The US set out in a 3-4-1-2, once again deploying a back three of Casey Short, Allie Long, and Becky Sauerbrunn—as they played in their previous experiments with a three-back last fall. With Alex Morgan out with a minor illness, the attacking trio was composed of Christen Press and Lynn Williams as lead strikers and Carli Lloyd as an inside forward.
This is the same back three that coach Jill Ellis has used to start the last few games, so it was not tremendously surprising. Still, it’s an important indication that Ellis envisions this particular arrangement as equally viable against Germany as it was against Romania and Switzerland.
The first half ways mostly an exercise in frustration for both sides, with the US providing very little going forward, and Germany finding it difficult to do much with their possession. Neither side earned even a half-chance, though each found room for a fair number of shots from distance, with only a shot from Sara Dabritz in the 12th minute forcing a save from Naeher.
The best efforts from the US emerged primarily from their high press, which won possession deep in the attacking half, precisely as it is supposed to do. They found it very difficult, however, to build anything organically, with a single nice attacking move in the 35th minute being the rare exception. In possession, the US sought to build almost exclusively on the wings, with a number of square passes from the back line eventually finding Heath or Dunn on the sides, who then turned and played a speculative ball forward. This gave Press and Lloyd the chance to demonstrate their skill in holdup play, but didn’t lead to any significant opportunities.
If one of the big questions looming over the US for this tournament is their persistent difficulty building through the central midfield, the first half did very little to put anyone concerns at ease. Morgan Brian and Sam Mewis both performed reasonably well in their defensive responsibilities, but were effectively shut out from any real opportunities to move forward with the ball at their feet. To the extent that they were engaged in the attack, it emerged deep in the attacking half, rather than at the start of any attacks.
Germany, meanwhile, held the lion’s share of possession, but found it difficult to generate much out of it. Their most dangerous play tended to come when they moved quickly, and launched balls down the channels—particularly on the right where Short and Dunn offered a fair amount of open space.
Things opened up significantly in the second half, with Germany getting things started in the opening three minutes by unlocking the counterpress and building quickly through empty space, but not finding any luck getting a look on goal.
The US also found things easier in the second half, seeming to settle into the game constructing far more extensive passing moves, and utilizing the whole field far better. To some extent, this was likely the product of a tiring German side, who had been put under significant pressure and was also seemingly suffering from a bit of jet lag. In this, things seemed to go very much according to Ellis’s plan, with the high-pressure three back setup creating the opportunity for a second half resurgence.
The more aggressive approach paid dividends in the 56th minute, starting with excellent pressure by Christen Press, who won possession, cut into the box and unleashed a shot that hit the bar. On the rebound, Heath took another shot into the middle which was blocked, but Williams was able to pounce and drive in a low shot down the center of the goal. The goal is credited to Williams, who deserves credit for finding a dangerous position and finishing the chance, but significant credit also has to go to Press for winning the ball and creating the danger.
As Germany sought an equalizer, they worked hard to exploit the space that was offered to them in the right channel, with Anna Blässe putting Casey Short under severe pressure in several cases. However, even when Germany got into good attacking position, they generally failed to get bodies into the box to take advantage of the chance to send in a cross. On more than a few occasions, the US had seven players in the box defending against a single German attacker.
In the 69th minute, the US had an excellent chance to double the margin, when Williams received the ball with her back to goal and used a perfect touch to spin around her marker and put herself clean through on goal, but was unable to put her shot on target. In the 75th minute, another chance almost fell, as Germany mishit a clearance on a cross from Williams and Press touched it just over the top of goal. Just a few moments later, Lloyd and Press worked a one-two in the box but couldn’t quite manage to get clear in space.
The US made several substitutions partway through the second half, without making any significant tactical changes. Mallory Pugh came on first in the 58th minute, taking Dunn’s place Then, in the 79th minute, the US made two substitution, with Alex Morgan coming on for Williams and Lindsey Horan replacing Press. The other subs remained unused, however, demonstrating the fitness of the US side—particularly impressive since they haven’t played a match in months and are still in the NWSL preseason.
In its first test against a top-level opponent, the US three back earned a victory. Despite a rough first half, and despite leaving some significant openings in the defense, their strong press was able to squelch quick German counterattacks, and once they were able to pack the back with bodies, Germany found it very difficult to build. Jill Ellis will find much to enjoy in tonight’s results, and it will certainly be interesting to watch how the team plays going forward.