SheBelieves Cup: Some USWNT answers, a few more questions

None of the four national teams at the SheBelieves Cup brought their strongest squads nor played particularly well throughout three games.

That said, each team took something from the tournament. The English women learned they can get results and score goals (6) for coach Phil Neville, hired less than two months ago; the French recovered from a 4-1 pasting by England to tie the USA (1-1) and embarrass Germany (3-0); and the Germans reportedly decided not to come back next year after managing just one point in three games.

As for the USA and head coach Jill Ellis, the absence of several first-teamers provided lengthy auditions for players emerging and those coming back. These aren't the only issues to be raised in the aftermath of the SheBelieves Cup yet they are among the most relevant.

Defensive cover. Three solid games for centerback Tierna Davidson, who earned her first cap in January against Denmark and doesn’t turn 20 until December, provides Ellis with a viable option for the backline. She’s another member of the Stanford contingent –- which already includes Kelly O’Hara, Andi Sullivan and Christen Press – that should occupy a significant niche on the USA’s World Cup roster next summer in France.

Ellis started Davidson and Abby Dahlkemper together throughout the tournament to give that combination all the minutes available with linchpin Becky Sauerbrunn sidelined with the same foot injury that kept her out of the January camp and a 5-1 rout of Denmark. The Americans gave up their only goal in the three games when Dahlkemper lost a duel with French veteran striker Eugenie Le Sommer, who marked her 150th cap for France by sifting through a Dahlkemper challenge to score a 65th international goal.

During her long career -- even though she’s only 28 -- LeSommer has victimized many of the world’s top defenders. Dahlkemper is in good company. Yet by those crucial moments Ellis must base her decisions on who starts, who sits, and who stays home.

The Ertz factor. Davidson’s possible inclusion on the World Cup roster also allows Ellis to keep Julie Ertz in midfield, where the competition for roster spots figures to be intense as the WWC draws closer. Ertz scored seven goals in 2017 and so well-timed are her late runs in the wake of forwards Mal Pugh, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe that she’s almost impossible to track.
Ertz’s experience as a central defender provides resiliency in the middle of the field and her prowess at both ends on set plays adds yet another weapon. Her absence in the last two SheBelieves Cup matches against France and England gave Ellis an opportunity to dole out minutes and test out alternatives. The Americans have many midfielders with different strengths, but they don’t have another player imbued with all of Ertz’s attributes.

Against France, Morgan Brian started and played 90 minutes in her first appearance since a 3-0 loss to the same team in the same competition nearly a year ago. Sullivan made just her seventh start for the senior team. There were a few promising sequences, and the USA free kick from which it scored resulted from a slick Brian crossfield ball to O’Hara.

But overall the ball didn’t get forward enough from the midfield to the front three. Lindsey Horan and captain Carli Lloyd returned to the starting lineup for the final game against England, though Brian did replace Horan in the 74th minute. Ally Long got her first start of the tournament as well; Sofia Huerta took her place at the same juncture.

No locks at left back. If the midfield resembled a carousel, so did the action at left back. Taylor Smith started the defeat of Germany and also against France but was pulled just before halftime. No injury was reported and Ellis said it was a tactical decision; replacement Casey Short suffered an ankle injury in the second half and came off in the 76th minute when Ellis brought on Press.

For the finale against England, Crystal Dunn took over at left back and bombed forward on several impressive runs. It was her sharp ball from the middle third that set Rapinoe free to hit the ball that England eventually turned into its own net.

This is the same Crystal Dunn who helped the USA win the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and three years ago won the NWSL MVP and Golden Boot awards at 23, which is how many USA goals she’s scored in 60 appearances. She played left back as a U-20 and at the beginning of her senior-team career, and is obviously a player Ellis will take to France regardless of which position(s) she might fill.

Injuries have hampered the efforts of Meghan Klingenberg, a standout at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, to get back into the picture. She played just four games in 2017 and her January callup turned into a nightmare; she caught the flu then suffered an ankle injury.

Rapinoe rolls on. On many national teams, a veteran who turns 34 in a World Cup year is barely on the fringe if in the picture at all. Rapinoe continues to repel challenges, whether they be from wingers like Pugh, forwards like Press, or any version of attacking midfielders.

Rapinoe bagged the goal to beat Germany by running down a long kick that had been flicked on by Alex Morgan and smacking her shot through keeper Almuth Schult. Pugh scored against France during a scramble triggered by a Rapinoe free kick.

The competition for time will toughen when regulars such as Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis come back into the team, and Pugh and Dunn are just two players who can be effective and dangerous on the flanks. A long season with Seattle lies ahead for the veteran. But in a way, Rapinoe is like Ertz; there is nobody else on the team who has the same mix of abilities, experience, and cold-blooded confidence.

Goalie go-round. Alyssa Naeher got all the minutes in goal at the tournament and only Le Sommer’s shot got past her. She came up with a couple of very big saves in the 1-1 tie with France and wasn’t called upon very much in the other two games. She took over the starter’s job last year when Ashlyn Harris was hobbled by a quadriceps injury.

The ultimate decision on who Ellis chooses for the World Cup might not seem as critical as the choices at other positions, but for most of its existence the USA team has been blessed by world-class keepers. The tradition started with Mary Harvey at the 1991 Women’s World Championship; she passed the torch to Brianna Scurry, and for more than a decade Hope Solo was the gold standard.

With the possible exception of Germany, no national team has been as strong and settled in goal as the USA during the growth of the international women’s game. At every major competition, the USA women are among those teams favored to win it, and no player feels that pressure more than the goalkeeper.

7 comments about "SheBelieves Cup: Some USWNT answers, a few more questions".
  1. Bob Ashpole, March 9, 2018 at 6:08 a.m.

    Excellent analysis. What impressed me the most was how well the back line played, as if they had been together for years. This demonstrated a depth that I had not anticipated. Also the team defending after a transistion to defense and the 433 system generally impressed me too, which I think reflects well on the coaching too. 

    While one should never feel complacent, I think "promising" best describes the performance.

  2. frank schoon replied, March 9, 2018 at 9:41 a.m.

    Bob, the backline I found to be "wanting". Yes, they didn't lose the ball much at all. They played very slow out of the back. Their passes were continually square, back and forth  to each other or back to the goalie. The players who had most of the touches on the ball was the backline. Lots of long balls out of the back to the front for lack of passing options at midfield.  I was not impressed with their buildup at all. Their play is way too predictable. 
    The buildup needs to be seriously improved upon for all the balls  initially begin with the backfield which is not where you want to begin a build up. It should begin with the midfield or station past the backfield for in this manner you the manner of the ball to receive the ball on the run facing downfield. But what happens, everytime, is the defensive line receives and look for #20 the centerhalfback to pass to who always has her back facing downfield,forcing her to turn with the ball or pass back....this is no way to start a build up. I expect a lot better from the coaching staff to teach how to build up.
    Another problem with the backfield getting the ball first in the build up is that they are not greatest passers, and furthermore, if one of them makes a mistake they have no back support.
    On the build up the pass to Dunn on the sidelines or the other back which totally wrong for both are stationary. You only pass to the back if she/he goes on attack but neither ever makes a run of attack. I hope Ellis and her coaching staff knows, or understands this aspect for it certainly doesn't show on the field.
    These are some of the simple A.B,Cs of build up that are not carried.
    One good thing is that in women's soccer the opponents don't really have great offensive players and scorers allowing our defenders an extra advantage. I would  like to see our back line really put under a test against solid good frontline opponents. I was impressed with the English right wing.  
    I like Dunn, and I like Pugh especially for she plays wing the way I like  the wing to be played.
    The crossing the ball also needs to be seriously worked on.

  3. frank schoon replied, March 9, 2018 at 11 a.m.

    Bob,<The buildup needs to be seriously improved upon for all the balls  initially begin with the backfield which is not where you want to begin a build up. It should begin with the midfield or station past the backfield for in this manner you the manner of the ball to receive the ball on the run facing downfield>
     This is confusing. What I meant to say that the initial pass should go to a station that is beyond the backline. This way it allows the open man (third man) off the ball to receive the second pass facing not only downfield, increase the tempo of the game, which is not happening....

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, March 9, 2018 at 2:04 p.m.

    I agree with you Frank in a general sense. In this match I thought the back line was passing near the penalty area in order to draw the opponent's higher and create the space along the flanks to penetrate. Every so often they would pass to the CM and draw the defense into the center. Starting up one flank, they then sometimes made long diagonal passes to switch the point of attack. I recall one of the CBs and Lloyd making these long passes successfully. 

    Difficult for me to see on TV with the tight camera shots, but that is what I thought the game plan was tactically. I say "game plan" because the tactic was continued without adjustment from the coach. If the opponent plans to clog up the middle, letting them do so has advantages.

    What encouraged me was seeing how poorly England's play was in comparison. (The characteristics of the poorest amatuer attacking play.) I know, I know, looking at an opponent's weakness is not a path to improved performance. Opponent's get better.

    Where I thought the US attack faltered was in the final third, but one should never be satisfied with play in the final third. Even if you score 10 goals, there is always room for improvement.  

  5. frank schoon replied, March 9, 2018 at 3:53 p.m.

    Bob, the one thing you don't want to do is draw the opponents closer into your penalty area and then have  your backline handle to ball for they make a mistake there in no backsupport.
    This is why if you going to build up the initial from the goalie should be to the second line (midfield) or a station beyond the backline for if the mistake is made there than you have backsupport. The one thing you don't want to do is to have your centerbacks begin the build up. Furthermore, the English allowed the US to have the ball as refected in the possession time, therefore they weren't interested in obtaining ball through playing high defense upfield. Therefore I don't understand why the coaching staff thought they were able to draw in the opponents. I'm afraid the US coaching staff does not understand how to build up an attack. Playing it wide to the backs as the initial pass for the build up is a total NO NO, if the backs stand stationary with the ball. In other words you don't employ your backs in the build up but use them only for attacking purposes.
    The only exception if you make an initial pass to a back for the build up  is if the pass beats an opponent and therefore allowing the back to run upfield and create numerical superiority.
    The reason why you don't want to pass to the back in stationary position cuts down the passing options for the weak side flank is totally out of the play, in other words your playing 7v10. So only the reason you pass to the back is if he is able to go on attack down the flank. This is not what the US team did in their build up.
    The English knew they were the weaker team and therefore they played  the way they did.
    That the US is weak in the opponent's third says more about what I said about the dearth of real strikers in women soccer.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, March 12, 2018 at 12:39 p.m.

    I agree generally with your points. The conventional thinking being pressed on US coaches is the opposite of Dutch style tactics. Essentially you have a 7-player expansive circle with 3 CMs in the middle. The FB gets the first pass. This huge circle not only means that the strong side players are outnumbered because the weak side players are outside supporting range, but when you get to the attacking third the same problem exists because the back line is so far from the front line.

    Right now this is what I see as the biggest problem with US conventional thinking on tactics--too much distance from back to front while in possession. It is as if a coach watched Barca training with a 8v2 rondo and the coach only remembers the players were in a circle and not the passes they made. With youth, this creates a situation where the tactics progression breaks down between SSGs and 11-a-side. In SSGs with small spaces players learn to support, but when they get to the full side, they are required to stay out of supporting range.

  7. beautiful game, March 9, 2018 at 10:07 p.m.

    The question of execution will haunt any team which can't execute. Finding the right players that can execute continues to be a problem. There is no question that certain players have the ability, but mix them with less able players puts a dead weight on the team effort.

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