Although the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team fell short of winning the 2007 World Cup and was forced to endure public controversy about questionable substitutions, there's no reason to panic. When the U.S. women return to China for the 2008 Olympics, the team will probably still be favored to win the gold. A thunderous striker and an impenetrable goalkeeper will prevent anyone from keeping the WNT down for long. Abby Wambach will soon be scorching opposing defenses, and Hope Solo will be frustrating foreign forwards with athletic saves-once again.
Until Sept. 27, 2007, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team had cruised through an amazing 51 games without a loss. The streak started all the way back in 2005. The one-two punch of Wambach up front and Solo in net made the U.S. almost unbeatable, and they were the world's top-ranked team heading into the '07 World Cup.
Prior to their 2007 World Cup semifinal match, U.S. had met Brazil on the field 22 times, with the Brazilians winning only once-in 1997. But things went wrong this time around. Early on, the U.S. dealt itself an own goal and then suffered a blown call that sent team leader Shannon Boxx to the locker room with her second yellow card of the day. Forced to play the swarming Brazilian squad one man down, the team was unsuccessful, failing to reach their ultimate goal of winning the Cup. They finished third with a win against Norway.
Even before the World Cup got underway in September, nobody was prouder to be part of it than Wambach, the team's striker. "Ever since I started playing soccer, I've wanted to reach this level," she says. "Just being able to put this jersey on and wear the crest to represent the United States means so much to me and my teammates. I really take pride in it."
Armed with her pride, along with superior speed, size and skills, Abby tore through the world's most elite tournament, scoring six goals in six games-no surprise to head coach Greg Ryan. "it's easy to see what makes her so great," he says. "She towers above opponents; she's great in the air; she's a great finisher in front of the goal; and she's almost impossible to stop. She has savvy and great knowledge of how to play with her teammates. She's such a mature player."
Though overshadowed by controversy. Hope Solo's World Cup performance was impressive as well. In the four games she played, Hope allowed only two goals and went almost 300 minutes without being scored on. Shutdown play is nothing new for Hope: the 5'10" keeper hasn't dropped a game with the WNT since 2002.
Throughout the tournament, Hope had some extra motivation as she blocked virtually every shot that came her way. "I've had one focus, one love and one passion my entire life," she says. "I have never deviated from my path, and that's why I'm here today. And this year, I'm playing for my father. He passed away earlier this year, so I have a lot of emotion inside of me."
Since Hope joined the WNT. U.S. Goalkeeper coach Phil Wheddon has helped improve her decision-making in the net. "She's already an all-around athlete. She's got exceptional jumping ability, she's quick, and she's very explosive and powerful," Wheddon says. "So, we've worked with her on when she should step out of goal to make a save, when to stay in goal, when to apply pressure on the ball and when not to."
Despite bad luck and the media storm in China, the WNT will return with youth, athletic ability and all-around soccer dominance. Many tournaments are coming up on the world stage, so be on the lookout for Hope and Abby to get back in '08. In the meantime, check out the skill work they will be performing to prepare for their next dash for gold.
Shuffle and Save
- Starting at post, shuffle across goal
- As partner rolls ball to middle of goal, lower hips and make save
- Toss ball back to partner and continue shuffling to far post
- Shuffle back across goal and make save on shot again
Benefits: Warm-up, footwork and technique
Wheddon: We try to get our goalkeepers to touch the ball many different ways during warm-up. Shuffling is the main footwork pattern we use in goal; this gets them warmed up and ready to play. I want her to keep her body compact, hands in front (not at her sides) and have equal balance on both feet. If you stand up tall, you'll be a slower goalkeeper.
Shot from Side/Shot from Center
- Make save on shot from corner of box
- Immediately shuffle across box and make save on shot from straight on
Reps: 3 each side
Benefits: Quick recovery
Wheddon: This helps us get back into good position when our field players let us down. When you're on one side of the goal, the ball can get switched across quickly. Don't drop back across the goal too early, like many keepers do. I encourage them to stay square to where the ball is coming from, make the first save and then get back across the goal with the appropriate foot pattern-drop step quickly, get back across and get balanced and coordinated for the second save.
Cross Corner or Hard-Driven Ball Defense
- With partner preparing for corner kick, set up at near post
- As partner drives ball across field, either decide to make play on ball or read shot of partner standing in front of goal
Reps: 4 each side
Benefits: Decision-making, reaction and cross defense
Wheddon: I have (my partner drive) the ball across the goal; then I either take a touch or play it the first time. Sometimes an offensive player has an opportunity to take a touch in front of the goal; other times, she has to play it the first time. I am making Hope decide ahead of time if she can step out and shut the player down, or if she has to wait and read the touch of the player. I have her set up at the near post, and if the ball is coming really fast, she has to spread her body and deny as much space as possible. If she can get across and ready to make a save in time, then it's all about getting her body in balance and dealing with the ball appropriately, whether she has to dive or remain on her feet.
- Assume position in goal
- As teammate approaches with ball, defend breakaway situation
Wheddon: There are three types of breakaways a keeper must identify.
Before the shot is taken: the ball has been played in front of the forward, so the keeper has an opportunity to get to the ball first. The keeper must read the distance between the ball and the forward, and if she can get there first, she needs to win the ball outright
During the shot: This is when the keeper makes a save on the ball at the exact same time the forward gets there. This is a very courageous save.
Forward has complete control of the ball: when the forward is dribbling at the keeper, the keeper must stay on her feet as long as possible to force the forward into make a bad touch.
Stepover Delay Pass
- Dribble ball toward teammate from 10 yards away
- Just before reaching partner, perform stepover, eluding imaginary defender, and set ball for teammate
Reps: 4 each foot
Benefits: Ability to freeze defender while getting ball to teammate
Ryan: One of the most important skills for young soccer players is being comfortable with the ball by getting touches through passing, receiving and dribbling. This drill helps our players buy a little time so a teammate can come and get the ball. Little moves (on top of the ball) will freeze the defender.
7v7 in Closed Space
- Scrimmage 7v7 with three neutral players in 10x10 yard space
- Receive and pass ball quickly with one or two touches
Duration: 5-15 minutes
Benefits: Quick passing and receiving ability
Ryan: We want to learn to play in tight spaces, because many upcoming opponents play with so many people around the ball. We have our players play with only one or two touches so they get used to keeping the ball moving quickly with people around.
1v1 Off Chip Pass
- From 30 yards out, begin dribbling ball toward goal
- Pass ball to teammate who's facing you at top of box
- Receive quick chip pass back from partner and attempt shot on goal or dribble past goalkeeper
Benefits: Finishing ability
Ryan: We're likely to get some 1v1 situations like this, so we want our forwards to be comfortable with them. The idea is to try to play the ball under the keeper. The hardest spot for a keeper to make a save is right underneath her, so try to get it under her early.
- Perform continuous full-field scrimmage for set amount of time
Duration: 20 minutes
Ryan: We use this to work on how we plan to pressure an upcoming opponent when they have the ball, and to focus on areas in their defensive system we think we can attack. A huge fitness benefit [results] from the fact that we're not stopping and restarting all the time.
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