November 19, 2010

USWNT vs. Italy: Two Teams, Two Games, One Berth

Just over a month ago, very few people thought the USWNT would be sweating out a World Cup berth in late November, but one upset loss to Mexico has put a hold on their ticket to Germany 2011. A two-leg playoff against UEFA's 5th place finisher, Italy, starts tomorrow in Padova, Italy at 10:30 am eastern time. The second leg will be played at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois on November 27.

The US leads the all-time series by an 8-4-1 margin, but they have lost all four matches on Italian soil. To be fair, three of those games came in the 1980's. The fourth was a 2001 match in which the US featured a team made up entirely of college and high school players, basically a U-21 team. The last two meetings between these two teams were in 2008 and both ended in 2-0 victories for the US, with Abby Wambach scoring both goals in one match and Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly doing the honors in the other match.

The two teams involved have taken quite different paths to this match. The US were overwhelming favorites to be one of the two Concacaf automatic qualifiers. They swept through their group stage with a fair amount of ease, only to fall to a spirited Mexican team in the semifinals in Cancun. They recovered with a solid, if unspectacular, 3-0 victory over Costa Rica in the 3rd place match.

Italy, on the other hand, had to go through a brutal UEFA qualifying schedule. First they had to win their group over the likes of Finland and Portugal, which they did with a 7-0-1 record, with the only blemish being a tie to the Finns. They lost a chance to take an easier road to the World Cup, losing to France 3-2 in the 2nd leg of a playoff, after the first leg had ended in a scoreless tie. They then had to fight through Ukraine and Switzerland to make it to this playoff with the US. All told, they went 10-1-3 over 14 qualifying matches, with the lone loss being to a very tough French side which features WPS stars Sonia Bompastor and Camille Abily.

Make no mistake about it, this Italian side is tough, experienced, and tested. They feature a veteran lineup, with most of their starters being in the prime of their careers between 25 and 30 years old. They are led, however, by a veteran captain whose name is very familiar to WPS fans. Patrizia Panico, who spent a fair amount of time sporting a Sky Blue FC jersey last season, is the Italian captain and leading scorer. At age 35, she is still a force to be reckoned with, scoring 11 goals and 7 assists in the 14 qualifying matches.

The other top offensive threats for the Italians are rising star Elisa Camporese, midfielder Pamela Conti, and forward Melania Gabbiadini. Camporese scored two goals against Switzerland in the final match that sent Italy into this playoff. It is reported on the UEFA website that Gabbiadini might miss the first leg of this playoff, with the same being true of defender Sara Gama.

Anna Maria Picarelli will be the Italian starter in goal. She played college soccer at Pepperdine here in the states and was once called up to the US U-23 team, but at 5-5, was deemed to be too short to be a keeper for the United States. She has been solid in goal for the Italians, playing every single minute of their 14 qualifying matches, posting nine shutouts and surrendering more than one goal only twice, in the loss to France and in the final playoff match against Switzerland.

The United States have tried to put on a brave face since the loss to Mexico, while admitting that the loss was a setback, still confident and in control of their own destiny. Coach Pia Sundhage added four players to the roster for the Italian playoff, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, midfielder Leslie Osborne, midfielder/striker Lindsay Tarpley, and midfielder Tina DiMartino. They join the 20 players that represented the US at Concacaf. From this, one can gather that the midfield is the one area likely to see change, while the defense and attack will stay much the same as in Cancun.

Mexico was able to breakdown the US through good passing, strong technical play, and solid defense. The problem for the Americans is that they are likely to see more of the same on Saturday. And unlike the Mexican squad, the Italians add far more experience to the mix.

From a defensive standpoint, Osborne can be one of the best in the midfield. But she missed the end of the WPS season with injury, ironically from a tackle by Panico, and has played little competitive soccer since. DiMartino and Tarpley could certainly help the US passing game, but will their few days training with the squad in Italy be enough to influence Sundhage to let either see significant playing time? Passing and possession were a problem for the US midfield against Mexico.

From an attacking standpoint, Abby Wambach will lead the way. Unfortunately, she has been the only consistent goal scorer for the US side. Lauren Cheney, Amy Rodriguez, and Alex Morgan will battle for the other attacking position. Cheney was great early in 2010, scoring numerous goals for the US at Algarve and in friendlies, but lately the goals have been fewer and farther between. She is the strongest of three, Rodriguez is the fastest, but Alex Morgan has shown brightest of late. Still, Sundhage appears to prefer Morgan off the bench, leading one to believe that either Cheney or Rodriguez will be Wambach's running mate up front.

The US must shore up defensively, after Mexico was able to exploit some weaknesses and mistakes in the Concacaf semifinal. The middle is patrolled by veterans Amy LePeilbet and Christie Rampone, but the outside has been problematic. Rachel Buehler is essentially a center back playing outside left, while Heather Mitts and Ali Krieger have been playing outside right, with neither being impressive enough to win over Sundhage on a permanent basis. Nicole Barnhart suffered her first loss as a USWNT goalkeeper in the match to Mexico, but has been solid otherwise.

The winner will be decided by aggregate goals, with the first tiebreaker being goals on the road. If all is still even, overtime and potentially penalties will follow the second leg. My feeling is that the US needs to win the first leg or at least score two goals in a tie to put themselves in good position for the second leg. And scoring against the Italians can be a problem. In their last six matches, against the likes of France, Ukraine, and Switzerland in pressure situations, they have not surrendered a first half goal.

In any event, what would have been shocking just a short time ago is now a possibility. The United States, the world's number one ranked team and defending Olympic champions, may not qualify for the 2011 World Cup. They control their destiny with a tough Italian side standing firmly in their way. What will we be talking about 8 days from now, the US team heading to the World Cup with time to regroup before next June or the US team being home alone and wondering how this all happened?

Fact Summary:

USWNT vs. Italy at Padova, Italy (Saturday, November 20 at 10:30 am eastern time)
Telecast: ESPN3.com

All-time record: USWNT 8 wins, Italy 4 wins, with one tie.
Last meeting: June 19, 2008 in South Korea with the US winning 2-0.

Possible lineups (with qualifying statistics):
GK: Nicole Barnhart (5 games, 4 shutouts, 0.40 GAA)
DF: Amy LePeilbet (5 games)
DF: Christie Rampone (5 games)
DF: Rachel Buehler (4 games, 1 goal)
DF: Heather Mitts (3 games) or Ali Krieger (2 games)
MF: Shannon Boxx (5 games, 1 assist)
MF: Carli Lloyd (5 games, 2 goals, 5 assists)
MF: Heather O'Reilly (4 games, 3 assists)
MF: Megan Rapinoe (3 games, 2 goals, 1 assist)
FW: Abby Wambach (5 games, 8 goals, 1 assist)
FW: Amy Rodriguez (4 games, 4 goals) or Lauren Cheney (3 games, 2 goals, 1 assist)

Others: Alex Morgan-FW (4 GP, 2 G, 1 A), Kristine Lilly-MF (3 GP, 2 A), Lori Lindsey-MF (3 GP, 2 A), Yael Averbuch-MF (3 GP, 1 G), Becky Sauerbrunn-DF (1 GP), Stephanie Cox-DF (1 GP), Jill Loyden-GK (did not play). Leslie Osborne-MF, Tina DiMartino-MF, Lindsay Tarpley-MF/FW, and Ashlyn Harris-GK were not on the roster for Concacaf qualifying.

Italy (assuming Gabbiadini and Gama are injured)
GK: Anna Maria Picarelli (14 games, 9 shutouts, 0.57 GAA)
DF: Roberta D'Adda (14 games, 1 assist)
DF: Elisabetta Tona (12 games, 4 goals, 2 assists)
DF: Raffaella Manieri (8 games)
DF: Viviana Schiavi (9 games, 1 goal)
MF: Alessia Tuttino (11 games, 1 goal)
MF: Giulia Domenichetti (10 games, 2 goals) or Tatiana Zorri (11 games, 1 assist)
MF: Pamela Conti (13 games, 9 goals, 2 assists)
MF/FW: Elisa Camporese (11 games, 5 goals, 5 assists)
FW: Patrizia Panico (14 games, 11 goals, 7 assists)
FW: Silvia Fuselli (8 games, 2 goals)

Others: Melania Gabbiadini-FW (11 GP, 7 G, 5 A), Sara Gama-DF (13 GP, 2 G), Carolina Pini-MF (5 GP, 1 G), Marta Carissimi-MF (5 GP, 1 G), Evelyn Vicchiarello-FW (2 GP), Laura Neboli-DF (3 GP), Chiara Marchitelli-GK (did not play), Maria Sorvillo-DF (did not play), Elisa Bartoli-DF (did not play).