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USA vs China friendlies: 3 things we learned

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There’s a good midfield somewhere in there, we just know it.

China v United States Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The United States put together a pair of close wins over China in June, winning 1-0 and 2-1. Their lone goal in the 1-0 win was an Alex Morgan header off a set piece, but their two goals in the second game came from open play. Perhaps Tobin Heath’s goal needed more than a pinch of luck, but that goal doesn’t happen without the nice buildup and Heath putting herself into position to shoot. But this wasn’t a case of individual brilliance overcoming bad tactics; in fact the tactics, at least in the second game, were fine, with three theoretically excellent midfielders to maintain control while the wings engaged and attacked from the flanks. It was that a good percentage of the team couldn’t execute on the night. Both Allie Long and Julie Ertz watched helplessly as passes rolled by half a step away in game 2, preventing smooth side-to-side transitions, and there were some messes with the defense. So here’s a few things we learned from USA vs China:

Sofia Huerta needs a lot more training at right back and she’ll probably never get it

Huerta did not have a good game 2. Game 1 showed her potential to be a complement to someone like Crystal Dunn, but her defensive work and decision making are not up to par for the USWNT. The problem is she’ll never get the repetitions she needs at right back to truly excel there, playing midfield/forward as she does for Chicago. There’s five games between now and World Cup qualifying. Maybe Tournament of Nations will be a crucible for Huerta, but is she really going to become a reliable enough RB by October that Ellis would risk starting her during qualifying? And then assuming the United States qualifies, will Ellis spend the time between then and June 2019 to make Huerta as complete a fullback as possible? Realistically, Huerta needs to be ready to go by the end of April at the latest. That’s six months after qualification to become a world class right back capable of competing in a World Cup.

One thing Huerta does have going for her is, like Dunn, she can switch around the field on the fly. Ellis might be taking into account her utility in being able to play almost anywhere on the right. The fullback pool is also a little thin on the ground at the moment, and even after Casey Short hopefully makes her triumphant return, that may still leave room for Huerta. There’s only one Crystal Dunn; they can’t just clone her and have her play both right and left fullback and forward.

...can they?

Our central midfield pool is fine

Yes, our midfield did look sloppy in all its iterations. Game 1 was a mix of McCall Zerboni, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long, and Sam Mewis. Game 2 used Mewis, Ertz, Horan, Morgan Brian, and Rose Lavelle. Of those players, Ertz, Brian, and Lavelle are all still recuperating. Brian was kind of quiet in the one half she did get, but showed flickers of her healthiest self operating in tight spaces and picking out the developing play.

Ellis rotated through Ertz, Long, and Zerboni as her holding mid; has Mewis, Brian, and Horan for box-to-box work; and Lavelle is once again a potential 10. Zerboni, Horan, Lavelle, and Mewis can all be asked to play higher and attack aggressively out of the midfield. Brian, Horan, and Lavelle can work the half spaces to help maximize our already dangerous flank play. And in a pinch, there’s good old battering ram Carli Lloyd, assuming her shift into central forward is just another piece of her toolkit and not a permanent move. That’s a lot of flexibility and talent! The question is who is going to become a starter and where; flexibility is nice, but stability can often be much better.

Christen Press can play wide

In game 2 of this friendly series, Christen Press was often the joint swinging the punch at China. Yes, China often gave her tons of room out on the right wing, which was odd considering how often she got fed the ball throughout the entire 90 minutes. But Press did a fine job playing the wide attacker, looking for Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in the box. “Should Press stay central or be forced wide” is a pretty healthy ongoing debate among soccer fans and last night added a tick to the “play her wide” column. Of course, versatility has been the watchword throughout this things-we-learned, and there’s still arguments that Press can play well as lone striker or in a front two. We’ll see what happens once Mal Pugh recovers from injury.