Offense shines, defense struggles for USWNT as World Cup draws near

Photo: Peter Andrews

The raucous crowd at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Thursday night wanted to celebrate.

They wanted to celebrate two homegrown heroes making their return to Colorado (Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh), a milestone goal from Alex Morgan, who sat on 99 international goals entering the match, and the general dominance of their reigning world champions ahead of a a tough title defense.

They got all those things.

The U.S. ripped through a fatigued Australia team behind a four-goal second-half barrage, capped by Pugh bagging an emphatic brace — the first coming just 37 seconds after entering the match, the second a chipped stake in Australia’s heart at the end of a stoppage-time counterattack.

They got to celebrate Morgan, too, who hit her century in the first half by way of a prototypical Alex Morgan goal — the combination of a bulldozing run and pile-driver finish that makes her a superstar.

And they sung and cheered deep into the Colorado night, where the temperature dropped precipitously from nearly 70 degrees at kickoff to into the 40s by match’s end.

Yet the USWNT leaves Colorado with more questions than answers.

We know they can score goals.

With three goals conceded to the Matildas, what Thursday night’s game asks is whether they can stop them.

The USWNT as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal

Watching Australia grab a 2-1 lead last night, seemingly scoring out of nowhere both times, I experienced a strange case of deja vu.

The United States reminded me of some of the Arsenal teams late in Arsene Wenger’s legendary reign (roughly 2014-2017).

To be clear about something up front — I loved those Arsenal teams. When Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were on their game together, surrounded by a host of high-class attacking talent, every game came with the anticipation that Arsenal could score five, or produce a goal that belongs in a museum. I freely admit my strong bias toward attacking soccer, almost to the point of recklessness.

But that’s just what those teams were: reckless. In the event that the other team counterattacked, Arsenal were often left wanting. The defensive steel in a side where Santi Cazorla played as a defensive midfielder was rarely sufficient to stop the Man Citys and Bayern Munichs of the world from running rampant. Trying to win every game 4-3 only works to a point. That point is where the other team is good enough to where you can’t simply set up shop in the opponent’s half and turn the screws for 90 minutes until they make one or more mistakes.

All that is a long-winded way of saying that the USWNT has, in all likelihood, the best attacking talent in the world. Alex Morgan is pretty much unstoppable, while Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath are world-class players in their own right. (All three had goals last night.) When you support that front three with converted attackers like Crystal Dunn at fullback, offensive-minded midfielders like Lindsey Horan, and a subs bench that includes the likes of Pugh and Christen Press, you’re going to score goals.

Yet that can leave an enormous amount of space in the midfield, where Julie Ertz can’t do everything by herself. If the backline isn’t perfect — which they were far from against the Aussies — there are goals to be had.

Here’s the first goal, where it’s easiest to see what I’m talking about. Once Australia picks up possession in midfield, it takes exactly one pass to bypass Ertz and send four Matildas at four U.S. defenders. (Horan and fellow midfielder Rose Lavelle are caught high up the pitch.) From there, it’s an error by Emily Sonnett (a center back playing right back) that allows Lisa De Vanna an Endgame-esque amount of time to pick out the perfect shot.

Tenuous defending led to both of Australia’s second-half goals, too — too much time and space afforded to Caitlin Foord on the edge of the box for the first, poor marking on a cross that found Sam Kerr for the second.

More steel needed to beat the best

After the match, Jill Ellis made it clear that she’s still experimenting with a few different tactical systems to supplement the Americans’ core 4-3-3.

These problems are far from unsolvable. Of course, similar questions were asked of the USWNT in Canada four years ago, as the squad seemed to sleepwalk through the early parts of the tournament. It wasn’t until Ellis introduced Morgan Brian into the starting lineup that things really seemed to click. (Brian, not part of the squad for this pair of friendlies, doesn’t look to be in Ellis’s plans for this summer’s tournament.) And the Americans have time to figure it out — there are four more games before even getting on the plane to France, plus two group-stage games against Thailand and Chile that should be a walk in the cake.

But after that the real challenges will come. Sweden in the group stage, plus whichever of the usual suspects — Germany, England, France, Canada, Japan, and Brazil among others — end up drawing the U.S. in the knockout rounds.

By then, Ellis will need to find a structure that can stop the world’s best.

One Comment

  1. Alyssa Naeher is a liability in goal. The problem is, who is her replacement?

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