Entering play Thursday night, no team had played the United States more times without beating them than Australia. That is no longer the case. The Matildas knocked off the U.S. 1-0 on match day 1 at the Tournament of Nations. Here are five thoughts from the match.
It’s a team in transition so losing is okay, right?
Yes and no. In my tournament preview with Chelsey Bush we agreed that performance would trump results for the United States at this tournament. Unfortunately, this match had neither. Save for the opening quarter hour which Australia managed to weather and the obligatory, final minute push, the U.S. allowed Australia to dictate this match. And that is a problem. Not because it happened in this match, but because it has been happening over and over again. It happened during SheBelieves, a blip easily justified by the experiment to play 3-5-2 with the wrong personnel. But it happened again against Sweden and Norway, both of which ended with U.S. wins.
Now it has happened again, only this time it was Australia that pounced on a U.S. miscue and the U.S. who were unable to take advantage when they got chances behind the Aussie backline. Since the beginning of (WoSo) time, the U.S. has had players capable of turning any match on its ear. And they still do. Carli Lloyd thought she had the equalizer until her Dash teammate Lydia Williams came up with a clutch save. Later, Kelley O’Hara played in Crystal Dunn and Williams made another save though in that case, Dunn probably should have finished it.
The broader point is that the U.S. can no longer win matches on fitness, depth, and individual brilliance. Sure it will still happen from time to time, but the top six to 10 teams in the world have never been more evenly matched. That means results will come from tactics and execution as much as brute strength and the inevitable tiring of opponents.
All of this leads me back to the question about whether a team whose coach admits is in transition can lose these types of matches without consequence. It makes me reflect on the World Cup final two years ago when I chatted with Williams and she lamented how mentally tough the United States was. That decades old mental edge is slipping away though. And that could be as detrimental in the next cycle as anything else.
What is up with the midfield?
Early on, the U.S. regularly played the ball down the left flank to Megan Rapinoe and in doing so, legitimately had Australia on their heels for the opening quarter hour. But once that play ran its course, the U.S. midfield had few answers. That was partly due to Australia putting some pressure on the U.S. backs, but it was also partly due to the fact that Jill Ellis is still trying to figure things out in the middle of the park. Allie Long was one step from being literally invisible in this one. Mallory Pugh was solid early and then faded away. There was almost no attacking play up the middle.
Final third play, with the personnel at hand, is going to be fine. I’ll cover the defensive miscue in a moment, but generally speaking the defensive integrity is okay as well. But if the United States is to get back to a point where they are regularly beating other Top 10 teams, they’re going to have to be much better in midfield. I think Sam Mewis is a piece that can be built around, and I assume if Morgan Brian can ever get healthy she’ll be in there too. Is it also time to get players like Vanessa DiBernardo, Danielle Colaprico, and even McCall Zerboni into the fold to see if they can be part of a solution to break down quality opposition?
Right now—and by right now I mean pretty much since Lauren Holiay retired—it’s not nearly good enough.
Any worry about Becky the Reliable?
I’m not here to pass out blame for the goal. Let’s just say it was a poor job by the U.S. defense to get the ball out of danger. And let’s also add that Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper were way too close together and did their best to prove that having too many people near the ball is about the same as having nobody near the ball. Six months from now they could be a dynamic duo and we’ll be deep-belly laughing looking back on the one time their communication broke down. Or maybe not.
The mere fact we’re discussing it as much an homage to how spectacular Sauerbrunn has been over the last five years as it is that she was partly culpable on an opponent’s game-winning goal on Thursday night. Let’s also leave no doubt that Becky Sauerbrunn remains among the top handful of center backs on the planet. But another memory of Canada 2015 is coming home sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that Sauerbrunn was a) the best player in that World Cup, and b) the best defender in the world. Two years later, I’m not sure the second one still applies. At the very least it’s not beyond reproach to make a counterargument.
No sub for Mewis?
Mewis took an inadvertent cleat to the face, left with blood everywhere, and soon thereafter returned with her nose stuffed with cotton. Out of context, I’m okay with this. We’ve entered an era of coddling athletes to an extreme extent. But Ellis had several sub cards still at her disposal—friendly tournaments allow six per mach. Ellis did use all six, but are they so preplanned that game circumstances play no role in which players go in and out? If the result of the match mattered or if a key tactical sub was needed in the closing minutes, it might make more sense. In this case it just felt odd.
A few bounces here and there and we could be talking about a multi-goal win for the United States. And there was a time that a tie game against Australia after an hour was as good as a win no matter how the two teams were playing. But we’re not, and we haven’t been on a consistent basis for the last year.
In comparing the U.S. performance to their other two opponents in this tournament, Brazil and Japan are both very capable of posing problems. Brazil’s press and ability to create in transition plus their speed could be a problem. And Japan’s willingness and ability to possess a game to death could also become a concern. Those teams both have holes, too. Will the U.S. be able to find them and exploit them? Whereas we have spent recent years dissecting the mental makeup of teams like Australia, Brazil, and France, it may be time to figure out just how mentally strong the current USWNT is.