Direct US reflect new realities

Fans of women's football and insiders alike have noted a change in the long-vaunted US national team. To hear head coach Greg Ryan tell it, their new, more-direct style is simply a matter of adapting to changes in the game and improvements in other teams.

"I've definitely seen them play better," said Sweden captain and three-time FIFA Women's World Cup veteran Victoria Svensson about the new-look Americans. "Six or seven years ago, with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy in the team, they would try to play the ball on the ground a lot more and pull teams apart that way... Now they just try to bang it up to Abby (Wambach)."

The route-one option up to arguably the most dominant figure in the game since Michelle Akers is most certainly a tantalising one, as Kristine Lilly - the only remaining member of the USA's world-beaters of 1991 - told "We still try to play with the ball on the ground as much as we can, but when you have Abby up front it's a great option if things get tight."

With Wambach's 78 goals in 96 internationals, this reliance on her forward power seems to have its benefits, even if it provides a contrast with the days when Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett and Joy Fawcett were moving the ball around the field in a short-passing style. According to coach Ryan, though, the new way is simply a reflection of an overall improvement in the level of the women's game worldwide. "The game has changed so much in the last seven or eight years," Ryan told ahead of the Group B leaders' game in Shanghai against Nigeria.

"Back then, you could get away with playing little passes all over the field and have success doing it. But in the modern game, a team that just knocks the ball around the middle of the park is going to get killed doing it," continued Ryan, who replaced 1991 world champion-turned-coach April Heinrichs in 2005 and signalled a shift from the technique-driven short-passing game to a more physical and direct style.

The only way
"If you spend all your time trying to look pretty, you're going to end up with big problems the other way," said Ryan, who lined up alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto in his playing days with New York Cosmos. "We try to attack, exploit the space and turn it into goals," he said. "This is the only way to play now. Look at what happened to China when they were risking things right in front of their own goal against Brazil. They got stuffed 4-0."

Wambach's second goal against the Swedes, her third in two matches, was as direct as you will see - a long ball from Lilly in midfield, controlled with the chest and hit ferociously on the half-volley. Far from ugly or overly simple, the strike was an artistic and elegant statement about the efficiency that has crept into the women's game.

Far from the backward step that some have labelled it, USA's new direct style speaks to improvements across the board - largely inspired by the Americans' previous dominance. But opponents and fellow contenders like Brazil, Germany, and Korea DPR, who still play an attractive short-passing game, would be mistaken if they thought the Americans had become a one-trick pony.

"Every game is different," said Lilly, who has seen it all in a career spanning nearly 20 years. "If we get something out of going up over the top, then we'll do that. But if we can get the ball down and move it around and beat a team that way, that would be great too." As the women's game undergoes undeniable changes and rapid shifts - all visible here in China - USA's desire to be the best is the same as it ever was.