U.S. Has a Meeting, Then Delivers a Beating

Abby Wambach
Abby Wambach celebrates after scoring the first goal of the game, her 81st in 100 international appearances. (Saurabh Das - AP)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

TIANJIN, China, Sept. 22 -- On the eve of their Women's World Cup quarterfinal against England, at precisely 5 p.m. in the Sheraton Hotel in a southern district of this sprawling industrial city, the U.S. players gathered in a room shared by Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly to discuss why their quest for a third soccer championship was malfunctioning.

The Americans had won their first-round group, but hardly resembled a team that had gone nearly three years without a loss. Before they embarked on their 3-0 victory over England on Saturday night, a result that sent them to the semifinals for the fifth consecutive time, some things needed to be said.

"It was just an open forum for us just to say, 'This is what I think is working, this is what I think isn't working,' and I think it really helped us," said veteran defender Cat Whitehill, who was involved in two goals. Coach Greg Ryan "is setting up an incredible game plan for us, but we have to get it done. And we weren't. And we got it done tonight."

The messages did not seem to sink in until late in the first half when, after another laborious performance, the Americans began to hit their stride. Although they did not score before halftime, there was a sense the match had turned in their favor.

Three minutes into the second half, Wambach nodded in her fourth goal of the tournament and 81st in 100 international appearances. Nine minutes later, Shannon Boxx whistled a 20-yarder into the net. And in the 60th minute, when Lilly took advantage of England goalkeeper Rachel Brown's mistake before an announced crowd of 29,586 at Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium, the Americans were on their way to a 51st consecutive game without a loss and a matchup with Brazil or Australia on Thursday in Hangzhou.

"The last 15 minutes of the first half we really settled down and started playing soccer, so it was really just encouraging them to continue doing what they were doing," Ryan said. "It was just going after it and saying, 'All right, it's going to be us going forward, not them.' "

It still was somewhat of a surprise, for the Americans had labored in their first three matches and were confronted with an England team beaming with confidence after going 1-0-2 in group play in only its second World Cup appearance. The first half was played at a numbingly deliberate pace, with neither side generating much of anything, until those final moments when the Americans provided a preview of what was to come after the break.

On the last of three corner kicks to start the second half, Lilly seemed intent to play it short to Lori Chalupny. But when she saw the 5-foot-11 Wambach shifting into position, she served the ball toward the far post. With a powerful four-yard header, Wambach gave her team the lead for the third time in four games.

"She looks up, I look at her, I make eye contact," Wambach said of her bond with Lilly, who is playing in her record fifth World Cup. "No matter how far apart we can be distance-wise on the field, we are always connected."

For a team that scored just five goals in group play and had meandered through much of the first half, "we needed that goal and we needed it early," Boxx said. "We got the one -- and then two and three came."

Before England could counter, Whitehill won the ball just outside the penalty area, allowing Boxx to beat Jill Scott and tag a low shot into the right corner. Later, Whitehill's long ball toward Lilly took a big bounce over Brown, allowing Lilly to guide it into an open net.

"It was an even contest at times," England Coach Hope Powell said of the first half. "I just think in the end we perhaps didn't show enough composure in front of the goal."

Besides the goal scorers, the U.S. team turned its postgame attention to Leslie Osborne, whose defensive midfield work quieted England star Kelly Smith. Osborne has started only twice, but both were in games in which she shadowed world-class attacking players (the first was Sweden's Victoria Svensson during a 2-0 U.S. victory last week).

By limiting Smith's space and time on the ball, Osborne relieved pressure on the U.S. back line and helped goalkeeper Hope Solo register her third consecutive shutout.

The defense has been quite good throughout this tournament, "but now we started to see the offensive side," Boxx said.

"We've just been due," Wambach added. "We feel like this team hasn't shown its best."

World Cup Note: England captain Faye White suffered a broken nose -- the fifth of her career -- after being elbowed by Wambach during a first-half challenge. After receiving treatment, she returned to play the remainder of the match. Wambach insisted it was not intentional, but White, with gauze packed into her nostril, said that "I've been told perhaps it was."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company