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Tournament of Nations, USA vs Japan: 3 things we learned

Our kingdom for an effective holding mid.

2017 Tournament Of Nations - Japan v United States Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The United States finished off the Tournament of Nations with a steady, if not a bit boring, 3-0 win over Japan. Though the performance didn’t have the adrenaline factor of a frantic comeback win against Brazil, a match without incident is just what the doctor ordered for Jill Ellis’ side. Allegedly this match marks the end of Ellis’ Dr. Frankenstein, mad scientist, experimentation period (let’s all take a moment to be disappointed we never saw Allie Long in goal). With that in mind, what lessons did we learn from this match to move forward into the next phase of development.

Ertz So Good

What if I told you that Julie Ertz, the same Julie Ertz who has been bossing the midfield in Chicago as a holding midfielder, was a great holding midfielder? Maybe Ertz was too obvious of a midfield solution for Jill Ellis or maybe Ellis got lost looking for Julie Johnston and didn’t want to throw this new Ertz woman into the gauntlet. Either way, through experimenting with Allie Long and Sam Mewis and even a short spell with Becky Sauerbrunn, fans have been pointing emphatically down the bench at the answer to all of Jill’s defensive midfield problems - Julie Ertz.

In an injury-shortened hour, Ertz showed that she’s an effective shield for the back four with her work rate and commanding presence. While she was in the match Japan was absolutely flustered and stifled. The peak of her performance, and truly a thesis of Julie Ertz as a player, was her Themysciran goal line clearance in the 34’. She took a nasty looking knock to the knee but preserved the clean sheet and played on for another half hour before the injury caught up to her.

The true measure of her performance was the drop off in quality once Ertz was subbed off the field for Long. It’s not that Long is a bad midfielder, she’s just not a natural holding midfielder and it shows. Hopefully moving into the gelling chemistry phase of the march to 2019, Ertz is allowed to grow and flourish in this holding midfielder role for the national team.

Forward Fluidity

Megan Rapinoe is back y’all and that’s fantastic news for the USWNT. About a year ago I was guilty of writing off her career as yet another player forever changed by a horrid ACL injury. But Rapinoe has proven myself, and many others, wrong with her scintillating NWSL play for the Seattle Reign. The question is could she translate that NWSL brilliance into dominance with the national team? After all, coming into the Tournament of Nations she’d been held scoreless in her last 18 national team matches. With a goal to tie up the thriller against Brazil and a classic Pinoe goal to open up scoring against Japan, I think the answer to that question is yes.

Not only is Rapinoe finding her national team form a personal triumph story, it’s also fantastic news for the forwards playing alongside her. When Rapinoe is on her game not many people find the pockets of space on the wing that she does, not many are capable of breaking defenders ankles, and certainly there are few who can play in service like an on form Megan Rapinoe. But even when she’s not assisting directly on the goal, her threat opens up space for the rest of the forward line. Against Japan this allowed Christen Press and Mallory Pugh to get into wide open spaces and resulted in a 60’ goal for Pugh.

Considering the fact that Tobin Heath seems to be stuck in a protracted back injury nightmare, the United States needed a dominant creative presence on the left wing. Maybe in a year or so we’ll be talking about a fantastic positional competition that pushes both Heath and Rapinoe to new creative heights. But, in her current form, Rapinoe has this position locked down and that’s excellent news for the forwards on the team.

A New World Order

Australia won the Tournament of Nations with three of three games, including emphatic wins against Japan and Brazil. Some of the most exciting young players in the world, including the ascendant Sam Kerr, play for Australia. The European Championships will be contested not by Germany and Sweden, or even England and France. No, the final in Amsterdam will be the host Netherlands versus Denmark. If you’re a women’s soccer fan who has been frozen, Steve Rogers style, since 1999 you’re probably a little confused right now. But this is the beautiful new world order where teams who had potential and the scrappy drive to succeed are now teams with potential and drive and skill and more funding and the backing of their federations and fans.

Like a broken record, American fans have enjoyed a solid two-and-a-half decades of relative dominance over the rest of the world. The USWNT was better funded than the rest of the world, they came to use sports science and advanced nutrition science before everyone else, and don’t forget that pesky American Spirit™. That dominance has lulled fans and players and even the federation into a waking sleep about the actual state of American dominance in women’s soccer. Notably the USWNT has lost three matches (home matches, no less) in this calendar year. Both the SheBelieves Cup and the Tournament of Nations, no doubt meant to be coronations in front of thousands of adoring fans, went to nations not named the United States.

If anything, that’s what we really learned from Jill Ellis’ experimentation. It’s not always been easy to watch. It’s certainly not always, or even often, been fun to watch. Just as much as the nation has been in a haze about our place in the soccer world, it seems the team has been in a trance on the field. Julie Foudy talked about the Brazil comeback as a much needed jolt, and yet, against Japan we came out roaring for about 20 minutes and one goal before settling into another successful lull. Is this what we can expect from the USWNT from now on? The hardest thing about being at the top for so long is that not only are you forever judged against your past successes (I’m looking at you 2019 World Cup ‘title defense’) but there is nowhere else to go but down.