November 20, 2010

Alex Morgan Sends US to Chicago Happy: USA 1, Italy 0

It certainly had the look of a frustrating day for the USWNT. While they had the majority of possession and chances, it appeared that the first leg of the playoff with Italy would end in a scoreless draw. But in the 93rd minute, Carli Lloyd sent a long ball from the US side of midfield which was flicked to the right side by Abby Wambach. Alex Morgan ran onto the ball perfectly, touched it forward and then sent a low shot to the far post, just past Italian goalkeeper Anna Maria Picarelli, to give the US a 1-0 victory.

Morgan, the youngest player on the US team, did not enter the game until the 84th minute when she subbed in for Amy Rodriguez as the final US substitution. The University of California senior has been an impact player for the national team through Concacaf qualifying and again today. She scored twice in Mexico, but the goal today may have saved the United States' chances for the 2011 World Cup.

Pia Sundhage stayed with the same basic lineup that used in Mexico, with Barnhart in goal, Buehler, LePeilbet, Rampone, and Mitts across the back, Boxx, Lloyd, Rapinoe, and O'Reilly in the midfield, and Rodriguez with Wambach up front. The Italians started Picarelli, D'Adda, Neboli, Tona, Manieri, Tuttino, Carissimi, Domenichetti, Pini, Camporese, and Panico.

The US controlled the first 25 minutes of the game as the Italians seemed content to defend and wait for counterattacking opportunities. In spite of their edge, the US would get very few chances with most being weak shots from bad angles. Elisabetta Tona did a fine job in marking Abby Wambach, giving her little room to operate. The US failed to take advantage of several set pieces in the opening half. Italy, which has rarely given up a first half goal, stayed true to form in blanking the US through 45 minutes.

Toward the end of the half, the Italian attack became more lively, but they seemed unable to make the final pass that would set up a good scoring chance. Alessia Tuttino was able to get a shot from long range in the 27th minute, forcing Nicole Barnhart to make a jumping save, which she handled easily.

After a fairly well played first half, the second half started out with some ragged play. Neither team looked sharp or appeared to have any control over the tempo of the match. The US tried several wayward long balls, with little coming from it. And while the Italians had been guilty of some shirt-tugging early on, the Americans started committing some frustration fouls as the game wore on.

The US had a prime opportunity in the 58th minute as Shannon Boxx split two defenders on the right side of the box and appeared to have a clear shot on net. She elected to go square with a pass instead, and the US were unable to get a good shot off, with the Italians clearing. At that point, Lauren Cheney became the first substitution, in for Heather O'Reilly in the 62nd minute to add some offense.

But it was also at this point that the Italians started to assert themselves. The US got caught back on their heels, taking some time before clearing a Elisa Camporese cross and shortly thereafter, Nicole Barnhart was forced to make a diving save on Patrizia Panico's shot from 20 yards. In the 72nd minute, Giulia Domenichetti appeared to have a step on the US defense, but Rachel Buehler made a nice recovery and neatly dispossessed Domenichetti to save a potentially dangerous chance for the Italians.

Sundhage's second move appeared to be with offense in mind as well, sending Ali Krieger in for Heather Mitts at outside back in the 75th minute. Krieger, who plays professionally in Germany, is probably the most offensive-minded defender for the United States team.

It appeared that the US were ready for a breakthrough in the 80th minute as Picarelli got caught well out of her goal while trying to punch a ball clear, but Amy Rodriguez's shot was headed away by an Italian defender just a few feet short of the net.

A few minutes later, Domenichetti was handed a yellow for hauling down Lloyd by the shirt as it appeared the American midfielder was moving in for a shot from about 30 yards out. Lori Lindsey managed to get a yellow card from the bench just before the end of regulation time.

Again, at the close of regulation, Picarelli got caught out, but consecutive shots by Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach were blocked by the Italian defense and the ball was ultimately cleared out of trouble.

Referee Silvia Reyes Juarez of Peru added just two minutes of stoppage and as the clock ticked into the 93rd minute, it appeared the match would end scoreless. The Italians made what was perhaps an ill-advised substitution in stoppage, which apparently added time to the match. It may have given the US the extra time they needed for the play that would lead to Morgan's heroics. Even after Morgan's goal, the game continued on well into five minutes of stoppage before the final whistle blew.

This was the first time that the United States had defeated Italy on the Italians' home soil. The Americans are 6-0-1 lifetime against Italy at home, with the lone blemish being a 2-2 tie in Kansas City, Missouri in 2003.

The 1-0 victory made the United States' task a little easier than a 0-0 tie would have. Now they will win the playoff with a tie or a win at home next weekend and a 0-1 loss would only force an overtime. The second leg of the match will be played next Saturday at Toyota Park in Chicago. Game time is scheduled for 1 pm central, 2 pm eastern time.