The news broke this morning that the injury McCall Zerboni suffered in the first five minutes of the United States’ second friendly against Chile was a broken left elbow, and that it would put her out of action through the end of the NWSL season. It seems unlikely she’ll make it to World Cup qualifiers in October either.
As of the writing of this article, there has been no update on Casey Short, who also had to leave the pitch last night, although she seemed mostly fine, leaving under her own power. But it does make you wonder what the cost-benefit of these friendlies is.
On a purely soccer level, it certainly gave Jill Ellis more time to tinker. We saw a different plan for her 4-3-3 through both games, where she asked her the team to often go vertical and quite direct, using her center backs and midfielders to one-two pass into goalscoring territory. Despite playing Crystal Dunn at left back for periods in both games, Dunn’s peak activity was in the second game, when she moved into midfield and was allowed to drift centrally and act as a 10. None of the defenders who played a FB role - Dunn, Tierna Davidson, Emily Sonnett, Casey Short, and Kelley O’Hara - particularly penetrated aggressively along the flanks, although in O’Hara’s case that may have been an artifact of her continuing rehab.
We learned that Morgan Brian and Rose Lavelle look ready to be 90-minute players again, and that they both haven’t lost a step on or off the ball, so maybe that’s justification enough for both of these friendlies considering how pivotal both of them can be in a midfield when firing on all cylinders. We learned that the fluid US midfield is still having trouble connecting with the forwards; there were a lot of miscued passes and runs, although once again Lavelle and Brian seemed to have a lot of ideas, and in the first friendly, Christen Press roved through the entirety of the box looking for space and seams.
Playing against Chile also fills in the window of time between their last friendlies (late July - early August) and qualifiers at the start of October. It’s probably not ideal to have the team not even convene for a camp for two months and then throw them together to qualify for the most important tournament of their sport.
On a broader level, these friendlies make the money that help keep the WNT going. Game 1 drew 23,544 to StubHub on Friday night, and game 2 got 14,340 to Avaya on Tuesday night. Money and publicity matter, and a couple of crowd-pleasing headlines about big wins could help stoke even more ticket sales for the upcoming WC qualifiers. So as much as fans (and NWSL coaches) might wish that the team could take it easy in just one - one! - FIFA window, especially this close to playoffs, USSF probably saw the opportunity to make a cool million bucks in ticket sales (roughly guessing) shrugged, and put it on the calendar.
The cost side is where those NWSL coaches might have some particular thoughts. Zerboni in particular is a huge blow to NC, who will once again face playoffs without an important player. You might recall that in 2017, Taylor Smith had to leave the final in the 12’ after getting fouled harshly by Tobin Heath. Zerboni’s elbow injury was certainly a fluke, completely unpredictable; but in general injury is always a risk in any game, and if the USWNT plays, then the injury risk is nonzero as opposed to simply letting them rest in a FIFA window.
And even though Ellis got to evaluate several players like O’Hara, Brian, and Lavelle, many of the observations about their fitness and technical ability were also readily available from watching NWSL games. Given the quality of the Chile side the WNT faced, were these players really tested more thoroughly than they have been at the club level? Of course, they weren’t playing with each other at their clubs, and the exposure of the disconnect between midfield and forwards would seem to indicate that you really can’t substitute anything for 90 minutes together, regardless of the skill level of your opponent.
So in weighing out all the micro and macro factors, it doesn’t seem entirely fair to call this a pair of meaningless friendlies. Sure, they won’t count towards any trophies and in terms of numbers, they helped pad a few stats for some players. In that sense, they carry no greater meaning. Was Ellis expecting to learn what she did about her attackers? Possibly, given the way she changed up her tactics, though that was probably also partially a reaction to losing Megan Rapinoe for these games due to injury. Are Chicago and North Carolina probably having some coach meetings today to discuss best and worst case scenarios? Possibly also yes. When there’s money and qualifying on the line, those concerns probably don’t register very vividly for US Soccer, except inasmuch as they might affect Ellis’ future rosters. But that qualifying on the horizon is what lends these games more weight than if they had come in the mid-cycle lull, when the closest tournament is over two years away. Perhaps fans and coaching staff alike will be thanking these two games a month from now as Canada or Mexico attempt to expose US weaknesses. Perhaps the WNT will breeze through qualifying. At the very least, let’s hope that everyone stays healthy.