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USA ties Japan 2-2 in shaky start to SheBelieves

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Some solid games out of a few players, but also shaky moments out of a Sauerbrunn-less defense

2019 SheBelieves Cup - United States v Japan Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Starting XI: Alyssa Naeher, Kelley O’Hara, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Julie Ertz, Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe

Coming off of two not-great games in a row, the United States needed to crisp up before facing Japan in the first game of the 2019 SheBelieves Cup. For the first 10 minutes or so, crisp up they did, moving the ball very well despite decent physical pressure from Japan and looking like they were calmly assessing the situation and looking for the right opportunity. Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath were both good outlets for US buildup and they created some early chances, particularly in the 5’ when Heath picked out Pugh right in front of goal. Pugh was unable to shoot one time though, which was followed by a lack of finish on a beautiful ball by Lavelle dropped right across the face of goal.

Japan began to dig their way back in, tightening up their passing and trying to drop the ball behind the US midfield line for their attackers. Yokoyama dinged a shot off the crossbar in the 11’ as she beat Dunn, which seemed to get the US to back off momentarily and engage Japan lower down the field.

They continued trying to feed the ball up through the flanks, mostly through Rapinoe and Heath with Lavelle supporting underneath. Pugh was much less active as she floated side to side, not effectively under- or overlapping and looking rusty with her touches on the ball.

Still, the US found a breakthrough in the 23’ as Tobin Heath pulled all eyes to her endline run, Alex Morgan drew defenders to her checked run and opened up some space, and Megan Rapinoe lost her defender in the box. Heath’s pass was spot on and Rapinoe made the finish look easy.

Heath had less success in the rest of the first half, not attacking Japan’s flank quite as aggressively and instead holding up play looking for options. Alex Morgan did her best to discombobulate Japan’s defense, unselfishly pulling attention before feeding a runner, often Lavelle. US distribution did not have a lot of luck through that central channel, though, needing better possession and distribution. The US was not to get that strenuous ballwinner in the middle, though. More on that in a bit.

Teams started the second half at 1-0. Ellis subbed in Emily Sonnett for Kelley O’Hara; O’Hara is probably still not at 100% fitness, although she looked fine for the half she did play. However Ellis promptly rearranged her team into a sort of 5-4-1 with Lavelle and Pugh as a double pivot and Ertz dropping into the middle of the back five - only to rearrange them back into a 4-3-3 about seven minutes later.

Japan proceeded to harass Tobin Heath wherever she went on the field, presumably having learned their lesson from the first half and also picking up that the US was relying so heavily on her as their buildup outlet. The US tried to relieve the pressure by having Heath drift towards Rapinoe, but nothing doing for the US. Meanwhile, Japan took advantage of pressuring turnovers and attacked the US net, resulting in a goal in the 67’. The US defense didn’t look super connected until then, with lots of testing of any gap between Dunn and the center backs. This time Tierna Davidson made a bad pass right to the feet of Nakajima, who promptly slammed the ball past Naeher and into the net to tie it at 1-1.

The US fell back under Japan’s pressure, unable to pass out of the back, having lost so much of the crispness from earlier in the game. Christen Press came on for Mal Pugh in the 75’, honestly probably 30 minutes after she should have come on, and Heath dropped into Pugh’s slot at right midfield. Press’ fresh legs helped the US break back into the attacking third, and in the 77’ she hit a great pass right into Alex Morgan’s path as she dashed into the box. Morgan chested the ball into the goal to make it 2-1.

Morgan came off in the 85’ for Carli Lloyd. The game also hit a long pause as one of the linespersons picked up an injury, extending stoppage to five minutes total. Japan didn’t need all five minutes to even the score; while the US was trying to drop long balls into Lloyd’s path, Japan was once again sniffing at the gaps in the defensive line. Davidson stepped up to a challenge, opening up a huge gap to slip the ball between Dahlkemper and Dunn, and Dunn couldn’t cover Hasegawa dashing in far post. Japan leveled it at 2-2 in the first minute of stoppage, and that’s pretty much how things ended.

The US really suffered from a lack of a real central ballwinner besides Ertz. Ertz was limited in how often she could press high and add numbers to the attack, and later in the game Lavelle was stuck too deep in midfield trying to help Ertz shield the defense. Having a player like Lavelle, whose biggest benefit by far is to the attack with her abilities in tight spaces as she pulls defenders out of position and her creativity in her distribution and runs, sequestered so far away from the goal seems like an elementary mistake. Here Horan’s presence was missed, although Ellis certainly could have looked to her bench and found Sam Mewis all warmed up and ready to go.

Next up: game 2 of She Believes, as the United States hops down to warmer climes to face England in Nashville.