The United States got its toughest match of the year Thursday night against England and despite looking shaky in midfield for long stretches, managed to come away with a 1-0 victory. Crystal Dunn made the difference with a world class strike and you can argue the U.S. would have done no better than a draw without that piece of individual brilliance. But here are a few other takeaways from the SheBelieves Cup opener.
The midfield was poor: Coming out of halftime, FS1 sideline reporter Jenny Taft said that Jill Ellis offered unprompted that she needed to see more out of Lindsay Horan and Morgan Brian. That Horan was later the first starter off the field hints that Ellis did not get what she was looking for. England applied pressure to just about every U.S. touch in midfield and Ellis’s bunch did not handle it particularly well. The U.S. created absolutely nothing dangerous from the center of the park against the best defensive opponent it has seen in 2016. The best attacking option was finding Mallory Pugh on the left flank in the first half. Also, outside backs Meghan Klingenberg and Kelley O’Hara did not spend enough time bringing the ball up the flanks and forcing English midfielders into decisions about where to defend.
Mallory Pugh is a special talent: This is not new news to anyone paying attention but Pugh really does seem to impress more and more every time she steps on the pitch. Patrolling the left flank on Thursday night, Pugh rarely had trouble getting around right back Lucy Bronze and into dangerous positions. The problems were that she wasn’t able to find the ball often enough and when she did get forward, the English center backs had the passing lanes battened down. In the second half she tired a bit, seemed to pinch inside more often, and her impact was reduced before coming off for a sub. But it seems more and more likely that Mallory Pugh will be spending her August in Brazil.
Carli Lloyd was not much of a factor: Remember the group stage of the World Cup when everyone was haranguing that Lloyd should be playing higher? Well tonight it seemed like maybe she should have been backed up a bit. Lloyd—and Alex Morgan—had little impact on this one. Part of that was because England did so well to pressure Horan and Brian but at least in Lloyd’s case you can argue that she could have eventually checked back and help win more balls and play the distribution game a bit. Lloyd has had many of her biggest games when we least expect it so no cause for alarm just yet.
England came to win and it showed: England has grown by leaps and bounds under Mark Sampson and that was on display yet again Thursday night. Sampson deployed an aggressive game plan and his side won the midfield as a result. Furthermore, they did not lower their heads after going down a goal and were still fighting at the end when Eniola Aluko nearly won a chance against what wound up as a five-back by the United States. Keep in mind that England are not eligible for the Olympics and should breeze through their Euro 2017 qualifying group. So these are pretty much England’s three biggest matches of the year.
To take the next step on the world stage, England may have to find a way to be more dangerous. Toni Duggan might have thrown away a goal—at the very least a better shot—had she passed to Jodie Taylor at the end of a two-vs-one sequence in the second half but the reality is that for all the English midfield did it led to very few issues for Hope Solo.
The U.S. defense was partly to blame for that: It is easy to sleep on the U.S. defense especially on a night when Dunn lights up the highlight reels and the midfield struggles. Emily Sonnett got the start in place of Julie Johnston in this one and while she was caught upfield on the aforementioned Duggan play, the back line rarely missed a defensive beat. It is easy to forget that it was the backline that led the World Cup efforts until Carli Lloyd took over the final and it remains among the best units in the world. They proved Thursday night that to beat the United States it will take a lot more than just frustrating them in the middle.
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