U.S. rides tough-as-nails back line into quarterfinals
Posted: Tuesday September 18, 2007 12:04PM; Updated: Tuesday September 18, 2007 12:16PM
SHANGHAI, China -- "Hey, nice arm" isn't a compliment you often hear in soccer, but it's one Cat Whitehill has received plenty of times.
Whitehill is a central defender by trade, but nearly every time the U.S. has a throw-in in an attacking situation, she slogs up the pitch, takes the ball and chucks it halfway across the pitch. It's an odd thing, being known for throw-in proficiency -- for being America's answer to Manchester United right back Gary Neville -- but Whitehill's talent has come in handy.
Whitehill set up the only U.S. goal less than a minute into its 1-0 win on Tuesday over Nigeria, which, combined with North Korea's 2-1 loss to Sweden, allowed the U.S. to finish at the top of Group B and dodge defending champion Germany in the quarterfinals. (The U.S. will play England on Saturday.)
After some nifty footwork from Heather O'Reilly won a throw-in on the left side, Whitehill picked out her favorite target, 5-foot-11 forward Abby Wambach, who flicked the long throw to Lori Chalupny, whose shot deflected past Nigerian keeper Precious Dede.
For a team that got off to terrible starts in each of its first two games -- North Korea shot just wide 15 seconds into the opener, and Sweden won four corners in the first four minutes -- it was a much-needed fast start. (Things got even better a few minutes later when Sweden's Lotta Schelin scored in Tianjin.)
"You take any goal you can, but getting a quick one makes the other team have to come at you," said U.S. coach Greg Ryan. "It gives you a chance to go in the other direction. It was a great way to start."
Whitehill is a football junkie. Her father was a safety at Virginia Tech and she suspects that her penchant for heaving the ball comes from the time she spent throwing a football with her dad.
"He told himself he'd teach me to throw a ball, whether it's a baseball or a football," said Whitehill. "And when I'm working out I work on my throw-in [muscles], because you have to use your back and your arms."
Whitehill has some more traditional soccer skills. She's got a right leg that could probably land her a spot handling kickoffs for a college football team somewhere; she handles long free kicks and gave the North Koreans fits with them.
She's not the only defender who chips in on the attack. Right back Christine Rampone and left back Stephanie Lopez are dangerous on the flanks. Lopez also handles a lot of corner kicks; she had a beautifully placed one against Nigeria that Shannon Boxx somehow headed wide of the gaping net.
Even Kate Markgraf, who partners with Whitehill in central defense, has gotten into the act -- her long ball against Sweden bounded over the goalkeeper's head, setting up the penalty kick that led to the first U.S. goal.
But the quartet's main contribution is, of course, playing defense. And they've been outstanding. The U.S. has conceded just two goals in the tournament -- one a gift from keeper Hope Solo, the other a shot that was set up by a deflection.
The Nigerians displayed some fancy footwork on Tuesday, but it never led to anything, primarily because every flick or turn led into the path of a perfectly positioned U.S. defender. Their play has been especially crucial because U.S. attack hasn't been at its best in the tournament.
The team has created a fair number of chances, but except for Wambach, no one has consistently buried them. (Kristine Lilly, who had a pair of free kicks go over the bar by maybe a combined foot-and-a-half on Tuesday, has been consistently dangerous, but still hasn't scored a goal in China.)
"They're playing great," said Ryan of his back four. "They're so organized and so talented. Each individual is very talented -- they're fast, they're strong, they're smart, they're skillful. They're giving us a chance to win games, because we've got to score more goals. But right now they're doing so well that they're allowing us to win games with one goal."