Starting XI: Naeher, Fox, Sauerbrunn, Dahlkemper, Sonnett, Horan, Brian, Dunn, Press, Morgan, Pugh
The United States women’s national team began the year with a tough away friendly against France. Jill Ellis once again turned to her 4-3-3 with Lindsey Horan as the lynchpin in the midfield, but had several key players unavailable due to injury. Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz, and Casey Short were all held out as a precaution, while Kelley O’Hara was still not game ready after her ankle surgery.
That left Christen Press and Mal Pugh to take over the wide attacking spaces in the front six and while Press exploited the left side well, Pugh was often stuck scrambling to recover after a turnover, partially from a rough first touch and partially from some less-than-crisp passing. That was to be expected, though, with the United States roster deep in the NWSL offseason and the French players coming into this more match ready.
France starting things off with a bang, pressing hard on the US’ left side, trying to exploit any weakness they could find in newcomer Emily Fox. Unfortunately, they found it, with French forward Cascarino often beating Fox into space and putting in crosses for Diani and Le Sommer or able to switch the point. Diani exploited an early chance by scoring in the 9’, receiving the pass from Cascarino and finishing far post to make it 1-0.
The US rallied, pressuring French players in pairs to earn the turnover, but when they did recover, the back line wasn’t the best at playing the ball out through the midfield, and the midfield had problems finding a way to the forward. Press created the most forward movement, taking advantage of France’s attempt to overload on her side and darting into space to either take a long-range chance herself or drop a ball into space for Alex Morgan.
Meanwhile, Dunn was a bit lost in the midfield, leaving a lot of pressure on Horan and Brian. That same pressure meant Horan couldn’t drop to help Fox, even though she definitely needed the help dealing with both Casacarino and French fullback Torrent. Most of the support on the right came through Sonnet linking up with Horan and Pugh, but Pugh kept getting overwhelmed out of creating any attacking pressure as the French defense closed in on her.
Alyssa Naeher had to rustle up some big saves near the end of the half, first blocking a point-blank shot from Diani in the 39’ as the defense lost track of both her and the ball in front of goal, and again a minute later dropping to catch a header from a corner. Diani was a constant source of trouble for the defense, cutting in with plenty of runs behind, opening up a hole between Fox and Sauerbrunn.
The half ended at 1-0 for France. The United States had a couple of half-chances, either through long-range chances, or attempts to drop the ball into the box for Alex Morgan, who was waiting to drop off the shoulders of her defenders, but France was up to the challenge each time.
The US started the second half with no changes, although Ellis subbed Fox off in the 53’ for Tierna Davidson. That made it four center backs in the defensive line, which definitely limited any ability to push up through the wings.
Press continued to try alternately force and finesse an attack through, making crosses to the far post and splitting a beautiful ball through the CBs that drew Bouhaddi off her line. But the rest of the field didn’t look so composed, with players giving up too many balls in the midfield under moderate French pressure.
That paid off for the French once again in the 57’ as Diani made it a double for herself. Dahlkemper didn’t manage to closer her down in time and she managed a hell of a lob over Naeher at a fairly steep angle to make it 2-0.
Oh my— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) January 19, 2019
What a goal by Diani for France. pic.twitter.com/FT6SMviEJX
The forward line attempted to switch it up to try and penetrate France’s back four, letting Dunn drift higher and more centrally with Morgan dropping to try and feed her on runs through. It did generate a couple of chances, but nothing that hit the net or particularly tested Bouhaddi in goal.
Ellis made her second sub in the 71’, pulling Emily Sonnet and subbing on Carli Lloyd. Dunn dropped to right back and Lloyd took her spot in midfield. The change didn’t really improve the situation with moving the ball out of the back along the flank spaces and it took a bit for Lloyd to dig her heels into the game. Horan certainly didn’t help as she faded on the ball as the half went on, not managing to pick out the passing channels, and particularly not finding Press in space enough.
France made it 3-0 in the 78’, just minutes after Naeher made a huge block. Dunn lost the ball in midfield and the US offered no pressure on Bussaglia in that central space, allowing her to set up a great ball over for Katoto, who beat both Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn at speed. Naeher came off her line but didn’t really challenge Katoto, who juked her and put the ball into an empty net.
Lloyd began trying to make her mark in the game in the 82’, fighting off defenders in the midfield to hit Pugh in space. Pugh was in position to cross to Press, but her headerr went wide of the post.
Ellis made her last subs in the 84’, with Jess McDonald and Sam Mewis on for Alex Morgan and Lindsey Horan, both like-for-like subs. France kept up the pressure, Katoto’s fresh legs often carrying her behind Sauerbrunn, once again drawing Naeher out in the 88’. This time Naeher went into the challenge and came up with the foot save.
The US managed a consolation goal in stoppage through Mal Pugh. A series of creative one-touches put Pugh into the box and she held off her defender long enough to put the ball far post pats Bouhaddi, ending things at 3-1.
First USWNT goal of 2019— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) January 19, 2019
What a finish by Mallory Pugh pic.twitter.com/Vk0GIGhSA1
Overall, a choppy match from the United States, who definitely looked like they were trying to play catch-up to France for most of the night. But some key points to remember are that the United States was without several of their usual starters, and American players were in the middle of their club offseason, compared to France being in season. Was it still worrying just how much they gave up in the midfield? Yes. Do we still show the same weaknesses in goal that made us fret through 2018? Yes. These are fixable things, or at least things that this talented a roster should be able to mitigate. There’s nine more friendlies left to get the team into fighting shape, so we’ll see if they use them to their best effect.
Next up: USA vs Spain on January 22 in Alicante.