Three Takeways from the USWNT’s 3-3 draw with Japan

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  The United States had been absolutely cruising through 2016, entering Thursday’s international friendly with Japan having won 11 straight matches — 10 by shutout. The Americans scored 42 goals and gave up just one.

The two-game series with Japan was going to be a combination of fine-tuning the roster and getting chemistry in order for the Rio Olympics that begin in two months.

Japan, on the other hand, was rebuilding — a former shell of the team that went to two straight World Cup finals and an Olympic championship game. Asako Takakura was named the first female coach for Japan and was leading a youth movement.

So explain the 3-3 tie in front of a sold-out crowd at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park — a match where Japan stole a page from the United States’ book by scoring late in the game and may have given other teams a blueprint on how to effectively play against the Americans?

Here’s three takeaways from the match:

Japan was a team possessed: After weathering the storm very early in the match, Japan began to figure out it could possess against the Americans and use it to penetrate. That resulted in a pair of goals early in the match.

The United States 4-3-3 formation left plenty of room in the midfield for Japan. Mizuho Sakaguchi used space in the midfield to put much pressure on the Americans’ backline, especially the outside backs, Kelley O’Hara and Meghan Klingenberg. Both were beaten on Japan’s second goal — a crisp three-pass combination.

Japan, which may be the best team not in the Rio Olympics, also decided to play high pressure on the Americans — again another United States trademark from earlier times. That made it difficult at times for the United States to work out the back.

The defense failed the test again in stoppage time. Holding their first lead of the night and needing only to kill the last four minutes of extra time, Japan strung four passes together through the heart of the Americans’ midfield and backline when Kumi Yokoyama beat Solo to forge the draw.

Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn are a nice combination:  The three worked some magic late in the second half to begin the United States comeback. Dunn’s run found herself in between the Japanese midfield and backline, freeing her up to turn and run at the defense before hitting Pugh on the right wing in full stride.

Early on, those three did not see much of the ball and it’s no surprise that’s when Japan took a 2-0 lead.

Pugh was playing in the injured Carli Lloyd’s #10 spot, sitting behind Morgan. Dunn was on the right flank much of the game. Only when Pugh came out a little wide and out of the middle of the field did the Americans start to press the issue.

Morgan scored again off a free kick from Tobin Heath, marking her 18th multiple-goal match of her career.

It was interesting to see the United States play without Lloyd. There were moments of brilliance but it wasn’t until Japan had a numerical advantage after Yuki Ogimi’s double yellow that the Americans dominated.

The what-if factor: What if Yuki didn’t pick up a pair of careless yellow cards that forced Japan not only to play down a player for more than 30 minutes, but obviously changed its style of play? Instead of continuing to challenge the United States defense more in the final half-hour of play, Japan went into a defensive shell of sorts. And the Americans were able to use the numerical advantage to push their offense and eventually take the lead — short-lived though it was.

And what if Japanese goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita had better hands? Yamashita had her hands on both of Morgan’s goals and Lindsey Horan’s head ball but couldn’t keep the ball in front of her.  All three goals were stoppable. Giving the United States the benefit of the doubt on one goal, it could have been a disastrous night for the Americans.

Next up: The two teams are back at it Sunday at noon ET (ESPN2) at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland.


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  • OllyOllyOxenFree

    The USWNT has got to start considering the future. With the old guard retiring and the rest of the world getting a lot better (Japan, France, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Colombia), they can’t count on rolling over the opposition. They’ve got to revamp and freshen up their tactics.

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