2114_isi_lerouxsydney_uswnt-2542 Matt Garnett/isiphotos.com
U.S. Women's Team

Sydney Leroux's Late Strike Lifts U.S. Over Canada

Canada kept things level for 78 minutes but Sydnex Leroux broke the deadlock and gave the United States women's national team a 1-0 win in a "friendly" that wasn't very friendly at all.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
February 01, 2014
12:43 AM
ON FRIDAY NIGHT the U.S. women’s national team defeated Canada 1-0 on the strength of a 78th-minute goal from forward Sydney Leroux.

The rivalry between the U.S. and Canada has been especially intense since their epic semifinal battle at the 2012 Summer Olympics and Friday’s match was, not surprisingly, a chippy affair.

With World Cup qualification only a few months away for the U.S. squad, even friendlies have become important opportunities for players to make an impression on the coaching staff. Here are four thoughts from Friday’s match.

Sydney Leroux Was Terrific

Oddly enough, Leroux’s game-winning goal will overshadow her most important contribution to the U.S. attack against Canada—her excellent hold-up play.

Over and over again on Friday night, Leroux checked back from her forward position to connect the U.S. frontline with the midfield. And impressively, she did it while being double and triple teamed most of the game. Each time Leroux checked back for the ball, she was able to find her forward partner, Abby Wambach, or wait for the outside midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Heather O’Reilly, to overlap and get into the attacking third.

Leroux is well known for her pace, but Friday night’s effort showed that she can also play the target role, an added bonus for the U.S. should anything happen to Wambach before the World Cup.

Sauerbrunn Played One of Her Best Games

With Becky Sauerbrunn, Christie Rampone, Rachel Van Hollebeke, and Whitney Engen, the U.S. is well-stocked at center-back. So much so, that head coach Tom Sermanni is likely going to have a difficult time getting them all enough playing time in the coming year.

In the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, Sauerbrunn was always the third-choice center-back for former coach Pia Sundhage—behind Rampone and Van Hollebeke. And while Sauerbrunn has always been a terrific passer out of the back, questions remained about her speed against elite competition.

On Friday night, Sauerbrunn was terrific, snuffing out repeated Canadian attacks. In fact, she was so effective, that many fans simply assumed the U.S. backline wasn’t being tested.

She did have a couple of bad moments—such as her iffy clearance on a Canadian service in the 12th minute and a pass that was nearly intercepted for a breakaway in the 46th minute (it ended up nutmegging the Canadian forward)—but overall, Sauerbrunn put in an excellent effort.

To top it all off, Sauerbrunn helped create the game-winning goal when she stepped into the attack, combined on a give-and-go with Christen Press in the box, and delivered the service that Leroux put away.

Stephanie Cox Still Has Work to Do

It may seem a bit unfair to be heavily critical of Stephanie Cox’ effort on Friday night. After all, she only played fives game in 2013 (one for the national team and four for the Seattle Reign), missing most of the year after giving birth to her daughter in April.

However, Cox is going to face stiff competition at outside back from Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Crystal Dunn, Krisitie Mewis, and others in 2014. And her performance on Friday night was decidedly shaky.

Particularly disturbing was her tendency to give the ball away, including one sequence midway through the first half when she lost possession three times in two minutes. Cox was also at fault on Canada’s best chance of the night, a breakaway in the 40th minute. Cox’ mark drifted inside and as Sauerbrunn stepped to put pressure on the ball, a nice three-pass combination by Canada put the now unmarked winger in on goal. It was a nifty attacking sequence by Canada to create the opportunity, but Cox’ lack of recognition on the play helped create the opening.

Still, Cox did have a few good moments, including a nice pass to Megan Rapinoe to jumpstart a U.S. attack just before the half and mopping up a few sloppy defensive miscues in the second stanza.

Center Midfield Remains Unresolved

When U.S. coach Tom Sermanni released his roster for this camp, the absence of Yael Averbuch and Amber Brooks raised a few eyebrows. Both players were being brought back by U.S. Soccer to play in the NWSL for 2014, but neither was called in for the national team camp. Both players also seemed a likely solution to the U.S.’s lack of a true holding midfielder.

With Carli Lloyd missing against Canada due to a red-card suspension, many speculated that Sermanni would pair Lauren Holiday with Julie Johnston. Johnston, if deployed as a holding midfielder, would then give Holiday the freedom to roam forward and contribute to the attack—her specialty. Instead, Sermanni handed the start to University of Virginia midfielder and 2013 Hermann Trophy winner Morgan Brian.

Many U.S. players have sung Brian’s praises, so the fact that she was starting was not surprising. But the fact that Sermanni was once again fielding a center midfield combination with two players known primarily for their attacking prowess was a bit of a shock.

Over the past year, the U.S. national team has been without the services of Shannon Boxx and struggled to find the right midfield combination. Both Lloyd and Holiday are known for their attacking prowess. But the combination of two attacking-minded midfielders has created problems for the U.S. in the past—usually for the U.S. defense.

However, on Friday night, both Brian and Holiday sat back and the opposite happened. With both American center midfielders staying close to home, the U.S. struggled to break down Canada’s defense because there was no center midfielder to overlap the forwards. Canada’s defense was able to double and triple team Leroux and Wambach and all of the U.S.’s best chances came by working the ball wide.

It wasn’t until late in the second half when Sauerbrunn, the team’s center-back, joined the attack through the middle of the field, that the U.S.’s goal finally came. Until Sermanni finds a solution to this problem, either by using a traditional No. 6 or shoe-horning Lloyd, Brian, Holiday, or possibly even Sauerbrunn into the role, the U.S. will struggle to find the right rhythm in the center of the park.

What did you think of the match? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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