USWNT World Cup Progress Report: Takeaways from Australia

What Needs To Improve:

First and foremost, the USWNT has to undergo a tactical upgrade before Friday in order to start the match at full force. The US can’t afford to repeat their performance on Monday which was riddled with rudimentary offensive jaunts, long balls, and a first half 63% passing completion rate in the attacking third. Instead, the US needs to take a cue from the success of the players and sequences that diverged from traditional direct play. Rapinoe worked much more technically than other players, and was visibly more successful. The series of passes and quick touches that led up to Press’ goal were a similar step up from the inaccurate direct play the squad favored in the first half.

The heart of the situation is that the international women’s game has improved too much for the US to get away with such basic tactics. The USWNT needs to adjust before Friday when they face Pia Sundhage’s Swedish squad who are sure to employ a technically advanced attack characteristic to European play.

Solo noted the many issues with the US’ play after the game; “We went direct, we didn’t play through the midfield. And not just offensively, but defensively we broke down a bit in the midfield… we have to tighten up the gaps, we have to compress the field a bit more, and we have to move the ball with pace and rhythm and get them out of shape. Hopefully our set-pieces are better defensively and offensively. We didn’t perform on set-pieces today either.”

Abby Wambach is not a starter, but Ellis had other ideas. She captained Wambach and left her in for the entire match. It is plausible that Ellis felt this was the easiest match on the US schedule, and therefore chose to pay tribute to Wambach with the full-game captaincy. In contrast, it’s also possible that Ellis didn’t want to wear out the legs of those who will start on Friday against Sweden, leaving Wambach in to save the other strikers. It is difficult to know for certain, but the second possibility falls in line with Ellis’ precautionary move to take the goal-scoring Press out after 68 minutes.

Regardless of why Wambach played the full 90 minutes, it shouldn’t happen again. Rapinoe served the ball directly to Wambach five times throughout the course of the match, and Wambach missed every one of these routine chances at goal. The time has passed for Ellis to experiment – Wambach is, at this point, a valuable impact sub. Instead of exhausting her with complete matches, why not preserve her power and spread it out from match to match?

The midfield is still suffering. Again, Lauren Holiday proved that she is not a holding midfielder, while Carli Lloyd also struggled to hold the center against the pressing Matildas. The midfield’s difficulties left the back line far more exposed than usual, as would be expected against a side as aggressive as Australia. Ellis has to consider how to solve this problem once and for all, but her insistence on a 4-4-2 with Lloyd and Holiday on the inside leaves few options.

There is a possibility that Ellis will look at Tobin Heath as a starter, but her choice to substitute Heath for Press in the last game indicates that she still views Heath only as bench strength. With Heath’s recent performances both defensively and as a playmaker, this is a mistake.

Most worryingly of all, the first half midfield performance came across as if they had never played with the rest of the team before. The US’ group schedule leaves no room for a high quantity of off-target passes and turnovers in the coming matches. The midfield needs to be the hinge between the back line and the offense, and right now, they are not even close. They may well be the weakness that sinks the squad.

The defense must hold when the midfield cannot. The US starting back line of Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, and Ali Krieger has been playing together for months now, yet the four have never looked as overwhelmed as they did against Australia. Australia’s lone goal punctured a sloppy US defensive effort to triple team Lisa De Vanna. The collapse was uncharacteristic of the back line, who generally constitute a sturdy wall in front of Solo, regardless of the midfield’s often-inconsistent state. It is possible that the answer lies in the defense’s mental response to the pressure of the World Cup, although that is difficult to ascertain from outside of the locker room. If that is the case, however, Ellis should consider starting Christie Rampone, even if only for the first half, to ensure the back line is at ease from the very beginning.

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