World Cup Progress Report: US Women
Now that we're two games into the Womens' World Cup, we have a bit better of an idea of what we're working with in this United States side. After naming three areas that stood out to me after the Australia match, I figured I'd revisit them with the Sweden match under our belts, where appropriate:
The midfield got better, but not nearly good enough
I'll admit some self-satisfaction when Portsmouth-born US coach Jill Ellis dialed up the exact lineup change I'd been asking for, pushing Christen Press back up top to her natural striker role, sacrificing 35-year-old Abby Wambach, and substituting 22-year-old wünderkind Morgan Brian, an actual midfielder, in that right midfield spot. My logic, echoed by ex-US coach Pia Sundhage, and presumably shared with Ellis, was that Wambach at this point in her career would be more effective off the bench, Press was more effective as a forward, and the horrifying midfield performances would be shored up with another actual midfielder.
The result was a mixed bag. The good was that Press looked better up top and Wambach looked better as a sub. Brian, similarly, offered a lot more solidity via her composure on the ball and more naturally defensive mindset than Press, a forward. I think it bears emphasis how much more solid the midfield looked than against Australia (a weaker opponent), who managed to pull us apart over and over again. The Swedes simply couldn't consistently get things going through the middle, and as a top-5 team in the world, you have to be happy with that.
However, our midfield still looked bad, particularly in terms of creating chances. If anything, solving those aforementioned micro issues just made it more glaring how lost the US midfield is on that bigger level. For me, the biggest problem is the complete lack of movement or fluidity. The front 6 stayed deeply static not just in defense, where you might expect it, but even in attack. There was next to no positional switching. It was the opposite of totaalvoetbal.
That, of course, was weird for me, since in a press conference last month Ellis answered my question about her plans for midfield and said "What we’re asking our wide players to do is to play wide and play inside too...I think we’ve got really good soccer players and they’ve got good brains and I don’t want a system to be static. I want it to be fluid.” She even emphasized the fact we'd need the legs and depth to cope with this increased "volume" that presents, to use her term.
In short, I haven't seen much of that vision yet. If that was simply tough to pull off against an elite opponent, or if Ellis was content for a draw in a group stage and will turn up the dial later on, fair enough. But I'm skeptical. I don't think the US really has that style in them, at least at this World Cup. I think a different manager could've taken them in that direction, but we're far too late in the developmental cycle to change style now.
Indeed, we didn't have to sweat the slow start
Julie Johnston was perhaps the least comfortable-looking of the starting XI in the opener, which of course is to be expected from as the least-experienced and second-youngest player on the team. In the second game, however, she starred.
Her natural style, which is aggressive and unstructured, can be a bit terrifying when she's not at the top of her game. Her center-back partner, Becky Sauerbrunn, brings a much more naturally conservative and structured style that is a bit easier to feel at ease with. However, against the Swedes, Johnston's brand of aggressive chaos was highly effective at disrupting opposition moves, and what the team needed more than anything.
The fact that the US runs without a true holding midfielder means that space can develop between the defense and midfield, and the quick, powerful Johnston repeatedly stepped up from her line to bust up opposition attacks in precisely this space. She came out to win headers and chase down attackers outside of her "lane" as it were. Going the other direction, she did the same, surging forth beyond the midfield line with the ball at her feet and disrupitng the comfortable shape of Sweden's defenses. That kind of fluidity and movement is exactly what we needed to be less predictable, and she was the only one in a US jersey providing it.
I highlighted her in my preview as a potential breakout star, and I think we'll only continue to see more from her as she grows into the role and feeds off of the confidence she has right now.
The US absolutely should've lost this game, and I'm surprised people aren't talking about it
Sydney Leroux intentionally stuck her elbow/forearm out to block a (potentially) goal-bound shot in the 20th minute. According to the extraordinarily simple Rules of the Game, this should be an automatic red card and a penalty. The likelihood that Sweden bags the penalty is super high, and the likelihood the US would hang on to a draw while a player down seems low to me even if the penalty was missed.
Not only was this incident brushed off in post-match coverage in terms of how impactful it was on the final scoreline, but the sportsmanship angle was entirely ignored. Remember that Luis Suarez's first famous act of villainy was not, in fact, biting a player: it was intentionally using his hands to deny a sure goal. He batted a goal-bound strike away against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup, was duly red-carded, Asamoah Gyan somehow failed to convert the spot-kick, and Uruguay went on to win. From that day, he's been pure footballing evil. I'm not saying I judge Leroux nearly as harshly as I do Suarez, but it surprises me literally no one is talking about it.
Even if we take that one particular incident out of it, I think Sweden had the clearer chances to snatch all three points, notably, when Meghan Klingenberg dramatically cleared a ball off her own line. The diminutive full-back somehow got her head to it but only a very slightly different angle would've had it in the back of the net.
Losing to Sweden is hardly something to be ashamed of, since they're an elite team. Moreover, we've seen the US's primary title-rivals, Germany and France, have struggles all their own. It's just a reminder that there's quite a long way to go in forming a championship-worthy team, and that the US is on the lucky side to be top of its group as things stand.