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Two is better than one

Starting both Boxx, Osbourne helps U.S. reach semis

Posted: Saturday September 22, 2007 2:25PM; Updated: Saturday September 22, 2007 5:45PM
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Shannon Boxx (right) battles England's Katie Chapman during the Americans' 3-0 victory.
Shannon Boxx (right) battles England's Katie Chapman during the Americans' 3-0 victory.
Simon Bruty/SI
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It turns out that old adage about the best defense being a good offense holds up when turned on its head. Faced with a tough decision about who to start in the defensive midfield role against England in the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup, U.S. coach Greg Ryan opted for that old multiple-choice test standby: all of the above.

For the first time in the tournament, Ryan started both his holding midfielders, Leslie Osbourne and Shannon Boxx. Employing two d-mids was the tactic du jour last summer in the men's World Cup in Germany. Brazil used Ze Roberto and Gilberto Silva with great effect -- until they ran into the French, who shut them down thanks in large part to the efforts of Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira. Apparently it works pretty well in the women's game as well; the U.S. had its most productive game of the tournament, beating England 3-0 to advance to the semifinals.

The scoreline was a bit flattering for the U.S., which found itself outplayed for extended periods in the first half. But England failed to convert its advantage in possession into any meaningful chances, thanks largely to the work of Osbourne and Boxx. "It was a very good combination because they're both good possession players," Ryan said. "They both helped us keep the ball, which is what we've been lacking. It was a great performance for both of them."

The d-mid job originally belonged to Boxx, who in 2003 became the first uncapped U.S. player to be chosen for a World Cup squad. Boxx, who caught then coach April Heinrichs' eye with her play in the WUSA, had actually bought tickets for the tournament, which she had to unload when she found out she was going to be playing. Before long she was a mainstay in the middle, and in 2005 she finished third in the voting for FIFA Player of the Year. But seven months later she blew out her knee, which opened the door for Osbourne. The Santa Clara grad filled in admirably, so when Boxx returned this summer, Ryan had a dilemma.

Boxx started the first game in China, then Osbourne got the nod against Sweden and did a fabulous job shutting down Victoria Svensson. Boxx got the call in the final group stage game against Nigeria. In both U.S. wins, Ryan pulled off attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd once the team got ahead and went to a pairing of Boxx and Osbourne to protect the lead. With Lloyd struggling to make an impact, Ryan decided to start both of his defensive midfielders on Saturday -- and it worked wonders.

Osbourne was handed the assignment of shutting down England's Kelly Smith, who scored four goals in England's first three games. That freed up Boxx to push forward more, and she responded by scoring the second U.S. goal, an absolute screamer past English keeper Rachel Brown. "Leslie [allowed me to] go forward," said Boxx. "Her job was mainly on the defensive side today, and she did a great job with her role and allowed me to be a little more free to get forward, and I got a goal. So obviously I love that."

And Osbourne had another terrific game, again shutting down one of the world's top attacking threats and stabilizing the middle of the pitch. "Leslie calms us down," said forward Abby Wambach. "She's a younger player, but she gets us organized in the midfield -- maybe more organized than we're ever been. Leslie's definitely stepping up."

Things get hairier from here on in for the U.S. A semifinal showdown with high-scoring Brazil awaits them on Thursday, provided the Brazilians get past Australia on Sunday. Should the Yanks pass that test, they'll likely see Germany -- which drilled the North Korea squad that gave the U.S. such trouble in the group stage -- in the final. Beating those two sides is a tall task, but as the U.S. hammered home Saturday, they've got a defense strong enough to shut down any team on the planet.

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