November 26, 2010

World Cup or Bust? USWNT vs. Italy (Updated)

By late Saturday afternoon, we will know the fate of the United States Women's National Team. Will they be headed to the 2011 World Cup in Germany or will they become perhaps the biggest bust in the history of women's soccer. Number one teams might get beaten at the World Cup, but they always qualify to get there.

The United States will meet Italy in the second leg of their playoff on Saturday afternoon at Toyota Park in Chicago. The US was quite fortunate to escape Padova with a 1-0 victory or Saturday's task would have been even more daunting. As it stands, a US victory or a tie will send them to Germany for the 2011 World Cup. A 0-1 loss to the Italians will force overtime and possibly penalties. Any other loss and Italy will be come the 16th and final team to qualify for Germany 2011.

To be sure, Alex Morgan's stoppage time goal makes the road to Germany a tad bit easier. Had she not scored in the 94th minute last Saturday, the US would have been forced to score against a strong Italian defense in the second leg in order to gain a favorable result. As it stands, the US can now slip through with a scoreless tie, or any tie for that matter.

Italy played the last game without two starters, forward Melania Gabbiadini and defender Sara Gama. With those two players out, the lack of depth showed in the late stages of last week's contest against the United States. After 80 minutes of nearly flawless soccer, things started to unravel in the final ten minutes. Coach Pietro Ghedin used only one substitution in the match and then very late, as his team appeared to wear down in the closing minutes of the match.

After playing a strong match for most of the day, Italian keeper Anna Maria Picarelli twice got caught out of her net in the closing minutes giving the US several golden chances to take the lead. The Italian defense stopped three shots, one right off the line, in order to preserve the 0-0 score, until Alex Morgan broke free on the right side and slipped one past Picarelli as seconds ticked down in stoppage.

The Italians were content to sit back on defense while waiting for opportunities to counterattack in the opener. Now trailing by a goal, they no longer have that luxury. Leading scorer Patrizia Panico will be the focal point of the Italian attack on Saturday, but Ghedin will likely make some changes to give her more help up front.

Should Gabbiadini and Gama be available on Saturday, they would be welcome additions to the Italian lineup. Gabbiadini scored seven goals in qualifying and is one best offensive players for Italy. Gama, one of the youngest players on the team, is a solid defender who can get forward into the attack. It would also not be surprising to see Pamela Conti, an attacking midfielder and the second leading scorer in qualifying matches with 9 goals.

On the US side, I expect very few, if any, changes from Pia Sundhage. Had the first contest ended in a scoreless draw, I might have expected Ali Krieger to start over Heather Mitts at outside defender. However, Sundhage will likely stay with Mitts, considered the stronger defender of the two, over the more offensive-minded Krieger.

The only other change I could see possible is at forward, where Morgan has had great success, scoring three goals and one assist in just 227 minutes of action for the US team this year. But Sundhage seems to favor using Morgan in the role of supersub, leaving the starting position to Amy Rodriguez or Lauren Cheney, with Rodriguez's speed the most likely complement to Abby Wambach's strength at forward.

While the Italians will be on the road, this has not fazed them one bit in qualifying. They have won tough away matches against Portugal (3-1), Finland (3-1), Ukraine (3-0), Switzerland (4-2), and forced a scoreless draw on the road against France. They almost seem to revel in the role of the visitor. However, the United States has not lost a home match since November 6, 2004 against Denmark, a 3-1 defeat in Philadelphia.

So it comes down to 90 minutes of soccer for the US women, with a World Cup berth on the line. Another goal by the US and the Italians will face a very uphill battle. However, an early Italian goal changes everything and could present the US with the same problem they had last week, scoring on an Italian defense that is totally committed to stopping the American attack. Will the USWNT spend next June and July in front of huge crowds in Germany or will they spend it in front of their television sets, watching the other top teams from around the world compete for the biggest prize of all?

USWNT vs. Italy at Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Illinois
Time: November 27 (1 pm central, 2 pm eastern)
Forecast: Partly cloudy, 33 degrees, 14 mph winds at game time (per http://www.weather.com/).

Possible Starting Lineups:
USWNT (Coach Pia Sundhage)
GK-Nicole Barnhart
DF-Rachel Buehler
DF-Amy LePeilbet
DF-Christie Rampone
DF-Heather Mitts
MF-Shannon Boxx
MF-Carli Lloyd
MF-Heather O'Reilly
MF-Megan Rapinoe
FW-Abby Wambach
FW-Amy Rodriguez

Bench-Alex Morgan (F), Lauren Cheney (F), Yael Averbuch (M), Kristine Lilly (M), Lori Lindsey (M), Ali Krieger (D), Stephanie Cox (D), Jill Loyden (GK).

Italy (Coach Pietro Ghedin)
GK-Anna Maria Picarelli
DF-Sara Gama (if healthy)
DF-Roberta D'Adda
DF-Elisabetta Tona
DF-Raffaella Manieri
MF-Alessia Tuttino
MF-Giulia Domenichetti
MF-Pamela Conti
MF/FW-Elisa Camporese
FW-Patrizia Panico
FW-Melania Gabbiadini (if healthy)

Bench-Silvia Fuselli (F), Evelyn Vicchiarello (F), Carolina Pini (M), Marta Carissimi (M), Tatiana Zorri (M), Laura Neboli (D), Viviana Schiavi (D), Chiara Marchitelli (GK).

Update: It has been reported by Associated Press, ESPN, and other sources that Melania Gabbiadini will not play tomorrow due to her ankle injury.