It’s nice, at least on a relative scale of nice, to have a federation that is willing to fill up the calendar for its women’s national team in a non-tournament year. USSF took nearly every FIFA window to schedule a women’s friendly (although perhaps they could have let one slide given the timing against the NWSL season), and even ran two mini-tournaments this year. Many other WNTs are definitely not blessed with the same level of involvement or funding, Canada among them. The flip side of that is not every single game the USWNT plays is an absolute banger, and indeed it’s an oft-cited criticism of the WNT that they have a bad tendency to play fluff opponents, with apologies to some of those opponents. This series against Canada gave us mostly hearty stuff to digest, but also descended into fluffier territory as in the end Canada said “screw it” and subbed in a pack of uncapped teenagers to get them their first taste of high-level international soccer, making it so the USWNT closed out the year punking a bunch of kids. Here are some of the things we learned from getting to compete against both First Choice Squad Canada and Rebuilding Its Youth System Canada.
Ellis’ converted fullbacks aren’t ready yet
Jill Ellis seemingly took on the task of converting Sofia Huerta and Chioma Ubogagu into fullbacks and then promptly didn’t give them any game time at all against Canada. At least Huerta played a full 90 against South Korea; Ubogagu was called in and apparently found unready during camp evaluation (to be expected for Ubogagu at least, given her usual position at forward). Perhaps Ubogagu would have gotten field time against a less stout opponent than Canada, but the fact remains that Ellis considered them both too risky to play.
The fact that this was Canada surely factored into that, on two levels. One, Ellis didn’t feel comfortable testing her new players against a tougher opponent. And two, Ellis specifically didn’t want to lose to Canada. The rivalry between the two nations (is it really rivalry if one team just beats up the other team all the time?) has created an extra level of expectation for victory on a near-fundamental level from much of the fanbase and from Ellis’ overlords at US Soccer. A loss to Canada in either game probably would have spurred a small avalanche of thinkpieces on the theme of “WNT crisis: Ellis out?” In that way, Ellis is not as free as her counterpart John Herdman to truly risk losing in exchange for testing new players. Look at Herdman’s subs in the second game: a pair of 16-year-olds with Ariel Young and Jayde Riviere in the 71’, and 16-year-old Jordyn Huitema in the 60’ for Christine Sinclair. John Herdman was willing to remove his most valuable piece from the board to see what a high-schooler with five caps could do, knowing full well that further subs would only open the team up to yet more dogged attacks from the US.
To be fair to Ellis, she certainly looked willing to lose in exchange for testing data during the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year, and lose we did, in particular giving up three goals against France. And of course, as head coach, it’s Ellis’ prerogative to evaluate any player she thinks could benefit the team, just as it is her prerogative to deem that player unfit or unready. At least for Ubogagu and Huerta, they weren’t being dragged back and forth between their club and the NT now that NWSL is in the offseason, and so it’s not as though this was especially disruptive for them. In fact, perhaps it’s a prelude to actual time, either in January during a FIFA window or at the next SheBelieves around March. But unless they were just so unsteady during camp testing as to make it obvious neither one would hold up against Canada, it seems like a missed opportunity to administer a truly high-pressure test. As for Emily Sonnett - sorry about that round-trip Australian flight, kid.
Alyssa Naeher is #1 in Ellis’ eyes but shouldn’t be
Alyssa Naeher is not performing to peak Alyssa Naeher capacity. Anyone who watched the Boston Breakers when she was still their goalkeeper can attest to her sometimes startling capacity to play clutch for 90 minutes. But during her NT performances in 2017, she’s made some questionable decisions and had some truly rough moments, usually related to when and how she picks to come off her line. Naeher sometimes looks like someone who’s been told to be bolder in challenging for the ball, but hasn’t been instructed on how and doesn’t know if her defense will cover for her either. Part of it is that Naeher picked up some kind of nagging injury during the NWSL season and has just been playing through it the last couple of months. And part of it really does seem to be mental; after all, injury doesn’t account for the discombobulated communication between Naeher and her defenders. Still, she’s #1 in the GK pecking order at the moment.
Ten minutes with Jill Ellis ahead of #uswnt training with media. Tidbits:— Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan) November 11, 2017
-minutes for Naeher reflect she’s number 1
-still space for Krieger/Kling in this program, no spots locked down
-called up Ubogagu for natural lefty, outside back profile
But based on the last few months of performances, Naeher should still be getting challenged for that #1 spot and for some reason she’s not. Ellis’ management of her other GK’s minutes is confusing at best, irresponsible at worst. She actually split halves between Ashlyn Harris and Jane Campbell against South Korea and then didn’t give any time to Harris, Campbell, or A.D. Franch against Canada. You can’t argue that Ellis just wants to see Naeher under tough conditions for more than one game or that she wants Naeher and the defense to get familiar given that Naeher played all three Tournament of Nations games against Australia, Brazil, and Japan, during which time the back line was basically the same as the Canada games.
Listen, I want you to understand how painful it is to be saying that Naeher doesn’t look like the US #1 right now. Longtime Boston Breakers fans like me all hold a squishy soft spot in their hearts for Alyssa Naeher for the way she stuck her chin out and soldiered on during some of the most painful years of the team’s existence. And she is still a good goalkeeper who is solid on positioning and distribution. But something is keeping her from going full Naeher and until Ellis and Co. figure out what that is, perhaps the answer isn’t to keep sticking her in goal over and over without respite.
Our midfield disappeared into the pressure
We didn’t really learn this one so much as we all saw it with our own eyes, but it’s worth pointing out, because Ellis seems to be transitioning away from the Carli Lloyd/Allie Long attacking midfield that used to dominate the formation while she deepens the overall midfield pool and finally lets Ertz play higher on the pitch (reminder and caveat: Tobin Heath and Rose Lavelle, two crucial midfielders, were out for these games).
The setup with Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, and Sam Mewis was pretty fun against New Zealand and South Korea, teams that allowed defensive/holding players like Ertz and Mewis to roam a little more without consequence. But especially in the first game against Canada, they kept getting shut out from a combination of high pressure, bad surface, and their own awful possession. Mewis and Horan were often just flat-out bad in their movement in the second game, failing to provide passing channels to help cut through the Canadian midfield and press the defense, leading to turnovers that kept the teams slugging it out in the middle. Should this be a warning that Ertz-Horan-Mewis isn’t actually viable against a high-pressure team? Well, sort of. It’s a midfield that doesn’t really have a true playmaker in it; Ertz-Mewis-Lavelle would be something pretty interesting to see, with Horan moved higher. And honestly, if Sam Mewis had had a better day for either game, it probably wouldn’t have been such a deadlock for so long. Ertz and Mewis are definitely going to be two key midfield pieces through 2019 and once everyone is healthy again, they’ll have some good depth.
So that’s it. Another year for the USWNT, done and dusted. The team didn’t exactly go out on a high note, but neither did they end on a particularly low one. The WNT may play again as soon as January, depending on the FIFA window, but probably the next real test will be SheBelieves some time around March. Until then, stay warm and dream of a healthy Rose Lavelle.