USWNT Progress Report: Takeaways from the Group of Death

uswnt hands up

MC Bousquette
USWNT Beat Writer

After a rollercoaster round of group play, the United States pulled off a first place finish to advance into the Round of 16.

The USWNT showed marked improvement throughout the course of group play, but several key weak spots follow the squad into the next round. In case you’re just tuning into the World Cup, here’s a breakdown of where the United States stands headed into the Monday’s match against Colombia:

Improvements:

The US’ greatest strength is the defense. Though the USWNT looked defensively shaky in the World Cup opener against Australia, the back line of Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger were absolutely solid against Sweden and Nigeria. The defense’s effectiveness extends beyond protecting the US’ final third; their role as playmakers and chance-takers has become apparent.

The US back four handled well the extremely physical, fast Nigerian offense and were able to return fire; Julie Johnston sunk a goal early in the match, but it was called back on a debatable offside call. She is an absolute monster on defense as well, and is likely one of the best players on the squad at the moment.

Klingenberg saved the match against Sweden with a header clearance in goal, and hasn’t let up either. Krieger hit her groove against Nigeria, providing dangerous service into the box while beating Nigeria attack after attack. Sauerbrunn held the center alongside Johnston, with her extremely good read on quick, technical players. These four are, undoubtedly the heroes of group play.

http://www.foxsports.com/soccer/fifa-womens-world-cup/story/nigeria-0-1-united-states-abby-wambach-scores-winner-match-report-group-d-061615

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of defense… Hope Solo is unshakeable on the pitch. Despite the ongoing media circus involving Solo’s domestic scandals (which has made everybody who’s ever fancied themselves a J.D. or binge-watched Law & Order call for her head), Solo and the squad appear completely unfazed by the entire situation. Solo allowed only one goal, which came against Australia, and has rescued the US repeatedly with dynamic save after save. She continues to be essential.

Alex Morgan’s revitalization is a major key to the US success. After only a handful of playing minutes in the past two months, she made several dangerous attempts on goal, including a near-success off a well-placed ball in from Krieger against Nigeria. Her speed, technical skill and creativity are precisely what the US lacks on offense. Morgan was in position and dangerous against Nigeria; if she can stay healthy, she is the precise lift the US offense needs.

Weaknesses:

The US offense is uncoordinated and out of sync. In the US opener against Australia, Megan Rapinoe did nearly everything herself. This strategy saved the US in the opener, but failed against Sweden, after Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday were unable to dish the ball out to wing. Rapinoe was more involved against Nigeria; the lone goal of the competition came as a result of her service to Abby Wambach.

Wambach is a different story; Coach Jill Ellis favors her, even though she has converted only one opportunity of many that have been served up to her on a platter. She looked more effective than in the first two matches, perhaps as a result of her familiarity with playing alongside Alex Morgan. Morgan started for the first time in the World Cup against Nigeria, returning from injury to make it through the first 65 minutes of the match.

Ellis has tried both Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez up top, whether as starters or subs, yet neither appeared to make a tremendous impact. While this was, in part, due to a lack of solid service from the midfield, Leroux in particular appeared out of position and ineffective in the final third, simply unable to beat the Nigerian defenders. Ellis may well try more of A-Rod in upcoming play, although Christen Press is the more likely alternative to shift to the top slot if Ellis starts Tobin Heath at wing instead.  Press proved herself effective up top this round; she notched a goal in the World Cup opener after finding her way into a forward slot.

And this one from the broken record department: Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday are not holding midfielders. They are unable to defend while simultaneously pushing the ball upfield or out to wing, and as a result, have left a gaping hole in the midfield. This isn’t their fault; neither of the pair has demonstrated that they could fill the role presently assigned to them. Lloyd thrives when she is free to push all the way forward, but when she seizes the opportunity to do so, she leaves a highway down the middle for the opposition’s attack to get directly to the US final third. Similarly, Holiday appeared lost and out of position in all three matches.

Ellis attempted to compensate somewhat with Rapinoe on the left wing and Heath out right against Nigeria, but Rapinoe and Heath were unable to realize their full potential as they were bogged down by the confusion in the center. Heath’s impact was obvious, however, and at least provides Ellis with more to think about in choosing her playmakers out wide. If the wings can move the ball to the forwards and into the final third, that’s for the better, but the loss of Lloyd and Holiday as playmakers and shooters cannot be understated.

The Takeaway:

The US showed steady progress throughout the tournament, as has Ellis in her moderate willingness to change the lineup. Though it looks like she will continue to use her favored 4-4-2 formation, leaving the gap at midfield, reinforcement from the back line should carry the US through at least Colombia. Monday would be the moment to try and pivot to a 4-3-3, but a stubborn Ellis will almost certainly not do so. If she hasn’t already, why would she now?

The US is safe for the moment, but should the side make it through to the semi-finals, they’ll need to re-think just how much they want to rely on four defenders and a keeper against France or Germany, the likely contenders to face the United States in the semi-finals.

The United States takes on Colombia this Monday, June 22, at 8pm EST in Edmonton (FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, NBC Universo).

  • Lee

    At risk of sounding Polyanna-ish, I’m actually pretty optimistic that a lot of the team’s recent problems will take care of themselves as Alex Morgan gets back to form. I think a lot of people have underestimated the impact of her presence when she is on her game: Like Mia Hamm before, she both makes all of her teammates better and creates all kinds of headaches for the opponent. In the same way, I think giving Tobin Heath enough minutes to really find her game will have a similar effect. I fear that Ellis will bench Heath again given her so-so performance against Nigeria, but given the opportunity I’m convinced that Heath can be a difference-maker.