Osborne eyes Marta match-up

"We're going to put all 11 players right around her," quipped USA coach Greg Ryan when asked how best to contain the brilliant Brazilian forward Marta. Ryan was speaking to reporters in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's 3-0 quarter-final win over England, a match where he will have seen for himself a much more likely solution to a question that could prove pivotal to American hopes of passing the semi-final hurdle at this FIFA Women's World Cup.

It is a short answer and it is made up of only two words: Leslie Osborne. This, after all, is the player whose tireless efforts in the USA midfield at China 2007 have already served to limit the influence of both Sweden captain Victoria Svensson and England's attacking inspiration Kelly Smith. "She was key to both victories," said Ryan as he reflected on Osborne's contribution late on Saturday night. "We had her follow Kelly Smith when Kelly was in positions where she could receive the ball," he elaborated. "I thought Leslie did a great job of just keeping Kelly as quiet as you can keep such a talented player."

Fast forward 48 hours and another member of the USA camp could be heard singing the praises of Osborne, this time defender Stephanie Lopez. Speaking to reporters at the squad's Shanghai hotel, Lopez's appraisal was long and generous and left no doubt about the merits of this gritty defensive midfielder: "hard worker", "so much energy", "constant and alert", "endurance and perseverance" went the list.

That should certainly fill in a few gaps about this lively 24-year-old from Brookfield, Wisconsin. The junior partner of Shannon Boxx in the American engine room, Osborne spoke in rather more modest terms when addressing the same reporters about her role. "I just keep myself in between the ball and the player all the time so when they try to play the ball to the player I can head it away or get in the middle, and then I stand them up and wait for another team-mate to double up or pressure them," she said. "I just use my long legs to get in the way of them dribbling."

Severe test
A member of USA's U-19 world championship-winning team in 2002, Osborne broke into the senior side in 2006 and displayed her credentials during Boxx's absence following knee surgery. "Something just clicks with us," she said of a partnership that fellow midfielder Lori Chalupney summed up as being "rock-solid". However, this durability will undoubtedly face a severe test on Thursday when Ryan's charges line up against Brazil in Hangzhou. For Osborne this could well mean having to mark Marta, the tournament's joint five-goal leading scorer. "If I do it I'll try to do the same thing I did with the other two (Svensson and Smith) - just to try and keep them out of the game as much as I can, nothing special."

"Nothing special" it is not, and she knows it will be anything but straightforward. "Brazil are good," Osborne said. "They throw a lot of numbers forward, they are very good individually and they all try to make things happen. They play well off each other and they're hard, they'll go in and they're not going in to lose anything. They have very good players all over the field, but Marta is obviously a special player. She is really fast and the ball is glued to her foot. Not only does she play it, but she looks to get the ball back every single time. They get her the ball, and she doesn't stop. She is a smart player and I respect her game a lot."

Osborne appeared as a substitute when USA beat Brazil 2-0 in a June friendly for which Marta was absent. There are few pleasant memories in the American camp of that match which coach Ryan, speaking prior to the squad's coach journey to Hangzhou on Tuesday, recalled as being "very dirty". Osborne's own recollection was more diplomatic. "They did such a great job of stopping our flow, we couldn't get into our flow because they were up our backs all of the time," she said.

As Svensson and Smith can testify, Osborne knows a thing or two herself about stopping an opponent's flow, and she admits she relishes the physical side of the game. "I grew up in Wisconsin, I grew up with slide-tackling, in the mud, rain. I played with the boys because in Wisconsin we didn't have the talent among the girls." If the going gets tough again on Thursday, this daughter of the Midwest is unlikely to be found wanting.