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Analyzing the USWNT’s complicated relationship with inverted fullbacks

© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Inverted fullbacks are in vogue. They are the tactical concept of the time, but it’s not always clear why. The role of the fullback has evolved throughout history, and continues to do so today. Whether the latest evolution is a good or a bad thing, however, depends on its use. Are teams trying new ideas for the sake of it, to look updated on today’s trends? Or because it works for them and their players? For the United States women’s national team, at this moment, the inverted fullback looks like pure theory.

There were positives in the team’s latest display, a 2-1 win over China on Tuesday. The U.S. pressed well, their intensity disrupting Chinese rhythm, creating panic, not to mention valuable attacking opportunities. Then there was the progress of the young players. China took the lead on a free kick, but Sam Coffey — winning her seventh cap — scored the equalizing goal, a wonderfully improvised, no-backlift, curling effort into the top-right corner. Then Jaedyn Shaw, somehow still only 19 years old, scored the winner with a well-taken right-footed drive, her second goal in four national team appearances. Jenna Nighswonger also started, winning her second cap and impressing in a role that remains relatively novel to her.

The greatest compliment that can be paid to this new crop of players is that it was impossible to distinguish between them and the more experienced generation of teammates they shared a field with. Whether it was a subtle Coffey shift into space, a sharp Shaw turn, or an accurate Nighswonger cross, these players settled into the game as if they had done it all countless times before. This is exciting, and the bluntest possible riposte to any suggestion of American women’s soccer decline after one disappointing World Cup.

And yet, there is an ‘and yet’. The lack of width — where has this come from, and why is it here?

In 2019, the United States dominated the flanks. Historically, they have always been effective when attacking down the sides. Now, one would pay good money simply to witness an attack originating from the wings. And this is where we circle back to that idea: the inverted fullback.

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