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USA v. New Zealand: What to Watch For

The US should win. The big question is whether it comes easy or hard.

South Africa v United States Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

The United States Women’s National Team will face New Zealand tonight, in their penultimate sendoff match before they travel to France. It isn’t expected to be a particularly difficult challenge. That’s nothing against New Zealand, who have a solid team that is justifiably going to the World Cup. But the big fish from Oceania are still a fair ways behind the big fish from the bigger confederations. These sendoff matches are meant more as tune-ups than serious tests. And for that purpose, New Zealand should be a good opponent. Tom Sermanni’s side keep a fairly tight ship, leaking few goals while also posing a modest attacking threat—which should combine into a decent test run for some of the US team’s group stage opponents.

With only one more match to go before the big event kicks off, this game is primarily about settling some lingering questions.

Which, if any, of the secondary players will make a case for themselves?

It’s long been clear that Jill Ellis has a preferred XI, and nothing in recent months has suggested significant movement there. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for movement at all. Injuries happen, rotation is necessary in a short tournament, and there will be plenty of chances for substitutions to play a big role. So we’ll want to watch movement on the edges of the starting XI. Is anyone moving up the depth chart, or down? Is anyone solidifying their spot as the first-in-line if change is necessary?

Knowing what we know about Ellis, chances are this will be a fairly full-strength team, so we’re unlikely to see many minutes from the true fringe players. But there are a couple names that are floating right on the edge of the starting XI that deserve some attention.

One big one is Sam Mewis, who has (somewhat inexplicably) been on the margins for a while, but who showed precisely what she can bring in this weekend’s game against South Africa. Will she get the chance to parlay that into more time here? The other big question mark is Christen Press, who seems to clearly be behind Rapinoe, Morgan, and Heath in an ideal starting XI, but whose form has pushed her into the regular conversations for playing time, whether as a substitute or as a starter. Will we see more from her here, and might that tell us something about her potential minutes in France? After all, even if she isn’t a regular starter, she has demonstrated the ability to make a difference as a substitute, and could easily affect some big games from that position.

It could also be important to watch Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh’s usage. Much like Press, Lloyd has demonstrated a clear ability to step into a game and manufacture chances immediately. By comparison, Pugh has generally struggled to exert her presence on games. Absent some evidence of a sea change, it might be time to downgrade Pugh to the third or fourth choice attacking sub.

Will the US be able to get their creative energy flowing?

At times over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a lot of creative potential from players like Rose Lavelle, Crystal Dunn, and the trio of strikers, but those combinations have seemed to fall pretty flat for most of 2019. That hasn’t been a disaster, since there is enough firepower on this team to score even when everything isn’t clicking perfectly. But it would be a good sign if things started to fall in place.

The standard refrain with this team is to express concern about their ability to break down a compact defense. That’s hardly specific to the US—breaking down compact defenses is a conundrum that plagues every talented team. But it would be encouraging to see them putting together something a little more impressive than they managed against South Africa. Especially since New Zealand have a little bit more attacking potential, and could theoretically pose some risk on the counter if left unattended.

Is Kelley O’Hara back? Like, really back?

For all their depth in every other position, this US squad is lacking in fullback options, especially with Casey Short not having made the roster. That’s particularly true at right back, where the second and third choice players (Emily Sonnett and Ali Krieger) are more defensive than offensive contributors. Which is potentially a problem since a big part of Ellis’s plan is for the fullbacks to provide creativity and attacking width. That means a lot is riding on the health of Kelley O’Hara, who could be a real difference-maker if she is back to 100%. Accounts suggest this is possible, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so it’s an important place to watch closely.

Will Alex Morgan look more like the player who has devastated international defenses for the past year, or more like the striker who can’t get her foot on the ball in the NWSL?

For quite a while now, there’s been a significant disconnect in Morgan’s form. For the national team, she’s been on one of her best runs ever. For her club team, she’s struggled to impose herself on games and often looked a bit out of sorts. Given the difference in quality of teammates, and the different stakes, there’s no particular reason to think that the Orlando Pride performances are indicative of what Morgan will produce over the upcoming two months. But her performance against South Africa was well below what we’ve come to expect from her, so it certainly would be encouraging to get a vintage Morgan brace tonight.