Sports

Courage players on U.S. team understand Spain’s threat

Crystal Dunn heard the doubters of the U.S. defense coming into the Women’s World Cup. And she heard the questions about her in particular, and NC Courage teammate Abby Dahlkemper. Could Dunn survive as the only left back on the American roster? And could Dahlkemper step up on the big stage after getting caught flat-footed in high-profile warmup games against Japan, England and Australia?

So far, they’ve delivered a pretty strong answer. The U.S. won all three of its group stage games at a World Cup or Olympics with shutouts for the first time in program history.

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United States’ Crystal Dunn, right, heads the ball away from Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius during the Women’s World Cup Group F soccer match between Sweden and the United States at Stade Océane, in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) Associated Press

The feat comes with the obvious disclaimer that Thailand and Chile were vastly overmatched. But the shutout of Sweden was no small matter. And given the growth of women’s soccer worldwide, delivering three straight shutouts ought to be harder now than in the past.

So, yes, Dunn and her colleagues get some credit.

“We love hearing people doubt us,” Dunn said. “It goes back to us wanting to always be perfect and get better and grow, and I think we kind of had to go through those games where maybe we weren’t perfect defensively. … Everything we went through before the World Cup has prepared us to be at our best, and we’re still peaking and trying to get better every game.”

The defensive work hasn’t just been done by the back line. Every player on the field has pitched in to playing soccer’s equivalent of a full-court press.

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United States’ Crystal Dunn, right, kicks the ball as Sweden’s Nathalie Bjorn attempts to block the shot during the Women’s World Cup Group F soccer match between Sweden and the United States at Stade Océane, in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) Associated Press

“It just speaks volumes to what we’ve been working on, all 11 players on the field, starting from our forwards and making it easier for the defense,” Dahlkemper said.

One of those forwards is former UNC star Tobin Heath. She is known best for her playmaking wizardry on the right wing, but she does her share of the dirty work.

“It’s a big part of what we’re trying to do both offensively and defensively,” Heath said. “We always talk about this idea of 360 [degree] defending, where everybody is contributing. … Our ability to generate pressure in the way that literally everybody has played has been quality.”

That pressing strategy will get a big test Monday when the U.S. plays Spain in the round of 16 on Monday (12 p.m., FS1 and Telemundo). Like Spain’s world-conquering male counterparts of recent years, the women’s team plays a collective passing game that aims to build patient, intricate attacks – and keep the ball away from opponents.

The U.S. got a taste of this last January when they played Spain in Alicante, and only recorded a narrow 1-0 win. Spain had more possession and completed more passes.

Although that meeting was just a friendly, not a World Cup game – never mind a win-or-go-home elimination contest – it was the first ever matchup of the nations in women’s soccer. Both teams knew by the time the game was played that they might meet again this summer, though it wasn’t given much thought.

Dunn still has vivid memories of the game and the lessons the Americans learned from it.

“I remember them being so good on the ball,” she said. “We would throw players at them, and they were still able to kind of finagle their way out. We’re going to be prepared for that.”

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