At the top, it should be stated that there were plenty of reasons for the U.S. Women’s National Team to never take their foot off the brakes this morning against Australia. Going balls-out wouldn’t have won them the group, with Sweden getting their gimme against New Zealand at the same time. No matter where the U.S. finishes, the quarterfinal is in just three days. It’s Japan in the summer, so the humidity level is somewhere around “soup.” And, as we’ll circle back to in a bit, this U.S. squad is either not fully fit due to some key injuries, just plain fuckin’ older, or some combination thereof.
So clearly getting a breather when and where you can might be vital.
Still, given the utter paddling they got from Sweden, some of the signs in the 0-0 draw with Australia leave questions that either don’t have answers yet or carry some uneasy implications. It was extremely odd to see the U.S. as passive as they were, with Australia racking up nearly 65 percent of the possession time. The U.S. didn’t really engage the Matildas until the halfway line for most of the match. We’re used to the U.S. pressing far higher, betting that teams can’t play their way through them and then tearing into the spaces after turnovers.
Again, this could be tactical, given the roster and schedule crunch of the Olympics, and it’s not like the Aussies rained down chances upon the U.S. And pressing like your relatives are being held captive in these conditions with the games so tightly packed could be a recipe for trouble down the road. We don’t know what the instructions were.
But some of Vlatko Andonovski’s other tactical decisions were just weird. The U.S. appeared to start in a 4-3-3, but most of the match saw Rose Lavelle push up to make it a 4-2-4. Except, without that high press, and when the U.S. didn’t have the ball, Lavelle’s role was unclear and it left Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz outnumbered in midfield behind her. In possession, it took away Lavelle’s biggest strength, which is driving through the lines with the ball. Having her post up against Australia’s backline like an auxiliary target forward isn’t the best use of her.
At times, Mewis pushed up near that frontline as well, leaving enough space between Ertz and those in front of her to land an airplane and depriving Ertz of passing options. Especially as neither Crystal Dunn or Kelley O’Hara got forward all that much thanks to the combo of conservative gameplanning and the high press Australia was employing. Ertz would look up, see four teammates behind her, and five more 40 yards in front of her. In the first half, when the Aussies were pressing high, the opportunity to ping balls over the top was there, and Morgan had her best chance off of such a scenario. But as the game wore on and Australia backed off, it just made for a middle-school dance look of everyone standing around.
While not as bad as the match against Sweden, the U.S. didn’t look comfortable when pressed in their own half with the ball again. Tierna Davidson looked especially ropey when under pressure, spraying a few passes out of play when anyone came near her. Australia wasn’t as ruthless as Sweden when forcing turnovers, and there weren’t as many, but more lethal teams are going to make the U.S. pay for that kind of carelessness.
Again, it could have been just playing the tournament more than playing the game, but the Dutch are going to have a clear plan and are cleaner with the ball than the Aussies. Part of the problem is that Ertz, who is the U.S.’s metronome offensively and defensively, just isn’t yet match-fit, having not played with her NWSL team in Chicago since mid-May and only getting a sub appearance against Sweden and a full game against New Zealand before this. That didn’t stop her from possibly saving the game with an otherworldly tackle in the first half against the best striker in the world, Sam Kerr. But with her still finding her way, the U.S. doesn’t really have someone who can change the pace of their game to their whim and break down presses with passing ability. Especially when Lavelle and Mewis are being deployed so strangely.
Tobin Heath is another who can weave through traffic, but she’s also not tip-top yet either, having only returned to play in July after suffering an ankle injury in January and a knee injury in April. (Of note, none of that stopped her from scoring a goal less than a minute after subbing into her return match, a friendly against Mexico on July 2.) Alex Morgan isn’t really the type of forward to drop deep and link play, which has left the midfield a bit stranded when the U.S. has been heavily under pressure.
This isn’t totally foreign to them, of course. They won the last World Cup by inviting teams onto them, counting on their defensive solidarity (which was generally augmented by dropping Ertz into defense and playing a 5-4-1) and then lacing through and over them on the counter, where the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Press, Heath, and Morgan are so dangerous in space. They did not, at least when facing quality opposition, string together orchestral passing moves to score.
Still, given the unevenness of their performances, the lack of full fitness for some of their most important players, the age of others, and the different lead-in to this tournament (some players played in Europe, some did not, instead of everyone coming from the NWSL as in the past), there is reason to worry.
Then again maybe the lack of urgency and stress allows them to be fresh enough to thrash Netherlands 3-0. We hope that’s the plan, and not just a hope.