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USA still mixing it up as they beat Mexico 3-0 in World Cup sendoff

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Goals by Christen Press, Mal Pugh, and Tobin Heath.

Soccer: Countdown to the Cup Women’s Soccer-Mexico at USA Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Starting XI: Alyssa Naeher, Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O’Hara, Rose Lavelle, Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath

The sun was hot, direct, and relentless at Red Bull Arena as the United States women’s national team took on Mexico in their send-off game for the World Cup. Aside from Sam Mewis starting in Lindsey Horan’s usual spot, it was practically a full-strength starting XI, or actually a full-strength XI depending on your feelings about Sam Mewis.

Also direct and relentless: the United States attack, compressed largely into the midfield, sometimes leaving only Becky Sauerbrunn behind as a sole sweeper as nine players surged forward. It seemed as though it was going to be one of those days for Mexico as Tobin Heath opened the scoring in the 11’. She won her 1-v-1 battle in the box to earn some space and shot low, making it 1-0.

The US created plenty of chances afterwards, particularly playing the ball into space on the flanks for Heath and O’Hara or Rapinoe and Dunn, with Lavelle sometimes picking out seams for Morgan and Mewis to break a pair of defenders with speed. Mewis was also working with Ertz to put up roadblocks in the midfield, forcing Mexico into errors or pushing them out of goalscoring lanes.

The US inevitably won the ball back in these scenarios and tried to play it out quickly, looking to drop it behind the back line for Morgan, who broke into space a couple of times. She had a particularly juicy opportunity in the 29’ as Crystal Dunn picked her out right in front of goal, but her touch wasn’t enough to find the back of the net. Morgan had another nice move in the 42’ as she body-faked her defender and won the ball into space, but couldn’t create a shot on goal out of it.

Dunn dug into the game more in the later parts of the first half, pushing high or sometimes drifting centrally behind the forwards; she picked up some fouls from Mexico, a time-honored tactic to stop a better player in her tracks. She was the most dangerous player in the dying minutes of stoppage, either rising in front of the goal to win crosses or lingering in midfield and playing others into space or simply shooting it herself.

But in creating lots of near-chances, the US also had lots of mostly-misses, which combined with Santiago’s acrobatics in goal for a 1-0 scoreline at the half.

The US started the second half with a mass substitution, bringing on five new players. Out were Sauerbrunn, Morgan, Rapinoe, Lavelle, and Dunn; replacing them were Mal Pugh, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long, Christen Press, and Carli Lloyd. It was an outright line change for the front three, with Press, Lloyd, and Pugh taking over the attacking. Ertz dropped into the back line and Long was her replacement at DM, while Heath dropped into the left back role.

At a press conference after the game, head coach Jill Ellis said the Dunn substitution was originally not planned for halftime, but that as Dunn was dealing with some ankle tightness, they decided to pull her and drop Heath into the left back role, where she was essentially a wide forward in the formation - and indeed Heath pushed high out of her position, playing the team in a 3-2-5 when Mewis was also taking up space at the top of Mexico’s attacking third.

Lloyd was clearly hungry in her off-the-bench role, netting one in the 67’, but having it called back for offside. She visibly deflated after her initial jubilant celebration in front of a hometown crowd, which as personally disappointing as it was for Lloyd, is probably cause for some comfort for fans knowing that she’s full of fire and ready to bulldoze through any and all obstacles in France no matter what. She and Pugh were fresh threats to Mexico, with Pugh making good on the promise of a goal in the 76’ as Lloyd dug into the edge of the box and dropped the ball across the face of goal, where Pugh was there to bundle it in.

Horan was a nice connective element, and Ertz was, as usual, a major force through the central channel despite her starting position much farther back in the second half. Ellis said that Ertz still has the same responsibilities in the center back position against a team like Mexico that was sitting off of the US a bit. Ertz was still playmaker, passer, and ballwinner from that center back position, and in fact it was her movement forward that helped the US construct their third goal in the 88’. Ertz pushed up and provided the outlet for Pugh with her late run, flicked the pass from Pugh into Press’ feet, and Press did her usual anke-breaking juke to find room for the shot, which whipped past Santiago to make it 3-0.

Ellis was complimentary of Mexico afterwards, saying that with their good movement out of sitting into pressing they gave the United States a variety of situations to practice dealing with. Mexico certainly did their best to stay organized, not panicking at the multitude of balls sent curling behind their line and making sure Alex Morgan wasn’t able to properly pounce. But at the same time, for the number of chance the US attempted to create that didn’t end in at least a shot on goal, you have to wonder what the actual benefit of Ellis’ attack-heavy 4-3-3 is. There’s not much time left to ponder, as the USWNT are headed across the Atlantic in the next couple of days in preparation for landing in France.