The United States just took on Sweden and Norway in two away friendlies. They won both games 1-0; you might expect close or close-ish scorelines with two teams peaking for Euros, but as ever, the goals don’t tell the whole story. Here are some of the things we learned from the USWNT’s Scandinavian tour.
The new-look USWNT proved they can win away from home...
This might seem obvious, but it’s not actually something that we knew. For a variety of (primarily, but not entirely, monetary) reasons, the US rarely plays away from home. In fact, apart from the Olympics last summer, these were the first games outside of US soil for the women’s team in over two years. Which means that, until this week, the new-look version of this team—the one that has come together after the spate of retirements following the World Cup in 2015—had just one a solitary victory over France in the group stage of the Olympics on its list of meaningful wins abroad. They can now add two more notches to that account.
Sweden and Norway are currently ranked #6 and #11, and those are a fair assessment of the talent on these squads. Neither is (quite) at the level of the United States, but both are real powers in the game right now. Two victories over that sort of competition is nothing to sniff at.
…but they didn’t look very good in the process
However, while the results were solid, the underlying performances were anything but. The US looked timorous and confused—finding it hard to handle the pressure from Sweden, and struggling to build meaningful possession against Norway. They scored two goals, but neither came from any significant development of play. On the other end, while the US recorded two clean sheets, they conceded quite a few good looks, and it took a combination of some stout last-ditch defending and some relatively poor finishing by the Scandinavian sides to preserve those shutouts.
In fact, if you look down the team sheets for the two games, it would be hard to argue that anyone played at a level commensurate with their underlying skill—with the closest exceptions being Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, and Casey Short. That is to say: the only ones who seemed to actually play well were the defenders.
And that’s a worrying sign if you saw these games as a test of Jill Ellis’s plans going forward. Even the best players in the world need a support structure to succeed, and while there are plenty of diverse opinions about what that infrastructure ought to look like for the US, the answer certainly wasn’t on display this week.
When one player has a bad game, it can be hard to determine who to blame. When an entire team plays poorly, eyes naturally turn toward the coach.
The midfield is still a work in progress
I flagged this as a key location of concern before these matches, and we observed little if any progress on that front. Ellis tried out several different configurations, but most were built around the central midfield pairing of Mewis and Long, neither of whom covered themselves with particular glory. These weren’t terrible performances, but neither did they exert much control over the game. Often, they seemed unclear about who would take what responsibilities, resulting in some botched transitions and a less resilient defensive shield than Ellis would have been hoping. And in possession, both looked almost exclusively for 1) sideways and backward passes, or 2) long crossing balls in the air. There was little or no buildup on the ground through the middle, which often left the forward players isolated.
This has been the longstanding problem for the USWNT for the past 18 months, but little to no progress seems to have been made here. That’s a big problem.
It is certainly worth noting the effects of injury here. If we were to imagine the hypothetical US midfield of the future, built around controlling possession and slick passing, it might be staffed by Tobin Heath, Morgan Brian, Rose Lavelle, and Andi Sullivan. Three of those four were out for these games, setting some serious limits on what was possible.
However, acknowledging that these games weren’t going to be a real test of that tiki-taka hypothetical, it’s worth asking what they were a test of. When a gametime injury forced Mallory Pugh out of the starting XI against Norway, why did Ellis turn to Meghan Klingenberg of all people as her replacement? What purpose was served by such rapid shifts between formations in that first half against Norway? Is it any wonder that the players found it difficult to build a cohesive system when the goals seem to be so vaguely defined?
Meet the new USWNT, same as the old USWNT
Over a year ago, I wrote my first piece here at SSFC, in which I noted that the US team didn’t seem to be playing very well, even as they continued to rack up victories. Fast forward to the present, and we’ve seen quite a few changes in the side, with plenty of new names having entered the fold, as well as some tactical experimentation.
But in these two games, we got almost a the spitting image of that previous incarnation. Two wins, achieved with very little team cohesion, not much in the way of useful possession, and some stout defending that just about kept the opponents off the score sheet.
When you have a collection of individuals as talented as the US does, things like tactics and strategy often only end up mattering at the margins. Even without a clear vision for long-term development, the US can win games simply by being better than their opponents. But in a game with such narrow margins, relying on individual skill, grit, and determination might not be enough.
Winning ugly works...right up until it doesn’t.