Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Entering Wednesday's Women's World Cup semifinal against France, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd had started every game her country had played in 2011. She'd been on the field for every minute out of a possible 390 thus far in the tournament. She had earned 115 caps in her six-year national team career and scored 28 goals, including the game winner in overtime to win the 2008 Olympic gold medal.
In short, on paper, the veteran Lloyd was the last player you'd think to remove from a tied World Cup semifinal, with the Americans under a second-half siege and desperately needing a stronger, steadier presence in the center of midfield.
On the field, though, it wasn't working out that way. Lloyd was struggling, giving up possession far too easily against the swarming French midfield and repeatedly failing to get the ball wide to the U.S.'s threatening wingers. So in the 65th minute, head coach Pia Sundhage did the nigh-unthinkable: she substituted Lloyd out of the game. Left-sided midfielder Lauren Cheney -- and her nearly 70 fewer caps -- took up Lloyd's spot in the center, while Megan Rapinoe (the supplier of the cross for Abby Wambach's heart-stopping goal against Brazil) went wide.
It was by far the most aggressive, most courageous, boldest decision made all tournament by the typically conservative Sundhage. And it paid off in a bushel of spades -- what had been one-way traffic toward the American goal slowly and steadily shifted in the opposite direction as Rapinoe terrorized the French backline and Cheney stabilized the center of midfield. Seventeen minutes after the Lloyd substitution, Rapinoe fed Alex Morgan for what became the clinching goal, and the U.S. was off to the final with a 3-1 victory. The match's turning point -- and the colossal impact of Sundhage's decision -- could not have been more obvious.
Now, with less than 24 hours until the U.S. takes on Japan for its first World Cup title since 1999 (Sunday, 2:45 ET, ESPN), Sundhage faces choices even bigger than those that decided the semifinal. The sort of coach who might celebrate victory with an air guitar solo or sing Simon and Garfunkel at a press conference, the Swedish-born Sundhage has often seen her tactics and roster management overshadowed by her quirky off-field personality. The irony there is that the latter plays a big role in the former -- Sundhage's (seemingly) laid-back, carefree approach to life is mirrored in her cautious, let-the-players-work-through-their-
mistakes coaching philosophy.
|Women's World Cup 2011|
| Gregg Doyel
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Despite frustrating some of the more rabid followers of the USWNT, it's an approach that's paid impressive dividends during the Americans' World Cup run. After left back Amy LePeilbet's howler of a performance in the 2-1 group-stage loss to Sweden, the calls for her benching were long and loud. But Sundhage opted for a more subtle adjustment, moving veteran Christie Rampone from the right to the left of the U.S.'s central defense to give LePeilbet more support; the result was the American backline's best outing of the tournament against Brazil.
That win did come at the cost of a semifinal suspension for the U.S.'s other central defender, the red-carded Rachel Buehler. Many USWNT supporters suggested Sundhage replace Buehler by moving LePeilbet to her more natural central defensive position and starting the promising Stephanie Cox at left back. Instead Sundhage kept LePeilbet in place, simply moved the untested Becky Sauerbrunn into the starting lineup in Buehler's spot, and watched Sauerbrunn play the game of her young career against the French.
But just as it became necessary to yank Lloyd to turn the tide against the French, so winning a championship against a poised, confident Japanese side will likely require Sundhage to once again make some bolder decisions than she might be comfortable with.
Forward Amy Rodriguez, for instance, has started every game of the tournament, but has yet to find the net. Is it time to give the enterprising Morgan the start instead? The U.S. has frequently struggled to maintain possession and faces an even bigger challenge to do so against the technically gifted Japanese. Though the U.S. rarely plays with a five-woman midfield, might it be worth doing so to keep Lloyd and fellow central midfielder Shannon Boxx from being overrun, as they were against the French? And then there's Rapinoe, easily the best American player on the field in the semifinal. As stocked as the U.S. is at her wide midfield slot, shouldn't there be a spot for her in the starting lineup somewhere?
Those questions aren't easy to answer, which is why even the happy-go-lucky Sundhage is no doubt feeling the weight of the World Cup at this very moment. Stick too closely to her conservative guns or experiment too wildly, and she blows the biggest opportunity the U.S. has enjoyed in more than a decade in front of the biggest audience of her and her players' careers. Correctly weigh her cautious instincts with the right amount of aggression, though, and she wins the championship that etches her name alongside those of Anson Dorrance and Tony DiCicco as one of the greatest coaches in USWNT history.
By this time tomorrow, a new Women's World Cup champion will be crowned. And for the U.S.A., it all hangs in its manager's balance.
CBSSports.com's Lauren Shehadi caught up with Wambach by phone for an interview about the U.S.'s amazing run -- watch it below: