The U20’s kicked off Group C play in the 2016 U20 WWC with a 0-0 draw against a technical, organized France team. France dominated possession for the majority of the match and also outshot the U20’s by a wide margin. Coach Michelle French opted to field a backline made up of three Penn State defenders from the 2015 NCAA National Championship team in order to foster continuity and cohesion but they were unable to consistently break France’s high pressure on a day where the United States midfield almost completely disappeared.
A tense, robotic performance
For all of the angst about Jill Ellis’ many experiments at the senior level, at least the players at that level are playing with some sort of creative freedom. Going to a three back system might not be the most comfortable fit, playing Allie Long as a centerback might not be natural, but the players seem to have bought into the system and their roles within the system. Having watched the U17’s crash out of their World Cup and the U20’s get outplayed in their opening match, there’s a worrying pattern: rote, robotic discomfort.
Simply put, these players look like they’re thinking way too hard about playing the game of soccer. The United States youth program is now five years into the reign of April Heinrichs and the formalization of women’s youth soccer into academy and year round club structures. After losing in the quarterfinals of the 2014 U20 WWC to Korea DPR, this program is under a lot of pressure to perform and perform well at this tournament. And it shows. Maybe it’s nerves or maybe the heat of Papua New Guinea and the fact that the U20’s chased and defended for much of the match but with expectations firmly on their shoulders they didn’t exactly intimidate the field. The United States will have to wait one more match to try and announce themselves as true contenders.
What’s Pugh doing there?
There has to be some sort of rule in women’s soccer, at any given point, no matter what, somebody is discussing what Mallory Pugh should be doing with her time. Well here’s another hat in that ring. What exactly is Pugh getting out of playing with this U20 squad? Looking back through qualifiers and the NTC Invitational and now this first match, it seems like a mistake to play her down a level. Sure, she got her chances. Arguably Pugh had the two best chances for the U20’s and in both of those chances she looked like she was trying to take this entire team and put them on her back. In short, she’s trying to do way too much and forcing her game.
You have to think having been made the captain of this team and clearly having the weight of already being a fully capped member of the senior team and an Olympian that the pressure is there for Pugh to perform. Instead she’s getting frustrated with herself. At one point after scuffing a chance she kicked out at the turf and looked up to the sky like what do I have to do to score. One can only hope that this team finds their stride and Pugh learns or gains something from this experience. Otherwise, who knows the unforeseen consequences of stifling and frustrating a player poised for greatness.
Back to the tactics board
Michelle French set her team up in a 4-4-2 and France matched that formation like for like and yet somehow it felt as though France had numbers in the midfield over the United States and overloads all over the pitch. Throughout the match there were two cooling breaks and three substitutions for French to make a significant change to her tactical organization and try to create favorable matchups for her side. She didn’t take advantage of those opportunities. This was a criticism of French’s coaching performance back in 2014 as well. She often didn’t make the right personnel or tactical decisions from the outset of matches and didn’t really adjust things once it was clear they weren’t working.
All things considered, taking one point from France in the opening match isn’t the end of the world. It’s more than likely their toughest group match. They’re pouncing on turnovers and fast break opportunities, with players like Ashley Sanchez and Mallory Pugh you’re always going to be dangerous in that way. However, it is worrying that they haven’t scored in a number of games and they’re not creating chances building out of the back and possessing the ball like they want to. Next up is New Zealand and in that match they’ll have to take three points or else set themselves on the path to face another embarrassing early exit from a tournament the U20’s have won on three separate occasions.