Starting XI: Naeher, Dunn, Sauerbrunn, Dahlkemper, Sonnett, Horan, Ertz, Lavelle, Rapinoe, Morgan, Heath
The struggle continued for the United States women’s national team as they played their second away friendly following January camp, this time against Spain. The previous game against France was marked by a sense of playing catch-up, and much of that was in effect here once again on a chilly night in Alicante.
Spain swept out of the gate looking comfortable on the ball, playing a smooth possession game that nevertheless fizzled around the 18-yard box. The US dropped, absorbed, although perhaps for too long without any critical pressure, and then looked to break out quickly. They created some chances on the run, Crystal Dunn pushing up along the left flank and overlapping Megan Rapinoe to make for a far more active and effective wide space than against France, but several balls targeting Alex Morgan or a drifting-central Rose Lavelle went begging.
The US began building again about halfway through the first half, mostly looking to catch Morgan in front of goal, but with some spirited attempts at range as well. Still, Spain surged once again, compacting the US back into defensive shape, limiting Heath’s ability to get forward on the right as she dropped to help cut off that pocket in front of Emily Sonnett.
The half was an interesting but frustrating back-and-forth no matter which side you were rooting for, as Spain would frequently end 15-pass chains with no attempt at goal and the US took too long to close down Spain’s possession and move the danger down the field.
Jill Ellis made three changes to start the second half, bringing on Tierna Davidson, Mal Pugh, and Christen Press for Sonnett, Horan, and Rapinoe. Davidson went to left back and the ever-versatile Dunn shifted to the right.
Press was an immediate spark of energy. The US weren’t exactly playing lackadaisical until then, but neither were they going at full speed, which is understandable given where they are in terms of their preparations for the World Cup. Press went at the ball like it was a much more high-stakes game, and given her recent on- and off-the bench playing time, she may be doing her best to remind Ellis why she should be a first choice pick.
Press made a quick impression with her intensity of play, galloping into the box off a ball from Lavelle out of the midfield and scoring to make it 1-0 in the 54’.
The US as a whole turned up the intensity, taking advantage of mostly-fresh legs. Jess McDonald subbed on in the 60’ for Tobin Heath, adding another option to get behind and maybe open up a space for Morgan.
Spain had their moments though, finally trying to put the ball on frame. Alyssa Naeher had to make a direct stop in the 63’ as a through ball split Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn, who honestly looked a little bit caught off guard in the moment.
But Press took it back to Spain’s net again, owning the ball and not getting shut down by three surrounding players, which allowed her to pick out a gap for Morgan. Morgan’s shot ended up getting saved, but the US kept surging. Julie Ertz made some drives through the center, although this forced Lavelle to drop each time. Ertz ended up getting subbed in the 69’ for McCall Zerboni and Lavelle went off in the 76’ for Sam Mewis; that Zerboni-Mewis combo turned up the physicality a little in the center, although there were certainly scraps between Horan, Ertz, and Lavelle and the Spanish midfield as well. Zerboni also kept looking to put the forwards into space with forward ball movement, but the runs weren’t as frequent as they might have been earlier in the match.
Spain’s pace dropped off through the last 10 minutes of the game, although they forced a big midair grab out of Naeher in a corner in the 85’. The US still drove directly at goal to the last whistle, with Mewis curving a ball directly into McDonald’s path in the 88’. With a couple more yards of space McDonald might have snapped a shot off, but Spain’s goalkeeper Paños came out to collect.
The game ended at 1-0 with Press’ goal the difference maker. It was a slightly better game than the one against France; Rapinoe and Dunn showed some early verve prying open opportunities from the left side and Press was clearly not messing around. But it was also a subdued game in some ways from the USWNT, giving Spain a little too much space to possess, not always getting as numbers-up in the final third as they could have. Perhaps the time to really start worrying is during SheBelieves; if the team still looks like they’re at 75% in March, then we can give in to our sports anxieties. For now, toes have been dipped back into match fit waters after the last long rest these players were likely to get before the World Cup whirlwind takes them. As long as no one got injured (crossing fingers for Zerboni, who took a hard hit and looked to be clutching her shoulder near the end of the game), this was not the worst possible outcome for January.