The United States authored a productive ending to an eight-day odyssey that ranged from maddening to thrilling by defeating Japan 3-0. An earlier Australia win sewed up the Tournament of Nations title for the Matildas and left the U.S. to play without any worry about goal difference or a chance to win the trophy.
Here are three thoughts on the match.
Jill busts out the A-lineup
For the first time in the three matches, Jill Ellis trotted out an XI that—save for injured players—would be plausible if this were the opening game of the World Cup instead of the last in the Tournament of Nations. Defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Casey Short were back in the positions that landed them on the national team in the first place and Julie Ertz got the nod at holding midfield. The lineup also included Christen Press who helped engineer Sunday’s comeback, and teenager Mallory Pugh.
The results were satisfying if not perfect. For the second time in three matches the U.S. came out flying with most of the offense running through Megan Rapinoe on the lefthand side. Ironically, in the second half of the match it was the right side where the midfielders were finding space. Ertz is a wonder in the midfield and is able to play with her devil-may-care approach a bit more than she can on defense. Watching her in the middle of the park almost begs the question why she ever wound up in the back to begin with.
Perhaps the most salient part of the “A-team” is that Rapinoe seems to have found a new relationship with Christen Press. The pair combined for two goals against Brazil on Sunday but those were late goals with players being shoved up field and sending emergency balls up into the attacking third. But for a time against Japan it looked as if there was some real chemistry. Their games complement each other as well. Rapinoe is more of the driving flank player while Press can score from just about anywhere on the field with either foot or her head. And yet, Rapinoe can finish with the best of them and Press is more than capable of setting up teammates.
It is difficult to gauge Ellis’s motivations these days. Was this the team that distinguished itself over the first two games and training and therefore got the start? Was she desperate for a solid performance so she kicked experimentation to the curb for a night and ran out her best? Was there more experimenting going on that met the eye? Whatever the case it was a solid if not spectacular performance.
Those Dahlkemper long balls
There were still a few too many holes in the U.S. defense—one that caused Ertz to smack her knee into the goalpost recovering to clear a ball as it nearly went in the U.S. goal—but Abby Dahlkemper mostly made up for what was a wretched performance against Brazil. To repeat, it’s difficult to try and get inside Ellis’s head, but the fact she started all three games looks promising for her future.
But what could set Dahlkemper apart is her service. Australia scored two goals against Brazil that began with long balls that beat the entire midfield and backline. There won’t be many teams who defend as poorly as Brazil did in this tournament, but Dahlkemper has that type of long ball. It is strong, accurate, and hit with a sharp trajectory that rarely allows defenders to get settled into position.
In North Carolina, Dahlkemper takes right-sided corner kicks and is very effective. And if the U.S. can fix the midfield it will make long balls over the top that much more effective because simple distribution to the mids will become more dangerous.
Dahlkemper needs to defend well—something I think she is more than capable of doing—and improve her relationship with Alyssa Naeher or whoever is in goal. But if she can make it on those two accounts she will change games with her long balls.
On Ali Krieger and those who didn’t play
Some USWNT players tend to tug on the emotions of the fans more than others. One such player is Ali Krieger. Her call-up was met with elation from her fan club that feared she was off the team for good when the Scandinavia trip happened without her. And then the tournament ended and she had played exactly zero minutes. Even when Kelley O’Hara had to be subbed out in the first half looking sick, Ellis went for Taylor Smith instead of Krieger who remains stuck on 98 caps.
On the surface it made no sense to put Krieger on the roster and not play her. She turned 33 last week so either she is going to be in France for 2019 or she is not going to be part of another major tournament. That doesn’t mean Ellis has to take this decision now, but where as it is understandable to take 21-year old Midge Purce and not cap her, it is also plausible that Purce’s best chance be 2023 when she is 27 and theoretically hitting her best stride.
There are two points to remember about Krieger though. One is that it is not Ellis’s job to placate the fan base by either extending players’s careers or getting them to individual milestones. It wouldn’t hurt her street cred—probably inside the locker room as well as out—if she took heed of things like a player sitting on 98 caps (or players’ hometowns as last fall when Kealia Ohai was not dressed to play in her home state of Utah only to dress and earn her first cap four days later in Mineapolis.) but she certainly has no obligaton.
The second point is that for every one thing we know about the team there are at least two things we don’t. Perhaps Krieger picked up a slight injury, or perhaps Ellis decided to give her another try based on her NWSL form but then brought her to camp and didn’t like what she saw.
Whatever the case, Krieger’s call-in/no use Tournament of Nations will only keep those emotions high as she heads toward 100 caps and France 2019—or doesn’t.
The other three players who did not hit the field were Morgan Brian, and the backup keepers Jane Campbell and Abby Smith. Brian is injured so there is not much to say other than maybe she should have been left in Houston to rest or rehab. As for the keepers, Ellis said Naeher would get all three games and she did, even after a howler in the middle (flipside – Ellis said Leroux was not ready for international play and she got in twice which mostly served to stoke the fires of the Krieger fan base,)
Giving Naeher all 270 minute brings back memories of Hope Solo who monopolized playing time ahead of major tournaments the last two summers, leaving the team with one all-time great and two very inexperienced keepers behindher. The irony now is that Naeher needs the games more than Solo did, but she is also less locked in than Solo was meaning the backups probably need the games more as well. Of course had Solo not gotten every game Naeher would have more caps today, but again I digress.
Campbell and Smith have both been very good in NWSL this season and could be dueling for that no. 1 spot for many years to come. Would it have been a net positive to get one of them into a match? Absolutely. Do I understand why Ellis decided to go with Naeher all three games? Absolutely.