SheBelieves Wrap-up: USWNT Dominates but Questions Remain
We expected the USWNT to win the SheBelieves Cup and they did, so what have we learned?
Perhaps unexpectedly, the win wasn’t necessarily easy. The US struggled most apparently in their first game against Canada, where their winning goal didn’t come until the 79th minute off the foot of substitute Rose Lavelle. Final passes and finishing were apparently pretty rusty, but it’s worth noting that even though it wasn’t as easy as expected, the USWNT still found a way to win.
Brazil presented their own challenges to the US team, though Christen Press’ goal in the 11th minute maybe made the challenges seem a bit more in the USWNT’s control.
Finally, Argentina’s situation being what it is, largely without support from their federation, over a year without a game prior to this tournament, and down several important players due to injury and COVID protocols, the USWNT’s final game served more as a chance for rotation than a serious challenge.
The three games, while delivering different things in terms of specific challenges, did provide the important opportunity to adjust tactics and problem solve.
Trouble in the Final Third
Despite spending a lot of time in their opponent’s halves, the USWNT had some trouble organizing a consistent and effective attack against their first two opponents.
Canada’s dual sixes meant that the middle of the field got to be a bit more congested than Cat Macario in particular could work her way out of. We saw her overlapping a bit with Midge Purce and Lynn Williams on the right side, but she wasn’t able to consistently threaten Canada on the attack centrally, outside of some nice late runs into the box that maybe would’ve turned into chances on another day. Unfortunately her early return to Lyon means we didn’t get the opportunity to see her work things out against other opponents during the week.
Midge Purce got some of her first meaningful minutes at right back against Canada. As part of the conversion process (Free Midge!), Vlatko has specifically noted her ability to beat opponents on the dribble and deliver crosses. For this attacking minded squad, part of Midge’s job at right back is to use those skills, honed in her work as an excellent forward, to make end line runs and deliver balls into the box.
However, against Canada, direct plays to the end line were often thwarted either by the excellent defending of Allysha Chapman or unsuccessful crosses into Canada’s congested box. The combined issues of rusty finishing from the US and solid defense from Canada challenged this particular approach in a real way. In testament to her skill on the ball, Midge was frequently able to win a corner or deliver a cross without conceding possession, but the offensive productivity was generally elusive in the first half.
Overwhelmingly, the game called for a bit more patience in the buildup, which we saw in some second half adjustments. The set piece that resulted in Lavelle’s goal came from Midge Purce holding up play right outside of the 18. Rather than more direct play, we saw Midge adjusting, being a bit more patient and then drawing the foul in a dangerous spot.
In games like this one, it often comes down to which team can make adjustments more effectively. Canada’s pressure asked questions of the US attack in some really important ways, and luckily the USWNT found an answer.
What Midge showed as a relatively new right back was that she could make those adjustments in the attack and still make sure to hold up her defensive duties. The team as a whole showed a willingness to work things out and find solutions.
Rotation and Game Changers
Another important aspect of this tournament was the opportunity to test out different lineups.
The ‘game changer’ substitution that saw Rose Lavelle, Alex Morgan, and Christen Press enter the Canada match at the same time gives us a hint at what makes the US so dangerous. We saw something similar when those three players started against a Brazil team that presents very different problems than Canada. More attack-minded and ever creative, Brazil brought a more open and transitional game. Starting players who can really exploit the open space between Brazil's lines allowed the US to better capitalize when they were on the attack.
While keeping the same overall structure and tactical game plan, personnel changes can noticeably change a game for the US. As just one example, Alex Morgan at the 9 offers something entirely different than Carli Lloyd at the 9. Being able to deploy different lineups based on those nuances is a luxury of the USWNT’s depth, and makes it difficult for teams to prepare for such a variety of weapons across each position.
It’s important to note that both of these lineups included Lynn Williams. Her ability to win the ball high up the pitch and force defenders to make mistakes through sheer pressure makes her essential to the high press Vlatko wants his team to execute. And beyond that, Williams is the type of attacking player that will track back and pick up the ball in her own half, especially important with all the rotation at the right back position. We can see Vlatko consistently calling on Williams and seeing how other forwards work with her, rotating players around her.
Lynn’s positioning in the Canada game versus the Brazil game gives a sense of the intelligence that Vlatko values. With Midge’s high runs against Canada, Lynn was able to overlap with her to free up some space or move centrally to receive crosses. Against Brazil, we saw Emily Sonnett distributing the ball a bit earlier and staying a bit more central. Lynn exploited the wide spaces and opened up play in different ways, leaving some more room for Morgan and Christen Press to make runs centrally. The way Lynn creates space and exploits it makes her so difficult to defend and opens up the game for her teammates in really important ways.
The Backline was Challenged this week
This tournament asked more questions of the backline than we’ve seen in a while, with Canada and Brazil getting a combined total of 4 shots on target. The backline stepped up to the challenge, perhaps with the help of a bit of luck, and challenges like these are extremely important leading up to a major tournament like the Olympics.
Canada’s intense central pressure caused some problems for the US across the board, and several attempts to pass through that pressure led to dangerous counter runs from the likes of Nichelle Prince. The central defenders did a good job of holding up those runs just enough to receive some support or to force an error. In a general sense, what we saw was just one of the risks of the aggressive style of play the US is operating with. All factors included, the US got away with it, and Vlatko did seem pleased that the opportunities on goal came from counterattacks rather than from opponents breaking down the defense.
The game against Brazil was a bit more transitional across the board. A lot of dangerous plays came from the simple fact that defending a player like Debinha is a formidable prospect on any day, and unfortunately Emily Sonnett didn’t have her best game. Still, the backline was able to make some effective recovery runs that kept the US out of too much trouble.
The SheBelieves Cup also told us a thing we already know: Crystal Dunn is the most important player on this team. Her defensive presence throughout the week saved the US numerous times, and often shut down potential counterattacks on the left side before they became problems. On the other side of the ball, her offensive presence meant that regardless of who played in front of her, movement up the left side of the pitch was dynamic and effective.
It’s hard to put Crystal Dunn’s game into words, probably in part because it is so all encompassing, but as we saw the US backline tested more substantially than it has been in a while, it’s important to acknowledge her role in the three consecutive shutouts that didn’t come easily.
Lastly, I fear I would be remiss not to mention the ever-present question of who will make that 18-person roster.
There doesn’t seem to be any clear answers regarding the backline as of the end of this tournament. Consistent rotation meant that no one clearly got the edge. Though Emily Sonnett didn’t have her best game against Brazil, we saw her rotate through three defensive roles during the Argentina game as a reminder that she can slot into just about any defensive position. Where Midge Purce might have the edge in terms of her contributions to the attack, Sonnett provides valuable defensive versatility.
Kristie Mewis notably got her first start since returning to the squad in the final match against Argentina, and subbed into the other two matches. She used the time well, showcasing some of the attributes that Vlatko clearly values in her game. We saw her deliver some excellent long service for her forwards to run onto and we saw her effectively combine in and around the box. If she continues this form with the national team and with her club team, it’s hard to imagine she won’t have a significant shot at that roster.
The immense attacking depth of this squad probably means that the decision will only become clear in time, as health and fitness adjust over the course of the next few months. The forwards available for the SheBelieves Cup all made compelling cases for themselves, and with Tobin Heath returning from injury soon it’s hard to say who will ultimately make the cut.
What I can say is that the team will only improve as a result of this tournament and I’m sure we’ll see the effects by the time the April friendlies come around. Until then, club form is key, and each player has a clearer sense of what she needs to bring to the team moving forward.