The United States Women defeated England last night, and in doing so secured first place in the SheBelieves tournament. After finishing last here in 2017, and following that up with a rough performance in the inaugural Tournament of Nations, the US will surely be happy to return to winning ways. Looking back, what did we learn from this tournament?
This team is good enough to win the World Cup
The US faced off against three of the top teams in the world, and came away with the title, allowing just one solitary goal in the process. The games weren’t particularly eventful, and the play wasn’t especially impressive. But there’s no denying the results. Then consider that they managed it without key players like Becky Sauerbrunn, Sam Mewis, Tobin Heath, and Rose Lavelle. And further consider that they were able to get past injuries to some of the important players in the camp, like Julie Ertz, Kelley O’Hara, and Casey Short. Given all that, the result against England came with two makeshift fullbacks, a central midfield that didn’t make a huge amount of sense, and a 19 year old college player at center back.
All in all, this shows that the US has the ability to beat the best in the world, and doesn’t even have to play especially well to get it done. This team has resilience, spirit, and commitment. Combine that with arguably the world’s best talent pool and you’ve got a recipe for a team that is incredibly tough to beat.
The midfield still isn’t right, but maybe that’s okay?
It’s closing in on three years now since the American midfield has really looked good. And even then, it was only a brief flicker brought about by the introduction of Morgan Brian, the technical skill and creativity of Lauren Holiday, and the inspired brilliance of Carli Lloyd. With Holiday’s retirement and Brian’s injuries, the glue that held things together disappeared. It’s been a big problem ever since the 2015 World Cup final, and a huge part of the reason why the US has sputtered offensively, even while continuing to stitch together solid results.
Last summer, Ellis seems to have finally acceded to the need for a holding midfielder, after trying variations on a double-pivot and a three back system. This has helped, particularly given the excellent performances turned in by Julie Ertz in that role. But the newfound solidity hasn’t really fundamentally altered the equation. The SheBelieves matches made that clear. The US pressed well against Germany, but didn’t produce much attacking possession. Then, without Ertz, they struggled mightily against France. Andi Sullivan dropping into the libero/sweeper role helped the US keep clean possession in the backfield, but left Morgan Brian isolated in a sea of French players, and therefore stifled the entire US attack.
Against England, the midfield trio of Long, Horan, and Lloyd also played poorly. Horan, in particular, had a rough game, with her first touch being heavy all night. Long, meanwhile, showed once again why she simply doesn’t make sense in a holding role. Her possession is solid when she’s not under pressure. But she’s careless with the ball when closely marked, and prone to giveaways in dangerous spots. Lloyd was Lloyd—not doing much with the ball, but making the sort of aggressive runs that put the defense under pressure and create space for her teammates.
And yet, it sort of worked. It didn’t work well, but there were glimmers of an idea here. Rather than trying to work through the midfield, the US mostly just looked to bypass it. The primary mode of attack was a combination long diagonal switching balls from the back, and purely vertical long balls into the center. Both provided some excellent attacking chances. The notable players here were Abby Dahlkemper—who had an up-and-down tournament defensively, but whose precision passing was spot on here and deserving of high praise—and Alex Morgan who has quietly turned herself into a kind of bruising #9 who dominates in the air (hands up everyone who saw that coming).
It seems like a waste for the US to play route one soccer when they have this talent pool at their disposal. But at a certain point it may be time to acknowledge that Jill Ellis simply is not the coach to coax a more creative passing game out of the team. If so, and given that Ellis isn’t going anywhere any time soon, it makes sense to try to start playing differently.
This style of play won’t win many converts to the beautiful game, but if the US is able to ride a series of 1-0 victories to another World Cup title, that probably won’t matter much to most fans.
Counting on your opponents to fail is a dangerous game
All that said, it’s also worth acknowledging just how narrow the margins are here. The US scored a total of three goals over 270 minutes. One a wind-aided long ball from Naeher, the second a goalmouth scramble in which Pugh just about bundled the ball over the line, the third a milquetoast cross that received two deflections on its way to the back of the net via an own goal. And while they had a few decent scoring chances of a more conventional nature, there really weren’t that many.
The point is: if Germany had won their defensive header, France had cleared the ball, and England had simply let the keeper collect the pass, the US might have been shut out.
Obviously, those things didn’t happen. And the US of course deserves some credit. A big part of winning is simply putting yourself into the position to capitalize on opportunities. Morgan won her header, Pugh pounced on her chance, and Rapinoe forced the defense to execute under pressure. When given similar chances, the opposition mostly failed to execute.
But there’s absolutely no guarantee that will continue to hold true. After all, their European opponents also faced injury problems. They also were struggling to answer big questions about style and setup. And in many cases, they have much simpler problems to solve. Then consider the rise of teams like Australia and the Netherlands and realize that the international talent pool is the deepest it’s ever been.
For all that quality she showed over these three games, do we really feel confident counting on Tierna Davidson to hold Sam Kerr or Jessie Fleming goalless? Ertz has been superb in the holding role, but are we really certain that she’ll be able to shut down Dzsenifer Marozsan or Jackie Groenen? Conversely, given the ridiculous wealth of attacking talent available to the US, should we really be satisfied with their sparse goal-scoring record?
At the end of the day, the US may very well be able to grind out a series of narrow victories and take home another World Cup title. But it’s worth asking why that now seems to be the limit of possibility. 18 months from now, we may look back on this period and wonder why they settled for scraping by, rather than doing something to address the underlying problems.