USWNT Progress Report: Takeaways from Sweden

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By MC Bousquette
USWNT Beat Writer

In a disappointment for both sides, the US and Sweden emerged from Friday’s competition with a scoreless draw.
The USWNT looked visibly improved on Friday, with clear attempts to repair weaknesses illuminated in the squad’s shaky opening performance against Australia.

What’s Looking Up:

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 10.16.30 AMThe defense held Sweden back and made an impact up the field.

Becky Sauerbrunn is, without a doubt, one of the team’s unsung heroes of this World Cup, consistently executing tackle after tackle to stop Sweden from penetrating. Meghan Klingenberg robbed Sweden of a goal with a spectacular header save in the second half; one of many key chances she crushed. She was similarly a playmaker upfield. Ali Krieger was a workhorse throughout, both in her reinforcement of the back line and her aggressive offensive efforts; she penetrated multiple times, including a shot on goal.

Perhaps most exciting for the USWNT, both presently and in the future, is the absolute fire that is 23-year-old Julie Johnston. She is lightning fast, moving rapidly up and down the pitch. She is an absolute defensive force, but can just as quickly make dangerous assaults on goal.

Coach Jill Ellis is willing to make changes.  

Many worried that, after a spring of watching a relatively stagnant lineup and tactical strategy, Ellis would fail to adapt her starting XI and playbook to World Cup competition. She surprised the doubters, moving Christen Press up top, inserting Morgan Brian at right wing, and using Abby Wambach as a second-half sub. The US also demonstrated a much less direct game, indicating Ellis is leading a concerted effort to prepare for the more technical, aggressive squads the US will face in matches to come.

The Concerns:

The forwards are struggling.

Starters Sydney Leroux and Christen Press were almost silent on the field. Most opportunities came via the midfield and defenders. An apparent lapse in communication resulted in balls entering the box, only to miss Leroux and Press. Press had a handful of efforts towards goal, but was beaten by the Swedish defense. Leroux had a brief opportunity off a header in the second half, but the ball was deflected off a Swedish defender. This has to improve for the US to convert in the final third. Amy Rodriguez replaced Brian towards the beginning of the second half as Press shifted back down to right wing, but Rodriguez was unable to pick up the slack, either.

Abby Wambach entered the match for Press in the 68th minute, but appeared slow and out of form. She missed a couple of well-placed header opportunities, and was otherwise absent. It’s unclear if she never returned to full fitness, or if there simply isn’t a place for her in the US offense anymore.

On Saturday, Wambach blamed the situation on turf; “I think I score if we’re on grass,” describing at length the effect of the turf on ball bounces, and her reservation at diving due to the surface. She may be right, but it’s way too late to argue about the playing surface; she needs to compensate and convert chances into goals.

Alex Morgan has played in both of the US matches so far in the World Cup, but is still visibly struggling to return to match form. She made a solid run against Australia, culminating in an off-target shot, but was completely ineffective after she entered Friday’s match in the 78th minute. The US needs Morgan to be resilient and hit her stride quickly; she is the creative playmaker up top the squad needs.

The midfield is struggling to survive, rather than creating opportunity.

Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday are still unable to hold the center defensively, but thankfully, the US defense compensated. Conversely, as opponents compensate to the US strategy to drive up the middle with Holiday and Lloyd, the pair were relegated to sending the ball out wide. Lloyd did have a second half header opportunity, but seemed otherwise out of sorts. But, even when the ball did make its way to the wing, opportunities faltered quickly — Megan Rapinoe was shut down before she could be the dynamic playmaker she was against Australia.

Ellis’ experiment with Morgan Brian on the right wing made at least some difference as the squad’s youngest player handled the pressure well. That said, it is unclear why Brian started over Tobin Heath, who has looked increasingly solid in 2015. Perhaps Ellis will look at Heath against Nigeria; her willingness to move players around in the matchup against Sweden was encouraging.

Despite apparent weaknesses, the US has clearly identified the remaining issues it must address in order to pull together and realize the squad’s full potential. Theywill need to be ready for an offensively aggressive Nigerian side, while taking advantage of its weaker defense. Converting opportunities will be the focus come Tuesday.

The United States’ battle to stay atop the Group of Death continues against Nigeria on Tuesday, June 16th at 8pm (Fox, NBC Universo).