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France defeats USA 3-0 in a major test of three back system

The US went down early and never found their feet against an overwhelming French side

2017 SheBelieves Cup - United States v England Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Starting XI: Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Casey Short, Rose Lavelle, Samantha Mewis, Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Lynn Williams, Christen Press

In the final match of the SheBelieves Cup, the United States looked to rebound from a late 1-0 loss to England with a win against France. A win in this match would secure a second straight SheBelieves Cup for the United States, a draw or a loss would give the title to France. Fox billed the SheBelieves Cup as a tournament that transcended rivalry and results. The United States took the latter to heart as they eventually fell to France 3-0.

France put the United States on the back foot from the opening whistle, pressing high into the offensive third and causing an early scramble in the box. While the ball was eventually cleared, this set the tone for the rest of the match. In the 7’, Camille Abily split the United States three back with a slipped ball to Eugenie Le Sommer. Le Sommer’s run off of Allie Long’s shoulder forced Alyssa Naeher hard off of her line and lead Naeher to give up a penalty kick on a foul in the box. Abily converted the penalty for the first French goal of the match.

The United States looked stunned and disorganized by this turn of events, their first real test of the tournament. Though they’d lost 1-0 to England, that was on a late goal and this was the first chance to see what the United States could do when they trailed in a match. The answer? Concede another goal within three minutes of the first concession.

However, this was not the first time that the United States had fallen down two goals quickly to France. The last time was notably in the opening group match of the 2012 London Olympics. In that game, the United States caught fire after a slow start to eventually win the match 4-2. But, alas, that wasn’t a part of this particular process.

If a process exists in a manager's mind but no spectator can see it, does the process really exist at all? To let no player off of the hook, this was not a good performance all around. Though more so than that, this loss was the first major failing of Ellis’ experimental three back system.

To put it simply, French manager Olivier Echouafai drew up a simple but deadly gameplan to decimate this nascent United States system. By using width and speed, the French were able to expose the relative lack of pace of the Long, Sauerbrunn, and Short three back. On paper it looked as though France only had one forward, Le Sommer, up top. But one of the keys to playing a good three back system is the ability to recreate the width that is lost without fullbacks. Neither Lavelle nor Heath did a particularly good job of this and a rotating complement of Sandi Toletti, Elodie Thomis, Amel Majri, and Camille Abily overloaded the United States flanks.

This isn’t to say that the United States looked like they had given up at any point in this match. In the first half, there were a couple of set piece opportunities that didn’t come off exactly the way they’d been drawn up on the training ground. From the 33’ to the end of the first half, there was a distinct feeling like maybe the United States would be able to pull one goal back and make this a game.

A similar feeling occurred at the beginning of the second half with the substitutions of Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh for Rose Lavelle and Christen Press. Up until Abily scored the third French goal in the 63’, the brightness of Pugh and Dunn made it seem more likely that the United States would score the next goal. After the third French goal, it seemed like the United States saw the writing on the wall and that’s when the frustration that had been building throughout the tournament really seemed to set in.

In the 70’, Ellis made a line change: Alex Morgan for Lynn Williams, Julie Johnston for Morgan Brian, and Lindsay Horan for Samantha Mewis. She shifted Long into the midfield and put Johnston into the back three. It wasn’t verbal confirmation that Ellis was starting to question her process but those actions spoke louder than words. By taking Long out of the back three, Ellis waved a tiny white flag - at least for the duration of the match.

The United States forced Gerard to make a few difficult saves but Naeher was, by far, the busier goalkeeper on the night. In the end, you’d have to say that France walk away the largely deserved winners of the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, while the United States will finish fourth out of four teams.

It would be easy to scapegoat particular players, just as it would be easy to scapegoat the system and scrap it for good. This was not the finest hour of the three back system, nor was it the finest hour in the history of the United States program as they lost their first back-to-back matches on home soil since August 1992. The interesting thing will be how much this team, and Jill Ellis, has actually learned from this experience. Only then will it be possible to judge this tournament result in context. If this SheBelieves Cup was all about the process, the next few friendly matches need to be about the progress.