The United States have enough to beat Spain. Barely.
Updated: Jan 1, 2020
I have, at times, been a Jill Ellis apologist. But not today. This was about as poorly-managed game as you can imagine someone putting together, and came agonizingly close to bringing the whole US tournament crashing down.
It’s not Ellis’s fault that several of her key players were terrible, but it’s absolutely her fault that she persisted in playing them as the minutes rolled on, and on, and on. And it’s also on her to do anything to change up the game once it becomes clear that the team is no longer clicking. And it’s on her to get her team’s heads in the right place when they’re getting rattled by the other team’s physical play.
The vaunted US attack is not fit, and it’s a big problem
Coming into the match, I had some real questions about the fitness and form of Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. Absolutely nothing about this match put my mind at ease. They both looked to be seriously struggling.
Rapinoe lost the ball a good half dozen times in the opening half hour, and was regularly shown the business by Marta Corredera. In fact, Spain seemed to be deliberately shading their defense toward the left, hoping to get extra bodies in front of Tobin Heath, and actively encouraging the US to play toward Rapinoe. It absolutely worked.
Morgan, once again, was clearly not 100%. Her touch was poor and her movement sluggish. The US produced fewer dangerous balls than usual, but there were still plenty. Normally, Morgan would latch onto the end of them. But today she simply wasn’t there. Against a Spain team that rode their luck (and trusted a referee who seemed reluctant to get out her whistle) with aggressive physical play, Morgan looked very much not up for it. One of the key changes in her game over the past couple years has been a more vigorous physical presence. We saw none of that today.
This was a game screaming out for Christen Press and/or Carli Lloyd – who both eventually came on in the final waning minutes, long after they would have had the chance to make a difference.
The US got their goals, but they were both from pretty soft penalties. I wouldn’t call either a mistake – those were fouls, albeit pretty weak ones. But for this US team to create so little is a reason for genuine concern. And it’s absolutely time to ask some serious questions about whether Rapinoe and Morgan are really ready to go against France.
The US defense has significant holes, and it’s a big problem
Further back, the US got reasonably good games from the midfielders, but they looked nowhere near as crisp as in previous games. Lavelle and Mewis both seemed to press a lot, trying for perfect passes that didn’t come off, rather than working it a bit more cooly.
And in the defense, once again, the left side was a real danger area. Becky Sauerbrunn is a legend, but she just doesn’t have the pace of precision anymore. Crystal Dunn seems to get worse at defending with each passing week. And she also isn’t managing to get involved with the attack, which is the whole point of playing her!
And then there’s Alyssa Naeher, who was shaky on balls over the top, and far more than shaky with the ball at her feet. Spain pounced on the one gift that was given to them, but couldn’t quite pry things open to get another. But it’s certainly not hard to imagine a Diani or Cascarino from France having a field day down the left.
Spain raised their game, and gave the US some big things to think about
For Spain, this was an excellent performance, and one that showed why people were talking about them seriously as a dark horse coming into the tournament. They held the US largely at bay, losing on two garbage penalties, and were able to build some decent attacks as well. They were able to do it through flexibility and a clear collective vision.
They worked very hard to keep a coherent and tight defensive shape in the middle, trying to shift bodies left to protect against Tobin Heath but generally waiting for the US to come at them. They also leaned pretty heavily into physical defensive play. Which really shouldn’t have worked – the US is the strongest and fastest team in the tournament and no strangers to a crunching tackle (they all play in the NWSL for god’s sake). But surprisingly, it was very successful. The US looked frustrated, and simply weren’t able to find their rhythm after a strong opening 20 minutes. For much of the second half, they looked like they were more interested in appealing to the referee for foul calls that weren’t coming than they were in actually trying to win the game.
I’ve commented previously on my feelings about referees who permit violent play to continue, and I certainly would have liked to see a tighter hand on the till here. But this was not like the China performance against Germany. Spain were going in, but they weren’t going over the top with it.
In the attack, Spain did not rely nearly as heavily on possession as expected. As the game progressed, they did start to hold the ball a bit more. But generally their attacks were direct, and involved putting the ball in the air far more than usual.
Again, this seemed to reflect some good scouting. The US backline is slow and prone to errors when asked to chase quick defenders down. And we definitely saw that here. By the end of the match, Spain’s aerial efforts were a bit too speculative, and the US began to settle in deep and handle them fairly easily. But for much of the game, they seemed out of sorts.
The US are still favorites. But this is a wide open tournament
In the end, the US did enough to go through. But it was a very weak performance from a team that was being talked about just last night as the obvious and virtually inevitable winner of the tournament. They absolutely could still win this thing, and it would be just as big a mistake to overinterpret one mediocre game as it was to overinterpret a couple good games against bad teams.
Every team at this tournament has flaws. But that’s not actually the interesting story. Because the only reason those flaws really matter is that many teams at this tournament are good enough to exploit those flaws. The US is still the best in the world, but the world is a heck of a lot closer. Spain showed that today. And France may well show it again on Friday.