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USWNT’s SheBelieves Cup report card: Take the good with the bad

Photo Copyright Daniela Porcelli | Joerdeli Photography

The 2019 SheBelieves Cup is in the books, with England winning the competition for the first time in four attempts. The United States finished second after defeating Brazil, 1-0 on the final match day behind Tobin Heath’s first-half goal.

That narrow victory was much-needed for the U.S. after a pair of 2-2 draws to open the tournament, against Japan and England. Five matches into this World Cup year, the Americans are 2-1-2, a mixed-bag record which accurately reflects their play thus far.

Just how worried should the Americans be about their slow start to the year? Results – and, more so, form – are real cause for concern, but a curiously high level of experimentation has been a major factor in this stretch. A few alternative tactical and personnel decisions, and this is probably a different conversation.

Below is a look at what went well – and what definitely didn’t.

Reason for continued optimism

Tobin takes over

Tobin Heath was far and away the United States’ best player throughout the tournament. Her game-winning goal against Brazil punctuated that – not just the tally itself, nor even the beautiful, upper-90 finish, but the fact that she was the creator of the opportunity as well. Heath led the counterattack and eventually found the ball back at her feet for the finish.

A lot of time is spent discussing not necessarily who is the best U.S. player, but even who is the most irreplaceable. There’s more than one correct answer to both of those, but Heath reminded us again over the past week that we aren’t discussing her enough in those conversations. This is the all-world level she was at in 2016 – when she was the best American then, too – before missing a large chunk of 2017 due to injury. Heath is the most unique player on the team and the most capable of breaking down opponents 1-v-1 on the dribble. With the United States’ propensity to fall short on ideas against disciplined opponents, those skills are more important than ever.

Controlling the tempo at different speeds

Let’s not pretend this tournament was a perfect or even great showing from the United States. Getting past that, though, there were moments of combination play that suggested a sophistication which has long been lacking in the program. The ability to play out of pressure on the ground – and through the middle – has been developed over the past year-plus, and in some ways, it should be considered an anomaly that the Americans were able to experiment the way they did in 2018 without losing a match.

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Joerdeli Photography

They were hit with a regression to the mean of results at the start of 2019, but they also showed a sophistication in how they played, which suggests they are more than one-dimensional. While there’s still progress to be made, it’s a lazy trope to suggest the U.S. is simply a direct team; that hasn’t been the case for some time.

Among the impressive nuances were: One, the ability to change the tempo of matches with and without the ball. A major – and valid – criticism of the U.S. in the past has been that they play at one speed – full-throttle, all the time. This year, they’ve backed off their relentless high-press, at times, to draw opponents out. Which leads to nuance No. 2: patience to pull teams out and pounce on stretched shape. There were times when the U.S. back line looked like it was playing with fire in possession. Sometimes, those players certainly were. But the noticeable, intentional delay in buildup came with a purpose. The Americans waited for opponents to send pressure high, and then they switched gears to expose the space. Just look at the buildup to Megan Rapinoe’s goal against England:

Christen Press is on another level

‘What has gotten into Christen Press?’ is pretty much an annual (and tiresome) question asked from outside the team. The answer is typically that not much has changed, other than she is getting the right opportunities and taking them. And she has certainly taken them to start of 2019 in incredible form. She was the best player against France on an otherwise miserable day for the team, and she single-handedly changed the result against Spain a few days later.

At the SheBelieves Cup, Press registered an assist in the Japan game within a minute of entering the match, and she showed – more than ever – that she can, in fact, thrive in the winger role.

Against Brazil, Press did one better and shone in the No. 10 position, a surprise move from U.S. coach Jill Ellis (one of many) considering that Heath was shifting into that spot late in the previous matches. Press was a menace against Brazil, with the ball and defensively. Ellis said after the Japan game that Press’ form was forcing a lot of hard lineup decisions. That was only furthered by performances off the bench against England and Brazil.

Real causes for concern

Miscommunications and poor shape

Defensive breakdowns and miscommunications were aplenty for the Americans at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup. Some of that can be chalked up to Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson both being inexperienced and typically not starting alongside each other. (All of that only further emphasized that veteran center back Becky Sauerbrunn is even more irreplaceable than ever.)

What’s troubling is both the nature of the errors and the repetition of them. Some mishaps, like Davidson’s poor clearance to concede Japan’s second equalizer. or the England goal which came from the indirect free kick, could be brushed off as bizarre mistakes. Davidson mishit her clearance on the former; that’s a one-off technique problem. Adrianna Franch’s hand ball which led to England’s indirect free kick was a mental lapse that might never again happen in her career. One-offs, right?

Look a little closer, and the trends of miscommunication exist even within those moments. Davidson’s mis-clear against Japan comes after she has to recover from losing her mark on her blind side. That indirect free kick is a product of Franch’s mental lapse; the blunder also took place shortly after one of several system changes, and you can see that Dahlkemper and Julie Ertz aren’t 100 percent sure of what do before Franch picks this ball up.

And Japan’s second equalizer of that night was both a beauty, from their perspective, and a combination of errors from the Americans. Ertz was late to an initial slide tackle; Davidson stepped high to track a player into a space Dahlkemper was already occupying, leaving a huge gap between the two (too-close-together) center backs and Crystal Dunn at left back. Dunn was left 2-v-1 on that left side and Yui Hasegawa’s deft first touch made sure the U.S. was punished.

That series of mistakes is mighty similar to how England scored their second goal: Dahlkemper was late to step to an entry ball (Rose Lavelle is arguably at equal fault for not cutting off this lane), Davidson gets caught with a blind-side runner and Dunn is late to track.

I’ve already written that this is not your rock-solid-World-Cup-winning defense of 2015 – and it isn’t going to be. You can bet that other teams have scouted these deficiencies. The U.S. will need to figure out how to mitigate the issues with the personnel they have.

Personnel was all wrong for the tactics

Ellis’ decision to play Lavelle and Mallory Pugh as the two central midfielders in front of Julie Ertz was a head-scratcher. Lavelle has emerged as the choice No. 10 over the past six months, but she has done so with Lindsey Horan in the No. 8 role, cleaning things up defensively alongside Ertz. Horan’s absence this tournament due to injury was always going to put significant pressure on Ertz to do everything defensively, but Ellis’ decision to go with Pugh instead of Sam Mewis truly underscored that. Mewis’ influential role in her start against Brazil on Tuesday confirmed what we all already knew (and what Ellis obviously came around on).

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NASHVILLE, UNITED STATES – MARCH 2: Julie Ertz of The United States waiting for the ball after a corner kick during the SheBelieves Cup match between The United States and England at Nissan Stadium on March 2, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee, United States.

Some of the defensive issues the U.S. had can be traced to the lack of cover in front of the back four. Ertz was not only asked to do too much as the No. 6, but also had to yo-yo between midfield and center-back roles throughout each match. Lavelle and Pugh are not known for their defensive duties – at all. Combine that with similar traits for Heath and Rapinoe on the wings, and you’re left with far too many holes opponents to exploit.

Why Ellis wanted that combination to work – enough, even, to roll it out again against England – is unclear. But Mewis – or Zerboni, if healthy enough to start – was the better option to be the shuttling midfielder in that setup. And Press’ two-way play and defensive hustle even opens up some questions about the No. 10 spot. It should also be noted that Brazil was the weakest of the four teams at this tournament.

Ellis said after the Brazil victory that she was happy with the answers she got this tournament regarding personnel. Could that have been a matter of deductive reasoning? Of ruling out which options don’t work in certain setups?

Blown leads add up

The U.S. twice led Japan and settled for a 2-2 draw. The Americans’ lead against England lasted only three minutes, and they had to rally for that 2-2 draw. Has this team lost some of its traditional, winning arrogance? I’m not sure, but it’s worth asking, particularly given the change in personnel since the U.S. won the 2015 World Cup.

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