Prior to the start of World Cup qualifying, we planned on doing a stock up/stock down column after each United States women's national team game. Inevitably, in every game, some players will perform very well and others will perform below expectations, giving us plenty to evaluate and reason to speculate about the lineup for the next match.
After Wednesday's match against Trinidad and Tobago, that would have been a pointless exercise. While all wins count the same and the USWNT is likely to improve significantly over the next few games, there was not a single player who performed at or above expectations in the CONCACAF Women's Championship opener.
Mostly, that's because of the astronomically high standards that this group of players has set at both the national team and club professional level. This is a group that has been excellent lately, and they were supposed to beat Trinidad and Tobago by a very significant margin. Instead, they played a scoreless half where the defining characteristic was bad turnovers.
So in place of stock up/stock down, we introduce a post that we assumed would be wholly unnecessary during this tournament, because we didn't anticipate being able to spot discernible tactical issues against this level of competition.
What went right
Well, not much for the USWNT, but let's show some love to T&T.
Randy Waldrum's tactics - T&T busted out a pretty rare flat back five in a 5-4-1 formation, where the fullbacks didn't get forward much at all and the two wide midfielders would get forward along with the striker on the break, creating some pretty dangerous three-on-two counters. The two midfielders took turns pressing, while the central defenders were really well disciplined, with one regularly stepping up to close down while the other two stayed home. It was really impressive to watch,
Kimika Forbes - Even though Waldrum's tactics were great and the USWNT wasn't very good, there was still a huge talent and experience disparity in this match, leading to the Americans getting off 29 shots. T&T's goalkeeper wasn't at fault for the goal, made a dozen saves and who knows how many clearances that didn't count as saves. She was amazing.
Hope Solo - Was only called upon a couple of times, but didn't make any mistakes. This has to be acknowledged. She's the only player who didn't do anything wrong.
Abby being tall - Not just on the goal, but on a few other occasions, Wambach was able to win important headers. She had a couple of other shots saved and had some nice flick-ons for teammates. Her height and skill as a header of the ball continues to be a pretty great weapon.
What went wrong
We'll, uhh, try to keep this reasonable. All of these things are related to each other, and it's pretty tough to figure out which problem caused the other ones.
The 4-2-4 - The concept was okay, and evidence that Jill Ellis scouted her opposition. She thought T&T would play a back five and she was right, so she busted out an old school Brazilian 4-2-4 formation. In theory, it should pull defenders out of position overwhelm them, while the lack of midfielders and isolated central defenders shouldn't hurt the team too much. But the movement of the forwards was poor, which kind of screwed up everything. They didn't appear to have an understanding of what they were supposed to do.
At the real heart of the problem was the roles of Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Wambach was listed as a midfielder on the team sheet, but she didn't actually do that much dropping back to find the ball and create. Strangely, Morgan did more of that, even though she's both the best poacher of the U.S. forwards and the least adept at doing that. Nothing about anyone's role or the way they moved around made sense.
Lauren Holiday's distribution - In the absence of a true defensive midifielder, moving Lauren Holiday into a deep-lying playmaker role seems like an okay idea. She's demonstrated that she's adequate defensively and has an understanding of the position, and she's pretty brilliant technically. She should be able to spray diagonals and through balls around, running the show from deep. But her passing was really off on Wednesday, though outside factors certainly contributed to that.
With Shannon Boxx now 37 and Morgan Brian probably not quite ready to be first choice, someone has to fill the central midfield role. Maybe Holiday will get more comfortable with it as time went on, but she's probably the best attacking midfielder in the world, and regularly looks like the USWNT's best player when she's allowed to get forward. She can be used better than this.
Everyone looking like strangers - Okay, so this is a pretty weird tactical setup. It's not one the USWNT have used before. But this group have players has been pretty close to unchanged for the last five years, so it's odd that they looked like they'd never played together. Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press, the team's two newest starters, still have 16 and 27 caps, respectively, so they've been integrated into this team adequately. The other nine players were key contributors at the 2011 World Cup. A new formation and fairly new coach doesn't explain this away.
Here's the good news: It's not going to go any worse in the next game. It might go worse against Haiti or in the semifinal (against Costa Rica?), but on the evidence of Wednesday's early game, Guatemala are not anywhere near as good as Trinidad and Tobago. The USWNT can make the same mistakes and probably win something like 3-0 or 4-0. Hopefully, Ellis and the team figure out what went wrong here and correct it, leading to a pretty dominant win. If they don't, they might end up meeting a rude awakening later in the tournament.