It was a slow-ish start for the United States as they took on South Africa in the first friendly since the World Cup roster was announced. There were some changes to the expected starting XI; Lindsey Horan sat on the bench with an injury, although the broadcast noted that she did practice with the team the day before the game and was available as a sub. But Christen Press and Sam Mewis were in the lineup instead of usual starters Horan and Megan Rapinoe, to varying levels of effectiveness.
The US tried to jump start the game with an immediate high-pressure attack, but subsided after a few minutes and looked to beat pressure with off-the-ball runs and short passing to break lines. Rose Lavelle was particularly adept at slipping balls through, often picking up pressure in the midfield and then finding the seam for the runner, usually Kelley O’Hara, who over- and under-lapped freely all half long.
Unfortunately, Press, Morgan, and Heath weren’t quite on the same page, which, combined with South Africa staying disciplined on the back line to drop with them on the US attack, really stifled a lot of chances in the box. Press and Heath also had some trouble connecting, with crosses coming ahead of or behind Heath but not to her feet in front of goal. South Africa also man-marked tightly on Alex Morgan, not giving her much of a peek to run in behind, and staying glued to her if she dropped into space.
The opening goal came in the 37’ as Lavelle once again received the ball in midfield and drew three players’ attention. Sam Mewis dropped a little bit between the lines and received Lavelle’s line-beating pass, took a move to shift the ball to her right foot, and shot low and hard to score and make it 1-0 for the US. Lavelle and Mewis were the real movers and shakers for the US, with O’Hara as their pass outlet as she pushed high. Press was also a flank threat, but either she would choose unselfishly not to shoot, or her pass would be awry. Heath was less of a factor, either not moving into space well or making bad passes, including a head-scratcher late in the half that literally ricocheted at close range off of Julie Ertz’s leg.
Overall, it was a bit of a sluggish first half, with pulses of energy from Lavelle, Mewis, and Ertz, although Ertz spent a large chunk of the half simply trying not to bleed on her jersey due to a mysterious mouth injury she picked up early on.
The second half started with a trio of subs for the United States. Megan Rapinoe, Allie Long, and Tierna Davidson went on, while Tobin Heath, Abby Dahlkemper, and Kelley O’Hara came off. Ellis kept the 4-3-3 and had Rapinoe go into her usual left forward spot, which shifted Press right; Allie Long went in at DM and dropped Ertz to CB; and Davidson went in at left back while Dunn shifted right.
Lavelle was right back at it, attacking the space in front of the back line and putting Rapinoe in along the flank, but the cross wasn’t on target. Crystal Dunn also added on the opposite flank, engaing more than she did in the first half, when it seemed Ellis was reluctant to have both her fullbacks press up at the same time. But despite great individual movement from Lavelle and Mewis, attempts to play in the forwards were lacking.
The US made another sub in the 60’ with Carli Lloyd on for Alex Mogan and Emily Sonnett on for Rose Lavelle. Lloyd took up the center forward mantle and Sonnett went to right back, pushing Dunn up into the midfield for a Dunn - Long - Mewis central line. Dunn was certainly more involved in that midfield role; while not exactly similar to what she does for the North Carolina Courage as a take-no-prisoners 10, she was able to start combining more with Rapinoei to move the ball into the attack.
South Africa attempted to break out of their own half a few times, but Tierna Davidson was often there to win whatever hopeful ball forward got sent up. Lloyd also kept up a tide of relentless pressure, winning back balls she lost and making sure defenders had to stay with her in front of goal.
Ertz also continued to help play out of the back, insofar as the United States really had a “back,” as high as they were able to push up for most of the game. Long might have been nominally the central holding mid, but she was often a covering defender as Ertz continued to be Ertz and press high, sometimes springing Sonnett into the flank.
The last US sub was in the 76’ as Mal Pugh came on for Christen Press in a like-for-like sub. Mewis scored a couple of minutes later as Rapinoe curled a ball through the defensive line and hit Mewis nearly in stride; Mewis somehow got the ball into the net with the goalkeeper sliding into her feet.
Mewis nearly got a hat trick near the end of the game, with Lloyd continuing to fight like hell for possession and Pugh backing her up in the box. Pugh couldn’t find an open channel and decided to put the ball into space for a late-arriving Mewis, whose hard shot was blocked. The US added some late pressure through set pieces, but the final goal fo the night came from Carli Lloyd in stoppage.
That’s a double nutmeg, as Lloyd managed to sneak it in through both a defender and a goalkeeper.
It was, overall, not an exciting game. The biggest question for most of it was “how did Julie Ertz’s mouth start bleeding and when will it stop?” Perhaps it was a case of playing to the level of your opposition; the US seemed fine cruising in a lower gear, not particularly bothered by South Africa, who rarely managed more than a couple of passes in a row. And perhaps that’s fine for a team that doesn’t want injuries so close to the World Cup, which is surely a specter hanging over every player’s head every time they step on the field and risk a collision or a wrong step. That’s certainly a preferable case to the team just...not being good at passing right now. Can we choose to believe in the best-case scenario, wherein the US will peak at the right time, and not worry about these farewell friendlies? Maybe so! There’s nothing we as observers can really do about it, so just avoid that stress headache and live your best life for the rest of the weekend.
USA vs New Zealand
Thursday, May 16
8 PM ET / 5 PM PT
Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri