Having worrying autumn friendlies is apparently contagious in the US National team program.
The USWNT headed to Europe the past week to test themselves against some of the world’s best teams, which they hadn’t really done since the Tokyo Olympics. Or at least they thought they were going to. The Spanish team wasn’t really the Spanish team, thanks to some worrying problems. That didn’t keep the Spanish B-team from beating the U.S. pretty goddamn handily yesterday 2-0, which came after England had bested the U.S., 2-1, in London last Friday (and deservedly so, despite some U.S. fan wailing about VAR).
Yeah, it wasn’t good. And it didn’t exactly do the nerves much good less than a year out from a World Cup.
Much like the men, there are a host of caveats for the U.S. One, these are friendlies. Despite the team’s continual high-level of professionalism, it’s always hard to gauge what a game for no purpose other than having the game really means to squads, angers up the blood. Second, most of the roster has the NWSL playoffs awaiting them upon return, so there had to be some element of “make sure I don’t get hurt here.” Most importantly, the two friendlies came on the heels of the release of the Yates Report, clearly outlining just how hazardous it’s been to be in the NWSL in far too many places, so it would be understandable if the U.S. squad wasn’t totally in love with their jobs at the moment.
All that said, the problems we already knew about the USWNT on the road to World Cup 2023 were highlighted in these two friendlies, and not because they were solved. Because they got worse. And that’s simply, the U.S. doesn’t really employ a midfield.
In both games, the U.S. simply could not build dangerous attacks when they had to do it from scratch. They were still lethally dangerous when causing turnovers through a press — their goal against England came from such — and when they could get in more open field on counterattacks. But when England or Spain sat back, or worse yet when they pressed the U.S., the Stars and Stripes looked frazzled and completely out of ideas. Against England, Rose Lavelle would constantly pull out wide to the right side, which at first seemed like a tactic to overload Rachel Daly’s side of the field, which was a wise move considering Daly is quite clearly the weak link in England’s defense. But as the match wore on, it appeared that Lavelle was only doing so to find space, as she really struggled when there was any defender around her. There were far more turnovers from the U.S. than were generated by them.
Which didn’t help the U.S.’s other problem, that both England and Spain were able to dance, prance, and some other word that ends in “-ance” consistently through the Yanks’ midfield with the ball. They could pass and move and dribble in pretty patterns around and through Lindsey Horan, Lavelle, and Andi Sullivan. Teams didn’t just succumb to the U.S. press the way they used to. And when they did pass their way through, they simply ran by the U.S. midfielders.
And this has been a problem since and during the Olympics a year and a half ago. Throughout the CONCACAF tourney, manager Vlatko Andonovski has been forcing Sullivan into the starting 11, and it’s not clear what it is she does. She doesn’t provide much when on the ball, and she doesn’t stem the tide when the other team has the ball. Lavelle appears to be a shell of herself, where her move to Manchester City — and then barely playing there — has greatly altered what was one of the brighter lights on the national team. She appears only comfortable on the counter, which the best teams in the world are allowing less and less. Only Horan looked worthy of the stage, and she had to do pretty much everything both defensively and offensively in these two friendlies, picking up the ball from the deepest position while also being the first to trigger a press.
That doesn’t mean it was all doom and gloom. Naomi Girma looked like the classiest player on the field whenever she was out there, and looks set to be the foundation for the USWNT’s central defense for however long she decides she wants to be. At the other end, even missing arguably at least two starters in Mal Pugh, Alex Morgan, and Catarina Macario, the U.S. front three looked terrifyingly lethal. Especially Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman. When the US could get the ball to them as directly as possible and in space, England found them to be nearly unplayable. Smith is still a starter when everyone is healthy, and Rodman could have a serious argument to be in the starting lineup, but this level wouldn’t drop when Pugh and Macario — if she can make it back by the World Cup — enter the lineup. And Rodman coming off the bench would be the ultimate hammer against tiring teams in Australia and New Zealand next summer,
which, right now, is the U.S.’s only hope. When they get to the knockout rounds and are facing teams that don’t quake in the face of their athleticism and actually use the ball better than the U.S. has demonstrated they can in the past two years, they are going to have to play direct and quick and just get the ball to whatever combo of Pugh, Smith, Rodman, Macario, Morgan are up front. But there are few defenses if any that could claim that they could shackle any of the three of them (there’s an argument to be made that Morgan’s more stationary game wouldn’t be as effective as Pugh, Smith, and Rodman/Macario moving everywhere at speed, but we’ll save that for the tournament).
If Andonovski is hoping that Julie Ertz is going to pull an Aragorn and make this all ok, it’s a forlorn hope. She won’t have played a game in two years through injury and maternity leave. If the answer isn’t on the roster now, there isn’t a ton of time to acclimate someone else. The NWSL season ends within the month. There’s only a couple months of games before the team comes together before the tournament.
But it can still work. A team only needs a moment here and there to score, and games are still decided on one or two moments. Just because the U.S. can’t overwhelm teams through their pressing and speed doesn’t mean they won’t get a couple looks. They did against England, who is probably the best team in the world right now. All of those forwards mentioned above can be ruthless finishers.
It’s just that there seems to be only one way for this U.S. team to play, getting the ball to the forwards through direct play or long balls. And if it doesn’t go perfectly, both manager and the players have looked completely without a Plan B. What happens then? The U.S. looks like it can’t get the ball up to its forwards more than a handful of times per game against good opposition, which means they basically can’t miss. Maybe they’re up to that level for a short tournament, but it’s asking an awful lot.