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USA falls 1-0 to Japan in group opener of U-20 Women’s World Cup

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The United States does not look poised to dominate Group C.

USWNT U-20 team before kickoff against Japan at the 2018 Women’s World Cup.

Starting XI: Laurel Ivory, Isabelle Rodriguez, Naomi Girma, Samantha Hiatt, Kiara Pickett, Viviana Villacorta, Jaelin Howell, Ashley Sanchez, Erin Gilroy, Sophia Smith, Savannah DeMelo

The United States U-20 women’s team opened up their World Cup group play against Japan. They started out in a 4-3-3, though they fell back in more of a 4-5-1, with Gilroy and DeMelo expected to shuttle back and forth between midfield and forward lines. A lot of the US’ movement in the first half came along those flanks, focusing more heavily on the right as Sanchez, Howell, and DeMelo set up better interplay looking for the cross.

The US spent a lot of time staying patient in the back, trying to pull Japan in so they could set up the direct ball and try to target Smith as the nine, but it took about 15 minutes or so for the defense to really settle into that mindset. They looked nervy to start, getting surprised by Japan’s bursts of pressure, but settled somewhat despite Japan continuing to pick opportune moments to press.

Still, they had a narrow escape in the 31’, when a flurry in front of the goal put a ball off the crossbar as Japan crashed the net, and then crashed Ivory herself, knocking her into the goal while she was on the ball. Fortunately the ref called the foul and disallowed the goal.

The US had a couple of chances of their own, mostly through Smith. With DeMelo and Gilroy dropping more to try and dig the ball out of the midfield, Smith was a little too isolated up top and a little too eager to score on her own instead of holding up the play. She had a nice run in the 41’, rounding her defender for a look at goal, but by then the angle was steep and the goalkeeper had closed off the shooting lane.

The US finished the first half at 0-0, looking a little bit like they needed to find one or two new ideas or step up the execution of their direct flank play and give Smith a lot more chances in front of goal.

The US came out in the second half with just about the same plan, though, while switching DeMelo and Gilroy left and right. The defense tried overloading the flank a little more, pushing Pickett quite high and leaving three in the back to anchor, and the team did gradually start to claw their way towards more crosses. That was probably some of the thinking behind the first US sub in the 64’, pulling Sanchez for Abigail Kim. Kim indeed brought a burst of speed along the right side and made a couple of energetic crosses in her first 10 minutes on, but they would have done better to look for accuracy over enthusiasm.

The second sub was Brianna Pinto on for DeMelo in the 72’. Pinto went into the midfield working around Howell, trying to retake ground that Japan had dominated until then. It wasn’t particularly effective, with most of the US’ action still coming from pushing wide. Japan responded with the only goal of the game, with Hayashi sending Sophia Smith the wrong way and taking a long range shot from way outside the 18 in the 76’.

The US made their last sub in the 84’ with Emily Fox on for Rodriguez. They let loose with more speed, with Kim in particular burning her defender and trying to get endline. They earned a series of corner kicks in the dying minutes of the game but it was too late. Japan almost got an insurance goal in the last minute of stoppage as well, returning a ball over that saw Girma in a footrace and Ivory coming out to close down the forward just in the nick of time.

It was an unimaginative game from the US. Had their passing been more accurate and timing on runs been better, perhaps a simple game plan would have paid off. But with their performance on the ball lacking, they weren’t able to execute, seeing them stymied each time they tried to go wide and direct, while leaving central midfield for Japan. They’ll need to readjust formation to give Howell some more help, plus generally get their ball movement and first touches to crisp up a lot.

The USWNT U-20 will next play Paraguay on Thursday, August 9 at 1:30 PM ET. The game will air live on FS2 and stream on Fox Sports Go.