The United States just whumped Mexico 4-1, racking up three goals in four minutes in the second half. Alex Morgan played lights out, Mal Pugh looked confident enough to dance out of any 2-v-1 situation, and Megan Rapinoe pulled strings with her usual glee. But for all that there were certainly issues; our midfield is still unsteady, and our defense is, how shall we say - problematic.
The actual defenders playing in their normal positions are mostly fine. Jill Ellis stuck with Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson as her starting pairing, which was not a bad choice at all. Becky Sauerbrunn is coming back from injury and the harsh truth is she won’t always be there to bail us out. Working on a continuous, consistent new center back pairing makes sense.
The problems stem from Ellis preferring to have great players in irregular positions instead of developing good players in natural roles. It’s a complete fluke that she’s able to rely on someone as prodigious as Crystal Dunn to fill in at left back, although we saw how Ellis used Dunn more as a winger, pushed so high her ostensible 4-3-3 was in practice a 3-4-3. And Emily Sonnett, pushed out of central defense, didn’t defend to the best of her known capabilities. Considering it was a cobbled-together defense, it was pretty good, but in the larger context there were problems with this back line that just don’t make it a long term viable option. That defense was basically the emergency tire you put on after a flat: it’ll get you to the next exit, but you really do have to get a proper tire if you want your car to drive right. Ellis doesn’t seem to agree, though.
Ellis re: Sonnett at fullback. “You want a center back that can play wide and a wide player that can play center back." Says "a little bit of versatility” is an advantage #USWNT— Charles Olney (@olneyce) April 7, 2018
In Ellis’ mind this doesn’t seem to be a cobbled together defense at all, in spite of it being a partial response to having tried and true outside backs unavailable, like Casey Short and Kelley O’Hara being injured. Now perhaps counting O’Hara among the “tried and true” gives the game away a little; after all, she was pushed deeper into the position, a key example of a player who was too good for Ellis to leave off her roster, yet who couldn’t break in at her normal attacking position. So she moved, and has done pretty well, especially given she provides that versatility that Ellis prizes so highly as she can shift left or right, which seems to make her something like 1.5 players in Ellis’ eyes, meaning in her mind she only has to call up someone who’s half a defender to actually make two. Something something math.
Anyway, we’ll see what Ellis does with her defense for this game. Mexico might have gotten flustered in the second half, but they have some sharp-eyed breakouts in them, and all it takes is one oops from that pastede on yay defense or from an unsettlingly uneven Alyssa Naeher and someone like Monica Ocampo or Katie Johnson could be blazing one into the net, as we saw to great effect in the first game. This will require much better communication between Dahlkemper-Sonnett and Davidson-Dunn.
We’ll also see if Ellis benches Andi Sullivan, who was not a sturdy anchor for the midfield. Perhaps Ellis will shift Morgan Brian back into that spot and start Carli Lloyd with her. Perhaps she’ll ask Sullivan to show that she can recover mentally and physically between games.
There’s a slight whiff more to the urgency behind these friendlies as we crawl ever closer to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but at this point the most important thing is for all the players to stay healthy, avoid overwork, and return intact to their club teams. In that vein, we can hope for a fun, pacey game much like the first one that didn’t run heavy on aggressive challenges.
USA vs Mexico
Sunday, April 8
1:30 PM ET / 10:30 AM PT
BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, TX
Streaming: Fox Soccer Match Pass