There is little doubt that discovering a gifted attacking midfielder equally adept at getting back to help out defensively would benefit the smooth running of any side. Imagine, therefore, what finding not one but two examples of this kind of gem shortly before a FIFA finals would do to your team’s chances of success.
And for United States’ coach Steve Swanson, this is precisely the case here at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012, where the multi-functionality of midfielders Vanessa Di Bernardo and Morgan Brian has come to the fore. This centre-of-the-park synergy has blossomed still further in the last eight and semi-finals, with the duo’s dynamism – be it protecting their backline or supporting the strikers – helping propel the Stars and Stripes safely into the final.
“I think we work well together, because we’re able to constantly interchange positions,” said Di Bernardo to FIFA.com. “We try to get back and help in defence and then burst forward at pace: we communicate very well and I think that definitely helps,” added her sidekick Brian.
In the central triangle deployed by coach Swanson in this US XI, Sarah Killion is the only one with a strictly defined role. Primarily charged with shielding the defence, Killion’s discipline enables her two midfield partners to roam free to devastating effect.
No10 Di Bernardo, for example, is nominally sent out as a deep-lying midfielder, though in reality she is more of a box-to-box performer and regularly surges forward to get shots off at goal. No6 Brian, for her part, is by trade an out-and-out attacking midfielder, yet that has not prevented her more than pulling her weight defensively on Japanese soil.
“Before the tournament we were both playing as attacking midfielders, but we never stopped switching positions,” Brian explained. “Now though, Vanessa sits a bit deeper, which gives me more freedom to take the ball forward and also gives a nice balance to the side.”
Friendship, respect and goals
In an even greater stroke of good fortune for United States, this level of mutual understanding has emerged organically and remarkably quickly, given the pair had never played together at youth national team level prior to January this year. Since then, however, the two players have also formed a firm off-the-field friendship, though both found different ways to describe the impact this has had out on the pitch.
“We know each other well now and I think that the fact we were playing together helped us become friends off the pitch,” said Di Bernardo. “As time has gone on we’ve become closer friends, which has helped us know what the other’s going to do when we’re out on the field,” added Brian.
Whether they clicked first on the pitch or off it, the pair’s unity of purpose has shone through in the North Americans’ campaign. “Morgan’s one of those players who works hard for the entire match, she’s able to turn a game at any moment and, away from football, her good humour rubs off on everybody else,” said Di Bernardo on her colleague’s many qualities, before laughing in anticpation of what Brian might say about her. “I’d like her to say that I work hard too! And also that I’m good at covering for her when she goes forward in attack.”
Something else the two friends have had in common at Japan 2012 is a knack for vital goals. Brian, for instance, opened the scoring in the 2-0 semi-final win over Nigeria, while Di Bernardo did the same against quarter-final opponents Korea DPR. “We were pleased about that because it’s something we’re always trying to do: help out our attackers,” said Di Bernardo. “We’re hoping to get more opportunities to do that. It would certainly mean a lot for the team.”
And come Saturday’s final, goalscoring midfielders could be just the element of surprise required to breach a German defence that has so far not conceded at Japan 2012. If that is the case, United States have not one, but two aces up their collective sleeves.