Fans and media alike clamoring for Sam Mewis to be allowed to put her stamp on this USWNT lineup since the beginning of SheBelieves got their wish tonight as the United States played Brazil. The first five minutes seemed to signal a fast, dynamic game, with Mewis comfortable controlling the midfield and Mal Pugh finally allowed to attack to the endline and properly orbit around Tobin Heath.
It wasn’t that simple, though. After the first 10 minutes or so, they were back to trying to drop it to Alex Morgan over the top of the back line and Julie Ertz looked less-than-reliable in her DM position. Her passing went awry and she was dispossessed by Brazil, although she warmed up as the half went on.
Still, the US did look better overall than in their previous two games against Japan and England. Mewis’ presence and one-touch passing opened up lots of runs for the US, and Heath and Rapinoe were frequent menaces as they broke through Brazil’s back line. To be honest, Brazil’s defense looked overwhelmed at times, unable to keep up with the combination of Rapinoe AND Morgan AND Heath AND Pugh and often Mewis, with sprinklings of Dunn and O’Hara.
Heath looked good, confident and quick, and she set up several high-chance crosses. She also engineered the first US goal in the 20’ as she made a run into the attacking third. Rapinoe made a slashing run across the box that opened up some space for Morgan as she received Heath’s ball. Brazil’s GK Aline was off her line quickly enough to block Morgan’s shot, but the rebound fell to Heath, now drifted inside to the top of the 18, and she finished with a definitive ball in the net to make it 1-0.
The US contineud to try and play their flank game, alternating between Pugh and Heath and Dunn and Rapinoe. They fell back far too much under Brazil’s advance, perhaps remembering getting caught out too high earlier in the tournament. But that overabundance of caution yielded too much space to Brazil, giving them several sniffs at the goal. The US was better when the forwards kept up the pressure, or when O’Hara was pressed high and keeping Brazil pinned back along the flank.
There was another chance in the 35’ as Pugh floated in a lovely curling ball perfectly weighted for someone right in front of the goal. O’Hara’s diving header was, unfortunately, right at the keeper. Pugh was most effective from that wide position, either opening up space for Heath or putting in a cross. When she drifted back centrally, she faltered, not quite up to controlling the pace from that position.
The last really good chance of the half was in the 41’ as a great little move by Mewis instantly switched the US’ point of attack, finding Pugh in an open pocket with Heath wide. Heath put in another good cross and Mewis’ late arrival in the box seemed to take most of Brazil’s defense by surprise, but her header was off target. The US went into halftime at 1-0, although as the mostly dominant team.
The second half was much less engaging than the first half, on multiple levels. Jill Ellis started things off with a sub, pulling Mal Pugh for Christen Press. The team shifted into a 4-2-3-1, with Ertz and Mewis holding the midfield and Morgan moving up into a lone striker position. Considering that Morgan was at her best when she was in a line with Heath and Rapinoe and had plenty of other people who were either checking off her or vice-versa, this seemed like a bad move.
Press continued to play as though not just a World Cup Spot but her USWNT career was at stake, making great picks from her central midfield position and restarting attacks high up the field. She was unlucky not to get into a one-on-one with the keeper in the 59’ after stripping a Brazilian player, but her touch was just a bit too wild.
Emily Sonnett came on in the 66’ for Kelley O’Hara, slotting in at right fullback. But there was no matching O’Hara in her ability to push high along the flank. Brazil pressed back, Marta engaging more into the space along the right, but between Bekcy Sauerbrunn stretching herself into a block and Ashlyn Harris staying sharp, Brazil’s chances were all denied. Brazil turned more and more towards physicality, giving Ertz a bit of a spin cycle in midfield; one can only imagine the Chicago Red Stars’ collective eyes twitching at Ertz going for her third consecutive 90 minutes while getting shoved around.
Ellis made some late subs, bringing on Tierna Davidson for Rapinoe in the 83’, then a double sub with Carli Lloyd and Jess McDonald on for Morgan and Heath in the 88’. The last 10 minutes was a rather confusing shell game of rotating players and positions, with Davidson and Ertz moving in and out of the back line and the midfield and the team playing with five in the back. McDonald’s fresh legs did make an impact, but she barely had the time and definitely did not have the structural support beneath her to really do much.
The game ended at 1-0, with the sense that the US had been a little bit lucky not to have slouched off with yet another tie. It was interesting, to put it mildly, watching such a bright start unravel over the second half into a very uncomfortable-looking revolving door of a formation. It’s a head-scratcher, what Ellis is doing with her formation changes in each game, some of them for only a handful of minutes. It has an air of “Well I just wanna see...” but at a time when we very much should not be just seeing if something has any merit, but laying down reliable foundations and establishing clear roles for players.