The U.S. Women’s National Team kicks off their World Cup campaign tonight. They’re ready, or at least, that’s what they’re saying. For the rest of us, any predictions or expectations we might have for the Yanks’ seventh World Cup appearance are clouded in uncertainty.
They’v spent the last few months preparing for the tournament by playing a series of friendlies against talent from around the world, and on the whole, they’ve dominated. On April 4, they beat New Zealand 4-0, and followed that up with a 3-0 win against Ireland on May 10. They smoked Mexico 5-1 on May 17. On May 30, in their final tuneup before heading to Canada, they played South Korea to a scoreless draw. Still, many supporters feel anxious about the U.S. pursuit of the white whale that is the World Cup trophy.
The fault here may lie with the fans, whose Madridista-level thirst for winning sees rot where there is none. It could also be a product of USWNT Head Coach Jill Ellis not getting the most out of the players she’s got, or using some of the wrong players to begin with. Or maybe it’s just pre-wedding jitters. Regardless, the four friendlies played since their Algarve Cup triumph in March have shown us a few things about how the Stars and Stripes will approach their opponents in Canada.
No sane person could claim that the five strikers heading to Canada are lacking in talent. Each brings a skill set that offers what Ellis says is the team’s goal—to beat teams in lots of different ways. Their performances in the past four games have been, shall we say, inconsistent. The U.S. beat New Zealand handily, but relied on Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, and Lori Chalupny—all defenders—to put the ball in the net. Ireland and Mexico were also trounced, but these were subpar defenses pushing too high up the field, allowing the pace of Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez to get in behind and punish them. Such defensive lapses won’t be on offer when going up against the likes of Sweden, France, or Germany.
Ellis says time and again that the forward position is one of the deepest the US has, but it’s starting to look as though only Alex Morgan can provide any ruthlessness in front of goal. Amy Rodriguez put on a clinic against New Zealand—and got unlucky on several chances—but, per ARod herself, she’s likely to be a role player in Canada. Sydney Leroux broke her scoring drought against a porous Mexican back line, but struggled against South Korea when she couldn’t use her speed in open space to get behind a very well-organized defense. Abby Wambach has looked sharp when she gets crosses to head in, but her ability to play 90 minutes a game throughout the tournament is nigh impossible. She started two of the U.S.’s three send-off matches—more due to Morgan’s injury than anything else—and looked very heavy-legged by halftime. Christen Press is still being asked to play wide in the midfield and create centrally with Carli Lloyd, but always seems most effective when able to play at the top of the formation.
Even Morgan, before this most recent injury, lacked sharpness in early 2015 after having only recovered from an earlier ankle injury. Morgan has been injured more than she’s been healthy for the last 18 months, and heads to Canada nursing a knee knock that should keep her benched until at least the Sweden match on June 12. If she can’t convert in the World Cup, the rest of the strike force may not be able to make up for it.
Megan Rapinoe had a minor quadricep injury, and didn’t dress for the match against South Korea. Based on the team’s lack of creative wing play that night, she is their only wide attacking option. (Don’t look at Kelley O’Hara or Tobin Heath or Heather O’Reilly behind that curtain!) Carli Lloyd did her usual box-to-box work, but Lauren Holiday was continually pinned back by Chelsea Ladies wunderkind Ji So-yun. Play was very direct against Ireland and Mexico, contrary to what Ellis says she wants out of her team. Holiday isn’t a defensive midfielder or a deep-lying playmaker, but that is where she will be tonight. Consequently, ball circulation has been slow and plodding all spring. That’s all well and good when the minnows come to San Jose for a rout, but come Winnipeg tonight, such tactics could be soundly exploited.
Before Saturday’s match against South Korea, the back line had been relatively untroubled. When they are called upon, however, they are a force. Julie Johnston has secured the starting center-back spot alongside Becky Sauerbrunn, and is shaping up to be lethal on set pieces, picking up another headed goal off a Lauren Holiday free kick against New Zealand. Meghan Klingenberg says Ellis has asked she and right back Ali Krieger to carry the load out wide, which could help explain why Ellis has kept so many central midfielders in her starting XI. Both fullbacks looked more than capable of getting up the flanks and shutting their markers down in 1v1 situations. That said, South Korean fullback Kim Soo-yun kept Klingenberg and Krieger busy all night.
Ellis told the press last week that the purpose of the send-off series was to play games and work on various things within the squad. But when the teams you play in that series don’t even break the top 15 in the FIFA rankings, how much work is the defense getting? What did Ellis learn about the defense? What did the players learn? Perhaps there isn’t much to learn at this point. Hope Solo’s catlike 93rd-minute save against South Korea showed that she still has her reflexes in place. And thanks to a star centerback like Johnston, the U.S.’s defense will stay organized and strong.
Much has been made about how friendlies don’t count (they don’t), but international friendlies can still tell you how a team will step up when it matters. As I wrote after the Algarve Cup, mentality plays a lot into potential success, especially in a short tournament being played on brutal surfaces. The USWNT has big-game experience in spades, and knows how to stay switched on for the full 90 minutes. Ellis and the players aren’t necessarily wrong to say that a 0-0 draw against South Korea, nine days before they begin World Cup play, may not be reflective of the team’s potential, since nerves and injury risk management lay in the front of most of their minds.
Granted, once the semifinals roll around, any of France, Germany, Sweden, or Japan likely await the Americans. But in spite of being in the Group of Death, the Yanks should be able to advance smoothly for the next few weeks—provided they don’t finish second in the group. If Sweden can beat both Australia and the US, they will be in prime position to finish atop Group D. At that point, Ellis and the gang will have to fly from Vancouver to Moncton, New Brunswick—a 2,600-mile journey—on a day’s less rest to most likely play Brazil. Things will be very tough from there on out, especially if Wambach is gassed, Morgan can’t stay healthy, or Leroux and Rodriguez can’t finish chances.
After July 5, we will never see Wambach or Christie Rampone suit up for the U.S. at a World Cup again. Shannon Boxx will likely follow. Questions remain for other older players like Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Heather O’Reilly, and Ali Krieger. This is a generation who came of age at a time when the pressure to win loomed like a heavy shadow, and yet were kept out of the public eye until the almost-success of Germany 2011. They lacked the expectation of a professional league, and thus tied their identity into the national team. Things are very different now. A professional league is competitive and seemingly stable. The world has answered the call and will field the best women’s soccer teams in history in Canada. The spotlight has never burned brighter. Wambach herself has thrown everything into winning this year. Still, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Evan Davis is a proud Toffee living in New York City. His writing has appeared in Film Comment, The Velvet Light Trap, MUBI Notebook, Howler Magazine and The House Next Door. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ProfessorDobles.
Illustration by Harrison Creech. See more of his work at www.harrison-creech.com.