Abby Wambach, U.S. notch easy win over Ireland in pre-World Cup friendly

Led by two goals from Abby Wambach, the U.S. cruised to a comfortable 3–0 win over Ireland in the first of three pre-World Cup friendlies. Julie Johnston added a third goal on a corner kick in the second half.
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The United States kicked off its 2015 Women’s World Cup preparation with a comfortable 3–0 victory over the Republic of Ireland on Sunday. Abby Wambach scored twice at the end of the first half, and Julie Johnston added a third on a corner kick early in the second.

More opportunities and a final period played almost entirely in the Irish half finished a match in which Ireland failed to pressure the American back line. The visitors finished with no shots on Hope Solo’s goal.

The U.S. started with what could easily be its first-choice lineup in Canada, except Alex Morgan sat out the game in San Jose due to injury. Wambach could come off the bench at the World Cup, but she started against Ireland next to Amy Rodriguez.

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In the back, Johnston continued her run of starts since the Algarve Cup, having seemingly earned her way into the spot next to Becky Sauerbrunn. Head coach Jill Ellis again started with a 4-4-2 system, with Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Holiday, Carli Lloyd and Christen Press in midfield.

Here are three thoughts on the U.S.’s win over Ireland, with final preparation games against Mexico (May 17) and the Korea Republic (May 30) looming:

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Despite scoring three goals, it took the U.S. nearly 45 minutes to score against Ireland, and that came on somewhat of a broken play. Defenders stopped to look as a teammate took a rocketed shot off her face from a fellow Irish player on the goal line, and Wambach tapped in her first of the day.

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This was never going to be a game that tested the U.S.’s defensive abilities, playing against an opponent that has never beaten it and often loses handily in this matchup. It became more of a training-ground exercise focused on sharpening the attack as the team resumed its World Cup preparation this week.

The U.S.’s troubles looked similar to what they have consistently been recently against lesser opposition: Ball circulation was often too slow, and the front six players ran out of ideas with 10 or 11 defenders behind the ball in most situations. It’s tough to fault players for missing chances when they know they’ll have multiple looks in front of goal, but this type of game could offer some ideas to the U.S.’s opponents in Canada.

If teams with more individual skill than a shorthanded Ireland can defend in a disciplined fashion and break forward on the counterattack, the U.S. could be in trouble. For teams such as Sweden, which the U.S. plays in its second group game (and the likes of Germany and France later on), a pragmatically defensive approach against the Americans could be useful.

Wambach regaining match sharpness

After Wambach announced that she would sit out the club season, her sharpness in the build-up to the World Cup always seemed questionable. Every match she plays up to and during the tournament will be shrouded in the scrutiny of whether Wambach might be in better shape having played in the National Women’s Soccer League from the start in 2015.

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She looked a step behind early against Ireland, especially in the air, having not played competitively since coming off the bench in an April friendly against New Zealand. Her active role in the match magnified Wambach’s unsteadiness until she scored, but a bunkered-in opponent offers the likeliest situation for her to make a difference in the World Cup.

However, Wambach should be in better technical shape by next month, though she looked fine physically, playing all 90 minutes on Sunday. She’ll be playing against tired opponents if she comes off the bench in Canada, and it’s also easier to run and jump on turf than grass, as much as FIFA’s decision to eschew natural grass has been criticized.

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Her second goal showed the kind of threat Wambach provides for the U.S., nodding a cross slightly behind her into the net off a twisting jump with her momentum going the opposite direction. Wambach looked more confident and dangerous after getting her goals, although her usual skill still evaded her at times.

As she told FOX Sports 1 at halftime, “I’m a little disappointed … but it’s an evolution.” She and her team still have a little time to tweak as necessary before the tournament starts.

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The excitement of approaching a World Cup really begins to simmer as the final friendlies start. Especially for a U.S. women’s team that has always been among the world’s best, it feels like anything can happen for now—including winning that elusive third World Cup.

The win over Ireland had a celebratory feel, with the players’ mothers joining them on the field before a game against an opponent the U.S. has always beaten heavily. Ireland missed multiple starters (many clubs wouldn’t release players outside the FIFA window), and a 3–0 win should allow the U.S.’s confidence to tick over into further preparations.

Before the game against Mexico in a week, the U.S. has an opportunity to continue sharpening its attack in particular. Before leaving for Winnipeg in early June, the Americans will have to ramp up to the level that saw them defeat France 2–0 in the Algarve Cup final.

At the same time, playing at less than 100 percent in the first match adds a little pressure. A similar performance against Mexico wouldn’t be as encouraging—it would almost be worrying.

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