Four years ago, the United States women’s national team went to France and got played off the park to open their 2015 campaign. Saturday brought déjà vu – a 3-1 loss to France, this time in Le Havre, and another sour note to open a World Cup year.
Context is everything, of course. In 2015, the U.S. was legitimately struggling, a trend which carried on into the group stage of the World Cup before the now famous quarterfinal turnaround which propelled the Americans to victory.
But the U.S. entered 2019 as more legitimate favorites heading into the World Cup year, unbeaten in their last 28 matches. One result in January doesn’t necessarily change that, particularly when the starting eleven rolled out by head coach Jill Ellis on Saturday was absent five starters from what should be considered her preferred lineup (that being the eleven she chose in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Spain, but swapping in Kelley O’Hara – recovering from ankle surgery – for Emily Sonnett at fullback).
What the Americans’ two-game jaunt to Europe – their only two matches away from U.S. soil prior to the 2019 World Cup – did confirm was that the best approach against the U.S. is to serve, in return, a taste of their own aggression.
France came out in a 4-2-3-1 on Saturday and displayed the tactical flexibility, high-pressure defending and physically dominant demeanor which is so synonymous with this U.S. side. Les Bleues throttled the Americans with a high line of confrontation, exposed their fullbacks in isolation on the flanks (much like in that 2015 encounter) and successfully hit them on the counter attack. There was a physicality and a mentality which, in that match, appeared to flip sides. Of course, France has been the Americans’ bogey team for a while, the two aforementioned results and the emphatic 2017 SheBelieves Cup victory among the evidence (R.I.P., three-back).
France is and has long been among the world elite; a U.S. loss at this stage is hardly cause for sudden, dramatic concern. The cynic in me says that some combination of Ellis not wanting to show all her cards in what could be a preview of a World Cup quarterfinal – combined with the need to weed out players not ready to start, and perhaps ground the group amidst a 28-match unbeaten streak – are also considerations in Saturday’s performance.
What the United States’ matches against France and Spain confirmed is something that Utah Royals head coach Laura Harvey spoke about earlier this month at the United Soccer Coaches Convention: the best way to beat the U.S. is to play them straight up. Go right back at them with high pressure and don’t be afraid of them; the teams which choose to sit back invite an onslaught of pressure that the Americans have ostensibly figured out how to crack since being fully exposed at the 2016 Rio Olympics. ‘Bunkering’ isn’t necessarily the answer — certainly not for teams with enough quality to create opportunities.
France fought tempo with tempo, deadly counter attacks with deadly counter attacks. (Amandine Henry’s words from three years ago, about coming to Portland to soak in the American mentality, were personified on Saturday.) England and Australia, among others, have also taken note.
Spain, playing the U.S. for the first time at the senior level, hardly stood still in reverence of the Americans. La Roja controlled most of the match in the middle of the park but lacked execution in the final third to create and finish opportunities on goal, particularly in the first half.
U.S. group opponents Chile and, certainly, Thailand won’t have the overall quality of Spain, and fellow contenders like France aren’t going to take an inherently negative approach to a match, regardless. These past two matches, along with some from last year – the U.S.’ draw with Australia among them – string together a blueprint on how to play the Americans, sources of inspiration for some of the many rising programs like Spain, which are looking for their first real marker at a senior World Cup. There’s a non-negligible chance that the U.S. and Spain could meet in the round of sixteen in June.
Of course, as Tuesday proved – and as the U.S. has successfully refuted over the past year – a blueprint is merely a plan; there’s no guarantee it will lead to victory. That eroding air of invincibility surrounding the U.S. – which has been discussed ad nauseam over the past few years – is real. And that’s a good thing for the sport, overall.
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