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For the USA women, Sydney marks the end of a season. At least, that’s how head coach Chris Brown sees it. He’s split the six-top series into two seasons, as more than 70 days separate this week’s tournament and the next. He’ll give the players some time off between, and they’ll have another "preseason" before starting back up in Kitakyushu, Japan. The goal is to enter the next "season", read last half of the actual season, still in the top four, qualifying for the 2020 Olympics and securing a top seed.
After a silver-medal performance in Glendale and a fourth-place finish in Dubai, the Eagles are in third place and on pace to do just that. Brown figures if they make the quarterfinals the rest of the way and another semifinal or two, they’ll be safe.
To bring that to bear, the team’s offensive output needs a shot in the arm. Through two tournaments, the Eagles are averaging just over 16 points a game. Last season, they averaged more than 20. That’s partially explained by the fact that this season's pool success means the Eagles are playing tougher teams in the knockout stages, scoring less points than when they were feasting on weaker opponents in years past.
It’s also explained by the downturn in production from the likes of Naya Tapper and Alev Kelter. Tapper finished third in the world in tries last season. She’s not in the top 30 this season. Kelter finished fourth in the world in points last season, and she’s currently 13th. Kris Thomas has also been uncharacteristically quiet.
Cheta Emba and Ilona Maher, who’ve combined for 16 tries, have shouldered some of the scoring responsibilities. But the emphasis Brown put on defense when took over the program in the offseason is partially to blame, too. Though the Eagles are scoring less, they're winning meaningful games more.
Learning, repping and perfecting the new defensive principles Brown’s brought to the table has taken most of the team’s bandwidth, at the expense of downloading new attack structures.
“There was a lot of hesitancy based around our frameworks, which for me framework means we can attack anywhere on the pitch and know there’s going to be people there to support us. But within that we have our default ideal options,” explained Brown.
“They were waiting to see the ideal picture, and that’s not always the case. Sometimes you still have to create it with your one-on-one ability. Their ability to shift the ball to space has improved dramatically since September. What we saw in Dubai was a lot of chain passing, not really hitting on. We’ll identify a space to attack, and then we just chain pass it to that channel, and by the time it gets there, the defense has now had time to adjust and cover it.”
Defensively, Brown now feels comfortable enough to turn focus to attack.
"Day one from an attacking standpoint or a results standpoint didn’t go so well in Denver, defensively there were a lot of positives, and that carried on to day one in Dubai, and even that game against France in the quarterfinal. Then we had a huge drop-off," said Brown. "I am satisfied, but from tackle percentage-wise, you can’t drop from 75-percent down to 50-percent in the space of three hours.
“We spent a lot of time getting into good position, so we can be straight on the ball and keep those good channels open, and if there’s no real clear picture, backing yourselves to make something happen or create a picture that we want. Now they’ve got the frameworks down and started to explore how they read body angles in the defense a bit more and play off each other, which I’m hoping comes through.”
Brown also selected with bettering the team’s attack in mind, bringing on the dynamic Jordan Gray, who’s no stranger to line breaks, and two talented rookie crossovers. Kasey McCravey played softball at Army, and she’s been playing rugby for about a year, like Kristi Kirshe, who played soccer at Williams.
Brown gives Kirshe high praise, comparing her to Alev Kelter. She’s still green, but she did well enough in a recent series of scrimmages against Canada to earn selection.
“She’s very similar to Alev, in the sense of how she moves on the ball and how she changes direction. They don’t really slow down,” said Brown. “Their ability to cut, etc., from her soccer days has really translated over. The interesting thing is being a soccer player, she’s quite physical. I expect her to play quite a confrontational role on both sides of the ball.”
McCravey’s agility and athleticism is the stuff of viral sensation. Her leapfrogging of an opposing catcher at the plate earned top billing on SportsCenter’s Top 10 in 2016.
“She creates space very nicely when we’re attacking, given the time she needs, and that leads her to be able to use her feet and be quite creative, and pull her defenders to her with one-on-one battle,” said Brown.
“She’s been able to do that for the last three, four months quite comfortable but the consistency of her accuracy has improved, as well as her defensive accuracy, and that’s why we’ve gone with her.”
The team’s quest for the quarterfinals, and its final tournament of the "season", begins Thursday at 9:28 p.m. ET against China, followed by bouts with Spain and Australia.