The United States Women’s National Team was able to recover from their Thursday struggles, defeating Canada 3-1 before a sold out Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California. The USWNT began their match with a familiar lineup, running out the same 4-3-3 that has become customary over the past few months. There were two changes, with Christen Press replacing Lynn Williams at forward, and with Taylor Smith coming in at right back, pushing Kelley O’Hara over to left bank in place of Casey Short. Otherwise, though, this was the same setup that we saw on Thursday for the first match between these countries.
Things started strong, with crisper passing and smarter runs than were present during the previous matchup on Thursday. The introduction of Smith allowed them to push the fullbacks very high. At times, the setup looked closer to a back three, with Julie Ertz operating as a sweeper, and with Smith and O’Hara playing almost as wingbacks. That sort of fluidity is the key to this system, but was seldom on display last time.
The first good chance for the U.S. came in the 10th minute after Lindsey Horan bruised Jessie Fleming off a 50-50 header, Christen Press knocked it down for Alex Morgan, who wasn’t able to get past Stephanie Labbé in goal. However, after the resulting corner was cleared, the USWNT struck gold on their second corner. A tightly whipped ball from Megan Rapinoe found Ertz at the near post, and her glancing header found the back of the net. Ertz has been unstoppable on set pieces in recent games, and this was no exception.
The next good chance came in the 20th minute after O’Hara unlocked Morgan down the left. She then slid an inviting ball in front of goal, but Rapinoe couldn’t get quite enough on the shot to beat Labbé.
After that flurry of activity, however, things settled down into the same rhythm we saw in Thursday’s encounter: plenty of tough challenges, more than a few minor injuries, and very little in the way of clean possession through the middle. This time, however, the U.S. were the stronger side, closing down the Canadian backline and midfield before they had any chance to build. The swarming high press mostly left Canada pinned into their own half. Their one good chance in the first half came from a bad ball from Horan, sent straight to Christine Sinclair who sent her shot just wide. In the end, despite a modestly promising start, the first half felt mostly like a continuation of the first game, with the USWNT performing a bit better but without much evidence of tactical or strategic development.
The second half started a bit brighter, with both sides earning decent chances in the opening minutes. This time, however, it was Canada who seized the opportunity, cracking open the U.S. press thanks to a delightful long ball from Sinclair to Nichelle Prince. With room to run and pace to burn, Prince got free down the right and was able to pick out Janine Beckie in front of goal, who buried her chance.
Beckie’s goal came after another long ball a few minutes earlier had put Adriana Leon in on goal. Once again showing the USWNT back line to be vulnerable to direct attack. While the American press was mostly able to close Canada down, it also left them vulnerable to long balls over the top.
It only took a few minutes for the Americans to recover the lead, after Horan and Press put Fleming under pressure. Press sent a perfect through ball in, helped along by a Rapinoe dummy, and Morgan buried it after a quick touch to settle the ball. On a night when Press was mostly isolated in possession, her best moment unsurprisingly came through the counterattack.
The USWNT found several more chances around the 65th minute, both on long diagonal balls (from Press and Horan respectively) to Rapinoe who found space down the right. On her second chance, she unleashed a wicked shot from distance, which Labbé almost spilled. It’s possible, though, that Rapinoe might have done better to pick out a teammate rather than looking to shoot there.
Jill Ellis made her first substitution in the 66th minute, bringing on Casey Short for Taylor Smith. The move was needed with Smith having a poor game on the night, as she found it very difficult to make the necessary overlapping runs. After that, it wasn’t until the 75th minute that the U.S. made any further substitutions, bringing on Carli Lloyd and Andi Sullivan in place of Samantha Mewis and Julie Ertz.
Canada, by contrast, substituted aggressively for the final half hour, bringing on several of their young and developing players. That move changed the tenor of the game, bringing in a bit more energy, but also quite a bit less experience. With Canada playing sloppier, the United States found quite a bit more room to operate.
The Americans exploited that room in the 80th minute, with Rapinoe dancing around on the left flank and picking out a ball to Morgan at the top of the goal, who flicked it along for Lloyd to tap in at the far post. It was Lloyd’s 98th goal for the United States, and probably one of the easiest as well.
Rapinoe almost found the goal herself in the 87th minute, unleashing a swerving shot from distance that almost spilled over the line. It was an extremely active night for Rapinoe, as she found quite a bit of space particularly as the game progressed. While she didn’t necessarily use that space as well as she might, her constant pressure left Canada consistently struggling to cope.
In the end, it was a clear improvement from their first performance against Canada, but it wasn’t necessarily an indication of systemic improvement. Until the Canadian youth movement came on the field, the USWNT wasn’t able to create many opportunities. While they were much better without the ball, the USWNT’s persistent problems in possession remained evident.
In a year which has seen the USWNT fall at home on three occasions, defeating their northern rival in the final match will be a satisfying conclusion. But as an indicator of progress moving forward to 2018, this was at best a mitigated success.