For the first time in 18 months, the United States women lost a match, falling behind 3-0 to France before finding a late consolation goal to produce a final 3-1 scoreline. It was an inauspicious way to begin their march toward a World Cup title defense this summer, not merely to lose a match but to do so in such resounding fashion. France were the better team in virtually every respect, and made a strong case for their own status as frontrunners this summer.
There’s no reason to panic
For all that the result went poorly, the overarching message from this match should not be one of crisis. The US was beaten, but this by no means is evidence of structural crisis. Consider the following three points:
First, the US was fresh off a long break—not having played a match together in two months, and with the squad now four months removed from the conclusion of the NWSL season. Meanwhile, the French players are in the middle of their club season. If they looked far more crisp and well-seasoned, this should hardly be surprising. The US certainly won’t be happy to have been so thoroughly outmatched physically—particularly since athletic dominance and physical presence is so often a key strength over their opposition—but those issues have to be balanced against their relative levels of preparation.
Second, the US lineup was semi-experimental. With four or five likely starters on the bench or nursing minor injuries, coach Jill Ellis opted to try some new options. Whether this was a “bluff,” meant to hide some of her cards for a potential showdown later this year – as some suggested in the pre-match runup – or merely an effort to test out new ideas, the effect was the same.
Third, the US has a track record here. As several players noted in the post-match conversations, they well remember coming to France and losing exactly four years ago, in the run-up to the last World Cup. As Christen Press put it: “It was our first game in 2015, and the team turned around and we had a tough game against England and we won. And so I think it will be the same intent, to head to Spain...to get this over with, out of our minds, and on to the next one.”
Press’s comments also reflect another important lesson: the best way to prepare for a big event is to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. While they certainly would prefer to win, there can be benefits in regaining a bit of the memory of what it feels like to lose, to chase a game. Certainly better to do so now than in the middle of the World Cup. As Lindsey Horan put it, “We’re disappointed with the loss, of course we are, but it was a great challenge for us. We have six months until the World Cup and that’s where we want to be at our best.”
All that considered, while there’s no reason to panic, there are a few places where it might be reasonable to worry.
The experiments mostly didn’t work
This was an experimental lineup, and there is real value in experimenting. Still, generally you hope that when you experiment you find something worth building from. But the US really didn’t here.
First, Emily Fox was given a big opportunity and a big challenge, one that she struggled quite a bit to meet. It seems almost unfair to say that the college sophomore was unable to handle the full force of a deadly French attack being hurled against her—is that really so surprising? Still, if Ellis was considering Fox as a potential option for this summer’s tournament, this game probably was sufficient to scotch those plans. It was a good learning opportunity, and as Ellis said after the match “put her in a challenging situation sometimes you only learn by doing.” But based on the evidence here, the fruits of that learning probably won’t be born until 2020 and beyond.
Second, the midfield trio of Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan, and Crystal Dunn has much to recommend it in theory. While it lacks a pure defensive midfielder, Brian has excelled as a possession-oriented holding midfielder before, while Horan lends quite a bit of muscle. But the true strengths of this midfield should be expressed in their ability to retain and build possession. But in addition to the individual players having mediocre (Brian) to poor (Dunn) to dreadful (Horan) games, the system as a whole just didn’t work. They tried to interchange, but the movement was slow. They often struggled to provide the necessary defensive support (particularly for poor Emily Fox, who wasn’t done any favors by the setup). In theory, a midfield organized along these lines could work. But last night provided powerful evidence against it in practice.
Finally, the problem of fullbacks continues to linger and frustrate. So much of Ellis’s tenure has been defined by the idea of aggressive, attacking fullbacks, but she has regularly struggled to find the personnel capable of doing the job she desires. With Kelley O’Hara still working back from injury, and with Dunn deployed in the midfield, there were really no other options. In fact, once Fox was pulled just after the half, the US backline was composed of four centerbacks. That’s not ideal when the whole raison d’être of this system is to use rampaging fullbacks to provide strength on the wings. Will Ellis keep looking to expand her tactical options here, will she live in hope that Dunn and O’Hara will stay healthy, will she turn back to some of her other fullback options? It remains to be seen.
Some players are in danger of playing themselves out of the team
While most of the team played badly (by their lofty standards) in Le Havre, it won’t have much effect on their overall standing. Lindsey Horan looked as poor as she has in years, but it will take a lot more than one bad game to threaten her place in the first choice XI. But some players might have more to fear.
Mallory Pugh, in particular, simply hasn’t looked right since going down to injury last June. She certainly could storm back to form, but a few more games like this (her late goal notwithstanding) and she is in serious danger of falling out of the running. The US is hardly lacking for pacey winger, after all, so why rely on her when there’s plenty of other good options?
Alyssa Naeher, meanwhile, is surely in no serious danger of losing her spot. Ellis has made clear, both through words and actions, that she considers Naeher the clear #1. Still, her tentative decision-making against France is of a part with many other performances of late. Naeher remains the overwhelmingly likely choice to start every game at the World Cup, but for the first time in a very long time, the US has serious doubts about their first-choice goalkeeper.
Among the more marginal cases, Morgan Brian did enough against France to demonstrate her value to the team—particularly in the second half when she seemed to ease more into the flow of the game, and was able to ramp up her physicality—but failed to capitalize on the chance to show that she can do enough in possession to justify forgoing a more destructive defensive player. On the other side of the equation, Sam Mewis showed more in twenty minutes on that front than Brian could in 90.
Finally, Abby Dahlkemper wasn’t directly at fault in any singular, huge mistakes. But she didn’t have a good night. And her poor ball-playing was a big part of the reason why the US attack was so stultified. Far too often, Brian did her job to draw two or three French pressers, creating a channel for Dahlkemper to pass through...only to see an unhelpful sideways pass or aimless long ball to no one. The second centerback job may still be Dahlkemper’s to lose, but she didn’t help her case here.
But there were some bright spots
Admittedly, there weren’t many bright spots, but it would be false to suggest the game was nothing but negatives. Ellis will surely have been pleased to see Press seemingly back to top form. After a somewhat difficult 2018, Press looked like her old self, working magic on the ball and seeming to grow more and more into the wide role where she is usually deployed for country. While Alex Morgan had a poor game by her usual standards, there was some good news from her potential backups. Jess McDonald provided some important physicality in a game where the US needed a bruiser in the front line. And Carli Lloyd also looked sprightly in her limited minutes, providing a pretty strong proof-of-concept for her expected role as a late-game supersub.
Playing France was an important benchmark, and they certainly would have preferred to win. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. As Ellis said after the match: “This was a great test for us tonight, but the final exam is in June.” If the team can treat this as an invitation to continue working on their areas of concern, it may turn out to be more useful than a messy victory could have been.