On a warm Thursday night in Colorado (anyone know if the game was played at altitude?), the USWNT took on Japan in a friendly that ended in a 3-3 draw. Depending on your attitude, the result is either fair, no big deal, horrifying or the best possible outcome. All possible options can be found without difficulty today on Twitter.
I'm no sports psychologist, but the body language of players and coaches after the game was pretty clearly that of frustration and disappointment. Champions don't need a good loss before a tournament to remind them of what's possible. Just ask the UConn Women's basketball team. What teams do need is a good plan and high-level performances from every contributor.
Let's take a look at the lineup and subs and see what might need a little work.
You may have been under a rock if you somehow escaped the highly publicized fact that Hope Solo is approaching 100 international clean sheets (shutouts). SO WHAT, WORLD? Conceding three goals, two of which you probably should have saved, and one with only nine players attacking you, is not a path to success.
Solo has missed a couple of games for Seattle in the NWSL this year, and spent a bit more time than necessary hinting that she's hot/cold on going to Rio due to Zika virus concerns than maybe she should. Still, she's the undisputed #1! WHY? Naeher and Harris have outperformed her in league play this year, and been given precious few chances to prove themselves at the international level.
Why would Solo talk about Zika so much? I suspect she's considering starting a family, soon. A post-Olympics pregnancy could leave Solo able to finish this NWSL season and be back by mid summer next year. However, if forced to wait to start the process after returning home from Rio as heath officials are recommending, Solo would probably be out for all of 2017 from all competitions. Which, you know, might open the door for Naeher and Harris and Franch and Abby Smith. Eventually.
So why not give Naeher and Harris an opportunity to face the shots Solo couldn't block on Thursday? Oh, right, MADE UP BENCHMARK BIG NUMBER STATS THAT PEOPLE LOVE!!!!!
The back four of O'Hara, Johnston, Sauerbrunn and Klingenberg has been in place for most of the year, with only minor grumbles. However, the back four depends largely on interplay with the backside midfielders as the outside backs get forward. With Horan on the bench and Brian at less than 100%, this was a mess on Thursday, and Klingenberg in particular was absent when Japan broke towards the US Goal. This brought players into her area to cover, leaving gaps in the middle that Japan exploited without difficulty.
When Klingenberg came out, Krieger stepped in to O'Hara's spot, and O'Hara crossed the field. The defense immediately looked more composed. O'Hara has boundless energy and plays a hard, physical game. She delivers quality crosses, and can usually be counted on to provide good corner service as well. Krieger can be beat by a quick footed attacker, but she's rarely out of place and does a great job at stopping breaks in the midfield. The team needs all three of these players, but Krieger and O'Hara deserve a few starts together to see how they look.
Johnston and Sauerbrunn have been generally solid, but didn't seem to have a plan in place for dealing with the high-pressing Japan side. With Kling ranging forward, they occasionally got trapped and took too many touches before finding a way forward.
Lindsey Horan picked up a minor knock and didn't start this match, and her absence was immediately noticeable. Morgan Brian hasn't played much lately due to a lingering hamstring injury, and she looked slow and out of sync with her teammates. Tobin Heath often tried to do too much, but was unable to dust some of the world's best players as she does in the NWSL every week. And, Allie Long regressed from her dominating performances from earlier in the year. After playing the full 90+ minutes, Long was either tired or confused by Japan's movement leading to the stoppage-time equalizer, but didn't do anything to help break up the play. She and Heath also didn't do much physically against Japan, which is disconcerting considering that Japan features a few diminutive players who don't even measure five feet tall.
Horan is a future superstar, and brings a presence nobody else currently does. She's physical, fearless and has an eye for goal. She's got great feet and better vision, finding service slots and angles better than anyone else currently on the team. Plus, she makes it all look effortless. When she subbed in, the midfield coalesced instantly. She's a key performer for the future of this team.
Sam Mewis got a few minutes, and also looked a threat. Based on NWSL play and recent form, I'd be happy to see her supplant Long on the Rio roster. Most critically, she looked FAST on the field where Long looked SLOW. She's also more willing to use her large frame to her advantage against smaller opponents. Reminder: all possible opponents are smaller than Mewis.
Mal Pugh plays an odd combination role, which sits deeper like a midfielder but frees her up to get forward on the wing. She's the real deal, and almost never causes a problem. She looked a bit jittery at the start on Thursday, but had a smooth, clean game with few mistakes. She's a bit undersized, but doesn't play like it.
When paired up with Crystal Dunn, however, the airborne options up top are limited to Alex Morgan alone. Neither Dunn nor Pugh are going to rise sufficiently to beat even average-sized center backs. Dunn is a concern for me, because I think she may be what would be called a AAAA player in baseball. Far too good for AAA ball (dominant in the NWSL) but not quite able to perform at a high enough level with the big club in MLB (against the world's best on the USWNT). Dunn frequently gets physically beaten by larger international defenders. Even though she's scored a lot of goals, they've often come when she's been the least threatening attacker receiving the least amount of defensive attention (again, only at the international level). I enjoy watching her play, but I rarely thing something special is going to happen when she gets the ball. Where Pugh seems to know how to use her size to her advantage, Dunn looks small and outmatched. Can you imagine her winning a physical battle vs. Melissa Tancredi? Sorry Dunn fans, but I need more from her before I can feel good about her being a forward in this shape. Oh, and Dunn is offside. A Lot.
Press came in late and looked good. She can still lose the ball under her body at times, but she finds passes quicker and can strike with little warning. Her form in Chicago is solid this year, and I think she gives a spark off the bench any time she comes in.
Alex Morgan looks decent, and she's getting more physical as she gets older. No concerns for me.
Two crucial players aren't currently in training with the team, and at least one of them is certainly going to be on the Rio roster. Carli Lloyd proved her worth at the World Cup last summer. Megan Rapinoe's value shouldn't need a case to be made. However, both of them haven't been healthy. I love both of these players, but I can't take Rapinoe to Rio unless she can play 90 minutes twice before the games start. How can you? Carli looks much closer to a return, but again, I need to see her run, tackle and jump against a real opponent before making a decision. Gut says Carli is ready but Rapinoe doesn't get back in time. That's especially awful for her considering her injury came on garbage turf as she was practicing for the post-World Cup dog and pony show in Hawaii.
I think Carli should go as a forward, because it will protect her a bit and give her the freedom to attack goal which is what Carli wants to do anyway. Dunn or Carli as forward? Please. Carli all day long.
So, here's the 18 I'm taking to Rio right now, based on science.*
Keepers (2): Solo & Naeher (tempted to take Naeher and Harris, but let's be real)
Defense (7): O'Hara, Johnston, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg, Krieger, Engen, Sonnett**
Midfield (6): Horan, Heath, Mewis, Brian, Long, Pugh (If Rapinoe is fit, I'm taking her and dropping Long. Not like for like, but right now I prefer Mewis to Long)
Forward (3): Morgan, Lloyd, Press
(I personally hate this roster due to no Heather O'Reilly, but Ellis doesn't seem to value her, and I'm trying to face reality)
**EDIT 6/4: I've reconsidered and now am dropping Sonnett in favor of O'Reilly. One more speedy veteran midfielder instead of a center back who will not get any playing time. I'm not sure what I was thinking. O'Reilly is always the answer, duh.
Jill might take Sonnett over Engen, but I'm not there yet.
*Not at all based on science.