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USA plays contrasting halves in 3-1 win over South Korea

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Julie Ertz had some fun out there, but the second half was a snoozer.

South Korea v United States Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Starting XI: Alyssa Naeher, Kelley O’Hara, Abby Dahlkmeper, Becky Sauerbrunn, Casey Short, Julie Ertz, Andi Sullivan, Samantha Mewis, Mallory Pugh, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe

It was an exciting first half as the United States took on South Korea in New Orleans. South Korea looked to pressure the United States early on and perhaps turn their own tactics against them, but the US was quick to take back control, especially as Julie Ertz got physical in shutting down Korea’s attempts to play their technical game in the middle. She consistently pushed players off the ball, which allowed the US to push higher into Korea’s territory.

The US also played fast along the flanks, setting up lots of give-n-go’s through tight space to put in crosses through Rapinoe and O’Hara. The flank action made up for some slightly lackluster work in the midfield - perhaps to be expected with three defensive-minded midfielders making up the triangle behind Alex Morgan. Morgan often drifted a little deeper, coordinating with her flank players to keep possession around the box, while Sullivan or Mewis pushed up behind her.

Korea eventually pulled it together again after about 20 minutes, and looked pretty decent pushing against Short on the US’ left, but the US got on the scoreboard first after absorbing some dangerous crosses and pushing back up to earn a corner. Julie Ertz made a diving header that somehow managed to flick the ball into the net, making it 1-0.

South Korea tried to return with more pressure, but the US pushed their defensive line pushed high to keep Korea in their own half while Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn dropped to deal with lone runners. Mewis did a good job as a midfield shield, turning away Korean pressure through the middle.

The US made it two in the 41’ as Alex Morgan hit a sweet one off a turn and shoot under pressure after picking up a hard-earned cutback from O’Hara.

Smiles turned to frowns quickly, though, as Mal Pugh pulled up in stoppage, holding her right hamstring and unable to even put pressure on it as she was carried off the field by two trainers. This is perhaps the time to point out again that the USWNT specifically asked not to play on the Superdome’s turf, but USSF scheduled the game there against the team’s wishes. Lynn Williams subbed on for Pugh, taking her spot at right forward.

Korea didn’t let up after the break. Han Chaerin put a real beauty on frame in stoppage. With the US defense not stepping to her, Han sent Dahlkemper the wrong way, set herself up, and hit the ball from distance, dropping it right under the crossbar to make it 2-1.

The second half was pretty much a snoozer compared to the first half. Lindsey Horan subbed in for Sullivan and off they went. Play started in exciting enough fashion as Williams got in the box and offloaded the ball to Rapinoe, who got kicked from behind to earn a penalty. Williams’ first touches were off all night long, leading to some bungled moments in the box as she would press forward into space with plenty of speed, but not be able to corral the ball.

Rapinoe buried her penalty to make it 3-1 and if the US had continued apace, they probably would have scored at least one or two more goals. There were also issues with the bounce and roll of the ball on the turf, which often held up runs from forwards or sent them off at the wrong angle. But the team slowed down and lost some of the crispness out of their passing, which didn’t improve after a triple sub in the 63’ as Crystal Dunn, Christen Press, and Sofia Huerta came on for Rapinoe, Morgan, and Short. Huerta was not prepared to make the same darting interchanges along the flank as O’Hara, who shifted left to accommodate Huerta at right back. Similarly, O’Hara wasn’t really connecting with Dunn on the left, perhaps to be expected as Dunn has been away in England, plying her trade with Chelsea. Losing O’Hara’s near-constant pressure either up the flank or cutting through the middle clearly hurt the US in the attack.

Things didn’t exactly solidify in the midfield after Carli Lloyd subbed in for Sam Mewis in the 77’, again to be expected as this is Lloyd’s first game back from an ankle injury. But the forwards didn’t really get the chance to run at goal a lot off of Horan’s occasional distribution out of the mid, and Ertz wasn’t putting her body onto players as much, perhaps because the Koreans began getting a bit sloppier with their physical pressure, resulting in some hard collisions.

The US kept pressuring, doing their best to win battles off of Korean goalkeeper Kang Gaae’s distribution, but between sloppy balls and the Korean defense’s discipline, there would no more goals on the night. Perhaps the team was fine with that, merely wanting to get to final whistle without further injury.

The United States will now look to stay healthy in their second game against South Korea, scheduled for October 22 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. The team continues to demonstrate that they can construct a very functional midfield without Carli Lloyd. We’ll see if Ellis calls in anyone to replace Pugh, especially after her camp already lost two players from a brutal NWSL final as Tobin Heath and Taylor Smith were both ruled out. This is a game that probably could have used both Heath and Smith in the second half, but we’ll see how they compensate on Sunday.