You can’t win titles without defense and if you’re Jill Ellis you can’t really ask for a better defense at the moment. Through the first six games of the World Cup, only Australia has been able to score against the United States and no team in the next 513 minutes has gotten on the scoreboard. While some fans have worried about the seemingly stalled United States’ attack, others have rejoiced in having, without a doubt, the world’s best defense.
Making up this brick wall of a defensive unit is Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger and Becky Sauerbrunn. These four players help to make up the majority of a small minority of US players to start in all six of the team’s games up to this point. Sauerbrunn and Krieger (both 30 years old) have appeared in a combined 157 games for the national team and both were members of the 2011 squad that finished runner-up behind Japan in that year’s World Cup. This sort of experience helps to bring composure to the defensive third and it also allows Krieger and Sauerbrunn to teach players like Johnston and Klingenberg (56 combined appearances) along the way.
For me, Klingenberg has been the most impressive player out of this unit during the tournament. Particularly in the semifinal against Japan, the wingback was able to distribute the ball well from the back, despite German pressure, and she was also able to go shoulder-to-shoulder with any player on the field despite her relatively small size (5 ft 2 in). One commentator compared her playing style to that of a street fighter meaning that she won’t back down from any confrontation and its this type of mentality that has made her indispensable for Jill Ellis’ squad.
In front of the backline, sits Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian. During the game against Germany, the team lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Brian and Holiday occupying the two defensive midfielder slots in the middle of the park. Against the most potent attack in the tournament, these two were able to interrupt any attempt at possession the Germans tried to string together. Throughout the match, Brian and Holiday were able to break up the German buildup play and limit the opposition to long distance shots and a lack of penetrating through balls. Their partnership in the heart of the pitch will be put to the test again in final.
In net for the US, Hope Solo has had a relatively quiet tournament apart from the opening half against Australia. Ever since Australia managed six shots on goal in the first match of the tournament, no team has managed to record more than two shots against Solo in net. Even against the Germans, Solo’s only save of the match came on a long distance effort from the wing. However, it was Solo’s mind games that may have been responsible for Celia Sasic’s surprise penalty miss. The challenge going into the final for the keeper will be maintaining focus and sharpness after a dull tournament. At any moment in the match, Solo could be called into action and her ability to cope with that pressure could determine whether or not the US walk away with the title.
This 514 shutout streak has only been topped once in World Cup play (Germany’s 622 minutes), and the United States could move even closer to that mark with a clean sheet in the final. If they hope to continue the run of clean sheets, it will take a concerted effort from front to back and if the defensive unit is able to cope with the pressure of playing in such a massive game they have a great chance of taking home a trophy.