Women's World Cup: Three Takeaways from USA vs. Australia
The United States went into this World Cup opener against Australia looking for a lot more than three points: they wanted to prove they were the best team in the world again after failing to look it for a few years now.
How did they do? Here are three things I took away from this match:
1. Don't sweat the slow start...yet
Simply put, the Stars and Stripes didn't look particularly good for 60 minutes. At that point, they were tied 1-1 with an inferior team, had conceded the better chances, and looked incredibly untidy in possession. From that point on, however, something changed, and the script flipped on its head: the States looked slick in possession, tightened up at the back, conjured lots of dangerous moves going forward, and never looked like losing.
It's hard to tell exactly what changed the momentum, be it a young Australian team running out of gas after coming out swinging, a nervy US team settling down under the weight of expectations, or simply Christen Press's comfortable side-footed finish in the 61st minute that finally gave the Americans the upper hand. Regardless of which explanation you choose, I think it augurs well for the future.
There were absolutely nerves, which is to be expected for a big occasion (just look at powerhouse Sweden limping to a draw with 33rd-ranked Nigeria). I also think it reflects a roster that is less experienced than it appears, given that the U.S. has the oldest average age in the cup. Firstly, the oldest players are only playing bit parts while some of the youngest, like Julie Johnston, are mainstays. Johnston is the least experienced member of the team and unsurprisingly looked the least composed on the big stage. It's also worth nothing that mid-career players like Press and Meghan Klingenberg, both 26, are also experiencing their first World Cup. Look for all three to shine once they settle in.
If the issue is merely fatigue on the super-fast artificial turf surface, or being able to hang with the Americans for a full 90 minutes, I think we're fine on that count too. The insane depth up front means we can do quite a lot of rotation to keep fresh, and our team is fit to start with. Especially with an extra round added to this year's edition of the WWC, that depth advantage will be more and more important. I suspect that a fast start from our opponents only for them to fade may become a theme.
All that being said, however, the slow start doesn't leave me free of any doubt, since it seemed to confirm what we had been seeing throughout 2015. If anything, the second half looked more out of character than the first. While many observers expect the US to round into form as the bright lights go on, these problems are not new, or surprising, and we'll need to overcome them.
2. Some vets proved they could still ball, but not all of them
"Woman of the Match" really shouldn't have more than two nominees: Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo. Rapinoe ran the show on her own down the left flank, providing immense individual inspiration, displaying huge quality on the ball, finishing clinically, and playing a role in all three goals. She's almost 30, but it's possible this was the very best she's looked in her USWNT career. Solo, 33, just gave more evidence that she's the greatest keeper in the history of the Women's game, just one day removed from an Outside the Lines report that exposed ugly details of her arrest for domestic violence over a year ago. Her two saves inside the first 15 minutes were truly extraordinary. Having a goalkeeper of that quality takes a lot of pressure off of a relatively-inexperienced defense and a midfield that hasn't done a great job holding onto the ball.
On the other end of the ledger was Abby Wambach. She was uncharacteristically ineffective in front of goal or with her head, she's a step slow at 35 to make anything happen on her own, and dropping deeper to get on the ball actually rendered her even more isolated. For my money, as I've argued before, she will be at her best as a substitute where she can outmuscle and out-jump tired defenses and provide an important tactical outlet while either chasing a game or trying to seal it off. Plus, the US has an insanely talented stable of forwards, so any other option (Press, Leroux, and Morgan are all first-choice in my book) would be quality in her own right.
Lastly, I cannot stress enough how big a deal it is that Alex Morgan got a trot out. She's been out for more than a month and not many reporters covering the team expected her to return this early. I know she's a young veteran, at 25, but she's the best player on the team right now and it's her second world cup. If she gains her fitness back by the knockout stages, she'll give the US a lot more margin for error in lukewarm performances like these.
3. The midfield is still a mess, but it doesn't have to be
The best way to keep pressure off of your own back line and create chances going forward is to maintain consistent and composed possession. With no true holding midfielder and one of the wide midfield spots going to Christen Press, who is not only a forward but clearly uncomfortable playing wide right as a right-footer, this problem has been identified for months now. In all honesty, it smacks of Jill Ellis trying to get her best 11 individual players on the field rather than looking at who complements each other best.
One factor I didn't mention about the last half hour of the game was the addition of midfielder Tobin Heath on for Christen Press. Obviously I think Press is fantastic, but Heath naturally plays much deeper, is comfortable facing goal, is impeccable with the ball at her feet, and knows how to play defense. To me, it was no accident that we looked better in possession when Heath came on. The effect was amplified when youngster Morgan Brian came on and looked composed beyond her years on the ball as a prototype midfielder.
As such, there are a million solutions. One could be to switch Press with Leroux, who is fast, powerful, direct, and has already proven she can cut it back from the touchline in the buildup to the second goal. I can imagine her being successful wide right, and Press would get to her preferred spot close to goal. Ellis could also be so bold as to drop Wambach and play Leroux and Press up top as Morgan recovers, and Heath wide right.
What isn't a solution at this point, since it would've taken months of implementation, is a switch to a 4-3-3 that might've alleviated this problem. That being said, having met with Jill Ellis twice and written about soccer long enough to know how much more coaches know than I do, I actually have a lot of faith that her fundamental tactical decisions and personnel assessments are sound, and probably based on information I don't have (like how the players look in practice or health concerns). As such, take my points with a grain of salt and trust the Portsmouth-born woman.