What have we learned through two U.S. games so far?
Jill Ellis is committed to the three-back
The faces changed but the formation stayed. Julie Johnston took the centermost spot on Ellis’s three-back on Saturday and Ali Krieger played out wide. Ellis also swapped out Alyssa Naeher for Ashlyn Harris in goal.
“I thought we still stayed committed to what we are doing,” Ellis said. “We played out. I don’t think our goalkeeper punted. Our goalkeeper didn’t punt (Wednesday) so we’re still focused on how we want to play this game. Right now we’re still focused on our processes.”
I thought the back line played better in Saturday’s loss than Wednesday’s win. Johnston was more comfortable on the ball than Long and Krieger did more in the way of going forward than Short did. Sauerbrunn, the only player to start both matches in back, was also more aggressive. Unless they can build play from line to line opponents will continue to drop off and clog channels into midfield.
Long was a late sub and played in the midfield before racing higher in stoppage time when the U.S. became desperate for a goal. Is that a sign that Ellis is beginning to lean elsewhere in her search for someone to anchor the three-back? It’s probably extremely premature. Long is a fine soccer player but she likes to play a 360 degree game when she’s at holding midfielder. As the anchor back it becomes a dangerous game to start looking behind you as an option. There is also an argument to be made that Long’s best assets are being wasted pulling her out of midfield.
The three-back is not quite as terrifying an option as the public reaction to it, but neither has it worked as smoothly as it would seem based on playing two top-five teams in the world and not conceding a goal in the run of play.
It’s all in the details
The U.S. has long been the team that crosses all the Is and dots all the Ts, but a few of those got left hanging on the Red Bull Arena breeze on Saturday.
“Sometimes when you fail the lesson hits home harder,” Ellis said when asked to compare the result to the performance. “Sometimes you don’t learn about the details of the game and how important they are unless you sometimes pay a price.”
England’s goal is case and point. For starters the U.S. were on their heels nearing full-time, but the sloppiness in defending the corner kick is what led to the team’s first outright loss in 15 months.
The initial corner kick was cleared but Lucy Bronze was posted at the top if the 18 where she was able to send a clear shot that hit the crossbar. Morgan Brian was in position to clear the rebound. It would have been a high degree of difficulty clearance, but those are the ones that turn losses into draws, draws into wins. As it happened, Johnston also went for the ball which was part of the reason Brian failed to get it out of danger. Ellen White swooped in and did not miss.
There were other examples as well. Johnston had a free clearance of an England free kick in the first half but failed to head it beyond Nikita Parris. The English forward then split Johnston and Krieger and would have staked England to an early lead had Harris not come up with one of her best saves in a U.S. shirt.
Ellis also referenced the U.S. leaving some goals on the table at the other end. And while England’s defending in its own 18 was stout, the U.S. also misfired on some shots that should have at least given Siobhan Chamberlain something to do besides watch then sail high or float wide.
These types of games happen of course especially when the conditions were barely humane. But the spotlight is on and for every late win by England they close the confidence gap that has long carried the U.S. women around the world.
Lavelle, Dunn, and that U.S. midfield
When asked about Rose Lavelle’s first cap, Ellis replied, “That is a phenomenal answer I got tonight. Rose Lavelle. She was fantastic.”
It was Lavelle who had the best US chance of the night, getting on the end of a Crystal Dunn cross and being robbed by Chamberlain who had to reverse course to stretch out for the save. For a player who had been in and out of camp without being capped, there is little doubt Saturday’s performance will lead to further opportunities.
Dunn made a strong move to beat Demi Stokes and create the chance for Lavelle but for the second straight match, Dunn underwhelmed at the wing back position. For as strong as she is at so many aspects of the game—defending, one-v-one play, speed—Dunn has not made nearly enough of an impact running up and down the flanks.
Contrast that with play of Mallory Pugh and the teenager has stepped back in where she left off at the Olympics. Not only is Pugh quick enough to beat just about every outside back in the world, she can do it while maintaining possession and more often than not do something productive with the ball in the space she creates for herself. One of the best U.S. chances of the second half came when Lavelle and Pugh combined to decapitate England’s right side before ultimately winning a corner kick.
If there is one thing for certain about Ellis’s game plan since Rio it is that she wants the midfield to be a more integral part of the overall attack. They’re still figuring that out in terms of both assignments and personnel. Lindsay Horan and Sam Mewis looked comfortable together as did Horan and Lavelle. As a unit though the midfield is still not in lock step with the back line.