There’s no away around it—the USWNT were roundly defeated in all aspects of their first match of 2019 on Saturday. For all the “well, most of the French women are halfway through their league season” and “they’re working on seeing how some new players do at the highest level” excuse making, it’s hard to come away from two or more viewings of that match with anything but concern.
For much of the match, the USWNT did not resemble anything like the quick passing world-beaters we’ve seen since they abandoned the 3-back “experiment” that was tried following the team’s early exit at the last Summer Olympics. “We get it,” we’d say, “if there are only three defenders, that frees up another attacker to help break down a bunkering team like Sweden.” But with the emergence of Abby Dahlkemper as a CB partner for Becky Sauerbrunn, it was possible to (on paper) keep four defenders in the formation. If the CB situation seemed settled, the FB roster has been a constant work in progress.
Perhaps progress isn’t the correct word. Historically, while operating with four in the back, Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg offered the ability to run occasional overlaps, send crosses into the box and get back to defend. Normally this happened one at a time, with the other hanging around midfield ready to retreat or attack as the situation warranted. Following the disaster of the 3-back experiment, Ellis continued to desire an attack with overwhelming numbers and began regularly sending both outside backs forward at once, with the consequence of being shorthanded in defense.
Allie Long was the first regular starter casualty of this, as she wasn’t able to adequately cover touchline to touchline (few can) in front of two central defenders to cover for attacking with both fullbacks (though she was with the team in Scotland recently). Klingenberg and Krieger, now forced to sprint back to defend, weren’t able to keep up with the opponent’s attackers for the entire match, and despite their quality as traditional FBs, they too soon no longer figured in the coach’s plans.
Eventually, through some trial and error and out of a desire to have players with the flexibility to play in multiple positions, Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara have become the first choice on the outside. Dunn, who, don’t forget, was the NWSL’s 2015 MVP and Golden Boot winner (awards not often given to fullbacks), is a flash of speed for 90 minutes, constantly bursting forward and being forced to haul ass back to defend. It’s more of a wing role, and she’s taken to the exhausting job well after some early unevenness. O’Hara’s non-stop motor and desire is always evident when she’s healthy, which unfortunately has been less and less over the past few years.
That’s all led to giving many others a try.
Whatever your feelings about her politics, it’s hard to deny the skillset and left peg of the North Carolina Courage’s Jaelene Hinkle. She’s improved each year, and even in a hostile Providence Park was a large part of the reason the Thorns fell in the NWSL Championship last fall. She was out of the side following her unwillingness to wear a jersey bearing rainbow numbers celebrating Pride, but did get a call-up for the CONCACAF Championship last year.
Far less controversial is Casey Short, who seems like an easy selection from what she shows during her limited opportunities (plus, she’s been great in league play). But in the past year, we’ve also seen Emily Sonnett, Tierna Davidson, Emily Fox (have to put Saturday’s poor showing out of mind), Merritt Mathias, Hailie Mace, Sophia Huerta, Midge Purce, Tegan McGrady and Taylor Smith all have at least a camp to prove their worth (Purce remains the only of that list without a senior cap as she had an untimely ankle injury in camp).
It’s nice to have options, but it would also be nice to have a sense of the real roster depth once the entire pool is no longer available.
I joked during the match that the USWNT was deployed in a 3-Blob-1 formation, but that’s truly what it looked like to me for long stretches of play. Two or more midfielders were frequently on top of one another and consequently unable to be open for a quick pass. This led to pass-collect-control touch-pass instead of 1-touch redirects for much of the game. France was too quick for that style, and intercepted far too many slow-developing moves by the USA.
Of all of the women who started the match, none had as poor a match for me as Morgan Brian. That’s been what I’ve seen for what feels like years now—and yet she’s still almost always one of Ellis’s first selections. I try to remember that Brian is relatively young, and I certainly will never forget her critical World Cup performance four years ago. But I can’t make a case for her selection over Zerboni, Ertz, Horan, Mewis or Lavelle (or Allie Long, frankly). Colaprico and post-injury Sullivan haven’t had enough time to show their worth, but their upside potential seems to tip the scales in their favor, while Brian’s extensive caps continue to underwhelm. I keep expecting to see some of what Ellis might see, but other than a few good showings for the Red Stars last year (and almost zero playing time while she was at OL), it’s been a long time since Brian’s name on a team sheet has instilled confidence in me.
That’s not even considering the fact that Rapinoe, Pugh, Heath and Lloyd are now rostered as forwards. There are plenty of Lloyd haters in the fanbase, but her introduction to the match had an immediate settling effect, and her deft one-touch pass to Pugh late produced the USWNT’s only goal.
I don’t mean to pick on Brian, but her continued first-pick favor is a mystery. Horan was unrecognizably sloppy for stretches of this match too, though she didn’t have her normal mind-meld players available to be where she wanted them to be for her creative passing. Plus, the formation did no favors to anyone—frequently sending blobs of players into space where one France defender could mark two US players—when they weren’t stepping on each other and making defending unnecessary.
Abby Wambach was always going to be difficult to replace. Her physical presence was huge, and she knew how to use her size to get free and score tons of goals (or to hold up and lay off a ball to, usually, Alex Morgan). The hold-up play in particular simply evaporated when Wambach retired, and it took the women some time to discover a strategy to attack without that element being such a feature.
Morgan is now probably the team’s best hold-up player, though Lloyd (finally “just” a forward) is also quite skilled at bringing down balls and distributing quickly to create chances. That leaves Press, Pugh, Heath and Rapinoe (and currently McDonald—who is an excellent hold-up player in her own right) tasked with collecting and finishing.
Of the options, in a meaningful game, it’s impossible not to put Rapinoe’s name on the team sheet first. Before even the GK. Were cloning an option, she’s the player we’d wish to start cloning first. Normally, Heath and Morgan seem like good choices. Of course, that leaves Pugh and Press waiting for a chance to get on the field. Heath frequently tracks back into the midfield to create space, as does Rapinoe. It usually works pretty well, provided the midfield isn’t playing BLOB-FORCE-FIVE. Of the three sections of the field, the forwards should give us the least concern.
Like Wambach, Hope Solo was always going to be borderline impossible to replace. But Solo didn’t depart on her own terms, and GK play isn’t as easy to solve with tactical shifts as is a change in attacking style. Solo’s boots remain unfilled, and the squad’s current number one does not always instill sufficient confidence that she’ll make a play when needed. Alyssa Naeher has been given almost all of the important starts since Solo’s departure, and though she and Ashlyn Harris have been uneven at times for their NWSL clubs over the past two years, they haven’t been challenged for their spots with the national team.
Behind them (for some reason), we’ve had Jane Campbell, Abby Smith and AD Franch. Casey Murphy was also called in last June. Of those four, only Campbell has seen the field. But Franch is surely deserving of an extended run of games to see what she offers. Her performances for the Thorns have been remarkable at times, and she’s been the NWSL Best Goalkeeper and part of the NWSL Best XI for two consecutive seasons. Two seasons, incidentally, during which she was competing against Naeher and Harris for the same honors.
As we’ve seen in far too many tournaments, PKs can win the day. Is Naeher the right choice if it comes to that? I’m not sure, and unfortunately, because we haven’t seen enough of anyone else to know for sure, we may never know.
Can you believe the USWNT has never played Spain? Well, we haven’t. Until now.
Spain qualified for the WWC with shocking ease, though their group opponents weren’t exactly a who’s who of WoSo powerhouses. Finland! Austria! Serbia! Israel! Yeah.
How easy? They conceded 2 goals and fielded 25 on their way to topping the group. It’s almost like they come from a country with a long, proud footballing history that is only recently being opened up to their women…
Don’t sleep on this squad.
Spain vs USA
Tuesday January 22nd at 2:30PM Eastern on ESPN2
Ellis is likely to change up the roster a ton following the slop-fest from the weekend. Or will she? Hey look, it’s the starting XI!
That’s as close to an A1 roster as can be expected, with only Emily Sonnett on the field in a slightly odd role. The plan will be to dominate this match, and this roster will look a lot better with respect to positioning and interchange play than Saturday’s squad.
Spain 1-4 USA