Australia beat the United States women’s national team for the very first time in Seattle last night, taking it 1-0 off a Tameka Butt goal. It was an inauspicious start to the Tournament of Nations for the USWNT; to unpack the result of this game means reconciling that it both means something that the US lost, and also that it doesn’t mean that much that we lost. Let’s jump into that dichotomy.
The USWNT continue to transition
In a press conference before this game, Jill Ellis said that she wants to continue experimenting through September. That takes the team through the rest of the Tournament of Nations and two friendlies with New Zealand. Then they’ll face Canada in a home-and-away series in November - probably a decent first test of the system you want to solidify heading into 2018. This game was a continuation of all the tinkering she’s done up until now with the three-back and the new players and the constant rotation of forwards and midfielders. In the long view, losing a friendly in a “tournament” that may or may not be partially about making some extra cash is not a program killer. The United States has the privilege of being able to absorb bad performances without having to live and die by their short-term results.
It’s also a reflection of the ongoing global investment in women’s soccer. The Matildas are only one of the teams that has invested in a youth pipeline and, to a certain extent, a domestic league, which means that they now have players like Sam Kerr. Kerr is 23 but had her international debut eight years ago at the age of 15. And now she has 50 caps with the Matildas, a seasoned veteran not quite at her peak as a striker. So the gap between the nations was always narrowing. A couple of home losses to top nations is, depending on the response from Jill Ellis and US Soccer, not an entirely bad thing. BUT there is a difference between being okay with losing in a general sense and not being okay with the way this specific loss happened.
The formation sucked the life out of the midfield
This game was winnable, but the United States had very little along its spine. Sam Mewis and Allie Long were not particularly linking deeper play with their front two attackers, which is to be expected from two holding mids next to each other. It’s also a bit odd that they didn’t particularly seem to be hitting it long for Lindsey Horan or Christen Press when either of them is capable of having a go at a long ball. But there was just a giant gap between those two and Press and Horan above them while they were in the flat 4-4-2. With Megan Rapinoe and Mal Pugh periodically surging but not owning the width of the field, that rendered the entire US attack pretty toothless when one of the forwards wasn’t dropping to try and put in her partner. Rapinoe tried, but she was swimming against the current. Horan and Press had some good moments, but just weren’t finding each other enough. No one had a good day.
In that sense, this result very much matters. You have a bunch of players who are in mid-season form, who haven’t had to travel nearly as far as their opponents, who have had more time together through their clubs and recent international friendlies, and yet they looked like they hadn’t seen each other in absolute yonks. And then there was the lack of adjustment from Ellis, making like-for-like subs, some of whom were able to find a higher gear than their subbed counterparts, but some of whom came in and stayed at the exact same tempo. That reliance on individual player performance instead of a tactical shift bit them in the butt as no one was able to drag the US to a result in spite of themselves. Other countries have great individual talents as well now, and the margins between us are getting thinner and thinner.
Becky Sauerbrunn is not a defensive demigod sent to us from Themyscira to protect us from our own bad choices
Becky Sauerbrunn is, in fact, human, and we saw it on the pitch. We’ve actually seen it a bit for FC Kansas City too during this NWSL season. Against Australia she didn’t get a solid clearance in and then Allie Long behind her loses a step on her runner and...well.
@TamekaButt scores Australia's goal to defeat the United States for the first time in 28 attempts. #USAvAUS #ToN2017 pic.twitter.com/rrJCshlKFD— The Women's Game (@TheWomensGame) July 28, 2017
Sauerbrunn has, for the past several years, been a center back nonpareil and easily in contention for best CB in the world. But no one can ride the crest of the wave forever. There will be troughs between the peaks. Not to say that Sauerbrunn is anywhere near her nadir; she is still a very good CB and brings her wealth of tactical knowledge and experience to any back line, which is particularly valuable when the back four against Australia had three relative youngsters, including one getting her first-ever NT cap. But she has been making more mistakes than usual recently (coincidentally enough, some of them also came against none other than Sam Kerr, when FC Kansas City lost 3-2 to Sky Blue FC). Now is certainly the time to be making mistakes, with an eye on sharpening up as we once again enter the rising action that culminates in the World Cup, but sometimes you just have to accept that great players aren’t great forever.
Our defense has fared the best during this transitional period
That being said, our defense, which has certainly had its fair share of tinkering, has come through all this with the least kerfuffle. We do have some issues at right back, but consider that for all that Casey Short seems like a lock at left back, she’s still a relative newcomer, Abby Dahlkemper is only on her fifth cap, and Taylor Smith was debuting for the team. The defense seems like it has been changed up in the least disruptive way of all positions on the field, and that, at least, should be a relief. Not enough of a relief to stop worrying about cementing a starter RB, but at least something to consider while also fretting over what our midfield looked like without Rose Lavelle and Tobin Heath.
Next up: USA vs Brazil on July 30 at 5 PM PT/8 PM ET. This game will air live on ESPN2.