balance would be, so Syd had to play more like a midfield player today."
It was Lloyd and Lauren Holiday who provided the early cushion with equally impressive volleys after good fortune brought the ball into their paths. And as if to underscore the embarrassment of riches, and the challenges of getting the best players on the field, Christen Press added the final goal in second-half injury time after coming on for Leroux, side-footing a pass from O'Reilly into the net after Morgan deftly dummied the ball on the edge of the 6-yard box.
"It's not her preferred position to play, but she's a quite flexible player, and when she plays up front, she often drifts out on the left-hand side," Sermanni said of Leroux. "I don't have any hesitation playing her there, but obviously my main aim for players like Syd and Christen Press is that they're an out-and-out striker. We're just a team at the moment with four very good ones, and other ones behind them as well, so sometimes players have to fill in. If we play the game the way we want to play, then I think Syd could play out there and I think Christen Press can play out there as well."
Sunday's game was far more competitive than the U.S. game that preceded it, a 7-0 rout of Mexico in Washington, D.C., a month ago. Australia didn't look like a team that beat France 2-0, but it looked up for the fight. It was certainly a busier 90 minutes for Hope Solo, whose work was very much needed to keep Australia from cutting the margin in half, if not more, before halftime.
It was an entertaining game at both ends of the field for the 19,109 fans who showed up, the largest domestic crowd of the year for the national team (topped only by the 22,453 who saw the U.S. beat Canada in Toronto in June). And it was surely to some degree satisfying for Sermanni against his old employer.
But as with the rest of the schedule this fall and much of what's to come next year, Sermanni must think more about how to win games in Canada in 2015 than how to beat Australia on a Sunday afternoon in San Antonio.
The lineup tweak that drew the most attention beforehand was the one that involved the stars up top, but the back line was an experiment of its own. Before this year, Crystal Dunn, Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg had just four appearances for the national team among them (two for Engen and two for Klingenberg). After all three started Sunday alongside Becky Sauerbrunn in the back line, the total is up to 23 combined appearances.
It didn't take Australia long to put the back line in peril. On a quick counter in the second minute, Kate Gill collected a ball near the center spot and played in Lisa De Vanna down the left side. Still one of the fastest players in the world, if perhaps also one of the more mercurial, De Vanna forced a good save from Solo, but she also didn't get quite the look she might have against most fullbacks. Dunn spent a lot of time chasing, but De Vanna didn't do as much escaping as she might have against a slower defender.
"[Dunn] impacts every game she plays," Sermanni said. "When you're playing against a De Vanna who is very focused, you know you're going to be in for a torrid game. There were a couple of times De Vanna got away from her, but in most of the one-on-one battles, I thought Crystal Dunn was outstanding. Considering she's a college player [at North Carolina] and she's just come into the team earlier this year, the growth that she's had has been quite significant."
De Vanna or otherwise, Australia's counterattacks made life difficult for the American defense, but the end result was the first clean sheet against Australia in the past six meetings between the teams. That's good work when you consider Dunn played a college game in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Thursday and Engen (replaced by Rachel Buehler in the 57th minute) and Klingenberg played a midweek Champions League game in Paris for their Swedish club, Tyreso, as did Press, before making the long trek to Texas.
"I joke that my body doesn't have a clock anymore," Engen said. "I get eight hours when I can get eight hours of sleep, and I'm up when I'm up. It's a lot easier coming west, for sure. But you've just got to deal with it. It's like anything else -- I've got a bunch of friends that have jobs with J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs and they're sleeping way less than I am. So I'm just thankful for the fact that I get to sleep eight hours."
Whether or not Sermanni found any answers Sunday, now is the time to ask the questions.
"I think, and it's a good thing to happen at this time of the cycle, that these little things that you need to fix get shown up now, rather than in 18 months' time," Sermanni said. "It's just tweaking the things."
It's nice to have so many toys with which to tweak.