For all the fame that surrounds the United States women’s national team – for all the renown that’s evolved into a love affair with stars like Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe – an unfortunate, almost ironic reality sets in when the team kicks off. Despite years of mixed results and reminders that the team is no longer the steamroller it built its reputation on, there’s still that reputation to live up to. And when the team doesn’t, we talk about it as if it’s a disappointment.
Take FOX analyst Alexi Lalas’s reaction to yesterday’s 3-1 win over Australia. First of his three points on the match: “The U.S. did not play well … They’re definitely going to have to play better going forward.” Fair enough, but playing well is a relative assessment, of course. Did it not play well by an average team’s standards? Or did it fail to meet its fame’s expectations?
Over at ESPN, Jeff Carlisle said the two-goal win “flattered the U.S. to a degree,” explaining the team “played well below their best for long stretches.” Jeré Longman at the New York Times said the team “appeared nervous,” describing it as “often tattered in defense, frequently inert and faltering in attack.” ESPN’s Graham Hays said the match was “more interesting than the United States might have wanted,” though added perspective from somebody that’s seen this team’s evolution: “things got better in the second half, as is so often the case for the United States in the World Cup.”
It’s not just the World Cup. Over the last two years (34 games), the U.S. has scored 56.8 percent of its goals after halftime, a strange figure when realize late-game situations rarely see the team pushing for goals. The U.S. has outscored its opposition 102-20 since Jan. 2014, leaving a lot of garbage time at the end of matches. To a certain extent, the U.S. has leveraged that time, using its often devastating depth to pummel teams in friendlies that allow six substitutions. In general, however, using playing a style that continues to pressure teams with quick, direct, physical play, the United States feasts on teams that get worn down.
It’s an approach that led to a lot of never say die, cardiac kids labels in the last Olympics and World Cup. Between the team’s performances against Brazil and Canada in those tournament’s knockout rounds, the U.S. solidified a reputation for climbing out of its own ditches. Deficits weren’t necessarily a problem as much as they were part of an identity. You can’t be resilient without an obstacle.
It’s an unhealthy identity – after all, allowing goals is bad, more so if you’re getting used to doing so – but it’s one that explains the perceptions. The U.S. played poorly, most analysis of yesterday’s result goes, but it also played to type. With an often flat two-person midfield, a solid but exploitable 4-4-2 formation, and a style that uses possession as a luxury, the U.S. is going to look bad against decent competition, particularly by modern standards. It’s going to maintain the established pattern.
But part of that established pattern is winning. Over these last two years where the U.S. has outscored its opponents by 2.41 goals per game, the team has also won 70 percent of the time. It flamed out at the Algarve Cup in 2014, but it won the same competition earlier this year. And while it put in a poor performance against France in February, it got a measure of revenge against a slightly weakened France a month later in Portugal.
All the while, it’s played the same style, one that lends many to note how bad the team looks. At this point, though, this is the U.S. It’s a team that will be outplayed for long stretches. It’s one that may have to rely on its goalkeeper, Hope Solo, to paper over cracks. It’s a side that will give up the first goal, but more importantly, it’s a team that will often score the last. For better or worse, it’s exactly the team that won hearts four years ago.
- The team the United States met in the 2011 final, defending champion Japan, also kicked off its World Cup on Monday, and like the team that relegated it to a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, it played to type. Particularly in the first half, Japan’s movement, game management and enviable on-the-ball technique continuously cut through Switzerland, eventually earning a penalty kick that was converted by Aya Miyama in the 29th minute. Unfortunately, that was the game’s final goal. As is too often the case with Japan, a relatively close final score belied the details, which continue to portray a team that can matchup with anyone.
- The day’s most exciting game was its first one, with Nigeria taking a draw from a Sweden team some have picked to make a deep tournament run. But as good as Nigeria was, the 3-3 final was flattering, with huge defensive errors from one of Sweden’s best players giving the draw an aberrational feel. Perhaps the Super Falcons will find new ways to pick up aberrational results going forward, but Monday’s performance wasn’t a template for long-term success. Sweden can expect to get more reliable play from Nilla Fischer, while Nigeria can expect less generosity from Australia and the U.S.
- The most lopsided game of the day was undoubtedly the least watched. Kicking off 30 minutes before the U.S. and Australia, Cameroon and Ecuador made their World Cup debuts in the shadows. Ecuador will want to keep it there. A perfect storm of negative momentum and unforgiving whistles gave Cameroon three penalty kicks, with Gaelle Enganamouit scoring the third, fourth, and fifth goals of her international career in a 6-0 rout.
Quick but important
Hope Solo responded on the field
The one goal she allowed was unstoppable. Before that, she’d kept her team even, allowing some attacking speculation and a deflection to put the U.S. up before Australia was able to counter. By then, everyone had their reminder: Hope Solo is the one goalkeeper in this tournament that’s capable to turning a result.
That’s not quite what happened yesterday, but it had the potential. An early reflex stop with her left hand. A sprawling stop while lunging toward her post. Within the first 15 minutes, Solo’s fans had two highlights to throw in the face of the producers at Outside the Lines. If you want to stir up controversy the day before her opener, know Hope Solo’s at her best in the eye of the storm.
In truth, the first save was one most keepers should make. The second? Not so much, but the technical merit of each stop is beside the point. Hope Solo’s is a saga of her own making, one entities like ours and Outside the Lines merely put into words. And in that saga, when moments of glory present themselves, Solo captures them. One way or another, she will seize the spotlight.
Ellis’s lineup worked; the tactics are still a problem
The questions people had about U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’s lineup weren’t being asked at the final whistle. Sydney Leroux had set up a goal. Abby Wambach had been quiet but fine. Megan Rapinoe justified her spot on the left with two goals, while Christian Press, a forward playing out of position on the right side, still made an impact on the match.
The personnel choices worked. The deployment, well, that’s still a problem:
This is how it’s been for years with the U.S. It predates Ellis, got a brief reprieve under Tom Sermanni, but came to define the team’s time under Pia Sundhage. This is not a tactically nuanced team, nor does it need to be to win. Talent remains the most important thing in this sport, even if the U.S.’s problems give less talented opponents (like Australia) reason for hope.
Arm-folding is still a thing …
… just as it was during the lineups for last summer’s World Cup:
And with apologies to Judah Friedlander, we have a new world champion:
Children need their heroes. Tell yours about Ngozi Ebere.
Caveats about Nigeria
The Super Falcons gave U.S. fans a scare yesterday, picking apart a Sweden team that sets up like Pia Sundhage’s former squad. Tactically, stylistically and even at some points personnel-wise, there are a similarities between the torn apart Swedes and the Americans. For some, those similarities are cause for alarm.
There is reason to clam those nerves, though. We talked about the biggest one when we broke down Nilla Fischer’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The other? Nigeria’s corner kick defending was terrible, something that should be encouraging to a team that features Abby Wambach, Julie Johnston and Carli Lloyd.
It got worse:
Nigeria is dangerous, no doubt. But it also remains the most flawed team in the group. Those flaws aren’t debilitating – it can still take points from Australia and the U.S. – but it makes the Falcons vulnerable – just as vulnerable as they were before Monday’s result.
Another four-match day sees the World Cup’s last two groups, E and F, open their tournaments. That means three of the world’s best players (Brazil’s Marta, Spain’s Verónica Boquete, and France’s Louise Nécib) as well as tournament’s third favorite, France, finally take the field.
- France vs. England, Group F, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, Moncton, FOX
- Spain vs. Costa Rica, Group E, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, Montreal, FOX Sports 1
- Colombia vs. Mexico, Group F, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, Moncton, FOX
- Brazil vs. South Korea, Group E, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, Montreal, FOX Sports
Where we stand
Three points coupled with a draw in Group D’s other match gives the U.S. control of its group. It also paves a path out of the tournament for Sweden, should it fail to win at least one of its final two games.
In Group C, Japan got the start it wanted while Cameroon’s goal difference vaulted Africa’s second qualifier into the lead. Expect some regression as the whistles even out.