In its penultimate game of the year, the United States women’s national team defeated Romania, 8-1 in the first-ever meeting between the two teams. With coach Jill Ellis using these lopsided games (Romania is ranked No. 36 in the world by FIFA) as experiments, all lessons should be taken with a grain of salt. Here are three takeaways from last night’s match.
Defense has been shaky
Dating back to the last Olympic group-stage match against Colombia, the U.S. has given up six goals in its last seven games, under three different goalkeepers, two defensive formations, and numerous defenders.
The majority of these goals came from swift counterattacks taking advantage of high lines and gaping holes. While Thursday’s Romania goal in the 31st minute rests largely on the shoulders of Ashlyn Harris, who was well off her line before getting beaten by Laura Rus, the opportunity began when the Romanians caught Allie Long ball-watching and were able to get a step on her. Only the post stood in the way of them getting an even earlier goal, when in the 16th minute, Rus split Long and Becky Sauerbrunn and would likely have sent it in past a diving Harris had she aimed a few inches to the left. This, too, began with a quick ball out of the back.
It’s been clear for some time that the Department of Defense days from the World Cup are long gone, in name, players, and effectiveness. Ellis is experimenting with both a new system and new personnel in the back, and the combination is likely to have growing pains even against outmatched teams. But what is also growing clear is no matter who is on the field at any given time, the U.S. has an obvious weakness in the back, and teams will continue to pounce on that.
Andi Sullivan continues to impress
Sullivan received her third straight start from Ellis, playing 61 minutes. The Stanford junior has made good on the opportunity, demonstrating an amazing calmness on and off the ball. Standing strong at holding midfielder, Sullivan’s presence belies her youth as she has no problem directing traffic, calling for the ball, and restarting the attack out of the back. While she occasionally struggles with the speed of international play, nearly getting caught in possession on top of the U.S. box early in the second half after receiving the ball from Harris, she generally demonstrates good decision-making with a strong range of passing and an eye for through balls.
In the 25th minute, Sullivan sent in a textbook free kick from the right side to find the head of Morgan Brian for the U.S.’ third goal. Brian was completely unmarked in the box, but without Sullivan’s precise delivery, the goal wouldn’t have come nearly as easily.
It’s no secret the team has never really replaced Shannon Boxx in the midfield. Lauren Holiday (now retired), Brian, Long, and Lindsey Horan have all been tried in the No. 6 spot over the last two years, and with the exception of Brian during the latter games of the World Cup, success hasn’t been abundant. It’s too early to call, and she needs to be tested against top 10 teams, but Sullivan is already making her case as the heir.
Is Crystal Dunn the creative answer on the right?
With Megan Rapinoe out for the majority of the year, the creative burden on the field has fallen on Tobin Heath, who has responded wonderfully. However, Heath can’t be everywhere, and as she is stronger on the left, it’s been wide open on the right. Growing in leaps and bounds from a year ago, when the general consensus was that Dunn had a tendency to drift central and needed to improve her ball skills, Dunn has now laid claim to the right flank and demonstrated her abilities time and again last night.
Her creativity lies less in Heath’s ball skill and tricks and more in an utter tenacity, strength on the ball and explosive speed. She did the work for both of Alex Morgan’s goals, driving endline in the 52nd minute to deliver a precise cross to Morgan’s head and doing the same in the 75th, sending in a ball that was brought down by Horan and finished by Morgan. Beyond those moments, she was a constant nuisance on the right side, particularly working well with Kealia Ohai in the first half and demonstrating an unflagging engine for all 90-plus minutes.
Dunn’s path through the national team has been interesting one. Initially brought on as an outside back, cut from the World Cup squad, making her name as a center forward in the NWSL, and rising through the depth chart ever since, she may have found her home as a winger, and with the team still struggling to move the ball through the center of the midfield, her creativity is needed more than ever.
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