USWNT Pre-World Cup Progress Report: Takeaways from Korea

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By MC Bousquette
USWNT Beat Writer

The U.S. Women’s National Team kicks off World Cup play against Australia in just one week, and the US’ pre-season results, with only one loss since the beginning of 2015, look promising on paper.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story, and Saturday’s friendly against South Korea revealed the persistence of holes in the squad’s performance.

The Pessimist: What’s Missing

In essence, what the USWNT is still lacking is finishing in the final third. When asked what the US could have done better in Saturday’s friendly match against Korea Republic, Coach Jill Ellis responded simply, “finishing chances. I’d love to see us get on the board and win the game. And we always want to win the game.”

Ellis cited that she saw her squad, “tactically trying to execute what we wanted to do, and we did ok, but I think that’s something visually I’ll be able to get some takeaways from in terms of how we want to play when we’re pushing for a goal.” Ellis didn’t elaborate specifically on what it is she’ll be addressing, although her vagueness surrounding the squad’s tactics has become a norm.

It didn’t, however, take analysis from Ellis to spot Saturday’s disconnect between the midfield and forward line. The ability to transfer the ball forward into thoughtful plays, rather than the direct, long-ball attempts seen throughout Saturday’s match, was greatly impacted by difficulty with midfield fluidity. The squad appeared rusty and tired, a very worrying state for a squad about to face an aggressive Australian side in just a week.

The difficulty at midfield was compounded as Megan Rapinoe sat due to injury. Rapinoe, according to Ellis, adds value in that she, “gives us a lot of penetration, and I think we didn’t get a lot of penetration in the first half from Press and Brian. [Rapinoe] gives us that; she likes to take on, she likes to get involved.” Fortunately for the US, it appears that Rapinoe will be back in the game quickly after sitting out the match against Korea; Ellis assured press that, despite a sore quad, “Rapinoe will be fine… it’s just precautionary.”

In addition to the lack of offensive connection and mobility, the USWNT’s lack of a strong finish can, in part, be attributed to the absence of creative star striker Alex Morgan. Morgan missed the final three international friendlies due to a knee bone bruise, which Ellis initially billed as a precaution. But, despite Morgan’s statement last Wednesday that she would be back to 100% for the first game of the World Cup, it appears that the situation may be worse than initially thought.

During the post-game press conference, Ellis shared her thoughts on Morgan’s potential return; “Realistically, she’s been off for a while. So in terms of minutes, that’s something I think we’re going to have to build through the early games to be ready. We don’t want to blow her up too early in terms of physically being ready.”

Abby Wambach, reinforcing Ellis’ statement that Morgan might not start or play entire matches at the beginning of the World Cup, “Whenever Alex is 100%, we need her – we need her to win. And I’m comfortable if she doesn’t start games.  I’m comfortable if she comes off the bench that we still are successful throughout this World Cup.”

In the meantime, Ellis must find a viable solution up top. Saturday’s starting pair of Wambach and Leroux was an effort filled with ill-timing and missed chances, with a noticeable difference when Amy Rodriguez entered for Wambach in the second half. Rodriguez knows she needs to be in top form, sharing, “Whatever it takes to win, that’s what I’m going to have to do. I’m willing to play that role; I really am.”

Similarly, Lauren Holiday appeared out of position often throughout the match, and was replaced by Tobin Heath in the second half. Ellis will need to decide which of the two can better affect both the holding and fire power of the US midfield.

That such large questions remain within a week of the World Cup is incredibly worrisome. Ellis has just one week to compensate for Morgan’s absence in a more permanent manner than previously expected, as well as forge a strong connection between a loose midfield and the strikers. The USWNT have their work cut out for them.

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