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SheBelieves: USA just about manages 1-1 tie with France

Underwhelming player performances and tired legs.

Mallory Pugh scores against France during the 2018 SheBelieves tournament
Amy Pearson

Starting XI: 1-Alyssa Naeher; 22-Taylor Smith, 17-Tierna Davidson, 7-Abby Dahlkemper, 5-Kelley O’Hara; 3-Andi Sullivan, 6-Morgan Brian, 9-Lindsey Horan, 11-Mallory Pugh, 13-Alex Morgan (capt.), 15-Megan Rapinoe

The two big questions leading into this game were: 1) would Jill Ellis rotate her roster after a game in the most exhausting conditions possible against Germany and 2) would France pull it together after a disastrous outing against England.

The answer to #1 came quickly enough as Ellis only changed up two players from that slog against Germany, starting Andi Sullivan and Morgan Brian in the midfield over Julie Ertz and Carli Lloyd. For the rest, they had to make do with two days’ rest, although surely more of them could have sat based on a scouting report of France’s last game. Which is not necessarily a slam on France - it’s clear they’re trying to update their squad, and there’s something to be said for throwing a half-vet/half-inexperienced squad into a tournament against England, the United States, and Germany. And to answer #2, France came out of the gate with a noticeably stiffer spine than against England, staying fairly disciplined under pressure from the United States.

The WNT started the first half offering okay pressure in the midfield, Sullivan and Brian particularly doing their best to cancel out Amandine Henry and Gaetane Thiney. But curiously enough the US did not look to space as much as they should have; despite great early switches to Mal Pugh, she then often lingered by her lonesome in pockets of space as the US recycled methodically out of the back through Andi Sullivan, who dropped between CB’s. In fact one of the best early opportunities came in the 7’ when Pugh got a nice ball, cut inside to leave space for an overlapping Taylor Smith, and Smith put in a centering ball for Alex Morgan that was not far off from becoming an assist. But Brian’s midfield pressure gradually dropped over the course of the half, fading out and becoming a liability later on in the game.

Sullivan eventually began stepping up more, teaming up with Brian and Horan to offer more midfield pressure. But it was a free kick that ultimately broke the deadlock as Kelley O’Hara was fouled just outside the 18-yard box, setting up Megan Rapinoe to put in a deceptively simple ball right in front of goal. The ball pinged around and came out to Pugh, who was able to finish her rebound and make it 1-0 in the 35’.

But France quickly erased the lead as they were given too much time in midfield to set up and put the ball in for Eugenie Le Sommer, who beat Dahlkemper, then Naeher as she came off her line. Le Sommer sliced the ball into the side netting at an angle to make it 1-1 in the 39’.

Ellis made a slightly odd sub in the 43’ as Casey Short came in for Taylor Smith. With only minutes left, it could be that Smith signaled to the bench she needed to come out; O’Hara switched over to the right and Short went in left. The teams finished the half at 1-1.

There were two subs to start the second half, Savannah McCaskill in for Horan and Lynn Williams in for Rapinoe. Pugh switched to the left of the front line and McCaskill took up more of a central playmaker position, drifting inside to try to help break the French back line. She brought a bit of tough liveliness to the midfield, but not in a consistently effective way, and it was interesting that Ellis continues to try McCaskill at midfield when she’s spent her career until now as a forward.

The United States continued to search for ways to break into the French defensive third as the half went on but there wasn’t enough pressure and organization from midfield and the few searching balls into space just weren’t hitting their targets. Alex Morgan put in a lot of effort trying to contain play in her area and set up her fellow forwards, but she could only do so much before she was swarmed by French defenders.

Crystal Dunn and Carli Lloyd came on for Mal Pugh and Andi Sullivan in the 73’, but almost immediately the team was forced to adapt on the fly as Casey Short landed badly on her ankle from a header challenge and had to be stretchered off. Dunn shifted to left back and Christen Press came on for Short to complete the front line with Morgan and Williams.

The last 15 minutes of the game were a bit of a mess. Alyssa Naeher brought two giant point-blank saves in the 82’ and 83’ to keep it level as France clearly scented blood in the water and searched for a game winner.

Meanwhile, the US midfield, now with Brian dropped in front of the defense and McCaskill and Lloyd drifting under the forwards, were unable to help break down France’s defense. It didn’t help that Kelley O’Hara looked exhausted well before final whistle, which put a damper on their original plan of width through engaging the fullbacks. But that was also a problem for a lot of the game, and Horan and Brian also slacked off in midfield.

In the end, the whistle blew for full time with the teams tied at 1-1, the United States weathering a last couple of punches from France to finish things out.

“At some point we ran out of legs,” said head coach Jill Ellis in a press conference after the game. On her thinking in keeping most of the same starting XI after only two days’ rest after playing Germany in grueling conditions, she said, “The reality is I think I’m trying to build some continuity. I knew [Julie Ertz] wasn’t going to be available for us, so having to look at someone else in the six, and just see how those groups work and those subgroups work. I think for sure we got leggy and that’s why we end up using all six subs. We want to be a pressing team. I thought today, yeah, I don’t think we generated,especially that first period, how we wanted to, but good experience for me too. Obviously you have more days in between when you go to World Cup and you’re in qualifying, but to manage traveling and two days in bewteen and playing again, those are good experiences to learn from.”

With the US now headed to Orlando to play their third and final game of the tournament on another two days’ rest, we’ll see what lessons Ellis has drawn from this experience with France.

Next up:

USA vs England
Wednesday, March 7, 7 PM ET
Live on ESPNews