LONDON – United States head coach Pia Sundhage made a surprise adjustment before the first match of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, swapping out left midfielder Megan Rapinoe for Lauren Cheney, a forward. While Cheney has seem time of the left of Sundhage's formation, the swap has he significant effects on the States' ability to defend their left side.
Shek Borkowski - current FC Indiana coach who coached Russian side Zvezda 2005 Perm in the 2010 UEFA Champions League - discusses why those tactics must be taken into account when considering the performance of left back Amy LePeilbet.
One of the few places on the team critics have targeted in the wake of the United States' perfect start is left back Amy LePeilbet, her performances against DPR Korea and Colombia the subject of some concern. Some of those criticisms maybe warranted, though when you consider 29-year-old's responsibilities within coach Pia Sundhage's plan, those critiques seem harsh.
In truth, most of the criticism targeting LePeilbet is unwarranted.
The two-time reigning Women's Professional Soccer Defender of the Year, LePeilbet is a natural center back, her position for the Boston Breakers. There, facing some of the top one-on-one players in the world, she's shown herself to be dependable. That alone should put her ability to defend beyond question.
Certainly, adjusting to playing left back for country takes time, and there's no doubt LePeilbet had a moment or two (especially against North Korea) where she should have been better.
But despite those moments, United States head coach Pia Sundhage remained loyal to her instinct to play Lauren Cheney in front of LePeilbet through both matches, a selection that makes the left back's responsibilities more difficult.
When the United States is in possession, it appears Sundhage has instructed Cheney to make high, inside runs, becoming a de facto third striker. That can and has presented problems for the USA (in general) and LePeilbet (specifically).
In buildup play, when LePeilbet receives a pass, she rarely has an outside midfielder available on the touchline - somebody to come short to receive a balll. Cheney is playing much higher. That restricts LePeilbet's passing options, forcing her to look more often to her central midfielders.
One of Carli Lloyd or Shannon Boxx (or, against Colombia, Lori Lindsey) should check to LePeilbet - come back for a pass. Based on the angle to her central midfielders, LePeilbet is forced to play her pass to her teammates' left foot - away from the opponent's pressure. Both Lloyd and Boxx are less comfortable having a ball played to that foot. In my opinion, they've become less likely to make themselves available for that ball. Whether they show or not, when LePeilbet in possession, the United States is more apt to lose a higher percentage of balls.
The same thing doesn't happen on the other side. US midfielders seem more likely to concede when receiving under pressure from left back than when receiving from the right back.
Secondly, LePeilbet faces problems defensively when Cheney has advanced and the team concedes possession. With Cheney positioned as a third striker, LePeilbet faces a decision-making problem. When the other team's advancing, does she step up and leave space behind in her channel? Or does she hold and allow opponents to advance into the space in front of her, ceding position to deliver crosses into the box?
Even worse is the isolation Sundhage's deployment creates for LePeilbet. On two or three occasions against DPR Korea, the Korean central and right midfielders were able to create two-on-one situations in the US's left channel. Without a midfielder in front of her, blocking opponent's progress, an exposed Lepeilbet faces a higher risk of being beaten, through no fault of her own.
On the right, with Heather O'Reilly playing a more traditional wide midfielder's role, the United States does not have the same problem. Right back Ali Krieger is protected. O'Reilly is a willing partner, always available to come short, defend and - most importantly, because her attacking is done in the right channel - she usually is available to come back and help Krieger.
In truth, the opposition in both matches were anemic. They didn't create and major problems for the US. Both opponents lacked self-belief and had no pace with which to threaten the speedy US defense.
Conversely, the US moved the ball well and were rarely denied pace in midfield, meaning Lloyd, Boxx and Lindsey usually had time to accept the ball from the back. I'm sure Sundhage and her staff are continually addressing the issue of an exposed LePeilbet, and the team will be well prepared once they face more robust opposition.
Shek Borkowski has recently returned to the head coaching position at FC Indiana of the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL). In 2010, Shek guided Russian club Zvezda 2005 Perm to the round of 16 of the 2009-10 UEFA Women's Champions League. You can follow Shek on Twitter at @ShekBorkowski .